Could this be the best college QB class in history?
It would be hyperbole to declare in the throes of August that the quarterback crop headed to the 2018 NFL draft will rival the fabled quarterback collection of 1983. That iconic 1983 draft has long been the standard bearer for quarterbacks, as Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were among the six first-round quarterback selections. In a sport that embraces eternal debate, few will offer a counter-argument to the sanctity of the 1983 quarterback crop.
With a bumper crop of quarterbacks shaping up for the 2018 NFL draft, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to declare that there’s enough high-end talent, proven players and overall prospects in college football right now to thrust the upcoming quarterback class in the conversation among the best of all-time. The buzz is already forming, even before the season’s first snap. And remember, envisioning Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes as top-10 picks a year ago at this time seemed as likely as Mel Kiper sporting a faux hawk on draft night.
Yahoo Sports spoke with eight NFL draft experts – analysts, team scouts and front office personnel – to gauge the hype around the 2018 quarterback class. None would declare it as a rival to the 1983 class, but veteran draft analyst Gil Brandt said it’s “very likely” this class enters the conversation for best quarterback classes ever.
There’s a ripple of excitement reverberating through NFL front offices and the draft industry – “ as good as any class in recent memory,” says one veteran scout – over what this quarterback crop could become. “Potentially, sure, it could stand side-by-side with a number of these classes that have come through,” said former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, who is the director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
With three different layers of intrigue looming, we’ll break down the class by examining three questions that define it.
Who among the big three is No. 1?
This will be the official parlor game of the 2017 college season, choosing between the high-end NFL prospects – Josh Allen of Wyoming, Sam Darnold of USC and UCLA’s Josh Rosen. How good are they at this stage? “I think it’s a given that all three of them end up in the top 10,” says Brandt, a former Cowboys executive.
(The best of these three quarterbacks will be an especially intriguing question for the New York Jets, as they appear to have hired former 76ers executive Sam Hinkie as a consultant to help them secure the top pick. “Suck for Sam” was a Daily News headline … in February.)
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The three quarterbacks have distinct backgrounds and styles. Rosen (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) has the most pure arm talent. His classic release and the way the ball jumps from his hand portends an obvious No. 1 pick. But Rosen, a true junior, comes with plenty of questions. On the field, he’s coming off shoulder surgery that cost him the final six games of last season and is a pedestrian 11-8 as a starter. Off it, he’s emerged as a polarizing figure for his views on politics, academics and drawing coverage from TMZ for putting a hot tub in his dorm room. His evaluation will come down to a tricky question: Is he simply brash and outspoken? Or is his personality potentially divisive in a locker room? “You hear whispers,” one scout said of Rosen. “I try and wait and form my own opinion from my research. There are really, really good players that are really competitive and rub people the wrong way because they’re not wired the same way.”
Rosen’s Pac-12 foil is Darnold (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), the redshirt sophomore across town. Darnold has a low-key surfer’s personality, a style more improvisational than polished and is as controversial as tin foil. Darnold is the preseason favorite to go No. 1 overall, despite not even having a full season as a starter. (But remember, Deshaun Watson was the top quarterback at this time last year and he ended up as the third QB taken in the 2017 draft, at No. 12).
What separates Darnold from the other two top-tier quarterbacks is his ability to make plays with his legs, as he’s best on the run. There’s also buzz among scouts that Darnold could pass on the draft and stick around for another year like former Trojan Matt Leinart. (Rosen entered college plotting his academic schedule around graduating in three years). “I like everything about Sam Darnold,” said former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, a Pac-12 Network analyst. “In my opinion, I don’t see a pretty guy. I see a damn good Heisman Trophy-type quarterback. He can win it all.”
Allen’s narrative falls into line with Carson Wentz, the former North Dakota State quarterback who ended up as the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Allen (6-foot-5, 233 pounds) comes from a small town in Northern California, plays for former North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl and has thrived in a pro-style scheme.
Wentz, who is 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, was unknown out of high school and developed under Bohl and current Cowboys offense coordinator Brent Vigen before they left for Laramie. The size, scheme and cannon arm have scouts intrigued. But there are knocks – the redshirt junior threw 15 interceptions last year, has essentially played just one year and will have exponentially less weapons around him this year. (Most notably, tailback Brian Hill was a fourth-round pick by Atlanta). For Allen, there’s cautious optimism, as one scout noted: “I’d have to see more out of the Wyoming kid to say that he’s at Wentz’s level. I need to see consistency and him winning big games. He’s shown a lot of flashes, but I don’t think he’s at that level yet.” Circle Oregon at Wyoming on Sept. 16 – plenty of NFL scouts already have.
One tie that binds the three quarterbacks is they play in systems with pro-style roots. (UCLA will play in what new coordinator Jedd Fisch calls a “Sunday System,” as Fisch came from Michigan and has extensive NFL experience). This universally excites evaluators, as it means more evaluating and less projecting of three top prospects. “It helps in being able to evaluate guys taking three and five-step drops,” said a director of college scouting for an NFL team. “See them transfer weight and get the ball off on time, see a guy go through progressions. It really does help in the evaluation.”
Who could crash the top 3 party or emerge to join them in the first round?
Beyond the high-end talent atop the draft, there’s a real intrigue about the 2018 class because of the quality of depth. So who is No. 4? “Man,” said another scout. “That’s a good question.” He started by mentioning Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who multiple sources indicated was among the most impressive quarterbacks among the college counselors at the Manning Passing Academy. Throwing in Thibodeaux, La., in shorts in June is a lot different than playing in pads in State College in November. But two others mentioned Lee, who at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds impressed a lot of observers. “The most intriguing one out there is Tanner Lee,” Savage said.” I’d put him in there as the fourth one. I think he’s going to be the name that no one knows that much about that has a really rapid ascent once the season gets started.” That said, Lee’s career TD-INT ratio is 23-21, and he has two years of eligibility left.
The other name that came up multiple times as having a potential Trubisky-like rise is Northwestern redshirt junior Clayton Thorson. He’s heading into his third year as a starter and has the physical characteristics – 6-foot-4, 225 pounds – NFL executives covet.
While Lee and Thorson are sleeper candidates, there’s plenty of proven players to choose from who are draft eligible – Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, Arkansas’ Austin Allen and Toledo’s Logan Woodside. Rudolph told Yahoo Sports at the Manning Academy that he feels like he belongs in that top-tier of guys. His production would indicate it, as he threw for 4,091 yards last year and just four interceptions.
There’s arguments for all – Mayfield was a Heisman finalist last year, Allen has NFL pedigree, Falk completed 70-percent of his passes last year, Fitzgerald plays under quarterback guru Dan Mullen and Woodside led the nation with 45 touchdowns. “This could be a very big class when you look at total numbers of young men come out early,” said the director of college scouting.
Any other candidates to rise? Well, there’s plenty to choose from: Memphis’ Riley Ferguson, who started his career at Tennessee, threw 32 touchdowns last year. N.C. State’s Ryan Finley is on the NFL radar. Idaho’s Matt Linehan (son of Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan) and Troy’s Brandon Silvers are small-school players with burgeoning reputations. Missouri’s Drew Lock led the SEC’s No. 2 passing offense last year. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham is a bit of a mystery after a year off, but could blow up with a big season on The Plains.
Could there be a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback?
Well, yes. We’ll start with last year’s – Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. Then there’s Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, who has twice finished in the Heisman Trophy top 10. Or even Washington’s Jake Browning, who finished No. 6 in the Heisman Trophy race last year. What about Quinton Flowers, the defending AAC Player of the Year who’ll have USF favored in every game he plays this season?
A combination of their size and systems have these quarterbacks off the draft radar. (Browning has the best chance, as he’s just a true junior and can fill in his 6-foot-2, 206-pound frame).
Jackson will rival Rosen as the most divisive prospect, as he’ll eventually have to decide whether his rare athleticism is better used at receiver. (His slight build – listed 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds – has scouts concerned). Scouts are skeptical of Barrett and Flowers because of their pocket-passing deficiencies, but there’s another thousand snaps of football to prove them wrong.
The productive college quarterbacks add another layer to this quarterback crop. It’s too early to declare it the caliber of 1983, but the quarterback derby of 2018 has already become a frontline storyline for the college football season.
“In terms of potential and upside of where they can be, I think it has a chance to be a really, really special group,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout who is an analyst for NFL.com. “I can’t wait to watch and see what they do this fall.”