If you’re a regular at recruiting websites, a few trends have become apparent in recent years.
There’s been a sudden surplus of 6’5'', 250-pound 17-year-olds capable of running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. The athleticism—especially near the pinnacle of these rankings—is consistently astounding but almost assumed at this point. Physical freaks are no longer a rarity, but we still marvel at their presence.
And while size and speed are at a premium with both defensive and offensive linemen now consuming most of the elite prospect levels, the blue-chip quarterback has seemingly disappeared. They exist, although not like they once did.
In the recruiting world, the most important position isn’t grabbing the 5-star, “can’t miss” headliners. In fact, despite being the position fans flock toward and schools market around, the same one which has come home with the Heisman in 11 of the past 12 years, scouting of the quarterback still remains an inexact science.
Recruiting and evaluating this position remains a struggle, same as it ever was. And with a new offensive era now pushing the way the game is played, the blue-chip quarterback has become endangered.
Blue-Chippers By the Numbers
Former USC quarterback Matt Barkley is most recently known for being the No. 1 pick in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft—after a well-documented tumble—but he was a more notable No. 1 in 2009.
Barkley was the No. 1 high school player according to 247Sports’ Composite Ranking, a magnificent tool that takes into account all the major recruiting outlets’ rankings. Since Barkley, however, there hasn’t been a quarterback rated No. 1 in any class. Taking it one step further, a QB hasn’t cracked the top 10 of the final composite rankings.
In recent years, scouting has improved immensely thanks in large part to a significant increase in staff and allocated resources. Yet, as scouting has boomed as an industry, the quarterbacks have taken a backseat to other positions: not necessarily in terms of need—which will never change—but rather presence near the top of the rankings.
In the past four recruiting classes, there have been seven “blue-chip” quarterbacks in the top 50 overall. By comparison, there were seven QBs in the top 50 in 2004 alone.
The trend is clear, especially when compared to an ascending position like defensive end. Whether this trend proves to be a blip on the radar or something more will be seen soon enough, but the change is real.
Is QB Play Changing, or are We?
To understand the current state of the blue-chip QB, one must first understand where this label comes from. For recruiting sites like 247Sports, ranking prospects boils down to both positional value and development.
If a 5-star player is a high pick in the NFL draft, even if he turns out to be an average NFL player, the scouts succeeded in their evaluation. This is more or less the development lifespan for a recruit, despite the possibility of incredible boom or bust at the next level.
“Our philosophy is a long-term projection,” said JC Shurburtt, a National College Football Recruiting Analyst at 247Sports. “Our point where we can say if a guy was a good or bad call is the NFL draft. We’re not projecting Pro Bowlers.”
Shurbutt has been in the recruiting industry for more than a decade, and he’s followed closely for much longer. In this time, the scouting process (and coverage) has changed drastically. The basic fundamentals have remained constant, but it’s grown at an exponential rate as the interest has increased and coverage has expanded. While the scouting has improved, one constant has remained.
Projecting quarterbacks is still incredibly difficult.
“The quarterback, next to offensive line, is the toughest to project,” Shurbutt said. “And lately there’s been a lot of bad QB play.”
In terms of importance and position value, nothing rivals that of the quarterback. Stability and skill at the position can turn a bad team into a good team and a good team into a juggernaut. That’s Football 101.
Yet, in a time when the NFL is absolutely jam-packed with talented, young QBs, the stream of talent at the high school level isn't setting the recruiting world on fire.
The batch of 6’5”, 245-pound defensive linemen capable of running that 4.5 have a more established track record of panning out. These are no-brainers for scouts, a much safer projection, and this type of size and speed translates at almost every level if a player is used appropriately in the right defensive scheme.
It’s not as simple as being really big, really fast and really strong, although it’s not far off, either.
Quarterbacks, of course, don’t have that luxury. An incredible arm or elite size and speed can only take you so far. These requirements and the formula for success continues to evolve, and the scouts opinions of these traits remain behind.
The Manziel-Mariota Effect
Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota have followed a similar path. Both are among the brightest young quarterbacks college football, and both were far from being a blue-chip quarterback. In fact, these two were seemingly skipped over by scouts.
Manziel was ranked the No. 393 player by the 247Sports’ Composite Ranking in the 2011 class. He was a 3-star talent who came in as the No. 63 player in the state of Texas. After one full season of play at A&M, it’s safe to say this projection was, well, off.
Even further down the list, Mariota was ranked No. 517 in the same recruiting class, and was the No. 19 dual-threat QB of the class. He was also just the No. 3 player in his home state of Hawaii, a state not necessarily known for its football talent.
Yes, 18 dual-threat quarterbacks ranked above him.
Given a taste of their unbelievable potential, just how did these two get overlooked?
For Manziel, it comes down to size and style. His high school recruiting tape resembles that of his college play: unpredictable, incredibly athletic, yet difficult to translate. This is the same conversation NFL scouts will be have throughout the 2014 season while trying to assess his potential at the next level.
For Mariota, his rankings tumble was all about exposure, or more specifically, a lack thereof. His playing style, which can mirror Manziel's in terms of creating something out of nothing, also likely contributed.
Playing in Hawaii, he didn’t have the same presence at recruiting camps as some of the others in his class. His style is also unique, albeit incredibly productive in Oregon’s up-tempo system.
He simply slipped through the cracks.
But Manziel and Mariota signify a change in offensive style, and their recruitment (or rather the lack of) will undoubtedly help change how the position is evaluated in the future.
The Future of the Blue-Chip QB
The blue-chip quarterback isn’t dead, nor will he be on life-support anytime soon.
Ohio State’s Braxton Miller was the No. 20 player on 247Sports in 2011; a ranking that has proved to be more than warranted. In 2012, Jameis Winston was ranked as the No. 26 player overall. Although the book is still out on what kind of college player Winston will become, his football future is bright.
But, at a time when the traditional “drop back” passer has company and more creative offenses are being used at all levels, scouting the most difficult position in all of sports has become that much more difficult.
Whether it’s the Pistol, up-tempo, option, or some sort of all-encompassing spread attack, these offenses are changing the way quarterback talent—especially those tasked with making them run—is evaluated. This is reflective in the scouting process, as defenses aren’t the only ones simply trying to keep up.
In addition, recent history has shown that the rank of a quarterback bears little correlation to his actual development. If anything, that 5-star label could serve as a detriment. It’s a marker you can’t run from, and if a quarterback doesn’t start as a freshman or a sophomore in college the assumption is that something has gone wrong.
Clearly this isn’t the case—at least not always—but the lack of quarterback talent at the top of the recruiting rankings identifies something that has been evident for some time.
Evaluating the position at every level remains a challenge, even for the brightest football minds, and the blueprint for the perfect QB is even harder to understand.
*Adam Kramer is the Lead Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.