Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories previewing the 2014 NFL Draft which begins on May 8.
Longtime football coach Shawn Watson usually avoids draft talk when he speaks to Teddy Bridgewater, but he recently made an exception out of concern for his former pupil.
When Bridgewater wrapped up his junior season Dec. 28 by leading Louisville over Miami 36-9 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, many analysts predicted he would become the first quarterback drafted on May 8, if not the No. 1 overall pick. Bridgewater hasn’t played football since then, yet he is no longer being touted as a candidate for the top selection partly because of a lackluster workout during his March 17 pro day.
In fact, many draft gurus believe he’ll fall out of the top 10, and some think he might not be drafted until the second round. The perceived tumble down draft boards prompted Watson to gauge Bridgewater’s mindset when they talked on the phone a few weeks ago.
“I know who he is. I just wanted to make sure he’s still who he is, and he is calm,” Watson, who was Louisville’s quarterbacks coach the past three seasons and its offensive coordinator the past two, said in a recent phone interview. “He knows that he has to prove himself and he has to earn everything in front of him. So that’s where poise comes from. That’s where character shows up. If I were building a football team — and I know him on a very intimate basis because I’ve been with him for three years every day — I’d start with him.
“All the big games we were in that changed our program, he showed up big. He showed up when the lights turned on and they got really bright. He didn’t shrink. He got bigger than the lights. He’s a great competitor. You put that with his work ethic and his character, and those two things I believe really helped him to realize his talent. I think he is a slam dunk. It’s an easy one.”
The Browns will likely choose a quarterback with one of their first-round picks (Nos. 4 and No. 26 overall) or with their early second-round selection (No. 35 overall). They hosted Bridgewater for a pre-draft visit last week and conducted a private workout with him this month, according to NFL Network.
Not long ago, many assumed Bridgewater wouldn’t even be available at No. 4 because the Houston Texans (No. 1 overall) or the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3 overall) would nab him before the Browns were put on the clock. Now he’s considered a possible target for Browns General Manager Ray Farmer at Nos. 26 or 35 overall.
From a financial perspective, the difference between becoming a top-three pick and a late first-round or early second-round choice is somewhere in the range of $13 million to $17 million.
“I think he’s handling it the way I’ve seen him handle everything that’s been in his life — good, bad, it could be adversity, it could be something just flat awesome for him — he’s never ever changed,” said Watson, who left Louisville with coach Charlie Strong this offseason to become the assistant head coach for offense and quarterbacks coach at Texas. “He has the same demeanor. … He’s one of the five best people in my life. He’s not shaken nor is he the kind of person who is going to weigh much into it.”
Bridgewater learned how to conquer adversity by watching his mother, Rose Murphy, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed with the disease when he was a freshman at Miami Northwestern High School. The youngest of four children, Bridgewater wanted to quit football and pick up odd jobs to support the family during his mom’s illness, but she wouldn’t let him stop pursuing his dream.
“She’s a huge inspiration to not only my life, but to my athletic career because there came a point in time where I wanted to give up sports,” Bridgewater said in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine. “When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was at the age of 14, and I was ready to give up sports just to take care of her because I felt that that was my purpose in life. She told me, ‘God has blessed you with your talents. Use them to the best of your ability.’ That’s why each day I step on that field, nothing bothers me because I know that what she went through, nothing compares to that.”
Keeping the faith
Bridgewater struggled with accuracy during his pro day workout and completed 57-of-65 passes. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock described the performance as “average at best.”
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Bridgewater’s lack of ideal size — including his 9¼-inch hands — has been under scrutiny. He wore gloves in every game at Louisville but tried to prove something at his pro day by shedding them. It backfired.
“From this day forward, I’m going to do what got me here, and that’s wearing a glove,” Bridgewater told NFL Network after his pro day. “I was able to learn that from the pro day that [it’s important to] continue to do what you’re comfortable doing, continue to do what got you in this situation in the first place. I’ve been wearing gloves the past three years, so I’ll get back into the glove business.”
Watson, a coach for 34 years, has no doubts about Bridgewater’s abilities despite the rough pro day. Last season, Bridgewater completed 303-of-427 passes (71 percent) for 3,970 yards and 31 touchdowns with four interceptions, two of which Watson said came off deflections.
“He has accuracy. He’s an unbelievable rhythm thrower,” Watson said. “He gets it out and he gets it out on time and gets it out fast. His decision-making process and his drop, keeping the game simple, keeping it fast, that’s part of the ‘it [factor]’ I’m talking about. A lot of guys, they can’t do that. The ball’s snapped and they’re seeing the storm. He’s seeing the detail of what he needs to see to make his decisions.
“The thing I know he knows he needs to work on is he needs to continue to develop himself physically to play in a 16-game season from a durability standpoint. He knows that. He realizes it. He’ll do that. He’s well aware of what he has to do to be a pro. He doesn’t just want to just be a guy that shows up for a cup of coffee. He wants to be a guy that stays and plays and impacts a franchise and has a career. So he gets that part. I just know the character. He will answer the bell.”
After enduring a harsh critique from Watson following his freshman season, Bridgewater worked tirelessly to improve his efficiency in the West Coast offense Louisville ran. He threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a freshman and 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a sophomore.
“He just wanted to be the best,” Watson said. “He drove himself that way. It was kind of easy for me as a coach because I had a great student.”
Appreciative of the dedication, Watson gave Bridgewater the power to serve as a quasi-offensive coordinator on the field. Bridgewater made checks, slid protection, called audibles and signaled hot routes to the receivers.
“It’s very unusual to have a guy that can handle as much as he did for us at the line of scrimmage,” Watson said. “He processes it very smoothly. He’s got a great feel for the game of football and the strategies behind the game of football because one, he loves the game and then two, he’ll grind, he’ll do what’s necessary to learn what it is he needs to learn, and he’s a brilliant kid.”
Bridgewater’s experience in a pro-style offense and his cerebral prowess prompted Mayock to call him “the most ready-to-play NFL-style quarterback in this draft” during a conference call in February. Opinions among the media certainly have changed since then, though Watson’s faith in Bridgewater is unwavering.
Browns coach Mike Pettine shares many of Watson’s observations about Bridgewater. Pettine and Farmer have downplayed the importance of pro days this offseason, so perhaps Bridgewater hasn’t slipped on the Browns’ draft board at all.
“I think he’s extremely accurate,” Pettine said after the pro day in late March at the NFL owners meeting. “You can tell he’s a very cerebral quarterback. He understands the game very well, understands coverages, that kind of jumps off the tape at you. To me, he seems very unfazed by things. He plays very well under pressure. He’s a guy that’s NFL-ready. It doesn’t seem to be too big for him. He kind of has that calming presence out there. Some quarterbacks get real emotional, get real fired up, and he’s not that. He kind of has that quiet confidence about him.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.