By Russ Lande
If you asked a casual NFL fan about the SEC quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL draft, the list might begin and end with Johnny Manziel. But Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's AJ McCarron and LSU's Zach Mettenberger shouldn't be forgotten. Where should they be picked? Let's take a look.
Despite the lack of pure physical talent and flawless technique, McCarron's smarts, decision-making and ability to read and adjust to the defense enabled him to be successful for Alabama. His willingness to throw the ball away quickly when pressured was definitely important, but in today's pass-first NFL, good starting quarterbacks must be able to step up and make some plays with their arm. I did not see that ability from McCarron. From almost the first ball he threw in the games I evaluated, he displayed bad footwork. This, combined with his tendency to fall away from his throws, meant that a lot of his passes hung in the air. On the occasion that he did stride into his throws, he showed he can get enough zip on ball to make most NFL throws adequately, but it was a rare sight. In addition, he has a wind-up in his delivery, which allowed defensive backs to close and try to make plays on too many of his passes.
Many have made the point of saying the all McCarron has to do is improve his arm strength to become a good starting quarterback in the NFL, much like Tom Brady did when he came out of Michigan. However, it is important to remember that such a task is easier said than done. Also, if we're making comparisons, realize that Brady had excellent footwork and upper-body mechanics when he came out of school, unlike McCarron
Prediction: Fourth-round pick.
If Murray had not been injured this season, I believe that he would be viewed as one of the best potential bargains in the draft. As opposed to McCarron, Murray's film was more impressive than I expected and definitely made the many comparisons to Drew Brees seem realistic. At 6-foot, Murray is bit short and lacks a premier arm, but in games evaluated, he displayed outstanding mechanics and a strong enough arm to make every NFL throw. I was consistently impressed by his quick and compact upper body mechanics and his consistency striding into his throws, which helped him to really make some excellent gun passes on 15- to 20-yard dig and out routes. You can tell from his physique that he works hard in the weight room, and it's apparent from his quick read and adjustment to different blitzes that he spends a lot of time watching film of the opponent. He does an excellent job of identifying where the blitz is coming from and gets the ball to his hot receiver quickly and with good accuracy. Not only an effective and productive passer, Murray has the quickness and athleticism to make plays with his feet, both when forced from the pocket and on designed runs.
For all of these positives, there are some concerns beyond size and arm strength. Murray will force some passes into spots that he shouldn't -- and since he does not have an elite arm, he'll try to put extra heat on passes, which will then sail for easy picks. Also, on too many third downs where he needs close to 10 yards, he is too quick to check down and settles for a swing pass to the running back, which leads to too many stalled drives. But five years from now, I believe Murray will be a good starting quarterback in the NFL. Even though many of the comparisons to Drew Brees make sense, I see Murray as becoming a more efficient and less mistake-prone version of Andy Dalton. And that's a compliment.
Prediction: Third-round pick.
Of these three passers, there is no doubt in my eyes that Mettenberger is by far the most gifted and is the only one with a chance to be selected in the first round. He stands strong in the pocket, does not get rattled by pressure around him and can make spectacular throws right as he is about to be hit. No one is ever going to call him fleet-footed, but he does have the agility and balance to reset and make strong throws. There is no quarterback is this year's draft who can make the 20-plus-yard out throw from the far side hash with the amazing power and accuracy that he can (Tom Savage has the arm strength to do it, but his accuracy is suspect). Mettenberger also clearly has an idea on who to get the ball to quickly and has the quick release and arm strength to execute.
He has the rare arm strength to be able to beat defenses in the areas where they often bait passers into mistakes, but this talent and confidence also leads to a common mistake among big-armed quarterbacks. He shows almost no fear throwing the ball and will force passes into tight spots that he never should even consider throwing into, which leads to too many interceptions for a player with his talent. Many point to his knee injury as the reason Mettenberger may not go in the first round, but the reality is that his lack of mobility is not a big deal. More of a concern is Mettenberger's quiet demeanor, which has led many to question his ability to be a "take command of the huddle"-type quarterback. NFL teams are always leery of building their team around a quarterback who lacks top leadership skills.
But I think that five years from now, Mettenberger will be the best of this group of three, while Murray will be a solid starter and McCarron will be a quality backup quarterback.
Prediction: First round (for a team willing to overlook that supposed "leadership" flaw).
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.