2017 NFL draft: Mitchell Trubisky leads five-man QB race for top spot

·NFL columnist

The NFL’s quarterback draft class was a crapshoot in 2014.

Blake Bortles checked the boxes for talent evaluators but wasn’t considered a surefire franchise quarterback. Johnny Manziel was a sandlot, off-script playmaker with elite competitiveness but questionable work habits and character. Teddy Bridgewater was a dinker-and-dunker whose stock slid. Derek Carr was a natural passer who needed talent around him. And Jimmy Garoppolo was a small-school project with quick-release precision.

Picking the right guy was a challenge. And three years later, that group of five has shown exactly how big of an impact the right (or wrong) decision can have on a franchise.

All of that should sound familiar now because the 2017 quarterback class is shaping up in very much the same way. Figuring the best quarterback in the group is a matter of perspective, system, situational analytics and, well, for the lack of a better measurement, feel.

That’s what has come to define this NFL class, the reality that consensus opinions are hard to come by and nobody is sure who is going where. Indeed, with less than two weeks left, there isn’t a solid grasp on the exact order of the top five quarterbacks. That’s why the position is shaping up to be the biggest mystery of this year’s draft. The field is largely left up to the eye of the beholder.

With that in mind, here’s what NFL teams are seeing from the group with only a few days left to sort through the first-round candidates …

Despite having only 13 starts on his résumé, the opinion that Mitchell Trubisky is the most consistent NFL quarterback fit hasn’t faded with the draft process largely completed. While others in the class have better traits in a one-off competition, Trubisky has checked off more boxes across the board when it comes to what evaluators seek. That has made him the widely regarded favorite as the quarterback who will come off the board first. But that has also tied Trubisky solidly with a number of NFL teams.

The usual suspects have done major homework on Trubisky, including the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. At various points in the past week, four NFL evaluators told Yahoo Sports (adamantly) that different teams had zeroed in on Trubisky as their pick. One suggested Trubisky would be Cleveland’s choice, another pegged San Francisco and two others insisted Trubisky would end up in Chicago or Buffalo. That lack of uniformity suggests the only certainty about Trubisky’s stock is total uncertainty. Either teams are putting out smokescreens and using Trubisky as a chip in hopes of leveraging a trade-down scenario – which is likely – or he’s a lock to land inside the top three picks with a team already there or someone trading to get him.

One way or another, the consensus appears to have solidified under Trubisky as the first quarterback off the board. Where that will be is a lot of white noise at this point.

As NFL teams start splitting hairs in the quarterback group, there is one reality that almost always holds true: Size and arm strength get a second look. And a third. And a fourth. That’s a theme that has helped Davis Webb, whose top-shelf arm and stature (6-foot-5 and 230 pounds) is drawing eyeballs from a few NFL teams looking to groom an heir apparent at quarterback.

Deeper dives on Webb have been undertaken by the Chiefs, Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, New York Giants and 49ers. Webb has also said on a few occasions that “double-digit” NFL teams have told him they have put a first-round grade on him. That’s a buzzy statement but it remains to be seen if it materializes. What isn’t in question is whether Webb is drawing serious attention. He is, despite being billed as a player who will need a year or two of mechanical work (on his throwing and footwork) to be effective in the NFL. Seen as a likely middle-round pick in January, Webb is looking like a second-round lock. And his arm strength may get a team at the end of the first round to bite or induce a trade up by an early second-round team.

In a way, DeShone Kizer has experienced the opposite momentum of Webb, seemingly drawing more critical reviews as the draft process has gone along. His college coach, Brian Kelly, hasn’t helped with some eyebrow-raising comments to media about Kizer’s needed growth as a player and leader. Given Kelly’s biting opinions, it’s fair to wonder what he’s privately telling NFL teams about his former starter.

There is strong interest in Kizer. At least 10 teams have done significant work on him, including the Cardinals, Chiefs, Jets, 49ers, Bears, Bills, Browns, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans. The intrigue from so many quarterback-needy teams is testament to Kizer’s ideal size and arm strength. But as the process comes to a close in the next few weeks, he is still being dogged by accuracy issues. Most specifically, teams have problems with his performance under duress.

Basically, when the pocket gets ugly, Kizer’s accuracy is all over the place. While the concern isn’t on the level of Christian Hackenberg one year ago, there is reticence over a similar flaw.

Kizer has slipped from a potential top-five pick to a fringe first-rounder who could slip into the second.

Deshaun Watson isn’t the surest lock to be a successful NFL quarterback. His arm is noted to be adequate for the position but not exceptional. His timing and accuracy can be diced up depending on the situation. And even his physique is thought to need some fine-tuning. But there appears to be a consensus of some safety as Watson being the guy who has the most reliable first-round grade based on his overall body of work.

He produced a lot of tape and faced every imaginable scenario that evaluators wanted to see. When it comes to looking for intangibles or performances in different scenarios, there isn’t much mystery because Watson left Clemson with 38 games (and 35 starts) under his belt.

Like Trubisky, Watson does a lot of things well. He also has maxed out the scale on intangibles and leadership qualities. But unlike Trubisky, his game has been nitpicked with nearly three times the tape available to NFL evaluators. That can sometimes become a negative because it can be a suggestion of a ceiling. In a way, evaluators feel like they know exactly what they are getting with Watson, while Trubisky is seen as a player with room to grow and with his best football ahead of him. Is there something that could ultimately vault Watson ahead of Trubisky on draft day? One evaluator said there is: Watson’s wealth of high-intensity, championship-caliber games. Those include two ACC championship games and four college football playoff contests. The impressive postseason games against Oklahoma, Ohio State and Alabama (twice) will carry a lot of weight on draft day. At the very least, enough to make Watson appear to be a safe first-round quarterback. Possibly among the teams that have done the most work on him, a group that includes the Browns, 49ers, Jets, Cardinals, Texans, Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Every few drafts, there is a volcanic “media heat” quarterback. Almost always, it’s a guy who wows everyone with exquisite arm talent. This year, that’s Mahomes, who has drawn some media comparisons to Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s unforgettable cannon. That’s some serious praise and probably overhyped.

One evaluator said it was more along the lines of Jay Cutler, noting that the challenge was determining if Mahomes was more Favre or Cutler when it came to intangibles and leadership – not arm strength. That undertaking, along with the possibility that Mahomes may be on the draft board longer than Trubisky or Watson, has led to personal visits or workouts with more than half the NFL since the scouting combine. Among those who have done the most work on Mahomes: The Browns, Chiefs, Texans, Saints, Chargers, Cardinals, Bears, 49ers, Giants, Jets, Steelers and Bills.

Where Mahomes lands might ultimately depend on what his other traits show in his meetings. One evaluator raved about Mahomes’ love of football. Another lamented his lack of natural athleticism, comparing him to Carson Palmer, a quarterback with a huge arm who can be statuesque in the pocket against a pass rush. Almost all shared some form of universal agreement that Mahomes’ ultimate destination will depend on how a team feels about the development left ahead for him – which could be immense because Mahomes’ elite arm allowed him to improvise and go off script a lot. Teams don’t see a lot of mechanical discipline in his game. Instilling that might take some time – if it’s doable in the first place.

Such a high-risk, high-reward proposition could lead to Mahomes being a stunning and unexpected high pick. Conversely, he could slide right into the second round.

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