March 14, 2011
The declarations and whims of NFL draft scouts are an ancient mystery to college football fans, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. How, exactly, did a brainy overachiever who racked up big stats against a succession of second-rate Mountain West defenses ever get to be the No. 1 overall pick? Why did ESPN's leading gurus once consider athletic but under-productive Washington QB Jake Locker to be "etched in stone" as the No. 1 pick, at the same time they considered the hyper-productive Tim Tebow to be a celebrated fullback? Why, after hyping Locker's talent following his junior season, did the scouts abruptly jump off the bandwagon en masse after his virtually identical senior season? Why was it so hard for a guy who threw more touchdown passes than anyone in the history of college football to even get a workout? Obviously, the transition to the next level is an … inexact science, at best, even for the professionals.
The hot name as this year's pre-draft hype hits the stretch run will send college fans back to that place of confusion. Just how well do you know Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert? If you don't — and unless you're a Big 12 fan, you almost certainly don't — you will. A solid effort at the combine moved Gabbert into the top spot on Mel Kiper Jr's draft board last week, quickly followed by an endorsement from Kiper's ESPN colleague, Adam Schefter. Scores of mock drafts followed suit in short order. If it's hardly unanimous, the general consensus is falling quickly in his favor.
It's not hard to see what intrigues teams physically. Gabbert still has the ideal size (6-5, 235 pounds), big arm, quick release and non-monosyllabic demeanor that made him the most coveted pocket passer in the nation in the 2008 recruiting class. He looks like a No. 1 draft pick. Productivity-wise, it's a little dicier. If Gabbert does go in the top spot, it will be with arguably the thinnest resumé of any No. 1 pick in the era of draft-as-made-for-TV-spectacle, spanning the last two decades.
He generated no Heisman buzz, didn't get a sniff from the postseason All-America teams, doesn't own a single school passing record. Big 12 coaches thought he was no better than the third-best quarterback in the conference last year, behind at least Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Baylor's Robert Griffin. He didn't stretch defenses downfield to any notable degree. Statistically, he ranked seventh among regular Big 12 starters in completion percentage, eighth in yards per attempt, eighth in touchdown:interception ratio and eighth in pass efficiency rating, the most important number in the game aside from the scoreboard. (Gabbert's efficiency rating was 64th nationally. Compare that to the other certain top-10 quarterback in this draft class, Cam Newton, who finished second nationally with one of the most efficient seasons in college history, besides emerging as one of the nation's most unstoppable runners and best fourth-quarter rally-maker.)
Speaking of the scoreboard, Missouri ranked eighth in the conference in scoring offense last year after ranking sixth with Gabbert pulling the trigger in 2009, and made it to 10 wins largely by virtue of the league's No. 1 scoring defense. The Tigers were basically out of contention for a Big 12 title or BCS bid by early November, and out of the top 15 in the final polls after an Insight Bowl loss to Iowa — a game they led until the Hawkeyes took an awful Gabbert interception to the house for the game-winning touchdown with five minutes to play. Mizzou fans will follow his pro career with pride, but it's hard to imagine them ever revering Gabbert's memory as a Tiger the way they do either of his predecessors, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith — two far more exciting, productive players, and in Daniel's case, the face of the greatest season in school history in 2007. (And it was later still, in his less celebrated senior campaign in 2008, that Daniel actually set all of Missouri's single-season passing records.)
Yet Smith, the scrambler, has had to make his living as a jack-of-all-trades receiver and kick returner with the Jets; and Daniel, owner of a vastly more productive career in the same spread offense that spawned Gabbert, wasn't drafted at all. (He's currently backing up another overlooked, 6-foot-nothing Texan, Drew Brees, in New Orleans, which is better than a lot of other names on the endless list of celebrated college passers who have immediately fallen off the face of the earth at the next level.) Gabbert going higher, even much higher, is predictable due to his size — looking the part, after all, is at least half of being the part. But how did he get all the way to No. 1? Are five inches and a few impressive workouts worth that much of a difference? Was his supporting cast, featuring an All-Big 12 receiver (T.J. Moe) and a Mackey Award finalist as the best tight end in the nation (Michael Egnew), that inferior?
Obviously, a good portion of the NFL is willing to bet that yes, actually, it does. They're the professionals here, so by all means, defer to their judgment over a blogger with a lot of statistics. (As with recruiting rankings, scouts are generally better at predicting the future than they get credit for.) If they're right, though, Missouri fans will have to occasionally whisper among themselves: Why didn't we get more out of this phenomenal talent when we had the chance?
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.