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Top QB Prospects NFL Teams Will Fight for Next Offseason

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 4, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 27:  Drew Lock #3 of the Missouri Tigers looks for a receiver against the Texas Longhorns during the Academy Sports & Outdoors Bowl at NRG Stadium on December 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Draft and develop a quarterback or fall behind the rest of the league. This is the NFL's modus operandi. 

The only way around that for teams in search of a new franchise face is to pay an exorbitant price for a free-agent signal-caller, as the Minnesota Vikings did with Kirk Cousins. The draft route is far more feasible, though, since Cousins-caliber QBs don't often hit the open market. 

Four teams doubled down and took both approaches this offseason. 

The Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets acquired veteran signal-callers before spending top-10 picks on quarterbacks. Still, Sam Bradford, AJ McCarron, Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown/Teddy Bridgewater are short-term bridges to allow the incoming rookies time to learn. 

While each of those franchises appears set at the game's most important position, multiple other organizations showed interest in QB prospects or may be passing the point of no return. 

The Los Angeles Chargers (Philip Rivers), New England Patriots (Tom Brady) and New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees) have aging starters and no viable succession plans. The New York Giants have a pair of middle-round picks, Davis Webb and Kyle Lauletta, who'll eventually battle for Eli Manning's spot.

The Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins may be looking for new starters, depending on how Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles and Ryan Tannehill perform in 2018. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, will find out if Case Keenum is a franchise quarterback or a one-year wonder. 

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All eyes are on the next wave of QBs. The following four will enter the 2018 campaign as potential first-round draft picks. 

         

Drew Lock, Missouri Tigers

L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Drew Lock didn't declare for the 2018 draft despite possible first-round status.

He told ESPN.com's Chris Low his thought process:

"There were a lot of factors that went into this decision, but the main ones include: a feeling of responsibility and loyalty to my teammates and coaches at Mizzou. We have goals to achieve together, having the chance to play for a new coach in [offensive coordinator Derek] Dooley, and his system that will continue to add to my development, and, of course, getting my degree."

Lock's return could prove to be a double-edged sword.

The Missouri signal-caller led the FBS and shattered the SEC single-season record with 44 touchdown passes last season. There's no guarantee he'll perform as well under a new coordinator. However, Dooley has plenty of professional experience after serving as the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers coach the last five seasons. 

The ball explodes out the 6'4", 225-pound quarterback's hand. Lock's whip-like release and high velocity allow him to deliver passes into tight windows. His arm strength also lets him attack every level of the field. According to Pro Football Focus, the first-team All-SEC performer finished fifth among FBS quarterbacks last season with 1,493 deep passing yards. 

But he lacks consistency. 

For Lock to live up to being the No. 1 quarterback prospect, he must improve upon last year's 57.8 completion percentage. 

            

Justin Herbert, Oregon Ducks

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16:  Quaterback Justin Herbert #10 of the Oregon Ducks looks to pass against the Boise State Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Boise State won 38-28.  (Photo by David Beck
David Becker/Getty Images

Lock may have the most gifted arm of next year's bunch, but Justin Herbert has the most potential. 

Oregon experienced a metamorphosis under previous head coach Willie Taggart that will continue during Mario Cristobal.

Herbert isn't Marcus Mariota-like, even though Mark Helfrich recruited him. The two-year starter consistently wins from the pocket. In fact, the 6'6" quarterback is still growing into his frame. 

According to the Register-Guard's Ryan Thorburn, Herbert added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and he's now listed at 231 pounds. Being able to withstand the physical toll will be crucial to the young quarterback's evaluation, since he missed five games last season with a broken collarbone. 

"I don't think that I've done much here yet," Herbert told Thorburn. "I've got much bigger goals for this team."

In 2016, the 20-year-old became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Oregon since Chris Miller in 1983, and he tied or broke multiple first-year program records. 

In two seasons, Herbert completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 3,919 yards, 34 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. According to PFF, he ranked fourth overall with a 77.5 percent adjusted completion percentage (drops, batted passes, spikes and passes where the quarterback is hit as he throws are taken out of the equation). 

He does need to throw with better anticipation and overall touch this fall, though. Those are two traits where growth could signal elite draft status. 

                      

Ryan Finley, North Carolina State Wolfpack

RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 25:  Ryan Finley #15 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts after scoring a touchdown against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Carter Finley Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by G
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Ryan Finley falls on the opposite side of the spectrum of Lock and Herbert. The North Carolina State quarterback doesn't have the most powerful arm or an imposing physical presence. Instead, he's arguably the nation's most efficient quarterback. 

The Boise State transfer didn't throw an interception during his first seven contests last season—which included two impressive performances in victories against the Florida State Seminoles and Louisville Cardinals. 

The 6'4", 210-pound graduate owns a 35-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio since joining the Wolfpack in 2016. He was one of only two FBS quarterbacks last season—including Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield—to complete 65 percent of his passes for 3,500 yards and six or fewer interceptions. He excelled under pressure, too, with a 78.7 passer rating, per PFF. 

Finley separates himself with subtleties like eye manipulation, arm and shoulder fakes and a readiness to throw at all times, courtesy of good footwork and a strong base. He also throws anticipation and precision. 

In many ways, his skill set is reminiscent of Matt Ryan's. 

Finley's fall performance will determine how highly he'll be selected, since he'll have to do the heavy lifting for his team. North Carolina State lost its leading rusher, Nyheim Hines, leading receiver, Jaylen Samuels, its two best offensive linemen and the entire starting defensive front, which took over games by itself. 

           

Jarrett Stidham, Auburn Tigers

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 02: Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers runs the ball during the second half against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Ima
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

How a young quarterback takes to professional coaching and concepts often becomes a stumbling block. Jarrett Stidham has played—and performed well—in two of college football's most prolific, yet simplified, spread offenses in Baylor and Auburn.

Yet his combination of size (6'3", 214 lbs), athleticism, arm talent and toughness place him among the top prospects, even if he's the least polished. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn plans to put a lot on the returning starter once he's recovered from offseason labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.

"When we come back, he'll be turned loose to do everything," Malzahn said Wednesday, per AL.com's Tom Green

The Tigers offense is built upon a numbers system to gain advantages in the running and passing games. However, more responsibilities will only help Stidham grow. The co-SEC Newcomer of the Year completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,158 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season. 

Hopefully, Malzahn will allow his signal-caller more freedom at the line of scrimmage to call protections, plays and audibles. Otherwise, Stidham may find it difficult to adjust to certain pro-style concepts. 

"The fact that he's got a year under his belt, he's one of our team leaders, and to be ready in the summer, I think that's going to be really big for us," the coach added, per Green. 

Stidham excelled in Auburn's quick passing game with an 82 completion percentage on passes thrown in 2.5 seconds or less, per PFF. He can also drive the ball downfield with velocity. The former Bear averaged 11.6 yards per attempt during limited playing time at Baylor. 

Scouts and front office personnel will envision what Stidham will become, not what he is. 

             

Best of the Rest

Inevitably, a top prospect will falter this fall, while a lower-rated quarterback will develop into something special. It happens every year. 

Sam Darnold and Josh Allen were the golden boys last summer. Mayfield was a Big 12 standout and a Heisman Trophy finalist yet too small (6'0 ⅝") to be considered a candidate for the top pick. Nine months later, Mayfield is the Cleveland Browns' franchise quarterback and No. 1 overall pick.

Situations change. Everyone will be watching the aforementioned prospects with great interest. Yet one or two more could surface as elite talents. 

Arkansas State's Justice Hansen, Arizona's Khalil Tate, Michigan's (via Ole Miss) Shea Patterson, Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald, Northwestern's Clayton Thorson and West Virginia's Will Grier are talented collegiate signal-callers who could become something more.

NFL franchises want quality quarterback play, and they're willing to pay a premium to acquire one with exciting potential. A young thrower doesn't even need to be polished or have an impeccable resume, since a high talent ceiling is good enough (see: Allen, Josh). 

The 2019 quarterback class presents enough upside to surpass the ballyhooed 2018 version. The potential to disappoint is there as well, though, depending on how each prospect proceeds. Either way, professional franchises will be salivating to select a few next April. 

                        

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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