By Russ Lande
This time of year, the phrase "rising up draft boards" is mentioned nearly every day in various draft rumors. This year's No. 1 riser, according to media reports, is Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage. While I have no doubt that Savage is going to be selected much higher than many scouts expected when the regular season ended, that doesn't mean there's a consensus among NFL personnel regarding how good he is and can become. Taking this into account, I felt it wise to chart out every pass in order to project the likelihood of Savage becoming a quality starter in the NFL.
When I lived in South Orange, N.J., I remember seeing nearly every game Savage started during his true freshmen season at Rutgers. I was impressed with what I saw and expected him to be a high draft pick when he became eligible. But things went south for him when he was injured during his sophomore season; he was told that he would have to compete for the starting job as a junior with Chris Dodd, who did a solid job of filling in for an injured Savage. The decision not to hand the job back to Savage led to his decision to transfer to Arizona, where he was expected to start after sitting out for one year as required by the NCAA. Then Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez as its head coach, and Savage knew he didn't fit his offensive system, so he chose to transfer again, this time to Pittsburgh. (He tried to transfer back to Rutgers, but the NCAA ruled against his request to play immediately. So after sitting out the 2011 season when transferring to Arizona, he also had to sit out the 2012 season after transferring to Pittsburgh.) Savage finally returned to the field for Pittsburgh's 2013 season opener against Florida State. While that game was arguably his worst of the 2013 season, it was the first step in showing the tools he had displayed back at Rutgers.
It is quickly apparent when evaluating Savage that he has a plus arm, as NFL personnel like to say. He can easily make every NFL throw and can do so with outstanding zip to fit passes into tight spots. Traditional pocket passers who can make every throw and stand up to the pocket collapsing around them are very hard to find. Savage's willingness to stand strong in the pocket, combined with his arm strength, is a big part of what entices NFL teams. Equally impressive is his quick, compact release and his aversion to throwing passes into bad spots. In the games evaluated, he didn't throw more than a few ill-advised passes.
While many of his physical traits stand out, Savage is not a finished product. He'll need a lot of work to succeed at the next level. Although his upper-body mechanics and throwing motion are quick and compact, his footwork is wildly inconsistent. He flashes the ability to stride into his throws, but more often than not he has an awkward stride with his front leg: Rather than striding forward, he brings his front leg to near the same yard line as his back leg, or over-strides. Both of these are made worse by his penchant for falling away from his throws, as this leads to his passes either sailing or tailing away from the receiver. In the seven games evaluated, he charted out as having an adjusted accuracy (based on distance the passes are thrown) of 68.34 percent, which is just a shade above Derek Carr and second-worst of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft. Some of these accuracy problems can no doubt be tied to his playing only one year of football with the receivers at Pittsburgh, but that cannot excuse it all. He flashed excellent accuracy on passes over 26 yards, when he drove the ball and made the pass with zip and on a line. However, his deep passes of the same length -- where he tried to put air under it and drop it into the receiver's hands -- were way off target.
No one is going to mistake Savage for RGIII or Ryan Tannehill running with the ball, but he's a smooth athlete who can avoid the rush when he sees or senses it. He can get out of the pocket to either scramble for positive yards or make accurate throws on the move. A more pressing issue is his inability to sense the pass rush consistently, which accounted for him being sacked on over 10 percent of the plays he dropped back to pass -- the highest percentage among the top quarterbacks in this year's draft by nearly three percent. Oddly, he not only struggled with sensing pressure from the blind side, but he didn't see the defensive end in his sightlines or the inside pass rush. (Also, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread when trying to avoid being sacked led to fumbles at Pittsburgh, and it'll lead to many more at the next level if he doesn't correct this problem.) Savage's struggles with sensing the pressure also hindered his ability to be productive against the blitz. He was fine when he identified it pre-snap, but if he didn't see it coming before the snap, he often wasn't as quick about making decisions and getting rid of the ball quickly.
Unlike many elite quarterback prospects, Savage frustrated me more with each game I evaluated. He has the talent to be so much better, but he struggled with footwork, accuracy and sensing the pressure in nearly every game. And although he has spoken of being immature when he decided to leave Rutgers -- he states that, looking back, he would have stayed and fought for the job -- no one can know for sure if he's matured. It's a concern, because he's not going to walk into a starting job in the NFL, which leaves me wondering how he'll handle being a backup for a few seasons if he has to.
Savage charts out as a Day Three draft prospect using my quarterback system. He has the physical tools to warrant being selected in the second or third round, which is why he will be taken then. I would guess that Savage becomes a starting quarterback in the NFL who struggles with consistency due to accuracy issues. The reality is that quarterbacks who lack good accuracy struggle to become consistently productive starters in the NFL, because accuracy is vital to success in a pass-first league.