There were so many storylines in the Georgia-Kentucky game Saturday, it was hard to really appreciate them all. You can look at the good: Mo Mass's big day, the Dobbs' INT. Or you can look at the bad: The defense gives up 38 for a third straight week and allows a season high in rushing yards. But what I want to look at is Matthew Stafford's performance.
Stafford played what I think could be argued the best game of his career against Kentucky, completing 17-of-27 passes for a career-best 376 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He routinely found the open receiver, never began forcing balls to A.J. Green despite the problems the freshman had getting open early, and was spectacular at avoiding the pass rush, which was significant. More impressively, those numbers were put up in a nasty, biting wind at Commonwealth Stadium that could easily play havoc with most QBs.
I've offered plenty of criticism of Stafford this season, and I think there were a number of times he made mistakes that cost his team. For the past month, however, he really has been impressive -- save his three-INT day against Florida, at least two of which were hard to pin on him.
So with Stafford playing so well, it's hard not to revisit the question: Is he ready to turn pro?
I think there are a few key aspects to this decision, the major ones being...
-- Is he satisfied with his college career? Georgia's failures to reach its lofty preseason goals have to eat at Stafford, who I'm sure doesn't want to leave the Bulldogs with the label of "talented QB who never won the big one." Stafford says he doesn't read the papers, he ignores criticism and he plays the role of pragmatic professional extremely well. But talk to enough people or listen to him long enough, and it's obvious a lot of that is talk. Stafford wants to win, and he doesn't want his legacy at Georgia to be the guy who never won the big one.
-- The potential rookie salary cap in the NFL. This has been talked about for some time, but it's seeming more and more likely that it could be in place by 2010. Just the mere threat could have floods of juniors heading to the NFL ranks this season to avoid a potential ceiling on salaries (and thus, no Matt Ryan money) the next year. Of course, that ignores the fact that a flood of players entering the draft also depresses salaries, but it's hard to argue complex economics with kids who aren't interested in finishing their degrees.
-- Where will he go in the draft? He seems to be the unanimous top QB for most scouts, and Mel Kiper has him at No. 5 overall right now. Of the NFL teams with the worst records this season, at least three -- Kansas City, Seattle and Detroit -- need QBs, meaning Stafford as the No. 1 overall pick is a real possibility.
-- Is his game ready for the next level? This is the key question. It's impossible to ignore that he has significantly improved his play, but he's still just 20, he has shown flaws in his game, and even the game-winning TD pass to A.J. in the fourth quarter against Kentucky -- which granted, was impressive -- was extremely ill-advised, and would have been picked off by NFL defensive backs.
The transition from college to the NFL isn't really that much about skill -- QBs don't get drafted without ability -- but rather about football IQ. Are they able to pick up the playbook quickly? Are they capable of adjusting to the speed of the game? Will they make sound decisions. In other words, are they mature enough to handle the transition?
Stafford has certainly shown increased maturity this season, but the track record for junior QBs who forgo their final year of eligibility to enter the draft is not particularly impressive. Here's a quick rundown of every junior QB taken in the first round in the past 15 years:
NAME Comp Att Comp% TDs INTs
JaMarcus Russell 141-282 50.0% 8-8
Vince Young 434-761 57.0% 22-32
Aaron Rodgers 217-347 62.5% 14-6
Alex Smith 435-800 54.4% 19-31
Ben Roethlisberger 1052-1676 62.8% 96-65
Rex Grossman 517-955 54.1% 33-35
Michael Vick 930-1730 53.8% 71-52
Tim Couch 1025-1714 59.8% 64-67
Ryan Leaf 317-655 48.4% 14-36
Heath Shuler 292-593 49.2% 15-33
Trent Dilfer 1759-3172 55.5% 113-129
TOTALS 7119-12685 56.1% 469-494
*Note: Sorry about the crappy table formatting. This version of Blogger doesn't like tables apparently.
A quick look at the list includes one clear success story: Roethlisberger. Dilfer was solid if never spectacular (and along with Big Ben, won a Super Bowl), while Rodgers looks as if he could become a good QB for years. Vick was good if not great, but obviously extenuating circumstances have prevented us from giving him a complete grade as a player. It's important to note, too, that Roethlisberger redshirted his freshman year, so he did actually spend four years in college.
Look at the rest of the list: There are four names (Shuler, Leaf, Couch and Smith) that could easily be considered among the biggest disasters in recent draft history. The jury is still out on Russell and Young, but if you had to bet on their futures now, you'd have to say they're more likely to join Shuler and Leaf than they are to add Super Bowl rings like Big Ben and Dilfer.
Again, Stafford has always seemed like the pragmatic type, and the pragmatic decision here might be to head for the greener pastures of the NFL. The money will be there, and he'll almost certainly be a top-three pick. But the truth is, for both his benefit and Georgia's, it's hard to argue that another year in college wouldn't have a huge impact on his future prospects.