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Mailbag: NFL better figure out how to use college spread QBs

The increasing number of spread quarterbacks coming into the NFL has coaches and general managers up in arms. Basically, many teams haven't figured out how spread quarterbacks can work in a league of more complex offenses.

For the sake of the future of the sport, NFL teams better get a handle on these spread quarterbacks. According to an ESPN.com survey, 48.9 percent of quarterbacks in high school since 2010 have worked out of the spread. The system works great for high schools and colleges, but it's a problem in the NFL, for many reasons.

A college spread quarterback doesn't run a huddle. He operates completely out of the shotgun or pistol instead of taking snaps from center. The spread quarterbacks have to learn three-, five- and seven-step drops the minute their college careers are over. The pure spread quarterbacks often have predetermined reads instead of going through and processing the play and the positioning of the pass-catchers.

Many observers say a typical NFL contest and a college matchup of two spread quarterbacks are two different games. But it's up to the NFL to figure it out, or the sport is going to be in a tough spot five years from now. The average age of the top 11 quarterbacks, as ranked by QBR, is 33.6, and eight are 34 or older. In five years, most of the current elite quarterbacks will be retired.

I went through the list of the 140 drafted quarterbacks from 2004 to 2014 and determined there hasn't been a spread quarterback among them who currently would be labeled among the top 12 in the league. A few are close. Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith are former spread quarterbacks who aren't yet elite but could be knocking on the door.

Scouting is an inexact science. There is usually a 50 percent failure rate of quarterbacks coming out of more conventional passing offenses in college. Just look at more conventional quarterbacks taken in the first three rounds from 2008 to 2014. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco (who did a little spread throwing at Delaware but had enough conventional plays), Matthew Stafford and Nick Foles could be considered success stories. Mark Sanchez had initial success with the New York Jets but was released after signing a big contract.

Conventional failures include Chad Henne, Brian Brohm, Jimmy Clausen, Christian Ponder and possibly EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon.

The failure rate of spread quarterbacks is closer to 60 or 70 percent. Newton, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert were top-10 picks in 2011. Locker is retired. Gabbert failed in Jacksonville. Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, will be a potential failure if things don't work out quickly this year in Washington. Brandon Weeden failed in Cleveland after being taken in the first round in 2012.

Which brings us to the debates surrounding Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in this year's draft. Winston played in a more NFL-ready system. He should have an easier transition. Mariota was a pure spread quarterback at Oregon. What gives Mariota hope of being a success story in the NFL is Oregon's offense gave him some chances to go through a progression of routes. In a majority of spread offenses, the quarterback just gets it and throws it without processing the routes.

Andy Dalton worked mostly out of the shotgun in a form of spread at TCU, and he's been to two Pro Bowls and has had three trips to the playoffs. TCU's version of the spread also allowed him to process routes and formations.

Here are a few points NFL teams need to take into account when considering a college spread quarterback:

• Don't reach for a spread quarterback, and be careful about starting him as a rookie. Gabbert was 4-10 in his rookie year. The Jaguars gave up on him after 13 more starts over the next two seasons. Weeden was 5-10 as a rookie and was finished in Cleveland after five more starts. Even though Josh McDaniels made one trip to the playoffs with Tim Tebow as his quarterback in Denver, the decision to take Tebow in the first round was too much of a reach.

• Jim Harbaugh set the model for spread quarterbacks with his handling of Kaepernick. Kaepernick was a pure spread quarterback who wasn't asked to process routes. Harbaugh didn't start him until his second season, when he thought Kaepernick was ready. Kaepernick had the 49ers one play away from winning a Super Bowl. With only 10 OTAs, a minicamp and training camp, there isn't a lot of time to convert a spread quarterback before his first season.

• Spread quarterbacks are vertically challenged. The spread offense uses so many bubble screens and horizontal throws it doesn't help the transition into the NFL's vertical passing game.

Don't blame players such as Mariota or Bryce Petty for the problem. The NFL needs to handle spread quarterbacks better to get more spread successes than failures.

From the inbox

Q: Am I wrong in thinking that Rex Ryan 2.0 will turn out like Rex 1.0? He has an excellent defense, a middling offense and is without a proven quarterback, similar to what he had with the Jets. What does Buffalo have that the Jets lacked in order for him to be as successful as he is hoping (Super Bowl wins)?

From Scott in Portland, Oregon

A: You are probably right, but a Rex 1.0 in Buffalo will be a welcome change. He has a chance to take the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The scenario is very similar. When Ryan took over the Jets, they had a good running back, decent pass-catchers and a young quarterback (Mark Sanchez) who could win with a good running game and solid defense. The Bills have one of the best defenses in football. They are loaded on offense with LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and Sammy Watkins. What they don't have is a great quarterback. Until they get one, Rex should talk playoffs, not Super Bowls.

Q: I am trying to look at the 49ers situation as a positive. We lost Chris Borland and Patrick Willis, but we were without Willis most of last year, NaVorro Bowman never played, and Borland got hurt late. Combine that with the fact that Aldon Smith was suspended 10 games, and we did a good job holding the fort. I think guys gained valuable playing experience that will help them grow. My only concern is changing the coaching staff and how will that impact us.

Matt in Richmond, Virginia

A: The 49ers have had too many changes; it's hard to think they are going to be better. They are still waiting to see whether Justin Smith is going to retire. The coaching staff is excited about Colin Kaepernick's offseason. He's trying to improve himself as a quarterback. At the moment, I see them being an eight- or nine-win team.

Q: Offseason in the NFL tends to breed overinflated stories, but this Philip Rivers-to-Tennessee speculation takes the cake. Obviously Tennessee would first have to want Rivers for the second overall pick (already pretty dubious), but the part nobody seems to be addressing is why San Diego would want to get rid of him -- because he is dead set on hitting the open market. Obviously Tennessee would want to have an extension lined up before the deal was made, and if Rivers is to be believed (and most pundits are saying he means it), wouldn't we expect him to simply leave Tennessee after a year anyway?

Josh in Grand Rapids, Michigan

A: I agree with you that a deal won't happen. To trade up from 19, the Chargers would have to add one or two good draft choices to make it work. I can't see the Chargers giving up one of the top eight quarterbacks in the league along with two other future starters to acquire Marcus Mariota. Rivers' desire not to move to Los Angeles is real, and I'm sure that's why the Chargers would entertain thoughts of trading him. But the tough configuration of a trade will block it.

Q: How about the first coin toss at the start of the game being used to determine who gets the ball first in overtime? This will affect strategy late in a game. Do I play for the win or the tie in the fourth quarter when I know who will kick off to start OT? Active clock management flows straight into overtime. Game management, clock management and strategy are rewarded, not judgments on momentum or determining who "earned" the OT coin flip call.

From Rich in San Antonio

A: That isn't a bad idea. If the criticism of overtime is the random nature of the coin toss, the pregame determination does introduce additional strategy that might lead to interesting coaching decisions. Over the past couple of weeks, I think the mailbag readers have started to air out the true problem with not having two-possession overtimes. What some have questioned is having a coin toss determine the outcome of overtime. If you win the coin toss and get a touchdown, the game is over. As you have suggested, figuring out a way to enter more strategy into the equation might be an acceptable solution. Sure, yours involves a coin toss, but it could lead to decisions that would play into the outcome of the game.

Q: I saw in the mailbag a discussion of how to fix early entries into the pros, and my thought was that instead of making players graduate before they go pro, why not make it mandatory that they pay back their scholarship if they leave early and don't graduate within, say, six years? That would make fringe draft candidates think twice about declaring if they don't get drafted and then have to pay back their scholarship money, whereas first-round picks wouldn't care, because the money would not be too significant to them at that point. What do you think about that?

Josh in Santa Barbara, California

A: That would sure go against the current movement to find ways of reimbursing college football players. Schools make a lot of money from football players. You know of the move to try to unionize college football players. To put them in a contractual situation in which they could end up owing money after helping a school make millions would seem unfair.

Q: If the NFL is so determined to change PATs, I have a suggestion that would do a couple of things. Why not make the end zone 15 or 20 yards deep? That would extend all kicks 5 to 10 yards, and it might also increase red zone touchdowns, which would be more exciting for fans. Now, the closer a team gets to the end zone, the more compacted the field gets, which is an advantage to the defense. By extending the end zone, the offense would have more room to operate and therefore more play choices.

Duane in Elizabethtown, Kentucky

A: You are correct in thinking such a change would create more scoring and excitement, but I question whether stadium configurations would accommodate that. The league was slow to accept putting cameras in the end zone and on borders of the field until it did a complete study of the different stadiums. I would guess there are several stadiums that couldn't accommodate deeper end zones. As you know, I'm not thrilled about the concept of changing the extra point. Owners are, so it's great to have as many ideas as possible. But let's not change the game so dramatically to accommodate a change that doesn't need to happen.

Short takes

Tim in Colorado wonders whether the Denver Broncos could trade Demaryius Thomas to Miami for a No. 1 this year and a midround pick next year. Absolutely not. The Broncos aren't trying to build for the future. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, John Elway wants to win now. They franchised Thomas because he's a proven No. 1 receiver. To be able to keep Thomas, they couldn't come close to the $9.2 million a year tight end Julius Thomas received from Jacksonville. From the Dolphins' standpoint, I can't see them adding a player who is going to make more than $12 million a year.

Richard in Tampa, Florida, thinks the fairest playoff expansion is to 16 teams. He believes having two teams getting a bye is too much of an advantage. You do bring up an interesting thought on scheduling. Expanding the playoffs could create a Monday night game in the playoffs, even though that game could conflict with the College Football Playoff championship game. But either way, if the money is right, the league could eventually go to 16 playoff teams with no byes.