Labor Day brings the return of the school year, and the return of football. Now that games are upon us, of course it’s time to think about the 2018 NFL Draft. In part 1 of this, we looked at 10 rising seniors, in part 2, we looked at 10 more seniors, and in part 3 we started looking at underclassmen. Let’s close out this 40-player deep QB watch list with 10 more quarterbacks, mixed among classes.
Sam Darnold, University of Southern California
Bio: Max Browne began the year as the starting quarterback for the Trojans, but it was the redshirt freshman Darnold who closed out the campaign under center. Despite his inexperience, Darnold did enough to both lead USC to the Rose Bowl, and to tantalize the NFL scouts during the last draft process. He returns to campus with less than a full year of experience under his belt, but he won’t really sneak up on anyone in 2017.
What Intrigues Me: Despite his relative inexperience last season, Darnold shows very good anticipation at the quarterback spot. A perfect example of this came from USC’s road victory against Washington, and this red zone touchdown that was broken down very well by Kyle Crabbs over at NDTScouting. What was impressive about this play was given the situation, and the fact that the checkdown was open, you might expect Darnold to simply flip the ball to his running back and take the three-point field goal try. But the young QB anticipates the play well and delivers a strike for the touchdown. In addition to anticipation, Darnold displays the ability to make full-field reads, and stays tough in the pocket even under pressure.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Right now, mechanics are an issue for the QB. Darnold has a very long, looping delivery, and also shows some lower body flaws at times by stepping into the bucket with his left/front foot. Also, his accuracy tends to dip when he gets to later reads in his progression, or is forced to throw off platform. Those are some areas I’ll be curious to see in the upcoming campaign.
Wilton Speight, University of Michigan
Bio: Speight took over the starting job at the University of Michigan as a sophomore in 2016, and led the Wolverines to nine-straight victories out of the starting gate. But down the stretch he struggled a bit, throwing an interception and completing only 11 of 26 passes in a narrow road loss to Iowa that knocked Michigan from the undefeated ranks. Speight sat out the following week’s contest against Indiana with a left shoulder injury, but returned to the lineup for Michigan’s final two games – both losses – to Ohio State in overtime and a single-point loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. While Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to name a starting quarterback, Speight and John O’Korn are the top two quarterbacks on the roster and Speight likely has the inside track on the job.
What Intrigues Me: Speight demonstrates pretty good processing speed in the pocket, and last season he was very much in synch with tight end Jake Butt. Speight looked at his best when targeting the TE, and threw route concepts such as Y-shallow very well. Speight displayed sufficient arm strength as well, showing good velocity on routes in the short and intermediate areas of the field.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Similar to Darnold, Speight has some mechanical issues right now, particularly in his lower half. At times he appears to fight against his front leg, and rather than finishing the throw through his front leg, he drives it into the turf, almost working like a brake on his motion. He can open his left hip early at times, becoming an arm thrower. Also, on five-step drops he tends to shuffle on the final two steps, which can throw off the timing on some route designs.
Kenny Hill, TCU
Bio: In 2014, Kenny Hill was tasked with replacing the electric Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. At the start of that year, Hill looked as if he was up to the task. The Aggies started off with five straight wins, and Hill looked fantastic in the passing game, starting the year with 17 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. But as the calendar flipped to October and the Southeastern Conference schedule, Hill and the Aggies began to falter. After opening SEC play with an overtime win against Arkansas, TAMU lost three straight, including a 59-0 blowout at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Those losses, and Hill’s struggles, sent him to the bench. He made things worse by being suspended two games for violating team rules. That basically ended his time in College Station, and he transferred to TCU, sitting out the 2015 season. But he earned the starting job for the Horned Frogs last year and played well, completing 61.1% of his passes for 3,208 yards and 17 touchdowns, but with 13 interceptions.
What Intrigues Me: Last year, Hill showed some very good things as a passer, and seems to have developed a bit since his time in College Station. He displays good footwork, particularly on three-step drops, and shows the ability to manipulate second- and third-level defenders with his eyes. Hill can click and climb the pocket when pressure comes off the edges, and shows good placement on throws to all levels of the field, and displays good touch in the deeper passing game.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Hill was a bit of a revelation when I watched his 2016 tape, particularly when contrasted with his 2014 TAMU film. He has a tendency to under-throw deep balls at times, and his placement can be off when he tries to dial up the velocity, but Hill is a quarterback to keep an eye on this year as he could rise up boards with a strong senior season.
Kyle Lauletta, University of Richmond
Bio: The second quarterback from the Colonial Athletic Association to appear on one of these lists, after James Madison’s Bryan Schorr, Lauletta was extremely efficient for the Spiders in 2016, competing 63% of his passes for 3,022 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He was on track to have a career season until he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season finale against William and Mary. The injury knocked him out of the playoffs, and while Richmond managed to win their first two playoff games, they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Eastern Washington, suffering a 38-0 loss. But Lauletta is back for his senior campaign, and is a returning captain for a Spiders team that is breaking in a new head coach, and new offensive coordinator.
What Intrigues Me: Lauletta is a very athletic quarterback, who is adept at extending plays with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield, scanning for targets in the scramble drill. He shows pretty good touch on the deep ball, and does a good job coming in and out of play action fakes and working quickly to identify targets downfield. He scans the field well and displays the ability to make full-field reads, and to manipulate defenders on the third level of the field. He also has experience operating under center, which is sure to catch the eyes of the “pro-style offense” crowd. For more on him you can see these two twitter threads from @themicknartin and @DraftMarvel.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Lauletta can lock onto his primary read at times, and needs to speed up his internal processing clock as he looks to progress at the position. He also tends to hitch or clutch before pulling the trigger, often when making a deeper, downfield throw. Those are some things to watch this season as Lauletta bounces back from the injury.
Justice Hansen, Arkansas State
Bio: A highly-regarded quarterback prospect coming out of the state of Oklahoma – rated the #4 prospect at the position in the state – Hansen stayed home and signed with the Oklahoma Sooners. But after redshirting as a freshman in 2014, he transferred to Butler Community College, where he played one season for the Grizzlies, competing 77.3% of his passes for 1,694 yards and 12 touchdowns, against only two interceptions. He then transferred to Arkansas State, and took over as the starter early in the season, and led the Red Wolves to an 8-2 record as the main man, including victories over South Alabama and Troy, as well as a win over Central Florida in the 2016 Cure Bowl.
What Intrigues Me: Hansen shows sufficient velocity on his throws, as well as the ability to make strong throws into tighter windows from a variety of throwing platforms. He demonstrates good touch on the fade route, as he displayed on the late game-winner against Georgia Southern in one of his earlier starts. Hansen also can speed up his process when necessary, particularly when running RPO designs. He shows pretty good mechanics at times in the pocket, and is a very good athlete, who can be effective as a ball carrier or when the pocket collapses around him.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Hansen’s footwork can be spotty at times, and there are moments when he relies on his arm strength rather than use his mechanics and deliver a strong, crisp throw. His accuracy also dips when he has to speed things up, whether on RPO plays or when facing pressure.
Chase Litton, Marshall University
Bio: Junior Chase Litton enters his third season as the starting quarterback for the Thundering Herd. He took over as the starter as a true freshman, after an injury to Michael Birdsong. In 11 starts as a freshman, he led Marshall to nine victories, including a win over the University of Connecticut in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Last season, however, Marshall suffered a down year, finishing with a 3-9 record. Litton put up solid numbers, completing 62.3% of his passes for 2,612 yards and 24 touchdowns, against nine interceptions, but those numbers take a backseat to the Thundering Herd’s record. Litton also missed two games last year, one against Louisville due to injury, and the season finale against Western Kentucky for a violation of team rules.
What Intrigues Me: Litton has the size (6’6”, 230) that will have pro scouts excited. Watching him on film, he has a fairly quick release with good velocity, even when throwing off platform or dropping his throwing plane due to pressure or play design. He demonstrates good touch on the deep ball, and is pretty technically sound in the pocket, with textbook ball carriage as well as the dedication to keeping that off hand locked on the football while sliding in the pocket. Ball placement is pretty good overall, and he throws the speed out to the left very well.
What I’m Watching in 2017: There are times when his accuracy dips, particularly when attacking the middle of the field in the intermediate area. Litton also bird-dogs on a big number of plays, locking onto his primary target and throwing in that direction no matter the coverage. There are times when this makes sense, given the pre-snap look and leverage in the secondary, but he’ll need to show the ability to make some progression reads if he looks to jump to the next level.
Deondre Francois, Florida State University
Bio: After redshirting as a freshman in 2015, Francois entered last preseason competing with Sean Maguire for the starting job. The sophomore was given the start against Mississippi in the opener, and the job would be his from that moment on. Francois guided the Seminoles to a come-from-behind win that night, rallying FSU back from a 22-point deficit, the biggest comeback in school history. The Seminoles finished with a 9-3 regular season record, and ended the year with a narrow victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl to finish with 10 wins. Francois completed 58.8% of his passes on the season, for 3,350 yards, with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also added five touchdowns on the ground.
What Intrigues Me: First, a bit of a mea culpa. In the runup to the last draft I commented on the radio that Mitchell Trubisky’s pocket toughness stood out, and that he was perhaps the toughest guy in the pocket that I had seen to date. That was true – until I got the chance to actually study Francois’s 2016 season. He was under pressure on what seemed like every single snap, yet continued to make play after play for the Seminoles. Similar to Deshaun Watson last year, you can already check off the competitive toughness box. But Francois checks off some other boxes as well, including velocity, ball placement, and mechanics. Coming out of Jimbo Fisher’s offense, which gives him experience making full-field reads and working under center, he’ll get some of that “pro style quarterback” magic dust as well.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Accuracy can dip at times, whether under duress or trying to make those deeper, boundary throws with velocity. But there is a lot to like about Francois and with the offensive line looking a bit stronger, he is poised for a big season. He’ll get a very early test, with the opener against Alabama in Atlanta, which many are considering a potential playoff preview.
Will Grier, West Virginia
Bio: Two years ago, Will Grier was near the top of the college football world. After taking over as the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators, he threw for four touchdowns in the first half of Florida’s big win over Mississippi, a feat that tied him in the school record books and even earned him a piece on Inside the Pylon. But a few weeks later, Grier was facing a year-long suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Grier left Gainesville, and after losing his appeals of the suspension by the NCAA, he has enrolled at West Virginia University and has taken over the quarterback duties for the season ahead.
What Intrigues Me: Grier should be able to put up big numbers this season, playing in Dana Holgorsen’s offense that has its roots in the Air Raid and looks to get back to more of that this season, with the addition of Jake Spavital as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In the limited action we have seen from Grier, he shows the ability to make full-field reads, and demonstrates good processing speed, especially when operating in option looks or the post-snap look comports with his pre-snap expectations.
What I’m Watching in 2017: In addition to seeing how Grier settles into the new scheme, I’m watching a few aspects of his playing style this season. First, I want to see cleaner, crisper footwork. Second, I’m looking to see if he can tighten up the throwing motion, which has a bit of a loop to it right now. Finally, Grier has a tendency to make some back-foot throws, even when he does not need to, and I’ll like to see that cleaned up.
Taryn Christion, South Dakota State
Bio: Christion might be the relative unknown on this list, but that should change in the upcoming season. He saw substantial playing time as a true freshman for the Jackrabbits in 2015, posting a 3-1 record as a starter and seeing action in eight games. That year, Christion completed 55.3% of his passes for 1,286 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions. He entered preseason camp fighting for the starting job last year, and after he won that competition, he turned in one of the stronger seasons for SDSU at the quarterback spot. Christion completed 64.3% of his passes for 3,714 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He led the Jackrabbits to an 8-3 regular season record and a berth in the FCS Playoffs. Although their run ended in Fargo with a loss to North Dakota State, Christion’s performance early in that game caught the eyes of at least one QB evaluator:
Get in on this South Dakota State quarterback early. Line forms behind me…
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 10, 2016
Also, get behind me for the Taryn Christian hype train.
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 17, 2016
What Intrigues Me: Christion shows good velocity and ball placement, and has the arm to drive throws into smaller throwing windows when necessary. He displays good processing speed, especially on RPO designs when asked to read and react to a particular defender. He has the arm strength to make the longer throws, such as the deep out route from one hashmark to the opposite sideline, and has a compact, over-the-top throwing motion. He can also use great touch at times, as he does on this long throw against TCU that he makes with decent anticipation as well as staring down some pressure off the edge:
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Although SDSU lost that game, Christion was impressive on the road in a hostile environment against a team that was ranked in the top 15 to start the season. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Finally, Christion is a strong, athletic QB who can extend plays with both his feet as well as his play strength, and he does a good job of maintaining downfield vision in those situations.
What I’m Watching in 2017: He can make some head-scratching decisions at times, forcing throws into coverage and staring down routes. If he cuts down those types of decisions, he’ll have an impressive junior season.
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Bio: Fitzgerald saw limited action for the Bulldogs in 2015, serving as the primary backup for Dak Prescott. But he was named the starter for Mississippi State’s 2016 season opener, before being pulled after his first two series when the Bulldogs failed to gain a single first down. But he was back under center for MSU the following week and didn’t look back. Fitzgerald had his breakout game against Samford in late October, throwing for five touchdowns and running for two more, numbers which matched school records set by the aforementioned Prescott. Fitzgerald finished the year completing 54.3% of his passes for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns, with ten interceptions.
What Intrigues Me: Fitzgerald has the ability to make NFL-style throws to all levels of the field – look no further than his opening throw against LSU, a long corner route from the right hashmark to the opposite sideline, with tight coverage. He moves in the pocket very well, both in terms of clicking and climbing the pocket when there is edge pressure, or sliding around when there is traffic at his feet. He also demonstrates good footwork on his dropbacks, particularly on three-step drops. But what will get people excited is the arm, and his ability to make those long sideline throws with velocity.
What I’m Watching in 2017: Processing speed and situational awareness. Fitzgerald can be slow to work through reads at times, and will need to do a better job of feeling pressure and responding accordingly. As with other quarterbacks in this group, he can stare down routes at times, and will need to get better with his eyes.