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Quarterback evaluation proves an inexact science

Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino fades back to pass during 52-6 rout of Rutgers, Nov. 20, 1982 in Pittsburgh. In less than three quarters Marino completed 22-30 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Immediately following the win Pitt accepted as invitation to play in the Cotton Bowl against either Southern Methodist or Arkansas. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino fades back to pass during 52-6 rout of Rutgers, Nov. 20, 1982 in Pittsburgh. In less than three quarters Marino completed 22-30 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Immediately following the win Pitt accepted as invitation to play in the Cotton Bowl against either Southern Methodist or Arkansas. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Published Feb. 15, 2015

TAMPA — Because the Bucs did not have even adequate quarterback play last season, they suffered through a 2-14 season that positioned them to have the No. 1 overall pick in May's draft, where Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota await as quarterbacks who could reverse the fortunes of the franchise.

Over the next three months, beginning with this week's scouting combine in Indianapolis, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks will be combed over with a bristle brush. The Bucs will try to make sure every morsel of information is uncovered, diagnosed and deciphered to help them formulate the best choice.

Off-field analysis will be critical, especially in the case of Winston, whose history of poor decisions is all that prevents him from being the consensus top pick.

But what about on the field? What are the traits that will be graded — typically on a scale from 1 to 9 — to determine the physical and mental abilities of each player? What's the most important? How do teams evaluate quarterback prospects?

For Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who served in that capacity for the Bucs from 2009-11, the answer is definitive: accuracy.

"I've always said it is accuracy, No. 1," Olson said. "It doesn't matter how good the decision-making or arm strength is, or how smart he is. If you're not accurate, it doesn't matter. And intelligence is important, too.

"There have been some guys coming out that are not that smart, and people say what great athletes they are because they can move around and that's what they did in college. But for long-term success, the real winners in this league are accurate and smart."

Former Redskins and Texans general manager Charlie Casserly said priorities can vary from coach to coach.

"For (former Redskins coach) Joe Gibbs, arm strength was the No. 1 thing," Casserly said. "Some rate intelligence and toughness ahead of everything else. There are other places where movement is crucial. Part of the evaluation has to be tailored to what the coach wants.

"But when you watch (prospects) play, accuracy is huge. To me, you cannot improve accuracy. You may improve completion percentage by more 'gimme' throws. But I don't think accuracy gets improved much. What I like to see is a guy who can make NFL throws, the big arm who can make the 20-yard out and put the ball in the right spot between the two defenders. The NFL doesn't have big windows. I want to see a guy make the 'wow' throws and (be) accurate."

Former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, a ESPN analyst, said emphatically that the most important attribute has to be the ability to lead — in the locker room, in meetings, in the huddle and during the game.

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"It's leadership, No. 1," Dominik said. "You have to have those physical things to be considered where they're being picked. But it's leadership, and after that, it's intelligence. Football intelligence. Do I want a guy with a Wonderlic (intelligence test score) of eight (out of 50)? No. Do I care that it's 22 or 37? No. I'm not worried about book smarts. I'm worried about football intelligence, and I think those are the things you've got to figure out during this process over the next seven weeks. You've got to get very comfortable with those two players and rank them."

That Dominik would choose leadership as the most important qualification for success is not surprising. He drafted Josh Freeman 17th overall from Kansas State in 2009. Freeman showed immediate promise, throwing 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions during his breakout season in 2010. But then his work habits ebbed, and so did his performance. He went 11-24 as a starter the rest of the way, with 45 touchdown passes and 52 interceptions.

Winston and Mariota are strong leaders, though their styles differ. Both led teams to the national championship game.

"Maturity is important, and it goes with intelligence, making good decisions," Olson said. "I was watching that (ESPN) 30 for 30 (documentary) on USC-Texas in the (2006) Rose Bowl. Both Matt Leinart and Vince Young said they got in the NFL and realized it takes a lot of work to win. They said, 'We screwed up. We had all the money and were hanging with movie stars, and that became the focus instead of what it takes to be a good NFL quarterback.' "

Evaluating a quarterback's ability to see the field is critical. It's an area in which Winston and Mariota excel. Because Winston was in a pro-style offense, he was able to read coverage and get through more progressions of his receivers.

"Call it vision, the ability to see things," Casserly said. "When guys get open, does he see it and make the throw? Within that is the ability to read defenses, going through the progression from one to two to three. That's hard to evaluate in some college systems because guys are so wide open and others aren't asked to do it. If guys are open, throw it. It not, run."

Size and athleticism are important. But when the quarterback escapes the pocket, where are his eyes?

"Does he feel the rush or see the rush and take off when he shouldn't?" Casserly said. "The athletic guys that run have done it this way their whole lives. Some others get nervous and take off. What's his ability to move and make plays outside the pocket? Where are his eyes? Are they downfield?"

Leadership, accuracy, arm strength, toughness, intelligence, work ethic and maturity — the elite NFL quarterbacks have it.

"Guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, you can wake them out of the dead sleep, put a guy out there and tell him to run a dig route and they'll hit them right between the numbers," Olson said. "That's why they're in the playoffs every year. Everybody wants someone like that.

"But I think it's the evaluation process that's screwed up. Too many decision-makers aren't sure what they're looking for."

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