Late in the summer of 2017, when the anxious final weeks before kickoff often produce the strongest hyperbole, Yahoo Sports not-so-boldly declared this as Year of the Quarterback. Three definitive stars headlined the NFL quarterback class – USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
A bevy of college stars like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Washington State’s Luke Falk also fueled the conversation. NFL evaluators view them as misfit toys, but their production and star power have been undeniable. There was also a bevy of sleeper candidates – Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and West Virginia’s Will Grier – that generated buzz.
As often happens with August speculation, the grandiose quarterbacking projections haven’t aged particularly well. The Year of the Quarterback flipped to Year of the Running Back somewhere in October, with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Stanford’s Bryce Love and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams running away with the season’s hype. (Mayfield, to his credit, is the definitive leader for the Heisman Trophy and has been consistently brilliant).
But it turns out that consistently uneven performances by many of the top quarterbacks still may not prevent this from being the Year of the Quarterback. At least in the eyes of NFL teams.
While so much can change between now and the NFL draft on April 26, the most interesting quarterback draft development of the past three months may be the glaring need of NFL franchises to draft quarterbacks. By Yahoo Sports’ unofficial count, more than half of the league – up to 19 teams – could be in the market to draft a quarterback in the first three rounds. That could be because of glaring needs (Jets, Broncos, Jaguars), aging starters (Patriots, Steelers, Chargers) or general uncertainty (Dolphins, Giants, Redskins).
“It’s unusual this year,” said a veteran NFL front-office member who is in the market. “It seems like more teams need quarterbacks this year, and there’s also going to be some veteran free agents. It’s a great year to have an early pick and not need a quarterback.”
The Year of the Quarterback, it turns out, may come more from demand than supply. And that’s where things will get interesting.
“There’s some bad decisions that can be said,” said the executive. “There’s no clear shot guy. They’ve all been up and down. Every. One. Of. Them.”
With the college season three-quarters done, here’s how the quarterback market is shaping up. Yahoo Sports spoke to a half dozen scouts, executives and analysts to get a feel for how things can play out.
1) Who’s No. 1?
There’s no clear answer here. Darnold has thrown 11 interceptions and his completion percentage has dipped by 3 percent. Allen wilted against decent competition, throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns against Iowa and Oregon. Rosen has 20 touchdown passes, but UCLA has sputtered to a 4-5 record and may not make a bowl. Rosen missed the blowout loss at Utah last Friday with a concussion, but he’s expected back for a home game against Arizona State on Saturday. None have distanced themselves from each other, and there’s increasing buzz that Darnold may return to USC (more on that later).
“I can see this thing playing out where any of the top three guys assert themselves as No. 1 at the NFL [scouting] combine,” said an area scout. “At the end of the season, Darnold and Rosen will have a chance to do it on a big stage. But if Allen was No. 1 [in April], I wouldn’t be shocked. They all have things they need to work on.”
2) Will Sam Darnold come back?
Darnold has generally played well this season – 22 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and completing 63.6 percent of his passes. But he’s struggling to replicate his redshirt freshman season, when he finished with 31 touchdowns, nine interceptions and completed 67.2 percent of his passes. USC’s depleted offensive line hasn’t helped, as Darnold has already been sacked three times as much this season (18) compared to last (six).
(Trojan offensive line coach Neil Callaway auditioned for thinnest-skinned coach in college football with a flurry of lame responses to the Los Angeles Times after his unit got mauled at Notre Dame.)
We know that Darnold enjoys college, loves USC and has a significant attachment to Southern California. Even before this season, there was buzz that he’d return. (His family has been hesitant about engaging in the agent process). Talking about returning and turning down millions to return are drastically different things. USC coaches made it a point not to discuss the NFL with Darnold this season, wanting the focus to be on the team and program. But they wouldn’t be shocked if he stayed. Darnold, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, is just a redshirt sophomore, which means he has played only two seasons. “I don’t think he’s ever really wanted to come out,” said a veteran NFL executive. “And with the year he’s having … ”
3) Will Darnold’s solid but unspectacular year hurt him?
Darnold is a unique study for NFL evaluators, as his ability to throw on the run and his guile to make clutch plays are hard to quantify. He has also been running for his life most of the year. Here’s one executive’s analysis: “He’s been all over the place this year. The talent is there and someone is going to take a shot on him. Someone is going to think they can clean up his mechanics. He’s athletic for a big guy, but I just wish he was a little more polished in the pocket. He’s never balanced, he’s hoppy and a little jittery.”
4) If Darnold stays, who’s the favorite to go No. 1?
Rosen is the heavy favorite to go No. 1 if Darnold pulls a Matt Leinart and returns to school. Jim Mora told Yahoo Sports before the season that he expects Rosen, a true junior, to return for his senior year. That appears, in retrospect, to be a mixture of coachspeak and wishful thinking. Rosen was coming off a sophomore year when UCLA went 4-8 and he missed nearly half the season after suffering a shoulder injury on Oct. 8. Until a concussion kept him out of the Utah game, Rosen has remained relatively healthy. He has also been boring off the field, something that NFL executives were looking for. The hot tub, President Donald Trump insults and amateurism comments haven’t shown up this regular season and he’s gone from lightening rod to almost low-profile.
It would be a shock if Rosen stayed in Westwood for a fourth season. Rosen has the most classic throwing motion, build and arm to thrive in the league. His pure talent has never been a question. There will be a lot of questions about Rosen off the field, as his brash comments have disappeared this season but remain a sticking point in NFL circles. “I don’t know enough about his personality,” said a veteran executive. “Can he be the leader and face of a franchise? It doesn’t appear he handles that well at UCLA.”
5) Has the NFL cooled on Josh Allen after milquetoast season at Wyoming?
The answer here is a resounding no, despite his pedestrian completion percentage (55.4) and vanilla production – just 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. It would be stunning if Allen slipped out of the first round, as the reasons why NFL teams covet him – prototype build (6-5, 233 pounds), mobility and arm strength – haven’t changed. That’s even after he lost 24-3 at Iowa and completed only 23 of 40 passes. He also lost 49-13 at home to Oregon and completed just nine of 24 passes. Allen’s completion percentage is down even from last year, when he completed just 56 percent of his passes.
Consider the NFL completely undeterred in its love of Allen. It would also be stunning if Allen returned to Laramie, as the NFL is operating as if he’s entering the draft. As one area scout said: “I think Josh Allen has more talent than any of those guys. When he had a chance to do it versus high-level competition, he didn’t do it. But his ceiling is still pretty high. I like him.”
Why haven’t the modest statistics scared teams? Any judgement on this season turns into a referendum on the depleted talent around him. Allen deserves credit for overcoming the early struggles, as the Cowboys are 6-3 and second to Boise State in the Mountain division of the Mountain West. “A lot of people are down on him,” said an area scout, “but look at his receivers, tight ends and backs. Hell, I can give him a better outlet than some of those guys.”
6) Does the Lamar Jackson debate rage on?
Yes, yes it does. NFL scouts and executives are all over the place on Jackson, who has continued to be one of the most dazzling and dominant players in college football. Jackson leads the nation in total yards (426 per game) by nearly 50 yards over Mayfield (378). (Bobby Petrino’s lazy defensive coordinator hire of Peter Sirmon has undermined Jackson’s attention this season, as Louisville (5-4, 2-4 ACC) is dead last in the ACC Atlantic).
Jackson is as sure a thing to enter the NFL draft as Allen and Rosen. Should he stay in school? NFL executive: “He’s a work in progress, and the more reps in the pocket he gets will help him.” That was laughed at by a scout: “Why would he go back? The only thing he can improve on is his chance of getting injured.”
There’s still no consensus on Jackson. Some like him as a quarterback, but no one is ready to take him before the fourth round. Others like him as a hybrid project who can play in the slot and return kicks. His electricity is undeniable, but he remains divisive. That’s not going to change between now and April. To his credit, his completion percentage is up to 60.4 percent from 56.2 and he has thrown 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He has also rushed for 1,029 yards and 14 touchdowns. “I’m on Team Lamar,” said a veteran executive. “I think he’s really improved. I think people have been quick to dismiss him, but playing for Bobby [is] one of [the] biggest challenges a quarterback can have.”
7) Whose stock is rising?
First choice isn’t even close. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield is the Heisman favorite and has shown the arm strength, guts and leadership to entice pro scouts. He’s still only 6-foot, and that may be on his tip toes. But Mayfield has teams’ attention, and it wouldn’t be a shock if a franchise fell in love with him and traded into the back end of the first round to get him. He’s the heavy favorite to be the first quarterback off the board after the predetermined Big 3.
“I think the NFL coaches are starting to see which spread college quarterbacks can make it in the NFL,” said Sage Rosenfels, a longtime NFL backup quarterback. “I think NFL offenses have caught up, and they’re starting to run systems for Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson and a lot of these guys. Those types of quarterbacks are becoming more valuable.”
One NFL executive wonders if Mayfield’s size and lack of arm strength will get him typecast. Mayfield leads the nation in passing efficiency, but it’s wins at Oklahoma State and Ohio State that have made believers out of the NFL brass: “One thing I will say about Baker Mayfield, he’s a complete [beast]. He’ll change the culture in your building.”
The other Big 12 quarterback who could end up making a leap is West Virginia’s Will Grier, a fourth-year junior who transferred from Florida under murky circumstances. (He tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance). He has completed 65 perecent of his passes, thrown for 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The NFL opinions are mixed on Grier, with his background and general lack of experience. But does the high demand and short supply of competent quarterbacks prompt him to leave Morgantown early to test the waters? Or does he return and attempt to be one of the top-echelon quarterbacks in the 2019 draft?
8) What about Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Mayfield’s in-state rival?
He has already thrown 27 touchdown passes, completed 63 percent of his passes and leads the nation in passing yards with 3,314. But Rudolph will be fighting the stigma of quarterbacks coming from coach Mike Gundy’s offense. (Think Brandon Weeden and Zac Robinson). “I think he’s robotic in what he does, he’s a seven-on-seven quarterback,” an executive said. “When he’s got time and can check the runners on first and third [downs], he’s good. But when the game speeds up, his accuracy declines. When the game gets faster, it’s harder for him to process.”
Another executive saw Rudolph play well live this year and still wasn’t impressed. Rosenfels sees a struggle in his transition: “He just didn’t seem like a guy who spun it. The ball doesn’t come out very well. He also has unbelievable wide receivers, as James Washington is one of the two or three best receivers in the country. He’ll make anyone look good. I haven’t seen the accuracy and the ball doesn’t come out well.”
9) Who has hurt themselves the most?
Back in August, the sleeper buzz centered on Nebraska’s Lee and Northwestern’s Thorson. Let’s just say, both “sleepers” have struggled to wake up. Lee began the season as an abject disaster at Nebraska, including a pair of first-quarter pick-6’s against Northern Illinois to plant the seeds for one of the worst losses in school history. He has 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, including an interception hat trick against Northwestern on Saturday. Lee, a Tulane transfer, wowed NFL types at the Manning Academy in shorts this summer. Live defenses have been an issue.
Thorson has led Northwestern to three consecutive overtime victories and four straight wins, including out-dueling Lee on Saturday, 31-24, in overtime. Thorson hasn’t been nearly as self-destructive as Lee, but his production has been middling – 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The NFL likes Thorson’s size – 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds – and he could emerge as a strong prospect for the 2019 NFL draft. Both players have another year of eligibility. Both players need another year.
We’ll add Washington State’s Luke Falk to the list of disappointments in the eyes of the NFL. He was Todd McShay’s No. 4 quarterback heading into this season, but he has been benched twice by Mike Leach this season during games. Falk is the Pac-12’s all-time leader in passing yards, which means you can’t knock his production. But he’ll struggle to escape the stigma of many quarterbacks from Leach’s offense, which tend not to translate to the pros. “He’s a backup quarterback,” said an NFL executive. “That’s what his body type and everything about him says.”
10) Who else should we be watching?
Two buzzy names are Toledo’s Logan Woodside and Memphis’ Riley Ferguson. Both seniors should get drafted, and it will take a strong closing kick to the season and good showings at the NFL scouting combine and pro days to determine how high. Can either get up to, say, the third round?
Toledo (8-1) is in showcase MACtion mode, as Jason Candle’s crew beat Northern Illinois on Thursday last week before falling to Ohio on Wednesday night. Woodside is listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but that height may be a pinch generous and his build is slight. He has thrown 19 touchdowns and two interceptions this season, breaking Bruce Gradkowski’s all-time passing mark at the school. Winning always helps, and Toledo is in line for its first MAC title game since 2004. Scouts say size is the biggest issue here, but production and winning always help.
Ferguson is a former Tennessee recruit who left Knoxville and detailed cars and power washed fences for eight months before re-starting his career in junior college. He transferred to Memphis and shined ever since. He has thrown 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season, leading Memphis to an 8-1 record and likely bid in the AAC title game. (Most notably, Ferguson threw six touchdowns in an upset of UCLA – and Rosen – in September). There will be questions of Ferguson’s exit from Tennessee and hiatus from the sport, but he’s likely earned himself a draft spot with his play the past two years. “He’s a mid-to-late round pick,” said an executive. “He’s a gamer, he’s a competitor.”
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