Sports Football

NFL

Brandon Bridge a rarity: Canadian QB with legit shot at NFL

John Kryk

By John Kryk, Toronto Sun

MOBILE, ALA. - 

Toronto-bred quarterbacks don’t play in NFL games. They just don’t.

History’s scorecard? Zero.

So who was — and who is — Brandon Bridge to think he can become the first? And just the fourth Canadian passer in the NFL’s 96-year existence?

Naysayers kept throwing such negativity at Bridge as he grew up in the west Toronto suburb of Mississauga, and again at a pair of low-profile college-football stops in America’s Deep South.

He ignored it all.

“If someone says I can’t do it, it’s just going to encourage me to prove them wrong,” Bridge said following his pro-day workout for NFL scouts late last month at the University of South Alabama.

”I always believed I was going to make the NFL. I’ve had the dream, I’ve had the will, I’ve had the passion for it — like no other guy.”

Now’s his chance to hit pay dirt.

By sundown next Saturday, May 2, we’ll find out on which NFL team Brandon “Air Canada” Bridge will attempt to make history. Fact is, it’s just a matter of how, not whether, Bridge gets his long-coveted chance to make an NFL team, either as a last-day draft pick or a priority free-agent signee soon after the draft.

Of course he strongly prefers the first scenario, which probably is the likeliest of the two.

“I just want to hear my name called,” the 23-year-old said.

That’s what Bridge has been living for since his youth football coach, Manfred Sittmann of the Ontario Minor Football League’s Mississauga Warriors, gave him his first chance to be a quarterback, 10 years ago.

“Seeing people finally having their dream come true, getting their name called, I want to be a part of that whole experience,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what round. Obviously, the earlier the better.

“It’s been a dream of mine since watching the draft with my brothers.”

Thanks to his missile-launcher of a right arm, virtually all top NFL draft experts have Bridge ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks in this year’s class.

He’s pegged in the 7-10 range. For instance, Rob Rang, senior draft analyst for CBS Sports’ NFLDraftScout.com, has him seventh; ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., eighth; both NFL.com and Josh Norris of NBC Sports’ Rotoworld, ninth.

For perspective, 14 quarterbacks were drafted last year, 11 in 2013, 11 in 2012 and 12 in 2011.

Bridge won’t be selected in Round 1 Thursday night at Chicago’s Roosevelt University theatre. And he’s highly unlikely to go in Rounds 2 or 3 on Friday night.

His best chance comes Saturday afternoon, when the draft concludes with Rounds 4-7, starting at noon EDT. (NFL Network will provide the only continuous live TV coverage in Canada.)

Draftniks who believe Bridge will be drafted — and NFL Network’s Mike Mayock is among those unsure he will — say he’ll probably be picked in the sixth or seventh round.

Until the past few months, Bridge had been a virtual unknown in Canada. The CFL’s scouting bureau last September and again in December didn’t even rank him among the top 20 Canadian prospects for its May 12 draft. (In the bureau’s final rankings, released Friday, Bridge entered at No. 19.)

So how did “Air Canada” fly into this position? How did he wind up in Mobile, Ala.? And what skills does he possess that make him a legitimate NFL quarterback candidate?

* * *

Brandon Colin Bridge was born in Toronto (North York, to be specific) on March 21, 1992.

His parents, Colin and Suzanne, already had two boys, Antoine and Kyle, and raised their family in the Meadowvale/Streetsville area of Mississauga, which hugs Highway 401 highway around Mavis Road, just west of Pearson International Airport.

As an athletic youngster attending French-immersion Corsair Public School, then Tompkins Road Middle School, Bridge idolized the first Toronto-based athlete nicknamed Air Canada: Vince Carter of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Basketball became Bridge’s first sporting love.

Even today, at nearly 6-foot-4½ and 230 pounds, Bridge appears to have a body built more for hoops than football. He played organized basketball as a kid but didn’t stand out.

“My dad told me I wasn’t good at it, so he made me switch sports,” Bridge said, smiling. “I definitely had to do it. I went to football. Obviously, I excelled at that.”

Bridge’s first football idol was Tom Brady. Bridge particularly admired how the New England Patriots passer had overcome being snubbed in the draft until the 199th pick (sixth round) in 2000.

Then Bridge came to idolize dual-threat QB Michael Vick. To this day Bridge still wears a football glove on his right hand only, as the lefty Vick does — only with Bridge it’s on his throwing hand, not opposite hand. Bridge said he likes the added grip a glove provides.

After playing youth ball under Sittman on the Mississauga Warriors, Bridge became a star quarterback in high school at St. Marcellinus Secondary School, and he helped lead the Spirit to two area championships. Wind, rain, snow — the elements never seemed to bother him.

Yet Bridge barely got a look from college recruiters south of the border.

Head coach Turner Gill at the University of Buffalo eventually promised Bridge a full-ride scholarship. But when Gill bolted to Kansas University, the offer never materialized. When the recruiting music stopped in February 2010, Bridge was denied a chair.

Eventually, he decided to play in the NCAA’s second division (FCS), at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss.

He started as a true freshman, completing 150-of-291 passes (51.5%) for 2,086 yards and 19 touchdowns, and rushing for 601 yards and eight more scores — mostly impressive numbers, especially for an 18-year-old straight out of Canada.

Incidentally, it was around this time that Bridge started telling Americans he was from Toronto. Because when he’d say Mississauga, they thought he just said “Mississippi” the wrong way.

After two years at Alcorn State, Bridge looked to leave.

“In my true sophomore year the coaches that recruited me ended up leaving,” he said. “And then I just wasn’t happy there anymore, so I got a release (in 2012).

“Les Koenning, who was offensive coordinator at Mississippi State, called me. He said that he wanted me at Mississippi State. But there just wasn’t a scholarship to offer, so they helped me get recruited to South Alabama.”

That’s in Mobile, Alabama’s gulf-coast city. The South Alabama Jaguars play in the 11-team Sun Belt Conference, one of the lesser top-division (FBS) leagues. Other Sun Belt members include Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia State, Texas State and University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“Brandon came in really and truly raw,” Jaguars head coach Joey Jones said. “But he worked so hard and has such a work ethic, and has so many goals in his head, that he got a ton better.”

After sitting out his transfer year, Bridge was a backup in 2013. Before taking over as starter last fall, Bridge took part in the Manning Passing Academy last summer, where top NCAA quarterbacks entering their final years go to get coached up. And noticed.

“I came second in the accuracy contest,” Bridge said. “I lost to (Oregon State’s) Sean Mannion. Marcus Mariota was there, Jameis Winston was there — all the top guys who are mentioned in this draft.

“I thought I compared well to them. That’s when I knew I had a shot with the NFL.”

What did the accuracy drills entail?

“Just hitting golf carts (crossing) 20 yards away, then 30 yards away, then (vertically) down the field, and you have to hit them. I missed only one throw.”

Yet, the biggest knock on Bridge remains his accuracy. Last fall he completed only 160-of-307 passes, a disturbingly low percentage of 52.1%. Good college quarterbacks boast completion percentages at least as high as the low 60s.

“The (NFL’s) biggest concern is his consistency in throwing the ball. At times he looked great, at times he may not have,” Jones, his coach, said.

Bridge himself admits he threw off his back foot far too many times, and that his mechanics were a mess.

But dropped passes were a huge issue, too. In at least two games Jaguars receivers dropped eight of Bridge’s throws. You can see for yourself on YouTube; search for clips of South Alabama’s offence against SEC power Mississippi State in particular.

Jones said Bridge’s mechanics and accuracy actually improved noticeably in his two years in Mobile.

“He’s improved as much as anybody we’ve ever had,” Jones said, “in completion percentage, and in being able to deliver the ball to people on time — really night and day compared to two years ago.”

After passing his exams in December to graduate from South Alabama with a degree in public relations, Bridge quarterbacked the Jags in the first bowl game in the program’s six-year existence.

He played in January’s NFLPA Bowl (a college all-star game), then worked out under noted QB gurus Steve Calhoun in California and David Morris in Alabama.

Both convinced Bridge that not every throw from a strong-armed quarterback should sear the skin off his receivers’ finger tips. Morris said Bridge now has better touch, and varies his speed as required.

Morris also worked to improve Bridge’s lower-body throwing mechanics. Specifically, his footwork.

“We always say, ‘Base equals balance, balance equals accuracy,’” Morris said. “So if you’re off-balance, your likelihood for accuracy drops. Balance comes from our feet, our hips and our leverage.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with Brandon’s throwing motion, Morris said.

“In fact it’s one of the most compact motions you’ll ever see. It’s vertical, which is very good. And he doesn’t have much soreness, which is good.”

Earlier, Jones and his offensive coaches at South Alabama had narrowed Bridge’s “slotting,” the arc over his shoulder where the ball passes. Variance in slotting also leads to inconsistency, thus inaccuracy.

Bridge remains a work in progress. A project, most analysts say.

“He’s got exciting arm talent,” Mayock said on a conference call Thursday. “But he’s so raw it begs the question, Where does he get drafted, if at all?

“He’s got size. He’s got arm talent. But he’s got a long way to go from accuracy and technique.”

A necessary trait Bridge has in abundance is confidence in his powerful arm.

“That’s a good thing,” Jones said. “Sometimes, because he does have such a great arm, he thinks he can thread the needle, so to speak. But he learned a lot, through last year, to not throw interceptions.”

Indeed, after throwing four picks and only three touchdowns in South Alabama’s first four games in 2014, Bridge threw seven TDs without an interception over his next five starts, before closing his college career with five TDs and four interceptions combined in narrow losses to Navy and to Bowling Green in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.

Before the scouting combine in February, most top NFL draft analysts ranked Bridge outside their top 10 QBs. But Bridge impressed in Indianapolis, showing off his rocket arm along with improved footwork.

“I thought that Brandon Bridge got himself drafted today, I really did,” Rang said at the time. “In a quarterback class as weak as this one, why not gamble on a guy with a big arm?”

A month later at his pro day, in front of about a dozen NFL scouts and two CFL scouts, Bridge showed yet more improvement in his below-the-waist delivery. A couple of scouts told him so.

Other knocks on Bridge include these: that he has a lean basketball player’s body, which raises long-term injury concerns; that he didn’t play much in college; and that he is only now familiarizing himself with 1-, 3-, 5- and 7-step, pro-style dropbacks.

The Jags did not employ a prototypical spread attack, even if that’s the perception.

“We did run a lot of West Coast (pro passing) principles,” Jones said. “So I think some of the passing games in the NFL will be the same.

“The difference is, we were in the shotgun 99% of the time. I think that’s the biggest transition, to be able to take a snap under centre, drop back and still pick up your reads. To me, the rest of it, really, there’s not much difference.”

Morris drilled Bridge this winter and spring on the various dropbacks from centre.

“We’ve repped them to the point where he’s comfortable with it all now,” Morris said. “Each step has a purpose. He’s learning it, and applying it.

“His feet look good. They really do.”

* * *

An NFL team with an established but aging starter, which can afford to bring along Bridge slowly, probably will be his best-case destination.

The Buffalo Bills aren’t in that boat. But GM Doug Whaley, who has said his club might select a quarterback late in the draft, had this to say of Bridge:

“He’s the type of guy who’s got all the physical traits and talents. He’s just going to take some time to translate that to the pro game.”

Such a time investment in Bridge could pay big dividends, his college coach insists.

“The good thing about Brandon is his ceiling is real high,” Jones said. “He can be a guy who can turn into a Colin Kaepernick type quarterback. We don’t know if that will happen.

“I do know the work ethic’s there.”

One long-time NFL scout said he likes what he sees in Bridge, and assessed him as follows: he could quickly become a starter in the CFL, but before he could ever start in the American pro league he needs to bulk up physically, and needs a couple of years to both refine his abilities and learn the nuances of the NFL passing game.

Bridge said he doesn’t get discouraged by such assessments; he aims to learn from them. Then prove his doubters wrong.

And the doubters have been there, at every step of the way.

“When college teams wouldn’t take me out of high school, people said I wasn’t good enough. Or when I’d send colleges my tape, and they said I wasn’t good enough. Or when I went to Alcorn State they said I’d never make it to (NCAA top-division FBS) — then when I did they said I wouldn’t start. When I did start they said, ‘He won’t go to the (National Football) League.’

“Every time that I would prove them wrong, it was like there was something else they would add. It was always something new every time, which made me just keep pushing to prove them wrong.”

Which is why Bridge isn’t making the CFL his Plan B.

“I always think about Plan A,” he said in defiance. “You don’t have a Plan B because that distracts from Plan A.

“And my plan is to go to the NFL.”

 

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

@JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/krykslants/

HEADLINE: ‘Intrigued’ Jesse Palmer hopes Bridge joins NFL QB club from Canada

JOHN KRYK

Postmedia Network

About 100 men born in Canada have played in the NFL since the league’s formation in 1920.

Only three played quarterback in a regular-season game. And two of them were born in Canada but grew up in the States:

* Charlie O’Rourke, a native Montrealer raised in Boston who quarterbacked the Chicago Bears in 1942 and Los Angeles Dons from 1946-47;

* Mark Rypien, born in Calgary and reared in Spokane, Wash. An NFLer from 1986 to 2002, Rypien always will be remembered as MVP of Super Bowl XXVI, after expertly leading the Washington Redskins to the 1991 NFL championship.

The third NFL QB from Canada was Jesse Palmer, born in Toronto and raised in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean. After improbably starting (on and off) for four years at the University of Florida, Palmer played five years in the NFL from 2001-05, mostly as backup.

Dan Feraday, a born-and-raised Torontonian who broke a slew of passing records from 1978-81 at the University of Toronto, got extended tryouts with three NFL teams from 1982-84. The Cincinnati Bengals made him the second-last pick of the ’82 draft, in the 12th round, 333rd overall.

Feraday played in one preseason game for Forrest Gregg’s Bengals before being cut. Over the next two years he latched on briefly with the Detroit Lions, the Bengals again and the Green Bay Packers — among other pro teams. But Feraday never played in a regular-season NFL game.

A few years earlier, Jamie Bone from the University of Western Ontario, a former two-time Canadian university player of the year, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys. The tryout was brief.

Palmer is now an ESPN college football analyst. He said he’s rooting hard for Mississauga’s Brandon Bridge to make it in the NFL.

“I never covered any of his games, but I’ve actually studied a lot of his tape,” Palmer said. “I did it more so just out of personal interest, as a fellow Canadian. I’m really excited to see what happens at the draft, and throughout his career.

“He possesses physical attributes you just can’t teach or coach. He’s got phenomenal arm strength and very good athleticism for a guy his size. That’s what makes him such an intriguing prospect. It’s a rare combination.”

Many draft analysts say Bridge is a raw prospect.

“I don’t agree with that,” Palmer said. “What he needs to work on is when to take something off his throws, using more touch, and anticipating throws better. That’s a very common problem for quarterbacks that have as much arm strength as he does.”

“So many times in his career so far his arm strength can make up for that lack of anticipation. Obviously, at the next level, windows close a lot sooner. It’s something you just have to develop. It’s not like if you haven’t done it, you can never do it.”

Palmer said that although he has never met Bridge, he’s impressed by his mental toughness.

“Just being in this position is a testament to his character. He’s had to earn everything he’s gotten. He didn’t get a scholarship to Alabama, or USC, or Miami or Ohio State. But to his credit, he performed.

“Football’s just not a sport that’s prevalent on our side of the border. Generally in football, Canada is known for exporting linemen. It’s very rare that skill players from Canada get scholarship offers, and then the opportunity to get drafted is more rare -- and beyond that, quarterback, the hardest position in all team sport.

“I understand how difficult Brandon’s road was.”


Reader's comments »

By adding a comment on the site, you accept our terms and conditions


Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »