B/R CFB 250: Top 15 Pocket Quarterbacks in College Football
Editor's note: This is the 15th installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.
Which quarterback was the best operating out of the pocket in 2013?
The classic dropback passer has given way to quarterbacks who operate largely out of the shotgun. Despite the process being different, the goal is still the same, getting the ball out to the receivers in order to make plays down the field. Each of the signal-callers ranked in this category—spread or pro style, under center or shotgun—fit that description.
To qualify as a pocket passer, the quarterback’s rushing production must account for less than 15 percent of his offensive production. Those with a number above the 15 percent line fall into the dual-threat category.
In order to sift through the myriad quarterbacks across the country for B/R’s CFB 250, we looked carefully at each player. Using the baseline criteria of accuracy, arm strength, decision-making and pocket presence, we carefully slotted each of the quarterbacks. If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.
Keep in mind, these pocket quarterbacks are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player slide.
15. Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Joel Stave is an accurate passer. He hits his spots well, especially when he has time to make throws. His accuracy increases tremendously when he works with play action or against opponents selling out for the run.
Unfortunately, Stave does not have the strongest arm. When he pushes the ball down the field or to the edges, especially in the cold and wind, the ball has a tendency to sail and flutter on him.
Stave is not necessarily bad at making decisions. The beauty of playing for Wisconsin is that he is rarely forced to make the tough decision. His team is powered by the run game, and that helps him tremendously, allowing him to operate in low-pressure situations, such as play action.
When teams bring pressure, Stave has problems. He is not great at diagnosing the blitz and keeping eyes down the field as he steps up or sideways to evade oncoming rushers. However, as is the staple with Wisconsin, Stave is solid standing tall on play action.
Stave is a good quarterback who built on his success in 2012. This year he is trusting his arm more, which helps the Badgers offense in moments when it has to go to the passing game to be productive. Stave is one of the more underrated players in the Big Ten.
Fifth round. Has potential, but is yet to have a breakout performance.
14. David Fales, San Jose State
David Fales had some real accuracy issues early in the 2013 season, including games where he completed below 50 percent of his passes. However, he rebounded well as he gained his composure and showed why was well thought of entering 2013.
Good arm strength for Fales. He’s got the ability to spin with good velocity into tight windows in the intermediate area. Does not have the strong arm to drive the ball down the field with consistent power, but he can uncork balls with pop in the shorter zones.
The senior struggled with his decision-making for a large part of the 2013 season. He threw the ball into traffic, forced it into coverage and held onto the ball too long.
Much like his other issues, Fales was uneasy early on in the season and it clearly impacted his pocket presence. As he got comfortable, he stood strong under pressure and that helped him make big throws down the field.
A good quarterback with a lot of tangible skills. Fales has to be more consistent early to be the quarterback many expected he’d be this season. As long as he has a clean pocket and time, the kid can certainly spin it.
Fourth round. Smart and mobile enough, but has limited arm strength and velocity.
13. Keith Price, Washington
Keith Price has struggled at times with accuracy, forcing receivers to break stride or get down to make catches. However, he is capable of putting the ball into tight windows and make tough throws.
The Washington senior is a disciplined, sound passer, but he does not throw long bombs for touchdowns. He’s much better hitting holes in zones and then letting his playmakers take it from there.
At times Price holds onto the ball too long, and that leads to sacks and him taking a beating when he would be better served getting out of the pocket and throwing it away. However, in general, he’s incredibly smart with the ball and avoids interceptions.
After a season when he took a serious beating behind a depleted offensive line, Price, as expected, has some skittishness in the pocket. He shifts and moves, looks at the rush and still manages to hold onto the ball too long, which results in his getting hit.
Price is a good quarterback, a player who battled through pain, including a shoulder injury late in the season. He is a fighter who got the ball to his playmakers and found a way to put Washington in position to win games.
Fifth round. A good athlete, but is small and had a terrible 2012.
12. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Sean Mannion started out the season on fire, hitting his spots and finding big success. As the competition improved, the senior started missing targets and throwing the ball to his opponents.
The senior does have a strong arm, which helps him push the ball vertically. He can drive it down the field with good velocity and in the shorter passes; Mannion consistently puts good zip on the ball.
Mannion made a lot of questionable throws over the course of the season and that was his biggest problem in 2013. Forcing the ball into coverage or holding onto the ball too long in the pocket have been problems for the Beavers quarterback.
Like most pocket passers, Mannion is phenomenal with a clean pocket yet struggles when he is asked to move, even just step up. As the pocket changes around him, it alters his ability to get the ball out and push it down the field with accuracy.
Mannion started hot, but things cooled as the competition improved during the season. He took some shots that impacted his comfort in the pocket, but overall the year was a solid one for Mannion.
Second round. A prolific passer, he could rise up the board depending on underclassmen entrees.
11. Kevin Hogan, Stanford
Kevin Hogan is not the most accurate passer of the bunch. He has a tendency to leave balls high and force his receivers to make big adjustments to corral the football.
Not the strongest arm, and that impacts some of his accuracy. It also impacts just how far the Cardinal can stretch the field.
Hogan is a good quarterback who plays within himself. Despite not having the strongest arm, he does know when to push the opponent vertically. He also shows an understanding of when to pull the ball down and run.
Hogan is aided by an ability to run that makes him stick in the pocket longer, where he lacks the fear of his surroundings collapsing on him. He will stay in the pocket for a while, then fade to the outside before deciding to tuck it or find a target down the field.
One of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks, Hogan has shown an ability to find a way to get it done for the Cardinal. He’s consistent through the air, a trait made even more valuable by his ability to tax opponents with his legs.
Second round. Smart and poised, his throwing motion is the only question mark.
10. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
Taylor Kelly is an accurate thrower, particularly with the short and intermediate passes that dominate his offense at Arizona State. He consistently gets the ball into his teammates’ hands and, most importantly, puts them in position to keep running and making plays.
He is not a strong-armed QB, but thanks to his offense, he does not have to be. He’s at his best dinking and dunking, taking what the defense gives him and pushing the ball out to his playmakers on the edge.
Kelly is a quarterback who can run and throw the ball on any given play. He understands when to call his own number on the zone read, when to tuck and run on a pass play, and when to throw it away or dump it off in the pass game.
Much like Bryce Petty at Baylor, Kelly is a great fit for his system because he is capable of getting loose. That makes him more comfortable in the pocket and more dangerous for opponents.
In Kelly, the Sun Devils have a good quarterback having a great season. He’s made some mistakes, but as he settled into 2013, he’s shown a quality knack for putting the Sun Devils in the end zone.
Second round. A good all-around athlete, but might be a little small for the pros.
9. Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Accurate passing is one of the areas where the LSU quarterback has improved mightily under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Zach Mettenberger has found a groove in hitting his spots on the slant and the out. He’s also throwing amazing back-shoulder throws to his targets.
This is where Mettenberger is the king of the castle. The senior has the strongest arm in the collegiate game. He can spin the ball with zip, and when he uncorks the cannon to throw deep, there are few receivers who can outrun the unload.
This is the area where Mettenberger has improved the most in 2013, even more so than his accuracy. It is not just decisions about avoiding throwing balls in traffic or trying to muscle balls into spaces he shouldn’t. Rather, his positive reads are the biggest leap. He understands where his advantages are and uses them to put stress on the defense.
LSU’s quarterback will hang in the pocket to make a play, especially since he becomes a major threat when he is forced to move—thanks to his lack of elusiveness. In a crowded pocket, Mettenberger still has problems, especially with defenders near his legs.
No quarterback has taken as big a leap in 2013 as Mettenberger. He has grown from a shaky liability to a solid threat at the position. He is a big-time asset for the Bayou Bengals.
Second round. Has top-level passing ability, but injury and off-field concerns hurt his stock.
8. Blake Bortles, UCF
The Knights quarterback delivers the ball with tremendous accuracy from inside and outside the pocket. He’s accurate on the run, an added asset to his game that allows him to deliver balls on the money while evading trouble.
Blake Bortles has an above-average arm that helps him drive the ball down the field. He’s capable of making all of the throws, although, like some other QBs, his deep balls lose velocity and hang in the air at times.
The UCF signal-caller is smart with the ball in his hands, although he does take risks when he is trying to make a play. He has such good ability to evade the rush that in his push to extend plays and make something happen, he sometimes does too much.
Bortles is very good in the pocket, thanks to that ability to evade the rush. He understands that he can hang in the pocket until the last minute and still make plays. That understanding keeps him very cool between the tackles.
Bortles was on the fringe of many folks’ radar entering the year, and he exploded on the scene as a big-time player at the position. He’s an accurate passer who rarely puts his team in bad situations and has the athletic ability to get himself out of trouble.
Early first round. He'll be a top-10 pick whenever he decides to head to the NFL. Mobility and accuracy.
7. Derek Carr, Fresno State
Derek Carr is an accurate passer, especially in the underneath and intermediate zones. He throws a great slant and a solid comeback route, things that are staples in almost every offense.
The senior has a very strong arm. He can fit the ball into tight windows with zip. When asked to stretch the field, he can get the ball vertical in a big way. The arm is there to get the ball downfield; with a flick of the wrist, he puts the ball deep on opponents.
Carr is safe with the ball, a testament to his decision-making. The quarterback takes risks down the field, stretching the defense vertically, but he does not put the ball in coverage or in spots where the defense can get to it. He’s also not afraid to throw the checkdown or toss the ball away when nothing is there.
Here is where Carr takes a step back from some of the more elite players. Clean or crowded pocket, he has an anxious feel to him that causes him to fade and move unnecessarily.
Carr is a very good quarterback, even with the moving in the pocket. He has a tremendous arm, throws a ball that jumps out of his hand and delivers it with accuracy down the field.
Early first round. Has NFL-level arm, just has to get better vs. pressure.
6. Aaron Murray, Georgia
Aaron Murray is one of the more accurate quarterbacks. He puts the ball where his receivers want to get it and does a good job of keeping the ball away from defenders. Even playing with a revolving door at the wide receiver position, Murray has been consistently accurate.
This is Murray’s big flaw. He does not have the same arm that other big-time quarterbacks possess. However, his arm strength does not hinder his ability to get the ball to the edges in the intermediate areas or to put zip on the ball. Murray is simply not the guy to make a living on deep balls.
Murray is good on the fly. He continuously gets himself and the Dawgs out of trouble with quick thinking. He knows when to dump off the ball, when to hang in the pocket an extra second and when to tuck the ball and get what he can.
The Bulldogs quarterback is cool under pressure. That is an underrated facet to his game. He has the ability to evade the rush, is comfortable throwing on the run and is even capable of getting down the field.
Murray is a high-quality QB. He’s quick on his feet, makes good decisions and can get the ball to his receivers. Although some of his longer throws float, he is very good in the intermediate range and can make plays for his team.
Fourth round. A late ACL injury really hurts his stock after a very good senior season.
5. AJ McCarron, Alabama
AJ McCarron is an accurate thrower out of the pocket. He is able to put the ball where he wants it, avoids traffic and understands just how to get it into his receivers’ hands and away from defenders.
He has underrated arm strength. When he has to throw the bomb, he can put it out in front of the wide receiver. He also has no problem putting good zip on the ball to get it to his players in a hurry.
Game to game, McCarron is a high-quality decision-maker. He’s not afraid to throw the ball out of bounds, and he understands that turnovers are what his coach does not want. His lapses are few and far between.
Here is where McCarron’s lapses in decision-making become a problem. When the pocket gets crowded, he looks to get rid of the ball in a hurry, which leads to tosses into traffic. If a team can get him uncomfortable, it can create turnovers.
Where the traditional pocket passer is concerned, McCarron is very good. He does not have the mobility of other players in this category, and it shows with how uncomfortable he gets when asked to evade the rush. That said, in a clean pocket, he has good footwork and can get the ball to anywhere on the field.
Second round. Love the intangibles, but he doesn't have the best arm strength.
4. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Tajh Boyd is an accurate passer who avoids traffic for the most part. At times, he does let the ball get away from him. That includes allowing it to sail or short-arming throws, creating passes that hit the ground before reaching the receiver.
The Clemson senior has a strong enough arm to get the ball downfield a couple of times a game, but he butters his bread with shorter passes. He’s at his best working shallow to intermediate because his deep balls have fluttered at times.
Boyd’s big weakness is making his mind up before the ball is snapped, which leads to forcing the ball where it doesn’t belong. In general, the senior is safe with the football. That’s why he’s one of the best in the game. Although he is a pocket passer, he works the zone read well and is adept at deciding between the run and pass on packaged plays.
He is solid in the pocket, staying in to make throws and getting out when necessary. However, at times, such as the N.C. State game, he has shown that pressure rattles him and makes him less effective.
Boyd is a very good quarterback. His biggest assets are his legs, his willingness to use them and his ability to deliver accurate passes while changing his arm angle to get the ball off. He can freeze defenders while working packaged plays and still get the ball to his targets after going through his run-game read.
Second round. A smaller guy, but his mobility and deep accuracy are on point.
3. Bryce Petty, Baylor
More often than not, Bryce Petty puts the ball on the money. He’s very accurate in the intermediate and short range, something that Baylor’s offense requires. Down the field he overthrows his targets at times, but the positive is he misses long—not short, where defenders can make a play.
Another strong-armed quarterback, Petty can push the ball vertically off a quick step and throw. When he sees daylight in the back end, he puts the ball out in front of his speedy receivers to make big plays happen.
Petty has been phenomenal with the football in his hands. He’s capable of pulling the ball down when he doesn’t see anything down the field, and he almost never puts the ball in jeopardy by throwing into coverage. He is a coach’s dream at the position because he is a player who truly values the football.
Petty takes off a little early at times, but as a whole, he is confident in the pocket and is willing to stand tall to make a play. His legs make him a bigger factor than the more traditional stand-and-throw passers.
Petty burst onto the scene this year as a different quarterback than Baylor had featured in the past couple of seasons. He has the arm to make all of the throws and is capable of evading pressure and making a play.
Early first round. High-profile arm talent with on-point accuracy. Franchise quarterback material.
2. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater has displayed tremendous accuracy time and again in 2013. He is another player who can put the ball where only his target can get to the football. Bridgewater also brings a great understanding of just what his receivers can, and cannot, reach, and he tailors his play accordingly.
The Cardinals junior does not have the strongest arm, but he’s a guy who finds a way to put significant zip on the ball to get it in tight windows. He is not going to throw the 70-yard bomb, but he is capable of completing good throws off his back foot and spinning it hard to get the ball there in a hurry.
Bridgewater is the best in the game at making choices with the football in his hand. He knows when to throw the ball away, when to test the defense and, at times, even when to just tuck it and get what he can or take the sack. His best quality, without a doubt, is being smart with the football.
He’s another quarterback who has decent wheels but does not feel compelled to use them. Bridgewater is comfortable in the pocket moving side to side, stepping up or under a rusher all while keeping his eyes down the field.
Many folks focus on Louisville’s less-than-stellar competition when evaluating Bridgewater, but the fact is the intangible skills are there, regardless of the league. He puts the ball where it needs to be, can sidestep the rush and has shown a frequent ability to do the little things right.
Early first round. Prototypical passer ranks as second-best quarterback I've graded in last decade.
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State
Jameis Winston, as a redshirt freshman, has epitomized what a coach wants out of ball placement. Whether it was an interior or a sideline route, he’s shown an ability to put the ball where only his receiver can get it, and that takes real skill and real talent.
The Florida State quarterback has a cannon for an arm. It’s allowed him to accurately launch passes from the left hash to the far right side of the field off his back foot. When it comes to Winston, all the cliches apply: The kid can throw a frozen rope and toss it a mile.
Winston has been spot-on this season with his throws, and that’s as much a testament to his decision-making as it is his accuracy. In the Miami game, he pressed and made a couple of mistakes. But more often than not, he showed an ability to push the ball downfield without putting possessions, or even downs, in danger.
For a pocket quarterback, Winston is the rare breed who understands that he can get himself out of trouble. He’s capable of running the ball when necessary, thus he stays in the pocket longer than others would. He also is a big kid who trusts his arm, so he doesn’t shy away from the contact if the throw is there.
Winston lived up to all of the hype and then some. He was strong in the face of the blitz, evaded the rush while keeping his eyes down the field and consistently put the ball where only his receivers could catch it.
Early first round. Huge arm. Physical monster. Most talented QB in category. Needs to work on footwork. Very solid decision-maker.
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