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Jake Rudock is prime backup quarterback material

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Many (non-Michigan fan) Detroit Lions fans were critical of the Jake Rudock pick, some to the point of outright hatred. What if we have it all wrong, though? What if he has a perfect skillset for backup QB we just think of backup QB incorrectly?

Jake Rudock, Detroit Lions Quarterback
Jake Rudock, Detroit Lions Quarterback
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A month or so before the 2016 NFL Draft I had a discussion with a much more established Lions writer than I am about potential backup quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions. We both agreed that this draft wasn't very strong at that position, but there was some talent to be had there. When we compared notes, I realized very quickly that our idea of what talented backup means is very different. Who he floated were crazy picks, I thought, and would never start an NFL game without a serious injury, even if developed fully. To my surprise, he didn't disagree.

I should note that this conversation started when I was dogging on Jake Rudock while talking to our own Alex Reno. It was then, in mid-March, less than two months before the draft, that I changed my evaluation process for QBs, which I'd used for seven years. It isn't often that you change your entire process around, especially that close to the big night, but change it I did. At the time, I was resigned that the Lions were going to pick Kevin Hogan. Mostly an ironic thought due to the team's overt interest in the Stanford signal caller, I had an undrafted grade on Hogan (and Rudock). With this renewed outlook on backups, I went back to the tape and came back with an entirely different ranking on QBs. I still viewed Hogan as the pick for the Lions, but had a high enough grade on him I thought he'd be gone. The fallback pick? Jake Rudock, whom the team showed interest.

I don't say this to impress anybody, it's actually a pick I was hoping to be wrong about. On Day 2, when the Lions selected Graham Glasgow with their third-round pick, I knew it was happening. So what was this changed outlook? Why all of a sudden would I flip not only one, but several undrafted grades on quarterbacks to draftables? Why in a draft known as a weak QB draft do we see 15 signal callers taken?  Well, I think I have the answer. And this time, it doesn't even have to do with math.

As a fan of football, I always viewed the backup as someone who can step in if the starter gets injured or becomes ineffective. Someone you can count on in a pinch to replace your starter and keep things going, potentially even develop into a starter either to replace your current one post over-the-hill play or trade for a higher draft pick. It's true, some backups are drafted this way. This primarily occurs in the earlier rounds, but occasionally you'll see it later. It almost always comes on a team looking to have insurance for their aged starter, such as the Patriots drafting Jimmy Garoppolo or the Cowboys taking Dak Prescott (after failing to get Paxton Lynch). These are what you think about when you consider drafting a backup. Someone with developmental upside you could see starting in the league. Maybe not now, but eventually.

The vast majority of quarterback draft picks are not like that, however. Look at not just this draft, but any and this trend becomes increasingly clearer. Sure, those developmental guys get taken and those are the ones you remember, but most quarterbacks are not the developmental starter type. Guys like Brandon Doughty, who graded out as one of the worst athletes since 2000 by RAS (third-worst, sorry I said no math), or the aforementioned Kevin Hogan who heard their names called on Day 3. I mean, the Browns took Cody Kessler in the third round! Last season, despite an aged Peyton Manning, the Broncos opted to draft only Trevor Siemian from Northwestern. Heck, even Kevin Hogan was drafted by a team that took Aaron Murray a couple years earlier. These aren't eventual starter types, these are backup types, they're not going to see an NFL field! They're just going to stand there holding a clipboard, watching the plays from the sideline and providing input to the starting QB who is...on the field...on actual Sunday game days...every game day. This was about the point I started to get it.

NFL teams in general don't draft high upside guys to be their backups if they have an entrenched starter. This includes a team like the Detroit Lions, where Matthew Stafford has been Rocky Balboa. So what kind of quarterback do you draft when you have a reliable, healthy starter who isn't tailing their career off? Well, we can look back to Jim Caldwell's history. His first foray into the backup QB market was a tall, skinny, Big Ten quarterback who had an erratic and not very impressive college career in Jim Sorgi. Sorgi wasn't a developmental type, but a backup. A smart player with limited physical tools to become an NFL starter. Later, Jim Caldwell would draft a different tall, Big Ten quarterback with an erratic and unimpressive college career in Curtis Painter. Both of these draftees were behind Peyton Manning, and weren't drafted to do anything on the field but rather the sideline. Painter would eventually see the field, which is why Caldwell is now in Detroit and not Indianapolis.

So for the third time, we would see a tall, skinny, Big Ten quarterback drafted in the sixth round who had an unimpressive and erratic college career. Only this time it was Jake Rudock and the Detroit Lions. But why? Why the trend? Caldwell's trend of size and conference is likely his own, but drafting a QB who is never intended to see the field is quite common in the NFL. The reason is quite simple, but takes some getting used to philosophically. They aren't drafted for what they can do on the field in an emergency, but rather what they can do on the sideline in support of the actual starter every game day. A quarterback who isn't expected to develop into a game day starter, but a game day backup. Should they actually see the field, they aren't expected to win the game for you, but rather not lose it.

From Iowa to Michigan, Jake Rudock was never a great quarterback. His time at Iowa saw him throwing an incredible amount of short passes, cautious throws that almost anyone could make relying on the receivers to make something for the big plays and in most situations just to move the chains. Essentially running plays through the air, this trend for Rudock would continue at his time in Michigan as a senior. The last five games of his college career were much more exciting, and we saw him light up Indiana for six touchdowns and over 400 yards, but those six TDs accounted for 30 percent of his total production on the year. In fact, Rudock did better in those final six games than he had the first eight, accounting for well over half of his production. The rest of his time at Michigan was spent essentially keeping the offense afloat while the excellent coaching of Jim Harbaugh did the majority of the work. His mechanics are poor, his arm strength mediocre, and his athleticism questionable.

What makes Jake Rudock a good idea even as a backup, then? The positives really fit into a game day backup role. Rudock quickly learned a pro style offense at Iowa and ran it efficiently, even if it wasn't flashy. Asked to learn a completely different pro style offense at Michigan, Rudock again picked it up quickly and it took only a couple games to fall into a rhythm of efficiency. As a pro, he will once again be asked to quickly pick up a pro offense, this time not running it but watching it from the sidelines and providing input to Matthew Stafford. It's doubtful he will beat out Dan Orlovsky for the No. 2 spot, even if he outplays him in the preseason (which is likely considering the difference between second team and third team). The traits the team is looking at aren't the same ones we are going to see during the preseason games, but rather the conversations that are going on between Rudock and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter on the sidelines. I'll be paying closer attention to how Stafford interacts with Rudock and Cooter than I will Jake Rudock throwing passes to receivers who won't make the team going against corners who won't make their team.

Looking at backup quarterbacks as an entirely different position has led me to create the Rothstein Scale. Named for Mike Rothstein, the Detroit Lions ESPN reporter who first pitched the idea to me, it has forever changed how I evaluate quarterbacks in the draft. There is no way NFL teams saw 15 potential NFL starters in this weak QB draft, so this explanation is the only one that makes sense. It's almost a different position, a specialist position like long snapper, and requires different data for evaluation and a different outlook while viewing tape. In the end, I'm still a numbers guy, so when I see a trend I'm going to follow it. Even if that trend ends at a place where drafting a QB like Jake Rudock isn't just possible, it's common.