(Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 9, 2017 and has been updated after both Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen declared for the NFL draft on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.)
Late in the summer of 2017, when the anxious final weeks before kickoff often produce the strongest hyperbole, Yahoo Sports not-so-boldly declared this as Year of the Quarterback. Three definitive stars headlined the NFL quarterback class – USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
A bevy of college stars like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Washington State’s Luke Falk also fueled the conversation. NFL evaluators view them as misfit toys, but their production and star power have been undeniable. There was also a bevy of sleeper candidates – Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and West Virginia’s Will Grier – that generated buzz.
As often happens with August speculation, the grandiose quarterbacking projections haven’t aged particularly well. The Year of the Quarterback flipped to Year of the Running Back somewhere in October, with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Stanford’s Bryce Love and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams running away with the season’s hype. (Mayfield, to his credit, won the Heisman Trophy and was consistently brilliant).
But it turns out that consistently uneven performances by many of the top quarterbacks still may not prevent this from being the Year of the Quarterback. At least in the eyes of NFL teams.
While so much can change between now and the NFL draft on April 26, the most interesting quarterback draft development of the past few months may be the glaring need of NFL franchises to draft quarterbacks. By Yahoo Sports’ unofficial count, more than half of the league – up to 19 teams – could be in the market to draft a quarterback in the first three rounds. That could be because of glaring needs (Jets, Broncos, Jaguars), aging starters (Patriots, Steelers, Chargers) or general uncertainty (Dolphins, Giants, Redskins).
“It’s unusual this year,” said a veteran NFL front-office member who is in the market. “It seems like more teams need quarterbacks this year, and there’s also going to be some veteran free agents. It’s a great year to have an early pick and not need a quarterback.”
The Year of the Quarterback, it turns out, may come more from demand than supply. And that’s where things will get interesting.
“There’s some bad decisions that can be said,” said the executive. “There’s no clear shot guy. They’ve all been up and down. Every. One. Of. Them.”
With the college season three-quarters done, here’s how the quarterback market is shaping up. Yahoo Sports spoke to a half dozen scouts, executives and analysts to get a feel for how things can play out.
1) Who’s No. 1?
There’s no clear answer here. Darnold threw 13 interceptions, fumbled the ball 11 times and his completion percentage dipped by 4.1 percent year over year. Allen wilted against decent competition, throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns against Iowa and Oregon. Rosen had 26 touchdown passes, but UCLA sputtered to a 6-7 record on the season. (Rosen missed the blowout loss at Utah with a concussion). Nobody has distanced themselves from one another.
“I can see this thing playing out where any of the top three guys assert themselves as No. 1 at the NFL [scouting] combine,” said an area scout. “At the end of the season, Darnold and Rosen will have a chance to do it on a big stage. But if Allen was No. 1 [in April], I wouldn’t be shocked. They all have things they need to work on.”
2) Will Darnold’s solid but unspectacular year hurt him?
Darnold is a unique study for NFL evaluators, as his ability to throw on the run and his guile to make clutch plays are hard to quantify. He also had to run for his life most of the year. Here’s one executive’s analysis: “He’s been all over the place this year. The talent is there and someone is going to take a shot on him. Someone is going to think they can clean up his mechanics. He’s athletic for a big guy, but I just wish he was a little more polished in the pocket. He’s never balanced, he’s hoppy and a little jittery.”
3) Who’s the favorite?
Rosen was the heavy favorite to go No. 1 when it was still a possibility that Darnold would return to school. Jim Mora told Yahoo Sports before the season that he expects Rosen, a true junior, to return for his senior year. That appears, in retrospect, to be a mixture of coachspeak and wishful thinking. Rosen was coming off a sophomore year when UCLA went 4-8 and he missed nearly half the season after suffering a shoulder injury on Oct. 8. Until a concussion kept him out of the Utah game, Rosen has remained relatively healthy. He has also been boring off the field, something that NFL executives were looking for. The hot tub, President Donald Trump insults and amateurism comments haven’t shown up this regular season and he’s gone from lightning rod to almost low-profile.
Rosen has the most classic throwing motion, build and arm to thrive in the league. His pure talent has never been a question. There will be a lot of questions about Rosen off the field, as his brash comments have disappeared this season but remain a sticking point in NFL circles. “I don’t know enough about his personality,” said a veteran executive. “Can he be the leader and face of a franchise? It doesn’t appear he [handled] that well at UCLA.”
4) Has the NFL cooled on Josh Allen after milquetoast season at Wyoming?
The answer here is a resounding no, despite his pedestrian completion percentage (56.3) and vanilla production – just 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. It would be stunning if Allen slipped out of the first round, as the reasons why NFL teams covet him – prototype build (6-5, 233 pounds), mobility and arm strength – haven’t changed. That’s even after the 24-3 loss at Iowa, where Allen completed only 23 of 40 passes. He also lost 49-13 at home to Oregon and completed just nine of 24 passes for 64 yards.
Consider the NFL completely undeterred in its love of Allen. As one area scout said: “I think Josh Allen has more talent than any of those guys. When he had a chance to do it versus high-level competition, he didn’t do it. But his ceiling is still pretty high. I like him.”
Why haven’t the modest statistics scared teams? Any judgement on this season turns into a referendum on the depleted talent around him. Allen deserves credit for overcoming the early struggles, as the Cowboys finished 8-5 and second to Boise State in the Mountain division of the Mountain West. “A lot of people are down on him,” said an area scout, “but look at his receivers, tight ends and backs. Hell, I can give him a better outlet than some of those guys.”
5) Does the Lamar Jackson debate rage on?
Yes, yes it does. NFL scouts and executives are all over the place on Jackson, who has continued to be one of the most dazzling and dominant players in college football. Jackson led the nation in total yards (405 per game). (Bobby Petrino’s lazy defensive coordinator hire of Peter Sirmon has undermined Jackson’s attention this season, as Louisville (8-5, 4-4 ACC) struggled in the ACC Atlantic).
Jackson is almost as sure a thing to enter the NFL draft as Allen and Rosen. Should he stay in school? NFL executive: “He’s a work in progress, and the more reps in the pocket he gets will help him.” That was laughed at by a scout: “Why would he go back? The only thing he can improve on is his chance of getting injured.”
There’s still no consensus on Jackson. Some like him as a quarterback, but no one is ready to take him before the fourth round. Others like him as a hybrid project who can play in the slot and return kicks. His electricity is undeniable, but he remains divisive. That’s not going to change between now and April. To his credit, he somehow improved upon his Heisman Trophy-winning season. His completion percentage was up to 59.1 percent from 56.2 and he had 27 passing TDs (with 10 INTs). He also rushed for 1,601 yards and 18 touchdowns. “I’m on Team Lamar,” said a veteran executive. “I think he’s really improved. I think people have been quick to dismiss him, but playing for Bobby [is] one of [the] biggest challenges a quarterback can have.”
6) Whose stock is rising?
First choice isn’t even close. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield won the Heisman and showed the arm strength, guts and leadership to entice pro scouts. He’s still only 6-foot, and that may be on his tiptoes. But Mayfield has teams’ attention, and it wouldn’t be a shock if a franchise fell in love with him and traded into the back-end of the first round to get him. He’s the heavy favorite to be the first quarterback off the board after the predetermined Big 3.
“I think the NFL coaches are starting to see which spread college quarterbacks can make it in the NFL,” said Sage Rosenfels, a longtime NFL backup quarterback. “I think NFL offenses have caught up, and they’re starting to run systems for Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson and a lot of these guys. Those types of quarterbacks are becoming more valuable.”
One NFL executive wonders if Mayfield’s size and lack of arm strength will get him typecast. Mayfield led the nation in passing efficiency, but it was wins at Oklahoma State and Ohio State that have made believers out of the NFL brass: “One thing I will say about Baker Mayfield, he’s a complete [beast]. He’ll change the culture in your building.”
7) What about Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Mayfield’s in-state rival?
He threw 37 touchdown passes, completed 65 percent of his passes and led the nation in passing yards with 4,904. But Rudolph will be fighting the stigma of quarterbacks coming from coach Mike Gundy’s offense. (Think Brandon Weeden and Zac Robinson). “I think he’s robotic in what he does, he’s a seven-on-seven quarterback,” an executive said. “When he’s got time and can check the runners on first and third [downs], he’s good. But when the game speeds up, his accuracy declines. When the game gets faster, it’s harder for him to process.”
Another executive saw Rudolph play well live this year and still wasn’t impressed. Rosenfels sees a struggle in his transition: “He just didn’t seem like a guy who spun it. The ball doesn’t come out very well. He also has unbelievable wide receivers, as James Washington is one of the two or three best receivers in the country. He’ll make anyone look good. I haven’t seen the accuracy and the ball doesn’t come out well.”
8) Who has hurt themselves the most?
Back in August, the sleeper buzz centered on Nebraska’s Lee and Northwestern’s Thorson. Let’s just say, both “sleepers” struggled to wake up. Lee began the season as an abject disaster at Nebraska, including a pair of first-quarter pick-6’s against Northern Illinois to plant the seeds for one of the worst losses in school history. He has 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, including an interception hat trick against Northwestern on Saturday. Lee, a Tulane transfer, wowed NFL types at the Manning Academy in shorts this summer. Live defenses have been an issue.
Thorson wasn’t nearly as self-destructive as Lee, but his production was middling and he decided to go back to Northwestern for his final season. (He also suffered a devastating knee injury in the Music City Bowl.) The NFL likes Thorson’s size – 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds – when he does declare and he could emerge as a strong prospect for the 2019 NFL draft.
We’ll add Washington State’s Luke Falk to the list of disappointments in the eyes of the NFL. He was Todd McShay’s No. 4 quarterback heading into this season, but he was benched twice by Mike Leach this season during games. Falk is the Pac-12’s all-time leader in passing yards, which means you can’t knock his production. But he’ll struggle to escape the stigma of many quarterbacks from Leach’s offense, which tend not to translate to the pros. “He’s a backup quarterback,” said an NFL executive. “That’s what his body type and everything about him says.”
9) Who else should we be watching?
Two buzzy names are Toledo’s Logan Woodside and Memphis’ Riley Ferguson. Both seniors should get drafted, but it will take good showings at the NFL scouting combine and pro days to determine how high. Can either get up to, say, the third round?
Toledo (11-3) was in showcase MACtion mode late in the season, throwing for 10 touchdowns in the final three games of conference play before absolutely tanking in the Dollar General Bowl against Appalachian State. Woodside is listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but that height may be a pinch generous and his build is slight. He threw for 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, breaking Bruce Gradkowski’s all-time passing mark at the school. Winning always helps, and Toledo won its first MAC title game since 2004. Scouts say size is the biggest issue here, but production and winning always help.
Ferguson is a former Tennessee recruit who left Knoxville and detailed cars and power washed fences for eight months before re-starting his career in junior college. He transferred to Memphis and shined ever since. He threw 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season, leading Memphis to an 10-3 record and almost won an AAC title against undefeated UCF. (Most notably, Ferguson threw six touchdowns in an upset of UCLA – and Rosen – in September.) There will be questions of Ferguson’s exit from Tennessee and hiatus from the sport, but he’s likely earned himself a draft spot with his play the past two years. “He’s a mid-to-late round pick,” said an executive. “He’s a gamer, he’s a competitor.”