A year ago, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were surefire top picks, and Trey Lance was a quickly-rising sleeper, but Zach Wilson and Mac Jones were still taking steps to assure that they would start for their respective schools in the fall. Todd McShay’s way-too-early 2021 draft rankings last May identified the first three as guys who would almost assuredly go in the first round. Lawrence and Lance went almost exactly where they were projected, while Fields fell slightly for reasons I’ll never totally understand — but there was little way of knowing what the last two were about to unleash on the college football world in 2020. All five went in the first round of the recent 2021 draft.
That’s how things tend to go, isn’t it? Any given draft is going to end up a mix of guys who were sure things the moment they set foot on campus and guys who worked their way up the ladder. With McShay’s way-too-early 2022 mock draft out this week, let’s take the opportunity to look ahead at the quarterback position.
Instead of a projection, consider this a status check — a look at 2022’s potential top prospects, their strengths and what they need to work on if they want to hear their name called by Roger Goodell on a Thursday late next April.
These seven players will most likely see their names in first-round projections in the coming months. Five are on McShay’s initial list, and two are common on other lists. We’ll list these in order of their 2020 Total QBR ranking.
McShay mock: Not picked
Measurables: 6-1, 205
2020 stats: 71% completion rate, 14.4 yards per completion, 9% TD rate, 4% INT rate, 5% sack rate, 6.4 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 89.9 Total QBR (third), 9.3 ANY/A*, 52% passing success rate, 54% rushing success rate, 83% throw rate**
* ANY/A = adjusted net yards per pass attempt, which incorporates sack yardage and gives a 20-yard reward for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions
** throw rate = the percentage of one’s dropbacks that result in an actual pass, not a sack or scramble
Outlook: You want Sam Howell and the UNC offense, only with more tempo and even more deep shots? Ole Miss is for you! Corral and head coach Lane Kiffin proved a perfect pair last year, and the Rebels jumped from 68th to 14th in offensive SP+ thanks to a good passing game.
To be sure, WR Elijah Moore and TE Kenny Yeboah (combined: 1,717 receiving yards, 15.2 per catch) had something to do with Corral’s success, and they’re in the NFL now. But Kiffin remains creative and aggressive, and Corral will still have deep threat Braylon Sanders along with veterans Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond. Ole Miss is projected to rise to 10th in offensive SP+, and it’s not hard to see why.
Moore’s departure will be tricky to navigate. Despite playing in only eight of 10 games, Moore ended up with three times more receptions (86) than the No. 2 target (Mingo, 27). He leaned heavily on passes to slot receivers and players out of the backfield, and while it obviously worked out beautifully, spreading the ball around a bit more and proving you can work the entire field probably isn’t the worst idea. There’s nothing saying he can’t do it — Moore was an incredible security blanket and earned those touches — but he still has to prove he can.
Best defenses on the schedule: Alabama (fourth in projected SP+), Texas A&M (eighth), Auburn (22nd)
McShay mock: Not picked
Measurables: 6-3, 210
2020 stats: 67% completion rate, 15.4 yards per completion, 8% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 8% sack rate
2020 advanced stats: 89.1 Total QBR (fourth), 9.8 ANY/A, 44% passing success rate, 92% throw rate
Outlook: When he finally got his opportunity late last fall, after playing only one game in two calendar years due to a knee injury, Daniels seized it. The former blue-chipper threw for more than 300 yards per game, and UGA’s offense went from averaging 29 points per game without him to 37 with him.
A spring injury to star receiver George Pickens blurs Georgia’s potential a bit, but the other six Dawgs with 10+ catches all return, including Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton (14.6 yards per catch between them) and tight end Darnell Washington. Daniels should have everything he needs.
Daniels’ biggest issue at this stage might be mobility. He can make every pass you ask of him, and that’s the most important thing — Georgia’s sudden ability to use the entire field with him behind center was jarring and could make the Dawgs 2021 title contenders. But do you notice how there aren’t any rushing averages above? That’s because you can’t divide by zero. Filtering out sacks, he had zero attempts in 2020 and only 20 for 34 yards in 2018. Mac Jones proved that you don’t HAVE to be a run threat to go in the first round, but anything Daniels can do to prove his mobility and healthy legs would be a boost, even if it’s just the occasional six-yard scramble on third-and-5.
Best defenses on the schedule: Clemson (third), Auburn (22nd), Florida (29th)
McShay mock: 11th
Measurables: 6-1, 210
2020 stats: 68% completion rate, 14.2 yards per completion, 9% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 7% sack rate, 4.9 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 81.2 Total QBR (11th), 9.3 ANY/A, 50% passing success rate, 43% rushing success rate, 86% throw rate
Outlook: Rattler very much looked like a redshirt freshman early in 2020. He threw four interceptions and took six sacks in early losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, and he lost the plot for much of the Texas game and briefly got benched.
He threw only two interceptions in OU’s last seven games, however, all wins. And while last year’s top two running backs are gone, Rattler gets top receiving targets Theo Wease and Marvin Mims back, along with big-play Arkansas transfer Mike Woods and ESPN’s top receiver recruit in the 2021 class, Mario Williams Jr..
The football zips out of Rattler’s right hand like a laser beam; his natural passing talent is as good as you’ll ever see. He could still stand to improve against the blitz, however. The Sooners ranked 14th in overall passing success rate last year but only 75th in blitz downs, which I define as second-and-super-long or third-and-5 or more. There were few big plays to speak of, as Rattler’s main goal in these situations was to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. Opponents like Baylor and Iowa State jumped on this tendency a bit (though Florida certainly couldn’t). Defensive coordinators will likely attempt to exploit this quick-passing tendency, and how well he responds to it might determine both the Sooners’ national title fate, and his own top-level draft status.
Best defenses on the schedule: West Virginia (11th), Oklahoma State (12th), Iowa State (15th)
McShay mock: 16th
Measurables: 6-4, 215
2020 stats: 66% completion rate, 12.3 yards per completion, 7% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 6% sack rate, 8.8 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 80.8 Total QBR (12th), 7.7 ANY/A, 54% passing success rate, 55% rushing success rate, 87% throw rate
Outlook: Among this fall’s returnees, maybe no quarterback in the country did more for his draft stock in 2020 than Ridder. His Total QBR hovered around a mediocre 54 in each of his first two years, and he completed only 55% of his passes in 2019, proving far more advanced with his legs than his arm.
After battling injuries through much of 2019, though, he was healthy and dynamic last fall. He distributed the ball throughout the field — eight players caught between 13 and 29 passes — and while Cincinnati’s offense was still pretty conservative and prone to negative plays, Ridder caught them up: UC was 10th in passing downs success rate, which you can’t really accomplish without high-level QB play. Against blitzes, he completed 73% of his passes (57% of his completions went for first downs), took only five sacks and rushed/scrambled for 11.3 yards per carry. While the Bearcats’ defense was dominant, as is customary at this point, the offense surged; Cincinnati leaped from 65th to 22nd in offensive SP+ and from 21st to eighth in the final AP poll.
Ridder’s mobility is unquestioned, but can he develop even further with his arm? Non-conference games against Notre Dame and Indiana will give him more showcase opportunities. Will he and the Bearcats take advantage?
Best defenses on the schedule: Notre Dame (26th), Tulsa (30th), Indiana (31st)
McShay mock: 7th
Measurables: 6-1, 225
2020 stats: 68% completion rate, 15.1 yards per completion, 9% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 9% sack rate, 6.1 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 79.3 Total QBR (14th), 9.6 ANY/A, 48% passing success rate, 50% rushing success rate, 84% throw rate
Outlook: Phil Longo’s offense rewards boldness, and Howell’s got that in droves. He threw 44 passes at least 25 yards downfield last season; only Texas’ Sam Ehlinger threw more. But while Ehlinger completed just 24% of said passes, Howell completed 46% at 45.4 yards per completion.
Granted, he had one of the best deep threats in college football (Dyami Brown) reeling these passes in, and both Brown and slot man Dazz Newsome are in the NFL now. But sophomores Khafre Brown and Josh Downs have massive potential, and Howell’s entire line is back to help out. This should be another prolific season (especially since the Heels wouldn’t have to face the loaded Clemson defense until the ACC championship game).
Howell’s biggest remaining area for improvement: the mundane. He’s got a playmaker’s arm and a playmaker’s instincts, but he could improve when it comes to taking what he’s given. While he ranked fifth in raw QBR on passes thrown at least 11 yards downfield, Howell was just 44th on passes thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and he took a lot of sacks while waiting for big-play chances to present themselves. UNC ranked 106th in sack rate, 88th on blitz downs. In UNC’s four losses last year, he was sacked 19 times. His instincts have served him well overall, but the negative plays add up.
Best defenses on the schedule: Miami (13th), Notre Dame (26th), Pitt (36th)
McShay mock: 15th
Measurables: 6-1, 215
2020 stats: 64% completion rate, 13.3 yards per completion, 8% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 7% sack rate, 8.7 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 78.7 Total QBR (16th), 8.0 ANY/A, 48% passing success rate, 62% rushing success rate, 79% throw rate
Outlook: Willis is maybe the biggest wildcard in this entire list. Unable to beat out Bo Nix for the starting job at Auburn, he transferred to Liberty and went off. Hugh Freeze’s Flames jumped to 10-1, and Willis seemed to improve by the week.
He’s lightning-quick, a great rusher and, as you can see with the 79% throw rate, the most likely QB to tuck the ball and scramble into the open field. Too much of that is probably not great. His biggest challenge in going from a wildcard prospect to a true first-rounder will be proving he can remain in the pocket and deliver the ball downfield a bit more.
You’ll tolerate a little bit of extra scrambling, however, when it pays off this much. When you combine his running ability with sideline-to-sideline arm strength — 49% of his passes last year were thrown between the numbers and the sideline, fewer than Justin Fields (53%) but more than just about everyone else — and good accuracy, you’ve got massive potential.
In 10 games last year, he threw for at least 285 yards three times, rushed for at least 100 (not including sacks) five times and produced a raw QBR over 80 seven times. If his passing ability continues to improve at the rate it did last year, he’s going to tempt quite a few NFL front offices.
Best defenses on the schedule: Louisiana (35th), UAB (39th), Army (49th)
McShay mock: 2nd
Measurables: 6-3, 215
2020 stats: 67% completion rate, 10.9 yards per completion, 6% TD rate, 3% INT rate, 5% sack rate, 7.0 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 75.7 Total QBR (24th), 6.6 ANY/A, 46% passing success rate, 50% rushing success rate, 92% throw rate
Outlook: For the quarterback of any air-raid type of system like USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s, your career tends to unfold in a certain order.
Act I: Rack up monstrous stats.
Act II: Deal with frustration as more and more defenses drop eight into coverage and are ready to pounce on impatient throws, as you’re forced to throw short.
Act III: ???
Slovis was incredible enough as a true freshman in 2019 — 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14th in Total QBR — that JT Daniels knew he didn’t have a future as USC’s starter. In the Trojans’ abbreviated 2020 season, however, he went through Act II. Opponents adjusted, he forced the issue at times, and while USC was a tight loss away from finishing unbeaten, they were also three down-to-the-wire wins away from going 2-4.
They slipped only from ninth to 11th in offensive SP+, however, and still averaged 33 points per game against an all-Pac-12 schedule. The potential is obvious even if defenses have adjusted a bit.
Can Harrell and Slovis make the necessary adjustments? And can they craft a surge with a redesigned receiving corps that no longer features Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, but still has Drake London, Bru McCoy and a couple of tantalizing transfers (Memphis’ Tahj Washington, Colorado’s K.D. Nixon)? If so, the potential effects on Slovis’ draft status are obvious.
Best defenses on the schedule: Utah (10th), Arizona State (21st), Notre Dame (26th)
These seven QBs will either show up on some lists or quickly make a leap with a few big games this fall. Is the next Zach Wilson on this list? Again, players are listed in order of their Total QBR ranking last year.
Measurables: 6-3, 185
2020 stats: 58% completion rate, 14.3 yards per completion, 6% TD rate, 1% INT rate, 7% sack rate, 9.9 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 87.1 Total QBR (seventh), 7.9 ANY/A, 38% passing success rate, 52% rushing success rate, 85% throw rate
If you’re looking for fun, there aren’t many QBs more rewarding to watch than Daniels. If you’re looking for consistency, we’re not quite there yet. Considering the youth involved in ASU’s brief, four-game season — Daniels was a true sophomore, and the skill corps featured true freshmen as leading receivers (LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson) and key running backs (DeaMonte Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata, alongside junior Rachaad White) — that probably isn’t a surprise.
Daniels still has some learning to do, but a more seasoned receiving corps could do him wonders, especially on passing downs. Either way, ASU will be must-watch this fall.
Best defenses on the schedule: Utah (10th), Washington (17th), USC (28th)
Measurables: 6-3, 200
2020 stats: 69% completion rate, 14.5 yards per completion, 10% TD rate, 1% INT rate, 4% sack rate, 6.2 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 82.2 Total QBR (10th), 10.8 ANY/A, 56% passing success rate, 54% rushing success rate, 86% throw rate
Recruiting rankings are awfully accurate these days — six of the above players were ranked 120th or better in the ESPN 300 — but we still end up with surprises. McCall was unrated by ESPN’s recruiting team, but almost no one had more command over their given offense than the extraordinarily accurate redshirt freshman.
McCall makes every throw and avoids pressure well, and when the Chanticleers are behind schedule, he catches them up (second in passing downs success rate). But Coastal runs first, runs second and utilizes lots of old-school option concepts, and that’s likely to throw scouts off of McCall’s scent, fair or not.
Best defenses on the schedule: Appalachian State (24th), Troy (51st), Georgia Southern (64th)
Measurables: 6-1, 212
2020 stats: 67% completion rate, 11.3 yards per completion, 5% TD rate, 2% INT rate, 3% sack rate, 6.3 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 78.8 Total QBR (15th), 7.0 ANY/A, 47% passing success rate, 54% rushing success rate, 89% throw rate
Purdy’s raw stats suffered early last season with a new receiving corps, but both he and his receivers raised their respective games, and the Cyclones won six of their last seven games. He continued to lean heavily on tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen, but he also built a strong rapport with No. 1 WR Xavier Hutchinson. They’re all back, as is All-American running back Breece Hall.
While both Purdy’s physical traits and stat line are solid, they don’t necessarily stand out. He could be viewed as a player who is pretty close to his ceiling. He could also still have another gear.
Best defenses on the schedule: Iowa (first), West Virginia (11th), Oklahoma State (12th)
Measurables: 6-5, 220
2020 stats: 64% completion rate, 14.7 yards per completion, 8% TD rate, 4% INT rate, 6% sack rate, 5.9 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 74.2 Total QBR (28th), 8.4 ANY/A, 51% passing success rate, 49% rushing success rate, 84% throw rate
With both Shough and the next player on the list, Phil Jurkovec, any high-level draft projections put an emphasis on projection. They still have plenty to prove.
Shough’s full-season numbers were rock solid, but returns diminished. He averaged 10.2 yards per attempt with an 89.3 raw QBR as Oregon’s starting QB during a 3-0 start, but during a 1-3 finish, these numbers slipped to 8.5 and 50.9, respectively. He was benched for long portions of the last two games and transferred to Texas Tech.
In new Tech coordinator Sonny Cumbie’s offense, Shough will have a chance to redeem his late-2020 slide.
Best defenses on the schedule: West Virginia (11th), Oklahoma State (12th), Iowa State (15th)
Measurables: 6-5, 226
2020 stats: 61% completion rate, 12.5 yards per completion, 5% TD rate, 1% INT rate, 7% sack rate, 6.4 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 71.3 Total QBR (34th), 6.9 ANY/A, 43% passing success rate, 67% rushing success rate, 88% throw rate
Outlook: The Notre Dame transfer had his moments in 2020 — he had a completion rate of 66% or higher in five games and completed six passes of 20+ yards in a 31-30 win over Pitt — but both he and the BC offense (48th in offensive SP+ last season) are works in progress.
Still, he undeniably looks the part, and he’s getting tutored by former NFL QBs coach and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Jurkovec uses his legs selectively but well, and if he gets fewer drops and more big plays out of receivers Zay Flowers and CJ Lewis, his stats could have a leap in them.
Best defenses on the schedule: Clemson (third), NC State (37th), Georgia Tech (47th)
Measurables: 6-4, 215
2020 stats: 70% completion rate, 11.5 yards per completion, 8% TD rate, 1% INT rate, 5% sack rate, 4.9 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 66.1 Total QBR (50th), 8.2 ANY/A, 44% passing success rate, 23% rushing success rate, 92% throw rate
Outlook: Strong certainly looks the part. He’s not dangerous with his legs, but he’s a safe decision-maker in a pass-happy offense. Nevada lulls you to sleep with loads of sideline-to-sideline passing, then hits you deep when you’re flat-footed. It’s a simple but effective approach, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily allow Strong to display a large range of potential throws.
With all of last year’s skill corps returning and only one projected top-40 defense on the schedule, Strong should again post big numbers. Might offensive coordinator Matt Mumme — Hal’s son — alter his approach to give Strong a chance to make 2021 more of an NFL showcase? (Probably not, but maybe?)
Best defenses on the schedule: San Diego State (33rd), Boise State (50th), Cal (53rd)
Measurables: 6-3, 225
2020 stats: 61% completion rate, 10.5 yards per completion, 5% TD rate, 3% INT rate, 6% sack rate, 4.6 yards per carry (not including sacks)
2020 advanced stats: 60.6 Total QBR (99th), 5.5 ANY/A, 40% passing success rate, 50% rushing success rate, 88% throw rate
Outlook: The first time the world noticed Zach Wilson, he was going 18-for-18 in a bowl to end his freshman season. His sophomore year was bumpy and injury-plagued; then he surged as a junior.
Mertz went through a lot of that in just seven games in 2020. He went 20-for-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois in his first start, but depth issues and an inexperienced skill corps quickly overtook the Badgers, and a slate of awesome defenses frustrated Mertz. He completed just 56% of his passes with five INTs and eight sacks during a three-game losing streak.
He was a blue-chipper coming out of high school, and his supporting cast should improve with experience this fall, but predicting a Wilson-esque leap seems presumptuous.
Best defenses on the schedule: Iowa (first), Penn State (sixth), Northwestern (14th)