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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Fournette is exposing larger NCAA problem

For most college football players, the best thing for them to do to improve their draft stock is to perform at the college football level. That will usually punch their ticket to the NFL. Doing it at an SEC school is even better. That shows scouts that you can perform against college football’s best.

LSU LogoLeonard Fournette is doing everything right so far at Louisiana State University. He is dominating the NCAA field at an SEC school and drawing comparisons to some of the best in college football history. Already, we’ve heard names like “Emmitt” or “Herschal” thrown around when describing the phenom running back.

NFL scouts have already seen enough of Fournette to justify taking him when he is eligible to come join the NFL. Through five games this year, he has amassed 1022 yards on the ground on 8.6 yards per carry. Pair that with his 12 touchdowns and you have a solid season for a lot of college backs. Fournette has reached those marks in only half a season.

The issue is though, Fournette isn’t eligible to jump to the NFL until the 2017 NFL draft. He looks pro-ready today but NFL rules state that he must wait until after his junior season to apply for the draft. So now Fournette faces a very tough decision. Should he continue to play for the Tigers, or should he sit out his junior season to cement his draft status?

Fournette could probably sit out the entire 2016 college season and still go in the top half of the first round if he continues to stay in shape and performs well at the combine.

Many have called Fournette selfish for thinking that way but honestly can you blame him? NFL first round picks sign contracts worth millions of dollars. Todd Gurley, a former running back from Georgia, signed a contract this season after being drafted 10th overall that was worth up to $13.8 million over four years. The contract guaranteed $9.3 million over the four years and Gurley received a $2 million signing bonus upon signing the contract.

All of that is probably pretty comparable to what Fournette would stand to make and honestly it is probably below what he is worth. Many are viewing the LSU back as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. He would likely go higher than 10th overall and with the increase over the next two years, his contract would probably be even a little larger.

So we are talking probably upwards of $20 million on the line here for Fournette. All he has to do is stay healthy and avoid a drop off heading into the draft. The only problem is that there is no easy way to avoid injury other than to sit out. Fournette has nothing financially from the NCAA to fall back on if he blows out his knee or develops a hernia. His draft stock would plummet and he might not even make it to the NFL.

Marcus LattimoreThinking for the future makes too much sense at this point. We see it happen to players, especially running backs all the time. A couple of years ago, Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury that derailed his promising college career. Lattimore was a lock for a first round pick but the October injury where he tore every ligament in his knee and dislocated it obviously set him back. He had surgery and began rehab as soon as possible. He declared for the NFL draft in December knowing that it was his best shot at going pro. He fell all the way to the fourth round to the 49ers. He signed a four-year deal worth up to $8.5 million but with only a $300,000 signing bonus. Lattimore spent two seasons on San Francisco’s reserve roster before finally retiring when he realized he would never be able to play again.

Obviously, that is an extreme example but it is not the only one. Just a week ago, Nick Chubb suffered a serious knee injury where he tore several ligaments and damaged cartilage. His ACL was not one of the ligaments torn, which gave doctors hope at first, but now reports have surfaced saying that the injury could be career ending. He will have surgery soon but the outlook is less than positive. Heading into this season, Chubb was a projected first round pick for 2017, just like Fournette.

Matt BarkleyThen there are players who avoided injury but still saw their draft stock plummet due to poor play. Matt Barkley is the perfect example of a player who was deemed NFL ready, but who decided to stay in college another year. He seemed to be a certain top 10 pick in the 2012 draft but Barkley decided to stay at USC for his senior year. Barkley muddled through an up and down season and then fell to the fourth round of the NFL draft in 2013.

It is hard to shame Fournette for considering sitting out and it will be harder still if he decides to skip his junior year. He has every right to and he would be protecting his future, which is completely uninsured by the NCAA.

Each NCAA athlete has a health insurance policy of $90,000 for medical expenses. They are willing to cover other costs such as in-home care if it is required but there is no way for students to ever recoup any of the money they might have made.

There is no sure-fire way to solve this situation and I won’t pretend to know what it is. It might be to compensate athletes. It might be to provide some sort of insurance if athletes are unable to continue to the professional level due to injuries sustained while playing in college. All I know is that it needs to change. If the NCAA can profit as much as it does from these kids, then there should be a way for the kids to get compensation for a major career-altering or ending injury.

If the NCAA refuses to pay athletes, guarantee insurance fund for those who cannot continue to the pros because of injury or some combination of the two, it will continue to see Leonard Fournettes in the future. If Fournette sits, he will set a precedent. There will be players who believe that they have shown enough talent and ability to make the jump to the league and will refuse to continue playing in college. It will hurt the college game in terms of the level of play and could begin to undermine college football as a whole.

This development would be many years down the line but it is not unrealistic if the NCAA does not find a solution. Players who have serious aspirations of playing in the pros view college as a stepping stone and if they can find a way to minimize the risk that comes with that stepping stone, you can bet they are going to take it.

What if Matt Barkley didn’t return for his senior year?

Remember back in 2012, when there was a possibility that we could see one of the best quarterback drafts in NFL history. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the top prospects with Ryan Tannehill viewed as a nice consolation prize. However, there was a large contingency that believed there was another quarterback worthy of a top ten pick who ended up staying school. Matt Barkley, who some argued would have competed with Luck for the top pick, returned to USC for his senior year. He showed some major relapses and he ended up being a fourth round pick in 2013. But what if the former Trojan decided to head to the NFL a year early? Nothing is for sure but you can imagine a lot would change.

Barkley was highly regarded but I think it is likely that during the pre-draft workouts, Luck and Griffin would put some distance between themselves and the kid from USC. However, I think Barkley would still rate higher than fellow first rounder Ryan Tannehill. On draft day, Luck and Griffin still go one and two. None of the teams from picks three to seven really needed a quarterback. Miami sitting at number eight was ready to move on from Chad Henne and with Barkley still on the board, the Dolphins would gladly draft him. Barkley would join a Fins team with another former USC star in Reggie Bush led by rookie coach Joe Philbin. If Barkley began playing anything like he did during his senior season or how he has in the NFL with Philadelphia, there is a really good chance that veteran signal caller Matt Moore beats out Barkley for the starting job.

So this also means that there is no way for the Dolphins to take Tannehill, who continues to fall down the draft board. He doesn’t fall too long because sitting at number twelve is a team in desperate need of a young quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks had Tavaris Jackson under center the year before and desperately needed an upgrade. Matt Flynn was brought in as a potential replacement but that wouldn’t stop Seattle from picking up the talented Tannehill. Tannehill was viewed as a bit of project and based on how much the team was paying Flynn, the rookie from Texas A&M would probably be given a year to sit on the bench.

The 2012 season looks extremely different as well. Seattle struggles under Flynn and by the end of the season, Tannehill gets some reps as the starter, but the Seahawks miss the playoffs. Green Bay win against Seattle in week 4 with no Fail Mary game. This means that Green Bay finishes the season with the second best record in the NFC. Instead of Seattle and Minnesota in the playoffs, Chicago and Philadelphia make the postseason in their place. The Bears get a major showdown with the third seeded 49ers. The Eagles travel to Washington for a duel of rookie quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III versus Russell Wilson. Oh right, did I forget to mention that the Eagles snag Wilson in the third round because Seattle took Tannehill? Philadelphia falls next week to Atlanta who meets Green Bay in NFC championship game. Green Bay dispatches Atlanta for a matchup with the Ravens in the Super Bowl where Aaron Rodgers outduels Joe Flacco for his second straight Lombardi Trophy.

Andy Reid still leaves in 2013 and Chip Kelly cannot wait to get his hands on an offense led by Russell Wilson. Seattle is still good but not great with Tannehill under center. They miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year. That means no Legion of Boom and no Super Bowl rout of the Broncos. With the Seahawks out of the picture, the 49ers win the NFC West and the Nick Foles led Cardinals make it as a wildcard. Foles was drafted by the Cardinals when Philadelphia no longer had interest in him in the fourth round in 2012. The Eagles get a boost with Wilson under center to the second seed while the 49ers take the top seed. Green Bay beats New Orleans in the wildcard round while Philadelphia takes down Arizona. The Niners beat the Packers in the divisional round setting up a meeting with Russell Wilson again in the NFC championship game, this time with the Eagles. Philly’s offense of DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin is the Greatest Show on Turf 2.0 and Philadelphia finds itself in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning’s Broncos. With no incredible defense to haunt him, Manning plays great and narrowly beats Philly in a shootout giving Manning his second ring.

Now some of you might be saying, what about Matt Barkley and the Dolphins? Don’t worry. I’m getting to that. Barkley never develops quite how Miami wants. So in 2014, they are in the market for a new quarterback. Joe Philbin decides to go after a different Texas A&M quarterback with their first round pick by the name of Johnny Manziel. For once, the Cleveland Browns don’t completely lose out because they get Carson Palmer when Arizona no longer wants to sign him with Foles under center, so the Browns don’t want Manziel anyway.

So in short, Russell Wilson is an Eagle, Nick Foles is a Cardinal, Carson Palmer is a Brown, Rodgers has two rings, Manning has two rings and Wilson ends up with none. The Legion of Boom never happens in Seattle and Miami ends up with Manziel. All of this just because Matt Barkley decides to leave school one year sooner.