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Window shopping for 2020 quarterback options for the Titans

My hope bucket is empty. Which college quarterback is coming to fill it up?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 LSU at Vanderbilt Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Titans depressing revolving door of post-Steve McNair quarterbacks appears to be heading towards another spin. First it was the “VY is my guy” directive from late owner Bud Adams to take Vince Young with the third overall pick in 2006. Then it was Jake Locker — he of the 54% career completion percentage in college — with the eighth overall pick in 2011. Finally, they got to “no red flags” Marcus Mariota in 2015 with the second overall pick.

Right on schedule, the Titans appear set to draft yet another hopeful savior at the game’s most important position in 2020 after Mariota was benched against the Broncos on Sunday. It’s a spot that this franchise just hasn’t been able to get right since officially changing from the Oilers to the Titans in 1999. Even Steve McNair, who won an MVP in 2003, wasn’t really a prolific passer during his time in Tennessee.

The Titans single season passing yards leader over what is about to become 23 seasons in Tennessee remains Matt Hasselbeck, who threw for 3,571 yards in 2011. There were 17 NFL quarterbacks who surpassed that total in 2018 alone... more than half the quarterbacks in the league! That is going to remain the case into 2020 and that’s unacceptable.

But enough about the past — and present, for that matter — let’s look to the future. Over the next several months, we’re going to start breaking down some of the top quarterback prospects here, starting with this piece.

A few things to mention before we dive in.

First, if you want to hold out hope for some miraculous Marcus Mariota revival over the back half of the season that results in some sort of contract extension, that’s fine, but the number of quarterbacks who have been benched at some point and come back to have highly successful careers is very very short. The only two that I can think of are Drew Brees and Kurt Warner, and both of those guys had injury issues that were at least a part of the back drop for the benchings, even if they weren’t the primary cause.

The point is... the chances of Mariota returning in 2020 have never been lower. I’d put the odds somewhere around 10%, maybe even lower. The more likely scenario is that the Titans re-sign Ryan Tannehill to a short deal — assuming he plays reasonably if he’s given the opportunity moving forward — and let him be a bridge/backup to a quarterback they draft next spring.

Also, yes, I hear you. None of these guys are going to succeed here if the Titans don’t get the offensive staff, playcaller, and offensive line performing at a higher level. We will learn more about all the people currently filling those roles over the next ten games. If things continue to go off the rails on offense, I think it would be fair to expect an overhaul to the offensive coaching staff at the very least.

Finally, no matter how dire things look right now offensively, it’s amazing how quick things can turn around when you put the right quarterback in the right situation. The 2016 Texans were 28th in scoring with Brock Osweiler at the helm with major offensive line issues. As soon as they plugged Deshaun Watson in, they immediately became one of the most dangerous offenses in football and have been ever since. The bad offensive line is more of a footnote than the headline because of the fact that Watson masks that problem for Houston.

Patrick Mahomes wasn’t drafted into a bad offensive situation — the Chiefs ranked 6th in the NFL in scoring during his rookie year as he sat behind Alex Smith — but once they plugged him in, Kansas City jumped from 415 points scored to a ridiculous 565 points scored, the third best offensive season in NFL history. To put that jump into some context, adding 150 points to the 2018 Titans would have moved them from 27th in the league in scoring to 4th.

Going back a bit further, Russell Wilson’s first year with the Seahawks saw them jump from 23rd in the league in scoring to 9th in his rookie year. He’s been among the league’s best quarterbacks despite being in a run-heavy offense and led by a head coach from the defensive side of the ball.

Young quarterbacks can make an immediate and ceiling-altering difference in a franchise. The trick, of course, is finding the right quarterback. After all, for every Watson, Mahomes, and Wilson, you can point to three Blake Bortles’s, JaMarcus Russell’s, or Jake Locker’s that busted out of the league without ever elevating their team’s offense.

I don’t know whether or not Jon Robinson will prove capable of finding a Watson or Wilson or — if there is any justice in this cruel world — a Mahomes, but that’s because no one does. The funny thing about being an NFL GM is that you never really get to learn how to do the one aspect of your job that is most important: evaluating and selecting quarterbacks.

Sure, you can evaluate guys in years that your team isn’t drafting one and see how those evaluations pan out, but that’s not the same as doing it when you know your entire career and legacy is tied to this 22-year old kid out of Directional State University. It’s kind of like being an astronaut. You can practice in the flight simulator all you want, but until your strapped into the rocket, you don’t really know how you’re going to handle it or if you’re going to get it right and you won’t get a second chance if you fail.

Robinson was a part of the front office staff that selected Jameis Winston ahead of Mariota in the 2015 NFL Draft. The closer we get to decision time on both of those guys — and the five quarterbacks that were taken later on in that draft for that matter — it’s starting to look like there wasn’t a “right” answer. Plus, Robinson wasn’t the trigger man on that call. He certainly would have had some input, but that’s a pick that Bucs GM Jason Licht would have final say on, regardless of Robinson’s opinions.

During Robinson’s time as Director of College Scouting for the Patriots from 2009 to 2013, New England took two quarterbacks — seventh round pick Zac Robinson in 2010 and third round pick Ryan Mallett in 2011 — but again, Robinson was certainly not the shotcaller on those picks. He would have merely had input.

If you’d prefer to look at quarterbacks that Robinson has selected during his time in Tennessee, the pickings are pretty slim. He’s signed a couple backups in Matt Cassel and Blaine Gabbert and traded for another in Ryan Tannehill. Cassel was horrible here, Gabbert was better, but not by much, and Tannehill is likely about to show what he can or can’t do. Robinson has drafted just one quarterback out of four draft classes, 2018 sixth round pick Luke Falk. After a terrible preseason, the Titans tried to get Falk onto their practice squad and got poached by Dolphins.

That’s an uninspiring list, but again, this is going to be the first time that Robinson will be making the call on a quarterback of the future. His swing and miss on a developmental sixth round pick that was always supposed to be a QB3 or QB2 at best is less encouraging than if he’d stumbled upon Gardner Minshew of course, but I don’t think it is either A) enough data or B) relevant enough to definitively say that he can’t get this pick right.

So what should Jon Robinson be looking for in a quarterback? If it was up to me, he’d be looking for these three things above all else:

  1. Accurate
  2. Aggressive
  3. Assertive

At the NFL level, outstanding accuracy is a requirement, not a bonus. Call this the Locker Lesson. You have to find a quarterback who is capable of helping his receivers by putting the ball in positions where they can either maximize their YAC or make a play on the ball against a defender in tight coverage. Accuracy is generally a trait that you either have or don’t. Sure, a quarterback can make marginal improvement by refining his footwork or throwing mechanics, but very few significantly change this skill once they reach the pro level.

One of my biggest ongoing issues with Mariota is his lack of aggressiveness. Out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, he ranks 29th in percentage of pass attempts traveling at least 20 yards per PFF. In 2018, he ranked 28th out of 35 in the same category. Part of the reason that Mariota takes so many sacks is the fact that he plays so risk averse. Rather than give his receiver a chance to make a play on a tightly covered throw, he’s proven time and again to prefer to try and make a play with his legs, often running into more trouble than he was running from. The NFL offers far fewer wide open windows through which to throw the ball and that requires a quarterback who is willing to challenge those windows and has the arm talent to win in those situations.

Assertiveness, in this case, is more about how the quarterback carries himself around the facility rather than being decisive on the field, though that is important as well. Mariota’s quiet leadership fit his personality type and that’s fine. Asking someone to lead in a style that doesn’t come naturally to them is how you get Jameis Winston eating W’s during pregame speeches. However, offenses often take on the personality of their quarterback and Mariota’s quiet persona, unfortunately, has been too often reflected in the Titans sleepy starts and lack of energy on offense. We’ve seen outward displays of emotion at times, but those moments are so infrequent that I can almost list them off the top of my head.

I’d love to see the next Tennessee quarterback have a little more fire to his personality. Watching Tom Brady rule over the Patriots offense with an iron fist during joint practices with the Titans this summer made me a believer in the idea that his willingness to hold teammates accountable is a big part of New England’s recipe for success. There are obviously other big parts — most importantly having greatest coach of all time — but I still believe that Brady’s demanding nature is a very important ingredient to their sustained offensive success regardless of who is surrounding him from a personnel standpoint.

There are plenty of other traits that are useful in evaluating as you look at quarterbacks, but the ones that I will be taking a look at for each guy in this class are arm strength, touch/accuracy, footwork, mechanics/release, mental processing, ability to throw off platform or under pressure, creativity, pocket presence, decision making, field vision, work ethic, and leadership/personality.

There is plenty of time between now and the 2020 draft to get to know these guys better and we will probably save the deep dives and film study work until what’s promising to be a very long offseason. I will say that my initial opinion is that this is one of the better draft classes for quarterbacks that we’ve seen in quite some time. Kyler Murray would likely be no higher than fourth in this draft class if he were coming out this year.

Here are my initial thoughts on the top eight passers that might come out in the upcoming draft. Some of these guys are likely going to return to school, but this class has enough talent to rival the 2004 and 2012 quarterback classes as one of the best in the last 20 years. For what it’s worth, the Titans would currently have the 10th overall pick in the draft if the season ended today.

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Class: Junior (eligible to return to school)

Size: 6’-1”, 218 lbs

2019 Stats: 134 of 182 (73.6%) for 2,011 yards (11.0 YPA), 27 touchdowns, 1 interception

Tua has long been viewed as the top prospect in this class — really going all the way back to him coming off the bench as a freshman and leading an incredible come back to beat Georgia two years ago — though it’s not completely unanimous. He’s a little on the shorter side for a quarterback, but that’s not the concern it once was for teams.

Stylistically, Tua reminds me a lot of a left-handed Russell Wilson. He’s got a similar build with a thick, powerful frame and his ability to slide of would-be tackles and make plays off script is very Wilson-esque. He’s not necessarily fast, but he’s quick enough to make plays for you with his legs. Tua doesn’t have the strongest arm in the class, but he has more than enough to push the ball downfield and hit the intermediate throws outside the hashes that you need in an NFL offense.

His accuracy is top notch and he has shown some signs of being a vocal leader. Despite his Hawaiian upbringing, he doesn’t have the same laid back style that we’ve become accustomed to with Marcus Mariota. He was seen barking at his top wide receiver, Jerry Jeudy, about his route during last week’s game against Ole Miss.

The questions surrounding him are exactly how much of his ridiculous stat line is propped up by his incredible set of receivers at Alabama. Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Devonta Smith are all likely to be either first or second round picks in this year’s draft and Jaylen Waddle will probably be a top selection in 2021. Lots of Tua’s big plays are simple slants or wide receiver screens that allow his playmakers to get the ball and make huge plays, which they do with regularity.

Joe Burrow, LSU

Class: Redshirt Senior

Size: 6’-4”, 216 lbs

2019 Stats: 148 of 186 (79.6%) for 2,157 yards (11.6 YPA), 25 touchdowns, 3 interceptions

Burrow’s meteoric rise up draft boards this year is reminiscent of Carson Palmer’s final season at USC. After being largely considered a late round/undrafted type prospect heading into this season, Burrow has caught fire under new LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady and is absolutely shredding opposing defenses.

Burrow has had an interesting path to where he is today. It’s not like he was some zero star guy who worked his way up. Coming out of high school in Ohio, the son of a former NFL player and college football defensive coordinator and brother to two older siblings who both played on the defensive side of the ball for Nebraska, Burrow was rated as a four star recruit with a pretty decent offer list. He chose to stay close to home with Ohio State.

After a redshirt year in 2015, Burrow served as J.T. Barrett’s backup in 2016 and 2017 and appeared to have a leg up on Dwayne Haskins for the starting job in 2018 before an injury interrupted his progress and allowed Haskins to run away with the opportunity. That led Burrow to transfer to LSU where he was the starter last season, playing well in a rather conservative offense and leading the Tigers to a 10-3 record and the 35th highest scoring offense in college football. After bringing Joe Brady in from the Saints, LSU and Burrow have made a leap in production. The Bayou Bengals lead the country with 52.5 points per game so far this season and just dropped a hyper-efficient 42 on a 7th-ranked Florida defense that had allowed 57 points total over their previous six games.

Burrow separates himself with his accuracy and touch which are elite and are reflected in his absurd 79.6% completion percentage while also maintaining an 11.6 yards per attempt average. He isn’t padding his stats with a dink and dunk offense, he’s attacking down the field with incredible efficiency. Burrow has excellent timing and mechanics with a quick release. He’s got excellent feel in the pocket and is elusive enough to buy extra time under pressure. Like Tua, he’s not necessarily fast, but he’s athletic enough to bring some value as a runner when needed.

The drawbacks for him are a lack of elite arm strength and there are at least some questions about how much of his performance is tied to his excellent trio of wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall, and Justin Jefferson. He has worked towards maximizing his arm strength during his career, visiting QB guru Tom House during his time at Ohio State to get some insights into what he could do to improve his velocity. I still don’t think I’d call it a strength, but it’s adequate, and when combined with his touch/accuracy, that’s a package you can win with in the right offense.

Burrow is known to be a tireless worker and has the “all about football” mentality that you’d expect from a player who grew up the son of a coach. He’s also got level of swagger and confidence to him that seems to have rubbed off on his teammates at LSU.

Burrow is a perfectionist that has frequently talked about not being satisfied until he’s completing 100% of his passes despite performances that have left him very close to that number this season.

If you really want to dream big, the idea of hiring LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady — who had worked as an offensive assistant for the Saints prior to this season — as the Titans offensive coordinator and pairing him with Burrow in Nashville is a really enticing combination.

Justin Herbert, Oregon

Class: Senior

Size: 6’-6”, 237 lbs

2019 Stats: 134 of 194 (69.1%) for 1,601 yards (8.3 YPA), 17 touchdowns, 1 interception

Herbert might have had a chance to be the top quarterback in last year’s draft had he decided to come out, but he headed back for his final year at Oregon. The talent with him is obvious when you turn on the tape. He’s got tremendous size, athleticism, and elite arm talent to challenge every blade of grass on a football field at all times. This guy is basically the quarterback you’d build in a lab from a physical standpoint.

So why is he not the obvious top prospect? Well, some will still say he is, but there are some drawbacks to him as well. For one, his accuracy runs hot and cold as evidenced by his three games in 2018 with a 50% or below completion percentage. His pocket presence isn’t great and he struggles when his first read isn’t there. He also has a couple serious injuries during his football career with a broken femur in high school in 2014 and a broken collarbone at Oregon in 2017 along with a few other minor issues that have popped up at times.

The other question with Herbert is his personality type. He’s an extremely smart guy with a 4.08 GPA while majoring in biology and getting his work in as the Ducks starting quarterback for pretty much his entire tenure in Eugene. However, he’s not exactly what you’d envision as a natural leader and he chooses to avoid the media as much as possible. I don’t know that you should scratch him off as a potential pick because of that, but if you’re looking for a different type of personality than the one the Titans have in Mariota, this isn’t your guy.

Jake Fromm, Georgia

Class: Junior (eligible to return to school)

Size: 6’-2”, 220 lbs

2019 Stats: 114 of 162 (70.4%) for 1,371 yards (8.5 YPA), 9 touchdowns, 3 interceptions

Fromm will end up being one of the most divisive prospects in this class... if he comes out. He’s played in a very conservative Georgia offense for his entire career and hasn’t put up prolific passing stats as a result. However, his efficiency numbers — YPA, TD%, etc — have all been great.

He’s not a guy that’s going to wow you with any physical traits. Average size, average build, average arm strength. However, what makes Fromm an NFL prospect is his football IQ and accuracy. Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller wrote about Fromm this summer and described him as the “perfect quarterback for win-now teams”.

“Mentally, he’s like [Andrew] Luck,” said one AFC scouting director. “He doesn’t wow you in practice watching him throw because he’s a little small and doesn’t have a huge arm, but he knows where to go with the ball and makes the right decisions. That counts for more than 4.4 speed or a cannon arm,” he added.

Fromm is the kind of player that will get the most out of the offensive system as it is designed. If you have a good offensive design and playmakers around him, Fromm will execute it to a high level and allow those playmakers to shine. However, if you’re looking for a guy who makes plays outside of the structure of the offense and shows great creativity off script, you’re better off looking somewhere else.

Fromm survived challenges from two five-star quarterbacks to remain the starting quarterback at Georgia for the past three years, besting both Jacob Eason and Justin Fields in the eyes of Kirby Smart and his staff. A lot of people absolutely hate him as a quarterback prospect, largely because his numbers don’t pop off the screen and his physical traits are little more than average, but I could see Fromm having a Philip Rivers-like career thanks to his mental processing and accuracy.

Jordan Love, Utah State

Class: Junior (eligible to return to school)

Size: 6’-4”, 220 lbs

2019 Stats: 120 of 192 (62.5%) for 1,337 yards (7.0 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

Love is the exact opposite of Fromm, and frankly, I think he’s probably more likely to return to school for his final year at this point. Watching him play in 2019 has produced a rollercoaster of emotions, and as someone who is very intrigued by his talent, I’ve watched a lot of him. No college quarterback swings from “my goodness, what an unbelievable pass” to “what the heck is he thinking” more regularly than Love.

He’s got an easy, compact release that produces plenty of velocity and he can deliver the ball with touch, often feathering the ball in between levels of defenders. He is a master of avoiding pressure in the pocket, using his athleticism to move while keeping his eyes downfield and helping him produce one of the lowest sack to pressure ratios in college football the last couple years.

When he’s outside of structure or asked to throw the ball off platform due to pressure, he’s at his best. He’s capable of hitting receivers 40 yards downfield in stride while throwing from awkward body positions and his ability to extend plays often results in huge chunk plays downfield for his offense.

The downside to Love’s game is his field vision and tendency to get fooled by coverages. He has bad tendencies to miss post-snap rotations from the defense and that can lead to turnovers. His 2018 stats were padded a bit by a heavy use of screens in the Utah State offense, and as usual, there are some level of competition questions playing in the Mountain West. He was outstanding against a very good Michigan State defense in 2018, but struggled mightily against a not-that-great LSU defense this year.

Love is not a plug and play guy to me. If he comes out this year — again, I don’t think he should — he would need to be brought along slowly by a coaching staff that is willing to put in the work to get him reading defenses and understanding where to go with the ball. However, if a team is willing to be patient, the ceiling is Patrick Mahomes-esque... just don’t look at the floor.

Jacob Eason, Washington

Class: Redshirt Junior (eligible to return to school)

Size: 6’-6”, 227 lbs

2019 Stats: 134 of 203 (66.0%) for 1,692 yards (8.3 YPA), 13 touchdowns, 3 interceptions

Much like Herbert, Eason looks like he was genetically designed to be an NFL quarterback. He’s not quite as athletic as his Pac-12 rival — though he does have functional athleticism — but he might have an even bigger arm.

Eason started as a true freshman at Georgia and was expected to be the “next big thing” quarterback in the SEC heading into his sophomore year before a sprained knee ligament opened the door for Jake Fromm to step in and run away with the job. Without a route to playing time, Eason transferred to Washington and stepped right into the starting role this season.

He’s got the Huskies at 5-2 through seven games, but his performances in the two losses — at home against Cal and on the road against Stanford — were pretty rocky. Eason has unshakable trust in his ability to fit the ball into tight windows and is willing to sit in the pocket and cycle through reads until he gets to the right opportunity. He’s also very capable of making off-platform plays outside of structure and does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield. These two ridiculous throws against BYU really highlight exactly what Eason is capable of and why he’s such an intriguing prospect.

The drawbacks with Eason are his inconsistency and a tendency to want to show off the big arm too often. There are throws where he cuts it loose with all the mustard he can get on it that really should be floated in.

He’s also a guy that might benefit from going back to school for another year, though with his route to the NFL already detoured once, he may be anxious to get his pro career started. I could absolutely see a scenario where we look back in 10 years and think Eason is the best quarterback of this bunch.

Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Class: Senior

Size: 6’-2”, 219 lbs

2019 Stats: 98 of 137 (71.5%) for 1,758 yards (12.8 YPA), 17 touchdowns, 3 interceptions

Another guy with a very interesting career to this point. Hurts started his career at Alabama as a true freshman and played reasonably well, though he was far more a runner than a passer during his days in Tuscaloosa. After struggling in the 2017 National Championship Game, he was pulled in favor of a freshman, Tagovailoa, who would lead Bama back to win the game late. Rather than immediately transferring, Hurts hung around as Alabama’s backup last year, coming off the bench for an injured Tua to lead the Crimson Tide to a late win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

He took advantage of the graduate transfer rule this year and joined quarterback kingmaker Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and the results have been outstanding. Hurts’ ridiculous 12.8 yards per attempt leads all of college football and he’s also averaging 8.5 yards per carry, adding 630 yards on the ground to go along with his strong passing numbers.

Hurts is elusive in the pocket as you’d expect and has shown the ability to make throws to all areas of the field. His running ability surpasses that of any quarterback in college football right now and makes him an absolute nightmare to deal with on third downs.

The drawbacks for Hurts include his accuracy on intermediate to deep throws and a tendency — like many quarterbacks who are great runners — to take his eyes down and look for lanes to run rather than keeping his eyes downfield when he senses pressure.

From a leadership standpoint you couldn’t ask for better than Hurts. He handled a tough situation at Alabama with incredible grace and character and has displayed an outstanding work ethic.

Sam Ehlinger, Texas

Class: Junior (eligible to return to school)

Size: 6’-3”, 230 lbs

2019 Stats: 146 of 211 (69.2%) for 1,658 yards (7.9 YPA), 17 touchdowns, 2 interceptions

Full disclosure... I’m a Texas alum and the following analysis might not be completely unbiased.

For one, I don’t think Ehlinger will end up coming out this year. He’s a guy who famously grew up in Austin as a massive Texas fan and playing on the forty acres is a dream come true to him. With close losses to LSU and Oklahoma already in the bank, it’s highly likely that this season ends with Ehlinger feeling like he has unfinished business to attend to with the Longhorns.

As someone who has watched his entire career, I can tell you that few players have ever shown the level of development that Ehlinger has over his three years in Austin. As a freshman, he was more runner than thrower and frequently made unbelievably horrific decisions with the football that directly cost Texas multiple wins in 2017. His sophomore season featured a much improved passer who took care of the ball, throwing just 5 interceptions on 425 attempts, to go along with the Tim Tebow-esque running game.

This year, Sam has taken his game to yet another level. Much improved pocket presence and accuracy are the new features added in 2019. He’s got plenty of arm strength to make all the throws he would need to at the NFL level.

The question marks for him remain his timing and ability to create outside of structure and some issues with his potential durability due to playing style. For better or worse, Ehlinger often runs more like a fullback than a quarterback, preferring to lower his shoulder and run through defenders than slide to the ground. He’s had several nagging injury issues as a result over the last couple years, including a shoulder issue with his throwing arm last year.

Leadership traits are elite with Ehlinger. He’s a fiery, spirited player with a great work ethic who is beloved by his coaches and teammates.

Again, I’d suspect that he goes back to Texas for a final year. If he progresses like he did over his first two offseasons, he’ll join Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields at the top of the 2021 quarterback class.

There is still plenty of football to be played over the next couple months and then we will have the all-star games and combine and all the other pre-draft events to evaluate so this is just a preview, not a finished evaluation. However, as things stand today, I’d have these eight quarterbacks ranked as follows:

  1. Tua Tagovailoa
  2. Joe Burrow
  3. Jacob Eason
  4. Justin Herbert
  5. Jake Fromm
  6. Jordan Love
  7. Jalen Hurts
  8. Sam Ehlinger

The nice thing about this group is that there are several different types of quarterbacks that will fit different styles of offense. That’s likely to result in some pretty wide variations in draft boards.

Need an accurate passer with the ability to create inside the pocket? Tagovailoa and Burrow fit.

Looking for an accurate passer who can think the game on an elite level? Jake Fromm.

Want a prototypical tall, big-armed quarterback? Justin Herbert and Jacob Eason can give you that.

Would you prefer a highly mobile quarterback that can run a read-option based attack? Jalen Hurts has you covered.

A big part of the evaluation for each team is going to be the kind of offense that they want to run and what that system asks of a passer. We don’t know if the Titans will stick with the system they’ve used the past two years at this point so I won’t comment on fit at this time, but that’s something we can add to our analysis once we get an idea of what the franchise is going to do with the offensive coaching staff after this year.