Finally we are here. My top five quarterbacks in this class. Probably nothing really shocking in here if you have been following my work over the past few months, but nonetheless, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
5. Josh Allen, Wyoming
Likely the most polarizing player in this quarterback group, Josh Allen sits atop many draft boards as the top quarterback in the class. For others, he is viewed as a strong candidate to bust. As is often the the case, the truth might just lie somewhere in between. But after two seasons as the starter in Wyoming, Allen now faces his next test: the NFL.
Strengths: Allen remains one of the biggest question marks entering this draft class. He is viewed by some as perhaps the top quarterback in this group, but by others are the most in need of development and refinement if he is to blossom into the passer he can be. He was a multiple-year starter in a “pro-style offense” that featured a lot of him under center, working through play-action passes with deeper drops, and vertical passing elements. He displays solid footwork on his drops, whether operating from under center or in the shotgun formation. He has unquestioned arm strength and talent, with the ability to make throws to all levels of the field with tremendous velocity and power. A prime example was a touchdown pass he threw against Central Michigan in Wyoming’s bowl game, where he delivered a strike on a post route working off play-action. While his mechanics and throwing motion could be tightened up a bit, the ball certainly pops out of his hand. He is a very athletic quarterback with good size for the position, and has the play-strength to break would-be sackers in the pocket or the athleticism to extend plays outside of the pocket. When he is confident in his read and his decision, from the pre-snap through post-snap processes, he can get the ball out on time and in rhythm, and you can see him set up the throw in the final steps of his drop. Very adept at throwing when moving to his right, and can still deliver throws with impressive velocity when moving to his favored hand, such as the game-winner against Hawaii.
Weaknesses: I have had some interesting comparisons for Allen throughout this draft process. I started off with Nuke LaLoosh, the phenom pitcher in Bull Durham. Million dollar arm, but needed to refine everything else about being a pitcher. I think that comparison is apt, although lately I’ve been picturing him as more of a long drive contestant, who can drill the ball 475 off the tee but isn’t exactly ready to win the Masters. But if he learns to putt…
Allen still needs to learn the finer aspects of playing the position. Touch, timing, rhythm and anticipation. Feel for underneath defenders and making those throws into windows. He tends to rely on his arm too much, and it gets him into trouble in situations where his reads and processing is not up to speed. Too often his Plan B is to “escape to the right and throw the ball downfield hard and fast.” It can work on occasion, but it is not a surefire route to success in the NFL.
Scheme Fit: With his arm talent and ability to make downfield throws, Allen fits best in a vertical-based system that allows him to make throws off of play-action designs.
One- and Three-Year Projection: Ideally, at least in my mind, Allen falls to a team with an established quarterback and he gets a season or two to develop and refine the aspects of his game that need work. Then he can take over as a second- or third-year QB and hopefully reach his potential. In some rare instances he can play as a rookie, ideally for a team with a stout defense that can get him short fields, a strong running game, and in a system that suits him.
(Stares at the Jacksonville Jaguars).
Draft Grade and Round Projection: 2nd Round – 1st Round (Top 5) Like many, I am lower on Allen than the NFL and others in the big draft world. I recognize the potential in him and think that there is indeed a path to him being successful and unlocking the QB inside. If I were drafting him or if I was a fan of the team that drafted him I would want the following in place: A developmental plan, an established starter to provide a smooth path to Allen taking the field, a strong head coach, an offensive coordinator with a track record of developing quarterbacks and with the willingness to mold a system around him, and an ownership group and fan base that has the patience to not rush him onto the field and to stick to the path outlined for him.
What teams fit that mold?
Teams to Watch: Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars
Resources: Breakdown of Full Game Against Hawaii, 2017 Interceptions
4. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
A Heisman Trophy winner two seasons ago, Lamar Jackson returned to Louisville and his coaches put the onus on him to become more of a quarterback than an athlete. Jackson responded with another strong season that saw him finish as a Heisman semifinalst yet again, and he did take great strides as a pocket passer over the course of his junior season. He faces questions about his ability to transition to the NFL game – and some might even look at him as a potential position switch – but that is nothing new for Jackson and his mother, Felicia Jones, who has been representing the QB through the draft process.
Strengths: Jackson is an elite athlete with experience in a pro-style, spread-based passing attack rooted in Erhardt-Perkins concepts. In school he utilized mostly shotgun and pistol formations. You can see him active at times in the pre-snap phase. Jackson shows a solid understanding of coverage schemes and leverage in the secondary but has been baited into making mistakes along the boundaries. He displays good to great footwork in the pocket on drops, is very effective at moving in the pocket to extend plays but has made great strides in keeping his eyes downfield to make throws in scramble drill situations. Has the arm strength and velocity to make throws to all levels of the field and he has a very quick release and wrist-flick with the ball coming out of his hand very quickly. Elite talent with the football in his hands, can make defenders miss in the open field, can change directions on a dime, and can turn broken plays into long runs and touchdowns.
Initially, what stands out watching Lamar Jackson is his unparalleled athleticism. He is a true weapon with the football in his hands, with the ability to cut on a dime and make defenders miss in the open field. But he has made true strides as a pocket passer over the past two seasons, and has a very quick release as well as sufficient velocity to make nearly every NFL throw. He has a reputation for being a “one read and go” type of player, but in 2017 he really worked at staying and fighting in the pocket, and on one of his interceptions (vs Wake Forest) he passed up a clear running lane for a first down and instead tried to make a play in the passing game. He shows good processing speed on many route concepts in the quick game, which would point to the ideal scheme fit. Jackson is also the ultimate equalizer from the quarterback position, who can minimize protection mistakes and missed assignments up front due to his tremendous athleticism.
Weaknesses: Throws from a very narrow throwing base and that tends to lead to accuracy concerns. Completion percentage numbers were low which also raises questions about his accuracy. Can stare down routes at times, and was baited into mistakes when the post-snap look did not match up with the pre-snap look. A prime example of this comes on the Pick Six he threw against Clemson in 2017, when he failed to properly read the flat defender and made a poor decision. His accuracy dips in the face of pressure, but it also dips when throwing from clean pockets. There were times in 2016 when he did vacate pockets and perhaps was too quick to transition to a runner, but he really made developmental strides as a pocket passer in 2017.
Scheme Fit: Jackson is a very interesting study from a scheme fit perspective. He is currently running an Erhardt-Perkins offense, modified for the college game, and is tasked with making full-field reads and progressions. He could work in such an offense, or he could fit into a hybrid West Coast/Air Raid system that utilizes spread elements, to take advantage of his elite athleticism.
One- and Three-Year Projection: Jackson is talented enough to play early in his career, and should at least be the backup quarterback for whatever team drafts him. In the right offense Jackson should be the starter his second season and could become a solid NFL QB.
Draft Grade and Round Projection: 1st Round – 1st Round
Teams to Watch: Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots.
Resources: First Sound: Athleticism and Raw Talent in the Passing Game, 2017 Interceptions Breakdown, Defendant’s Reply Brief: Big Draft vs Lamar Jackson, Lamar Jackson and the Thought Process from the Pocket
3. Sam Darnold, USC
Sam Darnold was the talk of the 2017 Scouting Combine, and in part the inspiration behind this piece on development at the quarterback position. While he might not have enjoyed the developmental leap forward many were hoping for, or even expecting, he is still firmly in the mix at the top of this quarterback class. Turnovers were an issue for him in 2017, but his relative newness to the position might be a chip in his favor when projecting his development in the NFL.
Strengths: Darnold is an athletic quarterback who is experienced within a spread-style offensive attack, comfortable working from pistol and shotgun alignments. Despite his relative inexperience to the position (he just started playing quarterback as a sophomore in high school) he is comfortable in tight and collapsing pockets and is very willing to stay and fight in those situations; he is not a quarterback who will drop his eyes in response to pressure. Darnold shows both good processing speed, as well as good play speed, in a variety of passing concepts. He displays good accuracy and velocity whether on- or off-platform, and in and out of structure. One area where Darnold stands out, particularly in this class, is his ability to anticipate throws to all levels of the field and from sideline to sideline. A touchdown pass against Washington (2016) is a prime example of this, as he attacks the middle of the field and anticipates the route and break from his inside receiver perfectly. Darnold is pretty good when it comes to reading coverages, and shows a good understanding of most pass coverage schemes and knows how to exploit weaknesses in them. When he identifies a blitz either pre-snap or early enough in a play, Darnold can speed up his process sufficiently to replace the blitz with the football and take advantage of the look from the defense. He can also make full-field reads when asked. In scramble drill situations Darnold can be effective, as he is very willing to keep his eyes downfield and look for potential big plays, but there can be times when he gets too aggressive in these situations. In terms of an elevator pitch on Darnold, it is a matter of upside, and a team that drafts him will get a player who is tough in the pocket, willing to stay and fight in compressed pockets, adept at scramble drill situations, able to make throws with good velocity and placement to all levels of the field, and can also show anticipation on a number of route concepts.
Weaknesses: Mechanics and footwork are a mess and will need a tear-down and rebuilt, this is more than a simple refinement. His throwing motion has been beaten to death by this point, and in a vacuum he can survive life in the NFL with a windmill-type throwing motion, as other quarterbacks have (see Wilson, Russell). Right now Darnold gets away with it in the PAC-12 due to a combination of college coverages and athletes, sufficient velocity, a surprisingly quick release even with the windup motion, and anticipation. But as he adjusts to life in the NFL he will need to clean it up a bit and be crisper, given the smaller windows he will face. But his lower body also needs a great deal of work. If you look at some of the interceptions he threw in 2017, his lead leg was all over the map. This causes him to either float throws or miss his target completely. He also tends to really stare down route concepts at times, a prime example of this was an interception he threw against Washington State. On that play he showed good processing speed to identify the rolled coverage and he made the right read, but he bird-dogged the out pattern and used another bucket step with the lead leg, leading to the turnover. He can get baited into mistakes, particularly on the boundary. Too many turnovers were a result of him trying to make the perfect throw, and foregoing an easier option, so situational awareness and decision-making are issues for him as well. He has incredible raw talent, but the bet on him is one of development and refinement from both a mental and a physical standpoint when trying to project his future.
Scheme Fit: This is a bit of a tricky one with Darnold. He projects best right now to a downfield passing offense (say, what one might expect in Cleveland) or a more West Coast based-attack (say, what one might expect with the Jets). A timing and rhythm offense might be a tough ask for him now given the lower body inconsistencies, but he could get there eventually.
One- and Three-Year Projection: Darnold is talented enough to play early but ideally he gets to season for a bit as a rookie, before taking over as a starter in his second season, similar to the path forged by Patrick Mahomes. Darnold is a very young player and if he were to start Week 1, he would be the youngest starting QB in NFL history. (Darnold would be 21 years and approximately 98 days, depending on when his team played opening weekend. Drew Bledsoe was 21 years and 203 days when he started his first game, and Matthew Stafford was 21 years and 218 days).
Draft Grade and Round Projection: 1st Round – 1st Round (Top 5)
Teams to Watch: Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield capped off a stellar college career with a Heisman Trophy, yet another appearance in the College Football Playoff, a strong week in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, and now a shirtless cover on Sports Illustrated in the days before the NFL Draft. His 2017 season was not without issues, as an offseason arrest (caught on tape) as well as some sideline incidents including during Oklahoma’s game against Kansas have some questioning his maturity – and even making comparisons to Johnny Manziel. But dig inside and chances are you just might find the game’s next breakout QB.
Strengths: On a podcast series with TurnOnTheJets.com breaking down the top quarterbacks in this class, I said this about Baker Mayfield:
“He wants to cut your throat and watch you die.”
Dramatic to be sure, but I stand by the take. Mayfield relishes competition. Thrives in it. Charles McDonald (@fourverts) recently commented on Twitter – in response to a video of Mayfield chasing down a 90+ yard touchdown run by his teammate to celebrate, waving his arms wildly the whole way – that Mayfield is going to be great because he is “insane.” It makes sense.
Relating to his play, Mayfield is a very experienced quarterback who operated in a spread-based offense running a mixture of Air Raid and West Coast concepts. The bulk of his work was either in the shotgun or in the pistol, but he can operate under center, albeit with an exaggerated stance and cheat step with his left foot. He shows very quick processing speed, particularly on RPO concepts. He moves very well in the pocket, with the ability to evade pressure, extend plays and escape danger when pressured. Shows good placement to all levels of the field and has the ability to make aggressive throws into tighter throwing windows that other quarterbacks might shy away from or avoid. Flashes upper level velocity at times, generates his RPMs on throws due to great chest and left shoulder involvement in the throwing motion. For an example of him generating torque, you can watch a post route he throws against Oklahoma State linked in this piece. Very adept at moving defenders with his eyes, can look off second- and third-level defenders. This even shows up on the practice field, such as during Senior Bowl week. Anticipation throws are a work in progress, but he showed development in this area of play over his senior season. Some throws display an advanced understanding of coverage and structure. Gets knocked for playing in the Big 12, but is a more versatile passer than other Big 12 quarterbacks of recent history, throws more than a handful of routes.
Weaknesses: The conundrum of comfort in chaos. Mayfield too often seeks out chaos and adversity in the pocket rather than taking easy throws. This is something I noticed with him last season, and it continued into his senior year. He’ll need to get better at taking the easy throw/taking what the defense gives him. Mechanics are a bit unrefined, and his lower body involvement is not textbook, but to this point it has not caused him issues with ball placement or a dip in velocity, so as long as it does not impact his performance his coaches should live with his mechanics as they are.
Scheme Fit: Drop him into an offense like the Jets ran last season (a hybrid of West Coast and Air Raid concepts) and get out of the way.
One- and Three-Year Projection: Mayfield can start as a rookie. Conversely, you try and tell him he can’t. Good luck with that.
Draft Grade and Round Projection: 1st Round (Top 10) – 1st Round (Top 5)
Teams to Watch: New York Jets. That’s it, that’s the list.
1. Josh Rosen, UCLA
From the time he arrived on UCLA’s campus, Josh Rosen was viewed as an eventual first-round draft pick at the quarterback position. However, the road to that moment has been filled with twists and turns. Rosen suffered multiple injuries at UCLA, including a history of concussions and a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2016 season. In addition, he has been plagued by some questions about his commitment to the game, and his interests away from the field. Yet if you strip all that away, you find in my opinion the best quarterback in this class from a trait-based perspective.
Strengths: Rosen is a multiple-year starter in an offense that shifted from a more spread style of attack when he was a freshman to a more “pro-style” offense the past two seasons, which featured him operating under center, using deep drops off of play-action fakes, and a hybrid of West Coast and Erhardt-Perkins concepts. Rosen is very clean mechanically, with a crisp release and throwing motion, and gets the ball out quickly once he has made a determination. The structure to his drops does need a little work, but overall his footwork is very solid, which is to be expected given his background as a tennis player. He might not be able to escape and extend as a runner, but he can slide and move in the pocket and can evade free rushers from time to time.
From an arm strength perspective Rosen has more than enough to function in any offensive system, he can deliver throws to all levels of the field with velocity and accuracy. He shows a good understanding of route concepts and how to attack various defenses, and is able to exploit blitzes as well as rotations in coverage even right at the snap. There are times when he seems to get flustered in the pocket against pressure, but his film does have many examples of him also thriving in the chaos around him and not letting pressure or trash at his feet impact his throw, placement or decision-making.
Processing speed is a plus with him, and Rosen can make full-field reads even when pressure is closing in, and he shows the ability to speed up his internal clock in those situations. When forced out of the pocket or off-platform, he can still deliver strong, accurate throws to all levels of the fiel. Functional athleticism, so he can be utilized on rollouts or in the boot-action passing game, but that is not his strongest trait as a passer.
Weaknesses: Much of the concern over Rosen seems to stem from more off-the-field concerns. He’s been injured, with a shoulder injury as well as a history of concussions. He has interests away from the game of football. He is just using football to make money. He’s a millennial. For me, those issues do not play a large role in his evaluation.
That is not to say that he is without flaws as a quarterback. At times his response to pressure is not as confident and quick as you might hope for in a veteran passer. As stated, he lacks the athleticism of other passers so he might not be able to create as well as a Darnold or a Jackson outside of the pocket. Studying his interceptions this season I did not see a lot of repeated mistakes, but I did see some throws that were poorly-placed (the interception on the deep out route against Arizona) and a number of situations where he and the receiver were not on the same page. Perhaps that is on his teammate…perhaps not. But in the end, for me, he’s the cleanest QB between the lines.
Scheme Fit: Rosen is the most scheme-diverse quarterback in this group. He can operate a downfield passing offense, he can deliver throws on time and rhythm in an Erhardt-Perkins system, and he has the processing speed to work in an West Coast offense. If there is a schematic weaknesses to him, it might be that he isn’t the best fit for an offense that will feature a ton of spread/RPO designs, but that is a small sliver of teams right now.
One- and Three-Year Projection: Rosen can start as a rookie, and by his third season he should be solidly in the middle tier of starting QBs in the NFL and trending upward.
Draft Grade and Round Projection: 1st Round (Top 5) – 1st Round (Top 5). I know there is talk of him sliding, but I just can’t believe that a QB of his caliber will fall. I’ll believe it when I see it. Now, if he does, watch out for a certain team with two first round picks and perhaps the draft capital to get up to the 9th spot in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers…
Teams to Watch: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, New England Patriots