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While Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III make up what could be considered the elite class of 2012 Draft prospects at the QB position, there are far more than two teams in need of a signal caller. In fact, there are as many as six teams who could consider taking a quarterback in the first 12 selections. Indianapolis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Buffalo, Miami and Seattle could all make a case for QB selection early, but in evaluating the entire crop for 2012, beyond Luck and Griffin, it may be hard to justify taking the next slinger until later in the first round. Thus, you may see several, if not all of the aforementioned six teams attempt to trade back and stockpile additional later picks.
It's not that talent at the position is scarce for 2012. In fact, this year's group, although it drops off a bit after Luck and Griffin, appears to be deeper in terms of starting-caliber prospects, than the crop of 2011. It's just that teams may be willing to pass on a guy in the first if they have a bigger need and feel that they can still grab a potential future starter in the 3rd.
This wasn't the case last year. The confidence in middle round QB prospects wasn't necessarily oozing for guys like Ricky Stanzi, T.J. Yates and Nathan Enderle as it may be this year for potential middle rounders like Kirk Cousins (MSU), Ryan Lindley (SDSU), Brandon Weeden (OSU), Kellen Moore (BSU), Russell Wilson and Chandler Harnish (NIU) among a few others, all of whom I've graded as potential starters at the next level within 2-3 years time. The key word there is "potential". I am not saying these guys WILL BE starters, so don't go gettin' all excited on me. We'll talk about some of the grading criteria in a bit when we break down a couple of this year's prospects. Even mid-late round prospects like G.J. Kinnie (Tulsa), Dominique Davis (ECU) and B.J. Coleman (Chattanooga) flash "plus" tools that project them better as potential NFL regulars than the Yates, Enderle and McElroys of the mid-late to latter rounds in '11.
Where this year's solid QB depth leaves us now, is wondering then about the 2nd tier of prospects. Who are they, and where should they be selected? Last year, I had Newton, Dalton, Ponder, Locker and Mallet all graded within just a few points of each other. They made up the top tier, yet none would've graded as highly as Luck or Griffin do this year, although a top-10 pick of Newton could still be justified (regardless of rookie year hindsight) due to his unique athleticism and ability to learn quickly.
I actually had Ponder rated the highest of the prospects due to consistency and displayed intelligence at the college level, with Dalton and Newton close behind (Newton for different reasons that Ponder and Dalton). I considered Gabbert and Kaepernick to be more 3rd or 4th round talents, and then beyond those two...utter darkness and void. Nothing. Stanzi garnered a 4th-6th round grade, and then beyond him, we had Enderle, Yates, and McElroy as 6th and 7th round grade-outs. Kaepernick was intriguing, but a definite reach in the high 2nd by San Francisco I thought, and due to low level of competition, and coming from a 1-read, shotgun spread offense that demanded almost nothing in the way of progression cycles or adjustments at the line, I felt he had no business being mentioned anywhere near Dalton, who displayed good fundamentals and pro-like intelligence both pre and post-snap, throughout his college career.
All this to say that the 1st tier in '11 was also it's 2nd tier, because when compared to this year, there really was no distinguishable, runaway elite QB. 1st and 2nd tiers were pretty much lumped together into one pile of some distinguishable "plus" skills and a load of questions.
So who are the Daltons, Ponders and Lockers of this year? We know that Luck is in a class all his own and Griffin, although comparable to Newton in athleticism, appears to be further along in terms of instincts and overall efficiency as a pure QB. It's the 2nd tier group that the majority of QB-needy teams will be evaluating the hardest come April, save an opportunity for one or two of them to somehow pry away the first two picks of the draft.
Let's take a look at one 2nd tier QB who may be a consideration for one of these top 12 teams, come April...
Ryan Tannehill - Texas A&M - 6'4, 228lbs - Senior
Tannehill is intriguing because he enters the draft having completed his first and only full year as a collegiate starting QB after spending the majority of his A&M career as a receiver. For anyone to make this switch, and do so in the fashion that Tannehill did (3744 yards passing, 29TDs, 61.6% completions) indicates a unique ability to learn and progress quickly. This is huge in a player's transition to the NFL at any position, but especially at quarterback where absorbing and decyphering information in substantial loads is perhaps the newcoming signal caller's biggest initial challenge. Tannehill's ability to make the switch and do so with the success he garnered, is a positive indicator for NFL scouts who want an intelligent, teachable quarterback.
Tannehill's rare size/speed combination is second only to Griffin III in the group. The guy can flat out fly in the open field, and more importantly, he extends passing plays with his feet, giving himself more time to be a QB. Far too often, QBs who can run will resort to tucking and scrambling at the first sign of pressure. Tannehill thinks like a QB first, and a runner second. When pressured off the edges, his instinct is to step forward in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield and keep his arm cocked.
When pressured up the middle, he displays a natural ability to subtly side-step his rusher and stride forward into his throw, or when under unavoidable middle rush, will roll out of the box while maintaining field scan and receiver awareness. In both cases, he's buying time to find a downfield target. He doesn't panic under pressure, and he doesn't tuck the ball and run until he's flat out of options. In summary, he displays QB instincts and elite supplemental athleticism, rather than run-first instincts and a serviceable arm to go with it.
Mechanically, Tannehill possesses a quick release and above-average arm strength. He generates consistent velocity to put the 10-15 yard stick throws on the numbers with zip, places the ball outside the numbers and onto the sideline from the far hash relatively easy, and displays good anticipation and recognition when asked to adjust his touch in accommodating the timing routes to lead his man.
He needs to improve his footwork, as he's happy to throw off the back foot and rely solely on arm strength too often. When setting his feet, he gets a bit too narrow, bringing them closer together than he should, particularly when asked to stick his foot in the ground on a 3-step drop and hit the quick slant, hitch or drag. This disallows him to shift his weight properly, and as a result, the ball will sail, or if he gets too far forward, will shoe-top from time to time. This is an area that appears to have improved over the course of his senior season which, again, speaks to his ability to learn and make adjustments quickly.
He doesn't spin the tightest spiral on a consistent basis, particularly when he drops his arm angle or puts more power than necessary behind the throw. He needs to become more comfortable with the fact that he has plenty of arm strength, and if he continues to improve in setting his feet with a wide, balanced base, these sound mechanics will generate the velocity he needs. This will help correct the spiral issue as he won't feel like he needs to rely so much on arm speed. He flashes a good back-shoulder throw and although arm strength isn't an issue, he too often forces his receiver to have to adjust and go up for the ball on the bucket (deep) toss rather than dropping it into outstretched arms in stride.
Having a guy like Jeff Fuller who attacks the ball in the air and can high-point with the best of them, to catch passes at A&M helped Tannehill and allowed him to get away with this more than he'll be able to at the next level where cornerbacks simply play the ball better and are getting bigger. So there remain some questions on the deep ball.
In terms of intangibles, Tannehill certainly wouldn't be classified as light in the confidence department, and he doesn't shy away from contact when stepping up to throw in the face of pressure. Over time he has become much more relaxed in the pocket, and is less and less rattled when forced to hold the ball beyond his first or second options. He cycles through progressions routinely, although he will lock on too often, almost as if he's trying to will his man open, and as a result is susceptible to the sack or a flush-out. This is where his athleticism has helped to mask some of his decision making issues, as he's been able to buy time with the feet. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Heck, if you've got it, flaunt it. But it's when he stands in the pocket too long rather than buying time, where he tends to get into trouble, and that comes as a result of not moving through progressions quicker and committing to one.
In summary, there's a lot to like about Tannehill. Normally, being someone who looks for fundamentals and consistency first in a prospect, I would expect someone like Tannehill to be lower on my board. After all, the guy hasn't really started enough games to accurately gauge consistency as we like to see it, and as a convert from wide receiver, the fundamentals certainly aren't as far along as I'd like to see in a first round QB. The "X factor" here though is the speed with which Tannehill has not only been able to learn the position, but also correct errors and avoid repeating them. He puts the tough games behind him and continues to show improvement in nearly all facets of his game, and that gives him a first round grade in my view. Top 10? I'm not going there. But if one of these QB-hungry teams can trade down into the 18-25 range and find him available there, he would be worth the pick.