Trio of QBs have head start on 2015

If there was one lingering impression of the quarterbacks selected in this year's draft, it was the way each one reacted to the news that he'd finally been taken by his respective team. Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, taken third, leapt from his seat, shook a couple of hands and then charged out of the green room as if a 24-second shot clock were driving him toward the embrace of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Johnny Manziel swaggered onto the stage after hearing the Cleveland Browns took him with the 22nd selection, his fingers rubbing together to indicate the money sign that has become his trademark. Then there was Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater. The last pick of the first round -- after the Vikings engineered a trade with Seattle -- he calmly exhaled and hugged his loved ones, clearly feeling blessed not to spend another day waiting to realize his dream.

Those reactions were revealing because each one of those men learned a valuable lesson about the process of becoming a franchise quarterback. All of them were loved at one point. They also heard endless questions about what they couldn't do. Finally, they knew how it felt to sit offstage at Radio City Music Hall and wonder whether they had done enough to sell teams on their potential. They were flawed young men in the end, all hoping their shortcomings wouldn't overshadow their strengths.

The quarterbacks who might enter next year's draft would be wise to remember that as they embark on what likely will be their final college seasons. There already is a select trio that has generated substantial buzz: Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Florida State's Jameis Winston and UCLA's Brett Hundley. And the biggest question is one this year's first-round picks just faced: Who's going to be the best quarterback in next year's draft?

The early favorites are Mariota, who decided to return to school for his redshirt junior season, and Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy in his redshirt freshman season and will be eligible to enter next year's draft as an underclassman. But Bridgewater also was once widely considered a contender to be the top pick, and he eventually went 32nd. "Next year is intriguing because all these guys are first-round talents," ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer said. "They have the measurables, but they're also going to be picked apart [by personnel evaluators]."

The first thing to know about next year's potential quarterback prospects is that they are as different as Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater were in this class. Winston is the hottest name, primarily because he was the best player in college football in 2013 and the leader of the defending national champion Seminoles. His numbers (4,057 passing yards, 40 touchdown passes) only partly explain his brilliance. Winston was brimming with confidence and intelligence from the moment he took his first snap at Florida State. Winston, as one AFC scout said, "has the prototypical quarterback package -- strong, accurate, great arm and great leadership skills."

Mariota is just as impressive, so much so that one AFC general manager said he would have been the best quarterback in this year's draft had he left Oregon early. He has thrown 63 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions in two seasons and has rushed for 1,467 yards. "He probably needs a year to grow and develop, but he's shown he can throw in an offense that has been successful in the NFL," the general manager said. "His arm strength is good; his release is quick; and he's accurate downfield. On top of all that, he has great feet."

Hundley also flashed his pro potential last season as a sophomore, but the consensus is that he was smart to remain at UCLA, where he already has produced 7,921 total yards and 74 combined touchdowns in two seasons. "He really helped himself by going back," an NFC general manager said. "He's a great talent, but he's also not a finished product. He would've been in the mix with this year's quarterback prospects, but he'll be higher next year. He has everything you want in a leader."

Although none of these quarterbacks has publicly said he wants to enter the 2015 draft, the belief is that it would be a surprise if any of the three returned to school after the coming season. The draft has reached the point that it's foolish for any quarterback with first-round talent to pass on that opportunity. That partly explains the astonishment expressed when Mariota returned to Oregon this year. At one point late last season, he was thought to be a legitimate challenger to Jadeveon Clowney as the top prospect in this year's class.

What Mariota likely understood and Hundley eventually realized is that it's best to be prepared for that competition to be the top quarterback in the draft. For example, Bortles went from being an unheralded player entering his junior season at Central Florida to being considered a possible top pick in just one year. Although Bortles never indicated that the grind -- which included nearly four months of training, the scouting combine, his pro day, and private workouts and interviews -- wore on him, his family knew the process had been exhausting. As his father, Rob, said before the draft: "Blake is ready to be drafted. He just wants to get in the locker room, go to work and see if he can compete at the next level."

Bortles ultimately captured the honor of being the first signal-caller selected in this year's draft because he had the fewest glaring flaws. While critics harped on Manziel's height (5-foot-11¾), Bortles checked in at 6-5. Bridgewater faced concerns about his durability, then had his mediocre pro day performance held against him. Bortles is sturdy -- weighing in at 232 pounds -- and he nailed every opportunity to impress scouts in the pre-draft process. In the end, Bortles was the one who met the most important criterion for personnel evaluators: He passed the eye test.

Those distinctions won't be as clear in 2015. The three front-running QBs are closer in size -- 6-3 to 6-4 in height and between 210 and 230 pounds in weight -- and in their intelligence. Dilfer said Winston "has as sharp a football mind as anybody I've ever seen," and ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Mariota "is the kind of player who eats, drinks and sleeps football. I think he's better than [San Francisco's] Colin Kaepernick was at this point in his career."

What is more likely to help determine which quarterback deserves to be at the top of next year's class is the actual mindset teams apply to the position. It's impossible to find another time in NFL history when the approach to evaluating quarterbacks has been so fluid. It used to be that a player merely had to be broad-shouldered, big-armed and blessed with the ability to process information quickly. Today, the reigning Super Bowl champs have a diminutive passer (Seattle's Russell Wilson); three of the best young quarterbacks in the game can beat teams with their feet as well as their arms (Kaepernick, Carolina's Cam Newton and Washington's Robert Griffin III); and more teams are increasingly adding elements of the spread formation and the read-option to their playbooks.

There is still a huge appreciation for pocket passers -- men cut from the mold of New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning -- but the ability to think outside the box also is essential to deciding how younger quarterbacks entering the league will fare.

"If the NFL treated quarterbacks like cars, everyone would have a luxury SUV," Dilfer said. "They want somebody who's like a Range Rover or an Escalade, something with plenty of bells and whistles and a lot of dimensions. The problem is that you're seeing less of that in the draft.

"In this class, you had some F-150s -- which is an AJ McCarron or an Aaron Murray. You had a Subaru, which is Derek Carr. A guy like Teddy Bridgewater would be a Prius. It's not a flashy car, but it gets you from Point A to Point B. But until people fully understand that, evaluating quarterbacks will be even less of an exact science."

People around the league also believe the key to picking the right quarterback is understanding how best to coach to his strengths. College football has reached the point that some teams ask their starting quarterbacks to use as few as 10-15 plays a season to sustain continuity. In the NFL, it's not uncommon for quarterbacks to digest 10-15 plays in one practice. The consequence of that disparity is a much longer timetable for certain quarterbacks to develop, which doesn't make struggling teams feel comfortable.

The best example of that was the draft class of 2011. After Newton went first overall, three others went in the top 12: Jake Locker (Tennessee), Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) and Christian Ponder (Minnesota). Gabbert and Ponder already have been labeled busts, and Locker has been an injury-plagued disappointment.

In retrospect, there were questions about those three quarterbacks entering that draft and their teams took sizable risks in selecting them. "It really is tough when you don't have a quarterback in your building and you need one," one AFC quarterbacks coach said. "And to be honest, I don't know if there are a lot of guys who know that position well when they're drafting. The thing that really makes a player is his mental toughness. Unless you're freakishly gifted -- like Cam Newton -- you can't get by without that early."

It's already apparent that next year's class should brace for the critics. As good as Winston is, the AFC scout interviewed for this story also said "his lower-body mechanics are below average, and he doesn't really step into his throws. He's also not a great athlete when you're talking about speed and agility, so the read-option isn't a possibility with him."

Winston's recent off-field issues also have raised eyebrows. He was investigated but never charged after a rape allegation, and he was cited for shoplifting earlier this spring after taking crab legs from a grocery store. So there are now questions about his maturity. "Stealing crab legs is one thing, but the rape [accusation] scares the s--- out of you," the scout continued. "Even though he wasn't charged, he can't be in that situation."

Mariota's major issue is the question of whether he is clutch. For all of the great numbers he has amassed, he's only 1-2 in games decided by fewer than 10 points. As one scout said: "He's either involved in blowouts or he's losing to Stanford." (Oregon has lost to the Cardinal two consecutive seasons.)

Said McShay: "With Mariota, you're not taking a risk on talent because he has so much potential. You're taking a risk on whether he can develop. I couldn't stomach putting my career on the line for a quarterback who didn't have the mental makeup or the accuracy. It's there with Mariota, but it's not seasoned yet. And it scares you when he wasn't that good against the kind of defenses he'll see in the NFL." (Stanford plays such a system.)

Hundley is unquestionably the most raw of the three, a player Dilfer describes as "a high-level athlete who has to prove he can be a high-level quarterback." The biggest knocks on Hundley are that he holds the ball too long and needs to improve how quickly he processes the way defenses attack him. As with Mariota and Winston, proper coaching and a strong work ethic can resolve these issues. All three players will have to prove they can do that quickly enough to alter the conversation by next spring.

"Rookie quarterbacks, as a whole, generally aren't NFL-ready," Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said earlier this offseason. "You get the exceptions like Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning, but those are guys that spent four to five years at a university playing in a pro-style offense. That's not the common thing right away for a rookie to come in and start."

There also could be another prospect who vaults into the conversation without anybody seeing him coming, as Bortles did. Dilfer sees Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty as one such possibility. The word out of Alabama is that Jacob Coker, McCarron's successor and a player who left Florida State after Winston won the job there, also has serious potential. One strong year in the SEC and his name could easily be in the mix.

Realistically, it will be difficult to unseat the trio of Winston, Mariota and Hundley as discussions about the next NFL draft begin. They are so attractive today because their talent is so obvious. "No other pick in the draft is like the quarterback position," the AFC quarterbacks coach said. "A coaching staff sinks or swims with that player when he's a first-round pick, so you have to make sure you're getting a guy with the right makeup. But next year's class should be interesting. We'll just have to see which quarterback ends up on top."