Last summer, the 2018 NFL draft's quarterback class was thought to be on par with the famed 2004 crop of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. That led some analysts, and maybe even some NFL executives, to float the idea of tanking the season to secure one of the elite quarterbacks in this class.
Fast-forward to the end of October, and the Big Three—Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen—have struggled to live up to the expectations placed on them before the season. This raises the question: Is there a franchise-saving quarterback in this class?
To answer this, we have to look at the flaws of the Big Three and open our minds to the possibility of a dark-horse candidate.
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Josh Allen (Wyoming) entered the season as my top-ranked player in the class. That lasted one week after I saw him live against Iowa—a game in which Allen displayed his rare traits but struggled with pocket presence and accuracy.
He sits inside my top 10 based purely on the upside of those traits. It can't be ignored that Allen's supporting cast is among the worst of any quarterback in the 2018 class. Scouts I've talked to continually point out that the second-year starter can't be evaluated on statistics because of the team around him.
Allen, like Patrick Mahomes last year or Paxton Lynch the year before, must be drafted into a situation where he can be developed. He might be a franchise savior, but it won't be in year one.
Scout's Quote: "Allen has the best tools I've ever seen in a quarterback, but at some point it has to translate to the field, and it's just not. He'll still go Round 1, though, because we always think we'll get the best out of a guy."
Sam Darnold (USC) turned around the Trojans' 2016 season after taking over as the starter for Max Browne and led the team to a comeback Rose Bowl win that had scouts, fans and analysts excited for a full season of starts.
Darnold has been inconsistent, though, leading the FBS in turnovers (16) but still making plays and showing the poise that originally got us all excited. The redshirt sophomore is playing on a USC team that's been wrecked by injuries and is thin at receiver—which is important to note because many of his turnovers have been the result of dropped or tipped passes by his targets.
Like Jameis Winston or Deshaun Watson in their final collegiate seasons, Darnold is attempting throws he shouldn't be in trying to make big plays. If coaches feel they can fix those mistakes, he'll still be a top-five pick.
Scout's Quote: "I'm not even sure [Darnold] will come out, but if he does he needs to be in the right scheme. He has an average arm, and a lot of the picks come from him trying to thread the needle without velocity."
Josh Rosen (UCLA) missed most of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury, but since his true freshman year, scouts have viewed him as a potential No. 1 overall pick. And of the quarterbacks in this class, Rosen is the most likely to be the first pick in next year's draft. He has a picturesque release and pocket presence, shows enough arm strength to thrive in any offense or environment and is playing the type of mistake-free football the numbers people like.
The elephant in the room is that Rosen can be brash and outspoken, which might not vibe with old-school football folks. From a purely football standpoint, he is the closest thing to a franchise quarterback in this class.
Scout's Quote: "Typical California kid. He thinks he's smarter than his coach and might be, but god dang can he throw a football. He looks like Andrew Luck out there."
What about the rest of the class? Could Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson be a franchise savior at quarterback? Yes. They could be.
No one thought Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson or Tom Brady would become franchise quarterbacks, but each has overcome the odds to earn that title. Whether it's Mayfield, Jackson, Mason Rudolph or an outlier such as Logan Woodside at Toledo, there is the possibility of a sleeper savior in this class. The odds are, of course, slim, but in the right system and if drafted to a team with an already strong supporting cast, one of these prospects could make it happen.
Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has electric skills as a runner and passer. While studying his two years' worth of tape this week I was impressed with Jackson's development as a passer from the pocket and his improved mechanics. There are still concerns with his game—too many missed reads on second and third progressions and the fact that his dominant trait is his running ability—but I'm more intrigued by Jackson than I've been in the past.
Mayfield is the wild card. He's short for the position (6'1") and wild on and off the field. Be he's also poised and clutch in pressure situations. Mayfield oozes confidence and charisma and has a game that lands somewhere between Wilson and Johnny Manziel. If he proves to have the work ethic of Wilson and the playmaking skills of Manziel, he'll be a longtime starter in the NFL.
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Here's what else is going on this week:
- Top five matchups to watch in Week 9
- Will Darnold stay or go?
- Updated NFL draft order
- Stick to Football Episode 29: Leonard Fournette and Fixing the New York Giants
The Scout's Report
—Will Darnold enter the 2018 NFL draft? I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone does. I reached out this week to multiple NFL sources, USC sources and agents, and I couldn't find anyone who knows. I continue to hear that Darnold loves USC and isn't in a rush to enter the NFL draft, but that doesn't mean he will stay in school. The best thing anyone can do is step back and let Darnold make a decision without rushing him into it.
—Tennessee running back John Kelly has been a bright spot for the Volunteers but has been suspended by the team after a citation for marijuana possession. Kelly, a junior, had been a hot name among area scouts. This may not mean much for his draft stock (interviews and character checks with team officials will determine that), but I had heard Kelly was leaning toward entering the 2018 draft.
—The Chicago Bears traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Los Angeles Chargers for wide receiver Dontrelle Inman this week in an under-the-radar move that could pay off. Inman is the type of big receiver (6'3", 205 lbs) the Bears need with so many injuries hitting that unit. Inman couldn't get on the field in Los Angeles behind a deep receiver corps but could steal starts in Chicago.
—Here's a name to remember as the draft process heats up: Tyrell Crosby. Area scouts mentioned the Oregon left tackle to me twice in the last 10 days as a player to watch and potentially move up my board. Crosby is athletic enough for the NFL, and his 2017 tape shows a more patient, collected pass protector.
—Is Bruce Arians ready to ride off into the sunset after this season? It sure doesn't sound like it. In response to a report from Phoenix TV station ABC15, Arians tweeted "Hearing reports I'm retiring. News to me. Nothing could be further from truth & 100% focused on getting back on track at SF! #birdgang"
—After talking with several area scouts this week, I'm starting to think I'll be far different from the league in evaluating Derwin James. The Florida State safety has amazing athletic traits, but ranking him inside the top five is too rich given the limited impact he makes. James, who is returning from a 2016 knee injury, isn't the hitter or coverage player many have hyped him to be. He's a solid middle-first-rounder based on upside.
—Could a guard go in the top 10 of the 2018 draft? Many executives and scouts believe Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson is the best offensive lineman in the class. The senior is ranked inside my top 15.
5 Matchups to Know
5. Oklahoma State vs. West Virginia
This week there are too many marquee games to focus on player vs. player matchups. In this one, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and his talented cast of wide receivers (James Washington, Marcell Ateman) face a West Virginia team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. On offense, WVU has quarterback Will Grier, wide receivers David Sills V and Ka'Raun White, and running back Justin Crawford all looking like top-100 picks next year. Defensively, safety Kyzir White has a Round 2 grade on my board. This will matchup be a scout's dream.
4. Penn State vs. Ohio State
The Michigan defense was no match for Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, but will Ohio State be? The Buckeyes defensive line is loaded (Sam Hubbard, Dre'Mont Jones, Tyquan Lewis) when it comes to 2018 draft prospects. Ohio State's ability to match up across the board will give Barkley and Co. the best test of the year. Not only does this game have big national-title implications, but it will also heavily influence scouting for both teams.
3. North Carolina State vs. Notre Dame
The Notre Dame defense has quietly become one of the best in college football, which makes this game against sleeper quarterback Ryan Finley and North Carolina State an excellent one to evaluate. The Wolfpack also have Bradley Chubb—one of the top-rated edge-rushers in the 2018 draft class—going against Notre Dame's offensive line, which features Mike McGlinchey and Nelson.
How well Chubb does against McGlinchey and vice versa will have a major impact in how I stack the board at edge-rusher and offensive tackle. Keep an eye on Notre Dame running back Josh Adams, too. He's a legitimate Heisman candidate and a potential top-five running back in the 2018 class.
2. UCLA vs. Washington
Rosen in a head-to-head matchup with a damn good defense is must-see scouting. He has a chance to establish himself as the best quarterback in the class down the stretch, and playing well against the Huskies can do just that. Rosen doesn't need to be perfect, but he can't afford a three-interception game like he had against Arizona. The Washington defense, led by nose tackle Vita Vea, has true NFL talent at every level and will give UCLA all it can handle.
1. TCU vs. Iowa State
This game doesn't have major draft implications, but it should be fun to watch. Iowa State has been the biggest surprise in the Big 12 thanks to the job head coach Matt Campbell and his staff have done. TCU, ranked No. 4 overall, could see a boost in the rankings with a Top 25 win and a loss by a team like Penn State, which is facing a tough opponent.
10. I like to think many of the people reading this column each week are aspiring or hobbyist evaluators, so when I see thought-provoking articles about the business of player evaluation I try to share them. Dan Hatman, who runs The Scouting Academy and is a former NFL scout, penned a great piece this week that would be a beneficial read for both fans and analysts.
The piece, which is titled "I Don't Care About Your Grade on Wentz" and appears at Inside the Pylon, discusses how it doesn't matter where you had Carson Wentz (or anyone) ranked before the draft. What matters is how you got to that ranking and what you do with that information.
Here's what I was left thinking about on a long drive after reading the piece:
"This one player does not make you good or bad at evaluation. It is an opportunity for growth. Take the time to reflect and self-scout because the lessons that you can learn here will become trends. If you passionately stand by a bad outcome and try to justify why it really wasn't your fault, then your bad outcome trend will continue too."
9. When Bleacher Report hired me seven years ago this week (happy anniversary to me), a lot of people were very helpful as I attempted to make the jump from social media marketer to full-time journalist. In fact, that list would fill this entire space if I typed it out for you.
One such person was ESPN's Chris Mortensen. I grew up watching Mort and came to respect his work ethic and information, which combined to help make him one of the best in the business. When Chris left the air to deal with throat cancer there was a noticeable hole in the NFL media world. Thankfully, Chris is back, and he told his story to Sports Illustrated this week.
Maybe you're like me and Mort has been a friend to you, or maybe someone in your life has or is struggling with cancer, or maybe you just need a decent cry today. Either way, watch this video.
8. Many of you have asked me on Twitter over the last month what the Cleveland Browns are doing with DeShone Kizer, and I'm going to be honest: I have no idea. And I don't think they do either.
Head coach Hue Jackson once again named Kizer the starter this week, but as we've seen in the past, that doesn't mean he'll finish the game or even the first half of it. This back-and-forth, quick-trigger quarterback "plan" will not work. Whether you liked Kizer as a prospect coming out of Notre Dame or not, what the Browns are doing to him is a detriment. No quarterback could develop in this atmosphere. Sadly, we may never see Kizer reach his potential after the damage that's been done.
7. We're almost to the midway point of the NFL season. That means it's draft-order update time.
1. Cleveland Browns
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. New York Giants
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. Baltimore Ravens
8. Arizona Cardinals
9. Chicago Bears
10. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Oakland Raiders
12. New York Jets
13. Detroit Lions
14. Cleveland Browns (From Houston)
15. Dallas Cowboys
16. Denver Broncos
18. Atlanta Falcons
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
20. Tennessee Titans
21. Green Bay Packers
22. Carolina Panthers
23. Seattle Seahawks
24. Buffalo Bills
25. Miami Dolphins
26. New Orleans Saints
27. Pittsburgh Steelers
28. Los Angeles Rams
29. Minnesota Vikings
30. Buffalo Bills (From Kansas City)
31. New England Patriots
32. Philadelphia Eagles
I see Minkah Fitzpatrick as a free safety with the skill set to be a matchup problem for offenses in man coverage. Fitzpatrick is rare in that he can play cornerback, nickel, strong or free safety, and do all four at a high level. His football IQ, instincts and athleticism are all top-tier. From a football standpoint, it's kind of like a Jalen Ramsey situation where he might excel no matter where you ask him to play.
My final grade on a player is the round I would draft him in after I've studied his tape and talked to sources (NFL and college) about injuries and character, and it oftentimes comes after an interview of that player. That doesn't mean there will be 32 first-round grades and 32 second-round grades, though. I only assign a Round 1 grade to players I'd draft in that round. Last year I handed out 21 grades of 7.00 or higher, which equates to a first-rounder.
He's getting a lot of attention now, but my top-ranked small-school player is South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert. He's a top-five tight end on my board, and I'm hoping we get the chance to see him in person at the Senior Bowl. What I've seen on tape shows a fluid athlete with great hands, but he's dominating some guys who will be selling insurance next year and not a ton of NFL-level talent.
On talent, this is possible. Both Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice (who had a monster game with 276 yards last week against Ole Miss) have top-10 talent. The key is team needs. If teams have a need at quarterback, defensive end or offensive tackle, they'll likely look to address those areas first in the top 10. So many franchises will look to fill needs early in the round instead of taking best player available, which leaves room for more running backs to be drafted.
2. Stick to Football Episode 29 is ready to download—and if you haven't already, go ahead and subscribe and leave a 5-star review!
This week, Connor and I are joined by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette to talk about how hard the NFL is and what his goals are this season. We also sit down to fix the New York Giants, and one of us trades Odell Beckham Jr. To close it all out, we take your fan questions in our "Draft on Draft" segment with our intern, Kennedy.
1. If you're a fan of the podcast, we have good news for you: Stick to Football is expanding to two shows per week with Stick to Football Fridays launching November 3. The shows will be a little shorter and there won't be a guest, but co-host Marshal Miller and I will give you more NFL draft news and notes with players to watch in the Saturday games each Friday.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.