CLEVELAND -- Proceed with caution this month, when up to seven teams could use a quarterback and the NFL draft’s information cycle promises enough misdirection plays to make Chip Kelly jealous.
It’s the perfect time to absorb lessons gleaned nearly a year ago from one of the most divisive quarterback prospects in recent years (Teddy Bridgewater), and a team that passed on him (the Cleveland Browns).
The Browns used the No. 22 overall pick on Johnny Manziel, who recently returned to the team after 10 weeks in a rehab facility. The quarterback taken 10 picks later was an AP rookie of the year finalist after winning six of his first 12 starts.
Deeming one a failure and one the next Tom Brady is premature. Manziel has ability and he has seen only seven quarters of game action. And even Vince Young has a rookie of the year award.
But the vastly different early career arcs prompt a question Cleveland fans have been asking for some time now: Why didn’t the Browns just pick Bridgewater?
“At one point I thought that’s the way the wind was blowing,” said Shawn Watson, Bridgewater’s former offensive coordinator at Louisville.
“We knew Cleveland was a possibility,” said Abram Elam, a former NFL safety and personal adviser to Bridgewater.
“There was a chance,” Bridgewater told the "Dan Patrick Show" in January.
Cleveland spent many hours and resources scouting Bridgewater. In one particular case, an analytical study of quarterbacks, which cost the team $100,000, told the Browns to take Bridgewater.
To explore the complex nature of quarterback evaluations, where multimillion-dollar projections can go wrong as often as right, ESPN.com looked for clues as to why Bridgewater posted an 85.2 passer rating in a purple jersey instead of wearing orange.
Joe Banner’s ouster as Browns general manager in February complicated the Browns’ quarterback picture. The Browns let Banner start draft preparation, only to give then-assistant Ray Farmer the keys less than three months before draft night.
If Banner didn’t have his eyes on Bridgewater, he certainly had resources on him. Watson said the Browns probably spent more time scouting Louisville and his quarterback in person than any other team.
To be sure, the Browns are known to have a large personnel department, and the Cardinals' 12-1 team produced three first-round picks.
But Watson said the Browns saw a lot of Bridgewater in practices and games.
The private workout
Several factors affected Bridgewater’s stock, for better or worse. Many loved his winning pedigree (30-9 at Louisville), accuracy and top-shelf intangibles. But the slim build (6-foot-3, 196 pounds) and concerns about upside gave some teams pause. One high-level personnel evaluator consulted by ESPN.com ranked him first overall among quarterbacks; one NFL offensive coach ranked him fourth.
Fair or not, reports of a poor pro day and inconsistent private workouts affected perception to the point where former NFL personnel director Gil Brandt, who helps NFL media organize draft attendees, wondered whether his 14th-ranked overall player might not go Day 1. He told the Bridgewater family, as they decided whether to attend the draft in New York, the first round could be “nip and tuck,” though ultimately “somebody’s going to do it.”
“We have a lot of experts who don’t know what they’re looking for,” Brandt said. “We take a pro day and give it much higher standing than we should.”
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Bridgewater struggled in private workouts. If this was the case with his Browns workout, that could have swayed the team’s preference from Bridgewater to Manziel.
Elam has a different version. He attended Cleveland’s workout with Bridgewater in Fort Lauderdale, Floria.
“My communication with Ray [Farmer] then was not that,” said Elam, a former NFL safety. “I remember comments with Ray about some throws that he made. He was impressed, definitely impressed.”
Bridgewater answered any questions the Vikings had during his workout with them. “We had to clear up the things that were concerns [from] the pro day, and I think we did that real fast,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said.
The analytics study
This is the most curious element about Bridgewater and the Browns. Either the Browns spent good money on analytical research they ultimately ignored or this was an elaborate ruse to confuse opposing teams in the draft.
Cleveland spent approximately $100,000 for an analytical study examining every quarterback who has played in the NFL for the past 20 years, according a report by ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio. The results of the study deemed Bridgewater the 2014 quarterback prospect with the best chance at success.
The team has not made this study public. When asked about the study at Thursday’s news conference as the team preps for next week’s draft, Farmer said analytics are a consideration when evaluating prospects but declined comment on whether the study said Bridgewater was the top option.
The change of front-office dynamics possibly affected how much the study was used. In a recent ESPN project evaluating the use of analytics in professional sports, reporter Kevin Seifert wrote, “Farmer, while not a true believer in analytics, refers to himself as 'a nerd by trait' and a 'stats guy.'”
With analytics chief Ken Kovash on staff to assist coaches and evaluators, Farmer had Bridgewater-specific data easily accessible.
The Manziel decision
Skepticism has grown in several NFL circles about whether Farmer himself made the Manziel pick. A reporter asked Farmer in a January news conference, nearly eight months after the 2014 draft, whether owner Jimmy Haslam drove the decision to take Manziel.
Farmer took ownership of the selection, saying it was his. Former Browns general manager Phil Savage, now an ESPN analyst, said in a video attached to this story that he believes ownership had “a voice” in the Manziel pick.
You’ve probably heard the back story -- Manziel texted quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains that he wanted to “wreck this league” with him in Cleveland, Haslam saw the text and liked that Manziel wanted to be a Brown. Somewhere lost in the fog of Berea, a card was turned in with Manziel’s name on it.
A league source with knowledge of the Vikings’ draft plans, though, said Farmer very well could be right. Buzz grew in the final week of the draft that the Browns had set their sights on Manziel, despite months of Bridgewater speculation, the source said. The Vikings had figured by the last few days that “they had settled on Manziel,” the source said.
”Everyone kept picking [Bridgewater] apart without looking at the intangibles,” the source said about Bridgewater. “Sometimes you end up killing a guy.”
The differing opinions
Turns out Bridgewater wasn’t sold on the possibility of playing in Cleveland. Bridgewater told the "Dan Patrick Show" at the Super Bowl in January: “There was a chance, but I actually told my agent that’s not the place where I wanted to be. Throughout the entire process I felt comfortable with the Minnesota Vikings.” ESPN.com left messages for agent Kennard McGuire that were not answered.
Bridgewater knew not everyone in the Browns' organization wanted to draft him, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
Team evaluators do the legwork during the season, and the coaches get heavily involved in prospect work during the offseason.
Elam knew Bridgewater was one of several quarterbacks the Browns were evaluating, which is expected. The communication with the team was always open.
“I have a lot of respect for Ray, the way he did things,” Elam said. “We knew they needed a quarterback and there was a discussion that it was a possibility, but that was it.”
The late-first-round projection
Savage was set to attend a Louisville-Rutgers game on a Thursday night in October 2013 but had to cancel. Afterward, he discussed Bridgewater with a variety of NFL types who watched live -- scouts, execs and one general manager.
The results were unanimous. They all viewed Bridgewater as a late-first, early-second-round pick.
That designation had little to do with Bridgewater’s 310 yards and two touchdowns that night, Savage figured.
A different number prevailed: 196, his listed playing weight in college. The skinny frame, especially in the lower body, was a prevalent topic during the draft, but evaluators latched onto it quickly.
“There are certain guys in the league, maybe 50 to 60 percent, where if you don’t meet that sturdy-structure criteria, they don’t want to draft you,” Savage said. “Maybe that’s changed a little bit over the years but it’s still a prominent way of thinking.”
It’s possible the Browns viewed Bridgewater as exactly that -- a late-first rounder. Some national analysts had Bridgewater much higher. CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler ranked him No. 1 overall, over Jadeveon Clowney. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller praised Bridgewater during the draft process.
Manziel, of course, isn’t the prototypical size either. He’s listed at a generous 6-foot, 210 pounds.
Say what you will about Manziel, but the man can sell himself. He kept out of trouble during the pre-draft process, his pro day got positive marks, he scored a 32 on the Wonderlic test, and he can be very engaging in conversation, which helped him in team interviews. He has an above-average arm and entered the scene as Russell Wilson was elevating the profile of the shorter, shiftier quarterback.
The Vikings look smart taking Bridgewater, but remember the team was high on Manziel, too. ESPN’s Bob Holtzman reported during the draft that Manziel was the team’s highest-rated quarterback. At No. 32, Bridgewater was basically a value pick for Minnesota, under contract for up to five years instead of four-year deals for second-rounders.
“There was a lot to like [about Manziel],” the league source with knowledge of the Vikings’ plans said.
When asked whether the team would have traded up for Manziel had the Browns passed on him, the source said not likely.
Pettine told reporters after the first round Manziel had the “it factor at an extreme level,” describing him as ultra-passionate and ultra-competitive.
Brandt has a description for Bridgewater, too.
“He has intangibles,” Brandt said. “Intangibles win games.”
The high-ranking NFL personnel evaluator noted in his team scouting report that Bridgewater did not have the most upside but “he has what you want to lead a franchise,” is the most game-ready of the group, and is skilled at climbing the pocket and delivering with accuracy.
“Teddy has won at every level since high school. This kid is a winner!” the report stated. “Has an ability to overcome slow starts and finds a way to will his team to a victory. A guy with intangibles that you can’t ignore.”