NFL Draft Daily: Can Lincoln Riley fix USC’s NFL QB problem?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Lincoln Riley rocked the college football world when he left Oklahoma to become the new head coach at USC. With rumors swirling that Riley could be headed for Baton Rouge, his move to SoCal came as a shock. Before too long though, I began to wonder how this will impact the NFL draft.

I am fascinated by the draft and I always like to explore the ripple effects of moves like this. There is the obvious that Oklahoma is likely going to suffer a short-term setback while USC’s ceiling is raised substantially. How about the implications for USC’s quarterback production at the next level?

Riley is known as a quarterback guru, and for good reason. In a three-year span, Oklahoma produced two Heisman winners, a Heisman runner up, two No. 1 overall picks and a second-round pick. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts are all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. It is very early in all of their careers, but it is safe to say Riley turned a lot of heads with his ability to make OU a quarterback factory.

Riley went 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma. (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, there is a lot of chatter about USC’s inability to produce NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Not in the draft process, several USC quarterbacks have been first-round selections over the past decade, but when it comes to actually achieving success in the pros, the Trojans are surprisingly lacking.

Since 2000, USC has produced a long list of quarterbacks that played in the NFL. Most have failed to live up to high expectations. Carson Palmer remains the most successful of the group, and he graduated in 2002. Mark Sanchez is still the last USC quarterback to win a playoff game, and that was in 2010.

A closer look sees a list that includes Matt Leinart, who only started 18 games in his pro career. He was a top-10 selection. So was Sanchez, who won a ton of games early in his career behind an incredible offensive line, an elite defense and a reliable run game. He hung around a while and managed to finish his career with a winning record as a starter. However, he also threw three more interceptions than he did touchdowns coupled with a career completion percentage of 56.6.

Matt Barkley followed Sanchez. He seemed poised to be a top-15 pick in 2012, but chose to return to school, had a horrible senior year and fell into the fourth round. He started seven games in six seasons in the NFL. Cody Kessler was next and never wowed scouts. A third-round selection, no one expected him to be a Hall of Famer, but three years split between the Browns and Jaguars ensured that his NFL career never got going. He appeared in nine games during Cleveland’s winless 2016 season as a rookie.

Darnold struggled with turnovers, committing 76 in 47 games. (Wikimedia Commons)

After that was Sam Darnold. The No. 3 pick in 2018, he went two picks after Mayfield, which was a bit of surprise at the time. Darnold has shown flashes in his four-year career, but the Jets cut bait after three seasons and shipped him to Carolina. After a strong start with the Panthers, his production fell off a cliff as he reverted to his interception-happy ways, tossing 11 in nine games. He was eventually benched a few times before suffering a season-ending injury. Carolina will be searching for a new starter in 2022 despite having Darnold under contract for another season for about $19 million.

Needless to say, USC quarterbacks have earned a reputation among draft evaluators. The old adage insists we scout the player, not the helmet. However, I am starting to believe in scouting the coach, if that makes sense. Certain schools have a good reputation for producing good players at certain positions. LSU, Ohio State and Alabama all excel at producing defensive backs that succeed in the NFL. Penn State was known for a long time for producing excellent linebackers. Most of the Big Ten is synonymous with elite offensive line play.

It does not mean that other schools are incapable of producing elite prospects at that position or that any players who goes through these programs are immediately going to be better in the NFL, but we can usually point to certain coaches for being able to recruit and develop well at different positions. There is a reason Alabama dominates the early rounds of every draft. Nick Saban knows how to recruit and develop. Same can be said for Kirby Smart on the defensive side of the ball. Kirk Ferentz has a penchant for producing NFL-caliber tight ends at Iowa.

Bottom line, something has to give. USC has struggled to produce quality NFL quarterbacks, but Riley is known for doing just that. It might be a bit premature to truly award him that recognition given that his three notable quarterbacks are still just getting started in the NFL. Riley’s most recent project was also a failure. Spencer Rattler lost his starting job in October despite entering the year as the Heisman favorite. He will be looking to transfer.

However, there is no doubt that Mayfield, Murray and maybe even Hurts are better NFL quarterbacks than anyone USC has produced this side of Palmer. Caleb Williams also flashed some incredible physical traits and won a lot of games for Oklahoma as a true freshman in relief of Rattler. Early returns indicate that Riley is in fact the real deal.

Slovis is rumored to be considering declaring for the NFL draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

So how soon could Riley snap this streak? Kedon Slovis entered the season as a potential first-round pick. By the end of the year, he went the way of Rattler and lost his job to a talented freshman. That freshman, Jaxson Dart, could be Riley’s first protégé in L.A. If not, Miller Moss, who stepped in for an injured Dart to finish the season against Cal, could be in line for that role. Dart and Moss were four-star recruits, ranking 10th and 12th respectively, in the 2021 recruiting class, according to 24/7 Sports.

What is more likely is that it will take a few seasons before we really see the Lincoln Riley effect take hold at USC. The Trojans do not have any quarterbacks currently committed for 2022. However, 2023 five-star recruit Malachi Nelson has already flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to USC to follow Riley. Nelson feels like the first quarterback that will truly be Riley’s handpicked option. He won’t be draft eligible until 2026 though.

So, it might take a while, but keep in mind that Mayfield, Murray and Hurts were all transfers to Oklahoma. It is very possible that Riley goes that route again. Former five-star Quinn Ewers announced he is transferring from Ohio State. Texas is believed to be the favorite to land Ewers, bringing him back to the Lone Star state, but could Riley lure him to USC? This is not to say Riley will bail on Dart and Moss, but he also did not recruit them.

My guess is that Riley will ride with either Dart or Moss for 2022 before giving Nelson a real chance to compete for the starting job when he arrives in 2023. It might not be immediate, but it feels like USC is finally in line to change the narrative around their quarterback prospects at the NFL level.

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2020 NFL Draft: Day 2 surprises and best players available

We are two days in, but still not even halfway through the NFL draft. This class is loaded with talented players that found their NFL homes on Friday. While the first round gets the biggest billing, this is where teams make their money. If you can find value in the middle rounds of the draft, you are going to be a very successful franchise. The teams that do this best (Seattle, New England, Baltimore) seem to always have players ready to step in when injuries strike or players leave in free agency. That’s because they find the diamonds in the rough.

I will talk about my favorite prospects still on the board, but first, let’s talk about some of the most shocking developments from rounds two and three. Check out day one’s biggest surprises here.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma vs UCLA, Sept 14, 2019, Pasadena, CA
Hurts was the runner-up for the Heisman in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Eagles take Jalen Hurts
Wait … what??? Philadelphia signed Carson Wentz to a mega-extension worth north of $100 million prior to the 2019 season. So logically, at pick 53, the Eagles selected Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts. Sure, the team could use a reliable passer to backup Wentz, who has a history of injuries. However, drafting a quarterback in the second round feels like a very odd decision given the cirumstances. Philly needs help at corner, linebacker and wide receiver, even after taking Jalen Reagor in round one. Howie Roseman has often been one of the general managers capable of finding talent in the later rounds, but his draft plan in 2020 is a mysterious to most outsiders. On back-to-back days, the Eagles made headlines for who they decided to draft, but not for ideal reasons.

Josh Jones slides … again
Well I definitely overestimated how much the NFL would like Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones. I had him going 18th overall to the Dolphins. Instead, he stayed on the board all the way until pick 72 for the Cardinals (who have had a great draft so far if you ask me). He is definitely a little raw, but he is a solid offensive tackle and there are tons of teams who were rumored to be interested in help at the position. He was my fourth-ranked player at the position, but was the eighth selected. This is just one fan’s opinion, but I was shocked to see Jones fall so far. Maybe that’s less of a reflection on him as well. After six offensive tackles went in the first round, only Ezra Cleveland went in round two and Jones was the first one off the board in the third.

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Swift went 35th overall to the Lions on Friday night. (Wikimedia Commons)

Teams reaching on running back
After Clyde Edwards-Helaire went with the last pick of the first round, there was some buzz that we could see a run on running backs. Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift and J.K. Dobbins all went as expected in round two, along with Cam Akers. What was surprising was to see A.J. Dillon and Antonio Gibson come off the board soon after. I like Dillon a lot, but I thought the Packers, once again, had bigger needs at receiver and linebacker. Dillon was still a bit of a ways down my board as well. Gibson was a stunner. I didn’t have him in my top 150 prospects and as my 12th running back overall. I wasn’t alone in the skepticism on Gibson either, Bleacher Report had him 164th overall, 98 spots later than he was selected by Washington. Green Bay’s decision is a bit more forgivable. Washington’s follow up to Chase Young was definitely a bit underwhelming.

Broncos double up on receivers
I applaud Denver for waiting and landing the best receiver in this draft. Getting Drew Lock a receiver to pair with Courtland Sutton made a ton of sense. I think Jerry Jeudy will have a great career in Denver. The surprise here was that then the Broncos dipped back into the position group to take Penn State’s KJ Hamler. Hamler is a speedster out of the slot with tons of big-play ability. I am not a huge fan of him as a prospect given his size and issues with drops. I was surprised to see the Broncos passing on either a corner or offensive lineman (although they did fill both positions later.) I didn’t think Denver really needed another receiver with Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton already in the fold prior to the draft, but they clearly want depth at the position.

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Prior to 2019, the Jets were the only team with which Bill Belichick had never traded. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jets and Patriots make a trade
This definitely caught me by surprise. Very rarely do these franchise negotiate trades, but maybe it really is the sign of a new era in New England. The Jets and Pats actually brokered a trade early in the 2019 season that sent Demaryius Thomas to New York in exchange for a 2021 6th round pick. This latest trade between the two teams that saw the Patriots acquire the 101st pick, which they spent on Virginia Tech tight end Dalton Keene. As part of the deal, the Jets landed two fourth rounders this year and New England’s 2021 sixth-round pick. Believe it or not, the two teams have now just swapped 2021 sixth rounders. If you are still reading at this point, know that I appreciate your love for football and quirky draft nuggets.

Through three rounds, there is a lot of talent still on the board. I actually see a ton of prospects in my top 100 available, 21 to be exact. Considering there have already been 106 selections, I am really positive about the players still on the board. Some quality defensive options, a bunch of lanky receivers and a pair of former Georgia quarterbacks highlight the group. Here are my favorite remaining prospects:

24. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
52. Tyler Biadasz, C, Wisconsin
55. Curtis Weaver, EDGE, Boise State
56. John Simpson, G, Clemson
59. Bradlee Anae, EDGE, Utah
62. Ben Bartch, OT, St. John (Minn.)
65. Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan
66. Prince Tega Wanogho, OT, Auburn
67. Troy Pride Jr., CB, Notre Dame
73. Amik Robertson, CB, Louisiana Tech
80. Troy Dye, LB, Oregon
81. Leki Fotu, DL, Utah
84. Larrell Murchison, DL, NC State
86. Jacob Eason, QB, Washington
87. Kenny Willekes, EDGE, Michigan State
88. K’Von Wallace, S, Clemson
89. Thaddeus Moss, TE, LSU
91. Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State
92. Ben Bredeson, G, Michigan
93. K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State
100. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
101. Brycen Hopkins, TE, Purdue
102. Collin Johnson, WR, Texas
104. Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
105. James Lynch, DL, Baylor
106. Logan Stenberg, G, Kentucky
109. Solomon Kindley, G, Georgia
110. Trevon Hill, EDGE, Miami
113. Evan Weaver, LB, California
114. Gabriel Davis, WR, UCF
116. Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State
117. Jason Strowbridge, DL, UNC
123. Quintez Cephus, WR, Wisconsin
124. A.J. Green, CB, Oklahoma State
125. Francis Bernard, LB, Utah

Biggest risers and fallers of bowl season

Is it just me, or does it feel like conference championship games were forever ago? Bowl season was a long slog, but we made it out the other side. Our patience was rewarded with an entertaining, if not always super competitive, College Football Playoff. While some of these bowl games certainly felt pointless, it is an excellent opportunity for players to put together game tape in front of a national audience heading into the pre-draft process. Unfortunately, it also means some players will walk away with a less-than-stellar end to their season and potentially tank their draft stock. It’s hard to blame some of the top prospects for skipping these games.

With bowl season done though, it is time to review the big risers and fallers from the past month. Before you get on me about players like Jerry Jeudy or Joe Burrow, they obviously played great games. However, their draft stock is pretty well cemented. There really isn’t a whole lot higher they could possibly climb. Let’s take a look at some players whose bowl performances made a real difference in their draft stock.

Risers

A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
A.J. Epenesa capped off a huge second half to the season with a dominant showing in the Holiday Bowl. Going up against a likely top-50 pick in Austin Jackson, Epenesa consistently got pressure, often times in different ways. He showed a wide array of pass rush moves and good burst off the edge. I think he should find himself in the top 10 come draft day, but there is a lot to happen between now and then. He will definitely be in the draft after declaring on Tuesday.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU
Man this kid can run. I’ve been saying he reminds me of Maurice Jones-Drew. Some of that is size profile, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire also brings that same kind of elusiveness mixed with power. He definitely lacks breakaway speed, but he could he effective in the right offense. With Chuba Hubbard and Najee Harris returning to school, he is now up to RB5 and I thinking solidly into the Day 2 conversation. I’m worried his stock will dip if he doesn’t run super well at the combine, but he should develop into a starter in the NFL.

Bradlee Anae, EDGE, Utah
I have loved what I have seen from Bradlee Anae over the past few months. He has incredible burst and timing off the edge and actually does a decent job setting the edge against the run. He still has a long way to go in terms of disengaging bigger blockers and varying up his pass rush moves. From a physical traits stand point, he has what teams want. That was on display against Texas, even if it doesn’t show in the box score. He finished with half a sack, but had a bigger presence than that.

Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame
Chase Claypool balled out against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. He showed a good ability to go up and make plays in traffic. His body control was impressive. His size is great too and you can’t coach that. Claypool sits behind a long list of guys right now on my big board because of how stacked this draft class is at the receiver, but his tape left a very positive impression heading into the Senior Bowl.

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
I was resistant to putting Tyler Johnson here because I have heard so many mixed reviews, but wow he balled out against Auburn. I went back to rewatch the tape of Marlon Davidson and Johnson stood out every time. He showcased great athleticism and an impressive ability to adjust to the ball in the air on a few spectacular catches. I know there are scouts who are knocking him down because he didn’t get a Senior Bowl invite, but he looked the part of an NFL receiver in the Outback Bowl.

Fallers

Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
That was a really tough way for Jalen Hurts’ college career to end. Hurts simply looked inaccurate against LSU in the CFP semifinal. He showed out as a runner, but he is built more like Tim Tebow than Lamar Jackson. The truth is, Hurts reminds me of Tebow, but with slightly better mechanics. He lacks great arm strength, often times having to float balls over the middle, rather than hitting receivers on a line. We will see Hurts as part of a loaded quarterback group at the Senior Bowl though, so maybe he can start to rehab his value.

A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson
You had to know this was coming. His last game was brutal. A.J. Terrell got smoked by JaMarr Chase. Chase has made a lot of defenders look foolish this year, but Terrell looked was completely overmatched. He showed he does not have the top line speed to run with top-end receivers or the physicality to make up for that. This might force him to go back to school for another year; he is just a junior. If he does come out, I expect him to be a fringe second round player at this point.

Austin Jackson, OT, USC
The reason why Austin Jackson is on this list is because A.J. Epenesa is one of the risers. Jackson got a big test facing the Iowa edge rusher. I actually pegged him as one of the players who could help his draft stock the most given the opportunity. I think to say he failed is extreme, but he also didn’t pass with flying colors either. There were moments where he flashed franchise tackle potential. I think it is going to take some good coaching and a bit more seasoning for him to get up to NFL speed for him to reach his ceiling. Jackson might still find his way into the first round, but should not be thought of as a day-one starter.

Marlon Davidson, EDGE, Auburn
Auburn got pushed around a bit in the Outback Bowl by Minnesota. Marlon Davidson was no exception. He was undisciplined against the run a lot in that game. He didn’t make much of a mark as a pass rusher either. Auburn likes to kick him inside next to Derrick Brown. I see him as more of a 3-4 or 4-3 end, but he will need to improve his gap discipline and work on reading his keys before he can make an impact at the next level.

Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
The athleticism is there. The frame is there. The production and presence are not. Raekwon Davis flashed some moments of creating good leverage, but he spent much of the game simply locked up and ineffective. He looks like a project player who has the physical tools to develop into something special. The problem is, he has looked like that for two years, failing to take the next step. Alabama’s Citrus Bowl win over Michigan was just the latest example.

For more NFL Draft coverage, check out the Aftermath’s NFL Draft Podcast, with new episodes every Thursday.

Aftermath’s NFL Draft Podcast Episode 3

The latest episode of my NFL Draft Podcast is out now! There is lots of stock up and stock down top about prospects from all over the country. As always, I preview the best games to watch this weekend so you know what to look for. Check it out now here on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Make sure you share, rate and subscribe!