Saturday, April 9, 2011
QB Special Part II: Mallett & Ponder
Picking up from where I left off with QB Special Part I, today I bring you Part II. Today I'll look at Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Florida State's Christian Ponder.
Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Tim Tebow was certainly the most polarizing prospect in the 2010 draft, and while I think Cam Newton has Ryan Mallett beat for that same title in the 2011 draft, Mallett is a close second. Mallett entered Michigan as a freshman a semester early, and got to play in several games for the injured Chad Henne in 2007. Lloyd Carr left the Michigan program and Rich Rodriguez came in, promising to bring the spread offense that made Pat White and Steve Slaton so good. Obviously Ryan Mallet, who stands at 6’7” and 253lbs, doesn’t exactly fit the spread QB mold. Mallett transferred to Arkansas and sat out for a season. Presumably, as this “Draft Winds” article will tell you, is where all the rumors about Mallett’s drug use come from, during his year off. There are also tales of him being rather aloof, while at Michigan, as one of “Draft Winds” author Chris Kouffman points out in this interview (apologies for it being on a Miami Dolphins show, but you’ll get to see the whole story on NFL Network’s “Path to the Draft” soon). The links here are to provide you with a more in-depth look at Mallett’s background, and from what the Universal Draft crew has found out, it appears that a lot of these rumors appear to be unsubstantiated, other than his public drunkenness arrest.
The Fit: Picking up from Part I of the Quarterback Special, you’ll remember I had Mallett slated to go to the Vikings at the 12th overall pick. Let me insert the caveat: I think Mallett goes in the first round provided there’s no underlying issues about drugs or his past that the NFL teams have access to. To be clear, many of the teams employ former private eye detectives and FBI and CIA operatives to do background work, and no I’m not kidding. That’s the price you pay when you’re going to invest millions on a college kid. Back on point, assuming Mallett’s background checks out, he’s got the best arm in this draft. While he does come form Bobby Petrino’s offense (see Brian Brohm, Louisville) I think he’ll adjust pretty quickly. He reminds me of Blaine Gabbert in the respect that he’s going to have to learn how to drop back and turn his back to the defense in play action scenarios. However, he’s got a better arm than Gabbert, and throws the deep ball better than any quarterback in this class.
With Minnesota, they have one of the best rush defenses in football. They don’t give up many plays. They can grind clock with Adrian Peterson, and as Brett Favre proved in 2009, they have talent to throw the ball downfield. Sidney Rice, when healthy, is as good a deep threat as there is in the league. Percy Harvin has major talent, and Visanthe Shiancoe has proven he can split the seam. All that crumbled when Favre fell apart in 2010. Minnesota’s left side of their offensive line (Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson) were both once dominant players. They’ve begun their decline. Phil Loadholt and Anthony Herrera on the right side are young, and improving, but they let Brett Favre get hit a lot. That’s my main concern with Mallett here - how does he handle taking punishment. If Minnesota can get improved line play, I really like the way Mallett’s talent can fit into that offense, and new coach Leslie Frazier has stated on multiple occasions that they’re looking for their quarterback of the future.
Strengths and Weaknesses: As I mentioned before, Mallett’s arm strength can’t be questioned, and he’s got decent accuracy, competing 64.7% this past year in Arkansas, up from 55.8% in 2009. Mallett did throw over 400 passes each year, over 100 more attempts than Cam Newton, for comparison in the SEC. Mallett can really throw the deep ball well, and gets pretty good velocity, as you can see in this Sports Science video. However, like Gabbert, Mallett looks very, very, mechanical when going through his drop back steps. I’d imagine he’ll have some issues coming away from the center and getting his feet set when asked to do it a lot in the pros. He’s got long strides, which slow him down, and if you watch some of his game footage, he really sits back on his back foot a lot relying on his arm to bail him out a lot. These flaws are all coachable, and I think it’s something he can do pretty quickly. I certainly think he can play from day one, unlike Newton and Gabbert, especially if he goes to a team like Minnesota who has a running game he can lean on in the early going.
Another thing I don’t like, is that Mallett doesn’t posses much athleticism. Everyone remembers the famous Tom Brady picture from the combine (insert link)…it’s just gross so I’ll only link it if you want to view it. What I’m getting at here is that Mallett looks even worse than Brady does. He’s not mobile, and he doesn’t move well within the pocket, which could spell trouble for him much like it did his predecessor at the University of Michigan, Chad Henne, who suffers from the same flaw.
Value: As I said, Mallett is a pretty polarizing prospect in this draft. I’m sure there’s a team or two that has him as their top rated prospect just as I’m sure there’s a team or two that has already deemed him undraftable. I certainly think he’s got talent - he’s got the prototypical size, arm strength, ability to hit the deep ball, and his accuracy is solid enough to build upon. Most of his game flaws are pretty coachable, and he can remove a lot of them just by getting into better physical shape. Yeah, there are some red flags that have been raised due to off the field “issues” let’s call them, whether they’re true or not.
While Mallett isn’t the poster boy of a franchise the way Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford were when they were coming out of school. If Mallett can put it all together and stays dedicated to staying out of whatever trouble he may or may not have gotten into in the past, I think he’s got the potential to be comparable to what Matt Ryan is with the Atlanta Falcons. I think teams like Minnesota, Miami, Jacksonville in the middle of the first round and even a team like Buffalo or Cincinnati cold tab him, if he lasts that long. Personally, I’d have to think long and hard about taking Mallett in the top ten, which is more to be said than what I think about Newton or Gabbert, but in the end, I’d probably pass on Mallett there as well. This would be doubly true if Andrew Luck were in this draft.
Christian Ponder, Florida State
The Fit: Let’s get something clear right off the bat - Christian Ponder is the most pro-ready quarterback prospect in the entire draft, not just in my top four. That said, Ponder’s been a late-riser in the draft game. Many projected him to be a 2nd or d3rd round pick based solely off his career for the Seminoles. He had an outstanding Senior Bowl week, and didn’t drop off at the combine. A smart guy who has already completed his MBA, he shows great leadership both on and off the field. Ponder’s been able to master Jimbo Fisher’s offensive schemes a Florida State. He’s very adept at play action, he’s got Aaron Rodgers-esque mobility, and he’s familiar with many pro-level passing concepts. While he’s got Rodgers-esque mobility and Chad Pennington-like Football IQ, his arm leaves something to be desired. He’s had shoulder surgery on his throwing arm and underwent two in-season surgeries on his throwing elbow as a senior. For a team that has a sound running game, and wants a good play action game off of it, Ponder is your guy. He’s been linked to Jacksonville for a while, and he’s met with the Dolphins multiple times. They own picks 15 and 16 in the first round. Buffalo and Cincinnati have done their due diligence on him if he does sneak into the second round.
However, I’ve got Ponder projected to go Jacksonville with the 16th overall pick. David Garrard, while solid, is getting older and Ponder just fits what Jacksonville is about. Like Garrard, Ponder possesses the mobility. With a strong running game led by Maurice Jones-Drew and a solid line led by underrated left tackle Eugene Monroe, Ponder should have opportunities to do some damage with weapons like Marcedes Lewis, Mike Thomas, and Mike Sims-Walker, provided Sims-Walker doesn’t leave via free agency. Jacksonville’s defense is solid, and they’ll keep games close, which is what you’d like to have with Ponder at the helm: someone who you can trust to manage the offense and make the big play when you need it.
Strengths and Weaknesses: Again, I’d like to defer you to the “Draft Winds” series as Richard Lines, a former Penn State and Oklahoma running back, gives you an in-depth look at Ponder’s game. There’s definitely some ups and downs in Ponder’s career, but he’s had some rotten luck as well. He first won the quarterback job in Tallahassee behind a very young offensive line and took some lumps. A lot of his talent at receiver graduated after 2009, so he was left with a lot of young guys as a senior. He’s the most experienced of the top four guys I’ve picked, having played in 35 games, and he’s thrown nearly 7,000 passes in his career at FSU. His completion percentage dipped in 2010 from 68.8% down to 61.5%, but that can be attributed to the loss of his older wide receivers.
If you go back to the video of him working out with Blaine Gabbert you’ll notice that Christian Ponder is very smooth, very fluid in his drop backs. He’s very good at play action, and he’s got the ability to crank a deep one here and there (link). As a decision-maker, he’s very good but he’ll get bit every once in a while with what I call “Pennington Syndrome” which means that Ponder will try and stick a throw into a tight window, but he doesn’t physically have the ability to make a particular throw and it ends up incomplete or intercepted.
I think it’s pretty hard for NFL teams to get an accurate read on Ponder because of all the circumstances surrounding his time at Florida State. Much like a Matt Cassell or Mark Sanchez who both played very little ball at USC, Ponder, despite having played 35 games, I don’t know if we’ve yet seen everything he’s capable of putting out there on the field. Cassel and Sanchez have both done well for themselves, Sanchez’s dating game notwithstanding, now that they’re fully in charge of their respective teams. I think Christian Ponder could do the same if he lands in the right situation. For example, if he lands with Cincinnati, I think that’d be disastrous for him. He’d have to carry the whole offense, which is under a new coordinator, Jay Gruden, and has a running back on the decline with an enigmatic #1 receiver in Chad Ochocinco. Definitely not the right spot for him. But, a team like Minnesota, Miami, or Jacksonville could really help the kid out a lot.
Value: I think, given that Ponder is the most pro-ready of these quarterbacks, I’d be most tempted to pick him in the top ten. However, due to his arm limitations, again, I’d have to pass (that makes it 0 for 4 for me in taking one of these guys in the top 10 of the first round). Ponder has to land in the right situation to be successful, but I definitely would want my team to land him over Newton and Gabbert. If a team does get him in round two, I think that’s an absolute boon of a pick, as he can be pressed into action before the other three. I certainly think that he’s capable of giving a team the career of Chad Pennington, which if not for injuries, would’ve been pretty darn good. Let’s also note that Pennington’s primary weakness was throwing the deep ball, but he was intelligent, and for a time, was the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage.
Ponder definitely has the tools to work with and could be a very good starting quarterback. I think a solid comparison for him would be Pennington’s brain, Aaron Rodgers’ mobility, and maybe someone like Carson Palmer’s arm post elbow injury. It’s not an outstanding mix, but it’s better than some of the current starters in the NFL today.
While I wouldn’t personally draft any of the top 4 quarterbacks in the first round if I were the GM of an NFL team, I think there’s some talent to work with. I’d rate Cam Newton as having the highest potential of the 4, but he’s also the most likely to be a bust in my opinion. Ryan Mallett would be the guy I’d want for my team if I were the GM, but it’d be tough to take him over Christian Ponder. Ultimately, I think there’d be a “throwaway year” or two, with Mallett, Gabbert, and Newton, but the payoff could all be higher than Ponder’s. That said, where would these guys really be rated if Andrew Luck were in this class? I certainly don’t think there’d be one in the top 5, but I guess we’ll never know.