MOBILE, Ala. -- Colin Kaepernick arrived at Senior Bowl practices two years ago and made a case for himself as a high-round draft pick and potential franchise quarterback. Few people outside of NFL front offices noticed.
Russell Wilson arrived at the Senior Bowl last year and began wowing NFL executives and coaches with a combination of athleticism, poise and preparation that forced them to look beyond his 5-foot-10 inch shortcoming. Few people outside of NFL front offices noticed.
Two of the most impressive young quarterbacks in the NFL launched their careers in Mobile, where more than 100 college seniors endure a grueling week of practices and interviews in preparation for Saturday’s Senior Bowl all-star game, as well as the upcoming draft process. The practices are open to the public and televised on NFL Network. The players are made available for dozens of media interviews when they are not being cornered by coaches or scouts. There are plenty of opportunities for draftniks and armchair scouts to spot the next big thing. Yet no one really noticed Wilson or Kaepernick.
This year, we are paying closer attention.
Time to adjust. Ryan Nassib does not look comfortable. His passes sail high, beyond receivers’ fingertips, during 7-and-7 and full-squad drills. When he throws while rolling out, the pass tails toward the sideline. He keeps making some of the little mistakes that scouts harp on, the ones that push the football a few precious feet off target: over-stepping with his feet, dropping his arm.
As the Tuesday morning practice wears on, however, Nassib settles down. He connects with Alec Lemon, his Syracuse teammate, on a pretty pass up the sideline. He finds tight end Jack Doyle with a pair of tight passes up the seam. Tuesday’s gains disappear on Wednesday, as Nassib again spends the early drills of practice overthrowing receivers.
Quarterbacks have it rough at the Senior Bowl. They arrive on Sunday, receive a bare-bones playbook, meet most of their receivers for the first time (Nassib at least knows Lemon), and are expected to throw perfect passes by Monday morning. The resulting overthrows and miscommunication can be mistaken for ineptitude; a quarterback who threw for 9,190 yards and helped turn a major program around (as Nassib did) can suddenly look like he is stepping onto the field for the first time.
Coaches and team scouts want to see the quarterbacks adjust and improve as the week goes on, and how they handle the demands is judged just as carefully as how they throw the football. “How do they carry themselves behind the scenes?” asked Oakland Raiders/North Squad coach Dennis Allen, explaining the off-field evaluation process. “We’re looking for leadership qualities.” The Russell Wilson story began not with rocket passes on a practice field, but with a take-charge attitude in the meeting rooms. A player like Nassib can erase Tuesday memories with poise and precision on Wednesday; Nassib did not quite step backward, but he did not take the leap forward that teams want to see.
Scouts like a lot of what they saw from Nassib at Syracuse, where he displayed a good arm, sound management skills and enough running ability to make read-option strategies a viable once-in-a-while weapon. He was getting first-round grades before Senior Bowl week (the Buffalo Bills, coached by former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, possess the eighth pick in the draft), and a few overthrows and mechanical lapses won’t change that. Inconsistent practices left Nassib unable to put the exclamation point next to his qualifications.
The successes of Wilson and Kaepernick, plus Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck, could be seen by a prospect as increased opportunities. The days of two-year mentorships appear long gone, and a capable quarterback can have success right away. It can also be seen as increased pressure. Nassib is not looking that far into the future. “I’m not really sure,” he said, when asked how the success of other young passers affects his expectations.
Nassib is sure that he could help a team with both his arms and legs if called upon. “That’s something I’ve done in the past and feel I can do,” he said about the option tactics that helped Kaepernick vault the 49ers into the Super Bowl. His sense of timing, however, sounds a little old-fashioned for a league where a third-round pick can find himself in a playoff duel for the ages and a quarterback’s 10th career start can be in the Super Bowl. “It’s going to take some growing pains, some time to learn,” Nassib said about the transition to the NFL. “You’ve got to do that whenever you go to a new football team.”
The NFL no longer has much patience with growing pains.
Speaking for himself. E.J. Manuel is trapped in the pocket. He drops, sets and delivers catchable short passes. He looks competent, but there is nothing to write home about. Manuel is shackled to a vanilla playbook. He only gets to show off his speed when his blocking breaks down and the situation is desperate.
Manuel threw for 3,392 yards for Florida State last year, but he also rushed for 310 yards and four touchdowns, with much of that production coming on designed plays. Manual executed an up-tempo, high-tech offense for the Seminoles; game plans contained everything from conventional I-formation sets to elaborate shotgun options.
A few years ago, success in such a system would be a red flag: the scrambling, gadget-dependent quarterbacks would face a tough adjustment to the NFL. Now, the NFL is adjusting to the quarterbacks. Florida State’s offense looks, superficially, like the Seahawks offense, and as collegiate tacticians like Chip Kelly take NFL coaching jobs, the opportunities for all-purpose quarterbacks like Manuel increase.
It’s the Senior Bowl script that has become an anachronism: strict limitations are put on formations and game plans, and the realities of assembling 50 guys from around the nation and getting them to play as a unit limit how much exotic stuff coaches would dare put into a game plan, even if they were allowed. For Manuel, that means only being able to show a fraction of what he does well.
Manuel can use interviews, however, to remind us about what he does well. “I can do the read option, as far as reading the end and doing the run off it, or handing off, or throwing the bubble [a type of screen pass] outside,” he said on Tuesday, outlining the precepts of the strategy that took the NFL by storm this year and made stars of Wilson and Kaepernick. Manuel knows the option, knows the vertical passing game and knows the no-huddle.
He also knows how to talk about these tactics. Running the read option requires decisiveness and the ability to diagnose defenses; those skills are as important as pure quickness. Manuel explains football the way he plays football, indicating a fluency in the language of reading defenses that is wise beyond his years. He talks about tactics like the no-huddle -- “We would always get to the line with at least 13-14 seconds. That way, I could declare my ‘Mikes’ [determine the location of the inside linebackers], point out my sight adjustments, and things like that.” -- like an offensive coordinator. It’s a skill Russell Wilson possessed last year, though we downplayed it because Wilson is short.
Manuel is impressive on film and when discussing his game. He is not nearly as impressive when standing in a pocket and distributing passes in a stripped-down game plan. He has the size coaches covet (“He looks like a tight end out there,” Detroit Lions/South Squad coach Jim Schwartz said) but his best bet will be to follow the route of Wilson: earn a mid-round selection and find a coach amenable to his playing style -- perhaps Chip Kelly, who recruited Manuel out of high school and now coaches the Eagles.
Given the right situation, Manuel has the skills to make a smooth, sudden transition, if not blast his team into the playoffs right away. “To be able to have an effective rookie year, that says a lot about yourself,” he said. “Hopefully, I can be in the same mold.”
Instant Gratification. Tyler Wilson is having a hard time escaping the past. His Tuesday practices were sharp: his passes on target, his reads and mechanics sound. He looked more comfortable than the other quarterbacks, perhaps because the turmoil of Senior Bowl week is nothing compared to what he went through at Arkansas.
Wilson looked like one of the top prospects in the nation after throwing for 3,638 yards in 2011, with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. But then head coach Bobby Petrino was fired because of a tawdry scandal, and the Razorbacks program crumbled around Wilson. Wilson suffered a concussion during the 2012 season, then called out his teammates for quitting after an ugly shutout at the hands of Alabama. Wilson’s play suffered as a result of the injuries and anarchy. He did the worst thing a quarterback prospect can do: He took a step back between his junior and senior seasons.
He used Senior Bowl week as a chance to regain some of what he lost last season. “I wanted to come down here and answer some questions,” he said. He used his interviews to put the best possible spin on the ugliness of 2012. “I always looked at it positively. If everything was perfect, life wouldn’t be as fun when you do succeed. You have to battle through some of that, and learn.”
At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Wilson is on the small side of the quarterback spectrum, and he does not have an imposing, Kaepernick-like build. He is agile, but no option-level speedster. His calling card in the NFL will have to be his poise, and his angry remarks after the Alabama game now look like a competitive fire and an attempt to lead a rudderless team, not a tantrum. “When there’s a little bit of a void there, you are asked to do a little bit more. I took that and tried to make the best of it,” he said. Scouts and coaches always say that they are looking for resilience and the ability to bounce back in young prospects. Wilson is starting to show just that.
Of all the quarterbacks in Mobile, Wilson best understands how Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and other successful young quarterbacks have changed expectations. “Right now seems like the time when there is instant gratification,” he said. “You’ve got to come in and perform early.” Coming off a senior season which took him off the radar, Wilson comes across as ready to handle anything.
Searching for the next big thing. There are three other quarterbacks here in Mobile. Oklahoma superstar Landry Jones threw for more than 16,000 yards in college but is having trouble adjusting to a game plan without screen passes and the short, easy throws of a spread system. Mike Glennon of North Carolina State rifles passes along the sideline with great accuracy and looks like an All-Pro until there is pass pressure, which rattles him alarmingly. Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio) looks lost on many drills, but Dysert is working with quarterback guru Chris Weinke and could easily make sudden progress.
Talk to six different scouts or draft analysts, and they will state a preference for six different quarterbacks, though Nassib, Manuel, and Wilson are the most common choices. Those same six scouts and analysts will reflect on Russell Wilson and Kaepernick, talk about what they saw, wonder on what they missed, and try to project those lessons onto the current crop. Meanwhile, the “behind the scenes” analysis remains behind the scenes, with scouts and coaches offering only tantalizing hints and whispers.
There is no consensus choice for Next Big Thing. Perhaps there is no Next Big Thing here at Mobile. But there are intriguing nominees: players who looked and sounded good enough to improve their draft profile (Manuel and Wilson) or at least did enough to hold serve (Nassib). One of them will be playing in the playoffs next year. And all of us will try to pretend that we knew it would happen all along.