With flashes of Elway and Luck, Oregon's Justin Herbert is clear No. 1 QB in upcoming NFL draft

Pete Thamel

We’ve already established that the 2019 NFL draft will lack the volume of quarterback star power that its predecessor had. With the college season at the midway point, multiple NFL scouts told Yahoo Sports that the defining trait of this year’s quarterback crop will be the star power at the very top.

NFL scouts have fallen hard for Oregon’s Justin Herbert, with multiple sources telling Yahoo they consider him a better overall prospect than the five quarterbacks who went in the first round last season – Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.

This year’s high-end talent at quarterback is thin in college football, with one scout putting a realistic over-under at 2.5 for total of first-round quarterbacks. Below, we sketched out a way-too-early Top 10 quarterback depth chart for the NFL draft.

The only certainty is putting Herbert, a 6-foot-6, 236-pound junior at No. 1. He solidified that with a solid performance – 18-for-32, two touchdown and no interceptions – in front of 13 NFL scouts in an overtime win over Washington on Saturday. Four of the scouts were Denver Broncos officials, including team president John Elway, whom Herbert has earned favorable comparisons to. Herbert is big and sturdy with the type of howitzer arm that kindles high-end hyperbole in those who’ve evaluated him.

The New York Giants are the franchise most desperate for a quarterback, with the Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots all in the market.

“I would take him No. 1, I think he can do it all,” said Nick Aliotti, a former defensive coordinator at Oregon who spent 25 years as a college and NFL assistant. Aliotti considers Herbert a once-a-decade type prospect. He considers him a better NFL prospect than Marcus Mariota and has gone as far as comparing him to former Stanford quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Elway.

“The last guy I can remember who gave me that feeling?” Aliotti asked. “Luck was one of them. Elway is a guy who really stood out. They could throw the bullets across the field and make throws on the line.”

Oregon’s Justin Herbert should be the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft as one scout considers him a once-a-decade type prospect. (AP)
Oregon’s Justin Herbert should be the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft as one scout considers him a once-a-decade type prospect. (AP)

Aliotti stressed that quarterback beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What would bother him defending Herbert is his ability to stress every part of the defense with his arm strength. He also complimented his ability to threaten the defense just enough with his legs that the opposition needs to stay honest.

“There’s not going to be any flaws,” said Aliotti, who is an analyst on the Pac-12 Network. “There’s no flaws in this guy. I think Marcus Mariota is one of the best college quarterbacks that anyone would have to defend. I love Marcus. Everything about him. I think this guy [Herbert] is a better pro.”

One current Pac-12 defensive coach agreed with Aliotti that Herbert is better than any of the crop of quarterbacks from last year.

“There’s a snap to the ball when it comes off his hand,” the coach told Yahoo Sports. “We played against Rosen and Darnold. In my mind, he’s more of a threat to a defense. He’s got more of that NFL-looking stature. He can sit in the pocket and has the big arm and is really, really accurate.”

The scouts are in general agreement. Yahoo Sports polled a half-dozen on Herbert and the rest of the quarterback class. None mentioned another quarterback for the top spot. There’s a general feel that Herbert is running away from the competition, as he has 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, and completed 63.1 percent of his passes.

The debate isn’t whether he’s the best in this class, but rather which echelon of former top quarterback prospects to compare him with. One scout said the Luck comparison was too lofty, as Herbert’s tape shows he’ll need work going through progressions and he’s had some average games. He also observed that he’s “safer than [Pat] Mahomes,” “[Carson] Wentz was a better athlete” and has a “better arm and body than [Jared] Goff.”

That gives you an idea of the quarterback company Herbert is mingling with. Another scout chimed in that he liked Darnold better, but made it clear that Herbert is separating himself from this crop. As the scouts dig in, they’re finding out that Herbert is an excellent student (nearly a 4.0 in biology) and a multi-sport athlete, a sign of being a competitor that helped Darnold’s profile last year. (Like Darnold, there’s some buzz that Herbert, a Eugene native, may want to stick around another year as he’s only a true junior. That’s always unlikely when a prospect is this talented, but the possibility exists.)

How things fall after Herbert is less predictable than bitcoin stock. Multiple scouts warned Yahoo to be prepared to be humbled ranking them this early, as there’s little clarity. “All these other quarterbacks, we’re really going to find out over the next six games,” said a veteran scout. “This is the time that you’re really going to find out, ‘Who’s who?’ These first six games are almost like the preseason.”

1. Herbert, Oregon junior

He’s undisputed here, as we covered above.

2. Daniel Jones, Duke redshirt junior

After Herbert, little is set. We’re going with Jones at this juncture because he has the archetype body the NFL looks for – 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. He comes with what one scout calls the “blessing and curse” of playing for David Cutcliffe. The blessing is that Cutcliffe is among this generation’s most revered quarterback tutors because of his time with the Mannings. The curse shows up in Jones’ 56.7 completion percentage last year, as Duke’s pro-style offense lacks the high-percentage throws that pad modern quarterback numbers. Jones’ percentage has jumped to 68.3 percent this year, but he’s played only four games because of a clavicle injury. Don’t be surprised if a team falls in love with him.

3. Will Grier, West Virginia redshirt senior

Recency bias hurts Grier, as he got sacked seven times in an upset loss at Iowa State this weekend and threw three interceptions against Kansas the week before. There’s a strong feeling that Grier will impress in his interviews, as he remains a realistic candidate as a late first-round pick. But the transition from WVU’s offense remains a concern – one scout called it “a huge curve … to an NFL offense.” Still, there’s good vibes, as another says: “He’s got a good arm. He runs more to throw and can throw from [the] pocket and on the move.”

West Virginia quarterback Will Grier could be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. (AP)
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier could be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. (AP)

4. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State redshirt sophomore

There’s a legitimate debate as to whether he’s ready, as he has started only seven games. He and Tua Tagovailoa could be top picks in 2020 if Haskins sticks around. But Haskins’ numbers keep pinballing (28 touchdowns and four interceptions), and NFL executives love that he’s being tutored by former Eagles and 49ers quarterback coach Ryan Day. The arm talent is there, as is the size (6-foot-3, 220). But Haskins has to decide if staying another year helps better prepare him for a 10-year NFL career. “He’s got a ways to go,” one scout told Yahoo Sports. “Throwing into tight windows and ball placement. He’s not there yet.” The pure arm talent is there, but there’s still some big-game production missing after his mediocre performance at Penn State.

5. Drew Lock, Missouri senior

He has struggled this season to live up to his preseason hype, as Missouri has lost three straight and Lock has completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Solid numbers, but nothing spectacular. “I’m still on the bandwagon,” one scout said. “People aren’t seeing the whole picture. He’s got arm strength and accuracy on all levels and he’s tough.” Scouts love that Lock played high-end AAU basketball, as he had hoops offers from places like Wichita State and Oklahoma, a testament to his athleticism.

6. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn junior

NFL folks still like Stidham, but he has been undermined by a porous offensive line and lack of a running game. At this point, he’d have been better off going out last year. He has played poorly, as his completion percentage has fallen nearly 6 percent to 60.6 and he turned the ball over three times in a garish loss to Tennessee. “He’s got a good arm and athleticism, but struggles with progressions,” a scout said. “Some of it is what Auburn does, but he looks robotic.” Would he risk sticking around to swing his stock back?

7. Ryan Finley, N.C. State senior

Few have been sharper this season as he’s completed 69.5 percent of his passes. None have played an easier schedule, as 5-0 N.C. State has no standout wins. One scout called Finley’s appearance in the first round of some early mock drafts as “laughable.” Mel Kiper has been particularly infatuated with him. Multiple scouts cast his reality as more of a career backup, a nice player who’ll get drafted but shouldn’t be considered a starter. “The arm just isn’t there,” a scout said.

8. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern senior

He hasn’t been 100 percent this season coming off an ACL injury in the bowl game. This makes him a potential value play, as he’s been pedestrian this year – nine touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a career-high 62.6 percent completion percentage. “His strength is improving every day,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told Yahoo. “It’s scary how good he’s going to be in a year.” Perhaps that makes him a potential mid-round value backup selection for a franchise that likes his prototype size (6-foot-4 and 226 pounds). Multiple scouts pointed out the lack of skill around him hurting his production.

9. Shea Patterson, Michigan junior

He’s like the football version of a basketball AAU vagabond, always chasing the shiniest new toy. He moved high schools from Texas to Louisiana to Florida and attended Ole Miss in part because it hired his brother. He bolted for Michigan when NCAA sanctions hammered the Rebels. So far at Michigan, there are finally signs of why he was the country’s top dual-threat recruit. Scouts see Patterson (68.6 percent completion percentage) as a mid-round pick, so sticking around would be wise. But his history portends him being on the move.

10. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo junior

One scout told Yahoo that he had three throws in a blowout of Rutgers that were the buzz of the scouting community. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds there will be inevitable comparisons to Byron Leftwich. “He needs to stay in school,” said a scout who’d slotted him around the sixth round. “We’re looking at him as a developmental quarterback for now. He’s flashed some NFL throws, but he really should stay.”

(The other smaller school quarterback who could work his way into the conversation is North Dakota State’s Easton Stick, the top FCS quarterback prospect.)

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