Measuring the intangibles

AJ McCarron has a championship pedigree, but does he have an NFL arm? Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating quarterbacks demands more attention to detail than any other position in football. He is in charge; not only of the offense but also is seen as the leader of the entire team.

First, and foremost, a quarterback must have the physical tools to succeed at the next level. This includes his measureables, his accuracy, arm strength and his mobility, which is becoming more of necessity with the evolution of the game. In addition, intangibles have just as much value when evaluating quarterbacks. Leadership, intelligence, work ethic, character, resolve and competitiveness are a few of the traits that can be considered. There should be a strong balance between the two.

Seattle QB Russell Wilson is a perfect example of that balance.

I want to let you know, based off his excellent early returns as a rookie, I missed the boat on his evaluation. I projected him as a suitable back-up in the NFL. He was a player that lacked size, but Wilson had enough arm strength and athleticism to win a few ball games as a back-up.

Where I undervalued Wilson was in the intangibles area. What he lacked in measureables, Wilson made up for it with leadership, work ethic and a competitive edge. Scouts and coaches will often call a player like Wilson a gamer.

Evaluating quarterbacks can seem to be more a crap shoot than an exact science. For every sure-fire prospect such as Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck there are dozens of disappointments such as Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell. However, if teams are not only able to do a solid job of evaluating tape but also being thorough with their background and character checks, they can reduce the percentage of a quarterbacks who are busts.

The recent quarterback situation in Oakland is a strong testament to the uncertainty that exists when projecting quarterbacks to the next level. On Sunday, the Raiders cut Tyler Wilson -- a fourth-round selection this past April out of Arkansas -- and kept rookie free agent Matt McGloin from Penn State as their third-string QB. Reports were McGloin out played Wilson throughout much of preseason.

There were mixed opinions about Wilson during last year's evaluation process. As a senior in 2012, his play dipped from his junior year as the Razorbacks, at 4-8, were one of the bigger disappointments. There were variables for Wilson, such as a change of head coach as well as being nicked up with injuries throughout the year.

Some of Tyler Wilson’s strengths on tape were touch as a passer and toughness to hang inside of the pocket while dealing with pressure. However, he has just average arm strength. He struggled to push the ball down field and often had his ball tail off at the end of throws. Wilson’s decision making also took a step back as a senior and some scouts expressed concerns that leading did not always come natural to him.

Wilson was part of the '13 QB class that was not as strong as in recent years. In fact, we did not have a single quarterback that carried a first round grade last year. A lot still needs to play out to determine how much success the '13 class will have at the NFL level, but Wilson -- our fourth overall QB from the group -- getting cut after just one preseason isn’t a promising start.

The 2014 quarterback group appears to be loaded with more talent and depth with players such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and UCLA’s Brett Hundley headlining the group. Both were able to get off to strong starts this past weekend this. Other QBs in the class of '14 didn’t have as much success.

I hit the road this past Thursday to watch North Carolina-South Carolina in Columbia before heading to Atlanta to take in the reigning national champion Alabama Crimson Tide clash with Virginia Tech. In the process I was also able to get a close look at four senior quarterback prospects which included three QBs out of our top ten from the group. Below is abbreviated version of some of my thoughts on each one.

AJ McCarron, Alabama 6-3⅜ 204

At the field level during warm ups, the first thing I noticed was McCarron appeared thicker -- especially near the shoulders. He looks to have added five-to-10 pounds from last year. He had a strong command -- which comes as no surprise as he is a third-year starter with two national championships under his belt.

McCarron has an adequate skill set and average arm strength. I was impressed with his field presence and for the most part he made sound decisions. One thing that did stand out was his poise in the pocket. The Crimson Tide broke in three new starters along the offensive line and as a unit did not play well, including OT Cyrus Kouandjio who was a bit underwhelming. McCarron faced a lot of pressure from a tough Hokies front seven and maneuvered around the pocket well while breaking contain and finding receivers downfield to move the chains on a few occasions.

I have two concerns about McCarron after the first weekend. First, his lack of arm strength with his downfield field throws. Also, can he continue to improve his anticipation as a passer. He really labors when having to push the ball downfield which can affect his projection and accuracy.

Second, he was late getting the ball out on a few throws which allowed defenders extra time to recover as Virginia Tech DC Kyle Fuller’s broke up the passes.

Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech 6-5⅝ 256

Unlike McCarron, Thomas appeared to have shed 15-to-20 pounds during the offseason. He’s lean and looks to be in excellent shape. From a physical standpoint he has an ideal frame and carried a big presence during warm ups.

Unfortunately that presence didn’t carry over to the game. Thomas turned in an ugly stat line completing just 5 of 26 attempts (19 percent) for 59 yards and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Those stats were a bit misleading though. I counted at least seven drops from the Hokies receivers on throws that should have been caught. And while I was unable to see a clear replay from the press box, it appeared there was a mis-communication between Thomas and his receiver on the interception.

Thomas is still very raw and has a lot of work to do to ever maximize his skill set. In particular, his footwork is extremely inconsistent, especially when forced to move off the spot from pressure. Often he fails to maintain balance which can affect his accuracy. He also is still developing in terms of overall touch and will press and force the ball into coverage too often.

There will be several variables that will need to be taken into account when evaluating Thomas. First, Thomas has a lack of playmakers at his disposal was an issue last year and appears still be an issue this year. There were several throws where Thomas gave his targets a chance to go get the ball and they failed to convert. Virginia Tech has not had the talent at the skill position since 2011 when guys like RB David Wilson and reliable WR Danny Coale helped play a big role in Thomas’ success in his first year as starter.

In talking with multiple scouts at the game, there was nearly a unanimous opinion that Thomas has a superior physical skill set and is more appealing from a developmental standpoint than McCarron projecting to the next level.

Thomas’ tools and upside are evident. He is built for the NFL level with a bombs-away arm. That was on display with a throw in the early part of the fourth quarter where threw the ball nearly 70 yards down the field from the opposite hash. While arm strength can be a bit overrated, the ability to stretch the field vertically coupled with Thomas' size and mobility combination will be very appealing to scouts -- and particularly coaches -- at the next level.

Bryn Renner, North Carolina, 6-2¼ 219

Renner was a bit underwhelming last Thursday. From a physical standpoint he had a bigger frame than I anticipated and the ball came off his hand clean. However, his arm strength is a notch below McCarron’s and he struggled to get adequate zip on throws from the opposite hash. Renner also lacks ideal athleticism and had trouble evading pressure from the Gamecocks’ front seven throughout the night.

Most important, Renner failed to show the ability to put the team on his back when they desperately needed a spark in a hostile environment on the road. He had several occasions to cash in on a few throws at crucial moments and failed to deliver because of late decisions and/or poor accuracy.

Renner appears to be a developmental prospect at this point and holds a day three grade.

Connor Shaw, South Carolina, 6-1¼ 209

Shaw turned in an efficient performance, completing 11 of 20 attempts for 149 yards and one touchdown while adding 43 yards rushing. There is a lot to like about his toughness and competitive fire as a player. Shaw doesn’t have ideal size and, while he has adequate arm strength, he still lacks natural touch and accuracy as a thrower. In particular, Shaw’s issues as a passer can be magnified when dealing with a muddied pocket. He dealt with very little pressure throughout the night and to his credit, he was able to deliver accurate throws when having a clean pocket.

Shaw is a fringe late-round prospect that will have his chance to improve his stock against more talented defenses as South Carolina gets into their conference schedule, which starts this Saturday against Georgia on the road in Athens.