Quarterback Logan Thomas, defensive end James Gayle and cornerback Antone Exum have all received a draft grade back from the advisory board, although none have made that information public.
Thomas, obviously, is the highest profile of the three. Projected as a top-five pick last offseason, he watched his stock drop considerably throughout an erratic year in which he couldn’t throw the ball with any consistency. Yet he’s still a potentially high draft pick because of his physical tools.
Thomas has said it would be hard to turn down first-round money if he were projected to go that high (chances are his grade isn’t that good), but he also said this before the bowl game: “More time to be able to play some more games isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t think I could go in and start an NFL game right now and be fine and come out with a win, so I think I need some work to be done, but that comes with practice.”
The thing is, NFL teams don’t often draft quarterbacks in the first round — or in the first three, really — if they don’t intend to start them very soon in their careers. In the last four years, 13 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (I accidentally omitted Christian Ponder earlier). Eight started from Day 1, including all four taken in the first round last year (plus third-rounder Russell Wilson). Of the 13, 12 started at least one game in their first year in the pros.
Of the 22 quarterbacks taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft the last four years, 17 have started at least one game in their rookie year. Two – Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick – started their first game in their second year. Three have never started a game, two of which are backing up Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Here’s the list:
- 1st round, 1st pick: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 2nd pick: Robert Griffin III, Washington — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 8th pick: Ryan Tannehill, Miami — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 22nd pick: Brandon Weeden, Cleveland — started from Day 1
- 2nd round, 57th pick: Brock Osweiler, Denver — backup
- 3rd round, 75th pick, Russell Wilson, Seattle — started from Day 1
- 3rd round, 88th pick, Nick Foles, Philadelphia — started in 10th game
- 1st round, 1st pick: Cam Newton, Carolina — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 8th pick: Jake Locker, Tennessee — started in 17th game
- 1st round, 10th pick: Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville — started in 3rd game
- 1st round, 12th pick: Christian Ponder, Minnesota — started in 7th game
- 2nd round, 35th pick: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati — started from Day 1
- 2nd round, 36th pick: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco — started in 28th game
- 3rd round, 74th pick: Ryan Mallett, New England — backup
- 1st round, 1st pick: Sam Bradford, St. Louis — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 25th pick: Tim Tebow, Denver — started in 14th game
- 2nd round, 48th pick: Jimmy Clausen, Carolina — started in 3rd game
- 3rd round, 85th pick: Colt McCoy, Cleveland — started in 6th game
- 1st round, 1st pick: Matthew Stafford, Detroit — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 5th pick: Mark Sanchez, New York Jets — started from Day 1
- 1st round, 17th pick: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay — started in 8th game
- 2nd round, 44th pick: Pat White, Miami — never started
Looking at that, it’s hard to imagine an NFL team selecting Thomas high and not inserting him in the lineup early on in his career.
There’s also a financial aspect. The 15th pick in the first round last year, Seattle defensive end Bruce Irvin, signed a four-year contract for $9.34 million under the NFL’s rookie salary scale, with a $5.2 million bonus. A mid-second round contract, for comparison’s sake, was worth $4.3 million with a $1.5 million bonus. A mid-third round contract was worth $2.7 million with a $588,000 signing bonus.
Now, that’s not chump change, and it’s life-changing money to 99 percent of the population. But it’s clear Thomas could play himself into a financial windfall if he returns and has a strong senior season. Last year, Luck’s contract was worth $22.1 million with a $14.5 million signing bonus. Griffin, who was taken right behind him, signed a $21.1 million contract with a $13.7 million signing bonus. Even Tannehill, the third quarterback off the board with pick No. 8, got a $12.6 million contract with a $7.6 million bonus.
If Thomas could match his on-field performance with the physical tools that pro scouts still love, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him taken in the top half of the first round with a solid senior season. Look what even a decent season has done for N.C. State’s Mike Glennon, who some are projecting to be the first quarterback off the board, in large part because of a similar physical build (6-6, 232) to Thomas.
It remains to be seen what Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd do with regards to the NFL. Both are juniors. Both had big finishes to strong seasons in a bowl game. And although neither possesses the same physical skills as Thomas, both have far larger resumes of success in college and could be attractive for an NFL team looking for someone to play right away.
Their decisions could affect Thomas’. This year’s draft class is not particularly strong at quarterback. USC’s Matt Barkley, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Glennon appear to be emerging as the top three on the board, although none have that Luck/Griffin buzz. NFL Draft Scout has Murray first, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray second and Boyd sixth in its 2014 quarterback rankings. (Bray has already announced he’s turning pro.) Thomas is fourth, although the field would open up if either Murray or Boyd goes pro.
The argument for leaving early always hinges around potential injury and what kind of coaching Thomas will get his senior season at Virginia Tech. If he doesn’t think he’ll get the kind of instruction that can help him advance his career and succeed at the next level, it would make sense for him to get that work at the pro level as a backup. What Frank Beamer does in the next weeks with his offensive coaching staff could have a major impact on Thomas’ thinking.
Looking at the larger picture, there seems to be many more reasons for Thomas to return to Virginia Tech for his senior season than turning pro. That’s not to say players in the past haven’t made decisions that defied logic, though.
In the end, the only opinion that matters is Thomas’. Everyone will just have to wait and see what he decides.