Let’s face it, quarterback is by far the most important position on the football field. Yeah, it’s a team game and no one succeeds without quality players at every position, but a good QB is disproportionately valuable whether you’re lining up for the sectional title game in high school or the Super Bowl. As a result, lousy teams lacking a satisfactory quarterback pay an inordinate amount of attention to them as the NFL draft approaches. The problem is that they are unable to divert that attention when the available quarterbacks do not deserve it. So when Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert), Oakland (Matt Flynn), Philadelphia (Michael Vick, but rumored to be interested in drafting a QB), Buffalo (um, Kevin Kolb I guess?), the Jets (Mark Sanchez), and Cleveland (Brandon Weeden) step to the podium next week, they would do well to keep in mind the following story about a colossal (literally and figuratively) draft bust: JaMarcus Russell.
Back in the spring of 2007, I scored an internship with an agent who represented several good NFL players. With our lone free agent finally signed in mid-March and no potential draftees in our stable, we had plenty of time to speculate about the upcoming draft. Now I’m not a huge college football guy – I enjoy checking in on a key game every now and then but my Saturdays are largely free in the fall. At the same time, I’m a huge NFL fan so I pay attention to college ball enough to know who the key players are since they will inevitably end up in the discussion come draft day. So as the pre-draft hype kicked into high gear, I noticed that everyone’s golden boy QB – Brady Quinn of Notre Dame – had dropped down the mock draft boards. I asked my boss what he thought of this JaMarcus Russell guy who had suddenly become the expected top pick. His answer proved prophetic: “The kid has talent, but he’s raw. That’s why he was rated a 3rd round pick back in November – because the physical ability is there but he needs time to refine those skills. He won’t get that time if he goes #1 overall. Do you remember Akili Smith? If JaMarcus goes #1, he’ll be Akili Smith. Guys rated as 3rd rounders who jump to the top of the draft AFTER the season ends usually don’t do well.” My boss was 100% correct – by 2010 Russell was out of the league and one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory. What happened?
Elephants Never Forget, But Scouts Sometimes Do
When the 2006 college football season began, Jamarcus Russell was not considered the top quarterback prospect in the game – that honor fell to Notre Dame’s Quinn who had finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy voting the year before. Russell did not make the Pre-Season All-America Team; he was not ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks in the game; hell, he wasn’t even named LSU’s starter until just before their first game. Russell had a decent enough 2005 season: the Tigers finished 11-2, good for a #6 ranking in the final AP poll and Russell did a decent enough job passing the ball when Joseph Addai wasn’t running with it. But Russell hurt his shoulder in the SEC Championship game, forcing him to miss the Peach Bowl (now the Chick-fil-A Bowl) against Miami. In his place, backup Matt Flynn stepped under center and led LSU to a convincing 40-3 win which still ranks as the largest margin of victory in the bowl game’s history. Following Flynn’s performance, Russell had to convince his own team he was good enough to lead them, let alone the scouting community.
When the 2006 regular season ended, Russell had led the Tigers to a 10-2 record and #4 ranking behind 3129 yards passing, 28 touchdown passes against only 8 interceptions, and a 67.8% completion percentage. Nevertheless, he was not named a first, second, or third team All-American; he did not receive a single Heisman vote even though three other quarterbacks did; and – most importantly for our purposes – he was still not considered a first round draft pick let alone #1 overall. It is difficult to find in-season 2007 mock drafts from reputable sites that don’t require my credit card, but if you take a look here, you will see hundreds of fan-generated mock drafts from right after the end of LSU’s regular season. You will notice that Russell appears in just a handful of these mocks, and even when he does he’s usually projected as a mid-second rounder at best. However, jump ahead a mere three weeks to mid-December and all of a sudden JaMarcus is a consistent mid-first rounder who occasionally sneaks into the top ten. Russell had a good, but not great 2006 season so why did the perception of him shift so dramatically in a three week span during which he didn’t throw a single pass? I have two words for you: Sugar Bowl.
A Series of Fortunate Events
For JaMarcus Russell, his Sugar Bowl matchup became the launching pad that shot him to the #1 pick in the 2007 draft: Russell’s #4 ranked LSU Tigers were set to face Brady Quinn’s #11 Notre Dame Irish. Russell’s performance during the season put him on the radar, but the irresistible storyline of this quarterback matchup provided the fuel to shoot him up the draft board on hype alone. At this point, his arm strength was a known commodity as was his size (6’6″, 256 lbs.) – going head-to-head with the projected top QB then became a perfect opportunity for JaMarcus to cement his status as the #2 QB at a bare minimum. Then they played the game. While Quinn stumbled to the tune of 15 of 35 passing for 148 yards, 2 TDs and 2 interceptions, Russell dominated on 21 of 34 passing for 332 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 interception as LSU rolled to a 41-14 win and JaMarcus was named the game’s MVP. Never mind that the LSU defense faced by Quinn was significantly better than the Notre Dame defense faced by Russell – JaMarcus’ performance against the perfect opponent had finally thrust him into the conversation for the #1 overall pick.
Things only snowballed from there. At the LSU pro-day in March of 2007, Russell put on one of the greatest shows in pre-draft workout history. He dropped back to pass and hit his receivers right in the numbers nearly every time. He threw passes 60 yards downfield on his seventy-fifth pass just as easily as he did on his first. Jon Gruden, then coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and something of a QB guru was so impressed he effused “The workout Russell had was Star Wars. It was unbelievable.” High praise indeed. Of course, all this ignored the fact that Russell wasn’t throwing into the teeth of a pass rush or that he had never played in a pro-style offense or that he routinely only had to look at one receiver before throwing and his primary WR – Dwayne Bowe – was one of the best in the country. Nope…none of that mattered because JaMarcus Russell was big and strong and could throw the football far. The teams looking for a QB were blinded by that dazzling arm.
Let’s keep in mind that mock draft boards solidify partly because of signals sent out by the teams doing the drafting. In that respect, Russell couldn’t have chosen a better team to have the #1 pick than the Oakland Raiders that year. Al Davis ran the Raiders’ draft right up until the very end, refusing to relinquish control of his beloved team. It was common knowledge that Davis loved speedy receivers and a vertical passing game. To re-implement that style of passing attack following (former Raiders’ coach) Gruden’s foray into the west coast offense with Rich Gannon at the helm, Davis would need a big armed QB to get the job done. Enter JaMarcus Russell. With that tremendous arm of his, there was no way Russell would get past the Raiders and he didn’t – to the surprise of no one, Oakland selected Russell with the #1 pick in the draft. His rise from a mid-round pick to the top was complete.
In the end, JaMarcus Russell failed in the NFL for a number of reasons: a prolonged holdout during his rookie season, an inability to implement a pro offense, weight problems, bad coaching, and general immaturity. And given the six years of stats we have since that draft, we know that none of the other QBs selected would have helped the Raiders much more than Russell did. But the Raiders and every other draftnik who stuck JaMarcus atop their draft board should have seen these signs leading up to the draft. At his pre-draft workout, scouts were pleased to see he had lost nine pounds since his appearance at the combine, a bright red flag for a 256 lb. football player who already looked more like a linebacker than a quarterback. Game-tape should have shown everyone what kind of offense he worked in and scouts were certainly aware that LSU frequently took advantage of a wide talent-gap with its non-conference opponents. When wrapped in a slightly less impressive physical specimen, those traits would have overridden the flashy Sugar Bowl and workout performances and knocked Russell down a few pegs, maybe to the middle of the 1st round or out of it altogether. With less pressure as a lower pick, who knows, perhaps JaMarcus could have succeeded, but the Raiders and everyone else ignored the warning signs and picked him #1 anyway. The rest, as they say, is history.
Have NFL teams learned anything from the JaMarcus Hustle? Not all of them. Take a look on the interwebs for mock drafts and you’ll find that nearly every single one has West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith going in the top ten (Philadelphia at #4 seems to be the popular destination at the moment) along with any of a handful of other QBs going to Buffalo at #8 and to the Jets at #13 (for prognosticators brave enough to project a Darelle Revis trade to Tampa Bay). Seeing a top QB go #4 in the draft normally wouldn’t cause anyone to think twice since guys like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan have all been drafted even higher in recent years. However everyone agreed that not only were those players the best quarterbacks in the draft, they were also among the very best players overall. No one thinks that about Geno Smith or any other QB this year. Most seem to agree that Smith is the top signal-caller in his class, but peg him as a late first rounder when compared with every other potential draftee. The other QBs – guys like Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib, etc. – all grade out in the second round or lower. Yet teams still seem to consider these guys as top talents worthy of valuable high draft picks. This is the blindness caused by the JaMarcus Hustle: overvaluing a player simply because he is a quarterback and then drafting him higher than his talent warrants. When all the evidence on hand says the player you’re drafting at #4 is only the 24th best player, then you’re doing it wrong. As my boss said, “Guys rated as 3rd rounders who jump to the top of the draft AFTER the season ends usually don’t do well.” That hasn’t changed in the six years since the Raiders drafted JaMarcus Russell, but no one seems to remember that. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, even in football.