There is no user-friendly manual handed to a NFL general manager his first day in office. Supply is low, time is limited, one must hit the bull’s-eye on the most important position in sports.
In Buffalo, Doug Whaley’s future is directly tied to how he handles the quarterback.
To pay or not to pay up for Tyrod Taylor? The question must stir in his mind daily into Taylor’s contract year. His judgment on Taylor could define his future in Buffalo.
The Year One numbers sparkle off the screen. A free-agent afterthought completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,035 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions while going 8-6 as the starter, in addition to 568 rushing yards and four scores. So which traits should the Bills emphasize most in deciding whether or not Taylor is The Guy? His athleticism is must-see TV, his long ball is often a thing of beauty.
But general managers agree that poise in the pocket, dissecting a defense and, above all, mettle to deliver late in games matters most at the position. What was true for quarterbacks in 1976 is true in 2016.
Free agency raised the stakes yet again. Brock Osweiler’s four-year, $72 million contract surely made Taylor a happy man – yet Whaley must be careful.
They’re not talking about Taylor specifically, no, but listen to the NFL’s top power brokers analyze the position at the scouting combine and it’s clear the Bills must still see their own unique talent check off boxes before making a long-term investment.
“I think you watch them in tough situations,” said Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who was on the staff that picked Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall in 2004. “Sometimes, you’ll evaluate them more on third down, you’ll evaluate the throws they’re making when the pocket is breaking down and things are going on around their feet that aren’t real pleasant.
“You look at them at the end of the half or the end of the game – can they rally their team?”
So one stat the Steelers’ scouts keep on all college quarterbacks is comeback wins. To them, that speaks volumes.
No wonder Whaley noted after the season that he needed to see Taylor deliver late in games before paying up. Remember, Whaley was the Steelers’ coordinator of pro scouting when they drafted Roethlisberger. He was in Pittsburgh himself through most of Big Ben’s 27 fourth-quarter comebacks and 37 game-winning drives.
Roethlisberger had his most comebacks (five) and GW drives (six) as a rookie. Such alligator-thick skin under pressure was obvious immediately.
Taylor, meanwhile, tended to fade.
In a near upset at New England, he missed open targets deep. In the 30-22 loss at Kansas City – you know, the one dubbed a “playoff” game by the Bills – Taylor went 3 of 6 for 20 yards in the fourth quarter. Then, in a 23-20 loss at Philadelphia, he went 4 of 11 for 46 yards with a game-sealing interception in the fourth.
No doubt, there’s a lot to love. But is that love worth $18 million per year? The 6-foot-1 quarterback must prove he can win a game – himself – through the air to warrant this. Buffalo went 0-5 when throwing the ball 30-plus times. General managers agree dual-threat quarterbacks are more luxury than full-fledged revolution.
“I don’t know that I think it’s any different,” Houston Texans GM Rick Smith said at the combine, in a telling tease. “In my opinion, you have to be able to throw the football from the pocket in this league. The ability to move and be mobile is an added dimension that really stresses the defense. So, I think what you see now is you probably see more pocket-passers with mobility.
“You do see some guys that have that dual threat, whereas before the dual-threat guy, you just assumed he couldn’t throw the ball from the pocket. Now you have more quarterbacks who can do both and who are really effective at both.”
Added San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke, “Quarterbacks come in all different shapes and sizes. If you had Drew Brees, you’d feel pretty good. I don’t know you can pigeonhole one position. There are exceptions at every position. We prefer big. Does that mean we won’t make an exception? No.”
The proliferation of spread offenses in college, as Whaley has lamented before, makes grading the position in the pros difficult.
So many college passers today are programmed robots: Take call from sideline, make one read, throw, hurry to line of scrimmage, breathe, repeat. The ensuing gaudy numbers can cloud reality.
Take it from the guy who drafted Florida State’s Jameis Winston over Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
“Not saying that’s the wrong offense to have in college whatsoever,” said Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht. “It’s been effective for a lot of teams, but it’s a little bit more difficult to see, in terms of our offense, we want a guy who will sit in the pocket, doesn’t get nervous and can make plays where there’s chaos. So it’s more difficult to find out if a guy can do that if he hasn’t been in that particular offense.”
So for the Bills, that’s the challenge this spring in drafting someone to develop.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott will be one of the Bills’ pre-draft visits. Expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to put him to the test, mentally.
In Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians’ 15-minute interviews at the combine, he makes quarterbacks break down their two-minute offense in college. The full thought process. Then, in longer sit-down interviews pre-draft, he’ll ask situational questions such as “What’s your favorite play on third and 5 with the game on the line?”
Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman – whose team whiffed on Christian Ponder in 2011 and hopes it hit on Teddy Bridgewater in 2014 – looks for how quarterbacks “perform in stress situations in a game. Third downs. Two-minute. Come-from-behind victories.”
Performance under pressure matters. Pocket presence still matters.
The Bills could always try to give Taylor a Sam Bradford-ish deal next year. Philadelphia will pay with $36 million over two years. They could place the franchise tag on him after next season – Washington will pay Kirk Cousins $19.95 million. They’ll have options.
But, truly, this is up to Tyrod Taylor.
In 2016, he can drive his price up. In 2016, he could drive it down.
So far, Taylor has shown more than any quarterback in at least a decade around here. Now, the Bills must see more.