Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback coach Frank Scelfo said something so ridiculous this week that it was undeniably true. According to Scelfo, Blaine Gabbert would be the top quarterback in this year's draft class.
Here is what Sclefo said of Gabbert, as reported by Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union: "If you graded him out right now, this is his draft class. If he were coming out and the quarterback draft class the way it is, would he be the top guy taken? I think the answer is yes. Ask the scouting departments and the general managers around the league and I think you would end up with a yes on that. Basically at his age, 23, the number-one pick in the draft with two years of experience already under his belt. That's pretty good.''
Before we laugh at the thought of a team rating Gabbert higher than Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib or E.J. Manuel, remember that 21 months ago all of us had him rated higher than Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton. All of us: me, you, your favorite draft expert, and even people inside the 49ers and Bengals organizations. Most of us had him rated higher than Christian Ponder, and a few of us had him rated higher than Cam Newton.
Draft analysis, like playing cornerback, requires some selective amnesia. If we dwell too much on past mistakes, we end up writing articles with headlines like The Future is Unknowable; This is a Monumental Waste of Time, a thesis that is not entertaining, not really true and highly un-publishable. But the fact remains that Gabbert looked like a high first-round pick in 2011 to many experts outside the front office of the lowly, laughable Jaguars, and all pointing-and-laughing is strictly hindsight-enabled.
Gabbert left Missouri as a true junior and was drafted at age 21. He turned 22 the day before his fifth NFL start. By then, he had already endured the 2011 lockout, which prevented him from attending rookie camp or even talking to his coaches for three months; and he had earned a starting job because the Jaguars cut incumbent starter David Garrard to save money at the end of training camp and Luke McCown threw four interceptions in the season opener. Gabbert was 0-4 as an NFL starter at a time when he could well have been enjoying his 22nd birthday by going 6-0 or 5-1 in the Big 12. The Missouri Tigers beat Iowa State 52-17 on Gabbert's birthday in 2011, and while they had three losses under their belt by then, they may have won any or all of those games with Gabbert's help.
The Jaguars changed ownership and coaching staffs in 2012, and the 22-year-old Gabbert got a fresh start and showed signs of promise at the start of the season. But with little skill-position talent around him and a suspect brain trust calling the offensive shots, Gabbert quickly regressed and lost his starting job. That brings us to the present, where Scelfo is part of Gabbert's third coaching staff in three years.
In Scelfo's alternate universe (The Scelfoverse!), Gabbert not only stayed in school for another year but redshirted, just like Landry Jones, EJ Manuel and other 2013 prospects who graduated high school with Gabbert in 2008. Let's erase Gabbert's 2008 season, in which he barely played, and replace it with productive 2011 and 2012 seasons at Mizzou: 3,100 yards per year, completion percentages around 63 percent, a little bit of rushing production, winning records and bowl appearances. Sclefo is correct: Gabbert's record (and two more years of scouting tape roughly on par with 2011) would blow Jones' or Manuel's records away and would stack up well against Barkley or Smith, two quarterbacks who will be drafted in the first round but remind no one of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin.
For Scelfo and the Jaguars, this means that a clear-thinking appraisal of the bird in hand should keep the team from rushing too quickly into the bush. Scelfo made it clear that Gabbert will have to compete with Chad Henne and (probably) others for a starting job, but that doesn't mean the Jaguars are in a hurry to grab any and all live arms. For the rest of us, Sclefro's words are a reminder that several quarterbacks in this year's draft class are older than Blaine Gabbert. That should be a big deal as draft season approaches, yet for some reason it isn't.
Age of Ascendance. It is surprisingly hard to determine the actual age of a quarterback prospect. The CBSSports.com draft portal, which is run by the fine folks at NFL Draft Scout, does not list a player's date of birth on his draft page. Neither does NFL.com on its draft portal, nor does ESPN.com. Draft publications rarely list dates of birth, even though all of these sources provide heights and weights (of varying accuracy) and most provide stats. To get a prospect's date of birth, you have to search Wikipedia or the college websites, so it is not like you have to search hospital microfilm, but it is still a surprising step to have to take.
Keep in mind exactly where we are searching for this basic data: draft sites, which are high-yield mines for the tiniest data points in the world. After the combine, most draft sites will dutifully list each player's drill results, and by April we may have four or five different 40-yard dashes by each player for comparison, plus quasi-information like "completed 34 of 35 passes thrown during Pro Day." The typical draft site or guide will contain details like "fails to shift weight and follow through properly and too often pats the ball before throwing" but will not inform you whether the quarterback in question is 21 years old or 24 years old. Ages are typically only mentioned in extreme cases, like Brandon Weeden's, and then they are listed as "by the way" tidbits. This rookie prospect's elbow dips 2-3 degrees below the optimal angle when throwing the deep out. Also, and this may or may not matter to you, he is older than Aaron Rodgers.
Compare this "age ain't nothin' but a number" attitude with the way baseball prospects are evaluated, and the difference is startling. Sabermetricians have known for decades about the difference between a 19-year-old prospect and a 22-year-old prospect with the same skill set, and that knowledge has seeped into the general population. (Organizations themselves have also been wise to age differences for a long time, at least generally speaking.) In baseball, we know that a 21-year old playing well in Double A ball is much more likely to be a quality big leaguer than a 24-year old in Double A ball. The same concept has never caught in for NFL draft analysis, though common sense would tell you that the 20-year old in the Big 12, all things being equal, is a better prospect than the 23-year old (to say nothing about the 28-year-old, but let's not keep picking on Weeden and the Browns).
Draftable quarterbacks are more likely to fall within a tighter age range than baseball prospects, who can be as young as 17 when they enter a farm system and sometimes bubble up to the big leagues at age 28 and fool casual observers with a few hot months. That's one reason why prospect age is not as hot a topic in the NFL as it is in baseball: Most of the big names are clumped around age 22 or 23. But this year's draftable quarterbacks span a nearly four-year age range, so there is no good excuse to completely ignore age, particularly in a world where we parse tenths of an inch and hundredths of a second.
Put another way, there are several quarterbacks older than Gabbert in this draft class: Landry Jones, Tyler Wilson, Collin Klein, Jordan Rodgers and a few others hanging around the fringe of prospect status. When we are appraising a player's "potential," shouldn't we at least acknowledge that there are players knocking around the NFL who are the same age or younger, guys who may taken some lumps in the pros, but at least took those lumps in the pros?
The Goldilocks Zone. This is not to suggest that Jones or Wilson is too old; Gabbert may well have been too young. There's a Goldilocks Zone for quarterback prospects: They should be turning 22 or 23 before they are asked to do any serious starting.
The 21-year-olds who enter the NFL are often top athletic prospects, and it is reasonable to assume that they have more growth potential than older prospects simply because they achieved equivalent success at a younger age. Unfortunately, the NFL does not have a great developmental track record with quarterbacks, so the 21-year old faces a high risk if he is not physically, emotionally and mentally ready for what will be asked of him. Gabbert is good example of this problem. He experienced too much failure too soon, and now has a "flop" reputation (and worse, he may have some ingrained bad habits) at an age when he should still be strolling the quad.
On the other end of the spectrum, a rookie who is any older than 24 had his college success at an age when he should have been having pro success and probably benefited too much from being a "man among boys." Such players are often praised for their relative maturity when they reach the NFL. Generally speaking, it's a better sign of maturity to complete your coursework and your college career on schedule, but taken literally such prospects are, indeed, very mature.
Gabbert's current situation is reminiscent of Alex Smith's early career. Smith may have been too mature for his own good: He earned his bachelor's degree in two years, threw 32 touchdowns as a junior and figured (with much justification) that there was little reason to hang around Utah. Smith was drafted before his 21st birthday in 2005. The Niners, then a total mess of an organization, threw him onto the field as a rookie, and he was dreadful. Smith rebounded a little in 2006 but was awful again in 2007. He played for three offensive coordinators in those three years, and was trying to impress a fourth (Mike Martz) when he suffered a shoulder injury late in 2008 training camp. He expected to be released during the 2009 offseason.
Smith remained in San Francisco thanks to a regime change, a contract restructuring and the 49ers' inability to acquire anyone better, but he endured two more seasons of flailing before enjoying a window of success from 2011 through the first half of this year. Smith is a very unusual case because of the number of opportunities he received -- most quarterback prospects would not have gotten any opportunities after 2008. Once a prospect flunks his first opportunity, second chances can be extremely hard to come by. That's another key difference between football and baseball, where a 21-year old baseball prospect can bat .194 in a cup of coffee, disappear into the minors a little longer, and reemerge with his reputation and swing intact. Quarterbacks that reach the bench tend to stay there. A player of Smith's talents, with the chance to be the first pick overall, might find leaving college early worth the risk. Most quarterbacks would be foolish to sacrifice 14 more starts against college defenders, and the lessons that come with them, in favor of the yo-yo treatment by a desperate organization.
Thanks to Kaepernick, Smith is now on the trading block. There is speculation that the Browns are interested in Smith, which makes some sense, because Smith is actually seven months younger than the rookie the Browns drafted last year. If that fact doesn't convince you that draft analysts need to pay more attention to age, then nothing will.
The Red Flags of Age. Not many quarterbacks fall outside the Goldilocks Zone this year, but there are a few players whose ages are worth mentioning. At any rate, this is a good to list the dates of birth of this year's top quarterback prospects, as well as their Opening Day ages, for future reference:
Tyler Bray, Tennessee: Dec. 27, 1991 (21)
Geno Smith, West Virginia: Oct. 10, 1990 (22)
Matt Scott, Arizona: Sept. 20, 1990 (22)
Matt Barkley, USC: Sept. 8, 1990 (23)
EJ Manuel, Florida State: March 19, 1990 (23)
Ryan Nassib, Syracuse: March 10, 1990 (23)
Zac Dysert, Miami (Ohio): Feb. 8, 1990 (23)
Mike Glennon, N.C. State: Dec. 12, 1989 (23)
Ryan Griffin, Tulane: Nov. 17, 1989 (23)
Collin Klein, Kansas State: September 19, 1989 (23)
Tyler Wilson, Arkansas: August 16, 1989 (24)
Landry Jones, Oklahoma: April 4, 1989 (24)
Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt: August 30, 1988 (25)
Tyler Bray is a true junior coming off a breakout season at Tennessee. Before throwing 34 touchdowns last year, he battled a 2011 hand injury and the typical freshman lumps in 2010. He has a great arm but some of the ugliest throwing mechanics I have ever seen. Sometimes, he flicks the ball and it travels 50 yards and lands in his receiver's palms. Other times, he throws knuckleballs that wobble to their grave at his receiver's feet, or throws off his back foot, or throws without falling through, and the ball lands in random places. He is exactly the kind of player who could use another year of college experience. He will be in the NFL this year, and because he ran an offense with Pistol components and possesses Kaepernick-level arm strength, he may get thrust onto the field. If that happens, we will see a textbook case of a quarterback who is not just too inexperienced, but too flat-out young.
Jordan Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers' brother, and frankly he is getting some scouting benefit of the doubt for being Aaron Rodgers' brother. If his last name were Bastianich, he would not be ranked on many prospect lists. Jones, Wilson and Klein are also a little long in the tooth. None of the three are so old that they cannot develop, but when we factor age in with Jones' inconsistency and Klein's general inability to throw accurately, we should be wary of how close these athletes are to the age at which they are simply not going to get better.
Wilson is an interesting case because of what he went through at Arkansas last year: Bobby Petrino went "Easy Rider" before the start of the season, the program was thrust into chaos, Wilson suffered a concussion, his attempt to fire up his teammates wasn't well received and his statistical production and reputation suffered. Wilson endured chaos roughly comparable to what Gabbert dealt with in 2011 and 2012; the Jaguars did not have a scandal, but the Jaguars don't need a scandal to fall into hopeless disarray.
Gabbert is now perceived as a flop who needs his quarterback coach to stand up for him. Wilson will be a lower draft choice (and get less guaranteed money) but is getting high marks in NFL circles for battling through the Arkansas mess and proving that he can throw passes under fire and stand up for himself and teammates during a crisis.
Most observers would consider Wilson a much better prospect than Gabbert right now. Don't lie: If you heard that your team drafted Wilson in the third round, you would be pleased, but if you heard that your team traded a third-round pick for Gabbert, you would howl about trading for a retread. That's despite the fact that both are coming off losing seasons for nightmare teams, and despite the fact that Wilson is actually two months older.
The Rams released Titus Young just nine days after claiming him from the Lions. Young is best known for being kicked off the Lions active roster for several acts of insubordination last season. He even lined up in the wrong formation on purpose in a loss to the Green Bay Packers, which demonstrated a certain creative flair for malingering. The Rams are always in the market for a wide receiver, and Young has talent to burn, but it you cannot last a full season in the rumpus room environment of the Lions organization, you won't last nine days with the Rams.
In fact, it was really less than nine days from a Rams perspective. "We spent four or five days with him, and as an organization -- at the end of the interview process, you might call it -- we felt it was best to go in another direction," Jeff Fisher said. Fish and company start to stink after three days, so in a way, Young demonstrated remarkable staying power.
How does a player wear out his welcome in 120 hours? And not 120 hours during training camp, when fights can be picked in the August heat and meetings can be slept through, but 120 hours in February, when team headquarters is relatively quiet and expectations are nearly nonexistent? One guess is that Young's tenure in St. Louis went something like this:
Hour Zero: Arrives. Parks in Jeff Fisher's space.
Hour One: Is handed a schedule of Organized Team Activities and announces, "These are three words that I really hate."
Hour Four: Timed in a 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. Picks a fight with the intern holding the stopwatch.
Hour Seven: Demands that the back of his uniform read "Titus Young Senior, Esquire, Knight of the Celebrated Order of the Golden Fleece."
Hour 25: Arrives for second day on the job. Parks on the lawn in front of the fire hydrant.
Hour 26: Meets cornerback Janoris Jenkins in the weight room. Their handshake sends a shockwave of immaturity 75 miles in all directions, causing adults in the greater metro area to suddenly start sucking their thumbs.
Hour 27: Timed in a 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds using laser technology. Argues with the laser.
Hour 29: Calls Danny Amendola "Danny Bagofdonuts" for the 15th time in two days, and keeps laughing each time he says it.
Hour 30: Demands uniform No. 80. When told it was retired in honor of Isaac Bruce, demands No. 85. When told it was retired in honor of Jack Youngblood, demands that his uniform number be a pound sign.
Hour 49: Arrives for third day on the job. Has Dez Bryant park his car for him.
Hour 50: Asked to line up in the slot for I-twins-right during an informal offensive workout. Lines up at shortstop.
Hour 52: Fisher demands a private meeting to "articulate expectations." Young props up a mop in the meeting room, wearing sunglasses and a jersey with a pound sign. Fisher eventually notices.
Hour 73: Arrives for fourth day of work and just starts aiming for pedestrians as he pulls into his parking space.
Hour 75: Timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash by a team of NASA engineers using classified technology. Argues with a professor of temporal mechanics about the very nature of space-time.
Hour 77: Declares himself the greatest wide receiver in Rams history and demands that the back of his uniform read "Titus Crazy Legs Greatest Show on Turf Flipper Young Senior."
Hour 97: Arrives for fifth day on the job and actually parks in his proper space, but so close to the yellow line that Sam Bradford has no room to open his driver's door, which is really the last freakin' straw, c'mon, those lanes were painted in the Hummer era for cripes' sake.
Hour 98: Places a Yankees cap and Beats Audio headphones on the mop he propped up to sit through Fisher's "one last chance" interview, just so the coach knows that even the mop has an attitude.
Hour 103: Sneaks into Fisher's office and attempts to hack into team computer system to change all of his 4.6-second 40 times to 4.4 seconds, gets sidetracked by a tricky level of "Angry Birds Space." When Fisher arrives, he finds Young arguing with a Boomerang Bird.
Hour 108: Explains in a meeting that he has always preferred the 3-4 defense to the horror of coaches and executives willing to forgive everything else.
Hour 120: Upon release, drives to New Jersey, parks in Woody Johnson's spot, waits.
I'm continuing my Football Outsiders tradition of counting down the top five players at a position in each franchise's history during the offseason over at my Tailgater blog. This year, I am counting down wide receivers. The all-time best Patriots and Dolphins receivers are already up, and I will be adding the Jets later in the week. It's a great opportunity to take a break from draft speculation and free agents signings and get some perspective on the richness of pro football history, or just to have arguments about Randy Moss. Check out the lists, and other extra-wonky NFL features and oddities, over at the Tailgater.