Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let's settle down about Andrew Luck

Seen any 2011 mock drafts? If you have, you know how much people love Stanford QB Andrew Luck. I have yet to see any scout project him anywhere outside the top 10 next year if he chooses to come out as a redshirt sophomore.

But is Luck really that good already? This is a basic summary of what everyone's saying:
The guy's got all the tools -- an NFL arm and an NFL rest-of-him (6-foot-4, 234 pounds) -- to hug it out with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in any of the next three Aprils. Luck already is rated as the first pick of the 2011 draft. You don't need Todd McShay to tell you that. Any agent worth his platinum Rolex Yacht-Master can see it.
I'm not gonna try to argue his obvious physical gifts, and realistically, his raw talent will probably guarantee him a spot somewhere near the top of whatever draft he chooses to enter (Stanford's pro-style offense won't hurt either). I just think people are seriously jumping the gun if they're expecting him to become a dominant, top-tier QB this year.

Think about this: Michigan uses a fairly run-heavy offense, and Tate Forcier split snaps with Denard Robinson last year while also missing some time due to a sprained shoulder. Forcier threw 281 passes. Luck threw 288.

There was an obvious reason for that: Toby Gerhart and his 343 (!!!) carries for just under 2,000 yards. But Gerhart's now in the NFL, meaning Luck will be expected to lead the offense, not just help it, because I don't see the running-back-by-committee group of Stepfan Taylor, Jeremy Stewart and Alex Debniak coming anywhere close to Gerhart's level of production. For reference, Luck attempted more than 22 passes in five games last year. In those games, he completed 52.8% of his passes and averaged 263.6 yards, 1.4 touchdowns and 0.6 interceptions. That's not bad -- a 134.8 pass efficiency would have been slightly above average (47th) nationally -- but when we're talking about a guy widely viewed as next year's top overall prospect, it's not exactly dominant. (Jake Locker, by the way, was 55th in pass efficiency; that's a discussion for another time.)

And it's not automatic that a guy will markedly improve between his freshman and sophomore years. There are a lot of other variables that come into play, especially for QBs who don't have elite athleticism to fall back on (Vince Young, Pat White, etc.). I specifically remember watching Chad Henne struggle as a sophomore in 2005 while Mike Hart was on the sidelines for much of the year with an ankle injury, because he just wasn't yet capable of carrying the offense. Don't be surprised at all if Luck has some of the same issues. It won't be easy to lead the Pac-10 in pass efficiency when there aren't eight or nine defenders in the box on almost every play, and Stanford won't be scoring 55 points against USC this fall while Luck goes a pedestrian 12-for-22 for 144 yards (those were his numbers against USC last October).

The "other variables" I mentioned above: Stanford's starting receivers both return, but the offensive line is being completely rejiggered after losing two starters. That's basically a net wash, although does having a year's experience with your receivers make up for having a reconfigured offensive line AND a significantly worse running game? Probably not quite.

Stanford's spring game provides us another point of reference, albeit not a great one since Luck and his starting receivers were split up. His performance -- 23-for-34 for 173 yards and no touchdowns in a thrilling 3-3 game -- was OK but not great, which I think is about what we should expect overall this season. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts (mmmm, doughnuts) that Luck doesn't finish in the top 10 in pass efficiency this fall. I'd even go a step further and predict that he doesn't garner first- or second-team Pac-10 honors; I think those spots will go to Matt Barkley and Jake Locker (not necessarily in that order).

But there are sort of two different questions here:

1. Will Luck be a top-five prospect for next year's draft if he declares?
2. Will Luck perform like a top-five pick?

As I mentioned earlier, anybody who's 6-foot-4 with a rocket arm, decent athleticism, experience in a pro-style system and even moderate competence will probably be a first-round pick (JaMarcus Russell, anyone?). But until we see Luck actually throw a few passes without having a Heisman Trophy finalist standing behind him, I think we should all tone down our expectations just a tad.

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