The past few weeks I've had several conversations with scouts and one NFL offensive coach with a strong background dealing with and evaluating quarterbacks. During those talks, several interesting points came up that have helped me put my finger on the pulse of the 2013 quarterback class at this point.
The biggest takeaway is that with the lack of a clear-cut No. 1 prospect in this year's class, it becomes necessary to break the group into three distinct categories based on scheme fits: read/progression (West Coast) passers, dual-threat QBs, and pure pocket passers. It's similar to how the tight end position is broken down with the traditional "Y" or "Joker" tight ends, who are undersized pass-catching types. Teams that need help at quarterback must do a thorough job of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each prospect.
This wasn't the case last year, where at the top Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were a cut above all other quarterback prospects and could have acclimated to any style of offense. More so than any recent year, this group will be ranked differently from team to team, based in large part on whether they have the skill set to fit each team's offensive system.
So where do the 2013 prospects fit? Here's a look.
Quarterbacks who fit into these schemes -- whether true West Coast offenses or those that incorporate similar principles -- are able to get through their reads quickly, show proper footwork, get the ball out on time and in rhythm, and must be accurate. Among this year's prospects, USC's Matt Barkley (Scouts Inc. grade: 87) is atop the list.
Barkley didn't get much help from his offensive line in 2012, and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against UCLA that eventually required surgery. He is also limited athletically and lacks elite physical tools, but you could argue his experience in the Trojans' pro-style system makes him the most NFL-ready passer in this year's class. His film shows a quarterback who sees the entire field, can get deep into his progressions and throws with rhythm.
Tyler Wilson (Scouts Inc. grade: 88) of Arkansas also fits in this category, though he faces more questions than Barkley and is something of a wild card in the class. There's no denying Wilson's toughness and leadership, though you have to wonder how high his ceiling is.
He flashes the capability to deliver a strike with touch and trajectory working the middle of the field. Wilson also shows the ability to change his release point and deliver an accurate throw when he's on an uneven platform. However, his overall accuracy is spotty at times and his decisions with ball can be erratic. Some view Wilson as an NFL backup type, who doesn't have all the tools to be a starter but could hold down the fort and win a few games if the starter goes down.
Ryan Nassib (Scouts Inc. grade: 85) is in the mix here, but I'm not as high on him as some others. Tutored at Syracuse by new Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Nassib has vastly improved over the course of his career and has shown the ability to transfer and apply that coaching to the field. However, there are questions whether he has maxed out his potential.
Nassib is tough enough to hang in the pocket and deliver a throw while taking a hit, but his lack of natural touch is glaring on tape. His release is not fluid either, and the fact that he doesn't change launch points well can affect his accuracy when he's forced to throw off balance. There are also concerns about his ability to handle an attacking style of defense. These issues popped up on the Rutgers tape -- arguably his worst tape of the 2012 season -- where the Scarlet Knights were relentless bringing pressure and rattled Nassib into some errant throws, decisions and turnovers throughout the contest.
Finally, keep an eye on Tulane's Ryan Griffin (Scouts Inc. grade: 30), who had a strong week at the Texas vs. Nation all-star game and is creating some buzz late in the scouting process. Griffin doesn't have great athleticism and lacks ideal arm strength, but he's tough and throws with anticipation and touch.
He played in a college system similar to the one run by the New Orleans Saints, and Griffin is able to get through his reads and find throwing lanes on tape. He plays with an edge, and could find a landing spot somewhere in the Day 3 range.
West Virginia's Geno Smith (Scouts Inc. grade: 90) is in the top spot here, with his athletic ability making him a fit for schemes such as those run by the Washington Redskins and (presumably) the Philadelphia Eagles. These systems use the quarterback's athleticism to execute zone-read plays while also having the ability to get outside the pocket and throw on the run.
I don't put much stock in the rumors about Smith's struggles in terms of X's and Os on the white board, because his tape shows a player with a strong grasp of the game. He can get deep into progressions and become deadly accurate when catching a rhythm. Make no mistake, Smith can thrive in a read/progression offense, and has always been a pocket passer first throughout his career. His inclusion in this group is because of a lack of other top-shelf prospects who fit the mold.
Florida State's E.J. Manuel (Scouts Inc. grade: 81) has the size and athleticism teams look for in a dual threat and showed well during Senior Bowl week. When you throw in his leadership and charisma, it's easy to see why some scouts could fall in love with him. However, the pre-draft process can be dangerous at times and this is why I believe in trusting the film more than anything else to prevent mistakes. For me, Manuel's tape is simply too inconsistent.
He certainly has upside given his physical tools (6-4⅝, 237 pounds) and athleticism, but there are concerns about his natural accuracy. I should note that Manuel completed 68 percent of his passes in 2012, but on tape he missed too many easy throws and often forced his receivers to adjust to balls.
My biggest question about Manuel is his poise when the pressure is on. I was at the NC State contest where he struggled in the second half in a high-pressure situation and his Florida game tape also revealed issues in that department. Manuel did not always sit in the pocket and was often too quick to pull his eyes down when starting to feel pressure closing in. NFL personnel I have talked to also have expressed concerns about his ability to see the entire field and get deep into his progressions while taking too long to get into the flow of a game, often needing the first quarter to get acclimated.
Manuel is creating buzz after his Senior Bowl showing and a strong NFL combine. In particular, Philadelphia, whose type of system gives him the best shot at succeeding, has been the common suggestion for Manuel's landing spot in the early second round. In my opinion, his on-field performance doesn't live up to his physical skills, and he has the look of a fringe Day 2 prospect who is a backup type at the next level.
Offenses like those run by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the new coaching staff for the Arizona Cardinals value big, strong quarterbacks with the ability to drive the ball down the field, and Tennessee's Tyler Bray (Scouts Inc. grade: 78) leads that group in terms of physical talent.
The problem is, while Bray has a prototypical build and has arguably the most arm talent of the entire class, there are also significant concerns about his maturity and discipline both on and off the field. Those red flags put him somewhere in the third-round range at this point.
That means NC State's Mike Glennon (Scouts Inc. grade: 80) or Oklahoma's Landry Jones (Scouts Inc. grade: 84) should be the first pocket passers in play, perhaps late in the second or early third round. Glennon isn't a great athlete, but he has more foot speed and pocket mobility than you might think on tape, and he keeps his eyes downfield when dealing with pass-rushers in the pocket.
He also is an easy thrower of the football and has one of the best deep balls in the class. Glennon was hurt some in 2012 by an overall lack of talent in terms of perimeter receivers, and his receiving corps dropped a gross amount of catchable passes throughout his film study.
Still, scouts want to see more of a competitive edge from Glennon. He doesn't show the fiery demeanor you like to see from your quarterback. Finally, Glennon needs to develop a better short-term memory loss. He tends to let early mistakes stick with him which can have a snowball-type effect throughout games.
As for Jones, he can be a marksman when provided a clean pocket with room to set his feet and throw. However, it is hard to ignore his struggles against pressure the past two seasons. Jones' tendency to panic when under fire has led to poor decisions and untimely turnovers.
It is also interesting to note a few scouts I've talked to have mentioned that Jones has better feet and mobility than most people suggest. Some feel if you can cater to Jones' strengths by keeping an extra blocker in on protection or get the ball out of his hand quickly -- which is similar to New England's system -- he has the cerebral capacity, anticipation and natural accuracy to succeed at the next level.
It will be interesting to see how the quarterback board plays out on draft weekend.
Some NFL personnel I've spoken to see Barkley as the best quarterback in the class right now, but his ceiling might not be as high as some others. There are also teams that put Smith atop the overall group because of his skill set and athleticism, and I've heard at least one team out there has Manuel atop the class.
The lack of a clear top prospect, and all the recent quarterback shuffling in the NFL during free agency, makes for an unpredictable board, so stay tuned over the next two-plus weeks to see how it all plays out.