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Tuesday Thoughts: What Florida's NFL Draft success reveals about offensive struggles

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Despite its struggles on offense in recent years, Florida's had NFL talent on that side of the ball — at every position but the most crucial one.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

As you may have heard or noticed or read, Florida had eight players taken in the 2015 NFL Draft this weekend.

That's a lot!

It's two shy of the school record of 10 draftees set in 1978, and one off the record for a seven-round NFL Draft (the NFL reduced it from 12 rounds to seven in 1993), set in 2007 (after a national championship campaign) and matched in 2010 (after a 26-2 stretch over two years including another national title). What's more, the six draftees from Florida's offense tied the school record for that category, set in 1978 (again, over 12 rounds), and the four offensive linemen taken were a school record.

These are big, round numbers, and seemingly important distinctions; they lend themselves to easy indictments of the Florida program that managed to win just seven games with those players — and the rest of its roster — in 2014, and four in 2013 (with the eight 2015 draftees, and another four who would be picked in 2014).

And Thomas Goldkamp wrote out his piece with a bit of positive spin — there's talent at Florida, and better coaching could produce a quick turnaround.

But I think the same old criticism leaves plenty to be desired — especially because the 2015 NFL Draft helps reveal the single most important reason Florida hasn't had a good offense of late.

Florida wasn't really a seven-win team in 2015

One of the things that bugs me most, though it's small: Florida had more draft picks in 2015 than wins in 2014 because its opening game against one of the worst teams in FBS was scrubbed by a lightning storm. That's just truth: Florida was much better than 1-10 Idaho, and would've been "an eight-win team" with the certain victory of that game — avoiding the ignominy of having more draft picks than wins, and maybe some of the dumb criticism to go with it.

But that game wasn't played, because of reasons beyond Florida's control, and so the tweeting and trolling was made possible. Damn you, Mother Nature?

"More picks than wins" is mostly arbitrary

Florida was actually one of three teams to have more picks in 2015 than wins in 2014: Miami, with seven picks and six wins, was the notable team to enter the ignominious club, but so did Louisville, with 10 picks and nine wins, including a blowout loss to the Georgia team Florida trampled in the Belk Bowl.

Both Louisville and Miami lost to 5-7 Virginia, but the Cardinals also beat Miami, despite an offseason the Hurricanes spent stewing over a more emphatic loss in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl. Miami lost to Pittsburgh, too, which finished 6-7, and lost to South Carolina, which beat Florida to sound Will Muschamp's death knell, in the 2014 Independence Bowl. (Virginia's best win came against Louisville; Pittsburgh's best was over 7-6 Virginia Tech, so, hey, Pitt was a transitive national champion!)

That loss to South Carolina was Florida's worst in 2014: The other four came on the road against two College Football Playoff participants (Alabama and Florida State), and at home against the SEC East champion (Missouri) and an SEC West team (LSU) that beat Mississippi, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin.

Florida, Louisville, and Miami all lost to Florida State, too, but Florida was the only team of the three that saw the Seminoles in Tallahassee, and consquently the only team of the three not to blow a fourth-quarter lead at home against FSU.

The point, though, is this: Florida's 7-5 record against a brutal SEC-and-Florida State schedule is still far more impressive than Miami's 6-7 record against a more forgiving ACC slate. Those two teams got lumped together for convenience, and ease of comparison thanks to their sharing of Florida's talent pool. Louisville got exempted from the "more picks than wins!" criticism/trolling because ... well, because I guess 10 picks (and ranking ahead of Florida in Draftpoints, which is a really interesting methodology for analysis) yielding nine wins and a three-win regression from 2013 means everything was great at Louisville, or something?

Also: If Florida State had lost to Florida and Clemson, far from unfathomable? FSU would've maxed out at 11 wins (with no ACC title game or College Football Playoff, its best record would've been 11-2) and had more wins than picks despite tying the modern-era record for players selected in one draft. If a tipped catch turning into a pick-six and a cornerback slipping on a deep ball turn out differently, perhaps we're talking about 2014 Florida State underachieving despite all-time talent.

I mean, unless we admitted that "more draft picks than wins" is a factoid, or a totally facile analysis that proves nothing without support. That would also be okay.

Florida's 2014 offense didn't really have six picks

David Wunderlich covered this already over at Team Speed Kills, and I whined about it on Twitter on Saturday, but saying "Florida's offense had six players drafted" depends on Andre Debose being counted as an offensive player. He wasn't, except in name:

The sixth was Andre Debose who nominally was a wide receiver. He tallied just 30 receptions and seven carries, though, with only four of those catches coming in his final two years of play. By contrast, he had 37 career punt returns (one touchdown) and 80 career kickoff returns (four touchdowns).

Debose's longest offensive play after the 2011 season — when Charlie Weis had the epiphany to throw him the ball on play-action go routes, the only role that ever truly suited him at Florida, and he recorded two of the mere five plays of more than 60 yards that BCS National Championship game participants Alabama and LSU gave up all year — was a 35-yard run against LSU in 2014. That single play accounts for nearly 70 percent of his total offense in his last three years (or two seasons; Debose was out for the entirety of 2013) as a Gator.

His other two offensive touches in 2014 were one catch for a loss of three yards against Alabama, which helped lead to a pick and started the slow leak of Florida's momentum in that game, and one rush for a loss of five yards on first and goal against Georgia, which helped force Florida to settle for a field goal. (That run against Georgia also came on a drive that nearly didn't happen because of Debose, who muffed an attempt to fair catch a punt from his knees with the next seven players closest to the ball all wearing red, and miraculously ended up with possession.)

Debose's most important offensive play post-2011 is even easier to identify: His inability to run the right route or catch a pass from Driskel on the first offensive play of the 2013 Sugar Bowl produced a pick-six.

It would be an insult to Florida's offense (yes, even Florida's offense) to consider Debose, whose best contributions on offense in 2014 were that play against LSU and some surprisingly sound blocking, a true offensive player. And counting him among Florida's offensive players when Florida's coaches essentially didn't is helpful accounting.

For Florida, Debose was a glorified special teamer; at the NFL level, Debose will be a special teamer. He just doesn't get listed as such by the NFL, which doesn't count special teamers in its Draft numbers ... except for kickers and punters and long snappers.

Makes sense.

Psst: Florida's offensive line was actually good

Florida's offensive line was the bright spot of its offense in 2014: As Wunderlich writes, the Gators were fourth the SEC in sack percentage allowed in 2014, a pretty good number, and Florida was also tied for 18th nationally with just 16 sacks allowed; Florida also finished with 4.36 yards per carry, which is about average (though, notably, it was better than Florida State's 4.29 yards per carry, and the Seminoles had three linemen drafted).

Florida never had fewer than 107 rushing yards (its tally against top-five rushing defense Alabama) in 2014, and topped 200 yards five times, most memorably dominating Georgia (a team that hadn't given up more than 4.2 yards per carry in a game prior to meeting Florida) for 418 yards on the ground. Georgia Tech, second nationally in rushing offense and sixth in yards per carry, only got to 399 yards on Georgia, and that was in a home game.

Jones, also drafted, was never transcendent, and needed the line to open up holes for him; the same is true of Kelvin Taylor, and Adam Lane, and Treon Harris the runner, all of whom had 100-yard rushing performances behind Florida's line in 2014.

And the core of that line has been good, at least in the running game and when healthy, for years: Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey each gained better than five yards per carry behind the line in 2011, each rushing for more than 100 yards in a destruction of Kentucky; Mike Gillislee was the first Florida player in eight years to crest 1,000 rushing yards in 2012, and Jeff Driskel set the Florida record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback against Vanderbilt that year; Mack Brown, about as average a back as Florida has had, still managed a 100-yard day to begin the 2013 season with Jones sidelined and Taylor still green.

The problem? Well...

Florida's offense just never stayed healthy

Of the six Florida offensive players (counting Debose) drafted in 2015, only two — center Max Garcia and guard/tackle Trenton Brown, who only played two years each at Florida — never suffered a season-ending injury with the Gators.

D.J. Humphries missed the last month of the 2013 season with knee troubles. Chaz Green missed the 2013 season with a torn labrum, and dealt with a bunch of other dings throughout his career. Debose lost his 2009 season and his 2013 season to injury, which is why it felt like he spent an epoch at Florida.

And Jones, truly star-crossed, missed the last six games of Florida's 2013 season after tearing his meniscus against LSU (and had previously missed Florida's opener, and looked far less than full strength, after a hospital stay during fall practice), then sat out of Florida's bowl game in 2014, almost certainly to nurse injuries after his production declined to end the 2014 regular season. Jones had 761 yards through Florida's first nine games of 2014 despite dealing with swelling in his surgically-repaired knee, and could have very well been poised to go over 1,000 yards had that Idaho opener not been cancelled; instead, he had just 57 yards over his last two appearances and Florida's last three games.

These were the good players, mind you.

Mostly, Florida's struggled because of QB play

The primary reason Florida's offense has been bad in recent years, though, is because of who didn't get selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, and hasn't been since 2010: A quarterback. It's been five years since Tim Tebow was taken by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft; since then, Florida's yet to have one starting quarterback make every start for the Gators in a single season.

In 2010, Urban Meyer turned to both Jordan Reed and Trey Burton, now on NFL rosters at other positions, as part of a three-QB system, as John Brantley struggled in his first season as Florida's starter. In 2011, Brantley suffered a series of injuries, forcing both Driskel and Jacoby Brissett into action. In 2012, Driskel started 11 games, the most by a Florida QB since Tebow started 13 in 2009, missing only Florida's opener (because of a bizarre decision to start both QBs, sort of) and Florida's perfunctory win against Jacksonville State.

In 2013, Driskel made three starts, Murphy made another six, and Skyler Mornhinweg was thrown into the fire for the Gators' final three games. And in 2014, finally, health wasn't an issue at quarterback until Florida's bowl game — but the suspension of Harris in conjunction with a sexual assault allegation just two days after Harris helped rescue Florida at Tennessee delayed his supplanting of Driskel as Florida's starter; Driskel would start six games for Florida, and Harris seven.

And none of the starters have been all that good in the first place.

Brantley was the best passer among them at Florida, and his tryout with the Baltimore Ravens was short-lived, as he was cut to make room for a backup tight end who did not record a reception in 2012. Murphy has been the only other one to garner NFL interest as a passer so far — but he just went undrafted, and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a wide receiver.

Putting aside the weirdly impressive fact that Florida has had three starting quarterbacks since 2010 sign contracts with NFL teams to play positions other than QB, that five-year drought of QBs drafted as QBs is troubling, and the 2015 NFL Draft fact most reflective of the Gators' struggles on offense in recent years. Here's the full list of teams who have had quarterbacks drafted over the same span:

  1. Auburn
  2. Washington
  3. Missouri
  4. Florida State (3)
  5. TCU
  6. Nevada
  7. Arkansas (2)
  8. North Carolina
  9. Idaho
  10. Virginia Tech (2)
  11. Alabama (2)
  12. Stanford
  13. Baylor (2)
  14. Texas A&M
  15. Oklahoma State
  16. Arizona State
  17. Wisconsin
  18. Arizona
  19. Michigan State
  20. San Diego State (2)
  21. Chattanooga
  22. Northern Illinois
  23. West Virginia
  24. N.C. State
  25. USC
  26. Syracuse
  27. Oklahoma
  28. Southern Utah
  29. Miami (Ohio)
  30. South Florida
  31. Duke
  32. Louisville
  33. Fresno State
  34. Eastern Illinois
  35. Pittsburgh
  36. Georgia
  37. LSU
  38. Ball State
  39. Clemson
  40. SMU
  41. Oregon
  42. Colorado State
  43. Oregon State
  44. UCLA
  45. Northwestern

That's 45 teams, three of which aren't even FBS programs, that have had more "NFL talent" at QB than Florida since 2010. And, yeah, the one at the top had a player who started his career at Florida. (Florida State's three QBs drafted since 2010 leads the country — and all three were taken in the first round.)

What's more, of the four teams to win national titles and have a quarterback move on to the NFL this decade, only one has done so without producing a first-rounder at QB: Alabama. (Ohio State is exempt from this analysis for now, obviously, but both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett should eventually be drafted, at least one as a first-rounder.) The Crimson Tide have had two quarterbacks drafted, which is rare, but they won without a top-shelf talent.

And this 2015 NFL Draft was exceptionally shallow in quarterbacks: Just seven were selected, the fewest in the common era (and since 1955).

What do those two notes speak to? The desperate need for elite quarterback play at the collegiate level, and the relative scarcity of it, as reflected by NFL interest in those passers.

Florida State's unique position, thanks to Jimbo Fisher, exacerbates Florida's need for that play. An annual series against the program churning out the most and best QB talent in the country at the moment in addition to a loaded SEC schedule, and recruiting against that program? It's a rough spot for Florida, and head coach Jim McElwain.

So it's probably a good thing that McElwain and his offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, have coached a combined four quarterbacks picked by NFL teams since 2010. In Washington's Nussmeier-coached Jake Locker, Alabama's team-tutored Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron, and Colorado State's McElwain-mentored Garrett Grayson, they have.

If we're being honest, Florida's offensive plight (blight?) in recent years has rooted back to its quarterbacks, where the talent has been most lacking: Counting Debose as a receiver, Florida's had at least one player drafted at every offensive position but QB since 2010. And the defense, unmentioned here and in the "critiques" of Florida in recent days, has been just fine, and is still loaded with talent.

If we're looking for reasons for a Florida turnaround, though, I submit that the presence of two coaches with recent and relevant success in molding college quarterbacks into NFL prospects is a good one.