If Colts turn to NFL draft for a QB, uncertainty awaits

Colts

Chris Ballard speaks at the 2020 NFL Combine in Indianapolis (Photo By Chris Wildlic)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Good luck in your quest at deciphering the quarterback-centric comments emanating from those in a position of authority with the Indianapolis Colts.

They could stick with Jacoby Brissett.

“That’s a possibility,’’ owner Jim Irsay said.

They could find their QB1 in the April 23-25 NFL Draft.

“That’s a possibility,’’ Irsay repeated.

They could look for a short-term fix and sign a veteran free agent.

“All options are on the table,’’ Irsay insisted while offering zero insight.

Clear as mud, right?

Here’s something else that involves a ton of uncertainty: the most likely option – the draft – is rife with peril.

At least four quarterbacks are likely to be selected in the first round of the draft. LSU’s Joe Burrow is headed to Cincinnati as the unquestioned 1st overall pick, and Tua Tagovailoa is expected to be off the board shortly thereafter, either to Miami at No. 5 or sooner if some team jumps ahead of the Dolphins.

Then it’s Justin Herbert and Jordan Love. Or Jordan Love and Justin Herbert.

History tells us several things about the draft and quarterbacks.

First, the desperation by teams to find that guy will drive some undeserving player higher than his grade merits.

“We all know that position usually gets pushed up,’’ Chris Ballard said. “You’ve got to be true to your evaluation.

“More mistakes are made when you push that position up and then he doesn’t deserve (it). Then the expectations and everything else builds up on that kid.’’

That brings us to the second phase of the history lesson, which again drives home the reality that taking a quarterback in the first round can be a 50-50 proposition.

Since 1998, 63 quarterbacks have been snatched in the first round.

There have been so many undeniable home runs: Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson.

And there have been so many swing-and-misses: Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Kyle Boller, J.P Losman, Jason Campbell, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, E.J. Manuel, Johnny Manziel.

Eleven of the 63 delivered their team to the Super Bowl and six hoisted the Lombardi Trophy a total of nine times.

But 37 failed to win a playoff game for the team that believed it had finally solved its most pressing question. That number is a bit inflated by six QBs taken in the past two drafts not reaching the postseason – Kyle Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen – but, again, the draft is no sure thing.

The Arizona Cardinals selected Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick in 2018, then traded him to Miami 12 months later after using the 1st overall pick in ’19 on Kyler Murray.

Teams try, then try again.

“We evaluate them every year,’’ Ballard said. “It’s one of the hardest positions to play in sports. One, from the transition from college football to the NFL (and) what we’re asking them to do, and doing it against the best in the world.

“Then, the expectations and the pressure and all the things that come along with playing quarterback.’’

Over the past 22 drafts, Washington has invested four first-round picks on a QB. Dwayne Haskins, Robert Griffin III, Jason Campbell and Patrick Ramsey share a 60-91 win-loss record.

Cleveland one-ups Washington. The Browns have used five first-round selections on quarterbacks since 1999. Baker Mayfield, Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn and Tim Couch are a combined 46-95.

Even when you think you know, you never really know.

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock follows a checklist when assessing a quarterback prospect that includes leadership, accuracy and pocket awareness.

“There’s a hundred different traits I could roll down for you,’’ he said. “I think you need to be a leader of men. I think you have to have the mentality when you get in the huddle, there’s 10 people that are going to follow you. And you have to be the alpha male . . . you have to earn the respect of your teammates.’’

Mayock disputes the notion there have been more “misses’’ when drafting a quarterback than other positions.

“The biggest deal at the quarterback position is the transition from the way they play in college to what we play in the NFL, the verbiage, the huddles, the leadership,’’ he said. “And then once the ball is snapped, when that picture changes – when you think you see something and the picture changes – your ability, with a group of grown men trying to knock you down, to stay in the pocket, handle it and go through the progressions and find the right guy to get it to.’’

Pocket awareness is critical, and tough to teach. Mayock recalled talking with “the Mannings, the Bradys’’ and others over the past two decades. He asked them: “Is pocket awareness innate or is it something you can learn?”

“Almost everyone of them said, ‘You know, I’ve always had it since I was a little kid,’’’ Mayock said.

Frank Reich’s NFL lineage includes 13 seasons as an accomplished QB and 14 as a coach, the last three as the head coach with the Colts. He understands the position and what it takes to be successful.

His evaluation checklist has five boxes to mark off: mental and physical toughness, accelerated vision, accuracy, good feet and intangibles.

The accelerated vision is “how fast do you think on your feet?’’ Reich said.

The feet?

“Most sports are played from the ground up, so as a quarterback that’s really important,’’ he said.

Foremost among the intangibles?

“The leadership,’’ Reich said. “Are you a playmaker in big moments.’’

Often when a team misses on a quarterback prospect, it’s because it misread the intangibles.

“I think they come from the processing,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of things you can test here physically, but how do you test how fast a guy thinks? Somebody’s cognitive ability. That’s, to me, an exciting thing.’’

Bruce Arians has experienced the hits and misses during an NFL career that spans more than three decades. He’s considered something of a quarterback whisperer after working with, among others, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.

“The hardest thing to evaluate is the heart and the head,’’ Arians said. “You see everything else. I call it ‘grit.’ Whether they have leadership skills. Why guys follow them and why they can make guys believe in them.

“That’s the hardest thing to find out. That’s one of the hardest things because you don’t get to know them until you got them, and that’s where the mistakes come. So you’ve got to do your homework on the guy.’’

Which is precisely what the Colts – Irsay, Ballard, Reich – are doing.

“We’ll keep evaluating the position,’’ Irsay said. “I mean, you guys know how important that is.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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