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A former NFL talent evaluator, whose team was bent on taking a quarterback prior to the 2018 NFL draft, was given his marching orders months before: break down that draft class’ eventual five first-round quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson — along with a sixth QB prospect, Mason Rudolph, who was eventually drafted in the third round.
The team planned meetings with all six and were mostly sold on the idea of using a high selection on one. They planned to use that January (Senior Bowl month), February (scouting combine month) and March (the biggest pro day month) to canvas the top prospects, split hairs between the various talents and determine who was the best fit.
What the scout noted in his pre-pro day evaluations of the top six was that their playing styles couldn’t have been more diverse. Comparing them, apples to apples, proved to be very difficult. It hit home more when the scout traveled to pro days for four of the six prospects, all lined up in a two-week span.
“You go from watching this strapping, rocket-arm guy [Allen], to this electric athlete with the loose arm [Jackson] … then the two California kids [Darnold and Rosen], and Baker was kind of in his own category in some ways,” the ex-NFL talent evaluator said. “Maybe Rosen was closest to that old-style pocket passer. Darnold and Baker, maybe you call them ‘hybrid’ guys. Whatever you call them, I just knew they were all so different.
“I turned to [another scout on his former team] and said, ‘How do you even stack these guys up?’ One’s a Porsche, one’s a Jag, the next guy a Range Rover … even their personalities and just their demeanors were so much different [from one another]. You had to be very sure of what you wanted most.”
The 2021 QB draft class is shaping up similarly in some fashions. There are still many months to go in the process, and multiple college conferences still have yet to start the 2020 season. Little is set in stone now. But the parallel between the 2018 and 2021 crops is that we could have five or more quarterbacks picked in the top 50 selections or so, with each appearing to carry a distinct style. It’s likely to lead to some fascinating discussions behind closed NFL doors about which QB prospect best fits each of those respective teams.
Even still, the majority of 2021 top prospects fit the mold of the dual-threat quarterback that quickly is becoming the industry standard in the NFL.
“It comes down to what traits you value and which [quarterback] you think is going to be a leader in your locker room,” the evaluator said. “It’s less about how they get it done and more about will they get it done with our staff and our players? And can we adapt to their style, their strengths?”
That evaluator now works in college football. He has watched Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who he says, like most of America, is the clear-cut top prospect next spring. He has also seen most of the other big-name QB prospects (North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Florida’s Kyle Trask among them), with BYU’s fast-rising Zach Wilson still on his rainy-day watch list.
Lawrence is the nearly universal top prospect. And the fascinating Lance, despite his lesser body of work, is some teams’ second-highest-graded prospect.
But in the evaluator’s mind, Fields isn’t getting the proper respect.
“You can hype the other guys enough,” he said, “but why aren’t we talking about Justin Fields more? Georgia fans are; they wish they still had him. Is everyone else talking about him? Maybe, but I ain’t heard it a lot.
“I don’t know what other people think of him. But to me, [Fields] is Cam [Newton] 2.0. Just a little shorter. The set up, the throwing motion, the big frame, that tough running ability, and maybe it’s that No. 1 [jersey] he wears. But that’s the guy he reminds me of.”
There will be plenty of QB suitors in 2021
The 0-6 New York Jets control the race for the No. 1 pick in 2021 — likely to be Lawrence, who some believe is a generational prospect in the mold of Andrew Luck. Lose out the string and Lawrence can be theirs.
That’s no certainty to happen, of course. The Miami Dolphins started last season 0-6 with a minus-148 point differential (the Jets this year are only minus-110) and ended up with five victories, picking No. 5 overall.
What’s clear is that right behind the Jets at the bottom of the standings are a slew of teams who might also be big-game hunting at quarterback, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons (depending on Matt Ryan’s future), New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Football Team.
There’s even a working theory that the reason the Dolphins promoted Tua Tagovailoa as their starter this week was because they wanted to give him ample time to convince the franchise that he’s their unquestioned future at QB.
If not, the Dolphins own two first-round picks — theirs and that of the Houston Texans — plus plenty more ammo that can be used toward another quarterback. The 1-5 Texans have that pick currently slotted at No. 7 overall, and their remaining strength of schedule is .580, the sixth-toughest in the NFL.
Assuming Lawrence goes first, there could be at least three quarterbacks in the top-10 picks in 2021. Perhaps even the top five when all the dust settles. There also could be teams on the outskirts of the top 10 — New England? San Francisco? New Orleans? — who look into a bold trade up to that range, depending on what the future holds with those teams’ veteran quarterbacks.
Where does Justin Fields fit into the draft picture?
Fields will make his season debut Saturday at home against Nebraska. He figures to be in the top-10 mix if he plays at or above the level he did last season.
There are skeptics, and he’s by no means a certainty for that range, even after throwing for 3,273 yards, completing 67.2 percent of his passes and registering a 41-3 TD-INT ratio for the Buckeyes, as well as running for 484 yards and 10 scores.
One NFL scout said he wants to see Fields do a better job of speeding up his clock, taking better care of the ball in the pocket and as a runner (11 fumbles last season) and showing he can make more tight-window throws.
But there also are believers in Fields’ skills and pro projection, in the NFL and beyond.
Urban Meyer, who never coached Fields at OSU but remains close to the program, recently told the Big Ten Network that Fields arrived in Columbus as “a runner that threw very well” but who now has elevated his game with his improved passing over the past year and a half.
“Now, he is a quarterback that just happens to be Braxton Miller fast, is as electric of a runner as Braxton was,” Meyer said. “That’s what I’m hearing. That’s what I saw. He’s a little thicker than Braxton. What you have, if it’s even possible, you have a Braxton Miller athlete that throws like Dwayne Haskins.
“And if that’s possible, you’re talking about arguably — you know, I know Trevor Lawrence is there and [tight end] Kyle Pitts from Florida, who I personally think is the best non-quarterback player in America — you’re talking about the best player in America. If he can actually do what I’m hearing he can do, there’s no stopping this guy.”
That’s quite a departure from the spring and summer when Ohio State head coach Ryan Day made it clear that neither Fields nor the other Buckeyes had convincingly grabbed the starting job.
Quincy Avery, a private QB tutor who has worked with Fields and Lance, said Fields has a style that makes him tough to compare to anyone else.
“He can do all the things that you’d ask any other passer to do,” Avery said. “But he also has this dynamic genius that sets him apart as a designed runner. You can’t design runs for a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL, so that’s different.
“But I also don’t want to categorize him as just a runner. He’s one of the best quarterbacks from the pocket in the country.”
In clean pockets last season, Pro Football Focus charted Fields as having an adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for dropped passes) of 71.1, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt with a TD-INT ratio of 33-2. Those were better clean-pocket numbers in 2019 than Lawrence and Justin Herbert, the No. 6 overall pick last spring, and just a tick behind top-five picks Joe Burrow and Tagovailoa.
“[Fields has] clearly made strides as a thrower and with his throwing mechanics,” Avery said, “but you can’t make the kinds of improvements he has unless you have a lot of God-given ability. He’s got that, and we’re just starting to see what he’s capable of.”
The fast QB riser in the 2021 draft class
We’ve been extolling the virtues of BYU’s Wilson, who is off to a brilliant start with his basketball athleticism and Mahomes-ian flashes this season. So we’ll let someone else do the extolling.
First read Pete Thamel’s terrific profile on Wilson, who has entered the Heisman Trophy fray after coming back from an injury-plagued 2019 season. The arm talent he has displayed this season suggests the shoulder injury he suffered a year ago is no longer an issue, and the feel for manipulating defenses with a variety of ball speeds, trajectories and arm angles has been special.
Then listen to the words of ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who calls college football games for the network and also is keenly attuned to the NFL landscape, appearing on the network’s battery of studio shows.
Orlovsky has called Lawrence’s games and believes he’s a John Elway-caliber prospect — a can’t-miss type of talent. Below Lawrence, “a bit more off the beaten path,” he said, lies Wilson. Orlovsky admits he has yet to do a deep tape dive on Wilson, mostly having seen cut-ups and highlight packages of him so far.
But Orlovsky told Yahoo Sports that what he has seen with Wilson has opened his eyes.
“After the season ends and I get into the college draft stuff and really dive in,” Orlovsky said, “someone I am very anxious to watch is Zach Wilson.
“Really, really special athlete. Explosive football player. There are a lot of things he has in his game when it comes to athleticism, explosive arm, movability. I just say, ‘It looks like what it looks like in the NFL now.’”
Orlovsky is more on the lookout for the types of dual-threat quarterbacks he’s seeing populate the NFL, and Wilson’s skills appear to be a hand-in-glove fit with that trend.
“Knowing where the NFL is headed with that position, he’s a guy that I am going to be very, very interested to watch going into the draft,” Orlovsky said. “It just looks like what it looks like now. It’s a matter of asking, how can we use this player? I just think he has a lot of traits that matter at quarterback right now in the NFL.”
There could be three quarterbacks poised to land in the upper reaches of the first round — Lawrence, Lance and Fields — and two more who are making first-round pushes in Wilson and Florida’s Trask.
All but Trask could be dual-threat NFL quarterbacks, and even he has some short-yardage utility and respectable pocket-movement potential. But even with a group that carries some overlapping skills, there’s also quite a noticeable variance in their individual styles as quarterbacks.
It should be another deep, diverse crop of quarterbacks come draft time, one we likely will debate for years to come.
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