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If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it 1,000 times: this is not a good quarterback class. It is likely the worst we have seen since the 2013 draft that produced E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. In short a who’s who of backups and future analysts. This class has a bit more promise than that, but has confounded draft analysts and amateur mockers alike. No one seems to have a great read on where these players will land exactly.
A telling sign for how the league views this quarterback class is the mad dash to add veteran quarterbacks this offseason. Now, some of those moves won’t preclude teams from adding quarterbacks in this draft, but no one seems to be heading into this year counting on a rookie start, except maybe Carolina.
Everyone has their own order for how they think these players stack up. But beyond that, I go through the floor, ceiling, my grade and my expectation for where these players will be selected on draft day. Let’s get started.
1. Malik Willis, Liberty
Floor: Bust who is out of the league in four years
Ceiling: Pro Bowl level starter
Grade: Top-25 prospect
Draft Day Prediction: Top-10 selection
To me, there is Willis and then everyone else. That actually says more about the competition than it does about Willis himself. He is a plus athlete with a live arm. His arm strength is impressive and he can make every throw. He is accurate and on time more often than not as well. However, he has zero pocket awareness and a penchant for holding onto the ball for way too long. Willis is also terrible under pressure. He took 52 sacks this past season, including nine against Ole Miss. People want to make the comparison to Lamar Jackson, but Lamar is a much better athlete. The upside is tantalizing, but there is a ton of work to do in order for Willis to be successful at the next level.
2. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
Floor: Top-tier backup
Ceiling: Above average NFL starter
Grade: Early 2nd-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: Top-20 selection
Like it or not, you have to give Pickett credit for the incredible rise he had this season. He went from off the radar to a Heisman finalist and potential first-round pick. Widely viewed the safest quarterback in this class, there are some limitations to his game, much like seemingly every quarterback this year. For Pickett, it’s his hand size and his arm strength. He has enough zip over the middle, but struggles on throws outside the boundaries. There is also something to be said for the fact that he will turn 24 in June. He is much further along in his development as a quarterback than anyone else in this class. That being said, he is far and away the most pro ready passer available in this draft. His athleticism makes up for some of his shortcomings in the pocket though, with the ability to throw on the move and pick up yards with his legs. He is the only quarterback in this group that feels completely scheme versatile, which also ups his appeal.
3. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Floor: Career backup, locker room guy
Ceiling: Fringe Pro Bowl player
Grade: Early-to-mid 2nd-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: Late 1st-round selection
This is high praise, but there is something about Ridder that is reminiscent of Josh Allen coming out. He is an underrated athlete, posting an impressive 4.52 40-time at the combine and also blowing the competition away in the broad jump and vertical jump. He has a good arm and is built like a tight end. He can run you over smaller defenders and bang for extra yardage. There is definitely some room for him to add weight on his frame though. The issues with Ridder stem from his inconsistency on throws over the middle. His short-to-intermediate accuracy is very inconsistent. There are also some mechanics you would like to see him clean up. I would love to see him change his release point more as well. He is a project, but teams love his leadership skills and his demeanor.
4. Sam Howell, UNC
Floor: Career backup
Ceiling: Fringe Pro Bowl player
Grade: Late 2nd-round or early 3rd-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: Late 2nd or early 3rd-round selection
If you want a more athletic version of Baker Mayfield, I have just the guy for you. Keep in mind that Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick and led the Browns to a playoff victory. Howell has a strong arm and good physicality to him. He is special as a runner, breaking tons of arm tackles and showing really impressive balance. Definitely a bit undersized, Howell does not let that impact his play much. He is more than capable of airing it out down the field. However, he gets a bit too casual sometimes when he lets the ball go and his footwork is a bit sloppy. He also has a tendency to stare down his first read and then bail with his legs when it doesn’t work out. There are not a ton of instances on film where he actually goes through his progressions, which is definitely worrisome. Physically, he is NFL ready. Mentally, there is a long way to go.
5. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Floor: Injury prone, out of the league in four years
Ceiling: Fringe Pro Bowl player
Grade: Early 3rd-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: Early 2nd-round selection
There are some that love Corral and have him as the top quarterback in this class. My assessment: Corral is a system quarterback that struggles to push the ball down the field. His accuracy is probably the best in this class even though his ball placement is a little spotty sometimes. Corral is a plus athlete though and can scramble to pick up a few yards with his legs. A major red flag is his ability to handle the blitz. He is one of the worst in this class when faced with pressure. He can excel in a West Coast offense, but he is not going to be a fit everywhere. On top of that, he has a slight frame and has already dealt with injuries in college. He could be a solid NFL starter, but there are clear limitations to his game and a lot of concerns about his durability. My fear is that he will constantly get banged up and try to play through injury, resulting in drop offs like we’ve seen from players like Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield when not at full strength. There are too many red flags for me to take him before the third round.
6. Carson Strong, Nevada
Floor: Career backup
Ceiling: Above average starter
Grade: 4th-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: 4th-round selection
Strong is a throwback to 90s and early 2000s football. He commands the pocket well and has the arm strength to make every throw, but he is a statue that struggles any time he is forced outside the pocket. Not only does he lack good mobility, but he does not do well throwing on the run. He throws a nice deep ball, but there are moments where he misses on short and intermediate routes. We’ve seen players like Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan succeed despite limited mobility, but Strong’s arm is not on the same level. In today’s NFL, where RPOs, play action and moving pockets are fairly common, I see him having a tough time adapting.
7. Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
Floor: Career backup, pseudo quarterbacks coach
Ceiling: Spot starter
Grade: 5th or 6th-round prospect
Draft Day Prediction: 5th or 6th-round selection
Who threw for the most passing yards of any player in this class in 2021? That would be Zappe. He is on the doorstep of the NFL after taking a very unique route to get to this point. He transferred to Western Kentucky after spending his career prior to that at FCS Houston Baptist. Zappe is a product of the Air Raid system, which the NFL has a bit of a love/hate relationship with. He is a rhythm player who could thrive in the NFL if he is not asked to do too much, but lacks the physical tools to make you believe he has true starter potential. He tested well enough to make me believe he will be a Day 3 pick. Look for him to be an offensive coordinator down the line. That’s the type of player we are talking about here. Really bright and a great understanding of the playbook.
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