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2017 NFL Draft: Mason Rudolph Is the Rising Passer in a Sinking QB Class

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2016

Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) looks for a receiver during an NCAA college football game between Texas and Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Oklahoma State won 49-31. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Nine NFL franchises have a 2-4 record or worse as we enter Week 7 of the regular season. With the magic number to make the playoffs usually landing around 10 wins, that means those squads, at worst, have to go 8-2 down the stretch, winning games at nearly two-and-a-half times their current rate to make the postseason.

For all intents and purposes, those teams are out of the playoff hunt in mid-October, meaning their fanbases will soon flock to mock drafts to fill their need for hope in their franchises moving forward. In the college football season's first month, three big-name quarterbacks were on the top of everyone's list, but each has taken a stumble, while one, Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State, is building steady momentum, looking like the potential "riser" of the 2017 draft class.

Before explaining why Rudolph may wind up as a first-round pick next April, we first need to dig into the landscape of quarterback prospects in college football.

Immediately after Deshaun Watson's title-game performance against Alabama, which nearly knocked off Nick Saban's Crimson Tide on the largest stage the sport has to offer, the Clemson Tiger was crowned the top passing prospect eligible for the 2017 class.

Unfortunately, Watson and the Tigers have both had stumbles in the first month and a half of the regular season. Last year, Clemson only played in four one-score matches over 15 games during its 14-1 season. This year, the Tigers have had four heart-stopping games, against Auburn in the season-opener, Group of Five Troy, Louisville and most recently their overtime match with North Carolina State.

The Tigers lost just two draftable players on the offensive side of the ball in receiver Charone Peake and running back Zac Brooks, both seventh-round picks, between last January and now, and they got back Mike Williams, a potential first-round receiver who missed almost all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Watson is playing with equal or more talent this year, but he has visibly regressed, which has translated to Clemson's weekly battle to dig themselves out of a hole and on Watson's stat sheet.

Here is what Watson looks like from an efficiency perspective over his three years playing college football.

TeamComp. %TD/INTPass YPARun TD/Att. %Passer Rating
201663.62.57.61.4146.4
201567.82.78.45.8156.3
201467.97.010.77.9188.6

In just about every way imaginable, Watson is worse in 2016 than he was in 2015.

The other quarterback who was thought about highly heading into this season was Miami's Brad Kaaya. A lot of the hype around Kaaya's pro prospects had to do with two factors: First, he had a leg up on the rest of college football by starting as a true freshman for a Power Five program, and, second, he was matched up with Mark Richt, the former head coach of Georgia and a former Hurricanes quarterback who groomed Matthew Stafford into a first overall pick.

The problem with that line of thinking flashed early, though. Stafford was never thought of as a refined quarterback, and it wasn't until he was a 27-year-old under Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter that he finally "got it."

Stafford was largely drafted because of his raw tools, which is the same reason he was ranked as a five-star passer and the nation's top high school prospect in the 2006 recruiting class, according to Scout.com. Little of Stafford's perceived success had to do with Richt's coaching, and Kaaya simply doesn't have the physical tools to live and die off his talent in the ACC, let alone in the NFL.

Stafford was Richt's last full-time NFL starting quarterback he's coached, and before him, the last passer to start significant games in the NFL after being coached by Richt in college was Chris Weinke, who dates back to the 2000 Florida State Seminoles. Kaaya has yet to flash that potential we were promised, and that is slowly dragging him down the media's big boards.

DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame, who wasn't even the named starting quarterback for the Irish through the summer, is the last major passer at the top of most early mock drafts. Kizer has shown flashes of Jameis Winston-like talent, but Notre Dame's now 2-5 season may drop an anchor for his draft stock.

In recent memory, only three first-round quarterbacks have had losing records in their time playing college football: Jared Goff, who has yet to start an NFL game, Jake Locker, who left the NFL after four seasons, and Jay Cutler, this generation's version of Jeff George. With absolute certainty, you can assume if a Kizer-led Irish miss bowl season for the first time since 2009, it will raise questions during the draft process, if not sooner.

As an individual, Kizer is cooling off after his hot start against the Texas Longhorns, as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks, who both played in the NFL as a defensive back and scouted players in the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers front office, gave Kizer a C-minus grade for his effort against Stanford, which had previously lost back-to-back games against Washington and Washington State by a combined score of 86-22.

It's amazing how quickly the shine has come off of Kizer's star after his spectacular 2016 debut showing against Texas. Since that monster performance, Kizer has struggled with his accuracy, ball placement and judgment. He has tossed interceptions in six straight games and it seems he has lost his confidence as a playmaker.

Kizer's footwork is all over the place and his penchant for throwing off balance has led to some poor throws from the pocket. Against Stanford, his shoddy footwork contributed to his two-interception effort. Part of his "happy feet" can be attributed to his nerves overwhelming him after being benched for a while in the second half by coach Brian Kelly.

The cornerstones of this quarterback class are crumbling in front of our eyes, but all hope is not lost. Remember, around this time in 2013 hardly anyone knew who Central Florida's Blake Bortles was.

Unlike Watson, he was peaking at the end of his college career. Unlike Kaaya, he had the tools of a high-upside player. Unlike Kizer, his team was winning games, as the Knights even earned their first BCS bid in school history in 2013.

If you're looking for a player with all of those attributes, with the arrow pointing up on his draft potential, then you don't need to look further than QB1 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. While the other passers in this class are losing steam, Rudolph is building momentum during his true junior season.

Once J.W. Walsh, a former Army All-American and Big 12 Freshman of the Year, went down with an injury during Rudolph's freshman season, he began seeing playing time, along with Daxx Garman—a transfer from Arizona. Garman eventually transferred to Maryland, leaving Walsh and Rudolph to split time in 2015.

In a pass-happy Big 12, defenses often line up in quarters coverage, assigning four defensive backs to play a deep zone shell, which typically forces quarterbacks to either push a ball into windows they can't hit or check down into underneath coverage. Since Rudolph first started getting live reps in the conference, he's shown that no window is too small, as he has the arm strength to rip a ball 40 yards in the air on queue and he flashes the accuracy of a starting-caliber NFL passer.

One reason why he may have been falling under the radar, though, would be his stat sheet. While Rudolph was the starting quarterback last season, he split time with Walsh in the red zone, as evident of their splits.

QuarterbackTotal TouchesRZ TouchesRZ TDs% Snaps in RZ
J.W. Walsh162481929.6
Mason Rudolph46445229.7

Because of Walsh's ability to run the football, something that is stressed much more in the college game than in the professional ranks, Rudolph often found himself off the field closer to scoring territory. Now that he's receiving all of the red zone reps at quarterback, Rudolph's touchdown-to-interception ratio is looking a lot closer to his true talent than it did last season.

YearPass TDINTTD/INT
20161326.5
20152192.3

In a full-time role, Rudolph is thriving, which begs the question if playing Walsh in the red zone last year really was an effective plan of action. Either way, though, if Rudolph would have had the opportunity to score the touchdowns Walsh "snaked," would a true junior passer with over 40 total touchdowns and less than double-digit interceptions have started the season ranked among the best in college football?

As of right now, Rudolph has the seventh-best passer rating of any draft-eligible quarterback out of a Power Five conference with a starting job. No senior quarterback with those qualifiers rank above him.

Not only is he peaking, but his team is peaking at the same time. The 4-2 Oklahoma State Cowboys still have a chance to win the Big 12, a conference they have a 2-1 record in, which could vault him onto a national stage in a big bowl game, just as Bortles' UCF team did in 2013.

The team did lose by 11 points to Baylor, a top-10 team and the favorite to win the Big 12, in Waco, Texas, but its other loss came against Central Michigan on a blown call that led to a crew of officials being suspended, according to Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. After beating a tough Pittsburgh defense and a ranked Texas team, it's not out of the question that Oklahoma State can win any individual game left on its schedule.

Trending up at the right time? Check. Having a talented enough team to get some attention? Check.

For whatever it's worth, the 2014 Mississippi State Bulldogs, which entered mid-November with a 9-0 record as the top ranked team in the country, got a lot more press than the 2015 Bulldogs, who lost two of their first three Southeastern Conference games. Could that have played into their quarterback, Dak Prescott, who now looks like he'd be a top-10 pick if the 2016 draft class were to be re-drafted today, falling under the radar?

Right or wrong, the idea of a potential savior quarterback playing in the limelight does seem to matter when it comes to draft projections, and Rudolph is in a spot where he can still be competitive in that aspect.

When you watch Cowboys broadcasts, it's easy to see how teams could talk themselves into the Oklahoma State passer, too.

Rudolph has a basic understanding of leverage. If your #2 crosses their #2's face, hit the hole, no matter the size. pic.twitter.com/jWLTkoWNbK

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 19, 2016

Rudolph understands basic leverage concepts, which shouldn't be surprising considering the amount of time his team has spent in spread formations. Like Prescott, who played in a spread offense under Dan Mullen in Starkville, Mississippi, he often takes what the defense gives him underneath, which against Cover 4 defenses tends to be a lot, while managing his shots downfield when his team is down or in third- or fourth-down situations.

If you were to try to paint a picture of what happens to him when no one is open deep, though, you'd mention he can find his checkdown option with ease in his progression, and he tries to make plays outside of the pocket, getting his receivers into a scramble drill to break coverage assignments, when defensive lines give him the opportunity. Does that sound like a certain Dallas Cowboy to you?

Two high safety/quarters here. 2R runs a skinny post, take safety. 1R runs a deep dig into the same safety's zone. pic.twitter.com/apQ47bUZpG

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 19, 2016

Against two-high safeties looks, which are less common in the NFL but still present, he has the knowledge and arm strength to throw the ball to one of two receivers running into a single defensive back's zone. Often, you'll here these combination routes called hi-lo reads, and they are very prevalent in the NFL.

Single high safety/Cover 3 here. Understands from the jump that the hole is in the seams and gets it there quick. pic.twitter.com/cSIrZu93oo

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 19, 2016

Against single-high safety looks, he's aware the holes in the coverage are up the seams, and once he sees that safety sitting in the middle of the field, he's able to strike quickly.

Central Michigan sends eight. Rudolph checks them deep (right call) and gets a TD off a fade. pic.twitter.com/13P7zbvfat

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 19, 2016

When teams send pressure, as many as four extra rushers, he's able to recognize it quickly. In those situations, teams have to play man defense on the back end, which then begs for offenses to try to throw a quick, well-timed deep ball.

That doesn't necessarily force Rudolph's hand, as he has the arm talent, touch, confidence and success rate to make squads pay for only hanging three defenders back in coverage. He may not have much history with calling protections or playing under center, but as far as testing coverage shells, you can turn on any Oklahoma State game and see how he does against Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 2, various Cover 3 looks, Cover 4 and Cover 5.

As far as what he's seen in college on the back end, he's earned a Ph.D. in three seasons. Entire teams, like Carson Palmers' Arizona Cardinals, Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers, Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints and Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts can base their offense around their vertical passing game.

That's what many expected Bortles to be coming out of college, and maybe his supporting cast has stunted his growth a bit, but there's no reason to think Rudolph, whom NFL Draft Scout lists just shy of 6'4" and 235 pounds with a 4.77-second 40-yard dash, couldn't be that tall, mobile, strong-armed, smart, accurate, winning passer who would often warrant the "savior" label.

Rudolph was a hidden gem in a class full of at least somewhat disappointing passers at the top of the big board, but he's going to emerge out of the shadows of the three staples of the quarterback class sooner or later. Teams and fanbases that are disheartened over the status of the position's depth this year will soon learn his name.

He's this year's Bortles. This year's Carson Wentz. This year's top vertical passer.

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