A week before the regular season was set to begin, none of the four quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft were starting for their teams. The Jaguars still planned to sit Blake Bortles for the entire season (or as long as possible), Johnny Manziel was beaten out by veteran Brian Hoyer, Teddy Bridgewater was ready to learn behind Matt Cassel and Derek Carr was behind Matt Schaub on paper, although reports of him being the likely starter were already circulating and confirmed just a few days later.
After Week 3, three of those four quarterbacks are now starting for their respective teams, thanks to Chad Henne’s ineffectiveness and Cassel’s foot injury that will keep him out for a while. We can expect to see Bortles, Bridgewater and Carr under center for the rest of the season, and Chris Tripodi breaks down what they did well in Week 3 as well as where they need to improve.
Blake Bortles (QB-Jac)
After a decent Week 1 performance in which Jacksonville held an early 17-point lead, Jaguars starting quarterback Chad Henne imploded in Week 2 against the Redskins. His offensive line, arguably the worst in football, did him no favors by allowing 10 sacks, but some of those were on Henne holding the ball too long as well. Down 30-0 at halftime of Week 3 against the Colts, Henne was benched after throwing for just 30 yards in the first half while the Jaguars’ offense was completely lifeless. Enter Bortles, who was supposed to sit for the entire season even though the Jags picked him third overall, to start the second half.
A strong preseason performance initially fueled the fire towards Bortles getting a shot to play this season, and with Henne stifling the offense’s ability to move the football, the timetable was accelerated again. The plan was to let Bortles develop on the bench, but once Gus Bradley and company realized that plan could stunt the development of the offense around him, they decided it was time to make the move. The initial plan was smart because while Bortles’ skill set was worthy of a top-three pick, he is still rough around the edges.
At 6-5, 230 with the athleticism to break the pocket, Bortles fits the prototypes for both size and athleticism at the quarterback position in today’s NFL. Despite his solid frame, his balls tend to lose velocity beyond 15 yards downfield, and it’s because his footwork is a work in progress. Watching Bortles in the preseason was impressive, as he seemed to have ironed out some of his footwork issues and was using his lower half effectively to drive the ball downfield and to the sideline. That was against vanilla defenses, however, and these issues were still present in the second half Sunday against Indianapolis.
Jacksonville ran almost twice as many plays from the shotgun as they did under center, and Bortles’ issues in his lower half were far more prevalent when dropping back from under center. When setting up his base, Bortles showed a tendency to bring his front foot too close to his body, keeping his back leg stiff and causing him to lean back and throw off his back foot. He threw multiple passes that ended up short down the sideline as a result, one of which ended up as his first interception of the day. Bortles’ lack of lower-body torque also led to him throwing all arm on a few plays, many of which were either left low or behind his intended target, leading to incompletions and limited yards-after-catch opportunities.
It wasn’t all bad for Bortles, and there were plenty of positives about his debut. He injected life into the Jagaurs’ offense in the second half with his ability to threaten the deep and intermediate zones on the field and also to escape pressure. While his tendency to lock onto receivers too quickly before scanning the entire field allowed the Indianapolis safeties to make plays on the ball, he generally showed nice awareness and anticipation even if the results of the play didn’t show it. On a screen pass, Bortles held the ball for an extra beat rather than releasing it, which prevented the ball from being knocked down at the line of scrimmage with a rusher in the passing lane. Fellow rookie Allen Robinson was his favorite target on the day and their chemistry was apparent, as Bortles trusted him to be where he was supposed to be and threw him into open areas a few times, one being a dime dropped in between three Colts defenders.
Bortles reacted well to edge pressure on most plays when he could step up in the pocket, but didn’t sense Bjoern Werner’s presence on his third-quarter fumble that would have been a safety if not for an illegal contact penalty on the Colts. That play by Werner may have been payback for one earlier in the half, where Bortles bootlegged left out of play-action only to be met by Werner. Rather than panicking and getting sacked, Bortles recognized the pressure, spun back to the right and rolled out to find his fullback for a 26-yard gain. That one play encompassed the potential in Bortles’ game: Spacial awareness, the athleticism to extend plays and the ability to gather his feet underneath him and throw accurately on the run.
The Jaguars also used the zone-read effectively with Bortles in the game, and while the Colts likely did not prepare at all during the week to face such plays, future teams will which should open up passing windows for Bortles in the short and intermediate field off backfield fakes. While a smaller quarterback like Robert Griffin III is at increased risk of injury using the zone read, Bortles’ size should help protect him better when he runs. The former Central Florida star is also a passer first when he’s on the move, and does a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield looking to make a play with his arm before running only when forced.
One thing is for sure about Bortles, and it’s that he’s a much better option than Henne. That was the case from the start, but the Jaguars knew as well as anybody who extensively scouted Bortles at UCF that he was raw and needed time to work on his footwork. Putting him behind an offensive line in shambles is a somewhat scary thought, but there’s no reason to think Bortles will become the next Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert saw ghosts even in college, while Bortles has enough mobility to break the pocket when necessary and the size to protect himself on the run. He will definitely take his share of lumps this season, but the Jacksonville offense will look much better with him under center.
If Bortles eventually works out the kinks in his lower half and learns to scan the field and look off safeties, the natural talent is there for him to live up to the expectations bestowed upon him as the No. 3 overall pick. Jets quarterback Geno Smith had similar footwork issues under center in his rookie season, and despite his poor performance Monday night against the Bears, Smith looks like a much improved quarterback since Week 14 of last season than he did in his first 12 career games. Bortles’ development could follow a similar path, except he has young, exciting weapons to work with on offense.
Teddy Bridgewater (QB-Min)
Despite being drafted 29 picks after Bortles with the final pick of Day 1, Teddy Bridgewater was expected to make starts this season barring a Matt Cassel career renaissance. While Cassel was playing better than Henne, he fractured several bones in his foot early in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Saints and was quickly ruled out for the game. With Cassel set to miss an extended period of time, the Vikings should be Bridgewater’s team for the rest of the season even if Cassel returns to full health. If his performance Sunday against the Saints is any indication, Minnesota should be in good hands.
Bridgewater’s first pass came under duress, as he backed away from pressure to sling a pass off his back foot to Greg Jennings along the right sideline. Unlike Bortles, however, the poor mechanics shown on this play by Bridgewater were not indicative of a larger issue, just a reaction to the play in front of him. Aggressive defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought pressure again on the next play from scrimmage, and Bridgewater calmly found safety valve Matt Asiata wide open in the flat for a long gain.
The former Louisville star was under pressure for most of the game as Ryan dialed up blitz after blitz to try and force the rookie into mistakes, but Bridgewater’s mobility in the pocket allowed him to extend plays while his poise and calm demeanor kept him from making dangerous throws into coverage. His worst throw came on a third-and-five from the Saints 22-yard line, when he fired a pass way too hard into traffic intended for Matt Asiata on a quick diamond-in, getting Asiata nailed in the process.
Bridgewater’s best play of the game also came on a third-and-short play against the blitz. Ryan brought the house on third-and-one, recognizing that he needed to force Bridgewater to do something out of character to keep the Vikings from picking up the first down. The rookie calmly slid back in the pocket away from the incoming defenders, giving the speedy Cordarelle Patterson time to separate from Kendrick Lewis on a short middle cross before lofting a beautiful touch pass over the defensive line to Patterson for a two-yard gain and a first down.
The rookie was mostly limited to short passes on the day thanks to a combination of Ryan’s blitz packages forcing the ball out quickly, his comfort level on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and the limited playbook the coaching staff was using with their backup quarterback in the game. Bridgewater did make a few throws over 15 yards down the field, both to Greg Jennings. The first came on a play-action pass where the rookie quarterback had plenty of time to throw and hit Jennings in stride on a deep crossing pattern for 30 yards. Bridgewater tried to hit Jennings deep down the right sideline on the next throw, slightly overthrowing him to the boundary. One of the main knocks on Bridgewater during the draft process was leaving his deep balls short, and while that wasn’t the issue on this particular throw, Bridgewater did have to put his entire body into the throw to power it downfield. It’s something to watch for in the coming weeks, at least.
His aforementioned athleticism and pocket mobility didn’t just make Bridgewater effective avoiding pressure, but also extending plays on rollouts and throwing on the move after play-action. On the first drive of the third quarter, Bridgewater rolled right after play-action and placed a perfect ball on the move to Patterson for a nice sideline catch for 14 yards. Later in the game, Bridgewater used his elusiveness to make three Saints defenders miss in the backfield before escaping and lofting a ball to Jerick McKinnon in between two defenders, which was dropped.
Overall, Bridgewater did a great job of recognizing pressure, stepping up when it came off the edge and not being afraid to move into a hit to complete the play. His footwork was very polished and impressive and while he avoided risky throws in favor of dump-offs at times, he wasn’t afraid to push the ball into the intermediate range of the field when opportunities presented themselves. Bridgewater did a nice job of picking and choosing his spots, finishing 12-for-20 for 150 yards in just under three quarters of play. A good example of this was a late third-and-five where Bridgewater was pressured and could’ve dumped it off to McKinnon in the flat but eschewed the flat pass that wouldn’t have gotten the first down, instead stepping up away from pressure and trying to hit Jennings beyond the first-down marker. The pass was incomplete, but showed that Bridgewater has the situational awareness to know when checking down against pressure isn’t his best option.
There were a lot of positives to take out of Bridgewater’s debut and few negatives, as his pocket presence seemed to improve as he got more comfortable with the flow of the game. He was very composed against heavy pressure and showed a willingness to take what the defense gave him, while at the same time looking to make a bigger play when possible. Working under Norv Turner should aid Bridgewater’s development, as will having a veteran target like Jennings and an explosive weapon like Patterson who can create big plays without the ball being pushed downfield. If Bridgewater can hit a few more intermediate and deep throws in the coming weeks and continue to take care of the football, his future will be as bright as it once looked when he was touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
Derek Carr (QB-Oak)
Unlike Bortles and Bridgewater, Carr started both of the Raiders’ first two games this season, meaning he wasn’t just thrown into the fire this past week against New England. While at Fresno State, Carr threw on almost every play from scrimmage, which included a large amount of screen passes and short routes that served as the Bulldogs’ de facto running game. The Raiders, recognizing Carr’s familiarity with the short passing game, have kept him in a similar role so far in his rookie season. While Carr has completed 68 of his 108 passes in three games this year, he hasn’t averaged more than 10 yards per completion in any game.
The reasoning behind this gameplan could lie in the Raiders’ general lack of talent on offense, but it could also be that Carr isn’t ready to consistently threaten defenses down the field. While his footwork in clean pockets has been fine so far, he still doesn’t react well to pressure, particularly in the A and B gaps. On a third-and-10 play early in the second quarter, the Patriots’ blitz was picked up well by the Raiders’ protection but Carr, who started with a short drop out of the shotgun, bailed five yards backwards and completed a three-yard pass to Mychal Rivera. The ball had to travel a long distance to get back to the line of scrimmage, and Carr released the pass while moving backwards away from a non-threatening blitz. He didn’t give himself the chance to threaten the defense near the first-down marker because he panicked before giving his protection the chance to pick up the blitz.
On a first-and-10 with just under two minutes left to play in the game and the Raiders inside the New England 35-yard line, Carr again bailed backwards against the blitz. This time the pressure was heavy and didn’t get picked up, but instead of trying to scramble to extend the play and give himself a chance to throw the ball away outside the tackle box, Carr threw the ball up for grabs to a covered James Jones down the sideline. The pass wasn’t intercepted by Darrelle Revis, but it was an unnecessary risk on first down in field-goal range.
Two plays later, Carr threw an incomplete fade pass to Andre Holmes down the left sideline. The decision wasn’t poor, but his mechanics were. Carr hopped onto his back foot before releasing a pass straight into the air that ended up overthrown, although a pass interference call gave the Raiders the ball at the New England six-yard line. This was a consistent problem for Carr at Fresno State as well, as he has a tendency to trust his arm too much and throw sideline routes off his back foot. Sometimes it works as a back-shoulder pass but most of the time the ball ends up short, and isn’t placed in a spot where only the receiver can make the catch.
Carr did some good things against the Pats as well, showing nice anticipation on an early third-and-six completion to Rod Streater. Looking comfortable in a clean pocket, Carr anticipated Streater’s break into an out route and released the pass just before Streater cut to the sideline, leading to a nine-yard gain for the first down. Later in the game, Carr completed a similar route to Jones, but the ball came out late and was only completed because of Carr’s strong arm. On a positive note, Carr did a nice job scanning the field, starting with his first read to the right and coming all the way back left to find Jones. That’s part of the reason the ball came out late, but credit Carr for being patient, finding the open receiver and using his arm talent to make up for the lack of perfect timing.
The play that gives me the most hope for Carr’s potential was a third-and-four pass with four minutes left in the third quarter. Rather than falling back while throwing a deep ball down the left sideline, Carr set his feet and stepped into the throw, fitting a nicely-thrown ball in to Holmes between the cornerback and the safety. Holmes timed his leap perfectly to box out the corner and protect himself against the safety, putting the Raiders’ in field-goal range with the 29-yard connection. Oakland eventually settled for the field goal, but this play shows the potential Carr has if he cleans up his footwork on fade routes. A Carr-to-Holmes connection on these types of plays has dangerous potential.
While Carr’s first three career games have been far from disastrous, there’s also a lot for the rookie to learn. Unlike Bortles’ footwork issues that would have been better served getting worked out on the sideline, a luxury the Jaguars found out they didn’t have, Carr’s live repetitions should help reinforce what he needs to improve on. Watching the film from Week 3, especially his short sideline balls to Holmes and Jones, should show him the throws he has the skills to make if he gets his feet under him. The arm talent is special and he can make every throw on the field, but bad habits in the pocket can be tough to break. Just ask Jay Cutler, who still throws off his back foot and trusts his arm too often in his ninth NFL season. Carr’s style is very similar to Cutler’s gun-slinging ways, but the rookie has a lot to work on before he gets to that level.
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