Lombardi: Why Bryce Young should be the first pick in the NFL draft

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The best way to begin any evaluation of a potential NFL draft prospect starts from a negative viewpoint. Yes, the best way to scout is from a Debbie Downer mindset.   Why?  Because being a “prove it to me” scout forces the player to demonstrate his talents, without assuming he is great, then keeps your eyes open and helps remove biases.  The negative view essentially forces the player to show his talents and prove your assumptions wrong through his play.   When you begin in a positive frame, then you overlook the flaws, overlook the bad plays, and make excuses for the mishaps.  It’s a natural human instinct to agree with the perceptions, instinctively, most people are not contrarians.  Your mind loves being in a euphoric state, and no one wants to be a party pooper. 

When I would watch Bryce Young of Alabama play during the fall, I was negative about his game translating into the NFL.  I was political with my answer to the question:  How good is Bryce?  I would say, it was hard to not acknowledge he was a great college player, but his lack of size and frame made me highly skeptical of his talents on Sunday.  I was doubtful, adding, I missed the memo on 5’10 quarterbacks being in vogue.  The NFL has never had a player with his size dominate the game—or transform a franchise.  Small players aren’t the norm—particularly small quarterbacks.  

No one remembers Eddie LeBaron.  Who?  Yes, Eddie LeBaron, a 5’7 quarterback, was the smallest ever to make the Pro Bowl when he played for the team in Washington and then again for the newly started Dallas Cowboys.  LeBaron was a fast runner, could handle the ball and was known to take off and run for first downs when running quarterbacks were not commonplace.  His name shines brightly on the Commanders’ Wall of Fame having gone to four pro bowls and winning rookie of the year in 1952.  He was also a military hero earning the Bronze Star for his heroism when he served in the Korean War during his NFL career.  LeBaron started 85 games over his 11-year career and only won 28 of them. Yes, he was fun to watch, but his skills never made the teams better.   When Doug Flutie was playing at Boston College in the early 1980s, winning the Heisman, no one other than Mike Ditka of the Bears thought he could play with the big boys.  After a few below-average seasons, Flutie went to the CFL, made a difference came back to the NFL in 1998 winning comeback player of the year.  He then had starting stints with the Chargers, even replacing Drew Brees in 2002. 

Most smallish quarterbacks cannot see down the field, they miss open receivers and tend to overthrow the ball in the middle of the field because they don’t have a great sight line from the pocket. Their depth perception is off, and they feel they must overthrow the ball to get it over the height of the defensive front.   So, the ball sails, and interceptions happen. 

Another reason I was anti-Young to start was because of another Young—Steve.  As I wrote about in Gridiron Genius, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh called the entire 49er staff together for a meeting to announce the opportunity to trade for Young from the Tampa Bay Bucs.  When Walsh asked for a call of hands as a yes vote, not a hand went up.  Not Mike Holmgren’s, not Bobb McKittrick, Ray Rhodes, George Seifert, Denny Green, Fred von Appen, or Lynn Stiles.  No one.  This lack of enthusiasm for Young was in part due to their love and great respect for starter Joe Montana and that Young was on the shorter side height-wise.  When Walsh called me out of the meeting in complete disgust, sending me to the airport to get Young, the first thing I noticed was the cowboy boots Young was wearing to make him look a tad taller.  Young had no issue with his height when playing and Walsh knew his skills would fit perfectly into his offense. 

With my “Debbie Downer” view of Bryce, I put the video on, and as I always do when watching a quarterback ask myself, “Who would Bill like?”  WWBL is the best system for evaluating quarterbacks, shifting your focus from the powerful arm to the rhythmic foot movement, the timing of the arm in sync with the feet, and the ability to turn a bad play into a great play.  Walsh wanted athletic talent, instincts, and vision.  He wanted someone who had an uncanny ability to see what others don’t and who had creativity in his play.  He wanted Sugar Ray Leonard, the dancer the bobber, the jabber who could punch and move, not Thomas Hearns, the powerful puncher, who battered his opponents on the ropes. 

Once you start studying Bryce, you realize, Walsh would have fallen deeply in love.  Young has every quality Walsh loved in quarterbacks and then some.  He would have not worried about his height as his system would modify to fit his talents.  Young played against the best of the best against Georgia in the SEC Championship game and showed his talents, making incredible throws with pinpoint accuracy and timing.  As a current head coach told me after watching Young throw, “his arm is elite, way better than I expected and I thought it was good before.”

We all know, if Young was 6-feet-2, he would be the first pick by a long shot. In fact, the Bears would not have traded the pick.  Young is a generational talent when prior generations have not been kind to men his height.  Young has what all great players possess—memory.  Not memory from studying that medical students acquire from spending countless hours with their faces in books. This is a different form of memory—from experience. The game goes slow for the great player, and they can recite their thoughts and ideas verbatim rewatching the play decades later.  NBA legend Bill Russell was an undersized center who possessed this instinctive memory skill, allowing him to dominate the game.  When his wife found an old San Francisco Don college game on YouTube, she purchased the game for Russell to relive as a birthday gift.  When they sat down to review the game, Russell remembered every play with incredible detail, even though the game was played fifty years earlier.  Great players see the game differently, and they remember what they see. 

After reading about Russell and this gift, I was reminded of my experiences interviewing players and spending time with Ray Lewis and former Nebraska Cornhusker Lawrence Phillips.  On the video was Miami’s defense against the offense of Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.  Lewis was into the action, knowing the offensive sets, the lineman’s splits, the tendencies, and the results.  Phillips remembered nothing, nor could he explain the offense.  This didn’t make Phillips a bad player—only not an elite player.  Remembering that day and being able to better understand what I witnessed has allowed me to understand why Young is special and the best player at quarterback in the draft. 

I am not against CJ Stroud from Ohio State, only knowing that Stroud offers some great gifts for the position, but he doesn’t have the elite element, the greatness gene of memory that Young possess.  Yes, I fully acknowledge Young will need to stay away from the big heights, he will need to play bigger than his size, much like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors has done.  The only downfall in picking Young lies with the chances of injury, which all players share.  Young’s lack of height won’t make him another LaBaron or Flutie as the game today is more welcoming to smaller passers. 

The Panthers didn’t give up all those assets for a good player—they paid dearly for the chance to gain a great player, and there is only one great quarterback in the draft—Bryce Young.