By Russ Lande
Figuring out which quarterback will be the first passer selected in the 2014 NFL Draft is like trying to predict tea leaves; identifying the likely fourth quarterback to be chosen is no easy task either. Although former Rams' General Manager Charley Armey once fired me for being a 27-year-old "know-it-all," I was fortunate enough to learn many things from him, and one key lesson was that many quarterback evaluation mistakes stem from placing too much weight on their arm strength. This lesson has been hammered home to me by numerous NFL personnel -- release quickness, accuracy and decision-making are much more vital than having a premier arm. So while numerous people have talked about Jimmy Garoppolo moving up draft boards and potentially being a late first-round pick, none have really broken down his entire skill set. So let's pull back the curtain to paint the complete picture of him.
With a rocket arm, excellent mechanics and great character (and other intangibles), many expected the Titans' Jake Locker to become a top NFL starter. But he's been hampered throughout the early part of his career by poor accuracy; if it doesn't improve, he likely won't be a starter much longer. This is where Garoppolo separates himself from many other quarterbacks. He charts out as the most accurate passer in this year's draft, among the top 10 passers with an adjusted accuracy rate of 78 percent (Zach Mettenberger finished second at 76 percent, and Derek Carr is last at 68 percent). Not only does Garoppolo make accurate throws, but he's able to lead receivers and hit them in stride, which gives them a much better chance of making plays after the catch. Accuracy alone wouldn't be enough to convince me that Garoppolo can be a quality starter, but when it's combined with his efficient mechanics and smart decisions, I am sold.
Garoppolo possesses good hands and a quick and compact delivery; not only can he get rid of the ball fast when going through progressions, but he also can field a slightly off-target shotgun snap and still get rid of the ball fast on quick-hitting passes. It's clear that he not only has good upper-body mechanics, but his footwork matches up. He consistently keeps his knees bent as he goes through progressions and strides into throws smoothly, with the lead foot pointing towards the target, which helps his release quickness and accuracy. The only time I see his mechanics suffer is when he tries to really "gun" a 15-yard-plus throw -- he tends to let his front leg get stiff, which leads to him snapping over his leg as he throws and sailing some passes he's shown the ability to make. Accuracy and mechanics are worth nothing if a quarterback doesn't make good decisions under pressure, and he shines in this area.
While it may sound crazy, one of the hardest things to teach a quarterback once he gets to the NFL -- if he doesn't do it well already -- is to throw the ball away to avoid sacks and not force passes into bad spots. Not only has Garoppolo proven he'll avoid sacks, but rarely in the eight games evaluated did he throw passes into bad spots, which is why he has a very low big-error rate in my system. The way he handles the ball to move defenders shows how well he's learned from coaching -- he carries out play action fakes to draw defenders up, can move defenders with effective pump fakes and does a great job of looking in one direction and then making a throw to receiver on other side of field quickly and accurately. His combination of quick feet, athleticism and pocket awareness help him to pop out of the pocket to avoid pressure. Once he's out, he moves along the line well while keeping his eyes downfield and can make accurate throws on the move.
And while my original point was not to overemphasize a quarterback's arm strength, his arm will determine whether your passing scheme will be limited in some respects. After seeing Garoppolo live at both the East West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, I do not believe that he has an elite arm, but I feel he has a strong enough arm to make every NFL throw. In order for him to not limit the offense when he gets to the NFL, he'll need to do a more consistent job of keeping his front leg bent when striding into throws to make 15-yard-plus "rip" throws. Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel are all likely to be selected ahead of Garoppolo, but just as all of them have at least one significant flaw, I believe Garoppolo will has as good a chance of becoming a quality starting passer in the NFL as any of them.