After finishing as a Heisman Trophy finalist and vaulting Clemson into national prominence, Deshaun Watson is deservedly the favorite to be the 2017 NFL draft's top quarterback prospect. But after Watson, there's far from a consensus next man up.
Washington State's Luke Falk and Miami (Florida)'s Brad Kaaya are expected to assume the spot as preseason quarterbacks worth getting excited about, but Oklahoma State's rising junior Mason Rudolph has my vote as the quarterback to get most excited about as a potentially still-developing first-round prospect.
Despite hailing from a screen and swing pass-heavy offense and not really getting a chance to let it fly downfield with as much regularity as prior top quarterbacks (yet), Rudolph's flashes of pocket navigation, developing downfield throw placement and confidence as a perimeter passer all give reason for excitement as a potential rising quarterback prospect worth getting to know.
Vision and Pocket Movement
A majority of Rudolph's throws are running back swing passes or screen throws of multiple varieties, which has frustratingly (in terms of evaluation) become commonplace for spread offenses. While Rudolph has shown consistency and plus placement on these easy throws, which is still important, it's his flashes of eye progression and pocket navigation when he's asked to do more than just quick throws that is most intriguing in his development.
Not asked to make multiple reads frequently based on the offense, the play above clearly illustrates how he's capable of play progressions at a more frequent level and can finish these throws with confidence. Rudolph, who has ample time in the pocket, works his reads left to right, focusing on the deep perimeter throw, checking to the underneath route before moving to his third read of the deep dig route. Notice the resetting of his lower half as he progresses through his reads, staying balanced and maintaining strong mechanics throughout.
Along with showing poise and resetting ability as a pocket thrower, it's Rudolph's overall pocket maneuverability and composure with bodies flying around him that should really get NFL teams excited. He's not one to be flustered with pass rush around him, frequently showing confidence to evade tacklers and push up in the pocket or out to the perimeter. While he's still improving in his anticipation of the pass rush and could be more sudden to continue on play progressions when his play breaks down, Rudolph has the mental makeup and composure to give teams reason to expect immediate improvement as a junior or into his first NFL season.
Rudolph is a poised pocket maneuverer, including working up into the penetrating pocket and keeping his vision downfield. As in the play above, Rudolph doesn't appear flustered or overly skittish when the pocket breaks down. He's willing to stick in a muddled pocket and finish downfield, something he flashed as a sophomore, though not in the play above. Notice how Rudolph stands tall and navigates up in a collapsing pocket. He evades multiple tacklers, adjusts laterally and upfield and then shows off his athleticism and running upside as a quarterback, picking up the first down. Coupling his pocket confidence and vertical throwing capabilities with his running ability and body type (6'3", 200 pounds) fits him into the desired quarterback prototype to continue to develop.
Still Improving Deep Ball Placement
Possessing a high, compact release, Rudolph finishes his midfield throws with great velocity and placement. From dig routes to post routes to seam-stretching opportunities, Rudolph thrives in the midfield. However, he still needs to reel in his velocity on those interior throws, as he can miss midfield opportunities by fastballing too often or rushing his delivery.
On the downfield perimeter throws, Rudolph is a nearly effortless vertical thrower. He's confident as he sets up and drives the ball downfield, but his touch passes leave much to be desired. As in the play above, Rudolph has ample time to finish downfield, but simply gets overexcited in his velocity and misses a bucket throw that could have led his receiver to a huge gain. It's a frequent occurrence on film that, while it improved as the year went on, remains the biggest inhibiting factor to Rudolph's first-round excitement, as of now.
These outside-the-hashmark downfield throws and bucket throws in general are ones that Rudolph still has plenty of work to develop. But as we've seen with Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the pro level, it's a skill set that can be slowly addressed and developed as he grows in comfortability as a perimeter thrower. With confidence and mechanics not an issue across all throws, velocity control being something he can easily grow into and his short-area perimeter throws frequently on point, Rudolph's issues as a placement passer appear poised for substantial development, maybe even by the time the 2016 season begins.
Confidence and Perimeter Finishing
Rudolph possesses ample arm talent to effortlessly attack the defense across the field, including and especially as a perimeter thrower. He uses his upper-half torque really well to spin a clean ball, reset his footwork and finish on the edge, both in screen and swing passes and as a comeback, an out pattern or delayed cross-field route thrower.
While velocity control has been mentioned as an issue for Rudolph previously, it's more of a rushed throw issue rather than a skill set that he doesn't possess. In the play below, Rudolph reads a man defense coverage that should allow for his slot receiver, running a corner route and against off-coverage, to have ample room to work with. Rudolph doesn't tip his hat on where he's looking post-snap, keeping a firm base focused in the middle of the field, but then turns his entire body, resets his feet and finishes with a highly catchable, perfectly placed perimeter throw that allows for his receiver to pick up the first down.
That ability to finish with plus velocity and corner and out-routes is a hugely important part of the Oklahoma State offense, as he's able to threaten secondaries at the two primary levels that an intermediate, horizontally stretching offense needs to open up the occasional midfield target. But it's the confidence he possesses in his mechanics and finishing ability on these underneath and non-touch perimeter throws that allows him to combine his composure in the pocket, movement as an athlete and finishing ability to make plays like the one above not all that surprising. Despite bobbling the ball and playing catch-up on his route timing post-snap, Rudolph regathers the ball and finishes on the perimeter with a strike on a comeback route with defenders draped all around.
Reason for Optimism
Reminding of Tannehill in terms of body type, movement ability and composure, release point and velocity and issues in downfield throw placement, Rudolph has the potential to see the same sudden rise during the draft process should he enter the 2017 NFL draft.
While there’s obviously a long way before the 2017 draft class is finalized in terms of underclassmen like Rudolph, there’s already reason for excitement in Rudolph’s throwing and athletic upside and what he can grow into. Oklahoma State’s coaching has clearly brought him along slowly, working him with J.W. Walsh as a two-quarterback offense at times and really limiting the types of complex reads and play designs he’s likely capable of.
But 2016 will be Rudolph’s golden opportunity to have full control over the offense, have the confidence instilled within him that they’ve given to Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden of years past and allow him to flourish as a quarterback prospect.
It’s a bit of a projection and a leap of faith in his offseason development and growth to consider Rudolph potentially one of the best 2017 draft class passers, but he’s flashed reason to be optimistic. And after a 2016 draft class that saw two players rise from intriguing upside quarterbacks to the top two picks in the draft, Rudolph can potentially enter 2016 with little fanfare and every reason to exceed expectations.