The Tom Savage Hype Is Nuts

The latest report on Pittsburgh QB prospect Tom Savage, as you may have heard from, say, Russ Lande, is that Tom Savage’s stock is skyrocketing, making him likely to be a day-two pick and, some even believe, a first-rounder. This perception of Savage was confirmed by reports that he was invited to the NFL draft, an honor usually reserved for prospects expected to be drafted in the first round, or at least definitely by day two.

We don’t see it. A high opinion of Savage exemplifies everything that’s wrong about scouting quarterback prospects: Namely, it prioritizes raw physical skills and attributes that look great in practice, while discounting the importance of performing in game situations and under pressure, in accuracy and decision-making, in the mental aspects of the game.

Let’s look at some brief facts that suggest Tom Savage might be overrated as a prospect.

  • He’s played for three different schools, which indicates that two schools didn’t want him as a starter. That isn’t an insurmountable red flag– witness Joe Flacco, who now-famously lost the starting job at Pittsburgh to Tyler Palko before transferring– but we’d want to see some improvement from Savage at his new station, and as you’ll see in a bit, his 2013 film doesn’t inspire confidence.
  • All this time transferring also caused him to have to sit out a couple of years, and thus he’s a little older than your typical prospect who’s played only three years of college ball. Savage turns 24 this week, which isn’t some kind of sell-by date for prospects or anything, but remember, we’re talking about a guy whose most positive scouting reports still acknowledge he’s going to need time to develop. So you want to take this guy in the second round based on a hope you can develop him into a franchise QB by the time he’s 27?  (By comparison, Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t turn 22 until November; Johnny Manziel until December. That’s nearly three full years of development a team will have with them that they won’t have with Savage.)

All that said: None of this would matter, really, if his tape were good. If he has the physical attributes to be an NFL quarterback, and he can play quarterback, then he can play in the NFL. But he’s gotta be able to play quarterback, and his tape ain’t good.

I decided to break down one of Savage’s tapes in detail. While the Florida State and North Carolina games are also good to watch to study his weaknesses, I felt like the Notre Dame footage offered a good cross-section of the problems I have with his game. While acknowledging he can look better in other games and on certain plays, I saw a whole lot against the Irish that indicates Savage doesn’t seem to have the accuracy, decision-making skills, and pocket presence required of a quarterback.

Let’s roll the film. (The film is courtesy of Draft Breakdown.)

  • 0:18: Here’s something I didn’t really notice until a second watch– pay attention to Savage’s head and eyes. His dropback is oriented to the right, effectively eliminating use of half of the field, and his gaze never moves. You’ll see more of this as we go– plays where Savage is clearly only looking at half the field, or stares down one receiver before throwing. As far as limitations that can hold a QB back, “not being able to read the field” and “locking in on one receiver” are pretty big ones.
  • 0:59: He fails to step up in the pocket against the pass rush and his pass goes wide of its target and incomplete. Not as big as some of the mistakes we’ll see, but worth noting, because it’s the start of a string of bad plays.
  • 1:06: The very next play, Savage inexplicably throws a short out low and a bit too short for the receiver. He’s not pressured; he doesn’t even seem to feel any phantom pressure. He just delivers a poor pass. (Based on how the ball leaves his grip, he has a strange delivery that may be contributing to his inaccuracy.)
  • 1:13: Immediately afterward, Savage throws a screen pass behind his receiver, killing the possibility of a positive play.
  • 1:53: After a few plays which aren’t egregious, if not exactly positive, Savage holds onto the ball for way too long, again not moving in the pocket. Granted, he does manage to complete the pass, but this play, in conjunction with others, leads me to think Savage lacks understanding of where he should be moving in the pocket. He seems prone to running, but he’s not as fast as he thinks he is.
  • 2:03: Another play where Savage doesn’t see the space to step up in the pocket. The fact that he completes some of these passes mitigates this somewhat: standing tall in the pocket to complete the throw when necessary is a positive trait. The problem is that he seems to take this approach on too many plays where the pressure and lack of space to step into his throw cause an incomplete pass or worse. As part of that pattern, this lack of pocket awareness is a problem. (We also get a replay from behind Savage where it becomes obvious where the space in the pocket to step up is.)
  • 2:30: Wildly inaccurate deep pass with no shot of being catchable. Something’s wrong with his throwing motion– on second watch, he appears to throw off his back foot and not extend his arm on release. This makes his throwing motion look roughly like that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
  • 2:48: I want to say he holds onto the ball too long here, but it’s impossible to say without an all-22 look at the game. He does display nice awareness and shiftiness in getting upfield, which makes it all the more perplexing that he doesn’t in the pocket.
  • 3:19: This pass is nowhere near its intended target. It’s so far off that it’s likely to be the result of a miscommunication, but, again, Savage clearly doesn’t step into the throw.
  • 3:56: Another screen thrown behind the running back. He has enough space that this still turns into a positive play, but Savage seems to have a problem throwing behind his receivers.
  • 4:21: I’ve watched this play a number of times to determine what goes wrong, and the best I can figure is that Savage locked onto his receiver and decided to throw despite the coverage.
  • 4:27: The overthrow on this deep ball would bother me a lot less if it wasn’t one of his more accurate ones. Note he actually does exhibit a little follow-through in his throwing motion here.
  • 5:13: Some kind of miscommunication here. (And if you back up to the previous play, you’ll see a pretty bad lapse of concentration on Devin Street’s part.)
  • 5:23: Only a minor inaccuracy but this throw is high, forcing an open receiver to leave his feet for it.
  • 5:43: One of the only plays where Savage steps up against pressure, but the pass is still incomplete.
  • 6:12: In the interest of fairness– Savage isn’t a worthless prospect, after all– this is an impressive deep ball in flight, although he underthrows it just enough to allow the cornerback to break up the play. Still one of his two best deep balls on this film.
  • 6:39: This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say I think Savage’s form hinders his accuracy. He doesn’t step into this throw at all and delivers it from an angle inconsistent with his typical delivery, and as a result, the pass is well short. (Savage seems to throw short passes overhand, almost with the ball pointing downward, and deeper balls with a sidearm-to-three-quarters delivery.)
  • 7:00: Note again, Savage throws off his back foot, and his deep ball is a little short and broken up. (It does draw a flag, but with better mechanics, it’s a clean touchdown.)
  • 7:26: Savage completes the pass but notice how he doesn’t even look at the left side of the field. That’s a problem that indicates the offense limits his reads or/because Savage can’t read the entire field.
  • 7:36: Another one-man route, another low pass that misses the opportunity for yards after the catch. As long as I’m talking about this: I didn’t mention this when it first happened, but you’ll see several plays where Savage runs a designed rollout with one route in the play. I think this part of their play package is generally a bad sign for Savage, as it indicates he has flaws such that the coaches must eliminate decision-making for him.
  • 8:38: We could debate what happens on this play, but it sure looks like Savage stares down one receiver the whole way through. The more I watch Savage’s eyes, the more I notice that he doesn’t read the whole field, and frequently doesn’t even look anywhere beyond his first receiver.
  • 9:28: And here we see the worst of what can happen when a quarterback is unaware of the pass rush.

These plays are a fine selection of throws and decisions that demonstrate a lack of those important traits I mentioned earlier. The list of these negative plays is simply too long; an occasional mistake is forgivable if a prospect displays generally sound judgment, or the talent to overcome certain risky decision-making (Brett Favre, for example), but Savage makes too many different mistakes, too consistently and too often, for me to have any optimistic projections about his pro career. His pocket awareness is poor, his decision-making inconsistent, and his accuracy insufficient, possibly caused by his poor form in his throwing motion. He holds onto the ball too long; he refuses to throw a pass away when he notices the rush is bearing down, usually (sometimes mistakenly) thinking he can run for positive yardage. Many of the plays shown here seem designed to limit the field for Savage or keep the number of receivers in a pattern to a minimum, a major red flag that says the coaches don’t trust his decision-making.

Savage has talent, for sure, and I can see what scouts like about him. He’s got ideal size and solid arm strength, and occasionally puts it all together to make a great throw. I can see the thought process that says “If you can fix his throwing form, then you have an NFL quarterback.” But I don’t think he displays the decision-making skills under pressure needed to survive as an NFL starter, and I don’t think those can be taught at the NFL level. He is far too inconsistent for a team to invest a high pick on developing him. I believe he’s probably a fifth-round pick in value, and I might take him starting in the late 4th if I wanted to develop a QB. I certainly wouldn’t take him on the first two days.

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