An Early Look at the Top Quarterbacks in the 2015 NFL Draft
With the 2014 NFL draft just over a month behind us, the focus now shifts to the 2015 class. Today, we are focusing on the quarterback position.
The 2014 quarterback class, led by first-rounders Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, was one of the most intriguing of the last few years because there wasn’t a clear-cut franchise quarterback in the group, but each man was good enough in his own right to warrant an early selection (although true value will be decided in the next 36 months).
In 2015, the talent level seems to be a bit higher initially, although each signal-caller has areas to improve.
There are a number of players who have intriguing potential, but four of them stick out (in my mind, at least) from the others.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the possible incoming crop of young quarterbacks.
(Note: All analysis is based off of 2013 film.)
1. Marcus Mariota, Junior, Oregon
Heading into his third full season at the helm for Oregon, Marcus Mariota is looking to build on a strong redshirt sophomore season.
Instead of entering the draft and having the possibility of being the first quarterback selected , Mariota decided to come back for 2014, adding six pounds (brings him to an estimated 218 pounds) to his 6'4" frame in the process.
The decision to return will benefit both Mariota and the program, which is looking to return to a BCS Bowl (and, for Oregon fans, the four-team playoff) after not reaching a BCS game in 2013 for the first time since 2008.
The first thing that pops out about Mariota is his athleticism. He emerged as one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation last year, racking up 715 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in 2013. He has good speed and the ability to make defenders miss.
Mariota has the arm to hit receivers at all levels of the field. He sees the field well and can deliver passes in tight windows. He puts a lot of zip on the ball when attempting passes over 15 yards.
One part of Mariota's game that separates him from the pack is his quick decision-making and his ability to read defenses, oftentimes making plays go from "good" to "great."
This play is a perfect example of that. On a 4th-and-6, Oregon dials up what looks to be a quick bubble screen. Knowing that the corner is playing off of the receiver in the Cover 2 defense and reading his eyes, Mariota turns his head to his receiver in the flats. As soon as the cornerback bites on the fake, Mariota guns one over the top for a 45-yard touchdown.
He also doesn’t make risky passes, which shows when you see his four-interception mark for the entire 2013 season. In fact, Mariota didn’t throw an interception until the 11th game of the year against Arizona.
The issue that Mariota needs to work on the most is his ball security. When he scrambles, he sometimes doesn’t tuck the ball away, giving defenders the opportunity to create turnovers.
Not so much a weakness, but Mariota has spent most of his time taking snaps in the shotgun or pistol. As an NFL quarterback, he will have to adjust to taking the ball from under center and making three- to five-step drops.
Mariota’s ability to make throws at all levels of the field, ability to pick apart defenses with his arm, legs, and eyes and his lack of red flags make him the top quarterback on this list.
2. Jameis Winston, Sophomore, Florida State
Jameis Winston will take the “Most Polarizing Player in College Football” title after the departure of Johnny Manziel to the NFL.
He will look to lead the Seminoles to their second straight national title in 2014.
To start, Winston has an absolute cannon of an arm. He throws an extremely tight spiral and can fit the ball into tight spaces between defenders. While throwing on the run, Winston is very accurate and delivers catchable passes to his receivers without even setting his feet (just ask Maryland).
He has the ability to hit his receivers at all levels of the field, and made a number of good throws outside of the numbers (although now-Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a height advantage over every cornerback in the FBS, making things a little easier).
Something that goes unnoticed with quarterbacks is their accuracy on short plays like screens, such as this one. On the play, Winston delivers a perfectly placed ball to the hands of his receiver running a bubble screen around the line of scrimmage, allowing him to gain speed and take off for a 10-yard gain.
Despite being rated a spot lower, Winston does have the upper hand on Mariota in one regard: Winston has the benefit of playing in a pro-style offensive system, allowing him to take snaps from under center, the shotgun and even the pistol.
His effectiveness isn’t limited to the passing game, either. Winston has good speed for someone his size (6'4", 227 pounds), and he has extremely long strides, which can make him a real problem to handle when he scrambles.
First, Winston is going to have to solve his issues off the field. As anyone who keeps up with the draft process knows, the NFL hates red flags.
Last year, Winston looked superhuman, but he did make some "rookie" mistakes, like on this play.
Before the snap, Clemson loads six in the box (not counting the two cornerbacks) to counter the Florida State formation of four receivers (two on each side) with reduced splits. Clemson throws a small wrinkle at the inexperienced signal-caller, bringing all three linebackers as they drop the left end into coverage.
After a nasty move from Clemson defensive tackle Shaq Lawson, most players would scramble out of the tackle box and throw the ball away or take the sack to avoid a costly turnover.
Instead, Winston not only takes a hit, but he launches an errant 20-yard pass in the direction of tight end Nick O'Leary, who is running an "in" route. The pass goes to the direction where O'Leary was pre-cut, and Bashaud Breeland is there to make an effortless interception.
It is a real push for the top spot between Winston and Mariota. Both are extremely talented and have differing styles but because of the red flags, Winston is second on the preseason list.
3. Brett Hundley, Junior, UCLA
Hundley is another player who briefly flirted with declaring early for the NFL draft before eventually deciding to return to school.
The 6'3", 222-pound signal-caller is heading into his third full season as a starter and will lead a talented Bruins team in what should be one of the most competitive Pac-12 seasons in a long time.
Hundley has the ability to make plays not only with his arm, but also with his feet. As a runner, he reminds me of Tajh Boyd, especially on option plays. He executes the fake handoff to his running back, makes a quick read and hits the hole in a hurry.
When Hundley has time in the pocket (which isn’t very often), he fully goes through his progressions and can deliver a very accurate ball on all areas of the field within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. This play is a perfect example.
Facing a 3rd-and-15, Washington is set to bring just two pass-rushers with a middle linebacker running a quarterback spy.
After making three reads, Hundley sets his feet, shifts his weight forward and delivers a well-placed ball right into his receiver’s hands, which results in a first down.
The biggest issue with Hundley is his touch on long passes. He has the arm strength to be successful at the next level, but plays like this create huge headaches for coaches and players alike.
His man creates enough room to haul in the catch for a first down and maybe more, but Hundley places the throw a little out of reach of Shaq Evans.
He has shown the ability to accurately place balls well on throws longer than 15 yards (also, look at him advancing in the pocket before the throw, another thing he does well), but he hasn’t done it consistently. This is something that he is really going to have to work on improving before he reaches the next level.
Few players will benefit returning to school more than Hundley. He’ll have another season to read defenses and work on his long passes. Hundley has a solid chance at being a late first-round, early second-round pick in 2015.
4. Connor Cook, Junior, Michigan State
After being used sparingly to start the year, Connor Cook took the starting spot under center from Andrew Maxwell in the third week of the season.
Cook, along with a very talented Spartan defense, finished strong, losing just one game and capping the year off with a thrilling Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
The 6'4", 218-pound pocket passer out of Hinckley, Ohio, will look to put the Spartans back into the national title hunt in 2014.
The first thing that jumps out about Cook’s game is his pocket presence. Cook, who has the benefit of playing in a pro-style offense, takes the time to go through his progressions, which is rare for a player with minimum experience.
He is constantly climbing the pocket until he finds an open man. After Cook has locked in on a receiver, he shows great balance, shifts his weight forward and delivers sharp throws.
Another thing to love about Cook’s game is his anticipation on passes, like on this play.
He anticipates his receiver’s cut under the safety and places the ball right in the receiver’s hands in stride, earning a big gain.
Cook can also make plays happen on the run. On this 2nd-and-goal inside of the two-yard line, Cook executes the play action and rolls out while scanning all of his eligible receivers in the end zone.
When he has cluster of players (two receivers, three men in coverage) over the middle, Cook quickly glances to the right to find his fullback, Trevon Pendleton, in single coverage.
As soon as Pendleton gets free (thanks to a stumble by the Stanford cover man), Cook delivers a catchable pass while scrambling, giving Michigan State its first lead of the game.
It is these kinds of improvisational skills and ability to quickly find the open receiver that make Cook so dangerous.
Cook’s biggest problem is that he sometimes trusts his arm too much and makes bad decisions.
On this play, Cook locks in on a receiver five yards from the line of scrimmage. He fails to recognize two things: There are four defenders in the area that have a play on the ball and Ohio State’s safety, anticipating that throw, begins to close in on the receiver.
Cook makes the throw, resulting in a costly turnover.
He had another one of these plays against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
These things will improve as he gets more playing time and continues to improve his ability to read coverages, although he does pretty well with this despite starting just under one full season.
Cook already has a number of things that NFL teams look for in prototypical pocket passers. If he can continue to improve and show that last year wasn’t a fluke, Cook could be another signal-caller hearing his name in the first two rounds of the 2015 NFL draft.
Others to Watch
Bryce Petty, Senior, Baylor
Kevin Hogan, Senior, Stanford
Gunner Kiel, Redshirt Sophomore, Cincinnati
Chuckie Keeton, Senior, Utah State
Sean Mannion, Senior, Oregon State
Devin Gardner, Senior, Michigan
Taylor Kelly, Senior, Arizona State