With the 2016 NFL Draft in the rear view mirror, evaluators are already working through the next crop of players hoping to realize their NFL dreams. Mark Schofield has started his process of quarterback evaluation for the 2017 draft, and after some preliminary film work has identified 30 prospects he will be keeping an eye on this fall. Some names will likely fall off this list, while others may rise, but for now here is Part 1 of his two part 2017 NFL Draft Quarterback Watch List.
The list below is the first 15 players on my watch list. The names are in no particular order and do not represent a ranking of the prospects.
DeShaun Watson – Clemson
The rising junior took over the Clemson Tigers offense early as a freshman, and helped guide the team to the National Championship Game as a sophomore. Now a junior, he will lead an offense with a ton of talent at the skill positions, including running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett, and wide receivers Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, who is returning after suffering a scary neck injury early last year. With these weapons and another year to develop as a QB, Watson is likely going to leave 2016 atop many draft boards.
Brad Kaaya – Miami
Similar to Watson, Kaaya took over a Miami Hurricanes team early on as a freshman, and has never let go of the starting job. Kaaya won the starting role in fall camp as a freshman and completed 59% of his passes in 2014, throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. While Miami struggled as a team in 2015, Kaaya improved on most of those numbers, completing 61% of his throws for 3,238 yards, with 16 TDs and 6 INTs. With the offensive-minded Mark Richt taking over as head coach, Kaaya is in a position to boost both Miami’s hopes, and his own draft position.
Chad Kelly – Mississippi
After a tumultuous start to his college career at Clemson, Chad Kelly transferred to Mississippi and took over the starting quarterback slot for the 2015 season. He led the team to a 10-3 record, including a victory over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. Kelly first gained national attention early in 2015, leading Mississippi to a victory over Alabama that contained more than a few highlight reel moments. He plays with a bit of a reckless abandon, and will need to dial back the crazy decisions, but as a quarterback who seems to remain calm in the cauldron he is worth keeping an eye on.
Luke Falk – Washington State
With Jared Goff coming off the board with the first overall selection, perhaps a QB running a similar offense can make the same strides in the 2017 draft. Falk is the triggerman for Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, that relies on concepts such as the Mesh or the Y-Cross to get receivers open and exploit both zone and man coverage. Falk has put up prodigious numbers in this system, throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2015, but he’ll need to display more of the traits pro scouts look for (working through progressions, moving his eyes instead of locking onto a target) to improve his draft stock.
Baker Mayfield – Oklahoma
Matt Waldman dubbed Kevin Hogan the “ugly duckling” of the 2015 quarterback class. Well, I’d like to continue that tradition and pass the torch to Mayfield. His mechanics seem flawed at times, he often runs around and doesn’t seem like he’s got a plan of action in the pocket, but whatever he does, it works. He lead two tremendous drives last season to keep Oklahoma in title contention, one early in the year and on the road against Tennessee, and one later in the year in a tough battle in Waco against Baylor. He might not be textbook from an NFL perspective, but he’s effective and a ton of fun to watch.
Joshua Dobbs – Tennessee
Joshua Dobbs took over as the starting quarterback for Tennessee midway through the 2014 season, and led the Volunteers to four wins in his six starts. He entered the 2015 season as the starting quarterback, but both Dobbs and the team endured a rocky start, losing three of their first five games. They rebounded and won seven of their final eight games, losing only to the national champions in a tightly contested game in Tuscaloosa. For his part, Dobbs completed 60% of his passes for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. He is a big, athletic quarterback with a strong arm, and in Tennessee’s spread system he should have opportunities to improve on those numbers in 2016.
Patrick Towles – Boston College
Patrick Towles might test the notion that you study the traits, and not the scheme or the production. When he became the starting quarterback for Kentucky in 2014, he showed flashes of the things NFL scouts look for in a QB, particularly aggression, a quick release and a willingness to challenge tight coverage downfield. But the production was lacking, perhaps due in part to his aggressive nature. Towles threw for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year, with nine interceptions. However, things did not improve last season, as he threw for 2,148 yards and nine touchdowns, with 14 interceptions. After losing the starting job near the end of the season, Towles transferred to Boston College where he will compete for the starting position. Given that the Eagles struggled to produce any offense last year – save for a 76-0 blowout over Football Championship Subdivision Howard University – Towles should win the job. If he can take better care of the football and improve on his production, he might solidify his status as a Day 3 option.
Mitch Leidner – Minnesota
One of the more experienced quarterbacks in this group, Leidner enters his senior year at Minnesota having played in 35 games, with 29 starts. As a junior he started all 13 games and completed 60% of his passes for 2,701 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. While he looks the part of your prototypical dropback quarterback, listed at 6’4” 236 pounds, he is a threat with both his arm and his legs. His 23 career rushing touchdowns are the second-most in school history as a quarterback. When operating in the passing game, he has the arm strength to challenge all levels of the field, and shows good touch on the deep ball. While some early mock drafts have him as a first-round selection, I believe he has a long way to go before being considered that high. But he is definitely worth watching as this season progresses.
Seth Russell – Baylor
Before suffering a neck injury that ended his 2015 season, Seth Russell was on track to turn in a stellar season. The Baylor quarterback began his first year as a starter by throwing for five touchdowns in a victory over SMU, and when his season ended in late October, he had thrown for 2,105 yards and 29 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Considering that these numbers were put up over only seven games, it is clear that Russell can produce in Art Briles’ offense. He has been cleared to return and should be ready to start the season-opener for the Bears. Russell has the arm strength, accuracy and ball placement to excel in this system, but the big question mark is whether he can show enough transitional traits to convince coaches that he can thrive in an NFL offense as well.
Brady Gustafson – Montana (FCS)
Last year the college football season kicked off with ESPN covering a game between North Dakota State and Montana. While a national audience turned in to get a glimpse of future second-overall pick Carson Wentz, they left impressed with the quarterback who engineered a late, game-winning drive, Montana’s Brady Gustafson. The rising senior – and first FCS QB on this list – completed 58% of his passes in 2015 – his first year as a starter – for 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Standing 6’7”, he might draw the inevitable comparisons to Paxton Lynch, but Gustafson is more of a dropback passer who wins with his arm, and not with his legs. While he is raw at the moment, the chance to turn in another complete season and refine his game might open his eyes as 2016 unfolds.
Steve Cluley – William & Mary (FCS)
In addition to training to become a pilot, William & Mary’s Steve Cluley enters 2016 as the starter for the third-straight season. Cluley started all 12 games as a sophomore in 2014, throwing for 2,048 yards and 11 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. His year included an impressive stretch of 138 passes without an interception, and he led the Tribe to a 7-5 record. As a junior, he completed 63% of his passes for 2,768 yards and 16 touchdowns, against 10 INTs, and he led William & Mary to the second round of the FCS playoffs, before losing to conference foe Richmond.
K.D. Humphries – Murray State (FCS)
The third FCS quarterback on this list might be the best prospect from that division. K.D. Humphries is another three-year starter at the position, entering his senior year at Murray State. In 2014 he completed 67% of his passes for 3,488 yards and 27 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. As a junior his completion percentage dipped, but he threw for 3,778 yards and 22 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. He is a very athletic quarterback who can extend plays with his feet, but he also shows nice touch on routes in the vertical passing game and the ability to work through some full field progressions.
Zach Conque – Stephen F. Austin (FCS)
The 6’6”, 234 pound Conque is yet another third-year starter on this list, having transferred from the University of Texas-San Antonio to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference, where he became a starter for the Lumberjacks in 2014. His first year as a starter Conque completed 65% of his passes for 2,733 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions over his 13 starts. He started 10 games in 2015, throwing for 1,933 yards and 16 TDs, against 8 INTs. He is athletic for his size, and has both arm strength and touch on vertical routes. He needs to speed up his decision-making and avoid locking onto targets, but Conque is a player worth tracking during 2016.
Dakota Prukop – Oregon
For the second year in a row, the Oregon Ducks might rely on a transfer from the FCS ranks to trigger their offense. This year it is Dakota Prukop, who graduated from Montana State and enrolled at Oregon to finish out his college career. He was involved in a somewhat heated recruitment process, finally choosing to play for the Ducks over the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. Last season he completed 63% of his passes for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions. He moves extremely well in the pocket, with the ability to slide around and away from pressure while finding enough room to release a pass. He is not afraid to hang in the pocket and take a hit, letting plays develop downfield. Provided he wins the starting job, he should thrive in Oregon’s offense, and showcase his talents for NFL scouts.
Jordan West – Eastern Washington (FCS)
When Vernon Adams left Eastern Washington for the Pac-12, he turned over the keys to the Eagles’ offense to Jordan West. The junior completed 65% of his passes for 3,002 yards and 30 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. He threw for six touchdowns in a five-point victory over Montana State, and threw for four touchdowns in a one-point victory over Cal Poly. The Eagles finished with a 6-5 record, and both West and Eastern Washington are poised to improve on the previous season. With good size (6’4” 200 pounds), athleticism and arm strength for the position, West should be in the discussion for a late-round selection.