NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
For two of three finalists for Saturday’s Heisman Trophy ceremony, their 2013 NFL draft stock is clear. Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the draft’s elite prospects and a sure high first-round pick, while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is only a redshirt freshman, and therefore not yet draft-eligible.
For Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, however, his stock as an NFL prospect is less clear-cut.
Klein’s two-year run as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback has been a tremendous one. He led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record in 2011, and led his team to an 11-1 regular season record and Fiesta Bowl berth this season. All the while, Klein has been one of college football’s best dual-threat quarterbacks and dynamic playmakers, racking up more than 2,000 rushing yards, 49 rushing touchdowns and nearly 4,500 passing yards over those two seasons.
But although the NFL is quickly becoming a much-more dual-threat friendly league for quarterbacks, as a result of players like former Heisman Trophy winners Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton bringing their blend of passing ability and athleticism to the next level successfully, Klein is a prime example of a great collegiate quarterback whose game may not translate well at the next level.
In terms of Heisman Trophy-winning dual-threat quarterbacks, Klein is more Eric Crouch than he is Griffin or Newton. While Klein has a fairly strong arm and can make big plays as a passer, he is not a natural downfield pocket passer, and is game is based around his ability to run the football.
That said, Klein is a better NFL quarterback prospect than Crouch, who was a third-round pick, but never played a down in the NFL, and was drafted to play wide receiver. Klein has ideal size for an NFL quarterback at 6’5’’ and 226 pounds, and has the arm to deliver the ball effectively downfield.
Klein will need to make some serious adjustments in his game to succeed at the next level. Nearly all of his passing plays come out of the shotgun formation at Kansas State, and although he is very good with running outside of the pocket, he has poor footwork within the pocket. But in a league where once-foreign offensive concepts like the option, spread and pistol are becoming part of the league’s playbook, Klein could be an intriguing developmental prospect for a team.
Klein could in fact draw some comparisons to another Colin (without the double L) K., that being San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Like Klein, Kaepernick came from a non-pro-style system in college, having run primarily the pistol at Nevada, but with a year-and-a-half of development, the strong-armed, athletic quarterback has become a viable starter in the league.
Klein isn’t quite Kaepernick, however. Kaepernick has much more downfield passing ability, especially in terms of accuracy and making tough throws into tight windows, but also in terms of the velocity he can put on the football. Additionally, while Klein has good speed at the college level, that advantage may be neutralized at the next level, while Kaepernick has receiver-like speed and a long stride which enables him to continue to succeed as a runner in the NFL.
A better comparison for Klein may instead be Tim Tebow, who captivated the NFL by leading the Denver Broncos to a postseason berth as their starting quarterback in 2011, but is now a backup for the struggling New York Jets.
Like Tebow, Klein is a bigger, more powerful runner without elite speed. Klein also has subpar passing mechanics, including a long wind-up, and although he has the arm strength to throw an effective deep ball, he may never be capable of making the tough downfield throws off of anticipation routes into tight coverage that are required of NFL quarterbacks.
Tebow found early NFL success for his knack for making big plays at opportune times and leading his team to victory, and Klein has the same intangible quality. But even that and leading a team to the postseason wasn’t enough for Tebow to remain a starter through the obvious flaws in his game as a passer, and Klein faces the same issues.
Klein’s improvement as a passer from his junior to senior seasons is a promising positive in his game. After completing just 57.3 percent of his passing attempts with just 6.8 yards per attempt in 2011, his numbers have drastically improved to 66.2 percent and 9.2 yards per attempt in 2012. WIth that said, however, he is still not a quarterback known to make big plays with his arm unless his receivers get clearly open downfield.
The NFL should certainly be in Klein’s future, and it will be a big surprise if he doesn’t get a call during the 2013 NFL draft. With a track record of collegiate success, and a promising combination of size, arm strength and athletic ability, Klein’s productivity and potential make him well worth a shot with a Day 3 selection.
What Klein most likely won’t ever be, however, is a long-term NFL starting quarterback. While Klein has the measurables, he does not have the superb arm strength or game-changing speed to make up for the flaws in his game including unpolished downfield accuracy, poor footwork in the pocket and a lack of pro-style experience.
Klein is a game-changer at the collegiate level, but he doesn’t quite have the tools to be that in the NFL. He does not have Griffin or Kapernick’s speed or Newton’s strength, meaning that he would not be nearly as effective of a runner at the next level as he is collegiately. Meanwhile, Klein does not have the pocket-passing ability to be a pure dropback starting quarterback at the next level.
Klein’s best chance for success would be in an offense that can utilize him in a spread option or pistol package. He projects to be a solid second- or third-string quarterback with developmental potential, and a team that drafts him may be able to find a package in which to utilize his skills while also having a capable spot starter should injury hit their regular starter.
Some teams might even take a look at Klein as a tight-end or H-back. He is no franchise quarterback, however, and should be selected somewhere on day three of the 2013 NFL Draft.