Erik Isakson for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Erik Isakson for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

The Bortles Conundrum

With the right coaching, Blake Bortles is a year away from being the best quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft. And that’s the problem. Which team will take the chance? Here’s an in-depth look at Central Florida’s fabulous and flawed QB

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

If you could take the best quarterback in the 2015 draft this May, knowing that you probably wouldn’t get much from him in ’14—and even then he’s still not a sure thing—where would you draft him?

Would you still take him first overall in this talent-laden draft? How about the middle of the first round? Or would you not consider him until the second round?

That, essentially, is the conundrum with Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles.

After watching six of his games on coaches film (against Penn State, South Carolina, Memphis, Louisville, Houston and Baylor), two things seem fairly certain about Bortles: 1) He possesses all of the traits teams look for in a franchise quarterback, and 2) he has the highest ceiling of any QB in this draft.

But he’s just not ready yet.

In a perfect world, Bortles would have stayed in school one more season, fixed the potentially ruinous weaknesses in his game, been the top pick in the 2015 draft and immediately started on the first day for his new franchise.

But Bortles declared for the draft and is available now. That means teams will have a harder time trying to project his future than they would a year from now. That brings more questions into the process: where should we take him, and how long will it take him to fully develop?

The positives

Despite the rise in smaller and more mobile quarterbacks, the NFL is still ruled by quarterbacks who execute from the pocket. And if you were to create a quarterback from scratch, Bortles would check every box. It’s why he’s near the top of this year’s draft class.

 

Bortles, 22, is 6-foot-5 and a very solid 232 pounds, with long arms and decent hand size (11th among quarterbacks at the combine). He is built to withstand the beating that a quarterback can take in the pocket. And despite his 4.93 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Bortles is a good athlete at the position and will be productive with his legs, just as he was in college. While the Knights run a multiple offense, they were primarily a read-option team and Bortles was very much a part of that structure. He made plays with his feet and wasn’t afraid to take a hit. He was also asked to make many throws on the move.

On film, he looks to have above average arm strength and can make all the throws required by an NFL offense. Bortles possessed a good grasp of his offense and his opponents’ defensive schemes, and he had the ability to make checks and some audibles at the line of scrimmage.

He also does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield while bodies are flying around him, and he’s not afraid to step up in the pocket and make throws into tight windows.

  • This outstanding throw against Penn State shows the promise of Bortles (even his ability to have great touch on deep passes), and it looked even better on the coaches’ film from the end-zone angle.
  • This throw, on the game-winning drive against Louisville, shows Bortles’ ability to stand strong in the pocket, anticipate and load up on a throw when needed.

(Both linked videos come from DraftBreakdown.com, which does great work on NFL prospects.)

Blake Bortles has the prototypical size—6-5, 230—for an NFL quarterback. (Erik Isakson for Sports Illustrated)
Blake Bortles has the prototypical size—6-5, 232—of an NFL quarterback. (Erik Isakson for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

When it comes to projecting great quarterbacks, what you can’t see is often more important than physical skills. Bortles also measures up in this regard. According to a source on the Knights’ coaching staff, Bortles has “off the charts” intangibles. He’s a great leader, extremely bright and a tireless worker who lives and breathes football. Bortles also seems to have a short memory, meaning mistakes don’t linger. Those are all must-haves when considering a quarterback prospect.

The negatives

If Bortles played in the NFL right now, he would be a turnover machine and would probably flame out because his mechanics, mostly in the lower body, are extremely flawed.

While Bortles has problems with an inconsistent delivery—it can range from short and compact to long and wild—the biggest problem is his feet. Bortles is constantly stepping into a bucket, or stepping away from the throw instead of toward the receiver. Not only does that lead to accuracy issues, the ball also loses energy very quickly and underthrows are common on deep passes.

Bortles has sloppy footwork even in a clean pocket. More troublesome is that when he feels pressure, Bortles will stare down receivers, his footwork breaks down even more and the likelihood of a turnover increases greatly. In this way, he is similar to another unfinished NFL pocket passer: the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick. But Bortles doesn’t have Kaepernick’s wheels to help in the playmaking department.

Here are two examples of Bortles’ subpar mechanics against Penn State.

  • With this throw, Bortles had a mostly clean pocket in the red zone and a window to fit the touchdown in. But instead of stepping into the throw and snapping it to the receiver, he opened his feet and was nearly intercepted.
  • Bortles was not as lucky on this throw to the sideline, which was intercepted.

These are just a few examples, but you can find dozens in each of Bortles’ games. If you really want a horror show, watch the game against Memphis (17 of 36 for 160 yards). You’d think Bortles was undraftable. (The South Florida game, I’ve been told, is similar.)

Bortles could get away with these fundamental and troubling breakdowns most of the time in college because of the level of competition. The NFL isn’t nearly as forgiving. In two games against the best athletes he faced in college (Ohio State in ’12 and South Carolina ’13), Bortles completed just 63.6% of his passes and threw five of the 16 interceptions (31%) he had over those two seasons. If Bortles doesn’t clean up his footwork before hitting an NFL field, he will be in trouble.

Bortles’ mechanical problems are correctable and could be managed if given time and reps with coaches known for developing quarterbacks.

Another factor that gets lost when discussing Bortles is that, contrary to popular belief, he did not put the UCF program on his back and lift it up to national prominence all by himself. He is not Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt nor is he Brett Favre at Southern Mississippi. UCF won football games on the back of a stingy defense that ranked 17th nationally, allowing 21.3 points per game, and a running game that was powered by Storm Johnson (1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns), who could make an immediate impact as a three-down back in the NFL this fall depending on where he lands.

Bortles was not the featured player in the Knights’ offense. The scheme ran first through Johnson and fellow running back William Stanback, and then a quartet of talented playmaking receivers: Rannell Hall, Breshad Perriman, J.J. Worton and Jeff Godfrey. The Knights’ offense was built around the running game, and getting the ball into the hands of the playmakers in a dink-and-dunk passing game featuring plenty of screens. Bortles did a very good job managing all the weapons and making clutch plays when needed, but UCF was far from the “Blake Bortles Show” that most franchise quarterbacks headline in college.

The bottom line

Bortles’ mechanical problems, both with his delivery and footwork, are alarming because they seem to consistently break down when he’s under the most pressure. And most quarterbacks, no matter how well they are taught, revert back to their worst habits in the most stressful times.

However, they are correctable and could be managed if given time and reps with coaches known for developing quarterbacks. Bortles just needs to be drilled to square his shoulders, stride toward the target and drive the ball. If you want to watch the best, pop in a tape of Tom Brady, who is one of the most fundamentally sound passers in NFL history. One of Brady’s former coaches, new Texans coach Bill O’Brien, has a reputation for developing passers who have terrific mechanics. Houston, by the way, happens to be in need a franchise quarterback. Bortles possesses everything O’Brien looks for at the position; Bortles  just needs some work.

With the new collective bargaining agreement locking first-round picks into four-year contracts, with a fifth year at the club’s option, Bortles undoubtedly will go in the first round because a team will want that type of control, especially over a player who probably needs a season on the sideline.

So if you’re O’Brien and the Texans, would you take a talent like Bortles first overall and bet on yourself that you can unlock greatness? If you wanted to trade down and take Bortles later on, how long do you wait?

Welcome to the Bortles conundrum.

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33 comments
mcrunner34
mcrunner34

My "mock draft" doesn't matter. I do it because it's fun. I did not have Bortles as a first round pick because of the off season moves at the position by the teams that want to make a push to win now. The Raiders just need talent, not depth and Cleveland will be Manziel's world. Tannehill was drafted early because he has freakish talent that exceeds Bortles ability. 

Hussman
Hussman

I must admit I'm enjoying Greg's articles more than the others on this site, sometimes even more than the flagship column.  

SaffaWooly
SaffaWooly

Really enjoyed this article, it would be nice to have a 'video evidence' type positive/negative article on some of the other guys in the draft. Keep up the good work!

fergom24
fergom24

After reeding the positives and negatives, and having not watched a single of this Bortles fellow, I'm guessing he has similar skills as Ben Roethlisberger. You see the PIT QB still throwing some awful throws, and at the beginning of his career he did a lot of plays with his feet with a team whose defense was ready to contend at the higher level (same as Houston has right now).


Bortles could have a similar career...

Ciscos
Ciscos

Bortles is big and the hype machine is well at work behind him. Don't get me wrong, I like his mechanics and footwork because they are correctable.  He's got good pocket presence and can talk the game as well as anyone. But he's only a day one starter for a team that needs a QB (Jags, Texans, Oakland, etc.). Outside of that I don't see him stepping into any organization and unseating a current incumbent.

That said, I'm only drafting him early if he's a need, that I don't need right away.

rskins09
rskins09

Been saying it for years ...Every NFL  team should have a QB taxi squad & pay the minimum NFL salary  for at least a year ...Too many QB coming out of college are just a year or two away and are thrown to the wolves the first year, take a pounding and lose all their confidence ...David Carr and Jim Plunkett  were good examples .. 

raput76
raput76

King doesn't want to hurt the guy's feelings by saying he's slow. 

TaraChee
TaraChee

Lost in all the talk about mechanics are the ability to read defenses intelligently, and decision making ability. In both, Bortles seems to pale in comparison to Bridgewater. Instincts to make the right play in the heat of the moment and pocket presence are also things that generally cannot be taught that Bridgewater has in spades.

BobBell
BobBell

He just a system quarterback who's probably already at or near his potential.  I'd rather take a chance on the guy with some serious upside, not to mention far superior arm strength.  Wait ... what's that?  You mean this isn't Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf?  Well, I'm sure Leaf, with that arm strength, has set all kinds of records by now.  My point being that anyone who says they "know" how a college quarterback is going to do in the NFL is just ... guessing.  

SandersonKramer
SandersonKramer

Here's the problem with the idiot NFL. Instead of going all the way to win, all or nothing, they likely won't have Maziel the first QB drafted and settle for someone safe but won't get them to win the Superbowl eventually. Manziel could and yes he might be a flop, its all or nothing but if you don't go for it, you wind up being John Fox who plays to not lose as opposed to win. In a nutshell, when Tebow was with the team, Fox bypassed Prater from trying a long but makeable field goal at the end of the first half with less than 30 seconds (?) left because he was afraid if he missed, it might give the other team a chance to score even though the field goal was I think from the 40.

youngnorth77
youngnorth77

And he's still not better then Johnny Manziel, are even AJ Mcarron and a bunch of  other QB's in this draft you could get in the 2nd round, believe me Texans will not pass up on Clowney and they will get a QB in 2nd round don't be dumb Texan's, here's your chance don't blow it 

racy0057
racy0057

In my opinion, the success of 2 or 3 QB's in their rookie years, has caused unrealistic expectations for the vast majority of rookie QB's.  Until just the past few years, it was rare for a rookie QB to even be considered to be an opening day starter.  I think there are many QB's that don't get a realistic chance to become legitimate NFL quarterbacks, due to them no longer being given a season or two to develop.  Another issue is that the top quarterbacks taken in the draft, will generally go to bad teams, as that is why they have the top picks.  There are very few Andrew Lucks and RGIII's that come along.  There are certainly no sure-fire, first year, future franchise quarterbacks, in this year's draft, but there will be a handful of teams who will reach for one.  I feel like most teams would benefit from having even a veteran journeyman, on their roster, to allow the rookies some time to develop.  


So many potentially good, young quarterbacks are set up to fail, as if they don't produce to the level that is expected immediately, they often lose confidence and are often prematurely considered busts.  I think David Carr, who was the first QB drafted by the Texans, is a good example of a QB that showed promise, but who was a victim of a new franchise and suffered from the lack of talent around him, let alone being thrown into the fire too quickly.  I'm surprised he physically survived that first season, as he set a record for being sacked, at that time.  Carr never recovered mentally and has now been on a few teams as a 2nd or 3rd stringer, and I don't know if he is even in the league anymore.  Anyway, he is just an example of one of those who, I feel, never had a chance to succeed, and it wasn't due to a lack of physical skills.  I think that we will see the present trend reverse itself and most rookie signal callers will hold a clipboard, for at least their first season.  At least,I hope so.

VIPOD
VIPOD

Flash back to 2004, Raiders pick LT, Robert Gallery as the 2nd overall pick, while Ben Roethlisberger is taken at 11 by the Steelers.


The comparisons are real, same size, almost the same number of college starts (Ben=38, Blake=36), stats similar. If you look at their scouting report, the positives & negatives are similar as well. Hell, the only difference is Lyndsay Duke!!!!


Fool is the team that passes up on this QB! The Raiders have a better o-line today, and Blake is built for a nuclear winter....Reggie, if he's there at 5, take him.

r.mike.houston
r.mike.houston

Unfortunately, there is not a QB in this draft that I would trust to be my starting QB in the NFL.  If I needed a QB, I'd be very tempted to wait until later and take Derek Carr.  I'm not sure that I would want and I know that the price is to high for Bortles,or Bridgewater.  And Manziel is never going to make it in the NFL.

Jackie_Treehorn
Jackie_Treehorn

Every time I see Blake Bortles, I immediately flash to Brady Quinn.  I think they'll have similar careers

BY
BY

I remember watching UCF's bowl game and thinking "This is the guy everyone raves about?"

packersinsider
packersinsider

Good work from former Cheesehead beat writer Bedard.

I don't understand why Manziel is not the CLEAR-CUT #1 QB in everyone's mind.


You cannot discount what the little guy did... in the SEC... including against Nick Saban's defenses. Nobody else has done that, anywhere near it.


If I was the Texan GM, Manziel would be my guy.


Bridgewater and Bortles don't have that same "it" factor IMO.


There have been a lot of guys like Bortles with those measurables.


Ciscos
Ciscos

@rskins09 You'll notice college QB coaches don't really teach fundamentals anymore (mechanics/footwork) - and pretty much neither do high school coaches for that matter.  Crunching the amount of time they need to spend, they don't have it.


Enter the QB personal trainers who have more time to work on footwork, arm mechanics, stance, etc.


If I'm a QB coming out of college and wanting to make myself better for the combine or my pro day, I'm going to hook up with one of the bigs. Clarkson, Whitfield, etc.


Surprised you mentioned Plunkett.  He got hammered earlier but grew into being an NFL QB and has two Superbowls victories to show for it.

Burp
Burp

@raput76  And if you actually read the piece, you'll find that PK didn't write it.

bpeterson474
bpeterson474

@raput76  you know, it's weird, on tape he looks faster than what he ran at the combine.

GregoryStroud
GregoryStroud

@racy0057  agreed. I remember the first snap of Carr's first post-Texans training camp with the Giants in Albany. No contact of course. They hike the ball and, I kid you not, Carr immediately flees for the sideline. I've never seen anything like it. That's what a couple of years of record sacks does to you.


So much QB talent is wasted in the NFL. Luckily my Giants were patient with Eli, not just to start, but also during his first ups and downs.

Zeshan
Zeshan

@racy0057  Replace RGIII with Russell Wilson and I wholly agree with you. Nicely articulated.

justsomeguy
justsomeguy

@VIPOD Its wildly optimistic to assume that Roethlisberger would have been a successful, productive quarterback with the raiders, who are not in the same stratosphere as the steelers as a franchise.

bpeterson474
bpeterson474

@packersinsider  I wonder sometimes how Manziel would have done if he didn't have Mike Evans, who may be the best jump-ball guy in the NCAA.

TaraChee
TaraChee

@packersinsider  I watched Manziel's last against 'Bama.. and though he scored in bunches, he was far from having picked apart their defense. I saw multiple throws that were nearly picked off in the Alabama game that instead became big plays, and would have assuredly been picked off in the NFL. Some passes were slow lobs to open receivers who were poorly covered. He also opted to run too early a few times when he had open receivers down field. Currently he projects to me as a poor man's Kaepernick.

VIPOD
VIPOD

@packersinsider  I can't disagree. Manziel will need to watch R.Wilson & Brees tape. Patience is the key to Manziel NFL career...but what team rolls the dice on him?

SportPage
SportPage

@packersinsider   "I don't understand why Manziel is not the CLEAR-CUT #1 QB in everyone's mind."


The main reason is right there in your next sentence... "little guy". 


The factor that made Manziel an incredible college QB was his ability to escape and create. In the NFL, he will be unable to consistently outrun pursuit. If he tries too often, he will get crushed eventually. And he will not get away with the passes he tossed up for Evans to wrestle away.

justsomeguy
justsomeguy

@Zeshan @racy0057 Russell Wilson wasn't a top pick, nor was he considered a sure-fire hit, nor did he go to a bad team at the top of the draft.  He doesn't fit into the argument this guy is making at all.

bpeterson474
bpeterson474

@Zeshan @racy0057  Well, if we're just going with rookie years, then RGIII's was likely better, but Wilson was definitely better this year.

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