When it comes to evaluating rookie quarterbacks, what a difference a year makes.
This time last year, three rookie quarterbacks were headed to the playoffs, and we were debating whether Canton should start work on the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin or Russell Wilson bust first. This year, we are still throwing around the word bust, but for different reasons.
The three most noteworthy quarterbacks in the 2013 rookie class have a combined 13-19 record, and their performance has actually been less impressive than their win totals. Geno Smith left an impact crater the size of MetLife stadium when he crashed after a promising start. EJ Manuel toils away between injuries for a typically-dreary Bills team. Mike Glennon, the best of the bunch, leads a team no one wants to watch or think about. The trio has 33 touchdowns and 35 interceptions, and while Smith and Glennon had decent games on Sunday, none of them are obviously trending upward in the final weeks of the season.
So there are no Russell Wilson stories this year. But that does not mean there is no hope. All three of the top rookies have flashed potential (as has Matt McGloin, who was covered in this article). Let's get past the "keys to the franchise," "epic bust," and "trade five first-round picks for Teddy Bridgewater" talk and take a long scouting look at this season's most important rookies.
In addition to outlining each rookie's strengths and weaknesses, we'll take a long look at the offenses they run, two of which are likely to change next year. We'll also provide an "offseason curriculum": last year's top rookies appeared to be almost perfect (remember that?), but this year's rookies are real rookies, the kind that could benefit from a focused development plan.
All three of these guys have work to do. But all three of them -- yes, even Geno -- has shown enough promise to remain employed. For rookie quarterbacks, even after last year, that is not always a given.
Mike Glennon, Buccaneers
The Good: Excellent arm strength. Can throw 60-yard bombs with accuracy and 40-yard corner routes on a clothesline. Fires the ball hard on out-routes and passes over the middle.
Has better-than-advertised pocket mobility and foot speed. Can slide around and step up to buy time, and is fast enough to pick up a first down if the defense leaves him a wide lane. Had a rep for getting rattled after sacks in college but has proven resilient in the NFL. Confidence has clearly grown as the weeks progressed, and Glennon is more likely to call adjustments at the line now than he was when he first took over the starting job.
The Bad: Stares down Vincent Jackson like he's Sophia Vergara in a cocktail dress. Has a hard time peeling off to his second reads and will lead safeties to the football. Has not shown touch or ideal accuracy on shorter passes, though the offense emphasizes bombs-and-dumps with little in between. Holds the ball too long and takes sacks. Doesn't have a great plan when he escapes the pocket and can look a little silly when he tries to be Russell Wilson.
About the Offense: Mike Sullivan's system is not friendly for inexperienced quarterbacks. There are few receiver screens or easy-reader training wheels. Even shallow crossing routes are almost as infrequent as end-arounds. Instead, quarterbacks are tasked to make long, pinpoint passes outside the hash marks. It is not unusual to see three receivers running deep routes and one fullback in the flat when Glennon drops to pass: his choices are a 25-yard needle threading or a three-yard surrender. Eli Manning ran hot-and-cold in this system, so it is no surprise that a rookie suffers long incompletion jags.
The schematic problems are more pronounced in Glennon's early games. The Buccaneers liked to run on first and second down, then force Glennon to execute on third-and-long, then make him rain footballs when the team fell behind. Some of Glennon's worst early-season games came in fat-chance circumstances, with coaches expecting Tom Brady comeback drives from deep in Cardinals territory, and other high-stakes tests.
Vincent Jackson gives Glennon a true No. 1 receiver to throw to, but the other Buccaneers receivers are drop prone, the tight end is a journeyman, and every good running back suffers a season-ending injury. Glennon's tendency to lock onto Jackson is understandable under the circumstances, but it is the first bad habit that he must correct in the offseason.
- Wean Glennon from Jackson. Make him work on finding the second and third option.
- Speed up the pocket clock. This item and the last work hand-in-hand: if he progresses through his reads more smoothly, Glennon will throw, find more open receivers underneath and take fewer sacks.
- Open things up. The next coaching staff needs to institute a 21st century passing game.
Summary: I hated Glennon as a rookie prospect. Leaving North Carolina State, he appeared to be too slow, too likely to take a sack, and too easily rattled to take advantage of his marvelous arm. He's quicker and more resourceful than I thought, and he now looks like a member of the John Skelton-through-Joe Flacco category of lanky pocket fire-ballers. These passers need good protection and won't lead the NFL in completion percentage, but the ability to threaten the defense with 65-yard-in-the-air bombs and lasers along the sidelines can make them very valuable.
The next step for Glennon is to demonstrate that he is more of a Flacco than a Skelton. Part of that depends on his coaching staff and supporting cast. Glennon has played fairly well under awful circumstances this year, and he could benefit greatly from a new scheme, philosophy, and attitude in Tampa. Given an offseason in a non-circus with better coaches, he should grow into a capable starter.
EJ Manuel, Bills
The Good: Possesses the size, arm, speed, and coach's trust package. Executes a no-huddle offense confidently, making all the pre-snap designations and adjustments. Possesses better defensive reading comprehension and eye discipline than most inexperienced quarterbacks. Manuel may be seen consistently scanning the field and freezing defenders.
Throws underneath passes on time, giving his receivers a chance to turn up field. Diagnosis well and takes what the defense offers: The Jets, for example, kept blitzing while giving speedster Marquise Goodwin a huge cushion, and Manuel kept hitting Goodwin for short completions until he set up a bomb.
Bullish runner with some elusiveness. Can run options and keepers. Looks downfield when scrambling and will dump the ball to a flat receiver instead of trying to make a highlight reel rush.
The Bad: Throws behind receivers over the middle. Throws ahead of or over the heads of receivers near the sidelines. The poor short accuracy does not seem to come from any mechanical flaw: Manuel just misfires. Lacks touch on deep passes: Overthrowing Goodwin (as Manuel often does) takes some work.
Takes a lot of "fast guy" sacks: waits too long to throw, hopes his legs will bail him out, and gets surprised when NFL defenders run him down. Trusts his elusiveness too much and will attempt ill-advised superhero spin moves in the pocket, turning six-yard sacks into nine-yarders. Has suffered several injuries this season and must be wary of taking too many hits.
About the Offense: Doug Marrone's offense uses the no-huddle almost as often as Chip Kelly's Eagles do, so Manuel faces different advantages and disadvantages than his rookie peers dealt with. He's expected to make many more decisions than Glennon or Smith, but he also benefits from more short, safe throws. Manuel has running backs that Glennon and Smith would kill for but a mixed-blessing receiving corps. Goodwin is faster than Mercury but gets tangled up with defenders. Steve Johnson is open on every play, but does not drop passes so much as volleyball-set them to the nearest defender. Other receivers have proven mistake prone, and the most memorable image of the 2013 Bills season, besides one of Manuel's ninth-string backups warming up, is of a receiver catching a pass over the middle and fumbling it away.
- Figure out why the heck Manuel throws two yards behind a crossing receiver nine yards away, and fix the problem.
- Improve the situational decision making. Manuel suffers some of his worst long-loss sacks when the Bills are on the fringe of field goal range.
Summary: Manuel left college with an "everything but the accuracy" reputation, and he has lived up to it when healthy in Buffalo. The downside for a quarterback with arm, legs, brain, and a malfunctioning targeting system is a Jake Locker-type, but the upside is Donovan McNabb or even John Elway. If you can throw bombs, throw on the run, scramble, check downfield, and audible your offense into the correct play, you can get away with a few misfires per game.
That said, Manuel and Marrone want to beat teams by sprinting to the line, making reads, and chipping away with seven-yard passes until the defense breaks. In such a system, Manuel cannot afford to leave a bunch of seven-yard passes on the table. Manuel looked terrible against the Buccaneers, who took away many of the easy underneath passes. A precision passer without precision will always be a liability.
The good news is that Manuel looks poised and generally makes good decisions, despite the fact that he barely played in the preseason and missed part of the year with injuries. Accuracy can be hard to improve, but when coaches can focus on it (instead of explaining Page 3 of the playbook), there's a chance of gaining huge dividends from a tiny mechanical correction.
Geno Smith, Jets
The Good: Size, speed, and arm. Can throw short passes with mustard and get the ball deep. Throws the slant with good location and velocity. Can throw strikes in the seam and over the middle to tight ends in the 15-25 yard range.
Will stand in the pocket and check downfield: not a "scared rabbit" scrambler. At his best, demonstrates sound eye discipline and the ability to look off defenders: see the Falcons game, when he moved the safety and linebackers by looking left before throwing a bomb to Jeff Cumberland on the right. Strong and fast on options and scrambles, though he lacks top-end elusiveness as a ball carrier.
The Bad: Guys, I think we're going to need a bigger Internet server.
If there's a bad quarterback habit you have seen or thought of in the last 20 years, Smith picked it up sometime between mid-October and late November. So the following is an incomplete list.
Lacks an internal clock and a feel for the blindside blitz, leading to sacks from the left side. Fails to differentiate real blitzes from fake, particularly up the middle. Can be snookered by defensive motion into throwing to the wrong place or taking a sack.
Ball placement, in general, is an adventure. When Smith fails to step into throws, the ball tails off low and away. Even when set in a clean pocket, Smith will misfire badly on routine throws, particularly along the sidelines in the 10-15 yard range. Some of these wayward passes look like "wrong page" throws, but it is hard to tell what page of the playbook calls for an out-of-bounds throw to an open receiver.
Eye discipline and decision making regressed badly as the season progressed. Will now lead defenders to the ball by staring down primary receivers. Will make head-scratching throws to blanketed receivers. All rookie quarterbacks will lose track of a safety, but Smith is willing to throw to a receiver whose man-to-man defender is running stride-for-stride, with safety help.
Mistakes snowballed and multiplied as the season progressed. Sunday's victory over the Raiders offered a slight reprieve, but Smith still threw an ugly interception, had two other would-be picks dropped, and needed Jeremy Kerley to out-jump two defenders to score the touchdown that got the Jets rolling. Before Sunday, Smith's performance rolled downhill in game after game until he was benched. The chatter about Smith's immaturity and fragile self-confidence needs to be taken into account here: Smith fell into a funk that lasted over a month, and while all young quarterbacks have their slumps, Smith's inability to climb out before reaching rock bottom raises some flags.
About the Offense: The Jets offense does Smith little favors. There are no receivers on the roster who threaten the defense deep, so all passing windows are constricted for any quarterback who takes the field. Watch the coaches film on many Smith sacks, and you won't find anywhere for him to throw. Smith's slump coincided with Kerley's absence, and the whole Jets offense looks better with Kerley on the field, since he is one of the few players able to wriggle open short and turn up field for a productive gain.
The constant Wildcat wrinkles and run emphasis are a mixed blessing: Smith does not have to throw 40 passes per game, but he also loses a chance to establish rhythm with short passes, and all of those first-and-second down handoffs result in a less-than-confident quarterback taking his first looks downfield on 3rd-and-7. The Jets habitually call direct snap plays to Josh Cribbs or Bilal Powell just after Smith completes a productive pass, which cannot be great for confidence or rhythm.
- Acquire some wide receivers. The Jets need more speed and elusiveness, even if they use a time machine to acquire Dan Marino 1984 at quarterback.
- Emphasize blitz recognition. Smith must do a better job understanding when backside blitzers are coming and linebackers are dropping. He needs to become more comfortable tossing the ball underneath once he sees the blitz. There is lot of other defensive reading comprehension to be improved, but turning easy sacks into five-yard completions should take top priority.
- Implement a more robust read-option package. It's shocking how rare it is for Smith to run an option keeper or throw from shotgun play-action. Smith needs more opportunities to at least threaten opponents with his legs while his other skills develop.
Summary: By November, no one on the Jets sideline had any confidence in Geno Smith, not even Geno Smith. Rex Ryan kept him in the lineup, possibly under John Idzik's orders, but more likely because the Jets have no feasible alternatives. The sink-or-swim approach will pay greater dividends than noodling with Matt Simms: if Smith flat lines, the Jets can easily replace the second-round pick in last year's draft. If he rebounds and plays like he did in the first six weeks, he will answer some questions about both his ability and his maturity/confidence, allowing the Jets can switch offseason priorities and start looking for receivers who sometimes get open.
Games like Sunday's win almost represent a worst-case scenario in Smith evaluation: What happens if Smith wins a few games with hot-and-cold efforts, then squeaks into the postseason? Idzik and whoever joins him in the decision process will have tough calls to make, but it is important to remember that we can only have this conversation because Smith showed so much early-season promise. Most of Smith's problems are correctable, and more importantly, Smith demonstrated in September that he has the capacity to correct them. You don't toss a quarterback like him away lightly, even if he goes a month or so without a touchdown.