Inside the ascension of Pitt quarterback Tom Savage
April 19, 2014 8:46 PM
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Former Pitt quarterback Tom Savage: one of the hottest NFL draft prospects.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, Tom Savage was at Pitt's practice, joking around with old teammates and tossing a couple of passes to his former offensive linemen.
Wednesday, he was back on the road, off to visit the latest NFL team interested in acquiring his services in next month's NFL draft.
Such is life for one of the draft's hottest prospects, a label few would have attached to Savage when his season came to an end at halftime of the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl four months ago.
Savage went from a borderline prospect likely to go in the fifth to seventh round to a quarterback most analysts now have as a second- or third-round pick.
By the end of the month, Savage will have met with 25 of the 32 NFL teams, according to his agent, Neil Schwartz. He was invited to attend the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York, but hasn't decided whether he will attend.
"He's got a chance to be a good player," said NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt. Brandt, who spent 29 years as the Cowboys' VP of player personnel, projects Savage as a second-round pick.
"He's a big, strong-armed quarterback that hasn't played a lot but has got tremendous upside."
The hype machine for Savage actually got into gear -- however slowly -- earlier last season after Savage's six-touchdown performance against Duke. That's when Brandt wrote an article for NFL.com comparing Savage's style to former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and projecting that Savage could play his way into a top-50 spot in this year's draft.
After the season ended, Savage threw for scouts at the NFL combine and at Pitt's pro day.
More importantly, though, the end of the season gave NFL scouts a chance to go back and watch film from Savage's lone season at Pitt. The six-touchdown game in the third week of the season against Duke was impressive, but almost more telling to scouts was the progression Savage made as the season went on.
PG graphic: Savage by the numbers (Click image for larger version)
He didn't have any more light-up-the-scoreboard games, but, in the second half of the season, only threw three interceptions and had one game with a completion percentage under 60 percent.
Part of the problem was that Savage only had the one full season of tape for them to review. He started his career with promise, winning the Big East freshman of the year award at Rutgers in 2009, but then transferred twice before ending up at Pitt in 2012.
"It's not a case of him being obscure. He did have the skins on the wall, so to speak, after his freshman year," Brandt said.
"I think that if you ask him about it today, he'd say that he wish he wouldn't have transferred. But that's all hindsight."
Circumstances aside, the reason Savage appeals to NFL teams is his raw talent. He is 6 feet, 4 inches and has the arm strength to put the ball anywhere on the field.
"You see the fact that he can make every NFL throw and he's willing to do so," CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang said. "Some quarterbacks have the talent, but don't have the courage to throw the ball."
Rang projects Savage as a third-round pick, but could also see him going in the second. The highest current projection for Savage comes from ESPN's Todd McShay, who has him going with the first pick of the second round to Houston.
Like most experts, though, McShay added Savage to his draft board only recently. Rang said this might not be a case of Savage's stock suddenly surging, but rather the media catching up to what NFL teams have thought about him for a long time.
"I think when it's all said and done, I think Savage is most likely going to get drafted somewhere in the second to third round, and if we would've had an opportunity to look at NFL team boards a month or two ago, then that's likely where he was then," Rang said. "As the media catches wind of it, that's where the hype is coming from."
And while teams are intrigued by Savage's skill set, he's far from a finished product. The limited amount of college action, plus some of Pitt's offensive line struggles in 2013, have scouts still unsure of what Savage could do when given time to learn a system and surrounded by high-level NFL talent.
"That's one of the reasons why he is a little bit of a projection," Rang said. "If he had a better protection in front of him, then maybe he would have been able to make those secondary reads a little bit quicker. I think teams are very intrigued by him, but that's something that he's going to need to work on."
Predicting the NFL draft is often a fool's errand, with team needs and trades mucking up even the most highly-researched mock draft board. Savage will almost certainly be picked, though, which is something you couldn't say a year ago. And he'll probably go higher than most people would have expected even a month ago.
■ What: 2014 NFL draft, seven rounds, Radio City Music Hall, New York.
■ When: May 8-10.
■ TV: ESPN & NFL Network.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG
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