Sam Mellinger: A good quarterback is hard to find

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08/23/2013 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 10:02 AM

Editor's note: This column is part of our 46-page annual football special section, available in Sunday's print edition of The Kansas City Star. You'll get schedules and previews for the Chiefs, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and high schools, plus a deeper look at quarterbacks. With Alex Smith taking over for the Chiefs and questions surrounding the position at our local colleges, it figures to be even more of a QB-centric season.

John Dorsey wants to see quarterbacks in person. Has to, really.

The Chiefs general manager can watch an offensive lineman or a running back or a defensive tackle on film and have a pretty good idea what he’s looking at. But quarterbacks are different. Quarterbacks are harder. Evaluating quarterbacks requires a little more attention.

Dorsey wants to see the quarterback’s reaction to a bad play. He wants to see how he comes off the sideline, how (or whether) his teammates embrace him. Can the quarterback lead his team at the end of the game? What’s his relationship like with his teammates?

These are the things you can’t see on video. Unfortunately, in person there can be mistakes.

“It is harder to evaluate quarterbacks now,” he says. “The way college football is played with the spread option, with limited reads, limited progressions. That makes it tougher to evaluate, because you had the traditional model of what quarterbacks do and now things are different.”

Dorsey, of course, comes from Green Bay, which is known mostly for snow and terrific quarterbacks. The Packers traded a mid first-round pick for Brett Favre in 1992, and then drafted Aaron Rodgers 24th overall in 2005.

But outside of Green Bay, finding good quarterbacks has been a struggle for nearly everyone in the NFL. Increasingly, this is how good franchises and teams separate from bad. Quarterbacks have never been more important. Rules protecting quarterbacks and the passing game have only amplified the trend.

The problem is, as quarterbacks have become more important, teams generally haven’t become any better at evaluating them.

In last year’s NFL Draft, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler were picked ahead of Russell Wilson. The year before, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker went before Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. Three years ago, the Broncos took Tim Tebow in the first round — and traded up to do it.

“You’d think that in the past 30, 40, 50 years, the evolution of scouting would’ve learned a lesson on how to evaluate the position,” says Shawn Zobel, who runs

draftheadquarters.com

. “But it’s still an old-fashioned way of scouting, where they’re dragging their feet. There’s no excuse for Russell Wilson falling out of the first round.”

The problems with quarterback evaluations are many. Different systems require different talents, so a quarterback who may thrive in one place could struggle in another. No position in football is dictated more by intangibles and less by tangibles (compare the physical gifts of Wilson and former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, for instance).

Also, the requirements of the position are changing so rapidly that it’s sometimes hard to project how certain strengths and weaknesses will apply in the NFL.

Dorsey’s point about college quarterbacks generally being asked to read defenses less and go through shorter progressions is just one example.

Quarterback evaluations may actually be made tougher by the position’s importance, too. Multiple NFL personnel men, in conversations this preseason, mentioned that one of the main ways teams make themselves vulnerable to faulty evaluations of quarterbacks is when they’re forced to draft one.

If you feel pressured, the thinking goes, you’re more likely to miss faults you’d see in a more reasoned state.

Look at the teams that’ve missed badly on quarterbacks the last two years. With the exception of the Broncos (who drafted Osweiler after they signed Peyton Manning), each was desperate for a quarterback.

Now look at the teams that found value later in the draft. The Seahawks had just signed Matt Flynn to a big free-agent contract and figured Wilson would be the backup. And the 49ers had Alex Smith, who struggled the year before but would throw 17 touchdowns with five interceptions and San Francisco reach the NFC championship game the following season.

There are no obvious, easy fixes, of course. Only attempts by NFL teams to get better. One is that teams are paying more attention to statistics. A league executive, in talking about why he didn’t like Locker in the draft two years ago, mentioned that he completed only 55 percent of his passes as a senior at Washington.

Another evolution is that teams, generally, are less likely to fall in love with physical tools than they were in the past. The Chiefs have an example of their own here, with Tyler Bray — a first-day-of-the-draft talent who went unpicked through the entire draft because of concerns about his maturity and leadership skills.

In that way, the 2014 draft is setting up as something of a test. Among the top quarterback prospects are Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron.

Bridgewater is, by far, the more talented player. But McCarron’s leadership ability is often cited in Alabama’s back-to-back national titles, and he threw just three interceptions all of last season.

Which would you prefer?

NFL teams are still trying to figure it out themselves.

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