With just over a week left before the start of the college football season, NFL scouts are making their checklists of what they want to see from various prospects this fall.
High on their lists are some talented quarterbacks who will be eligible for the 2020 draft. At least one NFL team already appears to be gearing up for a run at drafting one of the top ones potentially available, and it appears to be a stronger lot (at least at the top) than the 2019 group that just entered the league.
But as we know, there’s a lot to be gained — or lost — for these 2020 prospects in the coming weeks and months. Just look back to last season’s draft quarterbacks.
Kyler Murray was not even on draft radars this time last year, apparently set to embark on a baseball career in 2019. Daniel Jones was far from being a potential franchise QB. Dwayne Haskins had yet to start a game at Ohio State.
Those were your three first-round QBs. Drew Lock, one of the more widely mocked first-rounders at this position a year ago, slipped 10 picks into Round 2. The most widely mocked Round 1 QB this time a year ago was Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who returned to school.
Now Herbert — barely — tops our very early list of 2020 QB prospects. Could things change? Absolutely. Dramatically, even. How our top five prospects below perform certainly will shift the draft tides accordingly. And you bet there will be names not on this list that will rise into the discussion for a draft that’s still eight months away.
We reached out to some evaluators in the scouting community who have watched Yahoo’s early list of top five quarterbacks play and asked them what those prospects needed to show this season to improve. Here’s what we found out:
1. Justin Herbert, Oregon
Herbert is slightly ahead of Tagovailoa. That’s not to say that Herbert has been the better college quarterback to this point. It’s more that NFL teams on the whole might be a shade more enamored with Herbert’s raw tools and upside than they are with Tagovailoa.
This is not an across-the-board sentiment, of course; it will vary team to team.
Herbert has shown perhaps the highest potential of the group, and yes, size matters. At 6-foot-6 and 233 pounds, he’s a physical specimen — and athletically, he’s excellent at that size.
Scouts also like Herbert’s even-keeled and cerebral approach. This will be his fourth year as the Ducks’ starting QB. That rare these days as underclassmen (especially quarterbacks) have flooded the draft in recent years.
But there’s plenty for Herbert to improve on.
“For me, it’s consistency,” an NFL assistant college scouting director told Yahoo Sports. “You measure his best throws and plays against his worst plays, and it’s night and day. It’s everything — hitting the checkdown consistently, not letting [his] mechanics slip, just throw-to-throw accurately and consistency. It really hasn’t been there game to game and throw to throw since early [in his sophomore season].”
A west region scout saw other things to clean up.
“Too many fumbles,” he said. “Don’t like how he holds onto the ball too long. Sacks, hits, that sort of thing. He’s been banged up because of it.”
The area scout felt like Oregon’s receivers have let Herbert down at times. Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal has pointed out how many drops the team had last year. That’s not on Herbert, of course, but it certainly had its effect on the QB.
“Also thought he got a little gun shy at times and lost a little confidence [last season],” he said. “Can he get that back and still take care of the ball?”
There was one additional point the West Coast scout made: Herbert didn’t dominate against lesser competition. He completed 10-of-21 passes with two interceptions against Bowling Green. Herbert also threw two picks and was under 50 percent (16-of-34) vs. San Jose State, a team that was ranked 126th out of 129 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game. He was so-so against the poor pass defenses of Arizona and UCLA, completing just over 50 percent of his passes in those back-to-back games.
That needs to change for Herbert to be a top-three pick, according to the scout.
“If he’s not out there slicing up some of those defenses they play, you have to wonder a bit,” he said. “I want to see a little more of a killer back there.”
2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Tagovailoa turned in one of the finest seasons by a Bama QB ever. He completed 245 of 355 passes (69 percent) for 3,966 yards, with 43 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He looked like he was born for the big stage ever since replacing Jalen Hurts at halftime of the national title game and leading the Crimson Tide to a championship as a freshman.
But Tagovailoa also has flopped on some big stages, too. Four of those six picks came down the stretch after he suffered an ankle injury late in the season. Tagovailoa struggled against a good Georgia defense in the SEC title game and looked off in the title-game loss to Clemson in January. He was a combined 32-of-59 passing (54.2 percent) in those two games, throwing for 459 yards, three TDs and those four picks, and also wasn’t great in Alabama’s spring game, hitting on only 19 of 37 passes
Tagovailoa also has dealt with knee, hand and hamstring issues. He weighed in at the Bama junior day at a bulky 230 pounds but reportedly has kept to a strict diet and exercise regimen this summer with the hopes of being more flexible and healthy.
“He can prove he can stay healthy for one,” a college scouting director told us. “It’s just something that has cropped up a few times, and he wasn’t the same, obviously, playing hurt.”
But there are other physical nitpicks with the possible No. 1 overall pick.
“Well, good question because I am not sure he has a great arm. At least not a great one,” a Southeast area scout said. “Not too many come into this league and really improve their arm strength — Tom Brady maybe? I am sure there are a few more who did. And he’s never getting taller.”
Another area where Tagovailoa can make measurable improvement: throws under duress. There weren’t a lot of them last season, given the talent of the Crimson Tide’s offensive line and receivers, but Tagovailoa has made some shaky decisions when pressured.
“Watch some of his throws under pressure,” an assistant director said. “There are some ugly ones in there. I think Nick [Saban] and Sark [Steve Sarkisian] will be giving him those looks now [in training camp] so that when they do come in-season, he’s a bit more steady with it. … The thing they probably can’t help him with all that much is getting him to work his progressions better — just that pure pocket presence — because when you have the best receivers in the country he’s going to have his first or second [receiver open] most of the time.”
3. Jake Fromm, Georgia
Fromm’s high floor makes him attractive. He has proven to handle the spotlight well and face adversity. He showed rare maturity after getting thrown in as a freshman during a national-title run for the Bulldogs in 2017, and Fromm has played well enough now to send two former five-star recruits — Jacob Eason and Justin Fields — packing via the transfer portal.
Over his 29 career games, Fromm has completed an impressive 64.9 percent of his passes at 9.0 per attempts. His TD-INT ratio of 54-13 is sterling. He’s had only two two-pick games (vs. Bama and LSU) and has improved throughout the course of both of his seasons to play his best ball down the stretch.
But there’s also a feeling in scouting circles that Fromm has a limited ceiling as an NFL prospect.
“I see a game manager,” the director said. “That’s not a knock, really, and I still need to do more work on him. But that’s just who I think he is and who he’ll be. It’s not unlike [in 2017]. You had the gunslinger [Patrick] Mahomes. You had the playmaker with the best resumé, Deshaun [Watson]. And then you had Mitch Trubisky, who for all the talk about his upside, I just saw a guy who had a chance to be very, very solid but maybe not special.
“So in this case, I guess you’re talking about Fromm as the Trubisky in this draft, with [Herbert and Tagovailoa] as the Mahomes-Watson prospects. The order those guys went in isn’t what I am talking about, but the [profiles] are similar in some ways.”
Fromm has benefitted from a strong Bulldogs run game that has been the team’s bread and butter. Georgia has seldom asked him to go win games with his arm — witness only two career games with more than 276 pass yards and only four games with more than 29 pass attempts. (In 29 career games, Herbert has nine games with at least that many yards and nine with that many attempts. Tagovailoa has only 23 career games — 15 starts — and was pulled prior to the fourth quarter in many of them last season but has eight games with 295 or more passing yards.)
Georgia hasn’t needed Fromm to be a one-man band too often and might not need him too much again this season. But the Southeast area scout we spoke with says Fromm can make improvements within the confines of his expectations by speeding his process up.
“Everything is late. Not overdue, but a hair late a lot,” he said. “Gotta speed up that clock and let it rip. And he’s not the type to just gun it in there. That’s not his game.
“He throws a lot like Alex Smith, to me. It’s efficient, gets the job done, but what Alex was able to develop is that sense of timing, and he put it together with touch and placement. That’s what Jake has to do a little better.”
4. Jordan Love, Utah State
Perhaps the most fascinating prospect on this list is the 6-4, 230-pound Love, who first opened eyes on the national scale with a near upset at Michigan State early last season. He went on to post a 32-6 TD-INT ratio on the season and emerge as one of the most improved passers in the country.
Scouts like what they’ve seen. We included Love in a list of 10 prospects for 2020 who could vault into the first-round discussion next year with big seasons. But repeating that success with only two other returning starters on offense besides Love — not to mention a new head coach and offensive coordinator — will be tough. The Aggies also have big road tests at Wake Forest, San Diego State, LSU and Fresno State, along with a home game against Boise State, which returns a ton of defensive firepower.
“Well, they lost a lot,” said a West Coast scout who saw Love up close last year. “They lost a darned good little back [Darwin Thompson]. Their offensive line is almost all new. They have a bunch of new receivers. The tight end [Dax Raymond] is gone. That’s a lot. [Love] has to show he can bring that group together.”
There will be more eyes on the red-shirt junior than he’s ever had. How he handles the spotlight with scouts likely attending his games weekly will also go a long way toward determining his ultimate upside and landing spot in the draft.
New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has taken heat in the past for his run-heavy approach. When Sanford has had running threats at quarterback in the past, that element has become an area of focus. Love can move well for sure, but will he be wild about expanding his rush attempts (and, potentially, exposure to hits) in a season in which he might be showcasing his passing ability with the eye on making the NFL jump at season’s end?
A former QB himself, Sanford isn’t afraid to go five-wide and spread things out. He’s also going to use plenty of pro-style passing concepts in the scheme.
“I know that offense is changing, but I want to see more next-level throws,” the scout said. “He’s got some interesting stuff, but there’s plenty of room for growth.”
5. K.J. Costello, Stanford
Costello is a tricky study as a prospect. He has displayed great arm talent, possesses ideal size and is highly regarded for his intelligence and toughness. It’s all there on two years of tape as the Cardinal’s starting QB.
But so are some big holes in his game, a reason he’s a reluctant choice as our No. 5 QB.
There’s enough potential in his game for Costello to ascend this season, and we couldn’t elevate a relative unknown such as Washington’s Jacob Eason or a wild-card choice such as Michigan’s Shea Patterson or Colorado’s Steven Montez ahead of him at this point.
But to our West Coast scout, Costello has an Achilles heel that he must improve on to move up in the eyes of NFL evaluators.
“Dealing with pressure. He makes some flat-out bad decisions at times, and it costs him,” he said. “Turn on the Notre Dame tape, you’ll see it. I like that he’s willing to hang tough back there and give his pass catchers a chance. But he’s got to avoid those back-breakers. It’s my biggest thing with him. He’s coached well and smart, but he’s just got to go do it.”
Point blank, there might not be a QB prospect eligible for next year’s draft with as big a gap between his high-end throws and his lowest moments.
“You take the Washington game,” the assistant college director said, “and he looks lost on a few plays. Those are the ones you circle and say, ‘I wanna go back to that one because I have no idea what he’s doing or thinking.’
“It’s like a movie that’s great for the first hour and then all of a sudden they throw in some bad scene there, and the whole thing goes to [expletive]. Let’s edit those out, please.”
The final chapter of Costello’s story isn’t yet written, but it’s clear he needs a strong finish to hold off the surprise 2019 performers who will be ready to zoom past him on teams’ rankings.
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