It starts with the arm. Footballs leap off Blake Bortles' hand and travel far with great velocity and acceptable accuracy, and scouts start to lick their chops.
Then comes the frame. Six-foot-five, muscular and thick, though a teensy bit skinny in the ankles. Big kid. Live arm. Lead the scouting report with that, and you know the basics are covered. Lead the scouting report with something else, and it sounds like the blind date has a great personality.
Then you get to the wheels: Blake Bortles runs pretty darn well. And then the brain: It appears fully functional and contained within a properly screwed-on head.
Big, bright kid who throws hard and runs well. This scouting stuff is not nuclear fission. Blake Bortles is a fine quarterback prospect. He is a potential first-rounder, a potential NFL starter.
But is he a worthy top-five selection? Is he a "franchise quarterback" with the capability to be (shudder) "elite?" Those questions are unanswerable (in part because all the words in quotes are undefined gibberish), but Bortles' rise from mid-tier, mid-major prospect to the possible top pick in the draft forces us to drill deeper than, "Yeah, he can throw." Bortles' rise requires us to nitpick the details of his game tape and résumé. It raises questions about the blurred lines between scouting and coaching. And it makes us examine how getting drafted one to 24 hours earlier than you should can drastically change expectations and outcomes.
The Weekly Bortles
His season began with a near disaster. Bortles dropped to pass against Akron in the opener and had the ball stripped by a defender. Luckily, a teammate pounced on the fumble. The next play, on second-and-18, Bortles tossed a 91-yard touchdown pass to wide-open Breshad Perriman along the right sideline. Later in the game, Bortles bobbled a pump-fake, retrieved the ball, scrambled for his life and threw across his body to J.J. Worton for a 39-yard touchdown. The differences between Bortles and Johnny Manziel start to evaporate when watching sequences like these. They also underline the thin line that separates a three-touchdown masterpiece and a two-fumble upset defeat.
The Akron game was an excellent overall performance for Bortles: 18-of-24 for 314 yards and three touchdowns, with three of the incompletions dropped. Bortles had a similar game against UConn: 20-of-24, 286 yards, four touchdowns, two highly catchable balls dropped to account for half the incompletions. The Temple game was also superlative: 27-of-38, 404 yards, four touchdowns in a come-from-behind 39-36 shootout.
You may have noticed the opponents on those three games were Akron, UConn and Temple, three mid-majors with a combined 10-26 record in 2013. Eleven of Bortles' 25 passing touchdowns last year came in those three games. Bortles and his receivers (including Perriman, son of a successful NFL receiver, and Worton, Jeff Godfrey, and Rannell Hall) were obviously the best athletes on the field. Bortles was essentially playing catch. That does not negate his accomplishments, but we are splitting a fine hair between "solid prospect" and "keys to the franchise," so we need to be cautious about things that happen at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday afternoons.
Bortles played well against some more challenging opposition. His Penn State game was a gem: 20-27-288-3-1, with lots of on-target throws downfield and a few Houdini acts in the pocket. Other games against top opponents were more hit-and-miss. He did a lot of things right while executing a Hide-From-Clowney game plan against South Carolina, even running away from the first-round pick a few times, but his decision-making and accuracy waned under constant pressure. South Florida also had Bortles running for his life (and his top receivers covered for much of the game). He redeemed himself from a day of interceptions and strip sacks with a pump-and-go game-winning touchdown to Perriman in the final minutes.
The Fiesta Bowl was Bortles in microcosm. He threw two sloppy interceptions early -- an ill-advised bomb and a blown-up screen -- and did most of his best work before halftime running options. Then came a sudden barrage of screen-and-run touchdowns, pass interference penalties, a Bortles rushing touchdown and, yes, several fine throws, and suddenly UCF was beating the tar out of Baylor. The game looks better on the stat sheet (20-31-307-3-2, with 8-93-1 rushing) than on the field, though it did not look all that bad on the field.
Before digging deep into scouting nuts and bolts, a superficial look at the game film shows that the Bortles who effortlessly flings four touchdowns per game against the Zips and Owls disappears when the opposing pass rush and coverage improves. But the Bortles that appears against good competition is impressive in his own right: He makes plays on the move, has the arm to threaten the whole field and shows some resilience. It all puts us back to square one: Bortles shows he is a potential NFL starter against Penn State, South Carolina and Baylor. But we have to look very hard to see something more.
The Deconstructed Bortles
Let's put the scout visor on, prepare the jargon-to-English translator, rewind the film and take a more technical approach to Blake Bortles.
The Arm: It's good. It is not Matthew Stafford or Johnny Manziel caliber, but Bortles has a deep ball and a fastball. He has an impressive pass inventory, and some of the throws he has trouble with can be easily adjusted. What is most impressive about Bortles' arm, what may be the key to his ever-rising draft status, is that it often operates without the help of the rest of his body. I'll explain that in a moment.
The Wheels: Bortles is fast and has some niftiness. He ran a lot of options -- not just read-options, but plays with a pitch man -- and he combines pure speed with the ability to use head and ball fakes in the open field. Bortles caught a short pass on a throwback play against Mizzou in 2012, and he easily outran most of the Tigers linebackers and safeties up the sideline.
The Eyes and Mind: UCF runs a kitchen sink offense: options, spread concepts, single-back rollout stuff, old-school West Coast basics. Bortles clearly availed himself well. He locks onto his primary receiver too often, but the same can be said about every collegiate quarterback of the last decade except Andrew Luck. Bortles showed plenty of second-read and checkdown capability. Coaches praise him, and he has a firm-handshake personality. I leave it to other draft analysts to dig deeper than that into quarterbacks' souls.
The Mechanics: Yuck. Bortles has several mechanical issues.
First, he does not consistently step into throws. He often throws with his weight on his back foot, or simply stands flat-footed. Sometimes, up-the-middle pressure is the issue, but more often it appears that Bortles is just used to getting the ball where he wants it to go by twisting his torso and flicking his shoulders. When he strides properly, he throws bullets. When he flings the ball, he throws passes you can complete against Temple that will kill you against tan NFL defense.
Bortles' strange footwork issue can be seen when he throws the short (8-10 yard) out route, a common play in the Knights playbook. He plants his left leg too far toward the sideline, then torques his shoulders while throwing; he often looks like he is falling sideways at the end of the delivery. All the angular motion often causes the ball to arrive low and away from the receiver.
Screens and other quick passes too often become adventures for Bortles. He has a lackadaisical delivery when he knows the ball does not have to travel far. His feet go every which way, and his motion becomes long and leisurely. Bortles' screens arrive too late, too hard, too soft or at some odd angle, which is why he threw screen picks against South Florida and Baylor and sometimes forced receivers to work for what should have been easy catches.
Throwing on the run: Bortles is great when throwing on the move when scrambling or rolling out. That figures: He is used to throwing accurately with imperfect footwork and balance, so firing the football across his body while falling out of bounds feels natural. Bortles has good downfield awareness when running and can roll to either his left or right.
Odds and Ends: Bortles tries to wheel and scramble to his left often. He is fast enough to do it in the American Athletic Conference, but he is not Randall Cunningham, and that move will result in a 12-yard sack in the NFL.
Ball security in the pocket is a minor issue, as Bortles gets stripped easily and sometimes just loses the football on his own. Bortles is very willing to stand in the pocket and deliver the football before the hit comes, which is a mixed blessing. He won't wilt under a pass rush, but he may also take too many hits, and his tendency to not step into throws is exacerbated by all the passing he does with defenders in his face.
The Bortles Verdict
Sometimes, he looks like Big Ben Bortlesberger. Other times, he's Blaine Bortlebert. There is a wide gap between Ben Roethlisberger and Blaine Gabbert now, but there was not when each left college as big, athletic dudes who threw hard. The difference between champion and embarrassment is as much about nurture as nature, circumstance as skill.
Scouts and coaches watch Bortles film and see beautiful 30-yard downfield strikes in bunches, followed by hinky screen and flat passes and harder-than-they-should-be eight-yarders along the sidelines. The coaches reason that they can fix the short stuff by tightening the screws on Bortles' feet. With a little tinkering, Bortles becomes a great downfield passer who can run and distribute the ball. He has the two tools that cannot be coached, so why not coach the third one into him?
The reasoning is sound, until you look at the teams at the top of the draft board. Do you trust Brian Schottenheimer to develop a quarterback? The Browns? The Jaguars or Raiders? The Texans have the infrastructure to do it, but they also have Manziel and Clowney staring them in the face. Unless they select Bortles, he will be left to the mercy of teams with a history of destroying more quarterbacks than they repair. Bortles in Schottenheimer's micro-passing offense would be a disaster. (Manziel, smaller but faster/stronger armed/more daring, can do more with less, sooner.) The Jaguars and Raiders will need him sooner than he will be ready and are short on blockers, rushers and receivers. Bortles, Josh Gordon and Kyle Shanahan make sense in Cleveland until the moment in January when everyone gets fired and the next coach wants his own guy.
That's the double-edged sword of being a top-five quarterback: You are probably going into a terrible situation. Unless you are Luck or Robert Griffin, the situation is more likely to hurt you than you are to help it, and even Griffin-level talents are not immune. Bortles is not Luck or Griffin, nor Gabbert or Roethlisberger. He is more like Ryan Tannehill. He needs time and tinkering. Four of the five teams picking atop the first round are unlikely to give him what he needs.
Blake Bortles is a potential NFL starter and possible future NFL star. But he is a likely top-five pick because there are five teams that need quarterbacks at the top of the draft board. Bortles is just gifted enough to be a success story but just flawed enough to become more kindling in some franchise's bonfire of disappointment. In a draft class that features the mercurial Manziel and vexing Clowney, the big-strong-bright-fast kid is somehow the biggest risk on the board. Though if Bortles slides just a bit, the risks diminish, and the rewards become great.