Teddy Bridgewater's rising NFL stock

Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater threw for 3,718 yards and 27 TDs in 2012. David Butler II/US Presswire

An argument could be made that the most talked-about prospect of the 2013 draft season has been South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney -- even if the defensive end isn't, you know, eligible until 2014.

Lost, however, in the what-if-he-were-in-this-class chatter is Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The draft people I have spoken with all effusively praise the rising junior, saying he will enter the 2013 college season as their No. 1 quarterback.

And, yes, he would likely be the No. 1 QB taken later this month if he were eligible.

"Part of it is the quarterback class. Anyone can see that," one draft analyst told me, echoing the general shrug that Geno Smith and Matt Barkley are receiving relative to QBs in the past few drafts. "But don't take anything away from him. The kid can play."

That much seemed evident when Louisville plucked Bridgewater from Miami (Fla.) Northwestern High School on signing day 2011, beating out Florida, LSU and the hometown school, which had Bridgewater gift-wrapped until it canned Randy Shannon.

And that much became clear this past season, when Bridgewater greatly matured on a team that ascended to close with a BCS bowl victory against Florida, a high-water mark for Bridgewater, as a Floridian, and Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, a former Gators assistant.

Even for a lauded high school recruit, there is still a bridge from ESPN 150 to future NFL star. There are dots to be connected. I was curious about Bridgewater's development and the next steps, so last week I reached out to Cardinals offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.

Watson's first season was Bridgewater's first season. He said he inherited a natural talent who was unafraid to work and be coached, a player who has come a long way since his first pass -- which was an interception.

There were 12 picks in all that first season, Bridgewater's freshman year, as he learned the position and college ball. But the second season provided precisely the type of growth that Watson had hoped would ensue.

Bridgewater went from throwing an interception every 24.7 passes to one every 52.4 throws, his TD-to-INT ratio going from 14-to-12 to 27-to-8. Suddenly, the word efficiency was something that became synonymous with Bridgewater's play.

In his nonconference games against two SEC opponents (Kentucky and Florida) and future ACC rival North Carolina, Bridgewater completed 62 of 81 passes for 777 yards, with five touchdowns and one pick.

Bridgewater spiked statistically in virtually every measurable way, matching the sport's elite players. In terms of stats, he ranked eighth in yards per attempt and QB rating.

I asked Watson what stats he values most in his quarterbacks, and he said the staff specifically measures pressure situations that include third- and fourth-down throws, passes in the final two minutes, passes versus blitzes, scrambling throws, fourth-quarter throws and passes when the team is trailing.

Drop those numbers in a blender, and here are Bridgewater's results: a 160.0 QB rating, 13 yards per completion and a 70.4 completion percentage.

"There's not one normal throw in there," Watson said. "The game for him has become slow. It's pickup basketball at the Y."

And Bridgewater has shown he will not wilt whenever the burden is placed heavily on him. When Louisville fell behind big early at Syracuse, he had to throw more than the game plan initially dictated. Bridgewater finished the game, a 45-26 loss, going 36 of 49 (73.5 percent) for 424 yards with three scores and an interception.

"In critical situations, he's been at his best," Watson said. "He's at his best when we need him to be at his best. It really has become one of those things where if he is successful, we're successful."

As ESPN analyst Chris Spielman told Watson before the bowl game, it is not as if the Louisville offense is a West Coast system focused on short throws featuring dinks and dunks. There is a blossoming vertical element, aided by the improvement of junior wide receiver DeVante Parker.

Last season, Parker averaged 18.6 yards a catch and became the deep threat. The vertical throw is not one that Bridgewater arrived on campus with, Watson said. He developed the touch and timing, eventually unlocking his uncanny ability to make the throw.

Deep, underneath and everything in between, Watson said the next step for the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Bridgewater is an even heightened level of consistency. If he is completing 7-of-10 passes in a drill, Watson is now asking for 10-of-10.

"We chase perfection," said Watson, sounding as if he were reading one of those inspirational posters.

You know the ones. "Integrity." "Perseverance." "Perfection."

"Along the way," he said, "we catch excellence."

Let's be honest about one thing: Louisville's schedule is set up to make Bridgewater look really good in his third season. It's the school's final year before moving to the ACC, and an already watered-down slate gets another bucket dumped on it with Pitt and Syracuse jumping to the new conference.

It's frankly a challenge to find the most difficult games on the schedule. At Kentucky? Rutgers or Houston (which both feature second-year coaches)? South Florida or Cincinnati (with first-year coaches)? If there are any more than one or two games against Top 25 teams, it would be rather surprising.

The Cardinals could slip along the way, just like Syracuse and UConn did a year ago, but 12-0 is a fair expectation both externally and internally after the way 2012 concluded.

So while Bridgewater could pile up incredible numbers and receive Heisman attention, scouts recognize that how he fares at the combine and in personal workouts could dictate where he lands as much as a strong junior year. On-field results never hurt, of course.

One coach I talked to this spring said he would be "shocked" if Bridgewater were not at least a Heisman finalist.

"He got better last year," the coach said. "He's going to get better this year."

Bridgewater still has one season left in the college game. There is more development to do, but Watson said he knows he is coaching a future pro.

"No doubt," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that's what he is. Conceptually, he understands the game of football. He gets it.

"You don't run across guys like him in your career very often."