Friday, January 7, 2011

Who the Vikes Should Draft

With both the year 2010 and the 2010 NFL regular season behind us now, us Vikings fans can spend the next eight months trying to recover from one of the worst football years in my memory. First, we all had to sit through the agony that was January 24, 2010. Then we watched the Vikings on Sportscenter basically every single day from April until August... so naturally after being over-hyped they finished a lousy 6-10. And the team couldn't even suck the right way, as they improbably upset the Eagles two weeks ago and moved down from what would have been a guaranteed top 6 pick to the #12 pick in the draft.

The team needs a franchise quarterback. There's no doubting that, and the most likely way to find that player is via the draft. Stanford QB Andrew Luck was considered the consensus #1 prospect in the draft, and the Panthers were undoubtedly going to make him the #1 draft choice in April. Except Luck announced yesterday that he was going to return to Stanford. Him returning is worthy of a post all on its own, but my immediate reaction was shock. Luck's return leaves at least four interesting quarterback prospects that the Vikings will need to look at; Cam Newton from Auburn, Blaine Gabbert from Missouri, Ryan Mallett from Arkansas and Jake Locker from Washington. 

Now, the Vikings won't have their choice of any of those four. There are several teams drafting ahead of the Vikings that also need to find a franchise QB. With Luck no longer in the draft, I don't expect Carolina to draft a quarterback. I think no matter who the new coach is he will now give Jimmy Clausen another look. By my count, there are only three teams between the second pick and the twelfth pick that seem to clearly NOT need a quarterback. Denver, with Tim Tebow,  the Cowboys with Tony Romo, and the Texans with Matt Schaub. The Browns likely think they've found their answer in Colt McCoy as well, but with Eric Mangini getting the boot, it's impossible to know what a new staff will decide to do. Buffalo hopefully will give Ryan Fitzpatrick another year to show what he can do, and many people connected to the game think the Bengals will be too cheap to draft another top 5 quarterback and will instead just keep the quarterback formerly known as Carson Palmer for another year.

That would leave the following teams in need of a QB: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and our Vikings.

Arizona and San Francisco I think are virtual locks to each draft a quarterback. Blaine Gabbert's skills are better suited for the Cardinals offense than Cam Newton's are in my opinion, so I think when it's all said and done Gabbert will go 5th overall to the Cardinals. That seems high for Gabbert, but he always seemed better than people gave him credit for and now ESPN has Gabbert also predicted 5th overall to Arizona. Obviously the pro day workouts and the combine will have a huge effect on which quarterbacks go where, but for now Gabbert seems like a solid choice for a Cardinals team who needs some stability at the quarterback position.

If Gabbert does indeed go ahead of Cam Newton, I think the 49ers will jump all over Newton at #7. I've gone back and forth on Newton being the answer for the Vikings, but he's been very impressive this season at Auburn and I would love for the Vikings to end up with him. However, beating the Eagles likely cost them a chance at the Heisman winner, and without a third round pick they don't have a lot of ammunition to move up in the draft.

I think Jeff Fisher and the Titans will go out and acquire Kyle Orton from the Broncos, because he's unlikely to want to spend another top 10 pick on a quarterback unless he really likes them after the whole Vince Young fiasco.

That would leave the Redskins, picking at #10, as the only team ahead of the Vikings with a need at quarterback. It's certainly possible that the Shanahan's actually do like Rex Grossman, and they decide to draft a mid-round quarterback to groom behind Grossman for a few years. But, since it's Rex Grossman we're talking about, I'm guessing that they will be looking to draft a potential difference maker to run the offense. Remember, Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler 11th overall because he fell in love with his arm strength when he already had a pretty good Jake Plummer leading the team. Mallett has an absolute cannon. But the consensus among draft 'experts' is that Washington is in dire need of a play-making receiver so look (and hope) for them to choose between Justin Blackmon or Julio Jones.

If Washington does indeed draft a receiver, the Vikings will need to determine if they think Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker is the answer at quarterback. If the team doesn't like either player, which they will determine well before the draft, then they need to make a move to get Kyle Orton. However, I'd prefer the team drafts a potential franchise quarterback. 

To me, Mallett is much much better than Locker. Locker has been one of the strangest draft prospects I can remember. He's long been considered a future top 5 pick, because of his football IQ and athleticism, but after last season Locker asked the draft advisory committee, who tells players where they would be likely to be drafted if they left school early, where he would be drafted. They advised Locker that he wasn't going to be a first round pick and he would be better off to stay in school. That was surprising to several experts because most people felt Locker would be a mid-first round pick at worst even if based solely on potential. Locker is again projected anywhere from seventh overall to the end of the first round, but with his athleticism it seems likely he will find a team somewhere in the middle of the first round who falls in love with him after watching him workout. Locker also completed just 55.4% of his passes this season, and then went 5-16, good for a 31% completion rate, in the bowl game against Nebraska.

Some have argued that Locker's completion percentage is due to a lack of any kind of talent at the receiver position. Except Washington was only about middle of the pack in dropped passes, and even if they had tied for fewest drops in the league, Locker's completion percentage would have only gone up to 57.8%. Poor receivers or not, a potential franchise QB will almost always complete 60% of his passes in college. I would be very surprised if Jake Locker is the exception.

Ryan Mallett on the other hand has had a very, very good statistical season for Arkanas. Mallett finished 14th in the country in completion percentage (66.5%) but 3rd in the country in yards per attempt (9.8), which makes his completion percentage that much more impressive. He has probably the strongest arm of any quarterback in the draft, so the completion percentage is very important because it suggests along with having superb arm strength he also has the accuracy that so many draft busts seem to lack. Mallett finished third in the country in quarterback rating, behind Heisman winner Cam Newton and Boise State's Kellen Moore. Moore doesn't do anything for me as an NFL prospect, though, because he played a very weak schedule and he seems to lack even the average arm strength that a franchise quarterback must possess. 

Mallett has been called a head case, and because of his natural ability, he's been compared by some to Jeff George. That comparison isn't necessarily a bad one, but George seems like an extreme example of a head case. I think Mallett is unlikely to be as crazy as Jeff George was over his career, and I feel pretty safe making the prediction. 

Here are several players college stats from their final collegiate year (completions/attempts, Yards, TDs, INTs, Season Strength of Schedule*):
Player A: 209/316, 2,566 yards, 24 TD, 8 INT, SOS: 56
Player B: 266/411, 3,869 yards, 32 TD, 12 INT, SOS: 14
Player C: 287/477, 3,819 yards, 37 TD, 11 INT, SOS: 2
Player D: 227/410, 3,968 yards, 34 TD, 11 INT, SOS: 37
Player E: 388/654, 4,507 yards, 31 TD, 19 INT, SOS: 44
Player F: 184/332, 2,265 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT, SOS: 2

*The season strength of schedule is just to compare how tough the players competition was in that season. The numbers aren't great when compared with other years, since it's obviously possible the talent level during the 2004 season was better than the talent in a different year, or vice versa. But ultimately it's probably not a huge difference talent wise from year to year so I will compare the numbers anyways.

Looking just at those numbers, whether you can guess who the six are or not, it seems pretty clear that Player C is the most impressive, despite completing just slightly over 60% of his passes. A TD:INT ratio of 3:1 is very good, and his was even above that, but considering Player C threw more passes than anyone besides player E his ratio is that much more impressive. Also the fact that he played a difficult schedule that year may help explain the slightly low completion percentage. Who would you guess player C is? It's Peyton Manning.

Based strictly on TD:INT ratio, Player D would appear to be the next choice. He threw for more yards in less attempts, which also explains why he threw less touchdowns. There is a red flag in Player D's numbers, though, and it's the completion percentage. It falls in at 55.4%. No, player D is not Jake Locker. It's Ryan Leaf. The biggest bust in NFL history. His low completion percentage at the time was shrugged at, with many experts suggesting that his completion percentage was low because his yards per attempt were higher than most quarterbacks. Leaf's yards per attempt that year were a very good 9.7. Mallett's was 9.41 this year. Both have what is considered very rare arm strength. Mallett completed almost 65% of his passes, though, so the accuracy that Leaf seemed to lack even in college doesn't look to be an issue for Mallett.

Player A had a great completion percentage (66.1%), and a 3:1 TD:INT ratio, but his lack of attempts seemed to scare off some teams in the draft. Player A is Aaron Rodgers. Maybe he was a bit raw and sitting for a few years behind Brett Favre allowed Rodgers to learn what he needed to because he didn't throw enough in college. But in my opinion Rodgers would have been really good eventually whether he had started immediately or waited like he did. However, he likely wouldn't have been good immediately.

Player E threw the ball a ton, more than Rodgers and Player F combined actually, which is why his interception total looks so high. However, 19 INTs in 654 attempts works out to about 1 interception every 34 attempts, which just isn't all that high. His high number of throws suggests that his coach had a ton of confidence in him, though, and unlike Rodgers his numbers would suggest the immediate impact that is sought after by every general manager. Player E is Matt Ryan.

Player F has a ton of red flags when compared with these other players. His lack of attempts, like Rodgers, suggests a larger learning curve will be needed for him to adjust to the speed of the game. His low number of attempts coupled with his poor completion percentage (55.4%) are worrisome, and the fact that his yards per attempt were just 6.82, almost three yards worse than Ryan Leaf's, means his accuracy problems are likely going to be with him his whole career. Player F is obviously Jake Locker.

Locker does have some things going for him, though. He played the second toughest schedule in the country, so it's possible he's seen some NFL schemes from some of the elite college defenses this season. He's incredibly fast, and some expect him to clock in as high as 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. However, his very poor completion percentage coupled with a very weak yards per attempt seem to suggest Locker will be below average during his time in the league, and for that reason I hope the Vikings avoid him.

That leaves Player B, who is Ryan Mallett. Mallett's attempts, yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and interceptions are all very very similar to Ryan Leaf's. Of course, as mentioned above, the major difference is in the players completion percentage. Mallett threw just one more pass than Leaf, yet completed 39 more passes. Mallett's completion percentage is the second highest of these players mentioned, behind only Aaron Rodgers.

I'm hoping that Mallett is able to slide to #12 somehow to allow the Vikings to rebuild their team around someone I think will be a fantastic professional quarterback. Even if the team needs to move ahead of the Redskins just to be sure they get the man they want, it needs to be done. Ryan Mallett is the answer, now it's just up to the Vikings organization to make it happen.

UPDATE: Mallet's likely going to go later than 12, so the Vikings need to correctly gauge where he goes. Either take him in the 2nd round if he'll be there, or trade down from 12 and pick up another pick.


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