2014 NFL Draft: Scouting Blake Bortles
Wrestling with Blake Bortles as a prospect has both been instructive for me as an evaluator and reinforcement of the system of methodical, granular scouting. A first (as well as second, and possibly even third) look at Bortles as a prospect had me wondering where the hype was coming from and why he’d be worth more than a 3rd round pick, optimistically.
Breaking down his strengths one by one and casting light on his particular issues really helps explain why Bortles is so highly valued by others, and reportedly within the NFL. Once again, we can evaluate Bortles using the same categories that we used to look at Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel: Accuracy, Delivery, Pocket Presence, Ball Velocity, Field Sense, Scrambling/Running, Intangibles and Primary Concerns.
It’s not that Bortles is a particularly difficult enigma to solve; he just requires a lot of time to understand. I get the hype and it’s more than his build, though I may end up disagreeing with the draft intelligentsia on what it means.
Once again, I should mention that almost everything I found of Bortles came via Draft Breakdown, the best website for any budding or experienced draft analyst in order to break down the film themselves.
Delivery: Normally I start with accuracy, but I have to start here, because everything there is to know about Bortles comes through this bottleneck. In a word, Bortles’ delivery is horrible. There are times throughout the season that it is significantly worse (Baylor, Memphis) or significantly better (Penn State) than his “baseline,” whatever that may mean, but it’s never been ideal.
Starting from the ground up, Bortles has issues with a narrow base that prevent him from stepping into his throws and he rarely transfers his weight. Generally speaking, the transfer of his weight is extremely inefficient, even when he does widen his stance and push forward. His moments of good footwork are many times wasted and perfunctory as most of his weight stays on his back foot. Sometimes this manifests itself with an odd look where he leans back.
Moving further up, his knees tend to lock, especially when there’s interior pressure, and that kills any value that he may have generated from footwork or having the presence of mind to reset himself before his throw.
The problems with his feet lead to problems in his shoulders, though one can be resolved without the other (though it’s much more difficult to). When he doesn’t widen his base, he reduces the room he has to work with for his shoulders to rotate around his central axis, and he can only push the ball forward with his arm instead of his body.
As for how his arm looks, there’s a lot of work to be done. Often he’ll have a large loop in his throw that hitches at the top. It’s an enormous and long throwing motion that will not only provide opportunities for enterprising defensive linemen, but give defenders long lead time to break on the ball.
Many times this comes from the fact that he carries the ball low when dropping back, and he tends to keep his elbow low—which means he works against himself because it creates undue stress on the elbow and creates further inefficiencies in his motion. There’s a natural resting point midway through the classic over-the-top motion that makes throwing look natural and easy; it also happens to be the most efficient way to get rid of the ball, and forcing your arm to work into that state takes a lot of energy away from the ball—many times this will either lead to a sailing ball that leaves the hand too high and without control or a sidearm throw as the motion overcompensates.
Even when he does carry the ball high and tight, however, he still creates a (tighter) long, looping motion that swings through because he’s trying to find a way to create power.
As a result, it is difficult to evaluate many of his other skills—though isolating them to times his mechanics were favorable does provide a glimpse into what the NFL wants. As it stands, his ball velocity and accuracy are extremely spotty because of these mechanical failures.
There are other elements I usually cover in this section as well: the ability to throw from multiple platforms, his drop depth, consistency and the ability to throw a catchable ball.
As it stands now, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to evaluate his ability to make throws in unique or odd circumstances, but for the most part he flashes the capability to make improvisational throws. His drop depth is generally fine, although NFL coaches will want to work on how he drops back from center as well—his footwork is not so obviously bad there, but still well worth fixing.
When the ball doesn’t wobble, it lands nose up in receiver’s hands and tends to be catchable and friendly to receivers; rarely does Bortles throw the ball too quickly or completely out of place for his receivers.
Accuracy: Naturally, this swings wildly with his mechanics and is difficult to fully project or evaluate. While Bortles’ completion percentage (67.8%) and distance-adjusted general accuracy is high, there’s a significant distinction between his ability to get the ball to his receivers and his ability to get the ball to his receivers in space where only they can get it, or space where they can create extra yards.
For right now, that gap is very important in terms of how accurate he is and what it means to be accurate. What should be considered a positive sign for him is the fact that he clearly knows where the ball should be and regularly aims at spots that should be friendly to receivers, but will find the ball sail out of his hands or wobble out of position in flight.
The reason there can be some level of confidence to this point is that the balls he throws with zip do tend to find receivers in space only they can get it, with an ability to run for more. More than that, his field sense provides him additional accuracy in that he has a fantastic ability to anticipate receivers and throw them open. He knows when his players will break free of coverage and takes advantage of it.
There is another controlling factor for his poorly regarded accuracy, which is that none of his receivers seem to run routes very effectively—rounding them out and giving them away—and that could hide some of his more accurate throws, but at some point he simply has to adjust and lead the receiver away from the defensive back.
When Bortles has rotated through the throw, his accuracy and zip on intermediate balls is extremely good. For what it’s worth, the way that he plays deep is generally good as well, but only insofar as the ball has a better chance of getting to a receiver, not mechanically. Some of his deep passes and red zone plays show extraordinary touch, and any NFL coach would love to find a way to make that happen consistently.
He’s a natural thrower that is decent on the run, but can get a little rushed in the process while on the move. Generally speaking, he throw to screens or outlet passes when he’s scrambling (in part due to line protection), so it’s difficult to be inaccurate. Some of the ball placement issues show up in those routes, but not too much.
Pocket Presence: Bortles is one of the best talents in terms of pocket presence in the draft.
He ranks up there almost with Bridgewater, albeit with a completely different style that is difficult to break down by contrast. It’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of this ability, and many evaluators could look at the same set of plays and come up with the conclusion that Bortles may have better presence in the pocket than Bridgewater.
Pressure never seems to rattle him, and he maintains composure regardless of the number, size or speed of the rushers heading towards him. The UCF Knight also doesn’t seem to be affected by hits or sacks after the fact.
With the presence of mind to keep a clock going in his head, he can maintain his fundamentals (other than mechanical) as pressure heads his way, being sure to look off a safety or bait a linebacker before hitting his receiver.
Bortles seems to have a natural intuition for avoiding pass rushers, and can be either conservative or aggressive in response, depending on the situation. Much more often than not, he’s conservative about it, taking smaller steps or slipping into a newer throwing lane while keeping his eyes downfield instead of running for a gain or breaking the pocket well outside the numbers.
He manages edge pressure supremely well and he’s willing to stare down the barrel of a gun if it means making the throw.
One detail worth noting is that he does take a slight second to reset himself after adjusting to pressure (which is a slightly longer pause than many others), and this sort of subtle play has some evaluators very excited about Bortles.
In response to most blitzes or pressure, he tends to give the ball to one of his quicker players in the screen game. That doesn’t mean he isn’t patient in the pocket or that he can’t stand tall as a hit is coming in.
It’s a natural instinct for him to find his hot route or checkdown and give that player the ball whenever the pocket is in trouble, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t afraid to take advantage of the holes created by a blitz or work an extremely favorable matchup.
I’ve seen some stuff around the web of him having inconsistent pocket presence, but I haven’t found that to be the case in the six games of his that I watched.
Ball Velocity: Normally when we think of a raw prospect that has limitless upside, we think of a big arm or a great runner. Usually both.
That goes double for those quarterbacks that fit the mold at 6’5” and 232 pounds.
But Bortles hasn’t demonstrated a clear talent for top-tier ball speed at the next level. In fact, if he boosts his accuracy but maintains the same ball speed, he’ll be a big liability in the NFL and a big turnover risk.
There is a chance that like Manziel, there are two different worlds when it comes to Bortles’ ball velocity, and it could hide some true arm talent that he has. It is more difficult to determine with Bortles, because Manziel’s moments of true zip stand out and imply that he can throw it faster than he usually does.
Bortles’ throws from uncomfortable stances don’t tend to leave the hand with the same force as they do Manziel, so it’s clear that his unharnessed arm strength is not top-tier.
Even after accounting for issues with his delivery, the ball flutters far too much in the air, and he needs to put a lot under it in order to get reasonable distance. He has moments with pretty spirals going deep, but the aesthetic beauty of the throw ignores the fact that the ball still “rainbows” a bit too much and is easy for defenders to track.
The few times I do see good delivery from Bortles, the ball comes out with reasonable speed, but nothing particularly great. Arcing too high and taking a long time to get to his target, Bortles will be bait for safeties until he fixes it, which he can.
When throwing off his back foot and on the run, he throws with enough power that the ball drives with sufficient speed and accuracy to give him a little bit of leeway on this judgment, but I would argue that Bortles for right now has a “weak” arm until he fixes his feet and shoulders, at which point it may become just “above average.”
For all the griping I do about his arm strength, it’s true that Bortles throws a friendly ball that is catchable for his receivers, usually nose up to land softly in their hands at any speed. This can counter the issues of catching a ball with a muddy spiral, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it as a concern.
Field Sense: The biggest negative from a field sense perspective is his tendency to lock on to receivers if he thinks they will definitely get open in the matchup. Otherwise, he will go through a read or two before throwing and likes to scan the middle of the field to that effect. Bortles can at times manipulate the defense with his eyes, but for the most part will lock on to a receiver and give things away.
Bortles generally has a sense for what a defense is about to do, and he’s usually right about which half of the field to begin scanning before the play starts. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with his read on defenses, and his offense isn’t the simple one-key offense, but seems to match many of the concepts employed by the Erhardt-Perkins offenses (though I don’t have confirmation of this from anyone).
As one of the three primary offensive systems employed in the NFL, this gives him a big advantage over players like Johnny Manziel (and arguably Derek Carr, depending on how much you value his time in 2011 under Pat Hill) that gives him experience with the types of reads and keys and variety of plays that quarterbacks are expected to know in the NFL.
His inexperience does show at time, and complex coverages give him a little bit of trouble. His ability to pick out which target to key in on based on the coverage, however, is great and something that should serve him well. For the most part I saw a lot of his interceptions not as a result of bad decisionmaking, but poor throwing—he picked the right receiver, but for whatever reason couldn’t get the ball to him. Ball velocity has been the clear culprit a few times, but sometimes it is simply inaccuracy.
Nevertheless, the defenses most willing to throw unusual defensive concepts at him were much more successful than they’d be against current NFL talent during the season.
Bortles doesn’t have the cerebral reputation that Teddy Bridgewater gets, and perhaps that’s fair, but it would be a mistake to dismiss his ability to pick at coverages and make the right decisions in those context. As mentioned in the “accuracy” section this gives Bortles a measureable skill that many quarterbacks coming out of college either didn’t have or had to learn: throwing before the receiver is open.
It’s difficult to correctly emphasize the importance of this, but given the fact that there are rarely receivers in the NFL that can sit in an open spot without having to move, anticipation is one of the skills that a quarterback “must have” in order to succeed.
This ability to throw a receiver open allows him to operate in a wider variety of offenses and may be even better if his receivers were better at running routes.
From what I can tell, Bortles also handles some line calls to the extent that he will point out the Mike or potential rushers, but does not set the protections based on what I saw. His authority to audible at the line of scrimmage is there, and based on what I know is limited to the same authority many modern quarterbacks get—a few plays to draw upon in any situation. A good portion of the plays that ended up being run in any particular game were the result of an audible, not a sideline call.
This control at the line and responsibility to identify the fulcrum for the blockers says good things about his ability to transition to the NFL. I don’t doubt he’ll continue his excellent diagnosis.
He checks down a little bit too much for my liking, to be completely honest, but it’s a high degree of risk aversion for a quarterback well-known for his courage in the pocket that can be good. Definitely, I would rather he check down too often than not enough, especially with how he plays.
Bortles’ sophistication as an intelligent signal-caller is going underreported, and he’s done an excellent job figuring out what defenses were throwing him and how to attack them. There are very few negatives of him as a field general executing and reordering a strategy.
Scrambling/Running: As a runner, he may be underrated. He doesn’t have the explosion of Cam Newton, but he sort of reminds me of Newton in the way that he runs (though this may be because I am uncreative and they are about the same size). He’s willing to give head fakes or hip wiggles in order to throw defenders off and force them to commit in the wrong direction and finds creases naturally.
I really like him as a runner on designed runs, and I think this is something any offense he’s drafted into should take advantage of. He has natural balance and power that makes him difficult to bring down, and defenders slide off of him (both in the pocket and past the line of scrimmage).
Bortles is a smart runner with good vision and an understanding of field space. He runs to where open grass will be and correctly anticipates defenders both in the pocket and past the LOS. He is also much faster on the field than he looks (in the same way Randy Moss was because of a long, loping body and gait), and consistently runs past the angles defenders had on him. The fact that he ran a 4.93 40-yard dash doesn’t impact my assessment of his ability to get past defenders.
When he scrambles instead of runs, he can escape pressure well and even keeps his eyes downfield as he’s moving around in the pocket or abandoning it completely. He has a good sense of where people are that his scrambles can turn into positive yardage on a regular basis.
As a note, his play fake ability is incredible. It is difficult to see film of him running an option where he didn’t fool the defender, and his play-action passes move bodies.
Intangibles: Odes were written about Bridgewater’s intangibles, while triteness dominated the conversation about Manziel’s leadership, but there’s very little by way of accessible resources that speak to Bortles’ ability to lead and inspire a team.
It’s fairly well established that Bortles is a filmaholic and can often be found studying an upcoming opponent or drilling down reads. I’ve heard tell that he’s regarded extremely well by both the players and the coaches not just for his work ethic, but his “brilliance” as well.
He works with others to break down film and is willing to drill in concepts in one-on-one environments to make sure players are on the same page, and he also happens to have natural charisma (reportedly). Quietly but obviously competitive, Bortles has participated in a number of game-winning or near-game-winning drives, with unusual success.
Bortles checks out from the perspective of something I can only speculate about.
Primary Concerns: There are a number of reasons to be concerned about Bortles—erratic throws and arm strength primarily—but they all boil down to his extremely questionable mechanics.
The thing about his delivery and mechanics are that most of his problems are generally regarded as easy to fix. In fact, fixing some of the issues may contribute to fixing other issues. But make no mistake, fixing all them, integrating them and making sure they’re engrained even late in the fourth quarter against an unblocked pass rusher about to get his seventh hit of the day is a huge task.
Because of the complex nature of the compound fixes needed, it may be the case that it would be easier to fix a single one of these issues independently in many different prospects than it would be to fix all of them in one. Even if all the fixes were independent and not part of a larger coproductive mechanic, consider:
If each of the problems was fixable with a success rate of 90% (which is probably very generous), then there’s only a 50% chance that six problems would resolve themselves.
A more reasonable estimate 75% chance for each fix would predict an 18% success rate overall.
Not all of these problems need to be fixed for him to be a good quarterback, nor does every problem have to hit a high threshold of solvency before moving on, but they stand out like a sore thumb constantly. The numbers used in the example aren’t meant to be definitive, but a demonstration of an overall concept—having a bunch of easy-to-solve problems doesn’t mean the overall problem is easy to solve.
It is difficult to think in probabilities, and humans tend to think in yes/no binaries when predicting future outcomes. They tend to bias outcomes like 80% as 100% and 20% as 0% (or nearly so) and continue to take givens. In the particular, that’s not a huge issue, but with compounding interdependent probabilities, that becomes a big issue.
When coaches, who are already overconfident in their ability to fix a prospect, assume that a fix that has a 90% probability of being successful will succeed 100% of the time, they end up advocating a player they largely think is a sure thing when he is closer to a coin flip.
All those “easy” fixes in his delivery aside (which through another likely but not guaranteed assumption should resolve both the accuracy and arm strength concerns), he does need more eye discipline and in general needs to stop tipping off where he’s going to throw.
While his pocket presence and poise is good, and he manages pressure well, the process of resetting his throws forces his mechanics to degrade even further, and that’s where many of his bad throws come from. He also is simply not used to top-tier defensive backs and how quickly they can move into a passing lane and grab the ball.
Conclusion: Anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine will understand the kind of process it may take to get Bortles to become an NFL-ready player: his mechanics must be destroyed before they are rebuilt in their entirety.
After watching Bortles again with more rigor, my initial impression was extremely disfavorable. It wasn’t until I saw about 200 throws of his that I really understood why he was regarded as a top ten pick. It’s not so much that I’ve come around to agree with that assessment, but a secure GM would be hard-pressed to ignore what he could be.
There’s a reason that Greg Bedard asked, “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?” when he began his article on Bortles.
But the looming truth of compounding probabilities and the absurdity of the (imaginared) statement, “he would be perfect if it weren’t for the way he throws the ball” ultimately makes me shy away from that temptation.
Because of his anticipation and success in reading defenses (through the lens of a pro-style offense, no less) as well as the lower degree of difficulty in fixing what’s wrong with him, I would rate him above Johnny Manziel, but wouldn’t begrudge anyone if they disagreed.
As it stands, I’m already backing away from the somewhat “high” grade I gave Manziel that put him late in the first round anyway, and instead I’d offer a clear-cut second-round grade on both.