Slightly hunched before a circle of reporters, the effects of a three month rehabilitation for knee injury showed on Zach Mettenberger’s face.
The former LSU quarterback’s cheeks looked sunken, his beard covered up a narrow jaw line and mouth hung slack sucking in gulps of air. Lofting more than 100 throws in less than an hour would leave any would-be NFL signal-caller gassed.
But Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, David Carr and the slew of passers jockeying for slots on NFL draft boards spent more than a scant three weeks preparing to audition before hordes of personnel men at their pro days.
“I’m three months out of surgery and I’m not in playing shape,” Mettenberger said on April 9. “That’s something to expect, but I’m doing everything I can to be ready for rookie camp.”
And taking Mettenberger, who is projected to be scooped up in the second or third round of the NFL draft on Friday, would seem to be a reasonable move even as his management team and those inside the LSU program have diligently worked to navigate a set of challenges most early-round picks rarely encounter.
“They’re miracle workers for what they did for him,” Mettenbger’s agent Seth Katz said. “What else can you say?”
Lying on a training table on the sideline, Mettenberger, who was not made available for an interview, and draft plans punched an unwanted reset button after Arkansas’ Byran Jones and his 315-pound torso landed on a locked-out left leg. Nixed were plans Katz and his agency laid out before Thanksgiving.
Instead, their client waited a month for a sprained MCL, which had basically ruptured, to heal on its own before Baton Rouge orthopedic surgeon Brent Bankston performed surgery on Jan. 2 to repair the other ligament using a piece of Mettenberger’s hamstring.
While in Baton Rouge, Mettenberger’s exercise consisted of upper body work and letting his knee heal. Meanwhile, Katz made six visits to check in and consult about how to adjust their regimen.
Mettenberger would still travel to Test Sports Club in Martinsville, N.J., to work with Jason Eliowitz and Kevin Dunn once he was healthy, and he’d consult with Jay Fiedler for whiteboard work ahead of the NFL combine. But not without hiccups.
After surgery, Mettenberger’s meniscus — a disc of cartilege in the middle of the joint — swelled. There was also a hematoma, or a collection of blood and fluid, that Bankston had to drain.
“He’d have been along a lot faster,” Katz said. “But he went about 10 days with no activity.”
It wasn’t until early February that Mettenberger could resume what amounted to a close approximation of football-related activities, which before then had simply involved throwing while he sat in a chair to keep his motion from becoming rusty.
“Once he got up to New Jersey in the beginning of February, he was bouncing,” Katz said. “He was taking some drops, nothing major.”
At pro day, though, Mettenberger alluded franchises were leery to work him out. At the scouting combine in Indianapolis, working out was not an option, Katz said. And in the meantime, potential mid-round prospects such as Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo and Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage began to build momentum.
Yet Katz doesn’t subscribe to the idea that Mettenberger’s inability to take part in drills hurt his stock.
“No one’s terribly interested in seeing him run,” Katz said. “He’s going to make a play with his feet when he has to, but he’s going to stand tall in the pocket and feel the pressure, step up, take the hit and try to deliver that pass.”
Perhaps it’s been a blessing, too.
Mettenberger has avoided the scrutiny that’s befallen a quarterback class that front offices seem to love less and less as time passes. Bridgewater’s middling pro day has sent him tumbling to the bottom of the first round. Manziel’s attributes — a flair for improvisation balanced against off-the field questions — is hard to handicap. Bortles’ throwing mechanics under pressure have been questioned.
It’s entirely conceivable a run on quarterbacks may not start until the late first or early second round. Seeing the struggles of quarterbacks taken in 2012 — Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert, and Tennessee’s Jake Locker — may have teams skittish on reaching too far for the sake of taking one.
“They’re saying they’re not going to force it, we’ll see when they end up going on the clock if they can hold to it,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “But I think that’s also why we’re seeing so much buzz building on this next tier of quarterbacks.”
A group Mettenberger has managed to stay clumped among even as front offices pick over prospects for flaws.
“Mettenberger has as strong an arm as anybody in the draft, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go second round,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said last week. “He looks like what you want. I think he’s a little heavy-footed. I’d like to see him a little bit more athletic, but he has the hose that every team wants.”
Cam Cameron, who arrived from the NFL to oversee LSU’s offense, said calling up game film tends to resolve any questions gnawing at scouts.
“His skill set translates extremely well to that league,” Cameron said. “The bottom line is the guy’s got to be tough, he’s got to be football smart and he’s got to be able to distribute the ball to everybody else throughout his team under pressure in tight windows. Zach can do that. He comes in ready to throw to NFL receivers.”
Scrutiny, instead, has come from a series of leaks about matters unrelated to his catastrophic injury.
On Monday, Fox Sports reported Mettenberger’s urine sample at the combine was diluted, which counts as a failed test. Katz and Mettenberger’s medical advisor told The Advocate that it stemmed from orders to drink more water to offset muscle cramps during rehab. Then Wednesday, NFL.com reported several teams flagged Mettenberger for back condition called spondylolysis, although surgery is not required.
“I’m shutting him down after what happened,” Katz said Tuesday. “At this point, he’s so aggravated by this leak it’s just not worth it.”
By mid-March, Mettenberger could take full-speed drops and began working toward his pro day, which would resolve any questions about his recovery. He decided to work out in pads, and loosely scripted with Cameron what throws he wanted to display.
“We didn’t script it,” Mettenberger said after his workout. “We had an idea of what we wanted to do, but didn’t have a set number. We just kind of wanted to do what we’re capable of doing.”
Fifteen balls hit the ground that day, but it had less to do with Mettenberger than it did with imprecise timing, which was attributed to three months of come-and-go among is receivers as they prepped for the draft. More importantly, he made 10 throws on roll outs and on the move to resolve doubts about functional mobility.
“That was one of the biggest things I wanted to show was my mobility and knee health, which were in question,” Mettenberger said. “I was able to roll out and throw some accurate balls with something behind them.”
Besides, it’s on to the next itinerary in Mettenbergers’s mind.
I showed that I’m healthy enough to got through practice and compete for a job,” Mettenberger said. “By the time season rolls around in September, I should be fully healed.”