August 18, 2015

Interesting! Intriguing! Challenging! All pretty good words to describe the potential 2016 draft class at QB. On the one hand, it appears there could be an inordinate number of very good prospects at the position for the upcoming draft. At the same time, though, none of the top-rated guys at the position has yet to firmly solidify themselves as a true #1 prospect overall in the Andrew Luck class. Penn State junior Christian Hackenberg, for example, looks the part of a franchise NFL pocket passer with all the tools to be the next great one including prototype size, size, the arm strength to make all the throws, as well as outstanding football smarts and pocket presence. However, Hackenberg still hasn’t played that way to date, although the lack of a solid supporting cast at Penn State hasn’t helped. Last year, for example, Hackenberg completed just 55% of his pass attempts, while throwing more picks (15) than TD passes (12), although he was at his best with games on the line last fall. Still the top 5-10 talent is there. On the other hand, California junior Jared Goff hasn’t gotten much national exposure playing on a bad west coast team, but threw for almost 4,000 yards, along with 35 TDs against just 7 picks last fall. Goff needs to add a little lower body bulk, but like Hackenberg has a legitimate top 5-10 arm with nice touch and the ability to get the ball down the field. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s Connor Cook is arguably the top senior QB prospect this year. Cook may not have quite the skill set of a Hackenberg or Goff, but he is a legitimate mid-first round prospect with all the prototype tools to be an excellent pro pocket passer including good size, a live arm and enough mobility to escape trouble and make the odd play with his legs, but his footwork isn’t always textbook and he isn’t as consistently accurate as pro scouts would like to see.

The biggest wild card at the position this coming spring could be Ohio State junior Cardale Jones. The previously unheralded Jones came off the bench late last fall to lead the Buckeyes to the national title with wins over Wisconsin in the conference championship game and then Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs. Jones then flirted with the idea of entering the 2015 draft despite his limited resume, but ultimately decided to return to school. However, Jones is no guarantee to start this fall with star sophomore T.J. Barrett back healthy, which needless to say would cause pro scouts some grief. What they did see in his brief tenure last fall was a guy built like Cam Newton or Jamies Winston with a cannon for an arm who will hang in the pocket to make plays downfield. Not surprisingly, though, Jones is also very raw and needs to work on his footwork in the pocket and his ability to read the whole field and find the open man; with Jones there are also some questions about his maturity and football smarts, but again brings a unique set of physical skills to the table.

There is a bit of a drop-off to the next level of QB prospects which includes a number of second-day candidates such as Cody Kessler of Southern California, Dak Prescott of Mississippi State, Mike Bercovici of Arizona State, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Cincinnati junior Gunner Kiel. USC’s Kessler, for example, is an ultra-efficient game manager who completed over 70% of his pass attempts for close to 4,000 yards and 39 TDs while having just 5 interceptions in 2014; however, pro scouts are concerned that because he isn’t all that tall and lacks a big arm that Kessler will just doesn’t have the physical skills to be anything more than a game manager type. Meanwhile, at 6-2, 230, Prescott is built more like a FB than a pro QB. In fact, Prescott draws a lot of comparisons to former Florida QB Tim Tebow, especially after he put up some Tebow type numbers last fall when he threw for 3,500 yards and 27 TDs while running for almost 1,000 more yards and 14 scores. Prescott, though, is actually a somewhat better passer at this stage than Tebow as he has better arm strength, reads the field well and is somewhat smoother delivering the ball, but still needs to improve his accuracy and ability to fit the ball into tight windows. ASU’s Bercovici, who may have the best arm in this year’s draft class, could be a real sleeper this year as he hasn’t played much to date, but has put up big numbers when he has gotten the call; indeed, Bercovici threw for just a couple of yards short of 1,000 yards in his first two career starts last season, the most in NCAA history. For his part, Hogan is the mystery man of this year’s QB class; on the one hand, he appears to have all the tools to be an elite QB including prototype size, plenty of arm strength and decent athleticism, however, the sum has never quite equaled the parts especially at key points in big games. Lastly, Kiel is a much travelled gunslinger who originally committed to LSU, but transferred first to Notre Dame where he redshirted in 2012 and then to Cincinnati where he had to sit out again in 2013. Kiel finally got to play last fall and responded by throwing for 3,300 yards and 31 scores, although he also had 13 picks. Indeed, Kiel needs to make better decisions as he will try and force balls into coverage; he can also get antsy when pressured, but has the arm strength to make all the throws and brings a gunslinger’s mentality to the pocket.

What makes the 2016 QB class so interesting, intriguing and challenging is that in addition to Ohio State’s Jones, there appears to be an inordinate number of wild cards at the position. Start with TCU’s Trevone Boykin, a sensational dual-threat who enters the season as a legitimate Heisman favorite after throwing for 3,900 yards and 33 TDs last fall, while running for another 700-plus yards. Boykin is a terrific athlete – he actually started games as a WR a couple of years back when Casey Pachall was at QB – and has the arm to make all the throws, but he’s not huge at barely 6-2, 205 and isn’t all that polished in the pocket, but the talent is there to be something special. Then there’s Everett Golson who led Notre Dame to the national championship game two years ago, but is now at Florida State trying to replace Jameis Winston, the #1 pick at the 2015 draft. Golson proved at Notre Dame that he could make plays, but he’s another guy who lacks prototype measurables – he’s barely 6-feet and his throwing mechanics are hardly textbook – and makes too many mistakes in the pocket.

And while Golson tries to replace Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, across the country, former Eastern Washington FCS All-American Vernon Adams has transferred to Oregon and will try and fill the shoes of Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman winner and 2nd pick overall at this year’s draft. Adams was phenomenally productive at EWU – he threw for almost 5,000 yards and 55 TDs in 2013 and was on pace to exceed those numbers last fall but missed a few games with an injury – and brings a lot of Russell Wilson-like qualities to the table. However, like Wilson – and Golson – Adams is very short at barely 6-0 and also obviously has to prove that he can play with the big boys in a tough Power 5 conference. And the list goes: Jake Coker, for example, was supposed to be the next great QB at Alabama after transferring from Florida State, but he couldn’t beat out journeyman Blake Sims last fall and is no lock to start this year, but has the size and arm to intrigue NFL teams. Then there is Braxton Miller of Ohio State, who will play WR this fall, but was a dual-threat Heisman candidate in his own right before damaging his throwing shoulder – which still isn’t right – early last season.

The other thing that kind of sets apart the current draft class is that also appears to be plenty of depth at the position including veteran passers like Nate Sudfield of Indiana, Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State, Blake Frohnapel of UMass, BYU’s Taysom Hill, Travis Wilson of Utah, Brandon Allen of Arkansas, North Carolina’s Marquise Williams, former USC starter Max Wittek who is now at Hawaii, and Chuckie Keeton of Utah State and Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty, both of were granted 6th years of eligibility because of past injuries. Each of those guys has at least some middle round potential with the tools to move up.

There is also some pretty good talent in the FCS ranks. Carson Wentz of North Dakota State, for example, is a top 10 prospect at the position on a number of boards around the league, while John Roberts of Villanova, Vad Lee of James Madison, Yale’s Morgan Roberts, 6-5 John Gibbs of Alcorn State and 6-6 Liam Nadler of Gannon also have big league skills. Meanwhile, several other top juniors who could impact the early going at the 2016 draft should they decide to turn pro this winter include Jeremy Johnson of Auburn, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, Patrick Bowles of Kentucky, Baylor’s Seth Russell, and Central Florida’s Justin Holman.