NFL Scouts Have No Clue How to Predict the Next Great Quarterback

Research indicates that the factors that make college football players early-round draft picks are useless at predicting success in the NFL.
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Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel passes the ball during a drill at pro day for NFL football representatives in College Station, Texas, Thursday, March 27, 2014. (Patric Schneider / AP)

It is widely believed that Johnny Manziel will be one of the first quarterbacks selected in the 2014 NFL draft. Mock drafts at ESPN.com, CBS Sports, and Sports Illustrated all have Manziel taken in the first round, with some having him selected with one of the first 10 picks. 

But not everyone agrees that Manziel is destined for pro-level greatness. NFL analyst Merle Hoge had this to say a couple of months ago:

He has absolutely no instinct or feel for pocket awareness. He has an instinct to run. That's a bad instinct if you're going to have that in the National Football League. You have to play in the pocket with traffic around you and throw it. When traffic comes around him, he runs, and that's dangerous in the National Football League. His skill set does not transition to the National Football League, and it is a big, big risk. In fact, I see bust written all over him, especially if he's drafted in the first round.

Many NFL analysts have raised similar questions about how Manziel will play in the NFL. And yet, few people think Manziel will not be selected in the 2014 first round. So who will prove to be right? Is the team that does call his name—presumably early on Thursday night—making the right choice? Or are the skeptics right to claim they would not select Manziel?

To fully understand that question, it’s important to recognize why an NFL team might think Manziel is a top quarterback. In 2009, Rob Simmons and I published a paper on the logic used in drafting NFL quarterbacks. Recently I updated this analysis, looking at the quarterbacks drafted from 1998 to 2013. The results this time—which were quite consistent with our earlier work—reveal some of the factors teams emphasize on the day of the draft.

Manziel's expected competition in the first round of this year’s draft includes Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr. This past season, the aforementioned four quarterbacks posted the following ratings:

  • Johnny Manziel: 172.9
  • Teddy Bridgewater: 171.1
  • Blake Bortles: 163.4
  • Derek Carr: 156.3

(Their average in 2013 was around 133.0.)

Each of these marks ranked in the top 15 of college football in 2013. So all four were “good.” However, Manziel and Bridgewater were top-five quarterbacks, so one could argue that on the field, Manziel and Bridgewater were somewhat better than Bortles and Carr.

On-field performance, though, is not the only story. After the season is over, the NFL measures both the physical and mental skills of each athlete it might consider in the draft. At the NFL combine, the players are physically measured (height and weight), run the standard 40-yard dash (among other drills), and asked to take the Wonderlic test. The latter is a 50-question test designed to measure intelligence.

When we look at these four quarterbacks, we see the following measurements:

Player

Height 
(in inches)

Weight 
(in lbs.)

40-yard 
dash time

Wonderlic 
Score

Johnny Manziel

72

207

4.68

32

Blake Bortles

77

232

4.93

28

Teddy Bridgewater

74

214

4.67

20

Derek Carr

74

214

4.69

23

Of these four, Bortles is the biggest but also the slowest. Manziel—if we are to believe the Wonderlic score—is the smartest. But he is also the smallest.

So what does any of this mean? In terms of where a quarterback is drafted, both what we see on the field and at the combine matters (and it seems the latter matters more than the former). Specifically, according to my research, quarterbacks who are bigger, taller, faster, and smarter tend to hear their name first on draft day. And on this list, it appears taller and faster are the most important: If we look at a one standard deviation in each variable, height and speed have the largest impact on draft position. For each, a one standard deviation improvement moves you about one round up in the draft. That’s both bad and good news for Manziel.

Unlike the other three players listed above, though, Manziel won the Heisman Trophy (in 2012) and plays in one of the top college conferences—a list that includes the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12. Each of these factors are also statistically related to where a quarterback is drafted (though, as NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah pointed out to Paul Glavic this week, team scouts claim they are generally less concerned with awards than fans think).

So we can see why Manziel might be considered a better choice relative to his primary competition. But will he be a top NFL quarterback, as so many NFL insiders believe? 

Consider the following list of names: Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jason Campbell, and J.P. Losman. Each of these 11 quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the NFL draft in the past 10 years. And each quarterback has not only lost their starting job with the team that thought so highly of them on draft day, but these quarterbacks are not likely to be starting anywhere in the NFL in 2014.

In total, there have been 27 quarterbacks selected in the first round in the last 10 years. With each selection, the experts explained why each quarterback was going to be a star. But as we can see, often teams and the experts have, to borrow a term from baseball, swung and missed.

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David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins, and serves on the editorial board of both the Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.

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