Best Traits for Each of the Top 2018 NFL Draft QB Prospects
Some of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history failed as NFL signal-callers because they lacked the mental or physical traits to be successful at the game's highest level. Scouts must identify key attributes to overlook the hype and build an understanding of what translates.
Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, Danny Wuerffel, Jason White, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III left college as the some of the greatest to ever play, with the hardware to prove it. Each disappointed in their attempt to lead pro offenses, though.
A prospect's previous accomplishments mean nothing once he leaves his chosen institute of higher learning. All that matters are the natural tools that made him great in the first place.
So much of an individual's success depends on factors beyond raw physical skills. Certain baseline tools are necessary, but there are always outliers, and prospects shouldn't be overlooked based on outdated and even superficial standards.
Perfect quarterback prospects don't exist. Each of the incoming top signal-callers has their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding where these individuals succeed will help determine whether they can do the same in the NFL.
Sam Darnold, USC: Improvisation
Pocket quarterbacks remain the primary vessels toward NFL success, as Tom Brady and Nick Foles' appearances in Super Bowl LII can attest. However, the league's emphasis on pressure packages and dominant pass-rushers accompanied by a leaguewide decline in offensive line play makes the ability to improvise once a play breaks down more important than ever.
Mobility isn't defined by athleticism, but the two can go hand-in-hand. Brady and Foles each navigate the pocket and deliver strikes, but USC's Sam Darnold is a standout athlete who can create inside and outside the pocket.
Darnold isn't a typical product of today's quarterback farm system, so there's still some schoolyard in his game. The 6'4", 225-pound signal-caller didn't grow up being groomed to lead an NFL franchise. Instead, he played linebacker as well as quarterback in high school.
Much like Brett Farve, no play is dead if Darnold is scrambling with defenders chasing. The 20-year-old tends to keep his eyes downfield looking for available targets, too. He is more than capable of hurting a defense with his feet, yet his focus is pushing the ball down the field.
Darnold's ability to disassociate his lower body from his upper-body mechanics while still delivering eye-popping passes makes him special. Not all quarterbacks can deliver when they're pressured or on the move without setting their feet. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Darnold's overall mechanics remain poor. His pocket footwork is erratic at best, and he often operates without a solid base. His throwing motion became elongated by relying too much on raw arm strength instead of setting his feet on a consistent basis and driving through the football. Also, the two-year starter's decision-making is questionable. His 20 turnovers as a junior ranked second-worst overall.
Clean pockets aren't a regular occurrence in the NFL. Darnold's ability to make off-platform throws is a vital trait. The youngest incoming quarterback prospect oozes potential and creative fervor. As a result, he's in contention for the No. 1 overall pick even though he needs a year or two of developmental time.
Top options: Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers
Josh Rosen, UCLA: Stand Tall and Deliver
Staring down the gun barrel is a euphemism often used when quarterbacks stand tall in the pocket and deliver passes despite oncoming pressure. How a quarterback reacts to pressure is an essential part of his evaluation. It takes an inherent toughness to stand tall in the pocket and deliver a pass after identifying a free blitzer and knowing he's going to get home.
UCLA's Josh Rosen is a pure pocket passer, one who doesn't have the most nimble feet even though he was a tennis prodigy. The 6'4", 218-pound signal-caller does navigate the pocket well, but he won't force too many NFL defenders to miss when they're given the opportunity to bring him down.
Rosen's game is built upon a foundation of exceptional mechanics, a natural gift for throwing the ball and a modicum of fearlessness.
"He has all the arm talent you could you could think of—he makes every single throw," Washington Huskies co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said last season while breaking down Rosen's game, per ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff. "I am 100 percent positive any coach in the National Football League will think once they get their hands on him, they'll be able to mold him into whatever type of quarterback they like to have for their system."
When the ball comes out of Rosen's hand, it's a thing of beauty. He spins it as well as any quarterback prospect in the last 10 to 15 years. This allows him to make difficult throws into tight windows despite not having elite arm strength. He's been well-coached, and he has a strong understanding of pre- and post-snap reads. UCLA's coaching staff required Rosen to make more NFL-caliber throws than any other prospect, and it isn't even close.
Rosen also played behind a porous offensive line and experienced pressure on a consistent basis. More often than not, he still stepped into the pocket, maintained a proper base, kept the ball in position to quickly uncork a pass and executed the proper throws even if defenders hit him.
However, a history of concussions and shoulder surgery a year ago are the drawbacks to Rosen's style of play. Medical evaluations will play a large role in determining how highly he's drafted.
Top options: Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Denver Broncos
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: Ball Placement
Accuracy and ball placement are not one in the same, although one is often the byproduct of the other.
Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield is the most efficient quarterback ever to play college football. His 2016 and '17 quarterback ratings rank first and second overall in FBS history, per Sports Reference.
Mayfield's accuracy to all three levels of the field helped him smash these records. The former walk-on completed 70.7 percent of his passes over the last two seasons, and that doesn't take drops, throwaways or late-half heaves into account.
Ball placement takes overall accuracy a step further. According to Pro Football Focus' Tom Carter, Mayfield led college football this past season with an 84.1 completion percentage of passes deemed catchable. He also led or tied for the lead among incoming prospects in percentage of aimed third-down passes deemed catchable and percentage of aimed deep passes deemed catchable
The shorter-than-ideal signal-caller isn't just throwing into a receiver's vicinity; he regularly laced perfect passes.
There's a massive difference in a quarterback's ability to put the ball on a receiver and throwing with anticipation to an area where the target can create after the catch. Being able to hit a receiver in stride is an often overlooked aspect of accuracy. While a completion is the most important factor of the process, certain quarterbacks are able to place passes in spots that help the receivers make even bigger plays.
Mayfield is a maestro, yet he remains an enigma because he doesn't fit preferred standards. He's 6'0" tall with a bit of an attitude. The system in which he played will be called into question. The two-time All-American played behind a great offensive line as well. Those are all factors outside of Mayfield's control.
Individuals can be evaluated separately from their situation. Mayfield is by far most accurate passer of the class, with exceptional ball placement. His effectiveness as a natural thrower makes him a first-round talent despite the negative perceptions often associated with his character and style of play.
Top options: Denver Broncos, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints
Josh Allen, Wyoming: Off-the-Charts Physical Tools
If a mad scientist were to concoct the perfect quarterback, it would look a lot like Wyoming's Josh Allen.
Everything is in place for Allen to be a standout professional, yet he failed to put it all together during his collegiate career. Excuses have been made. More will surface before he's drafted.
NFL personnel can't help but fall in love with his natural ability. It's hard not to when staring at a 6'5", 240-pound athletic quarterback with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder.
Allen is the personification of the potential-vs.-production argument. In his two seasons as a starter, he completed 56.1 percent of his passes for 5,015 yards, 44 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
Numerous factors played into those underwhelming numbers. For example, Allen played in a scheme with many pro-style concepts brought from North Dakota State (where Carson Wentz excelled) to Wyoming. The quick-hitters found in spread systems weren't as prevalent. The Cowboys also lost a massive amount of offensive talent to graduation after the 2016 campaign.
Again, those are excuses. When Allen flashes, though, it's spectacular. He saved his best for last with a dominant effort against the Central Michigan Chippewas in the Potato Bowl. Allen threw three first-quarter touchdowns while playing a crisp and efficient game.
He then went to the Senior Bowl and dazzled scouts with his off-the-charts arm strength. Some receivers even struggled to catch some passes early on due to his velocity.
All of this overlooks stretches of poor decision-making, erratic ball placement and suspect pocket awareness. While Allen has a scary amount of natural ability, he's far more of a project than a polished product. Even so, he's still considered a top-10 prospect.
Top options: Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers
Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Constant Threat
Prospects labeled dual-threat quarterbacks are rarely viewed positively even though their athletic profile creates options within an offensive coordinator's playbook. They're typically marked for other positions like wide receiver or running back.
Louisville's Lamar Jackson attempted 839 passes over the last two seasons—more than UCLA's Josh Rosen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Wyoming's Josh Allen during the same span—and accumulated 7,203 passing yards. Regardless, some NFL evaluators will typecast him as an athlete who is better served playing another position. Concerns arise over his propensity to leave the pocket, potential injury risk and development as a passer.
Jackson isn't a wide receiver or a running back; he's a first-round quarterback prospect.
With that out of the way, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner can affect the game as both a passer and runner.
Slights against the ultra-productive Jackson are derived from a perceived lack of efficiency as a passer even though he improved in each of his three seasons. The 21-year-old quarterback became a starter as a true freshman and completed 54.7 percent of his passes. His accuracy improved to 59.1 percent as a junior.
Jackson still has obvious room for improvement, beginning with his footwork. The 6'3", 211-pounder plays with a narrow base. His flick-of-the-wrist release allows him to get away with being late on throws, but he needs to improve his footwork to drive through passes, especially into tight windows. He already showed the ability to do these things, yet he requires far more consistency not to sail passes with the potential to turn into easy completions.
Jackson is dynamic with the ball in his hands. To put his ground production into perspective, the quarterback this past season ran for 330 more yards than the draft's class' No. 1 overall talent, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. His speed, agility and athleticism allow an offense to utilize the zone read, bootleg action, quarterback draws and numerous other plays. However, don't mistake Jackson's ability to run with him pulling down his eyes and not being willing to pass when he breaks free from the pocket.
No prospect has been disrespected more than Jackson throughout the early portions of this year's draft evaluations. He deserves to be in the same conversation as the other four top prospects, as his potential is on par or surpasses all of theirs.
Top options: Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: Vertical Passer
The ability to complete deep passes takes more than raw arm strength. A quarterback may be able to chuck the ball 75 yards downfield, but it doesn't matter without timing and proper ball placement.
The NFL's best deep passers aren't always those with the biggest arms. For example, the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees is counted among the game's most prolific vertical passers.
Mason Rudolph's effectiveness in Oklahoma State's vertical passing attack bordered on extraordinary. He excelled at finding his receivers down the field and often made the difficult look easy.
The Cowboys' all-time leading passer doesn't have the biggest arm in his class. In fact, his passes toward out patterns on the wide side of the field lose some steam before arrival. Yet none of the other prospects came close to his deep production this past season.
Rudolph led this year's quarterback products with 1,712 deep passing yards, according to Pro Football Focus, while Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield finished second with 1,580 yards. Some of Rudolph's production is a by-product of Oklahoma's aggressive system and a trio of outstanding targets in James Washington, Marcell Ateman and Jalen McCleskey. But the quarterback still has to deliver the ball.
Perplexingly, Rudolph isn't as consistent working the middle of the field. He improved as a senior, but it's still an area of concern. Plus, the four-year starter didn't handle pressure as well as others in the class.
The Oklahoma State quarterback serves as the breakpoint for this year's class, as he's viewed as a second-round talent compared to the previous five signal-callers. Rudolph has the size (6'5" and 230 pounds), experience and production NFL teams prefer. His awesome downfield passing doesn't hide a few perceived weaknesses, though.
Top options: Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots
Mike White, Western Kentucky: Arm Talent
Arm talent is an ambiguous term often used to encapsulate multiple traits such as raw arm strength, overall accuracy and touch. However, the description fits certain prospects, such as Western Kentucky's Mike White.
White's senior season fell short of the standard he set in 2016 with 4,363 passing yards and 37 touchdowns. However, he dealt with constant pressure and still threw for 4,177 yards and 26 scores. He can overcome situations when everything else breaks down because of his outstanding arm.
The former pitcher with a 90 mph fastball committed to Stanford as a sophomore before the gridiron called. The quarterback chose football over baseball after receiving a scholarship offer from South Florida after his senior campaign.
"I had only started 13 games ever in my life before that point, my senior year of high school. I was an 18-year-old kid with 22-year-old men looking at me," White told Eric Galko of Sporting News in reference to his time at South Florida before he transferred to Western Kentucky. "But it was the best thing that could've happened to me. I grew and learned more as a leader in that first huddle than I could have any other way."
His relative inexperience remains evident, but he's grown in some areas over the last five seasons. At times, the 6'4", 225-pound signal-caller is slow to process what's happening post-snap. Other times, he looks off a safety and laces a throw to an open target. This give and take is expected from a talented, albeit progressing prospect.
White's biggest issue is a lack of pocket mobility due to sluggish feet when he's asked to reset. He's at his best when he works from a clean pocket. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case in the NFL.
Does White's natural throwing talent override a poor pocket presence? Yes, but only to a degree. White is expected to come off the board at some point during Day 2 of the draft even though he isn't viewed as a franchise-caliber prospect.
Top options: Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
Luke Falk, Washington State: Anticipation Thrower
Not every quarterback is capable of making every throw. Some must rely on throwing receivers open by anticipating their breaks and delivering a pass to a spot instead of a person.
Washington State's Luke Falk made his name by becoming the Pac-12's all-time leading passer with 14,496 yards. When the former walk-on gets into a rhythm, his confidence grows. It's obvious when this happens, as he releases the ball well before his receivers come out of their breaks. He trusts they're going to be open, knows where they should be and lets the ball fly.
However, two key areas of his game don't hold up to scrutiny.
"He's gotten so beat up in that offense that his health and poise are huge concerns for me moving forward," an anonymous scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "I was really high on him after his sophomore year but he hasn't gotten any better."
Both of the scout's concerns became obvious during Falk's senior season.
First, Falk played most of the year with a broken wrist that required surgery. Second, the upperclassman appeared shaken in multiple contests when he wasn't protected. Falk lacks the mobility to evade defenders, so pressure prevents him from building a comfort level. As a result, his mechanics break down, and he often falls off his passes.
Cougars head coach Mike Leach even benched Falk during a contest against the Arizona Wildcats because "sometimes he plays slow," per ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura.
The 6'4", 223-pound passer won't impress anyone with his physical tools, but he knows how to play the position. He can step into any situation as a long-term backup option with some potential to start.
Top options: New York Giants, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints