Greg Cosell, in an appearance on the Midday180 on May 14, 2014: “I think Zach Mettenberger can be a quality NFL starting QB. … To me he was one of the top three QBs available in the draft.”
Eric Stoner, on the Draft Mecca podcast on January 31, 2014: “I already know, I’ll tell you right now that Cosell is going to absolutely fall in love with Mettenberger. This is his style of QB to a T. … I thought my grade on him would end up a lot higher than it did, [but] ended up settling as a fifth rounder.”
When I started this little post-draft mini-series with Bishop Sankey, I noted I was trying to record my “as definitive as I can be before they take an actual snap with the Titans.” What that has led to is to embracing the uncertainty in projecting these players. Is Sankey Gio Bernard or is he Javon Ringer? Is Marqueston Huff a safety, a corner, or nothing? Is DaQuan Jones more than just a younger Antonio Johnson? And what is it about Mettenberger that creates a divide where some people saw him as one of the best players in the draft (and I keep citing Cosell’s work because I respect the heck out of his knowledge and work) and others saw him as a day three pick and, oh, yeah, made me mad the Titans drafted him at all?
Dealing with that last one first, I’m not going to get into here (a) my arguments about why the Titans shouldn’t have drafted any quarterback on the third day this year, (b) what got him kicked out of Georgia, (c) the positive/diluted sample drug test at the Combine, aside from noting it does put him in the NFL’s testing protocol where any next substance abuse positive costs him four games, or (d) the torn ACL, both (i) because it seems like he’s recovering well from it and mobility was not a big part of his game anyway and (ii) as Ken Whisenhunt emphasized in June, Charlie Whitehurst is currently the Titans’ backup quarterback. Mettenberger’s the #3, or maybe technically competing for the #3 with Tyler Wilson. Plus, quarterback is (generally) not a part-time or rotational position; you’re either the starter or you don’t play. Thus, he does not face quite the same role questions as Huff or Jones or Avery Williamson or even Sankey.
What that leaves us with is the debate over Mettenberger’s on-the-field skills, and just what those are and how valuable those are. As a high-profile collegiate at high-profile position and surrounded by a bunch of other NFL prospects, Mettenberger has been pretty thoroughly scouted by other people who post things on the internet for ego as much as for money; see, for instance, this, or this or this, each worth your time if you’re interested in a detailed dive into Mettenberger and want a more specific detail- and plays-oriented breakdown than I provide in these posts.
The first point is that, unlike the divides over Sankey and Huff, we don’t know for sure where the Titans come out on their evaluation of Mettenberger. With Sankey and Huff, the Titans took them at the top end of the range where anyone valued them. They didn’t take Mettenberger until the sixth round. If they’d taken him early, we’d know they agree with the Mettenberger supporters. Even the Mettenberger doubters generally had him going in or before the sixth round based on his physical talent. They could consider him just as deeply flawed on the field as I do.
Second, Mettenberger has a very strong arm. The closest I’ve seen to a dispute here is his passes more than 45-50 yards downfield aren’t crisp. I don’t consider that too serious of an issue. Given Whisenhunt’s apparent preferences for quarterbacks, that’s an important attribute to have. I think he values arm strength more than I do, but he’s drafting quarterbacks for his conception of his offense; I’m not.
Third, Mettenberger improved as a senior playing in an NFL-style offense last year under Cam Cameron, making NFL-type throws. Projecting what he did in his college tape to what he might do in the NFL is a much more straightforward exercise than it is for a player like Derek Carr, who spent his last two seasons in the shotgun almost every play throwing loads of bubble screens, go routes off bubble screens, swings, screens, and fades. You pay put a lot of value on that or almost none.
Fourth, Mettenberger is willing to pull the trigger on throws. There’s no question this is important, but why is he doing it? If you’re a Mettenberger supporter, you see this as a positive virtue and something some other NFL quarterbacks could benefit from. If you’re a doubter, then his willingness to make throws wasn’t a demonstration of anticipation but instead was based on a recognition that his receivers had already won leverage in their routes and would bail him out if they didn’t. Oh, and if you watched Whisenhunt-coached QBs John Skelton and Ryan Lindley go 5-for-39 throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald over a four-week stretch in 2012, you may consider sheer willingness to pull the trigger more of a qualified virtue than an absolute one.
Fifth, Mettenberger is not a mobile quarterback, but just how much does that limit him? One of the things Cosell praised him for was his ability to throw with bodies around him. The questions are, at what point does he need the space and how quick is he to reset in the pocket? How does he respond in the pocket when space compresses? In discussing how Mettenberger improved in his senior season, Cameron specifically noted his ability to throw from smaller spaces within the pocket, including shortening his stride length, often an issue for taller passers (Mettenberger measured in a tick under 6’5″). Whisenhunt and Ruston Webster would say they’re trying to build an offensive line that makes this question irrelevant; we’ll see just what the future brings after 2012′s and 2013′s efforts to build the same sort of offensive line produced some mixed results.
I could go on, and if you’re really interested in that I do recommend that Draft Mecca podcast, which I almost completely agree with and which really helped me conceptualize what I’d seen of Mettenberger, plus the three linked in-depth analyses, and you can watch 15 games of his work at LSU (I didn’t). My bottom line question is the same one I had before starting this post-draft analysis, is he any more than a strong-armed QB who could have a certain level of success in the right offense, with the right pieces in place around him, both on the offensive line and at receiver?