The Indianapolis Colts should not hesitate to choose Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. If they struggle to decide between Luck and Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin, they need merely to apply the same level of attention to detail they did the last time they drafted a quarterback in the first round.
Griffin has garnered media and fan hype for consideration as the top pick in the draft, but if whomever the Colts hire as their next general manager spends enough time watching game film, choosing Luck will be easy.
The Colts faced a similar decision heading into the 1998 draft, when University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning and Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf were considered the best two players entering the league. The Colts held the top pick of the draft and then-Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian's first task was deciding which quarterback to choose.
In former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick's book More Than a Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL, Polian explained how the Colts determined made the franchise-defining decision between the two quarterbacks. Instead of relying solely on reports from scouts who attended some of Manning's and Leaf's games the previous fall, Polian watched every single pass each of the two players threw in college. Polian told Billick in More Than a Game the result of his video study was the conclusion that Manning was far and away better than Leaf:
"Now, as it turns out, when you really got into analysis, even the physical, there were perceptions about Manning that were untrue. There were perceptions about Leaf that were untrue, but your eye sees what it sees and your ear hears what it hears, so scouts came back and said, 'Manning has a weak arm.' When you analyzed every pass they threw for the years that they were in school, that wasn't true. But no scout has the ability to do that. You can only do that in the off-season when you can put together all the film. I remember remarking to Tom Moore [the Colts' longtime offensive coordinator] how astounded I was by the fact that Peyton threw a heavier ball with many more revolutions per second than Leaf. Even [in the physical part of it, the initial reports were wrong and the conventional wisdom and hype was 100 percent wrong."
Like Leaf and Manning, the decision between Luck and Griffin becomes obvious after analyzing video of the quarterbacks instead of staring at a stat sheet.
Griffin throws a great deep ball, which complements his running skills nicely. Griffin also makes the correct read on zone read plays almost all of the time, which doesn't automatically mean he'll be able to read NFL defenses, but it suggests he has at least a fairly solid football IQ. He also does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield when flushed out of the pocket. However, he consistently stares down his top receiver and abandons the pocket if his top read isn't open. Griffin is listed as 6'2" and 220 pounds by Baylor's athletic department, but looks even smaller on video, raising legitimate questions about the pounding his body can take if he runs the ball frequently.
Luck, like Griffin, does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield when outside of the pocket. Luck does a far superior job of squaring his body up when throwing on the run, making him an equally dangerous passer whether he is in the pocket or scrambling to either the right or left side of the field. He also keeps both hands on the football when rolling out, reducing the probability of a defender being able to strip the football from him.
Luck would never come close to beating Griffin in a footrace, but he does have enough speed to pick up a few yards on the ground when nothing is available in the passing game, and enough size to not get hurt doing so.
While Griffin looks only to one receiver before running, Luck makes fairly quick progressions through his reads, although he occasionally abandons the pocket instead of showing patience and letting the play develop. Griffin's tendency to only look to one receiver before running will be a major liability in the NFL.
Pocket presence and progressions are not the only areas in which Luck is superior to Griffin. Griffin may have the prettiest deep ball in college football, but he doesn't plant his feet often at all, frequently resulting in wobbly spirals on short and intermediate throws. Luck throws extremely precise and smooth passes, although he has received criticism, most notably from former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, for lacking arm strength.
"I just don't see big time NFL throws," Simms said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I don't care what anybody says. I've watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there. And you can say what you want but, man, you've got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while. There's not a lot of rotation on the ball and there's not a tremendous amount of power. Not that you need to have that power arm. I'm not saying you've got to have that exclusively but, man, it sure helps when you can do that because there's four or five plays a game it is about arm strength."
Simss' assessment is correct in the sense that he ball does not travel to Luck's receivers quickly on short and intermediate passes, meaning they have to stop to catch the pass instead of getting it in stride. It is not a huge flaw, but it could limit his team's screen game until he can put more spin on throws near the line of scrimmage. Simms' assessment is incorrect in the sense that he said Luck does not have arm strength.
The lack of zip on Luck's passes does not come from weak arm, but from a flaw in his follow-through on his passes. Luck does not transfer enough weight onto his front leg as he releases the ball, which leads to the low velocity. Luck must fix this flaw to succeed in the NFL or his passes will be easy to intercept, but it is a much easier mechanical flaw to fix than Griffin's wobbly spiral and should not deter the Colts from making Luck the top pick of the draft.
What truly separates Luck from not just Griffin, but nearly every quarterback entering the draft since Peyton Manning himself, is Luck's tremendous ability to diagnose the defense before the snap and instantly audible into a play that gives the offense an advantage. Overstating the importance of Luck's ability to decipher the defense and change into a better play before the snap is nearly impossible.
The New York Giants are the perfect example of the advantage provided by a quarterback that can audible into plays that create good match-ups for the offense. When Eli Manning is making good pre-snap reads, the Giants' offense performs smoothly despite a quarterback with poor mechanics. When Manning is struggling to read the defense, he audibles into bad plays and the Giants fall into too many third-and-long situations to sustain drives on offense.
Luck's mental acuity and solid mechanics strongly outweigh his one mechanical flaw, which is an easily fixable one. Griffin's durability will be an issue as his style of play will cause him to take a large number of hits, and his passing skills are not refined enough for him to run an efficient NFL offense.
The Heisman winner's alluring speed and deep ball will fool more and more writers as the draft approaches, but carefully watching each player's game film will show Luck to be the player most worthy of holding the Colts' jersey on draft day in April.