Perhaps the most fascinating pick of the NFL draft was the third. More fascinating was the process that led to the pick. This is the story of how Blake Bortles became a Jaguar.
The Jaguars are 0-8. General manager Dave Caldwell is starting to think about the possibility of having the first pick in the draft. And he is staring at his quarterback depth chart. Blaine Gabbert. Chad Henne. Ricky Stanzi. Denard Robinson, if you call him a quarterback. Matt Scott on the practice squad. The future leader of the Jaguars offense has to be somewhere else.
So Caldwell looks wherever passes were thrown on college campuses, from Washington to Miami. At this time of the college season, Central Florida, just a couple hours from Caldwell's home, is starting to make some noise. The Knights nearly beat 12th-ranked South Carolina behind a big, strong-armed quarterback named Blake Bortles, who throws for a career-high 358 yards. Hardly anybody heard of the name a couple months earlier, but Caldwell had. Then Central Florida upsets No. 8 Louisville when Bortles leads the Knights on an 11-play drive, concluding with a game-winning touchdown pass with 23 seconds left. Teddy Bridgewater, the highest rated quarterback by almost every draft expert, is sitting on the sidelines watching. In the two minutes, 33 seconds it takes to go 75 yards, Bortles becomes somebody.
It is not even Halloween, but already Bortles hovers at the top of Caldwell's list of quarterbacks. "We were scouring quarterbacks not only in this year's class, but next year's class too," Caldwell says. "We always stay a year ahead of that. I felt all along that if he went back to school, he'd probably be the first pick in the draft next year."
Jaguars scouts convene for personnel meetings. They discuss every player on their draft list. Through the college season, Caldwell never speaks of his attraction to Bortles. Not to head coach Gus Bradley. Not to college scouting director Kyle O'Brien. Not to team owner Shad Khan. Not even to his wife Joelle. What's more, he tells his coaches not to discuss prospects with scouts. He asks offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch not to talk about quarterback ratings with QB coach Frank Scelfo. "I didn't want to influence anyone, or for anyone to be influenced by anyone else," he says. "I wanted guys to come back with their own evaluations and see if we could find a consensus. They came back with a consensus [that Bortles] was the best quarterback for our system."
Whenever someone asks him about Bortles, he is reticent. "I'm a little superstitious," he says. "I didn't even want to say his name, to be honest with you."
He is quietly pleased, however, when Jaguars scouts mention Bortles' name and attach high grades to it. After the meeting, the Jaguars assign a crosscheck scout to study Bortles. He never has seen Bortles previously and rates him the best quarterback in the draft. Later, when coaches become involved in the process, each of them will identify Bortles as their favorite.
The Jaguars also start running analytics on prospects. Senior vice president of football technology Tony Khan has some interesting discoveries about Bortles, including that the quarterback excelled in adjusted completion percentage, which STATS lists at 68.99. Khan presents Caldwell with numbers that demonstrate Bortles' productivity under pressure. Analytics also show Bortles was very efficient in keeping drives alive on third down.
Also significant are statistics that highlight Bortles' ability to make plays outside the pocket. On tape, Jaguars scouts see a player who can get outside the tackle box and retain his focus downfield, not losing track of his progressions. The numbers confirm his ability in this area. "For our system, we want a combination of a guy who can create outside the pocket, but also who can stand in the pocket and deliver with pressure in his face," Caldwell said. In the minds of Jaguars decision makers, this combination of abilities is separating Bortles from other top available quarterbacks.
While other top quarterback prospects decide not to throw at the combine, Bortles embraces the challenge. He does everything else, too, running the 40-yard dash (4.90) and doing the vertical jump (32½), broad jump (9-6), 20-yard shuttle (4.21) and three cone (7.08). "Knocked it out of the park," Caldwell says.
At Central Florida's pro day on March 19, two days after Bridgewater bombs at his pro day, Bortles goes yard again. Bortles sufficiently impresses a contingent of some 70 evaluators, representing 27 NFL teams. When a sweat-soaked Bortles is finished and starts to walk off the field, Bradley abruptly ends an interview session to run up to him and shake his hand.
At each event, Bortles' personal skills also are impressive. He shows up to EverBank Field for his pre-draft visit with the Jaguars, on April 10, and recognizes Caldwell, Bradley, Shad Khan, Tony Khan, Fisch and Scelfo, addressing each by name.
It's the week of the draft, and Caldwell has yet to tell anyone Bortles is his man. Finally, two days before the draft, he breaks down and tells his wife. No one else outside the building knows, and his scouting staff still does not know. Even Bortles has no clue how much he is coveted.
Through the draft process, many of Caldwell's trusted friends on other teams have told him, unsolicited, how much they think of Bortles. He is comforted to know they see the same value in Bortles that he sees. He says some of his friends from other teams tell him Bortles is rated the fourth- or fifth-best player on their boards at any position.
Still, few expect Bortles will be chosen so high. His critics say he has not had sustained success, that his footwork and fundamentals are crude, that he is not NFL-ready.
One of the lessons Caldwell carries from his old bosses in Indianapolis, Bill Polian and Dom Anile, is to check all of the boxes before you use a high draft choice on a player. Caldwell goes through the process. Size: check. Athleticism: check. Arm strength: check. Productive: check. High character: check. Intelligent: check. Leadership ability: check. Tough: check. Competitive: check. Passionate: check. Durable: check. Upside: check. This, he believes, is a clean prospect.
"I had to watch every play he made about 24 times over the last eight months," he says. "I don't understand what people were picking apart on him. Look, he's not perfect. I think you get caught up when you are picking high that he has to be the next Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning or even Matt Ryan. If you go into it with that mindset, you will miss out on some good quarterbacks. He doesn't have to be those guys. If he is the best he can be, that's going to be pretty darned good."
Caldwell considers a trade down, but with five teams in the top 11 in need of a quarterback, he decides against it. "I know he was very highly rated on a couple teams' boards," Caldwell says. "We got the word there was a team a couple picks behind us that really wanted him. I really don't know what that team was thinking. But the risk for us wasn't worth it."
On Thursday night in the Jaguars draft room, Caldwell talks into a speakerphone to a team representative in New York. "What I need you to do is fill out a card with this name," he says, while standing between Khan and Bradley. "It's Blake Bortles." Then he turns to the room. "You guys all okay with that one?" Says Bradley, "Let's do it, man."
The first press conference questions for Caldwell are about weighing the present versus the future. In his pre-draft press conference six days prior, Caldwell had said Johnny Manziel was the most NFL-ready quarterback. Now, he is upfront about the third pick in the draft being a developmental player. He acknowledges the Jaguars are in a marathon, not a sprint.
"We don't think he's ready to play," he says the next day. "And we are going to go with Chad [Henne] this year. We feel good about what he can do for our team this year, and Blake will be ready to play in 2015."
A plan already is in place to bring along Bortles methodically. He will get extra work on the field and in the classroom, in the offseason and in training camp. Even during the season, he will get an inordinate amount of seven-on-seven reps, and coaches and receivers will spend time working with him after practice.
It is rare for an owner to have the patience to wait for fruit to ripen. It is unusual that a head coach would be on board with passing up the potential of an immediate impact player, like pass rusher Khalil Mack or wide receiver Sammy Watkins. What enables the pick of Bortles is Khan's long-term vision. The organizational stability in Jacksonville, in stark contrast to the organizational instability that awaits Manziel in Cleveland, leads them to Bortles.
"We feel like we're making headway and going in the right direction, but we're not one player away," Caldwell says. "We're not one receiver away, one defensive end away. We feel if we can solidify the quarterback position, that's huge for 10, 12 years down the road. And when you evaluate quarterbacks, they aren't making 6-5, 240-pound quarterbacks very often who are very athletic and have the production and arm strength that Blake has."
It took a lot of time and effort just to get to chapter one of Bortles' career in Jacksonville. But you might want to kick off your shoes and settle in. It looks like it's going to take a while to get through this book.