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Matt Miller's Scouting Notebook: Scouts Dish on 2021 Draft's Top Quarterbacks

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterDecember 16, 2020

Clemson's Trevor Lawrence runs for a touchdown against Virginia Tech during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)
Matt Gentry/Associated Press

Much has been made about the 2021 quarterback class, and for good reason. Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect most people under 35 have ever seen. Justin Fields would be QB1 in most draft classes. The raw, athletic potential of Trey Lance is the stuff of scouting dreams. And you can't ignore the years Zach Wilson, Kyle Trask and Mac Jones have had.

So how do NFL teams see them?

Today we're taking a look at the top six quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class with a breakdown of who they are, where they fit best and how NFL decision-makers see them.

         

1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Comparison: Andrew Luck, retired

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Fits: Everywhere

Best Traits: Field vision, pocket presence, accuracy, release time, mobility, athleticism, NFL readiness, leadership

Biggest Questions: Ball placement (2019 tape)

Scout's Take: "He's the best I've seen, and I got into the league before [Andrew] Luck came out. He has it all. If he fails in the NFL, it's because of the situation around him and not because of any shortcomings to his game. He's better than anyone in the last 10 drafts, and it's not close." — NFL director of player personnel

My Take: Lawrence is an elite quarterback prospect who oftentimes reminds me of the best of guys like Joe Burrow (toughness, accuracy), Justin Herbert (mobility, arm strength) and Tua Tagovailoa (processing speed, field vision). But unlike last year's quarterback class, we're not worried about a lack of starting time (Burrow), injuries (Tua) or traits versus production (Herbert). Lawrence executes on all his traits and has done so since his true freshman year.

Saying he's the best prospect of the last decade (or longer) doesn't mean he'll be the best NFL quarterback. There is no expectation that Lawrence will top Patrick Mahomes, but as a prospect, he has the fewest flaws and most positives of anyone evaluated (in this class or past classes). That's important to remember, as Lawrence's NFL ceiling is very, very good, but no one should reasonably expect him to become the NFL's best quarterback.

Instead, look at Lawrence as a very talented young quarterback with the tools to be a top-five player at his position during his rookie contract. That's why NFL teams are salivating at the thought of making him their franchise leader. 

        

2. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Comparison: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

Fits: Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Football Team, Detroit Lions

Best Traits: Athleticism, underneath accuracy, toughness, field vision

Biggest Questions: Accuracy outside the hashes, arm strength

Scout's Take: "I'm not sold on the scheme making him NFL-ready, but everything you hear [from coaches at Ohio State] is that he's really smart and well-prepared. I love his athleticism, but his arm is just OK. Scheme is going to matter a lot for him. I hope wherever he goes they build around him with run-after-catch receivers and a good run game." — NFL quarterbacks coach

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

My Take: Through only a handful of games in 2020, Fields has done a wonderful job elevating his draft stock through really good play and improved mobility and athleticism. Fields isn't the biggest quarterback—listed at 6'3", 228 pounds—but he plays like a young Cam Newton with his ability to run with speed or power and a quick, wrist-flick motion. Unlike Newton, Fields' arm strength leaves something to be desired but is good enough for most schemes.

The biggest question marks will come with the scheme at Ohio State and what Fields is asked to do versus what he can do. We saw this a lot with Herbert last year and with Dwayne Haskins from this same scheme in 2018. Can the quarterback transcend the scheme and make plays outside of it? I think Fields can.

           

3. Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Comparison: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Fits: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints

Best Traits: Speed, running ability, deep arm strength, big-play mentality, zero interceptions in 2019

Biggest Questions: Level of competition, starting experience (one year), processing speed

Scout's Take: "Playing in that one game [against Central Arkansas] was a mistake, but he has such nice traits that someone will fall in love with his game. Even if he doesn't become a great passer, he's so dangerous with his legs that he can start in this league." — AFC area scout

My Take: Throw out the 2020 tape and look back at Lance's magical 2019 run when he threw for 28 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more without throwing an interception. The traits are dripping off the film with his quick release, deep-ball strength and speed as a runner.

He's not a refined passer—hence the Lamar Jackson comparison—but he does have the traits to be an instant-impact playmaker with the tools to develop into a franchise quarterback.

The key for Lance will be an environment that allows him time to learn and promotes his strengths. This can't be a square-peg in a round-hole situation. An offensive coordinator who wants the dual-threat nature of his game and will build a system around that is crucial.

But if placed in the right surroundings, Lance has some of the highest potential, based on his traits, of any quarterback in the last few classes.

          

4. Zach Wilson, BYU

Comparison: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

Fits: San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts

Best Traits: Big-play ability, deep accuracy, arm strength, release speed, total-field vision, scrambling ability

Biggest Questions: Level of competition, risky decision-making

Scout's Take: "He fits where the league is headed—playmaker with a big arm who makes a lot of wow throws and can win with his legs. I have no idea how ready to play he is because the scheme is backyard football and he hasn't played anyone." — NFL college scouting director

George Frey/Associated Press

My Take: No quarterback has burst onto the scene more this year than BYU's Wilson. He's a highlight reel waiting to happen every time the Cougars play and has dominated the college scene with his deep shots and mobility from the pocket.

Some see Wilson launching throws down the field and think this could be the next Patrick Mahomes. I see him as a bigger, less athletic Kyler Murray with his ability to throw off-platform and with a big-time arm to all levels of the field. In a scheme that loves boot action and taking chances vertically, Wilson could excel immediately.

That sounds a lot like the San Francisco 49ers or any team preparing to run a version of the Kyle Shanahan offense. 

     

5. Kyle Trask, Florida

Comparison: Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

Fits: Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons

Best Traits: Field vision, processing speed, accuracy, football IQ, NFL readiness

Biggest Questions: Lack of mobility, average arm strength

Scout's Take: "Very scheme-specific player. Can win from the pocket and has a good arm. Best asset is his vision and putting the ball in a spot his guys can make a play on it. Lack of mobility is going to be the biggest knock." — Former NFL general manager

My Take: Trask doesn't have the all-world traits of Lawrence or the athletic ability to match up with the quarterbacks ranked ahead of him, but he has two years of production and starting experience in the SEC in a scheme under head coach Dan Mullen that's very NFL-friendly. He's also a Heisman Trophy candidate and arguably the best quarterback in the country this season.

Trask's best assets aren't always easy to see on television. He doesn't make splashy plays with his legs and he doesn't throw 50/50 balls with a YOLO mindset. He's just proficient and accurate and shows a quick processing ability that is too often overlooked in college quarterbacks.

And outside of Lawrence, Trask's experience at Florida makes him the quarterback in this class most ready to play in the NFL.

           

6. Mac Jones, Alabama

Comparison: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Fits: New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints

Best Traits: Deep-ball placement and strength, ability to see the field, play under pressure, underneath accuracy

Biggest Questions: Level of talent around him, lack of starting experience

Scout's Take: "You have to worry about the talent around him, especially last year, but he throws a beautiful deep ball and I love his toughness and moxie." — NFL quarterbacks coach

Michael Woods/Associated Press

My Take: One year ago, Jones was just the guy filling in for Tua and waiting for Bryce Young to get on campus and take the starting job as the next highly recruited Alabama prize at quarterback. But then he never let go of the job and showed over the stretch last season and this year that he has his own marketable traits as an NFL quarterback.

Jones' deep ball is a thing of beauty, like a young Drew Brees, with a pretty spin and an arc that perfectly places the ball for his receiver in stride. He doesn't have the biggest arm and isn't the biggest prospect at 6'3" and 214 pounds, but he's a touch-thrower with big-time processing ability and experience.

     

The Scout's Report

—Gus Malzahn is out as head coach at Auburn, and already there is buzz among agents and the college coaching community that Liberty's Hugh Freeze is a favorite to take his place. Freeze, who ran into trouble at Ole Miss, has rehabilitated his image during his tenure with the Flames and will be a hot name for any Power Five job that opens up. On the flip side, don't be surprised if Malzahn's name surfaces in the opening at the University of Arizona, where Kevin Sumlin was fired.

—While on the phone with an NFL source this week, I asked where the best landing spot for Carson Wentz is.

"Somewhere small with less pressure. Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh."

I wouldn't call Pittsburgh's fanbase laid-back, but the idea here is one I generally agree with. Wentz needs to go somewhere where he won't be under as much scrutiny and has a chance to fix his game without as much attention on his every play.

Now, getting rid of his contract is another matter—if the Eagles even want to move him—but the Colts are expected to have almost $67 million in cap space (on the projected $175 million cap), which would allow them to eat the dead money in Wentz's deal if they opt to entertain adding head coach Frank Reich's former pupil. 

—One name getting a lot of buzz around the league right now as general manager jobs open up is former Houston Texans top man Rick Smith. Smith, who took a leave of absence from his job to care for an ailing wife and eventually departed from the team, is reportedly getting a strong endorsement from the league office as a top candidate.

With that in mind, keep an eye on both the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions as potential landing spots. If Smith is getting a push from the league office, two franchises with strong ties to the NFL's headquarters should be on the short list of places he could surface.

In Atlanta, team president Rich McKay has a long connection to the league office (as does team owner Arthur Blank). The Lions' connection is less obvious, but with Sheila Ford Hamp recently taking over as principal owner of the team, Detroit is expected to lean heavily on the NFL for assistance in identifying a new regime. 

          

NFL Draft Quick Hit Rumors

  • Michigan pass-rusher Kwity Paye is receiving top-15 grades from area scouts and club officials. He's currently No. 17 overall on my board.

Michigan pass-rusher Kwity Paye
Michigan pass-rusher Kwity PayeCarlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press
  • Texas offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi has plenty of fans in the media, but one team official told me early this week that he's overrated, more likely to carry a Round 2 grade and could be over-drafted into late Round 1.
  • Joseph Ossai joined Cosmi and teammate Caden Sterns in opting out for the remainder of the Texas Longhorns' season. Ossai is my No. 11 overall player and should be a lock for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year after dominating the conference in his first season as a pass-rusher.
  • Quarterback is mentioned often as a need for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but conversations with league sources indicated the team is doing a lot of legwork on the 2021 running back class and could pull the trigger in Round 1 if the right player is available. Alabama's Najee Harris is a perfect fit for the team's run scheme.

     

The Big Board

With the Scouting Notebook coming to an end next week with a final mock draft, here's one more Big Board update before we get to that mock.

1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

2. OT Penei Sewell, Oregon

3. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

4. LB Micah Parsons, Penn State

5. WR Ja'Marr Chase, LSU

6. QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State

7. CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

8. WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

9. WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama

10. OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern

11. EDGE Joseph Ossai, Texas

12. QB Zach Wilson, BYU

13. TE Kyle Pitts, Florida

14. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

15. OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas

16. EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami (Fla.)

17. EDGE Kwity Paye, Michigan

18. DL Jordan Davis, Georgia

19. CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

20. WR Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

21. CB Derion Kendrick, Clemson

22. OG Wyatt Davis, Ohio State

23. QB Kyle Trask, Florida

24. QB Mac Jones, Alabama

25. S Jevon Holland, Oregon

26. OT Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech

27. OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC

28. RB Najee Harris, Alabama

29. WR Chris Olave, Ohio State

30. TE Pat Freiermuth, Penn State

31. OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama

32. OT Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame

     

Parting Shots

1. Stock Up: LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa

A redshirt junior linebacker, Collins is turning heads each week and will have a huge opportunity to prove himself once more on the national stage against undefeated Cincinnati on Saturday night.

A massive linebacker prospect at 6'4" and 260 pounds, Collins has been unstoppable all season long with a stat sheet featuring four sacks, four interceptions and 52 tackles. A three-year starter, it's looking like Collins will toss his hat into the NFL draft once the season ends. He's projected to be a Round 2 prospect.

     

2. Stock Down: S Caden Sterns, Texas

Sterns made news when he decided to opt out of the remaining games at Texas and enter the 2021 NFL draft, but that's a questionable decision. Sterns is no doubt athletically gifted and dripping with traits, but he's been injured far too often during his three years in Austin and has never built on the hype he generated entering college.

Some of the responsibility does lie with the coaching staff for not developing Sterns, but the team that drafts him will be betting on potential and his ability to stay healthy over any production shown in college. It's a big risk at a position loaded with talent.

         

3. Sleeper: S James Wiggins, Cincinnati

When the Bearcats face Tulsa on Saturday night, keep an eye on No. 1 James Wiggins. A senior with the range and ball skills to get excited about, Wiggins had four game-winning interceptions during the 2018 season before missing 2019 with a knee injury. That's good enough to keep opposing offenses from throwing his way this year. A Senior Bowl invitee, Wiggins' stock could shoot up once scouts have time to review his full season of tape.

     

4. Players of the Week: North Carolina RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams

North Carolina running back Michael Carter
North Carolina running back Michael CarterGerry Broome/Associated Press/Associated Press

When you rush for 544 yards and five touchdowns against the No. 9 team in the nation, you're getting some hardware. That's what Michael Carter (308 yards, 2 TD) and Javonte Williams (236 yards, 3 TD) did against the Miami Hurricanes on a day when the Tar Heels rushed for 554 yards and six touchdowns as a team.

It was a complete beatdown and a bit of a revenge game for head coach Mack Brown against his former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

     

5. Saturday Scouting Schedule

Get your chores done before Saturday, because you aren't going to want to leave the house with this schedule.

         

12 p.m. ET

No. 14 Northwestern vs. No. 4 Ohio State

No. 5 Texas A&M at Tennessee

No. 11 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Iowa State

     

3:30 p.m. ET

No. 19 Louisiana at No. 13 Coastal Carolina

     

4 p.m. ET

No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 2 Notre Dame

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

     

4:30 p.m. ET

Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos

     

8:15 p.m. ET

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers

     

8 p.m. ET

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 6 Florida

No. 24 Tulsa at No. 8 Cincinnati

     

6. ACC Title Game Preview

Notre Dame narrowly beat Clemson in their regular-season matchup, but that was without quarterback Trevor Lawrence on the field for the Tigers. This time, both teams are at full strength, and a hell of a game should be expected.

Here are the players to watch Saturday (listed in order of big board ranking).

Clemson: QB Trevor Lawrence, CB Derion Kendrick, RB Travis Etienne, OT Jackson Carman, WR Amari Rodgers, DL Jordan Williams, LB James Skalski

Notre Dame: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, OT Liam Eichenberg, Edge Daelin Hayes, QB Ian Book, OT Robert Hainsey, IOL Tommy Kraemer, Edge Adetokunbo Ogundeji, WR Javon McKinley

     

7. SEC Title Game Preview

The matchup between Alabama and Florida lost some of its luster after the Gators were upset by LSU last weekend, but this is still a game featuring a ton of talent on both sides of the field. As the SEC title game always is, this is one scouts will be watching over and over again given the amount of 2021 draft prospects on the field.

Alabama: CB Patrick Surtain II, WR Jaylen Waddle, WR DeVonta Smith, QB Mac Jones, RB Najee Harris, OT Alex Leatherwood, DL Christian Barmore, OG Landon Dickerson, LB Dylan Moses, OG Deonte Brown, CB Josh Jobe, DL LaBryan Ray, RB Brian Robinson Jr.

Florida: TE Kyle Pitts, QB Kyle Trask, WR Kadarius Toney, CB Marco Wilson, S Shawn Davis, WR Trevon Grimes, CB Trey Dean III, Edge Jeremiah Moon

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