We have reached the point of our final positional draft rankings and of course we’re going to end with the most divisive group – the QBs. The NFL has seen their picture of what those guys should look like change over the last decade, from statuesque pocket passers to more mobile play-makers. However, the kings of the sport right now are the ones capable of making big throws from within the pocket with their special arm talent and add that out-of-structure element when needed.
This group has largely been labelled lackluster and while it’s obviously nowhere close to the same level that we saw a year ago, with four legitimate prospects worthy of going in the top ten and another player with a very high floor, who actually outproduced the rest of the pack, I heavily disagree with the general consensus on these guys and how they are portrayed by the media. I have three names on here that I think are all worthy of going in the first round – although one of those comes in with the caveat of needing a clean medical report – with another guy in that top-50 range, while two names that are typically considered to be part of the top tier I’m significantly lower on. Plus, I have one sleeper on here, that I don’t ever hear discussed.
Let’s dive into these guys:
1. Malik Willis, Liberty
6’1”, 220 pounds; RS JR
A top-500 overall recruit back in 2017, Auburn’s coaching staff (wrongly) chose Bo Nix over Willis and forced his decision to transfer to Liberty. He immediately got on the field and completely transformed this Flames offense in 2020 (and ’21). In 23 combined games with the Flames, he completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 5107 yards, 47 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, to go with 1822 yards on the ground and 27 more touchdowns, which also easily led the team.
The ball absolutely jumps out of Willis’ hands and he has velocity up the you know what. He can throw a hole through the chest of his receivers or send them 60+ yards down the field. There’s a deliberateness to his dropbacks, but then he can set and fling it over last line of defense or escape the rush in the blink of an eye. I think there’s a general misconception for Willis’ accuracy. When he sees the man break open or on just simple quick throws, the ball is right on the money about 90 percent of the time. And that’s to all areas of the field, whether he has to drive the ball to the sideline from the opposite hash or has to put air underneath it and when needed, drop it in before a safety can come over. Quick hitches and speed outs to the far side of the field are certainly on the table. You get him a good X receiver and they can work the boundary over and over again, hitting curls right out of the break, hitting back-shoulder fades on a line, along with obviously being able to let it fly down the field. Yet, while he wants to throw the ball at 100 miles per hour usually, he can take a lot off it on easy slide and swing routes, as well as if somebody is wide open and there’s no power needed. Willis has easy zip towards the sideline on rollouts to either side. Yet if the safety that way sells out for routes near the white line and voids his area, as a backside post is run at an inclined angle, he will let it fly to break the defense’s back as well. The way he can chuck it across half the field at nearly full speed and off the wrong foot is just silly.
Willis simply didn’t get many easy throws presented to him, as the offense often relied on him to either deliver big throws down the field or make something happen with his legs. PFF gave him the him the highest big-time throw percentage in college football last season at 10.7%, along with being second among all quarterbacks in rushing yards. There wasn’t a ton of help from his teammates, being pressured on 36.7 percent of his dropbacks and seeing eight percent of his passes dropped. Even with a lot of tight windows in zone coverage with how predictable the Flames’ dropback game was, the way Willis can teleport the ball almost to spot 15-20 yards away before the closest defender can even take two steps towards the target is pretty crazy. I thought I saw better rhythm and marrying to pass concepts in his footwork from 2020. Yet, if the defense is all over one of their concepts and somebody is right there in position to pick up cross-releases etc., he’s patient with letting his receivers work away from the coverage and then ripping the throw to eliminate any angle to re-enter the catch window. When the offense was trying to sneak somebody behind the defense, Willis has shown the ability to purposefully stare down one target to open up space, as well as sell the initial break on double-moves. Something similar you see is selling rollouts to set up killer throwback screens or fading away to open space for the back as he floats it over the pass-rush. Willis absolutely fires some passes into cover-two holes at the sideline, where the safeties is over the top and the receiver at the sideline has already stopped his route basically at times. And your guys in the middle better not try to squat on routes in cover-four if there’s somebody streaking down the middle.
This is easily the best scrambler of this class, in terms of extending plays by making people miss and having slip off himself, before launching the ball down the field. When forced to do so, nobody can play backyard football quite like this guy. He’s constantly able to get around the corner even if it sees seems like the edge rusher is attacking upfield and it seems look the contain is protected. The same is true on rollouts, when he can quickly pick up five yards if nobody is open. However, he can also dart towards a lane and then as that crease closes down, stop on a dime and re-accelerate through a different escape path. And it’s not just seeing somebody run open and firing a bullet, but he absolutely has some beautiful high-arching throws to receivers turning up the sideline and hitting them perfectly in stride. Two throws like that come to mind right away in the Middle Tennessee State and Syracuse games, that just makes your jaw drop. However, Willis was also heavily integrated in the Flames’ rushing attack, with a bunch of zone read/invert veer plays. He displays good timing on QB draw and delayed take-off for power-like concepts, where it always looks like an unblocked man might get him – but they basically never do. Once he gets past the line of scrimmage, he is such a dynamic runner in space, with his speed and change-of-direction skills, but what really stands out about him is how strong his lower half is. This past season, he broke more tackles (89) than any FBS player on the ground – including running backs. You actually see linebackers bounce off his quads. Willis shows an innate feel for setting up blockers in space, being able to lead them to the outside and slicing underneath or hitting an extra gear and working around, if opponents try to cheat inside. He features deceptive body-language to incorporate nods and get tacklers to freeze momentarily. You see it at times on some bootlegs when the unblocked edge defender is charging at him and the Liberty QB slips underneath that guy.
From a throwing mechanics perspective, I like everything about Willis’ release, but he has to open that front-foot a little more, to be able to rotate through properly and not hinder himself. More importantly, looking at Liberty’s offensive scheme, there was an absurd amount of stop routes and double-moves off that, along with a lot of stick concepts, with a fade and out from the slot, hitting those hole shots in front of the safety. It was very elementary passing concepts altogether, where he wasn’t asked to read between the hashes. He barely ever hits receivers out of their breaks and there were some opportunities, where based on the leverage and movement of defenders you could see that one of his receivers was able to get open, but instead of releasing it early as the rush was coming in, he’d rather find an escape path. Willis pre-determines throws and has to show better eye-discipline, which led to some ugly picks. Routinely you see him stare down routes down the sideline, allowing the safety in cover-two to make plays on the ball. And he’s often a beat or two late, which his arm won’t be able to bail him out for as frequently in the pros. Willis was tied for a nation-leading ten fumbles in 2020. He’s just trying to be Houdini a little bit too much and exposes the ball to swiping hands of defenders. He held onto the ball longer than any other quarterback in the FBS last season (3.33 seconds), needing to do a better job of feeling pressure off the edge and speeding up his mental clock in general, to not give up as much big yardage on sacks, plus then wrap the ball up for securely if the hit is imminent. He could certainly still work on keeping himself alive as a thrower for a longer period of time when he scrambles outside, by continuing to flow towards the sideline, rather than aiming North. And as strong as he may be, he can’t engage into contact willingness at this rate if he wants to have an extended NFL career
Willis developed some bad “hero-ball” tendencies at Liberty, where it will be important for him to eliminate some of those and allow his future NFL team to carry him to some degree early on until his game (mentally) has caught up to his physical talent and he’s ready to carry the guys around him when needed. He’s had some rough moments versus Power-Five competition and he’ll have to dig deeper in offensive play-designs and progressions at the next level. However, he has at least one of the two best arms, he’s the best scrambler and runner, he’s already shown real strides in just two years as a starter and it’s not like he can’t handle more from the shoulders up – he just wasn’t asked to. Willis isn’t as breath-taking when he takes off and has the speed to outrun safeties like a Lamar Jackson, but he’s so much bigger and stronger. It may not have been the cleanest throwing session, but to watch how effortless Willis launched the ball down the field and just the positive vibe he brought to the table, interacting with the guys and just having fun at the Liberty pro day, I can’t help but love the guy. With his natural talent, I’m not opposed to him getting on the field later in his rookie seasons and collect those valuable reps, but it’s in his best interest to have his failures on a practice field as he learns his future team’s offense. There’s a long way to go, but he has the upside of a top-five QB in the league.
2. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
6’1” ½, 210 pounds; RS JR
This was the number seven quarterback in a loaded class with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and others. Corral took over as the starter for the Rebels a couple of games into the 2019 season and showed some promise, before really making an impact as a junior, when he completed over 70 percent of his passes for 3332 yards and 29 touchdowns, compared to 14 INTs during a ten-game season, which included lighting up Vanderbilt for six touchdowns and leading the way to scoring 48 points vs. Alabama. This past season, his completion percentage, yards per attempt and per game all slightly decreased, but he took much better care of the ball, throwing it to the other team just five times and he reached the end-zone 11 times with his legs, becoming a more integral part of the rushing attack overall. For that, he was named a second-team All-SEC member.
Corral excelled in that heavy-RPO game for Ole Miss, where he was able to find leverage advantages and cushions to exploit, along with that ultra-quick release. However, he – and his play-caller Lane Kiffin for that matter – has gotten better at realizing when defenses are flooding those underneath areas, and he challenges defenses so much vertically that it’s tough to zero in on one thing. Corral can really spin that ball and attack all areas of the field. You see him stay in a vertical position, with good bounce on the ball of his feet and able to just rip it once it’s time. He gets it to his targets over the middle in a hurry, excelling on those bullets to dig, deep-in and bender routes. The former Rebels QB can throw some lasers with his feet cock-eyed, as he has to pull the ball down and find a target coming from the opposite side, or he crow-hops into some others and absolutely fires it on throws in-between the hashes, to not let defenders crowd the catch point. Even when the safety is triggering down from two-high looks, he can get the ball to his guy over the middle before the collision arrives. There were several seam shots on tape, whether it’s putting the ball slightly behind his the target to not have the safety knock his head off or with somebody in trail position and putting it right on the front-shoulder of his receivers. And he can put arc on the deep throws, to perfectly drop the ball into the bucket of his streaking receivers.
Something that’s apparent as soon as you watch Corral is that he has the quickest feet and release in this draft, with a very compact delivery, where his hand barely reaches the level of his ear a lot of times. The way he can get skinny to climb and set up throws is tremendous. He has that suddenness in the pocket to avoid rushers and extend plays. Those subtle slides to one side and ability to create a clean platform to throw from is something you see routinely on tape. Corral delivers the ball to his outlets and shallow crossers accurately whilst falling away a lot of times, if there’s no space or somebody’s barreling at him. Yet, he can also rapidly spin to the left side and make blindside rushers miss or reduce the throwing shoulder and then get wide to the right when he has to escape the pocket. And he shows that feel for angles of rushers and what he can get away in that area. You see Corral at times break off rollouts and dip underneath unblocked defenders off the edge, plus he has a strong lower body to kind of shake guys off or spin away. However, I love how he keeps his eyes locked down the field, Even as he is rolling out to the sideline and dips in a little bit, as he’s looking to become a runner, he’s still constantly a threat to still throw it, where he flip it at the very last moment at times. Some of the crazy plays he can make off script are up there with the best in this class.
While we didn’t get a ton of true dropback game or full-field reads at Ole Miss, there are some promising flashes and features to Corral’s play. He throws in some deceptive look-offs, to open up throwing windows, and then is super twitchy to get his body pointed a completely different way and flip his hips around. Along with that, he showcases signs of being able to find solutions on the fly and staying calm in the eye of the storm, standing strong and allowing receivers to get to green grass. Corral’s pump-fake game is by far the best in the class. He can give that violent shoulder-fake on double-moves, get his base pointed towards receivers to sells screens before hitting a window behind it or just get guys out of the throwing lane and change up his arm-angle with his feet not being perfectly aligned. And this past season, only 2.1 percent of passes were categorized as turnover-worthy, pointing towards the awareness of how to use controlled aggression, rather than always pushing the envelope. Last season, Corral was also heavily utilized in the Rebels’ run game. He can drop the shoulder and churn out yards through contact, a lot of times going straight downhill on QB draws from empty sets against favorable box counts. However, he can also make guys miss when he decides to take off on scrambles, dipping underneath pursuit defenders and getting guys to jump with pump-fakes, and has surprising speed, not with long strides but rather the high step frequency. He ran for just under 200 yards on 30(!) carries against Tennessee.
The issue with Corral’s game is that he seemingly has no “off button”, meaning he will throw some balls in windows that others wouldn’t even think about. I mean he’s trying to hit a honey-hole shot on a corner route from one hash to the opposite numbers. There’s a lot of schemed-open throws in that offense and very few anticipatory ones, which he certainly benefitted from, as well as not having that internal clock at times when an ancillary coverage defender will be able to undercut a route at times. He had one really bad showing against Arkansas, when he threw six(!) picks and was late to get it out several times. There are some instances in games, where he just predetermines throws and lets it go down the post when his receiver is bracketed, while somebody else underneath is open. Particularly when he has been able to create a secondary play, he lacks the maturity to understand when it’s time to live another day This past season, slightly over 60(!) percent of Corral’s pass attempts came off play-action or RPOs – that’s an absurd rate. And along with that, 607 yards of his total came on screens. It’s so one-read centric with all the RPO concepts and other than four verts out of two-by-two four verts, there’s just such limited dropback game variety. The fact that Lane Kiffin would rather call up QB draws a lot of times on third-and-long is kind of alarming. There’s no lack of toughness as a runner, but at 210 pounds Corral will need to learn how to protect himself better, which the ankle injury in the bowl game hopefully will be a wake-up call for him. And he has to do a little better job at protecting the ball with his second half, as he had 23 fumbles over the course of his career, including eight last year
While Corral has close to zero experience with any NFL dropback concepts and he will have to learn making much more complex reads, I think with the ball-placement and feel for where he has leverage or open areas to attack are is clearly there. You have to dig through his tape to find stuff you will see at the next level, but there are several things that will translate to the next level. And he was much better at finding the check-down and not forcing something that isn’t there as frequently in 2021. Corral is far from a perfect prospect, but I’m a bit of a burned child by missing on Justin Herbert coming out of Oregon a couple of years ago, where I thought I didn’t really see any growth in his ability to see the whole field and just the simplistic offense he was asked to run. At this point I’d just rather take a chance on somebody, who has some of the things I believe you can’t coach and let him prove to me that he can learn how to execute NFL passing concepts, rather than get somebody who can handle those probably, but I still have major issues with in areas that I’m not sure if I can correct. Because of the harsh difference schematically, he will need a year to just grasp the variety a pro passing offense, but to me he’s worth a first-round pick.
3. Carson Strong, Nevada
6’4”, 225 pounds; JR
Not even inside the top-2000 overall recruits in 2018, the only action Strong saw in year one was one carry and ultimately taking a redshirt. After a mediocre debut campaign, Strong really took off in a shortened 2020 season and built on those numbers this past year, completing just over 70 percent of his passes for 335 yards per game, eight yards per attempt, 65 touchdowns and 12 INTs. That made him the back-to-back Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. However, the fact he’s a true pocket passer is proven by the fact he finished his career with negative 305 rushing yards.
This guy stands tall inside the pocket with his weight on the balls of his feet. Strong is big body with a strong arm, making the entire field accessible to him. He can really let it fly and you see a lot of those moonballs perfectly dropped into the bread basket of his receivers. However, he can also put some spin on the ball, to fit it into tight windows. He throws some absolute spirals across more than half the field. His five completions 50-plus-yard completions in 2021 were most in the FBS. The amount of pin-point throws over the shoulder of his receivers was just absurd. There was at least one in each of the last two year, where put the ball in the air for that distance from one hash to the opposite numbers on a post-corner route, once for a touchdown and then another time where his receiver was at least able to force a flag for pass interception. Strong’s combination of 1180 deep yards and just a two percent turnover-worthy play rate is elite. And he presents exactly what old-school NFL heads want to see, with a 91.5 PFF passing grade on throws outside the numbers, as the highest among the top quarterbacks in the class. Six-step speed outs from in-between the hashes look almost effortless, but he can almost deliver deep curls and comebacks across the field on a line. It may not be the most effective way of converting in scoring situations, but Strong delivers the ball in perfect position for goal-line fades. You saw a bunch of those to his big targets in Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner.
Yet, despite his Howitzer of an arm, Strong operated very effectively in the Wolfpack’s Air Raid-based offense under Matt Mumme (the son of the man who helped invent the Air Raid in Hal Mumme), with a heavy dose of quick hitters, while keeping the defense on their heels with vertical shots. And the offense relied heavily on him, with six straight games of 50+ dropbacks last year. Strong recognizes leverage and cushion advantages pre-snap and gets the ball there in a hurry, just as that backfoot hits on timing-based routes and the ball arriving there just as the receiver gets out of his break. He constantly kept the chains moving with easy completions on stick, out, hook and hitch routes. The former Nevada QB has that peripheral vision you need to operate in the spread, particularly seeing that triangle between the hashes on mesh concepts, routinely hitting that curling target as the defense switches on the two crossers and leaves the middle voided. From a pre-snap general perspective, his coaches said that he can handle volumes of information they give him and had basically complete freedom to change the call, while working in some good hard counts to get the defense to jump.
Strong can both go from reading the field-side concept and coming back to his isolated receiver in the backside or looking for the X to break open and transition to the concept away from that guy. His tight-window power throws in the 15-to-20 yard range are up there with the very best of the class. When he knows he wants to throw fade routes down the sideline based on pre-snap alignment, he does a nice job of holding single-high safeties for a beat, before putting the ball out in front of his wideouts. On deeper-developing concepts, he’ll hang in there for receivers to break open, but also is aware of where his checkdown is and gets it out there if there’s no opportunities to push the ball. Strong consistently protects his receivers from big hits over the top, as he forces them to turn around or slow down slightly. And he’s not afraid of working the middle of the field with layered throws. I like the way he pedals back in a subtle fashion in order to retain a clean platform, as he has to buy a little bit of extra time, before he launches the ball, as well as take a couple of steps up and zip in throws without a clean platform. And he finds receivers who are initially covered over the middle and then slide a little as they’re down with the original route. In 2020, I thought he showed the capability to extend some plays by using the momentum of charging rushers and negating their angles towards him.
The elephant in the room for Strong is that he suffers from Osteochondritis dissecans lesions back in 2017, where the cartilage in his knee detaches from the bone, requiring surgery and sidelining him for his senior year of high school. He underwent surgery in February of last year to have cadaver cartilage added to his right knee and he had another knee arthroscopy to clean scar tissue in August prior to his final season in college. He shouldn’t have even played with it in 2021 and that’s why he won’t show up in my overall big board, because I just don’t have the medical information to judge the long-term effects of that. You watch that play out on the field, where he often times just wouldn’t drive off that back-leg. At times you’ll see him just set up and throw routes that would typically demand three-step drops and he’d have no issues with releasing the ball a second later with his arm strength. And there’s balls that die on him in head-scratching fashion because he doesn’t load up and transition his weight forward accordingly, knowing where he wants to go already before the snap. Strong has to do a better job manipulating safeties and there were opportunities to produce big plays down the seams if the deep man just wasn’t tipped off early. He can get caught on the wrong foot by ancillary coverage at this, by allowing zone defenders to flow towards where the ball is going, by guiding them there with his eyes, primarily with corners, who have no immediate threat in their area. When he feels the pressure coming in, Strong’s unwillingness to step into his throws shows up even more significantly. At times he throws simple slant routes with his feet parallel and kind of just flicks the ball, allowing the corner to knock it down. And he floats the ball over the head of crossing receivers at times, when he has to fade away. Even without the injury, he’s kind of a statue in the pocket. Especially last year he looked kind of like an old Ben Roethlisberger at times when forced to move. He has to continue to work on incorporating more subtle pocket movement, to take away angles for the pass-rush, and often times you’d see him just curl up and take sacks instead of trying to create something.
Man, I really hope Strong’s knee will get back to full strength and he can have a lengthy NFL career, because in terms of the pure throwing talent, he’s number one in the class – ahead of even Malik Willis, because there’s more variation in types of deliveries. Looking at Senior Bowl practices, Strong showed command at the line of scrimmage, everybody on that field could hear him yelling out signals and he was willing to let the ball fly. He had one throw on routes versus air, where he launched the ball from the right hash to the left numbers on a drag-and-up 55 yards downfield, almost perfectly in stride. His footwork from under center did still look pretty choppy, but I thought he showed better eye-discipline and mobility than some people might have given him credit for. If my medical staff gives me the green light on him, Strong completes that trio of QBs worthy of a first-round pick.
4. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
6’3”, 210 pounds; RS SR
This former three-star recruit outside the top-1000 came to Cincinnati at just 178 pounds. Ridder redshirted his first year on campus, before bursting onto the scene as the AAC Rookie of the Year, as it took him just two offensive series to enter the lineup and he would never leave it. Ridder took a slight step back during the 2019 campaign, but he ended up leading this program to new heights these last two years, winning back-to-back conference Offensive Player of the Year awards, as well winning conference titles, along with the first appearance in the CFP for a Non-Power Five group. Individually over those two years, he threw for 5630 yards and 49 touchdowns compared to 14 INTs, while adding another 847 yards and 18 scores on the ground. He leaves UC as the all-time leader in total yards and touchdowns in school and AAC history, as well as becoming only the third QB in FBS history to win 44 or more games.
Ridder shows a lanky build with a very toolsy skill-set. He operated in an offense that features plenty of 12 personnel and more pro-style passing concepts, but also included spread elements and heavily featured the RPO game. As he developed as a processor, the Cincy coaches started putting more on his plate and trusted him read the entire field. He has the flexible arm to change up his releases and at times just pop-pass it to his man on the move, like slide routes off run-fakes. Ridder consistently gets the ball out right at that backfoot hits and delivers it just as his receivers get out of their breaks. He delivers the ball on time to routes breaking outside or back towards him on different depths, with the adequate extent of his drops. The former Bearcat QB isn’t somebody who needs to receivers run open, but trusts that they’ll be there as he attacks windows in zone coverage. You saw that quite a few times when he had a receiver break inside and a linebacker had his back turned to drop diagonally and he whistled the ball in next to their ear-hole. Yet, if he sees somebody turn their head and get underneath stuff like that, Ridder can also wait an extra beat, to allow his man to clear the ancillary coverage. He features sufficient arm-strength to make opposite-hash throws on deep out routes without the space to really step into the throw, but he also makes several beautiful tear-drop throws on fade routes – particularly out of the slot. On rollouts towards the left, he does well to square his shoulders and put the ball at the sideline.
Back in 2019, Ridder had a lot to do with throwing up 50-50 balls. However, he looked much more comfortable scanning the field and actually working through progressions the year after (completing almost 10 percent for of his passes and averaging about a yard per more attempt) and played the game the best from his shoulders up this past season. Unlike most of the guys on this list, Ridder executed real NFL passing concepts, where he has to read between the hashes and progress to backside digs for example. He loves to get the ball out quickly. There were a lot of hook and hitch routes in the Cincy offense, to take advantage of soft spots, but he’s also willing to throw the ball behind the underneath coverage, as the defense starts tightening up and get some chunk yardage on deep corner routes, as he gets the number three in trips matched up with the safety for example. The same is true for simple leverage advantages, like having his back work towards the flats and the linebacker having to stay in the hook area due to alignment and a receiving threat that way in the pattern. Ridder operates with advanced eye-discipline and reads the front-side concept initially, even when he knows before the play starts that he wants to go the other way ultimately. He recognizes when safeties widen too much in cover-two or are flat-footed and is willing to let it fly on post routes. And he quickly has the answer for corner blitzes and can float the ball over a safety buzzing down or drive the ball in before he can cap over the top.
When there is pressure, Ridder excels at buying a little extra time and finding new platforms to throw from. He is light on his feet to bail from interior push, keeping his shoulders pointed downfield as he gains ground and being ready to release the ball. He also slides well laterally, in order to allow receivers to get to their break, and then get the ball out with anticipation with defenders charging in. If you leave a crease for him against longer-developing games or extra bodies in pressure packages, he can quickly burn it by slicing through before anyway can get a hand on him. He has those moments of absurd elusiveness, where somebody off the edge perfectly aims at the outside hip or there’s almost a free rusher charging at him on angle, but he pulls that shoulder way in and takes off right underneath that guy. Along with that, Ridder was frequently featured in the run game and gave his back room for cutbacks as a legitimate threat when pulling the ball on zone-reads. Off that they used H-backs to wrap-around to the backside and lead the way for the QB, and he ripped off several big chunks in a hurry. He can set up blockers or rather the defender they attach to with his body-language, while having the burst to beat them around the corner if they try to cheat inside. Running a 4.52 in the 40 at the combine backs up that speed and it was on full display on his 91-yard touchdown run versus SMU in 2020. It routinely felt like he was the one of the two or three fastest players on the field and his legs were a major factor in the red-zone.
The big flaw in Ridder’s game is his inconsistent accuracy, which goes back to his fundamentals. He tends to rely way too much on his arm and often leads the throwing motion with his elbow, as he drops the ball and elongates his delivery it. His base gets pretty wide as well and he seems to have that front-foot locked into the turf to some degree, leading to imperfect ball-placement on basic route tree stuff. He has that kind of a three-quarter release and can miss some completions by not taking enough off the ball, which leads to some change-ups of going over the top, that look unnatural. Too often puts the ball slightly behind his running backs on swing/flat routes and receivers on bubble screens, to slow them down from just continuing to run with it, as the ball has mustard on it when it doesn’t need to and it goes off the target’s hands. Ridder’s drops are way too deliberate and lack some urgency, which also limits his ability to be dynamic in his overall delivery. And sometimes you barely saw the feet gain any ground when he knew where he wanted to go pre-snap, but that can tip off defenders to jump those routes. Alabama batted down four of his passes, because they were aware of that and coached their D-line accordingly on T-E twists, where the looper would be ready to get the hands up. Ridder doesn’t have that eyes-in-the-back quality or just awareness for pressure off the blindside and missed opportunities to slide up into creases – strip-sacks. And benefitted from having one of the elite defenses in college football these last couple of years and not being asked to get into shootouts on many occasions.
There’s a lot of things to point out if you want to make a case for Ridder as a prospect. He showed gradual improvement throughout his career, has quality experience with NFL passing concepts, he’s elusive when moving around and he’s just a gamer, who lifted the Cincinnati to new heights. However, the inconsistency in his delivery and therefore accuracy, as well as the ability to quickly adjust when plays don’t develop exactly the way he expects are what limit him. He’s a bit robotic in his approach, but then gets kind of floppy with his arm. I would say if I had to throw anybody out there week one and expect solid play, Ridder is my call. A turnover-worthy play rate of just 2.3 percent plays part in that. I’m just not sure if he’s the most natural thrower or has that innate play-making ability with his arm.
5. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
6’3”, 220 pounds; RS SR
Just a three-star recruit in 2017, Pickett saw action in four games as a freshman, including a start in the season finale, before taking over as the full-time starter the following season and even adding a year, thanks to the COVID redshirt. He once was roommates with Joe Burrow at the Manning Passing Academy together with most of the big-name QBs in college football, which I think is kind of funny now, when you look at how similar the end to their collegiate careers went, going from a solid player (60.5 completion percentage with 38 TDs vs. 24 INTs) to an ACC Player of the Year and Heisman finalist in 2021 (finished at number three), when he drastically improved, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 4319 yards, 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, to go with a career-high 233 yards and five scores as a runner.
The Panthers went from 111th in the nation in the previous four seasons in terms of pass attempts to throwing the ball about 40 times a game in 2019. There was a step back the following year, but then Pickett had one of the best QB seasons in ACC history in 2021. When you watch him play, he just looks like he’s played quarterback since coming out of the womb, with a natural feel for leverage advantages and where the put the ball, to throw his receivers open. Even before this past season, I thought Pickett worked through his progression pretty quickly, his upper and lower body are married and he does well in a rhythmic passing attack. He can rapidly decipher information between the hashes, doesn’t shy away from attacking the middle of the field and targeting windows his receiver are yet to enter, delivering some real power throws to those areas but also layer the ball when needed. All over his tape you see the ball come out before his receivers have even gotten into their breaks and arrive there just as they come out of them. If you leave a cushion for one of his targets on the inside running slant or stick routes, the ball is going there right away. And the ball seems to always to put right on the numbers without slowing down his targets, but also not allowing defenders to swipe through their reach. When the defense backs up in zone coverage and he has the back curling up over the middle, he gets the ball there right at the top of his drop. Yet, if he needs to drive the for deep comebacks at the sideline, he can do that before the flat defender can gain enough depth. Pickett doesn’t take long to find a solution for seeing a defender get pulled away from his zone and attacking that voided area. And he can effectively force safeties to widen with his eyes, to create a window over the middle.
Pickett was asked to push the ball down the field a lot more this past season. His 1299 deep yards (on passes of 20+ yards) were the second-most in college football. The ball seems to always be put away from the defender and where his receivers can watch it drop into the bucket all the way. He understands when he can kind of put the ball up for grabs and where to place it for his receivers to make a play on it, if he doesn’t have an alternative. Along with that, Pickett was heavily featured in the rollout game, thanks to his high-level throwing on the run. He can connect on some beautiful spot throws whilst rolling to the right and not releasing from a clean platform/off the wrong foot, and really loft it over the top of the defense, if one of his receiver gets behind them. There was one touchdown in the Clemson game, where he hit the number three receiver on a corner route whilst releasing the ball with both feet off the ground. Particularly impressive are those balls that are just above the white line, where only his receiver can get a chance on it after working back down the ladder, as well as some of his guys understanding when they can work back inside or stop before they run themselves into that crowd when working across the field, since he’s willing to make some throws slightly across his body. And when he leaves the pocket out of structure, he routinely shows the ability to turn back from runner into passer when he gets out to the edge and sees a receiver work himself open.
As long as there’s no color flashing up the middle, he shows pretty composure as a pocket passer, not panicking when the space is being compressed and there are people around his legs. However, he also has some shiftiness to get around rushers and can cut off either foot to slide inside of blocks, as a defender tries to meet him in the lane. The Panthers coaching staff made use of his mobility, not only moving the pocket, but also working in draw plays, particularly after faking screens off motion. He shows good mobility and is a tough runner. That way, he picked up a lot of key first downs with his legs and he can rip off big gains when you give him room. Pickett has shown off 4.73 on several occasions on the field. He routinely outran defensive ends to the sideline when he had to roll that way and created positive plays. Overeager blitzers off the edge got burnt quite a bit when they aimed too directly at him, while he packs a nice spin move to punish guys who don’t aim at his outside hip coming from his backside too. And second/third level defender end up being surprised as he kicks into top gear and their angle proves to be too aggressive, plus then he can tip-toe the white line pretty effective for a couple of extra yards. When needed, he will stretch out to every inch he can get as they leaps towards the sideline, but what will serve him very well to sustain his NFL career is going out of bounds and sliding (if he doesn’t fake doing so) to avoid unnecessary hits.
While Pickett showed the ability to execute typical dropback concepts, you did see a lot of trips into the boundary and designs for the single receiver – which the Biletnikoff winner in Jordan Addison – where he didn’t have to actually read anything out. I’m sure the offensive designs play their part in it, but Pickett has to find solution for zero-blitz more consistently and not have his eyes down on the rush right away. It’s not talked about enough, but Pickett routinely put the ball behind his running backs working towards the flats and flips it out there at times, when a defender is all over it. Prior to last season I thought he moved himself into trouble at times, drifting too much towards where he wants to throw it. And I’d still like his feet to be a little calmer, not escape from as many clean pockets unnecessarily. Having that internal clock is good, but being spooked with nobody around him isn’t. In the last three tapes I watched on him, I don’t think I saw him climb the pocket once. When he sees any pressure up the middle, even if it’s not imminent, he will drop his eyes and try to take off, where he routinely takes the second hand off the ball and swing it pretty wildly, or he releases the ball off his back-foot even though he can easily keep both cleats in the ground. His 3.2 seconds to throw were the second-highest in the country last season, which a large piece of that was outside the pocket. He missed some opportunities that way when the concept was able to get somebody breaking open and there were moments where he was looking at an open receiver (on a crosser) and instead he allowed himself to be wrapped up. Particularly late in games, his process can kind of unravel and he forgets some of his principles. There’s been a lot of discussion about Kenny’s hand size, measuring in at 8 ½ inches at the combine, and while many people have made fun of it, it’s not like Pickett is on the low end of the spectrum – his hands would literally be half an inch shorter than any other starting QB in the league. There’s a reason he’s wearing gloves and we’ve seen him struggle to control the ball in inclement weather, such as the second half of the North Carolina game.
Other than Liberty’s Malik Willis, all quarterbacks struggled with the rain on day two of the Senior Bowl, but Pickett almost couldn’t throw it at all and there might be games where anything further than ten yards down the field is off the table. That’s frightening, particularly for teams that play in bad weather cities. I’m pretty confident that he can step on an NFL field and do some good things and help a talented team win, but I just don’t look at somebody who would will his troops to victory. The way he breaks down with color flashing up the middle and in high-leverage moments concerns me. I can easily see him be a productive ten-year starter, but there’s a chance you’ll be in QB purgatory with him. To me he’s Kirk Cousins with small hands but better movement skills.
6. Sam Howell, North Carolina
6’0”, 220 pounds; JR
A top-100 overall recruit in 2019 as a dual-threat QB, Howell put up great numbers in his first year at North Carolina and looked like a potential future first round pick as soon as he stepped on the field, throwing for 3641 yards and 38 touchdowns compared to only seven picks, making him the ACC Rookie of the Year. The next year his average yards per attempt went up by nearly two yards as well as his completion percentage by 6.7%, while his TD and INT ratios stayed about the same, leading to second-team all-conference honors. Unfortunately, his worst season came as a junior, when he put up career-lows in passing yards, YPA, touchdowns, but a career-high nine picks. The one part of his game that saw a drastic improvement however was his running, where he went from 181 yards prior on less than a yard per attempt to 828 yard and 11 touchdowns, at 4.5 yards per.
The ball comes off Howell’s hand with plenty of zip. You saw a bunch of passes over the middle that got there before the safety was able to barrel down and they’re placed low, so the ball doesn’t pop up as the hit arrives. The same is true in the RPO game, to take advantage of the soft spots between the second and third level. North Carolina threw a bunch of quick screens (at least in 2019 and ’20) and Howell’s receivers consistently had that extra split second to operate because of how quickly the ball got there. He can ride the back on play-action from the gun one way and then flip his base all the way around to deliver the ball to a deep out route right on the money. Howell loves to take vertical shots and delivers those high-arcing throws with buttery touch, after hopping up into the pocket. He’s arguably been the number one deep ball passer in college football over the course of his career. That reflects itself in an average depth of target of 11.7 yards last season. You see the throwing power as well when he takes an extra hitch for a deep curl from the opposite hash and can get it there before the defenders re-enters the picture. And he has the arm talent to test the defense with off-platform throws. Through three seasons at UNC, Howell totaled 86 big-time throws – the most of any quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft class. However, he also understands when he should take some RPMs off the ball, as he just flips it to his running back in the flats or on angle routes.
Howell had some of the best footwork I can remember from a freshman and his cleats are firmly planted into the turf when he releases the ball. Overall he’s a light mover on the ball of his feet and can make those subtle sideways movements to get the ball off cleanly, even though he knows he’ll get blasted. The Tar Heel coaches asked him to make full-field reads on plenty of occasions in 2020 and he has shown the ability to work deep into his progressions when given time. Howell dictated a lot how his receivers should address the football, putting it low away from contact, slowing them down against zone coverage, to not allow ancillary coverage to crowd the catch window and stuff like that. He can add in whippy shoulder fakes to get defenders to jump routes and open up opportunities to loft the ball behind them. He’s not afraid to put the ball up there and give his receivers a chance to make plays. However, last season he didn’t repay him, with a 8.9 percent drop rate, where it felt like his receivers at times just couldn’t handle the velocity of the ball, which is something NFL receivers actually prefer. In particular there were two would-be touchdowns against Pitt on back-to-back plays. Howell and the Tarheels offense needed taken some time to get going in 2020, but when they flipped that switched, they and their QB especially were able to get as hot as anybody out there. He has that capability of making big throw after big throw down the field and quickly put points on the board. That was never more true than when he was responsible for almost 600 yards and six touchdowns in a 59-53 shootout against Wake Forest, when they were already down by 21 in the third quarter.
The former Tarheel QB is sudden inside the pocket to almost hop around the free space and he at times actually reaches down to the ground with his off-arm to re-gain his balance. He reduces his front-shoulder very well to avoid rushers being able to grab that area and can slide up into free space. And there’s some creativeness to his game, to make something happen out of structure, adding in some shovel passes and little flicks off the move. The offensive line last season allowed pressure on nearly half of the team’s true pass sets. However, he can make himself look smaller and sink his hips to bounce sideways, almost like a running back on a jump-cut at times. And he has a pretty thick lower half to shake off defenders. With his top two receivers and running backs leaving prior to the 2021 season, a regression was expected in Howell’s passing production. However, he found a different avenue to success and kind of surprised everybody with his production as a runner, where he finished second among FBS quarterbacks on 10+ yard rushes (45), thanks to his squatty build and competitiveness to gain yards through contact and somewhat of a slippery quality. He broke 65 tackles and showed enough short-area burst to get around the corner if the option-man on zone reads wasn’t leveraged to the outside.
However, Howell has that way over-the-top throwing motion and can be inconsistent with his delivery, because his shoulders are nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage as he drops back and it takes extra time to point front-shoulder and only then starts rotating through. That limits his ability to actually get ready to release the ball when he sees a receiver break open before hitting the top of his drop. When he does have to speed up his process, you see the ball sail on him at times, because his elbow gets so high and he can’t follow through accordingly. Structurally, the North Carolina offense last season was almost all RPOs and go-balls, leading the nation in both. Howell has real issues reading stuff between the hashes, which his lack of height certainly is a factor in, And so is not gaining extra depth when needed, as he nearly has his linemen step on his feet at times. He inexplicably turns down some completions over the middle, particular off play-action. His PFF grade drops off dramatically when under pressure (90.8 to 47.3). And the amount of times I was worried he’d take a safety because he just bounce back there at the goal-line and somehow just came up short of it, as he was wrapped for sacks in the games I watched was crazy. Howell’s ball-placement on the move is sub-par. He crosses his feet and almost hops into some of his throws when rolling out towards the sideline. I routinely saw him run into the backs of blockers when he tries to dart upfield and he simply doesn’t have the explosiveness to slice through creases as he’s trying to get past the line of scrimmage. He also doesn’t have the greatest feel for setting up blockers as a runner and he will not nearly make that kind of impact on the ground in the pros, as a fairly average athlete. Howell had a very concerning 2021 season-opener against Virginia Tech, when they put just ten points on the board and he basically threw away the game late, when they were down by seven and he tossed a horrible pick, whilst getting dragged down.
In terms of what Howell presents as a prospect, you can argue it’s very similar to Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, coming from an RPO and one-read offense primarily, with the arm talent to test defenses vertically and the toughness to take hits despite being in the 6’1” range. However, Corral has a much more compact release, is more efficient with his movement inside the pocket and there’s a drastic difference in the ability to quickly create a platform for themselves (which is set up for success). If your offense is built on routes along the sideline and a few slants sprinkled in, Howell can put up some big numbers, but the middle of the field is currently not accessible to him and unlike Corral, I don’t see the traits of being able to find and get to secondary solutions.
7. Jack Coan, Notre Dame
6’3”, 220 pounds; RS SR
A top-500 overall recruit in 2017 for Wisconsin, it took Coan until his third season to earn the starting gig for the Badgers, completing 69.6 of his passes for 2727 yards and 18 touchdowns versus five interceptions. He missed the following season with a broken ankle and Graham Mertz showed as a freshman that he’ll likely remain under center, which led Coan to transfer to Notre Dame – which he was originally committed to for playing across. His one year there, he completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3150 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven picks, while the Irish earned a New Year’s Six Bowl appearance against Oklahoma State, who led a furious comeback against them.
The first takeaway I had from Coan’s tape – I was impressed with how often he won with beating leverage and getting the ball out in rhythm. Slant-flat, stick and levels concepts are all heavily featured on the menu. He leads receivers away from ancillary coverage with ball-placement and you routinely see him release as his man crosses the face of a defender, into the window between him and the next-closest guy. Coan doesn’t shy away from hitting routes breaking towards the sideline before the corner can come off his responsibility or act as a hang-defender and undercut that receiver. You see a bunch of throws like that, where his receiver can haul in the pass for 15-yard gains, just as two defenders converge on him. If the flat defender may be in position to sink underneath a corner route to the opposite numbers, he can get the ball to nose-dive behind that guy and out to where the safety can’t quite get over in time. Underneath there’s some similar throws low and away from hook-defenders to where his pass-catchers can body-catch and get upfield without running them into collisions. Coan has the requisite arm strength to hit deep outs from the opposite hash, but he can also layer throws in the intermediate areas and let the ball go before receivers enter a window. Down the sideline, he consistently puts the ball just over the head of defenders, to where only his receiver can get his hands on the ball. And when the single-high safety sits in-between the hashes, he’s more than willing to take those shots along the boundary to his big X receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Coan has an understanding for reading one area of the field and what that may mean for a different target. Therefore you see his eyes transition and the throwing motion be started almost simultaneously. Checkdowns to the back in particular happen in no-look fashion basically and he utilizes that position in a major way, but rarely to where his guy was wrapped up right away and he just got rid of the ball. Coan can read high-low stretches in-between the hashes and then go behind that for deep digs if the picture is muddy. When safety sit too much on intermediate routes, he’ll take those shots down the seams/post and put the ball out in threat. And I saw multiple perfect throws like that go off the finger-tips of his receivers. Rarely do you see him leave his feet behind and not point his hips at the target, even when he has to come from staring down the middle to flipping all the way to the sideline. Coan shows good feel for rush angles, climbs vertically and runs up into throws when needed, along with sliding sideways to set up a clean platform with the rush approaching. When the guy off the edge seems to have the inside path towards him, the former Irish QB can gain some depth and widen as he bubbles around, while keeping his eyes up. Yet, he can also step up and the get wide if there’s an angle on around the corner. Coan does well to set up screens with his eyes and body-language, whether that’s just raising the front-shoulder to indicating he’s going down the field before flipping it out to RB swings or selling the throw to one of his receivers off orbit motion and coming back underneath.
With that being said, Coan has a good arm, but when you watch him drive the ball towards the sideline, he certainly looks like he’s putting everything he has into it and wrench the shoulder through. And his release is rather deliberate, not making him very attractive for an RPO- or quick game-based attack. In situations where he has to speed up his delivery, you see him break the arm angle and just gets the ball to a general area, which leads to putting the ball in harm’s way. He tossed a horrible interception versus Cincinnati, where he was starting to move to the right and floated the ball across his body way over the tight-end for an easy pick at the goal-line. Often times Coan places the ball away from underneath coverage, but to where the closest defender to his receiver now has a chance to make a play on the ball. When he knows he’ll go underneath with the ball hit routes breaking outside, he tends to drift that way and lead defenders towards the target. And at times he misses underneath defenders, who can sink underneath in-breakers. His two worst games last season according to PFF’s grading scale (with significant discrepancy to the rest) came against the two best defenses on the schedule – Cincinnati and Wisconsin. And he certainly didn’t end his career on a high note in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, where after being up by 21 points, all but one of his possessions in the second half ended in a three-/four-and-out along with a pick to a linebacker, before throwing a late TD that didn’t change the outcome.
I believe Coan really boosted his draft stock with his showing at the East-West Shrine Bowl. He was named the Offensive practice player of the week and in the game, he fit several some balls over the middle early, where the defender was in the hip-pocket of his receivers, along with delivering some great throws on third downs, to keep drives moving. Coan is an oldschool pocket passer, who is willing to test tight windows, but won’t give you much off schedule. When he’s in rhythm and can rip it, he’s capable of putting together strong stretches, but then he can miss a key or is forced to create something individually and bad things may happen. I believe he’s at least high-level backup and has the potential to start in the right situations. I see him as somebody who you can win with, but not because of.
8. Skylar Thompson, Kansas State
6’2”, 215 pounds; RS SR
A top-500 overall recruit as a dual-threat QB all the way back in 2016, Thompson redshirted his first year on campus and then started half of the eight games he appeared in the following season. Whilst battling through some injuries of the next four years (making use of the 2020-COVID exception), he did start all but one of 37 games, increasing his completion percentage in each of those seasons (for an average of 62.5%), throwing for over 7000 yards, 42 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, along with over 1000 yards and another 26 touchdowns on the ground. Thompson was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection in 2019 and won the MVP of their bowl game at the end of that and the 2021 season.
Thompson consistently displays good balance with his base and his eyes are pointed down the field, as a touchdown-to-checkdown type of passer. He has easy zip on outside curl routes from the opposite hash, but also showcases the arm talent to put the ball out in front of post routes across the field for about 50 yards with little effort seemingly. Thompson had an impressive adjusted completion percentage of 77.3% last season, thanks in part to being right on the money on quick throws over the middle and allowing his receivers to not break stride at all. He can whip passes over the middle with plenty of velocity and hit a bunch of routes breaking back towards him based on voids in the hook-to-hook areas. In particular, it was a three-by-one set with a curl by the tight-end as the single and a stick route by the number three on the trips side. Along with the over-the-top throws, you see him drive or layer the ball in the intermediate area depending on what is needed. And something you see quite a bit is his turning around his receivers to the back-shoulder against DBs in stack-technique. These past two years he really learned how to incorporate the back in the passing game and get there quickly if that’s what the coverage dictates, thanks to having such a dynamic option in Deuce Vaughn. Thompson has experience with plenty of heavy play-action from under center in condensed formations for longer-developing patterns, as well as boots and making high-low reads on three-level flood concepts. I thought the offense had way too many concepts way down the field that afforded an extended amount of time, where Thompson was bound to get into trouble. And the K-State coaches trusted him in the red-zone, where he displayed the willingness and ability to loft the ball over the head of defenders and test tight windows.
This guy has some of the most impressive pocket presence in the class. He doesn’t panic when he has to wait back there and bounces around, if the O-line keeps him clean, but he also has the ability to slide laterally and set up a clean platforms to deliver from. He can make subtle shifts or violent hitches vertically. What stands out to me as he’s moving around and at times actually has to run up towards the line of scrimmage momentarily, is how quickly he re-sets his base, even if he can deliver passes over the middle with both feet off the ground. He can float around like a dancer, pedaling sideways and backwards to buy extra time and keep himself ready to throw, as well as kind of dip and weave to make rushers miss. Even when he has absolutely no room to flip his base and push forward, he still has the flexible arm to flip it to his back in the flats, after bleeding out the concept first. Thompson can find solutions on the fly and do so in an unorthodox way. I’ve seen him point out receivers 50 yards downfield as well as make left-handed flips to the RB. However, he also has no fear of staring into the eye of the storm and release the ball down the field when he’s about to get blasted. Overall, he still a pretty solid PFF grade of 64.5 when under pressure and allowed less than 20 percent of those to turn into sacks. Thompson has the ability to quickly punish the defense for leaving an open lane for him, which his 4.9 in the 40 doesn’t do him justice on. His speed out to the corner was heavily utilized on speed options and quarterback sweeps. Yet then he doesn’t mind taking on a linebacker and gaining yards through contact. He was used on a lot of QB sneaks and power runs around the goal-line, where the strength in his legs allowed him to push ahead and break the plane. You also saw that in some short-yardage situations, which pushed down his rushing average, along with the 20 sacks taken on less than 300 dropbacks.
While Thompson certainly is a gifted thrower, he plays the game like a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen a lot of times, which he simply isn’t quite a bit, because there’s only three of four humans on earth capable of that kind of stuff. There are moments of cross-body throws where anything but a perfect ball invites the defender to make a play on the ball and he dangerously releases the ball whilst fading or even falling away as he scrambles out wide. Kansas State did put the game on his shoulders a lot of times and you saw plenty of positives in terms of the willingness to make game-changing plays, but that has also led to developing some hurtful hero-ball tendencies, leading to a turnover-worthy play rate of 4.3%. A few times I felt like he tried to take off before even checking one half of the field, while other times he pads the ball too much when waiting for deeper-developing routes and then sails the ball over his receiver’s head at times. He would certainly benefit from releasing the ball a little bit earlier and putting it to a spot rather than the man at times. The biggest red flag however with Thompson is his medical history. He has missed extended stretches of time with serious upper body, knee and ankle injuries that demanded surgery. And it’s not like he’s just prone to get hurt, but he invites it to some degree, flirting with that line between toughness and recklessness. He simply has to learn how to protect himself better. Two numbers I don’t like about him – having sub-nine inch hands and being 25-year old rookie already.
This to me is the biggest sleeper at the quarterback position in the entire draft. There are things he does in certain areas that are more impressive than each of those guys ahead of him and it’s not like he hasn’t performed when on the field, putting up a PFF grade above 80 in each of the last three years. You see him will his team to upsets and near-upsets against the top Big-12 programs like Oklahoma and Texas. You just don’t know how much you can de-program some of the do-or-die style of play, teach him how to take better care of his body and if he can stay healthy long-term. People said he didn’t have a great East-West Shrine Bowl week, but in the game he did lead touchdown drives (one set up by a short field) on the two possessions he was on the field for. I know that Matt Waldman has him as his personal number one overall quarterback and while I do have my reservations with him, he’s the guy on day three, who I could see turn into a starter if he lands in a spot, where he’s given a chance to prove himself.
9. Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
6’1”, 215 pounds; SR
Barely seeing any recruiting interest coming out of high school, Zappe spent three years and graduated at Houston Baptists, where he basically started right away and improved drastically every season, averaging an FCS-high 458.3 yards per game in 2020, before transferring to Western Kentucky for his final year of eligibility. That set up the greatest statistical quarterback season in FBS history, as he broke Joe Burrow’s previously set records for passing yards (5967) and touchdowns (62), while being pretty efficient as well, completing 69.3 percent of his passes and having only 11 intercepted. That made him the Conference-USA Most Valuable Player.
Watching the WKU offense, their quarterback was always in a five-to-six yard deep shotgun alignment with reduced drop-steps and good bounce to him sitting back there. They spread the field a lot with wide stacks and bunches, empty sets and five men out in the pattern, while having somebody under center capable of utilizing all of those targets. Zappe is an extremely quick processor, who you can watch routinely get to his third and even fourth read, with the accordingly rapid shoulder turns and release to go along with it. He has a tremendous understanding for defensive spacing and where he can attack leverage advantages, while placing the ball away from trailing defenders constantly. If the defense only has one player in the between the, he will check if that guy opens up with the back or number three and immediately hit somebody breaking towards the middle of the field. You see a bunch of double slants, where Zappe quickly reads the hook defender’s movement and routinely leads him to jump the slot and expand that window for the wideout coming in behind. The curl route is one of his most effective ones to the boundary receiver, letting the ball go before his man has even stuck his foot in the ground and he consistently puts it to where that guy can spin outside and turn upfield instantly. And he can hit those after reading a two-receiver concept the other way initially. They threw so many slip and bubble screens (plus some delayed tunnel screen), with rail routes and delayed slants off those, where he really sells the fake with his entire body language. You saw Zappe routinely hit those Hilltoppers receivers curling up against zone coverage and then off that, they had a lot of route adjustments on the fly, working towards space. He shows the patience to allow his guys to break open against coverage rotations or enter secondary windows when working across the field.
Looking at his overall production, Zappe had the third-most yards off screens, but he also led the country with 1790(!) yards of passes of 20+ yards and PFF gave him the highest grade of any QB in the country on those (98.8). His deep balls that almost go straight up and down and he gives his receivers so much room and time to track the pass over his shoulder, which also leads to some defenders panicking and committing pass interference. In particular, they ran a bunch of switch releases out of WR stacks and he hit his receivers at the sideline if the corner carried the receiver stemming inside or get it to the back in the flats off that, if that area was cleared. Zappe also does a great job of stepping up into the pocket and confidently delivering strikes over the middle, making those power throws on dig routes. He shows so much composure in the pocket and ability to make those subtle slides, to hang in there and allow his receivers to find open grass. He has some pretty good feel for secondary plays and how manipulate defenders on the move, by showing he’ll let it fly to hit somebody underneath or aiming North and then flicking it to one of his receivers who sat down his route. More impressively inside the pocket, he can kind of make rushers miss by letting their angles go to waste and find a little bit of space to make off-platform throws, which he’s capable of in the underneath areas at least. You see Zappe contort his upper body and really drop the throwing shoulder, to slide underneath pass-rushers, as well as hop inside as somebody tries to cut off his angles when moving out towards the sideline. And this guy shows maturity beyond his years with hitting his backs on outlets if the defense sinks too deep and understanding when the play is dead and he should chuck the ball out of bounds. He had more throw-aways on tape than any other guy I watched by a wide margin.
With that being said, Zappe definitely has a below-average arm by NFL standards. There were several underthrow fade routes on tape, where if defenders were able to turn his head and locate the ball, they had a better chance at it. He can’t drive the ball on a line towards the sideline and throw his receiver open against tight coverage necessarily, often times mis-placing it slightly inside, and he actually had a Hail-Mary from midfield come up short once. Along with that, Zappy operated in a very QB-friendly offense, where he either had a fade route by the single receiver that he could lock in on pre-snap if there was space or he was able to read the concept to one side and then had that split-end work his way into the picture from a reduced, so his head could stay pointed in one direction. There were a bunch of those condensed three-by-one formations with a bunch set and not really having to read the full field and make anticipatory throws. While the offensive structure and quickness of Zappe’s snap-to-throw time is a big part in that, he was under pressure on an absurdly low 12.5 percent of dropbacks. That will change in the NFL, particularly with so much more post-snap rotations and exotic coverages. There were so many quick screens and pre-determined throws, which we saw some more advanced defenses, who understand the tendencies for this offense, be able to jump wheel routes that they try to sneak by the coverage and stuff like that. When Zappe begins to scramble, his second hand comes off the ball immediately and the elbow is away from his body constantly, to where I’ve seen him hit it off one of his linemen, as well as exposing it to the swiping arms of defenders obviously.
I think this is very much a straight-forward evaluation. Zappe can quickly process information, set up throws and change up his release accordingly, to take what the defense is giving him. However, he simply doesn’t have the arm talent to really challenge opponents and deliver game-changing throws. At the Senior Bowl, he was kind of set up to look unimpressive with all the other arm talents down in Mobile, but he delivered some nice touch passes and showed good control of the football to be accurate with it. However, we also saw some deep balls die on him during the week and in the actual game. To me he’s a ten-year backup, who can give your team some energy and get the job done when called up, while I could also see him be a place-holder for teams that don’t have the clear guy on the roster yet.
10. Brock Purdy, Iowa State
6’1”, 220 pounds; SR
A three-star recruit in 2018, Purdy entered that year as the third-string quarterback for the Cyclones, but when starter Kyle Kempt went down with an injury, he won the battle to take over a 1-3 team and led them to a 7-2 record for the rest of the year, while their average points per game went from 18 to 31. Over the following three seasons, he went on to complete 67.9 percent of his passes for just over 3300 yards on average, with 65 touchdowns versus 26 interceptions. He added nearly another 1200 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. After making second-team All-Big 12 in 2019, he was the first-team all-conference QB in each of the past two seasons, while keeping the ISU program a serious conference contender throughout that stretch. Purdy leaves the Cyclones as the all-time single season and career leader in completions, passing yards and TDs.
Similar to like an Aaron Rodgers, Purdy keeps his chest open to the line of scrimmage as he gains depth and then gets that front-shoulder towards the target. You saw a lot hitch-flat combinations and other spacing concepts with the back in the ISU offense, which led to the sixth-best adjusted completion percentage among draft-eligible quarterbacks last season at 78.7%. Purdy loves to go to his big targets over the middle, which is indicated by top of his top four targets last season being tight-ends, along with running back Breece Hall slid in between those. You saw it a bunch with his all-conference tight-end Charlie Kolar, who he converted third downs with over and over again, placing the ball high and away from the coverage. He has hit a bunch of dagger concepts, getting the ball to his man on the dig, after the slot has cleared out space by pushing vertically. On those he doesn’t show any fear of getting blasted back there as he has to wait for the wideout to get out of his break and being able to loft it over the head of a linebacker underneath. When one of his guys has somebody tight on them in trail coverage, he puts it right there to pluck off the opponent’s helmet or led it just in front over the middle. The same is true when he knows he’ll have a shallow crosser bound to run free, but he has to hang in there a beat longer. He can quickly set up off run-fakes and deliver in-breakers on the money for his receivers to run through the catch. There’s a lot of elevation and sink of the ball, to drop it in behind the shallow zone coverage. Purdy has some of the best layered throws in-between the hashes you will find, on seam routes and deep overs floated over the underneath defenders. He can hit deep out routes on flood concepts off the wrong foot on rollouts and you routinely saw him put the ball to a spot where only his receiver can get his hands on it at the sideline whilst having to fade away.
It may not be necessarily how you coach it, but Purdy has impeccable feel for pressure and how to navigate around it. He has that subtle elusiveness in the pocket and does a great job of squaring his shoulders before releasing the ball on the move. His pressure-to-sack conversion rate of just 15.4% is one of the lowest among QBs in the draft, despite not being the biggest guy. Purdy is tough to corral inside the pocket and has that ability to manipulate rushers. He often ducks underneath guys and pulls the shoulder away from contact gets low before bouncing out wide if there’s a secondary point of pressure, and you frequently see him give a little nod to the inside and then roll out to the edge, as the guy over there tries to slip underneath. Along with that, Purdy packs some quick pump fakes and ability to re-set his base in a hurry to be able to get rid of the ball. There’s a lot of creativeness to Purdy’s game, at times leaping and flipping it to his guys on slide routes, as a blitzer is barreling at him. And he can kind of bait defenders to run up on him, before flipping it over their heads as a receiver is working across or his back sneaks behind those guys. You also see him flick the ball slightly across his body a lot of times when the defense flows with him and he has somebody sat there. Yet, he gladly throw it away when he has nowhere to go as well. He can turn his shoulders and flip it to one of his target working towards the sideline with him, but he’s also able to turn the corner and get to the sideline way more frequently than you’d expect. He burnt defenses as a runner way more than you’d expect. That’s why the ISU coaches called up quite a few draws for him.
However, Purdy has a bad tendency of releasing off his back-foot or just flicking the hips through without transitioning his weight forward on too many occasions. He rarely puts the ball on a line to his target when that’s demanded and his accuracy past 30 yards is very spotty, kind of just launching it with the front-shoulder aimed to the sky. You see him actively turn down deep outs and downfield far-field throws. That makes you question his overall arm strength. And you see him speed up his process a little too much in general, when he has opportunity to get into a solid throwing position, often times releasing off the wrong foot whilst on the move when he really doesn’t need to. Just getting the ball out a beat earlier, when he’s made the right read, would aid that. Purdy can be way too loose with the ball as he is scrambling to the outside and it will only lead to more turnovers at the next level. He had an absolute brain-fart moment in the TCU game in 2020, when he was getting spun to the ground for a sack, but decided to throw it away – backwards to a TCU defender, who would waltz into the end-zone. And there was a pretty bad-looking play in his final collegiate game against Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl, as one of his passes was batted up in the air and instead of catching or letting it fall to the ground, he almost volleyball-spiked it right into the hands of a linebacker.
Purdy had about as steady a career as you will find, with three straight seasons with a PFF grade of 78.9, but not purely in a positive sense, since the decision-making and overall game didn’t improve a whole lot over his four years as a starter and his TD production actually declined in each of the last three. Last season his big-time throw rate sat at only 2.6%. This guy is a true competitor and gamer, who has had some of his best showing in the biggest games for Matt Campbell’s program. He features great pocket navigation, touch and ability to create secondary plays. The arm talent just limits him in areas that will allow NFL defenses to neglect certain areas and throws, as well as cheat on some stuff. Purdy may never be somebody who will string together multiple years as a starter, but I see him as somebody who fans could love as a backup, who can give their team a spark, somewhat like a Taylor Heinicke or Colt McCoy, who are capable of putting together good stretches of play.
Just missed the cut:
Cole Kelley, Southeastern Louisiana
6’7” ½, 250 pounds; SR
A three-star recruit out of high school back in 2016, Kelley had offers from multiple Power Five programs, ultimately committing to Arkansas. After a redshirt year, he started six games over the next two years, completing 56% of his passes for just under 1500 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He decided to transfer to the FCS, where despite not starting any games in 2019, he was able to combine for 20 total TDs on just 182 combine pass and rush attempts (along with just two picks). Kelley received Walter Payton award in the 2020 spring season, but he put up even better numbers this past year, completing 73.6 percent of his passes for 5124 yards, 44 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, along with 16(!) more TDs on the ground, still being named a first-team FCS All-American.
+ Stands tall inside the pocket and has command over the football, showing the ability to make those Ben Roethlisberger-esque full motion pump fakes with one hand
+ Features pretty good mechanics and can really let it fly, illustrated by 17 touchdowns of 20+ yards in 2021, routinely hitting receivers 40+ yards downfield in stride
+ Shows authority at the line and good poise inside the pocket, along with pretty good eye discipline, to not give away where he’s going with the ball prematurely
+ Has the requisite arm strength to drive the ball outside the numbers on either side of the field, whether it’s hit receivers on out routes long before they get to the flat defender or delivering corner routes away from the safety in two-high shells
+ Touchdown-to-checkdown type of passers, who takes zip off the ball when he comes down to his back
+ Displays good awareness for pressure off the edge and can climb the pocket and/or tuck in the throwing shoulder accordingly, in more of an explosive fashion when needed
+ Nifty with his ball-handling, whether it’s varying the length of his run-fakes or delivering almost no-look shovel passes with his feet pointed a different way
+ Strong, tough runner, who can slice through a lane quicker than you’d expect and was almost unstoppable near the goal-line
+ PFF grades of 90.3 and 92.2 these past two seasons respectively, while leading all draft-eligible QBs with an adjusted completion percentage of 82.2% (7.9% of his passes were dropped)
+ Did a good job of identifying leverage advantages and finding the right matchups to get the ball out quickly in the NFL PA Bowl, leading three straight scoring drives in the actual game, worth 18 total points (1 TD pass + 2-point conversion)
– Releases the ball a lot with his chest open and not being able to rotate through properly, which was good enough for the FCS, but those windows will be a lot tighter in the NFL
– Elongated throwing motion due to his long arms and over-the-top release point
– You barely see any layered throws – it’s fast-balls all the time
– Lacks the vision for ancillary coverage and acts like flat defenders don’t exist at all, while pre-determining some of those throws
– Beat up on poor competition, where his arm strength afforded him the ability to be late, and had his worst showing in their elimination game against James Madison last season
Looking at the top ten quarterbacks in this class, I think there are four to five starters, a couple of projects and three long-time quality backups potentially. If I wanted to invest a day three pick on anybody outside that group, with the potential to get onto the field as a developmental prospect, Cole Kelley would be my choice. He’s huge, has easy zip to all levels of the field and can move around enough to allow things to develop. He’ll have to prove that he can make more refined reads and variation in types of throws, but it’s worth stashing him as a QB3 with room to move up.
E.J. Perry, Brown
6’1” ½, 215 pounds; SR
Outside the top-2000 overall recruits for Boston College in 2017 (his lone Power Five offer), Perry only saw action in mop-up duty of six games over his two years with the Eagles. He decided to transfer to the FCS ahead of his junior season to play under his uncle James, who was a record-setting passer at Brown. With the 2020 campaign being canceled due to COVID, Perry only got to play (and start) in 20 games there, but managed to complete 63.4 percent of his passes for 6000 yards, 47 touchdowns and 27 interceptions, along with another 1132 yards and 15 scores on the ground. He was named first-team All-Ivy league for leading the FCS in total yards in 2019 and then was the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year this past season, despite being on a 2-8 team.
+ Has a plan of where he wants to go with the ball and is able to open up those targets by drawing defenders away from it with his eyes and body-language
+ Delivers power throws over the middle and into cover-two holes with his cleats in the ground and using upper and lower half disconnection to create torque
+ Beautifully drops in passes over the heads of his receivers down the post or sideline, but also understands when to put the ball to the back-shoulder on fades versus stack-coverage
+ Capable of making anticipatory throws between hook and flat defenders, as well as the second and third level before his receivers enter the window
+ Efficient with his hip pocket movement, whether he has to climb in controlled fashion or make more dramatic shifts
+ Shows improvisational skills to set up defenders in space and imagine on-the-field adjustments by his receivers
+ Routinely is able to get outside the pocket, with both hands on the ball and his eyes downfield, Then can flip his shoulders when rolling towards the sideline, in order to make on-target throws off the wrong foot
+ Has serious wheels to beat Ivy League linebackers around the corner when he keeps the ball on zone-reads or is flushed out wide, while having elusiveness and ability to slip off tackles
+ Tested in the 83rd percentile or better in the running and leaping events at the combine
+ Took on a leadership role throughout East-West Shrine week and backed it up with a tremendous performance on gameday (13-of-18 for 241 yards, three TDs & no INTs for a nearly perfect passer rating), to earn himself Offensive MVP honors
– Undersized with nine-inch hands, which led to 11 fumbles in 2021, not being able to hold onto the ball through hits and putting himself at risk too much in general
– You see the ball flutter and become ducks quite a bit when having to make far hash throws, as well as move that way beforehand and put all he has in those
– Yet, he trusts his arm too much to test challenging windows, that will only close down the quicker in the NFL
– His PFF grade under pressure bottom-dwelled at just 29.1, with a higher turnover-worthy play than big-time throw rate
– Just one career game with meaningful opportunities against Power Five competition (at Boston College)
Perry is a fun player to watch on tape. He plays with a lot of moxy, creativeness and competitive spirit. He understands where the ball needs to go and can typically get it there in-between the numbers. His average arm talent will limit his potential in the league, but his confidence and experience as the underdog, being the most productive QB in the Ivy League over his last two seasons, despite very little help from his supporting cast, will serve him well, although he’s also developed a tendency of feeling compelled to push the envelope, which coaches have to reign him in on. I could easily see him hang around at the bottom of a depth chart for a decade and be a positive influence to a position room.
The next names up:
Kaleb Eleby (Western Michigan), Chase Garbers (Cal), Dustin Crum (Kent State), D‘Eriq King (Miami), Aqueel Glass (Alabama A&M) & Anthony Brown (Oregon)
For in-depth breakdowns of the NFL and college football, head over to my page halilsrealfootballtalk.com and my Youtube channel