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We’ve weathered the early part of the 2020 college football season, one marred by canceled games, opt outs, opt-back-ins and several other twists and turns.
And long with that turbulence has come some quarterback movement as it pertains to the 2021 NFL draft picture. Some have helped their cases; others have not; and others still have yet to get going on their season.
But we thought for this week’s NFL draft “Winners and Losers” column we’d try to restack the quarterback picture a bit based on what has transpired to date.
The top remains relatively unchanged, but the middle of the QB pack appears to have shifted through the early going. So let’s do our best to re-slot them as things stand now.
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
He’s still No. 1 — by several lengths. Back in early September, we speculated how Lawrence possibly could fall from that lofty perch. Well, none of that has happened yet.
Lawrence looks great. He’s dialed in. He looks better than he did at the start of the 2019 season. Lawrence has now gone 314 consecutive passes without throwing an interception.
Oh, and he’s completing 73.3 percent of his passes, averaging 11.3 yards per attempt, has seven TD passes (on 75 attempts) and three more scores rushing.
As of now, Lawrence looks to be as good a QB prospect that has entered the college ranks since Andrew Luck.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
He hasn’t played, obviously, but we’re a little less than three weeks removed from his season opener against Nebraska.
Fields has the weapons, the offensive line and the play-calling wizard in Ryan Day to help lift him above the lofty heights Fields reached in 2019. We can’t wait to see what he has to offer now that the Big Ten is back in action.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State
As we wrote prior to Saturday, Lance’s evaluation will be one of the trickier ones we can recall should he declare (as expected) for the 2021 class.
And slightly as unfair as it is to say, Lance’s so-so performance against Arkansas State might slightly cloud the picture a bit, as he looked a bit rusty at times. Lance finished the game 15 of 30 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns, also rushing 15 times for 143 yards and two scores.
His 54-yard TD run on the second play of the third quarter showed just how physical and dynamic an athlete he is.
— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) October 3, 2020
Lance’s career mark moved to 17-0 in the comeback victory, but his streak of passes without an interception ended at 307. His accuracy and touch seemed to be a bit off, but that’s not shocking considering the unique circumstances of the one-off game.
Some teams will have Lance ahead of Fields. Others could have it the other way around, as Lance’s tantalizing talent is just that good. Watching how this stacking ends up, with Lance all but done and Fields just getting started, will be a fascinating thing to watch play out over the months to come.
Kyle Trask, Florida
When we wrote about the possibility of the “next Joe Burrow” emerging in college football this season, Trask was one of the first names we mentioned. (While noting that there likely would be no next Joe Burrow, who was the Halley’s Comet of NFL prospects quite honestly.)
But Trask has started out the season hot, completing 51 of 71 passes (71.8 percent) for 684 yards (9.6 yards per attempt) with a 10-1 TD-INT ratio. Having the kinds of weapons Florida does wil cast doubt on Trask’s true upside, as it will for Alabama QB Mac Jones (see below).
However, if there’s a quarterback whom we think has a chance to vault into the first-round picture as QB4 in 2021, it’s Trask. He has the build, the makeup, the solid arm talent, the ball placement on his throws and the poise to impress NFL evaluators.
So far, he already has. And if Florida’s defense remains a bit leaky, it could help boost Trask’s stats a bit. They’ve needed him to keep piling on the drives, yards and points through two games.
Zach Wilson, BYU
Wilson has attempted 71 passes so far in the 2020 season. Sixty of those have been caught. Three more have been dropped, according to Pro Football Focus. One was a throwaway. One was batted at the line. One was intercepted.
Even with the drops and the throwaway, that’s a completion percentage of 84.5 — which is incredible no matter which teams it has come against. Sure, the Cougars’ revised opening trio of games (Navy, Troy and Louisiana Tech) isn’t quite the level of opponents they were supposed to face (Utah, Michigan State and Arizona State) before the season was upended.
In Friday’s game against Louisiana Tech, Wilson threw for 325 yards and two TDs and ran for three more scores. Moreover, he was 24-of-26 passing, with one ball batted down at the line. Essentially, he had one off-target throw.
That’s now 11 touchdowns he’s accounted for this season. To go along with 11 incomplete passes.
What the 6-3, 210-pound Wilson has done so far this season is revive the trajectory of a quarterback who had some thrilling moments as a freshman but took a step backward during a somewhat frustrating 2019 season. Part of that can be explained because of the shoulder surgery he had before last season and the broken hand he suffered about one year ago to the day.
The strides Wilson has made have been impressive. He’s a confident deep-ball thrower and not quite the freewheeling, mistake-prone passer he was a year ago. In short, he’s making throws that many college quarterbacks wouldn’t even attempt.
Working with respected QB coach and former NFL passer John Beck appears to have paid off for Wilson, something Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel noted in his weekend takeaways. Beck has worked with Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and others on their passing mechanics, and the proof of his impact appears to be showing up in Wilson’s huge turnaround.
A true junior, Wilson received some Day 3 projections from teams that graded him this summer. But we’d venture to say that he’s improved on that through three games.
He’s perhaps our biggest riser at the position to date. If you told me from the future that Wilson ends up a first-round pick eventually, it wouldn’t be the most stunning prediction I’ve heard.
Mac Jones, Alabama
It will always be a point of debate when it comes to Alabama players, and especially quarterbacks: How do we fairly judge players who are surrounded on all sides by so much blue-chip talent?
It’s reasonable to ask that. But with Jones, it would be unfair to knock what he’s done to this point. Perhaps we underestimated how well Jones actually did after Tua Tagovailoa’s injury last season, but we’re not going to sleep on Jones’ 2020 performance to date.
Working with one of the deepest receiver groups in the country (again), Jones has completed 38 of his 51 passes (74.5 percent) for 684 yards (a 13.4-yard average per attempt) with six TDs and one pick in games against Missouri and Texas A&M. The one pick on Saturday came on a deflected pass.
Said Nick Saban of Jones after the 52-24 win over the Aggies: “Mac is playing really well, but that’s what we expect him to do. I think he is playing with a lot of poise out there.”
With a freshman phenom waiting in the wings in Bryce Young, who already saw time in the opener against Mizzou, it’s possible that Jones declares after this season with one year of eligibility left. And if that’s the case, he’s started to boost his stock — from late-round possibility to perhaps the mid-round picture.
Shane Buchele, SMU
So far, so good for Buechele, who in many ways is picking up where he left off during his reclamation season of 2019. In four games this season, he has completed 96 of 139 passes (69.1 percent) for 1,326 yards (9.5-yard average) with a 10-2 TD-INT mark.
Buchele has one of the nation’s best receivers in Reggie Roberson Jr. and a pass-friendly scheme that seems to generate open looks and good spacing. But even still, we like what we’ve seen from Buechele to date, especially in Saturday’s upset of Memphis in which he threw for 474 yards and three scores.
He might never be the quarterback some expected from his early Texas-days hype, but Buechele has, in our minds, made himself a draftable prospect in 2021 with his work for the Mustangs.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Mond is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He played relatively poorly in the narrow win over Vanderbilt. And then Mond played fairly well, all things considered, in the loss to Alabama (which was closer for most of the game than the final score would indicate).
Scouts were giving Mond third- and fourth-round grades this summer, as his tools are quite alluring. Watch most of his games, and you can have your hair blown back a bit by a handful of “wow” plays in each.
But the consistency? It’s just not often there. We’re not ready to bail on Mond yet as an NFL project, but make no mistake: He has more work to do as he continues his senior season.
In our eyes, it’s concerning that after three years of working with one of the best QB tutors out there in Jimbo Fisher — who made JaMarcus Russell, Jameis Winston, EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder into top-20 picks — Mond hasn’t shown much in the way of tangible improvement.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
We frankly don’t know what to do with Purdy. He was a sneaky favorite of ours entering the season, but the opening-game performance in the home loss to Louisiana marred his stock.
Since then, Purdy has bounced back a bit, even with a hilariously bad interception in the win over TCU. But even in showing some moxie in the upset over Oklahoma this weekend, where Purdy threw for one score and ran for another, his accuracy and decision making can readily be questioned.
Among the 44 quarterbacks with 50 or more dropbacks this season, Purdy ranks 43rd for PFF’s passing grade metric. He’s lacking top-tier receiving weapons outside of TE Charlie Kolar (who missed the opener), but that doesn’t excuse some of Purdy’s flaws to this point.
There’s a bit of a Chase Daniel element to Purdy’s game, we feel, which serves as both good and bad news. Good in that Daniel has carved out a lengthy NFL career as a quality backup. Bad in that Daniel was undrafted and has rarely been viewed as anything but a replacement-level starter when he has been thrust into an NFL lineup.
K.J. Costello, Mississippi State
After one week, he was a massive winner who threw for 623 yards and five TDs in a massive upset at LSU. The next week, Costello fell back to earth in a three-pick performance in the shocking loss at Arkansas.
Costello always was going to be a tough evaluation, given that his so-so physical skill, loopy throwing motion, rough patches at Stanford and the expected Mike Leach statistical boon will always obscure the scouting profile a bit.
We’re still ambivalent overall about his projection, and in our minds he has yet to dramatically change the mid-Day 3 grades Costello received over the summer.
There’s still a lot to like, including what scouts have touted as the elite intangibles he possesses, but we’re not ready to launch Costello up our board yet. Especially after five interceptions through two games.
Kenny Pickett, Pitt
We’re Pickett fans now, as he seems to have taken a step up from where he was last season. In fact, you can see a clear upward trajectory in his development over each of the past four years, taking small steps of improvement in his arm strength, his pocket poise and his accuracy.
Even in the Panthers’ upset loss to North Carolina State on Saturday, Pickett — who sometimes plays with a glove on his throwing hand, by the way — was impressive with 411 pass yards and a touchdown, along with two rushing scores.
Still not a precise passer, Pickett has shown better ball placement this season throwing vertically. On passes thrown 10 yards or more downfield, Pickett has completed 27 of 41 passes (65.9 percent) for 771 yards with a 4-1 TD-INT ratio through the first four games.
Consider that in 2019, Pickett’s totals on 10-yard passes (and longer) were not nearly as efficient: 70 of 151 passing (46.4 percent) for 1,579 yards and a 9-5 TD-INT ratio.
There’s still a beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder element to Pickett’s game, as his backyard style might not be for everyone. But he has more juice in his arm than we’ve seen before, so Pickett is one we’re continuing to watch with relative excitement to this point.
Sam Ehlinger, Texas
No one should ever knock Ehlinger’s competitive spirit, nor his running ability, which makes him a difficult man to defend in college football. His passing improvements since his freshman year are clear, too.
But what kind of an NFL prospect is he? It’s truly hard to say at this point. Aside from the wear and tear he’s taken as a bulldozing, Tebow-esque runner, Ehlinger still has holes in his game as a thrower, as he tends to stare down some targets and lose rhythm and placement throughout the course of games.
Some of that was evident in Saturday’s loss to TCU, in which Ehlinger misfired on 19 of his 36 passes. He’s still producing touchdowns at a high rate (14 passing, one rushing through three games) but likely will enter the league with a Jalen Hurts level of skepticism as a passer among some scouts.
Ehlinger’s grades came in anywhere from the third round to the fifth round in his summer evaluations, and we’re not sure how much that has changed, but there’s always the chance a team falls in love with him and takes him higher than that, much like the Eagles did in April with Hurts.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Ridder entered the season with as big a chance to move up the QB ranks as anyone. But following a three-pick game against South Florida, we’re still left feeling a bit ambivalent about his NFL projection at this stage.
As we wrote a few weeks ago in our “Draft Makeover” series, Ridder has the kinds of traits you want to see in an NFL quarterback. But the entire body of work — despite a 25-4 mark as a starter for the Bearcats — still leaves us wanting more.
The talent and upside are there in the 6-4, 215-pound passer. But the results and the tape don’t always match.
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