(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)
There is a guy in this group who won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman. Another who was the starting quarterback on back-to-back national championship teams. Another whose older brother was the first overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft.
But if there is one player who typifies the hype and debate that always surrounds this position in the run-up to the annual NFL Draft, it's Tom Savage.
Savage is a guy whose college career included two years on the sideline for separate transfers, a guy who was marginally successful for a mediocre Pitt team in 2013, a guy who was forced out of his team's bowl game because of an injury to his ribs. But Savage is a hot commodity as teams make their final preparations for this draft because he has decent size – 6-foot-4 – to go along with a strong arm.
Aside from the recent hype surrounding Savage, the top prospects here are Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr, with Jimmy Garoppolo, A.J. McCarron, and Zach Mettenberger also attracting more than a little bit of interest from NFL teams.
Manziel won the Heisman Trophy following a 2012 season in which he completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,706 yards, with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, to go along with averaging 7.0 per rush on the way to 1,401 more yards and 21 touchdowns. Is he too improvisational for the NFL game? Is he humble enough to be coached? Is he too short at a shade under 6-0? Is he Doug Flutie or Michael Vick? And if you're running a team that needs a quarterback, is it more risky to pick him or pass on him?
Bortles (pictured above) passes the eye test – 6-5, 232 – and his style is much more that of the prototypical pocket passer NFL coaches prefer. He was the MVP of the Fiesta Bowl after passing for 301 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 93 and another score, and he left Central Florida with a 22-5 record as a starter. For a while, Bortles was the popular choice to be the first quarterback picked in this draft, especially after he chose to compete at the Scouting Combine.
Bridgewater also spent a good bit of time atop the list of quarterback prospects, but lately he has been the one who seems to be falling fastest. Whether that's a smoke-screen remains to be seen. The criticisms of Bridgewater seem to center on him having a rather slight frame (6-2, 218), and then there were some sub-par workouts in the post-Combine period. The bottom line is that Bridgewater started for three seasons at Louisville, was 27-8 as a starter, took the team to a BCS game, and threw 31 touchdown passes vs. four interceptions in 2013.
Carr's brother, David, was the first pick of the expansion Houston Texans back in 2002, but that ended badly because of poor pass protection. Where Derek opened eyes was at the Senior Bowl by displaying a big arm and a quick release. He was a three-time team captain at Fresno State and is praised regularly for the intangibles he brings. But Carr, 6-2, 214, competed in the Mountain West Conference, and his worst game came against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Garoppolo, 6-2, 226, played at Eastern Illinois, the same program that produced Tony Romo, but he likely won't be entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie as Romo did. In 2013, Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award as the top player in FCS with 5,050 yards passing, 50 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 14 games. He is a fast-riser up the charts, but expecting him to be NFL ready as a rookie might be too ambitious.
McCarron, 6-3, 220, quarterbacked Alabama to a national championship in 2011 by completing 66.8 percent for 2,634 yards, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions, and in engineering a back-to-back in 2012 he led the nation with a 175.28 passer efficiency rating that came from 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions. McCarron doesn't have the biggest arm of the group, but he will be coming from a pro-style offense and bringing the experience of having won a lot of big games against tough competition.
He had passed for 3,082 yards, with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions before tearing an ACL in LSU's regular season finale. His record as a starter at LSU was 19-6, and he has good size (6-5, 224) and a strong arm. Working in Mettenberger's favor is that he operated a pro-style offense coordinated by Cam Cameron at LSU, but he isn't mobile and has a looping delivery, which gives the defense more time to get pressure on him.
THE 2013 NFL DRAFT, QB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 11
Picks by round: 1 in the first; 1 in the second; 1 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 0 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: E.J. Manuel, Florida State, Round 1, 16th overall, by the Buffalo Bills
Biggest impact: Mike Glennon was picked after Manuel and Geno Smith, but he finished above both of them in the final statistics. Glennon's passer rating was 83.9, Manuel's was 77.7, and Smith was last among qualifiers at 66.5.