Early picks in the NFL Draft are so valuable because they’ll yield a professional team the top prospect from the amateur ranks, but also because they give NFL teams a chance to select the next great quarterback prospect from college.
But as the saying goes: drafting and developing a quarterback is much more of an art than a science. As we all now, for every Jamarcus Russell (picked #1 overall), there’s a Tom Brady (picked 198th overall).
But without the benefit of hindsight, this list is meant to be something like a glorified version of a bar room debate, where you and your friends discuss whether you would’ve selected one quarterback prospect from one year over another.
Remember — this isn’t a ranking of how good they are today, but rather how they were viewed as prospects when they in their respective draft class.
Here are the top 20 quarterback prospects coming out of college over the last 10 years ranked, in order of how good of a prospect they were when coming out.
20. Mark Sanchez (2009)
Teams didn’t fall in love with Mark Sanchez because of what he did during his lone season at the University of Southern California, but more so because of what they thought he could become.
While even then-head coach Pete Carroll didn’t think it was the best idea for Sanchez to declare after just one season of starting, he clearly got feedback that NFL teams liked the combination of physical tools, mental processing, and smooth delivery of his throws. There were questions as to whether the offensive scheme there made him look better than he really was, and such concerns became a bit more obvious the more time he spent in the NFL.
19. Patrick Mahomes (2017)
It’s quite ironic, and a testament to the inexactness of the scouting process, to see where Patrick Mahomes was viewed while coming out of Texas Tech, versus where he’s ranked among NFL quarterbacks — if not all NFL players — as of today. But there were NFL-types who legitimately thought Mahomes’ gunslinging style would have him become closer to the second coming of Jay Cutler, as opposed to an evolutionary Brett Favre.
Everyone knew he had the arm strength and improvisational ability, but they wondered whether he’d be able to play with discipline and within the context of an offense. Clearly, we’ve gotten an answer to that question.
18. Johnny Manziel (2014)
Even during his highly scrutinized and controversy-filled redshirt sophomore year at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel went from a frenetic but magical Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to a legitimate NFL prospect at the position.
At his best, he was the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season. At his worst, he was a constant headache for his coaches, as his off-the-field exploits made even more headlines than his antics on the field (like taunting opponents). The fact that he only played two years of college football also gave some teams pause.
17. Blaine Gabbert (2011)
Today, we see Blaine Gabbert as the guy whom General Managers see in their nightmares when picking quarterbacks who played in spread offenses in college. But back in 2011, when they weren’t as wary, Gabbert was seen as a 6'4, 234lb quarterback who hand the brain to make fast decisions, the arm to fit the ball into tight windows, and the legs to create positive yardage in adverse situations. Scouting reports described Gabbert as having tools that were “too alluring for a team without a quarterback.”
While Gabbert’s bad habits — like relying on his arm too much, and not really being able to connect on the deep ball — clearly manifested at the NFL level, his rocky transition from the spread offense at the University of Missouri to the NFL was really what stunted his career progression.
16. Blake Bortles (2014)
Blake Bortles was the perfect example of giving an NFL team the perfect ball of clay, and asking them to mold a franchise quarterback out of it. Standing 6'5 and 232lbs, running the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds, and with a broad jump just under 10 feet, Bortles was an ideal combination of bulk and athleticism.
Sure, scouts debated whether the athletic ability and the arm talent was enough to merit making him a to pick in the NFL Draft, despite the fact that he was far from a finished product and his overall football intelligence was something of a question.
15. Josh Allen (2018)
Virtually nobody disagreed with the fact that when Josh Allen arrived in the NFL, he’d instantly rank among the top five (if not top three) quarterbacks in terms of pure arm strength; whether he could place his throws within a country mile of his intended target was an entirely different conversation.
The former University of Wyoming quarterback absolutely dazzled NFL types with the ferocity of his throws, leading many people to immediately call him the dark horse contender for the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Even as teams began to nitpick at his glaring accuracy issues, they still saw as much raw physical talent in Allen as they had seen in quite some time.
14. Mitch Trubisky (2017)
Mitch Trubisky, The former “Mr. Football” in the state of Ohio went from a backup quarterback to someone the Cleveland Browns seriously flirted with for the #1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite not starting for the mostly unheralded University of North Carolina football program for his first two years in Chapel Hill, Trubisky’s junior year began catching the eyes of scouts, especially after throwing for 30 touchdowns that season.
The athleticism demonstrated by Trubisky, as well as the overall arm talent and flashes of ability to read the field, intrigued teams enough to where he would end up being the #2 overall pick in the draft.
13. Deshaun Watson (2017)
Deshaun Watson might have turned out to be a textbook case study for the idea of “you can’t measure what’s inside a guy’s heart.” But leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, teams had legitimate questions as to whether Watson had the height (6'2), arm strength, accuracy, or durability to compete in the NFL.
Sure, he defeated Nick Saban and the mighty Crimson Tide, but there were plenty of people who wondered whether Watson was more of a product of Dabo Swinney’s quarterback-friendly offensive schemes. That’s why the pre-draft mocks had Watson going anywhere from the top handful of picks to late in the first round of the draft.
12. Baker Mayfield (2018)
A flag-planting, fancy-dancing, crotch-grabbing quarterback for whom teammates would run through a brick wall, the often curmudgeonly NFL executives wondered aloud whether Baker Mayfield was going to arrive in the NFL and become the second coming of Drew Brees, or the second coming of Johnny Manziel.
On one hand, Mayfield ran Lincoln Riley’s offense at the University of Oklahoma like a seasoned conductor, passing for over 8,600 yards and 83 touchdowns his last two seasons in Norman. Between that, and winning the Heisman Trophy, teams started to look past Mayfield’s lack of height (6’1) and penchant for bravado, enough so to make him the surprise #1 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.
11. Josh Rosen (2018)
Despite his “silver spoon” upbringing, Josh Rosen was one of those guys who seems like he was born to play the quarterback position. Going from a high school phenom who demonstrated as much pure football polish as anyone his age in a long time, and an ability to confound coaches who couldn’t continually keep the precocious talent challenged, no quarterback on this list demonstrated textbook — if not near-flawless — fundamentals of playing the quarterback position like Josh Rosen.
His time at UCLA didn’t quite live up to his high school hype, though many would point to the revolving door of offensive coordinators he had to endure in Westwood.
10. Robert Griffin III (2012)
During the 2011 season, Robert Griffin III transformed from an mostly-unheralded quarterback from an often overlooked school in Texas to a household phenom known nationwide simply as “RG3.”
After becoming the first player in the history of Baylor University football to win the Heisman Trophy, there was a contingent of people who argued that Griffin should be taken with the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, ahead of Andrew Luck. Griffin demonstrated a tremendous arm, the speed of a track star (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds), and the charisma of seasoned elected official.
9. Marcus Mariota (2015)
Something of a quiet assassin who carved up Pac-12 defenses in Chip Kelly’s high-octane offensive schemes, Marcus Mariota became the first player from the University of Oregon to win the Heisman Trophy, and the first player born on the island state of Hawaii to win the award as well.
In three years in Eugene, Mariota threw for 105 touchdown passes and just under 11,000 yards, helping lead the Ducks to the 2014–2015 National Championship. Mariota’s overall production in college, ability to both run with and throw the football, and general coach ability (everyone raved about his humble demeanor and outstanding work ethic) made him a very valued quarterback prospect.
8. Sam Darnold (2018)
Sam Darnold went from unheralded backup to quarterback of one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation in USC, and his combination of elusiveness in the pocket and ability to make big plays amidst chaos was reminiscent of a bigger Tony Romo. Despite sitting behind more heralded recruits, Darnold eventually won the starting job for the Trojans, and threw for 31 touchdowns in his first season of starting.
Darnold declared after his junior season, and for much of the pre-draft process in the spring of 2018, everyone assumed Darnold being picked by the Cleveland Browns, with the #1 overall pick, was a foregone conclusion, and there were many who thought the New York Jets — who selected Darnold with the 3rd overall pick — got the best quarterback in that draft.
7. Jared Goff (2016)
Playing the position with the “California cool” that you’d expect from someone with his blond hair, blue-eyed beach bum look, Jared Goff was the son of a professional baseball player, and seemingly had the genes to be a professional athlete himself. He put up very impressive statistics at the University of California-Berkley, but those were obviously inflated by the “Air Raid” variant of offense he ran under head coach Sonny Dykes.
But his overall arm talent, football instincts, and demeanor made him someone that NFL teams really vouched for, enough to make him the #1 overall pick in his draft class.
6. Carson Wentz (2016)
A big, strapping quarterback who played in a “pro-style” system for four years, with the intangibles and aw-shucks humility so many teams covet from the position, Carson Wentz was seen as the prototype quarterback, despite coming from North Dakota State University. Wentz’ stock rose steadily throughout the pre-draft process, starting with blowing away teams at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine.
The more teams got to see him and know him, the more they were impressed. Clearly, the Philadelphia Eagles thought enough of him that they traded up with the Cleveland Browns to make him the #2 overall pick.
5. Cam Newton (2011)
Even though it was difficult to ignore his checkered past and “pay for play” allegations, teams with a “glass half full” perspective on Cam Newton believed he could be a “Steve McNair 2.0”-type of quarterback. From a physical talent perspective, calling him “unique” would be an understatement, considering he would have one of the strongest arms in the NFL the day he walked into the league, he ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds, and weighing 248lbs, he was bigger than many of the outside linebackers who were paid to hunt quarterbacks like Newton.
It certainly helped, of course, that Newton was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and led the Auburn University Tigers to a National Championship during his lone season at Auburn.
4. Matt Stafford (2009)
A true gunslinger out of the football hotbed that is Texas, with an absolute rifle for an arm, Matthew Stafford arrived in Athens, Georgia as the top-ranked quarterback in the 2006 high school recruiting class, and became a three-year starter for the University of Georgia Bulldogs (prior to leaving after his junior season).
As a junior, Stafford was named an All-American, and won the Most Valuable Player award of the 2009 Capital One Bowl. When Stafford declared for the draft, it was all but a foregone conclusion that he was going to be taken #1 overall, by the Detroit Lions.
3. Sam Bradford (2010)
It’s easy to mock this pick with the benefit of hindsight, but don’t forget that Sam Bradford became just the second sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, led the highest-scoring offense in NCAA history while at the University of Oklahoma, and took the Sooners to the 2008–2009 BCS National Championship.
At 6’4 and 236lbs, Bradford looked the part of a professional quarterback, and his season-ending shoulder injury — prior to declaring for the NFL Draft — was seen as more of an unforeseen fluke rather an a tell of his future injury history.
2. Jameis Winston (2015)
Spearheading the renaissance of Florida State football (no pun intended) under Jimbo Fisher, for as much as teams gnashed their teeth at all of the off-the-field transgressions of Jameis Winston, that’s how much they loved what he showed as a football player. To a man, all you heard about Winston was his advanced ability to read defenses, scan the field, and deliver the football nearly anywhere on the field.
Winston also seemed to bring a swagger and bravado to which many of his teammates responded favorably. And with his 6’4 and 231lb size, teams were confident that he would be a nightmare to bring down by opposing defenders.
1. Andrew Luck (2012)
The son of an NFL player. Off-the charts intelligence. Described as having a near Eidetic memory. There’s good reason that Andrew Luck was considered to be the best quarterback prospect to enter the NFL Draft since John Elway nearly a quarter century prior. In a profession that’s quick to nitpick at every single college prospect, virtually nobody had a single legitimately negative thing to say about him.
Sure, there were times that he made throws that he would’ve liked to have back, but doesn’t every quarterback? But between his football IQ, mental processing ability, physical stature (6’4 and 234lbs), deceptive athleticism (he ran the 40-yard dash in a virtually identical time as Cam Newton), and plenty of arm strength, he was considered damn near a “perfect prospect.”
Originally published at thesportsdrop.com.