A dearth of premier passers in the upcoming NFL draft meant the quarterback carousel spun faster than ever this spring.
Franchises still searching for a prized quarterback won’t find much star power in this year’s crop of college QBs, although there are potential upgrades in the likes of Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Mississippi’s Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.
None of them will rise to the very top of the draft as 16 quarterbacks have done this century, including Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield over the past four years.
This might even be the first draft since 2013 without a quarterback selected in the top 10.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted he was 32 minutes into a media conference call before he was even asked about this QB class.
“So that tells you it’s a little bit different draft,” he said. “None of the quarterbacks just completely blow you away.”
Every prospect has his problems. Pickett put up big numbers but has small hands. Willis’ upside is intriguing, but he’s inexperienced and imprecise.
One thing that does ooze from this QB class is defiance.
“Somebody’s always going to think you’re trash. That’s just the way the game goes,” Willis said. “I really don’t care too much about what he and she say.”
Neither does Ridder.
“We’re all overachievers and we all feel like there’s a chip on our shoulders just because they’re saying this draft class isn’t as good as others,” Ridder said. “But I think you’ll see a lot of success out of all of us in this league.”
Several general managers share that view.
“I think it’s a quality class,” Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said. “There’s going to be starting NFL quarterbacks coming out of this class, for sure.”
Panthers GM Scott Fitterer said that while the consensus says this is a weak quarterback class, “we look at it a little bit differently. We think there’s some guys who can come in and help us.”
Pickett is the best plug-and-play prospect of the bunch despite his small hands that concern some scouts. Although raw, Willis could provide a big payoff for a team willing to be patient.
“He’s got a huge arm,” Jeremiah said. “He is a powerfully built guy who can drive the ball. You saw it at the Senior Bowl when it was raining and everybody else was struggling. He didn’t have any issues whatsoever.”
Unlike Pickett, whose misfires that day reignited the hand size debate.
Burrow also raised red flags when his hands were measured at 9 inches at the 2020 combine, prompting him to tweet tongue-in-cheek: “Considering retirement after being informed the football will be slipping out of my tiny hands. Keep me in your thoughts.”
Burrow went No. 1 in the draft six weeks later to the Cincinnati Bengals, whom he led to the Super Bowl in his second season.
Nobody in this class of quarterbacks is expected to turn around a team’s fortunes overnight.
Remember, Lawrence was the consensus No. 1 pick by Jacksonville a year ago and went 3-14 with 12 TD passes and 17 interceptions as a rookie.
“We are coming off a year where you saw Mac Jones in New England play as well as you’re probably going to see most years from a rookie quarterback and the Patriots still couldn’t win a playoff game,” noted ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.
Pickett’s 52 college starts are 22 more than Jones had at Alabama, and that experience makes him probably the safest bet.
As for Willis, as soon as Commissioner Roger Goodell calls his name on draft night, “he automatically is one of the three most dynamic runners and escape artists at the quarterback position” in the NFL, McShay said. “But he is not ready to play. He’s got two years at Liberty and as his coach Hugh Freeze said, ‘He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.’”
That’s why many scouts believe Willis would be best served sitting a year behind a veteran as Trey Lance did last season when he backed up Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco.
Lance, who was selected third overall last year, would have been the top pick hands-down in 2022 had he stayed at North Dakota State and come out this year, Jeremiah said: “He’s more talented than any quarterback in this draft, and I don’t think it’s even particularly close.”
A year ago, five of the first 15 draft picks were quarterbacks, including the top three.
So, why is this quarterback class so wobbly?
“I think the pandemic is part of it,” Jeremiah said. “You think about the time that was lost, seasons were cut short. Arizona State played like three or four games. You had spring ball that teams missed out on. You also just have the way the math works. We had seven (rookie QBs) starting last year. Last year was a big year.”
Next year looks very promising, too, with a class headlined by Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler and Florida’s Anthony Richardson.
Still, teams shouldn’t dismiss this year’s class entirely.
“I was as guilty as anybody in 2017,” Jeremiah said, “and we were talking about the excitement of Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen in the next year and then we had two of the best young quarterbacks we’ve seen in forever right under our noses.”
Those would be Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
“It’s not easy to evaluate these guys, and the majority of us feel like this isn’t the best year for quarterbacks,” Jeremiah said. “But we’ve been proven wrong before, so we’ll see what happens.”