The quarterback class in this year’s NFL draft falls into two distinct groups. Streaking out in front are Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, both of who are projected to be taken high up in the first round, with Winston a seeming shoe-in for the Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s first overall pick. They are followed by another group of three or four quarterbacks whose NFL starting credentials have been widely questioned but who may have the requisite raw talent and skills to catch the eye of teams in the second, third or later rounds.
When it comes to Winston and Mariota, most draft analysts are in agreement that they are by far and away the shining stars at QB this year, although there is a whole other debate about where in the first round Mariota will be taken. That’s not to say that there aren’t concerns regarding both of the top two ranked Heisman trophy winning signal callers. Winston, although more pro-ready in terms of the system he ran at Florida State has well publicised off field issues which teams will need to reconcile themselves with. Mariota, having played under Chip Kelly in Oregon, is a master of the spread offense but will need time to develop his skills playing under centre and calling plays in the huddle in the NFL. In terms of personality Winston is not short of confidence in his own ability whereas it might be harder at least initially to see Mariota, being softly spoken and reserved, calling plays in a huddle of well-worn, league-initiated veterans. In recent years high pick quarterbacks have had varying levels of success; from Andrew Luck’s playoff appearances to RGIII being the latest example of not living up to the hype and Sam Bradford’s injuries stopping him reaching his full NFL potential so far. Regardless, there is little question that Winston and Mariota are the pick of the bunch this year.
Beyond the top two, the next group of would-be rookie quarterbacks garner mixed reviews with some suggestion that none of them will ever be good enough to start in the NFL. However, there is a still a great deal of interest in this next little group with others pointing out that although time will be needed in development for each prospect (maybe two or three years behind a veteran QB), there is some future starter potential. So who are these ‘next in liners’ and who is most likely to be taken third?
Bryce Petty – Baylor
Standing at 6’3” and weighing in at 230lbs Petty looks like an NFL quarterback. With arguably the most accurate and impressive arm in the draft there are no concerns about his ability to make passes both short and deep. However, like Mariota, Petty comes from a spread offense. Playing in the Baylor one –read system he has a tendency to take to the run when forced away from the first read and is less accurate when taking drops. He’ll need to learn to work through his progressions and like Mariota adjust to taking snaps under centre. However, Petty is a highly intelligent guy who shows great football smarts and is a strong and effective leader, all of which are traits difficult to develop retrospectively and should stand him in good stead for learning how to play in a pro-offense. He is also acutely aware of the need to prove he can learn a new system; scripting his pro day around three, five and seven step drops and snaps from under centre. Although he’ll need time, Petty seems an excellent candidate to sit for a year or two behind a well-established veteran who can show him the ropes and allow him to utilise his cannon of an arm as a starter in the future.
Sean Mannion – Oregon State
One of the biggest concerns with college quarterbacks in general is their pro-readiness, especially those such as Mariota and Petty who have played exclusively in spread offenses. For this reason 6’ 6” giant Mannion, having played in Mike Riley’s pro-style offense at Oregon State might be an attractive pick in the second round. He has experience calling plays, a range of drops and playing the multiple read option. Mannion holds many school records including most passing yards and had an outstanding junior year (4662 yards) however his senior year was less impressive. Scouting reports suggest frequent flashes of elite level play but he is dogged by inconsistency, something which will concern NFL coaches. There are also some questions about the speed of his play in general and particularly under pressure, something he is sure to face more of in the NFL.
Brett Hundley – UCLA
Hundley holds the all time records for passing yards and touchdowns at UCLA. He has a raft of natural athletic talent and has gained the attention of a number of NFL teams, working out privately for the Jets, Texans, Eagles, Cardinals and Bengals, all of whom have their own specific quarterback issues. He is an explosive athlete, running 4.63 at the combine, and has shown his ability to run the ball himself to escape danger. The biggest criticism levied at Hundley is an inability to anticipate plays and read coverages leaving him open to mistakes when the play collapses, especially outside of the pocket. Given the complexity and breadth of both offensive and defensive plays across the NFL, he will certainly need a lot of work on his game to allow his physical potential to shine through, however his athleticism will be attractive.
Garrett Grayson – Colorado State
Grayson may be the dark horse in this pack, having crept up various draft boards and largely evaded the media spotlight. At 6’2” and 220lbs he has been described as a player who does everything well but without elite traits, someone who isn’t going to set the world on fire but could provide a solid backup. Modelling himself on his idol Peyton Manning, Grayson aimed to develop as a pocket passer as he entered college but is keen to point out his out of the pocket credentials. On the positive side Grayson is one of the few QBs in this class able to make anticipatory throws and has been seen to have improved his game markedly over his four years at Colorado State (two as full time starter). Grayson seems solid, with not too many weak points but no superstar traits either. Teams in need of someone to develop into their next star might not be too interested but Grayson could be the outside bet to go third for those in need of a decent back up.
There is little agreement across analyst’s draft boards on the name occupying the third spot on the QB list but the names above all feature in their top fives. Draft speculation centres permanently on the word ‘if’ which makes it even more complex than just analysing the pros and cons of prospects. Due to the gulf in quality between the two top and the next options it is unlikely that the third quarterback taken will be in the first round. None are immediate starters or emerge higher than the others so who goes third may come down to which team is picking and what they need. Just like the Patriots last year, the Saints, Broncos and Giants might be interested in someone to develop into a successor for Brees or the Mannings and on paper Petty, with his strong-arm and football acumen seems the best candidate here. However, considering how thin the QB class is this teams looking for their next franchise QB who have no chance of Winston and Mariota may wait until 2016. If Marcus Mariota goes high, this opens teams like the Rams, Jets and possibly the Redskins to looking at the rest of the market. All three have a ‘quarterback’ surrounded by question marks they seem to be sticking with in 2015 but might look for someone to develop. In this case, they all have high second round picks and might attracted by athleticism of Hundley or pro-readiness of Mannion. What is clear is that beyond the top two there is no next obvious choice so private workouts with teams will be vital for these prospects to prove their play, personality and potential are enough to make them the third quarterback off the board in 2015.