National Football League

Bridgewater Knows Best Among Incoming Quarterbacks

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Teddy Bridgewater is the best quarterback prospect in this year’s draft.

If that statement sounds even slightly controversial, it’s only because Bridgewater has recently been pushed aside like an outdated piece of technology.

Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney are both polarizing figures, which make them intriguing to the public.

Blake Bortles is shrouded in mystery largely because the masses didn’t know who he was until Central Florida shocked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Even Khalil Mack has spent more time in the draft spotlight recently thanks to Mike Mayock’s proclamation that he would draft the Buffalo edge rusher over Clowney.

But what exactly isn’t to like about Bridgewater? That he has a slight frame after dropping to 188 pounds at the end of the college football season? He was back up to 214 at the combine, so clearly he doesn’t have a problem playing light or putting on bulk. Or that he didn’t play against top competition at Louisville? Bortles didn’t play an SEC-caliber schedule, either, yet you don’t hear similar complaints about him.

Unlike Manziel, Bortles or Derek Carr (who apparently is the under-the-radar prospect of the week), Bridgewater played in a pro-style system that forced him to go through his progressions, read blitzes and understand coverages. He excelled in all three areas, as well as displayed pinpoint accuracy in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

Unlike Bortles and, to a larger extent, Manziel, Bridgewater rarely locked onto one receiver or telegraphed passes. He stepped up in the pocket when rushed and didn’t bail out of plays because his primary target was covered (a trait that Manziel unfortunately exhibited).

When forced off his spot against teams like USC, Utah State and SMU over the past two years, Carr would look to bail out of the pocket and retreat backwards. Since he isn’t a Houdini like Manziel, he would often take sacks, intentional grounding penalties or simply throw the ball away in those situations.

When Bridgewater was under pressure, he thrived. He often made plays look easy because he recognized where the blitz was coming from and found soft spots in the defense. He was a 79-percent passer when he didn’t face pressure and a 76-percent passer when blitzed. If that doesn’t scream “pro prospect,” I don’t know what does.

The one knock on Bridgewater that isn’t defensible when you watch the film is his lack of a vertical game. He simply wasn’t accurate when throwing deep, and that’s one area of his game that he’ll need to improve when he enters the NFL. In this regard, Manziel and Bortles have a decided edge over Bridgewater.  (Carr wasn’t asked to throw a lot downfield in Fresno State’s offense, but that doesn’t help him shed the label of being a system quarterback.)

But his lack of a deep game doesn’t mean that Bridgewater can’t make all of the throws (he can), or that he isn’t willing to throw down field (he is). He did test opponents deep at Louisville – he just didn’t have the same success as he did in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Again, whatever team drafts him will need to work on his success rate down field.

All of this isn’t meant to demean Bortles, who has prototypical size and arm strength, underrated athleticism and who at least played in some pro-style concepts at UCF. Manziel, meanwhile, has off-the-charts playmaking ability (which can’t be measured), can also make all of the throws and should have success if his pro team allows him to improvise (and thus, take the good with the bad).

But Bridgewater often capitalized on the plays that Bortles and Manziel didn’t make, the ones that came at the line of scrimmage or immediately after the snap. He’s ahead of his fellow quarterback prospects when it comes to play recognition, and for that, I think Bridgewater has a lower floor than the other signal-callers entering the draft.

The Texans currently hold the No. 1 overall pick, and if they wound up taking Clowney, it’s hard to argue with their reasoning. They don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback, but pairing Clowney with J.J. Watt might be too tempting to pass up.

But if they do select a quarterback, Bridgewater is a perfect fit for Bill O’Brien’s offense. His system is complex and forces his quarterback to make quick decisions and adjustments pre-snap. On top of displaying good mechanics, accuracy and athleticism, Bridgewater’s intelligence is off the charts.

Bridgewater may be the forgotten prospect at the moment, but in my eyes, there’s really no debate as to who is the best quarterback prospect in this year’s draft.