[dt_divider style=”thick” /]We have arrived.
The film has been broken down, the notes have been taken, the players have been debated for weeks on end, but soon the bright lights will turn on and the draft will finally begin, with the Cleveland Browns officially on the clock to start the 2017 NFL Draft.
So let’s put together an early list of the 2018 NFL QB Prospects, shall we?
(Look for that in the first “Check With Me” piece after the draft)
But it is time to put pen to paper, as it were, and finally rank this crop of quarterbacks. If you’ve been following me on Twitter or listening to any of the places I’ve popped up this draft season, the names at the top probably will not deliver many surprises, but dig through and some names might be in spots you don’t exactly expect.
Before diving into the rankings, just a few quick thoughts on this quarterback class as a whole. I’m a fan. But this is generally the case with me. My bias as an evaluator, or at least one of them, is that I’m pro-quarterback. I know that sounds odd (is there anyone truly “anti-quarterback”?) but my tendency is to dig into these players and really uncover areas where they can excel at the next level. For some players, the path may be narrow, but that is something I’ll highlight. Plus, I’m a card-carrying member of the Quarterback Union. So being a fan of these classes is somewhat in the job description.
Compared to last year’s class, I like the top of this group more. The “Big Four” this year represent a more solid and talented group than the the trio at the top last year, and I still believe we’ll see three, if not all four, of the guys near the top come off the board in the first round this year. Last year’s class might have more depth to it, with the Day 3 selections probably having more of an early path to NFL success than this group, but that doesn’t mean the guys who come off the board on Saturday are a long shot. They might just need a little more time.
I’ve sorted the quarterbacks into tiers. To start, we’re going to cover the top four quarterbacks in this piece before moving on through the class and the rest of the tiers. These four are first round QBs to me, from QB1 early in the round to QB4 later in the first.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Big Four
Deshaun Watson, Clemson University – QB1
From a Halloween night a long time ago, I planted my flag on Watson Hill. Despite the ups and downs of the past few months and all the various question marks, I’ve never really wavered from this position. For me, this stance comes down to a few traits where I think he truly excels: Processing speed, accuracy and short- to intermediate-area ball placement, athletic ability, and competitive toughness. Watson is a very cerebral quarterback who does not get enough credit for his understanding of leverage and what the defense is doing pre-snap. In many instances, he rules out routes before the play begins, so he’s really onto his second or third read in the progression when the ball is snapped. He’s also very quick to read and react to defenses, which can be expected given the number of RPO-style plays that Clemson utilizes. Again, I’m of the belief that those types of plays are just a different type of progression read, and if a quarterback displays quick processing ability in those situations in college, he can run a more standard progression reads in the NFL.
Is Watson a perfect quarterback? No. But few are. There are things he’ll need to clean up in the NFL. He can get baited into mistakes. He does miss coverages on the boundary at times, and too often he assumed that the post-snap look would comport with his pre-snap understanding of the defense, and got burned. Some point to the 17 interceptions he threw in 2016-2017 as a sign of problems to come, but when going through those two things stood out: First, teams had to show him different looks to fool him, and second, you might get him to make a mistake once, but he’ll learn from that and you likely won’t fool him again. Look at the weakside cornerback blitz from Florida State as one such example.
Watson projects best to a West Coast offense, that can utilize both his accuracy in the short area of the field as well as his quick release and processing speed.
One- to Three-Year Projection:
Watson is close to being ready to start for an NFL team on Week 1, ideally for a team that has many pieces in place and will not ask him to carry the load as a rookie from the start. Watson is experienced and has demonstrated the ability to put an offense on his shoulders against stiff competition, as he showed in two-straight National Championship Games against the toughest defense that college football has to offer. There are areas of his game that will take time to develop in the NFL, such as the ability to work through pro-style progressions and a more calm manner of play in the pocket, but Watson should be able to provide a solid year as a rookie in the right scheme with the right pieces around him. In such an environment, Watson will be on track to become a mid-tier quarterback by the end of his third season.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Patrick Mahomes II, Texas Tech University – QB2
I’ve wavered this draft cycle on who to place in the second spot of this top tier. For a while DeShone Kizer occupied in this spot, but, when doing my final homework on the players in this class, I came to the conclusion that Mahomes’s potential moves him above Kizer. Again, I like all four guys at the top of this group but what Mahomes can do well really sells me on his potential in the NFL. For sheer arm talent, he is perhaps an elite prospect. He has the rare ability to make throws with velocity and accuracy to all levels of the field from any platform, which is something that simply cannot be coached or taught. He often falls into the trap of being viewed simply as an “Air Raid” quarterback, and if you are among those who look at him in that light, I would invite you to take a look at the work from Ted Nguyen in the ITP Draft Guide, or the recent piece from Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar where he broke down film with Mahomes. He is a very intelligent quarterback, and his coaches at Texas Tech put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders in their offense.
Mahomes will need some work as he transitions to the NFL. Anticipation throws and timing throws are not his strong suit at this time in his career, as he wasn’t asked to make a ton of those while in Lubbock. But there are instances in his tape when he can move safeties with his eyes and get the ball out on time to a receiver on the other side of the formation. Mechanically, Mahomes is more inconsistent than fully flawed. There are instances when he shows proper footwork and mechanics dropping back and releasing the ball, but his film is littered with more examples of flawed technique. I think that’s an area that requires more refinement rather than a full teardown and rebuild. If he lands with the right coaching staff, one that can live with the mistakes and risks he takes as a passer while understanding that he can offer some special moments on the field, the sky could be the limit.
With his combination of processing speed and arm talent, Mahomes might be the most scheme-diverse quarterback in this class. He has the quick decision-making to function in a West Coast scheme, but also has the velocity and downfield ability to function in a more Air Coryell style of play. The transition to a Erhardt-Perkins style of offense might take a little longer, given that anticipation and timing throws are not a strength, but I think there is enough evidence on his film that he can function in those kind of offenses.
One- to Three-Year Projection:
In the right situation, Mahomes can play early in his career and can play as a rookie. While it is true that there are aspects to his playing style that he’ll need to refine (footwork and mechanics, as well as timing / anticipation throws depending on his NFL offense) those are things that you need to work out while facing live action. You can work on footwork and mechanics as well as timing throws while on the practice field, but you’ll need game action and game speed to make sure muscle memory doesn’t take over in those situations. Mahomes might carry with him a bit of a “boom or bust” tag, but I’m leaning toward the boom side of the ledger, and believe that by his third year in the NFL he’s a solid starter in the league.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]DeShone Kizer, University of Notre Dame – QB3
Scouting quarterbacks is a tough gig. Not in the sense that it is a demanding or grueling job. I mean, I’m currently lounging on the couch while writing this and when I’m studying tape, it really isn’t the most demanding line of work I’ve ever had. I mean, I worked two summers as an exterminator, and lying face down in a crawl space covered in dirt and spiders and spraying chemicals to try and eliminate termites? That’s hard work. But I digress…
What I really mean is that trying to analyze these players on their college tape and then project them forward to the NFL is not an easy task. If it were, NFL teams would be hitting on these guys every season. But it’s a complex process with lots of moving parts, and in the end you’re trying to ascertain whether a young man fresh out of college will be able to adapt and evolve into a new role on one of sport’s biggest stages, in a game that requires peak performance at every moment from both a physical and a mental standpoint. Trying to figure that out when you can actually sit down with these players and talk to them directly is hard enough, but doing that from the outside looking in is even harder. We don’t (absent some instances) get to interview them, to go through whiteboard sessions with them, or to put them through private workouts. So we rely on the bits and pieces of information we get second-, third- or even fourth-hand, and we piece together our evaluations.
This long windup brings us to Kizer. Perhaps more than the other guys in this group, the Notre Dame QB has some of the best film in this class, particularly in 2015-2016. But last season he definitely took a bit of a step back, as did the entire Notre Dame team. At his best, Kizer is a very big, athletic quarterback who can throw to all levels of the field with velocity and – for the most part – accuracy. At Notre Dame he operated in an offense that might be the closest to what people consider “pro style”, and there were many similarities with what he was running and what Kyle Shanahan was implementing in Atlanta last season. He is also a very tough quarterback in the pocket, and he often demonstrates the ability to climb the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, instead of looking to escape out the back door. He also excels in the intermediate area of the field, and can deliver routes such as curls or comebacks with velocity and accuracy.
Questions about his transition to the NFL start with the decision making process for me, as his film contains a number of no-throw decisions or slow reads that bring us to the elephant in the room: The relationship with Brian Kelly. That’s an issue those of us on the outside cannot truly figure out, but watching Kizer at times I wonder if he was afraid to make a mistake, to throw an interception, leading him to hold off on making throws or challenging windows. Quarterback is one of those positions that you can’t play when you’re afraid or timid. That’s something I know for sure.
In the end, I think Kizer has the raw talent and physical ability to play the position at a high level, but the decision-making could be a problem going forward. For his sake, I’m hoping it was just a factor of the relationship in South Bend, and with a fresh start we’re going to see more of the 2015 Kizer. Only time will tell.
Kizer’s arm strength and ability to push the football downfield make him a fit for either a vertical-based passing system such as Baltimore or Arizona under Bruce Arians, or a team that looks to attack in the intermediate area of the field on a consistent basis, such as Atlanta, Washington, or New England. His experience in Kelly’s offense makes him a fit for those styles of play, as well as with teams that rely on a shotgun-based approach. Kizer might not be the best fit for a more West Coast based team such as Kansas City or Philadelphia, as his processing speed is not suited for the quick decisions that those systems require absent a very quick learning curve.
One- to Three-Year Projection:
Kizer can start as a rookie, as his play strength, athletic ability, and arm strength will allow him to function in a variety of offenses and will enable him to make plays both on- and off-structure. The ideal situation for Kizer is with an organization that will show patience with him as he develops and is offensive-minded from the head coach on down. The history at Notre Dame will be one to learn and draw from both for the player and his future coaching staff. Kizer seems like the type of quarterback who needs a strong support structure around him to properly tap his potential. He is a very talented quarterback who can make impressive throws from a variety of platforms, and his raw athletic talent makes him a dangerous weapon in or outside of the pocket. In the right situation, Kizer should be a mid-level quarterback in the National Football League by the end of his third year, and has the potential to develop into an upper-level starter in this league with Pro Bowl potential from season to season.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Mitchell Trubisky, University of North Carolina – QB4
Perhaps no other quarterback, maybe with the exception of Mahomes, rose up boards quite like Trubisky did this past season. After backing up Marquise Williams, he took over the starting job this past season and as it wore on, he drew more and more attention from the scouting community. Many evaluators, and perhaps most NFL teams, look at him to be the first quarterback off the board. While I have my reservations, there’s no denying his talent level. He is a very tough player in the pocket, who has the play strength and raw athletic ability to evade defenders in the pocket or just outside the pocket, keeping potentially negative plays alive. Trubisky has a strong arm with the ability to deliver throws to all levels of the field with sufficient velocity to challenge NFL-sized throwing windows. He is an accurate passer in the short- and intermediate-levels of the field. Trubisky throws the deep comeback route extremely well, particularly to slot receivers and to receivers with reduced splits. He displays anticipation at times, especially on post, slant, curl, and out routes at the intermediate area of the offense. Trubisky shows competitive toughness, as he fights in the pocket from play to play and was very strong down the stretch against Stanford in the bowl game, making a number of key throws until the final play.
The concerns with Trubisky are two-fold. First, on decision-making. There are times when he gets fooled or confused at times when the post-snap look does not match up with his pre-snap understanding of the defense. Prime examples of this are a sack he took against Virginia when his inside trips receiver was uncovered prior to the snap, but the slot cornerback rotated over as the play began, freezing his thought process. Another example was the pick-six he threw against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, when he saw a Cover 2 look before the play but did not see the free safety rotate down into a robber look just before the play to cover the running back on the wheel route. In addition, his first game against Georgia had a number of questionable no-throws or situations where he really needed to see the route break open before pulling the trigger. That aspect improved as the season wore on, but given his limited experience it is worth watching. Second, there is a lower body mechanical issue, where he has a tendency to step in the bucket at times, which impacts velocity on throws to the boundary or even on crossing routes, one example came in the bowl game against Stanford when he missed a deep crosser because of this tendency. That is something he’ll need to shore up at the next level.
Trubisky’s style of play translates best to a system like Washington’s or New England’s, a passing offense structured to attack in the intermediate area of the field with some deep shots mixed into the offensive attack. He is very adept at placing throws in this area, and can put the football on receivers with more than enough velocity as well as upper-level ball placement. Because of his demonstrated ability to identify advantageous situations pre-snap, he can also function within a West Coast passing offense, which will require him to get the ball out quicker than usual and his accuracy in that area of the field is sufficient for that scheme. His inconsistency down the field might make him less of an option for more vertical-based passing systems.
One- to Three-Year Projection:
Trubisky has the potential to start during his rookie season, ideally on a team that has a variety of weapons and does not require him to carry the offense. His ideal situation is similar to what he left behind at UNC. Last season, he was in an offense with weapons from running back to tight end and wide receiver, and Trubisky was able to facilitate the offense and keep defenses honest from sideline to sideline. In a scheme that focuses on his ability to attack in the intermediate level of the field, Trubisky can be a functional starter as a rookie. Such a system would enable him to develop into a low-to-mid tier starter early in his career. At the moment, he seems to be a more scheme-dependent passer than some of the other quarterbacks in this class, and, for the reasons outlined, a vertical passing game might not be his best chance to hit his potential ceiling as a passer absent substantial improvement in that area of his game.
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Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as a self evaluation on scouting, a look at the 2015 wide receiver class, or his collection of work on the 2017 Senior Bowl Quarterbacks.