Sometimes it's obvious. College football fans watched Kellen Moore put together one of the best careers in the history of the sport at Boise State, but only in extreme cases did people have delusions about his pro potential in last year's draft. Measurables and arm strength aren't the only important things to evaluate when scouting a quarterback, but there are certain standards that have to be met. It's safe to say that while Moore may hang around for a few years after latching on with the Lions, that will likely be the extent of his pro career.
But most of the time the gap between college perception and NFL reality can be nearly impossible to discern, and it creates tension between college people who feel ownership over the players after watching them for three or four years, and the NFL people who come along to swat down prospects' futures despite everything we thought we saw in college.
What was widely considered a weak NFL draft class this year with a bland first round has to look different to the college football crowd. Instead, it was easy to spot incredible depth as Thursday turned into Friday and Friday turned into Saturday, and players like Alabama center Barrett Jones, Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene, Alabama nose tackle Jesse Williams, UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin, Louisiana Tech receiver Quinton Patton, Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon and Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, among many others, inexplicably were still on the board.
So let's go back through the weekend to dissect some of the most interesting cases of college vs. pro perception in the 2013 NFL draft.
1. The quarterback conundrum
The truth about the NFL draft is that, barring the availability of a player like Andrew Luck, nobody has any idea how to draft a quarterback. We can praise a player's tools and use ridiculous scouting terms like "arm talent" and foolishly describe someone as a WINNER because he played on a good team and avoided interceptions, but quarterback is both the most important and most complex position in sports. A guy can appear to have all the talent in the world, but sometimes the sum of the parts doesn't add up, which is how we end up with JaMarcus Russell and Kyle Boller and Akili Smith and Tim Couch and approximately 10,000 other touted but underwhelming pro passers.
Outside of professional organizations, NFL draft scouting is a copycat business. A few people decide to make some waves by pushing Ryan Nassib, others start to follow and suddenly 50 percent of the Internet believes Doug Marrone will draft his own above-average player to be his franchise quarterback at his first NFL head coaching gig, even though it never actually made any sense, as anyone who watched Syracuse play football could attest, and, as apparently NFL organizations can attest too.
In a draft with no Andrew Lucks or Robert Griffins, everything was a crapshoot. Within the last month, Nassib, Geno Smith and Matt Barkley had all been projected as top-10 picks in various mock drafts, but none went in the first round, with Smith going to the Jets in the second and Barkley and Nassib plummeting to the fourth.
Instead, the college football world was baffled by the Bills' selection of E.J. Manuel as the only quarterback taken on Thursday night, with the 16th overall pick, mostly because he supposedly never quite reached his potential as an all-world recruit and never developed into a consistent star at Florida State.*
*For all the confusion over the selection of Manuel over Geno Smith, keep in mind that despite Smith's gaudy numbers in West Virginia's pass happy offense, Manuel averaged more yards per attempt and wasn't too far behind in completion percentage (68 percent) and QB rating (156.1) in his senior season.
In a draft filled with questionable quarterbacks, it was jarring to see Manuel go a round before Smith and three rounds before Barkley and Nassib, and perhaps just as jarring to see N.C. State's Mike Glennon go before the latter two (in the third round, to Tampa). All Glennon did was lead the nation in interceptions. He looks like a pro quarterback (6-foot-8 with a cannon for an arm), and maybe he'll develop into a good quarterback, but sometimes the numbers don't lie, and it's hard to tell what makes Glennon so different from Tennessee's Tyler Bray, a player who some scouts loved but went undrafted anyway. Different players? Of course. But their college career arcs have noticeable similarities.
Which brings us back to Manuel, who had the perception of an underachiever, even if his numbers were solid and he clearly has the superior tools to warrant his status as the first QB off the board. Marrone took a risk -- every non-Luck QB is a risk -- to hitch his career to Manuel's, but the upside is certainly greater than Barkley, who simply doesn't drive the ball very well, or Nassib, whose mechanics leave a lot of questions, and we shouldn't let the first six games of West Virginia's 2012 season cloud our view of Smith either. No QB in this draft was perfect, and we probably don't remember Manuel in as positive a light as we should.
2. The most decorated player in college football
Anyone who follows college football closely must think the St. Louis Rams are happy today. Not only did they draft Smith's two star West Virginia receivers, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, but they successfully waited two days to pick one of the most decorated players in college football history. Barrett Jones started 49 games in four seasons and won three national championships at Alabama. He played right guard, left tackle and center. He won the Outland Trophy as a left tackle in 2011, then won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center as senior. He's an Academic All-American with a perfect GPA.
NFL teams passed on him 112 times, and now the Rams have a proven player who can play any position on their line. Even if he's not dominant in the NFL, it's easy to envision Jones starting for the next 12 years.
3. Proven pass rushers
In what is obviously a passing league, it's hard to overstate the importance of impact pass rushers, which is why 4-3 ends and 3-4 outside linebackers have been so popular in first rounds of late. But most college football fans would surely have been shocked last season to hear that Ziggy Ansah (4.5 sacks) and Dion Jordan (5) would be universally regarded as better prospects than Jarvis Jones (14.5), Bjoern Werner (13) and Damontre Moore (12), among others. Scouts love potential, and there's no question that Jordan and Ansah have the talent to develop into stars, but it's hard not to laugh when All-Americans Jones and Moore end up with consistently good franchises that churn out productive pass rushes all the time in the Steelers and Giants, respectively. There are concerns about Jones' long-term durability and his timed speed, but lining him up in the Steelers' 3-4 seems unfair after we watched him take over games for Georgia's defense and wreak havoc on the SEC.
4. The rich get richer
It's not difficult to see how the Ravens and 49ers built Super Bowl teams, and fans of other contenders shouldn't be pleased with how their weekends went. Despite picking at the bottom of the draft rotation, the Ravens and 49ers both filled holes with great college players. No Ed Reed and Ray Lewis in Baltimore? Draft Matt Elam and Arthur Brown, two All-Americans. Few actual holes to fill in San Francisco? Stockpile depth with proven college talent like safety Eric Reid, end Tank Carradine and receiver Quinton Patton, in addition to running back Marcus Lattimore, who could pay off in a big way if he overcomes his knee issues and isn't that much of a risk considering the 49ers didn't take him until the fourth round. These are all the types of players who college fans loved, and now some or all will develop into key cogs for current championship contenders.
5. Draft MACtion
Amazingly, one player who didn't turn many heads of college fans was No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher, the Central Michigan offensive tackle who, in a draft dominated by the SEC, was the first MAC player ever taken No. 1. Maybe it's because he plays offensive line, and maybe it's because most casual fans never saw him actually play in college. Quarterbacks are so divisive as prospects for obvious reasons: They're the most visible players on the field, and we develop narratives around them, for better or worse. People will remember the Geno Smith era at West Virginia and the Tyler Bray era at Tennessee, but nobody will think anything about the Fisher era at Central Michigan, because he was an offensive lineman for a middle-of-the-road MAC team. This is where everyone will trust scouts, because we have to -- at least until we see whether or not he's actually a better player than Luke Joeckel, who we all saw manhandle opponents to help pave the way for Johnny Manziel.
We'll certainly always look back at the 2013 draft as a weird one, with nobody excited to take a quarterback, with a first round dominated by offensive and defensive linemen, and with loads of college stars surprisingly slipping well into Saturday. We'll surely see more of the same in some respects next year, but there should be more unity as college and pro fans will both agree: Draft Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and Marqise Lee.