Going into the 2015 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers were looking for a backup quarterback.
Their No. 2 was Scott Tolzien, an extraordinary student of the game but with limitations that left general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy needing a more talented player to groom in case Aaron Rodgers was injured again down the road.
Ever since Thompson’s scouting trip to UCLA in the previous fall, he’d admired Brett Hundley in what was a thin class of quarterback prospects. Then during the draft process in the spring, McCarthy gave Hundley his imprimatur. Thompson never would consider drafting a quarterback without his coach’s wholehearted blessing.
On Day 3 of the draft, when pick No. 147 in the fifth round came up, five quarterbacks were gone: Jameis Winston (first round), Marcus Mariota (first), Garrett Grayson (third), Sean Mannion (third) and Bryce Petty (fourth).
But Hundley still was on the board, and with 19 selections before the Packers’ pick, Thompson made the move. He traded a seventh-rounder and his fifth-rounder to make Hundley the GM’s highest-drafted quarterback since Brian Brohm (second round) in 2008.
It’s now proving to be a consequential pick, because Rodgers could be out for the season with 10 games to play. What the Packers have in Hundley will determine where their season goes from here.
To find out just what McCarthy has to work with, this week I called the college scouting director of an AFC team whom I’ve spoken with annually for more than a decade. As anyone who follows the NFL knows, draft grades are projections in the most inexact of sciences, as is proven every year. But this scout has long experience immersed in evaluating college players, so his is an informed opinion. And from a bottom-line perspective he gives Hundley a good chance of winning four or five games out of the Packers’ final 10.
“I think they have enough veterans around him to give him a chance,” the scout said. “The good thing about this, this isn’t a guy who just got drafted this past year and had (only) a few games under his belt. He’s had time to sit and watch. If he’s been developing full time, it’s a great situation for him.
“You have the type of head coach that’s going to put him in position to do well. (Hundley) has been in that system, the system hasn’t changed on him. All those positive things that are going into it for the rest of the season, I like him. They did a good job drafting him when they did.”
Thompson’s trade up for Hundley suggests the Packers probably had a fourth-round grade on him. This scout graded Hundley a round higher. In his mind a third-round quarterback is a No. 2 who could develop into a lower-level starter. First- and second-round grades project to a certain starter at that position.
“I thought (Hundley) would be a bottom-third, bottom-10-type (starting) quarterback in the NFL when he’s at his best,” the scout said. “That’s not bad, you can win with those guys if you have players around them.
“When you’re talking about a top-10 quarterback, you’re talking about a guy that can carry a team by himself, without the top offensive threats around him. The middle-tier guys need one or two players. The bottom-10 guys need more players around them.”
An important factor in how this goes is McCarthy, and don’t underestimate his role in drafting Hundley. As the franchise’s quarterback guru, McCarthy has been a mentor for the scouting staff in evaluating that position. He studies all the quarterbacks who attend the NFL scouting combine, and he saw Hundley as a player he felt good about working with.
Judging by emails and Twitter feed, McCarthy has his share of critics in Packerland. But his track record with quarterbacks holds up well.
It started as quarterbacks coach in Kansas City (1995-98), where he helped develop backup Rich Gannon, who later won an MVP with Oakland.
In New Orleans, it was Aaron Brooks, who went 35-34 with McCarthy as his offensive coordinator and 3-18 without him.
Then there’s Matt Flynn, who was 3-3 as a Packers’ starter under McCarthy but bombed out everywhere else he played (Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo).
McCarthy’s one notable failure was going 2-5 with Alex Smith in the top pick’s rookie season in San Francisco, 2005. The next year McCarthy was in Green Bay, and it took Smith several years to develop into a competent starter.
Now McCarthy faces maybe his biggest test of all. The Packers are 4-2. Can they still be a playoff team with 10 games to go? It all depends on his partnership with Hundley that’s 2 ½ years in the making.
In that time, Hundley has flashed potential (129.6 preseason passer rating as a rookie) and been mundane (88.8 preseason rating this year). He’s also now lost (39.6 rating) after being thrown in the deep end in a relief role against the Minnesota Vikings’ seventh-ranked scoring defense last week.
But starting Sunday against New Orleans, the McCarthy-Hundley partnership starts for real. They’ve had 2 ½ years to get to know each other, and now a full week to prepare for a game together. And the scout thinks McCarthy has had a talented player to develop.
“The physical size (6-3 ½, 226) is there, good arm strength, great frame,” the scout said. “So (Hundley) was the kind of guy you thought would continue to grow into a really good NFL quarterback. In college early on he was a stare-down-receiver type quarterback, he would go to the hot guy. He was also the type that wouldn’t go through all his progressions. Now he was young, and a lot of inexperience there you could see. But you could also see good arm strength. At times he showed a quick release.”
But Hundley was available in the fifth round for a reason. The scout also saw a quarterback with limited knowledge reading defenses, shaky footwork and an occasional hitch in his delivery.
“Those are all things you could clear up, which I’m sure they have in Green Bay sitting behind Aaron Rodgers, which is a great thing for a young guy,” the scout said. “He has a lot of physical abilities. The mental processing wasn’t his strong suit, but I attribute a lot of that to his youth. He was a young guy at the time.
“He’s a good athlete. I wouldn’t say great, he’s not going to be a great runner. But he’s strong in the pocket, he can fend off pass rushers, that type of thing. There are a lot of good attributes there.”
The Packers’ season now hinges on whether McCarthy can do with the hand-picked Hundley what he did with Gannon, Brooks and Flynn.
He’s certainly the most talented Packers backup of the Rodgers era. Time to find out if he's the best as well.