The Texans and Jaguars are in a dead heat for the number one pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Lucky (or unlucky) for football fans everywhere, both teams will have an opportunity to settle their "dispute" on prime time television in two weeks. In a best/worst case scenario, the Texans will lose that Thursday night clash of incompetence and secure themselves the rights to whatever college prospect their hearts desire. In the event of the Texans holding the first overall pick for the third time in just over a decade, the question becomes this: Who the hell should they pick?
2014 is an absolutely loaded draft class with top shelf players at nearly every position on the field. Only 2011, which produced such stars like Cam Newton, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, Patrick Peterson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Jordan, Tyron Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, Corey Liuget, and Robert Quinn can boast a better first round talent pedigree in the last decade. This year’s class has the typical highly coveted quarterback, the unstoppable pass rusher, the immovable pass protector, and of course plenty of freak athletes. 2014 has all the makings of something special, and the great thing about Houston choosing this year to suck is that no matter what, the Texans will end up getting a very good player. Let’s take a moment to spotlight one of the many options that Rick Smith will have to choose from this may if given the number one overall pick – Louisville signal caller Teddy Bridgewater.
Quarterback is unequivocally the most important position in all of sports. As the play caller, executor, and the leader of the locker room, nobody has more impact on whether a team wins or loses a game. You need a man who can set an example both on the field and off. You need an athlete who can take a beating while delivering passes with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. You need Teddy Bridgewater.
When I look at Teddy Bridgewater, I see a man who has lived up to the preseason hype and then some, even while fellow quarterback prospects like Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Tajh Boyd have dotted their seasons with a few disastrous performances. His 25-3 touchdown to interception ratio is certainly impressive, but what I really enjoy watching is how Bridgewater got that ratio. You will almost never see Bridgewater make an egregious mistake at an inconvenient time. If things go wrong, he can make them suddenly go right. Bridgewater has not gotten many chances to strut his stuff against top defenses, but that does not change the fact that he can sling it with accuracy, intelligence, and arm strength with the best of them.
Are there many elite corners, pass rushers, or linebackers in the AAC? Definitely not, but there are not a lot of elite pass protectors, receivers, or running backs either. Bridgewater has elevated the overall talent level of his program to new highs, and that elevation was evident last season when his Cardinals shredded a very tough and talented Florida defense that featured Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, Matt Elam, and Jon Bostic. It was no secret that the ACC chose Louisville over UConn as an expansion program last November because of their growing football program, and a big part of that growth over the last few years has been because of Bridgewater. To put it simply, Bridgewater not only made his team better, but he got them a golden ticket into the next level of college football. Not many quarterbacks can say the same.
Breaking down the nitty gritty details of Bridgewater’s game, you see an extremely polished passer with loads of arm talent, intelligence, athleticism, and the best pocket presence in college football. What really caught my eye was Bridgewater’s impeccable footwork, especially when sliding and adjusting away from pressure. As a classic pocket passer from under center, Bridgewater has developed one of the cleanest drops you will ever see from a college quarterback. When he hits that third, fifth, or seventh step, I love how effortlessly he transitions his weight to his front foot while anchoring himself with his back foot. The smoothness with which he can drop, climb the pocket under pressure, and deliver the football all with perfect balance is extremely impressive. When combined with his high football IQ, Bridgewater can make some truly Drew Brees-esque throws.
One of the best examples of Bridgewater’s pocket presence and footwork came on the road against Kentucky. The Wildcats technically held Bridgewater to one of his "worst" statistical performances of the season with 57% completion percentage and only one passing touchdown, but when factoring in that Kentucky was able to stop the run effectively with soft boxes and get after the passer by just rushing four people while dropping seven, Bridgewater’s job was extremely difficult. Facing constant third and longs before the ground game finally got going in the second half, Bridgewater was under siege the entire day. There were a couple over throws on deep bombs, and some great plays by Kentucky DB’s to knock away no fewer than four passes into the end zone, but Bridgewater still had what I would consider to be a good day. Every decision he made was on point (even if some of his throws were not), and considering how often Bridgewater had to run for his life from Kentucky’s defensive line I would say he handled the pressure as well as anyone could expect.
On this particular play you can see Bridgewater’s perfect balance while executing a seven step drop. Kentucky only rushes four while dropping seven, and Bridgewater keeps his eyes down field at all times to read the coverage.
Here you can see Bridgewater widen his fifth step to start shifting his weight against the momentum of his drop.
Bridgewater’s sixth step has him leaning slightly forward over his now planted front foot.
Bridgewater’s seventh step, the most important step of all, is absolutely perfect. His center of gravity is low and his weight is now entirely over his front foot. His back foot is anchored at an angle to immediately stop his backwards momentum, thus helping his weight transfer if he has to pop up and drive the ball on his front foot in a hurry. In addition, by having such perfect balance on his seventh step, Bridgewater does not have to take any extra steps to change direction and climb the pocket away from pressure (which is coming from both directions courtesy of Kentucky’s defensive ends).
Kentucky blankets all of Bridgewater’s receivers down field with two deep zone coverage, so he smartly climbs the pocket away from the edge pressure and checks down to his running back for a good gain on first down. This is definitely not a "flashy" play, but this kind of technical perfection and smart decision-making is what keeps offenses on the field and puts points on the board. The numbers will not always be jaw dropping (though he is certainly capable of lightning people up), but a lot of the time all it takes to succeed in the NFL is simply making fewer mistakes than your opponent.
Take the following play for example: The Kentucky defense shut down the Louisville run game without stacking the box for most of the first half, but exhaustion from a very unbalanced time of possession slowly but surely gave Bridgewater manageable down and distances in the second half. Kentucky resorted to exotic zone blitzes to try to create some negative plays for the Louisville offense, and Bridgewater was able to make some excellent adjustments of his own.
Here we see Kentucky in their 4-2-5 nickel defense against Louisville’s 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) package. The Wildcats are in a two deep safety shell, which offensive coaches like to refer to as a "MOFO look" (Middle Of Field Open). A MOFO look has been the money maker for tight ends for years as safeties cheat wide to bracket wide receivers while the middle of the field stays wide open. In fact, the effectiveness of tight ends against MOFO looks is what spawned the famous "Tampa 2" defense under Tony Dungy, which dropped the middle linebacker deep in between the safeties of a Cover-2 shell to prevent such a pass from happening. Because Kentucky is not running a Tampa-2 scheme, the middle of the field (yellow box) and sidelines (orange boxes) are the easiest points of attack with post and corner routes.
Bridgewater motions his tight end across the line to set up a post route between the safeties. Kentucky starts making checks against the motion, and both linebackers start creeping towards the line of scrimmage. There are seven wildcats within "range" to rush the quarterback, and now with the tight end on the opposite side of any potential protection scheme a blitz from the slot corner becomes very appetizing.
Often times a quarterback’s easiest read is to just throw it at whatever cornerback is giving the biggest cushion (circled in yellow). Bridgewater, seeing the blitz about to throw itself into his offensive line, knows that he has a great shot at completing a ball to the sideline if his protection can hold up.
Bridgewater takes a three step drop off the snap and promptly opens his hips left and looks at the slot corner. If the corner was blitzing, his slot receiver would have been his immediate hot read for a decent gain to keep the chains moving. On this particular play, the slot corner stayed on his man, but I loved the fact that Bridgewater was preparing himself to beat the blitz with a hot throw. You can also see in this image that both inside linebackers have blitzed while the nose tackle and left defensive end dropped into coverage.
With a six-on-four protection scheme, Bridgewater immediately snaps his head to the strong safety to look at his position relative to the tight end’s skinny post. The safety smartly is cheating inside to take away the tight end. As a result of following Bridgewater’s eyes inside, the X receiver is allowed to run wide open outside.
Bridgewater sees the momentary window of opportunity and throws a strike to the sideline. While not quite as strong as Miami’s Stephen Morris, Bridgewater’s arm strength is still very, very good. Whether throwing fifty yards on a rope to a receiver running behind a defense or hitting a deep out on the other side of the field, Bridgewater can make every throw in the playbook with great velocity.
Not every pass is this easy, but a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater can sure make them look this easy. Between handling motions at the line, checking hot reads, freezing safeties with his eyes, and having the arm talent to make the throw, Bridgewater is easily the most complete quarterback in this class. When you factor in athleticism, leadership, and toughness into the equation, it is easy to see why the young Cardinal is considered a slam dunk prospect. Many evaluators have put Bridgewater at or even slightly above the level of former second overall pick Robert Griffin III (with less open field speed and an extra inch of height). I am inclined to agree. Bridgewater is not Andrew Luck, but he is pretty damn close.
If I am Texans General Manager Rick Smith, and I have the first overall pick in the draft, how could I ever live with myself for passing up on the quarterback with the highest chance of long term success in this class? Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, and even Aaron Murray (pre-knee injury) showed that they have what it takes to be good quarterbacks in the NFL. However, when it comes to the absolute most important position on the field, is it not best to just take the guy with most check marks and sleep like a baby for the next decade? At the end of the day, what will win more football games – sacks, run blocking, or throwing touchdowns? The choice is clear, and that choice is Teddy Bridgewater.