Searching for a franchise quarterback is one of the most difficult tasks in professional sports. With so many different identifiers going into finding someone capable of flourishing in one of the most criticized positions in pro sports, sometimes it’s the qualities you can’t find on tape or in workouts that end up being the most critical.
It’s a big decision that can have monumental consequences —something Jets fans know all too well after watching Mark Sanchez’s shaky demeanor lead to a regression in his third and fourth years in the NFL. The last thing any team wants is to invest four or more years in a quarterback, only to have to start over following Year 4.
But this isn’t the forum to get into a debate about why Sanchez has declined (honestly, I don’t have enough time, space or energy to get into that right now). This is the place to look at some of the best ways to identify a potential franchise quarterback, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls that teams run into during the evaluation process.
- Mental Toughness: This is a big one, especially for Jets fans—which is why I put it first on the list. It really doesn’t get any worse than seeing your starting quarterback hanging his head or standing with slouched shoulders after a string of bad plays. The quarterback position is unlike any other in sports and nothing can sink a team quicker than a quarterback who fails to remain composed through tough stretches.
It can be difficult to assess with prospects from big, successful schools, most likely due to a lack of adversity faced on the field up to that point in their career. It’s not easy to judge how a man will react when writers, fans and (in some cases) fellow teammates, criticize or turn on him during times of struggle.
- Pocket Presence: It’s pretty simple: Does the quarterback feel pressure when it’s there? How does he react?
As we witnessed from the brutal 11-sack game in Week 16 this season, Jets quarterback Greg McElroy struggled to both feel and react to pressure. While the offensive line and running backs each had wretched performances, McElroy certainly didn’t help matters as he consistently slid into pressure.
A quarterback also needs to consistently keep his eyes focused downfield on his receivers, instead of the 330-pound defensive lineman barreling down on him. For McElroy, struggles in these areas led to rough afternoon…and a brief tenure as the starting quarterback in the NFL.
- Mobility: It’s new and it’s becoming trendy in the NFL. As long as NFL offenses continue having success running the read-option offense, you can bet other teams will hop on board and give it a shot as well. That means the allure of “athletic” quarterbacks (guys who can run with the football and make people miss) will continue to grow.
While mobility outside of the pocket is crucial when scouting guys like RG3, Colin Kaepernick and the like, it’s the ability to move well in the pocket that’s essential for all successful quarterbacks.
If you watch some of the great traditional quarterbacks in the NFL today (guys like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees), the mobility in or around the pocket helps them extend plays and find open receivers. Sometimes they have to get creative when protection breaks down, either by rolling out and throwing on the run, or by tucking the ball and taking off.
- Intelligence: A quarterback can have all of the physical ability in the world but if he isn’t a cerebral player, chances are his success in the league will be limited. Complex language, bottomless playbooks and hours of tape study aside, the quarterback’s intelligence is never more tested than in the seconds before the snap. His ability to read and react to a defense quickly is normally the difference between success and failure. To put it bluntly, a dummy won’t likely flourish at the position.
- Arm Strength, Accuracy and Touch: Everyone wants a quarterback who can throw darts downfield into tight windows. And really, you can’t blame them. But scouting a quarterback’s arm strength isn’t limited to finding a guy that can throw the ball the hardest or farthest (despite what Brian Billick may think).
Scouts are interested in seeing a quarterback throw a ball with good velocity and spin. He wants to see the quarterback lead his receivers by delivering the ball in a spot that only they can get to it, and put his receiver in good position to gain yards after the catch.
- Work Ethic: Another attribute that’s hard for fans to judge is a players’ work ethic. It’s hard for someone outside of the team to know exactly what an athlete is doing before, during and after practice (unless, or course, something is leaked by the media, or a teammate). Evaluators need to quantify how dedicated and hardworking the prospect is. Will he be the type who’s just collecting a paycheck, or does his world revolve around developing into a better quarterback?
- Leadership Skills: When you have a team of 52 alpha males, it can sometimes be tough for a young player to step in and immediately assume a leadership role. As RG3 did in Washington and Andrew Luck appears to have done with the Colts, playing well is the best way to grab the reigns of your team.
- Size: The recent success of “short” quarterbacks like Brees (6’0”) and Russell Wilson (5’11”) has altered the perception of how tall an NFL quarterback should be. The recent success of shorter QBs has put more focus on throwing mechanics and the ability to throw outside the pocket and on the run, rather than a prospects height.