- With the college football season at its midway point, we asked eight NFL scouts to share their top-five quarterback rankings for the 2018 draft
Over the summer, a general manager told me how stupid it was of all of us to go slobbering over what looked to be a bumper crop of college quarterbacks available in the 2018 draft. That might seem like typical, curmudgeonly scout talk. In fact, it is how a lot of those in the scouting community view the current-day, 24-7-365 coverage of the NFL draft. But this was more than that: He had a point to make, and he used the three quarterbacks everyone was talking about to drive it home.
• Sam Darnold was incredible in 2016, throwing for 3,086 yards and 31 scores against just nine interceptions, and leading a scuffling USC team to nine straight wins, capped by an epic effort in the Rose Bowl. That said, he came into 2017 with just 10 collegiate starts under his belt.
• To watch UCLA’s Josh Rosen throw a football is to see a kid who looks like he was born to do it, and he’s been talked about in an NFL context since early in his true freshman season. But faced with all that hype, Rosen leveled off severely as a sophomore, then got hurt, just as questions about entitlement and partying started to mount.
• Wyoming’s Josh Allen was the great quarterbacking discovery of 2016. His production was one thing, putting eyes on his physical ability was another. But that was just it coming into this year—he was seen as raw as they come, and making strides would be essential in proving he could eventually be as polished as Darnold and Rosen are.
You probably get it. Yes, all the potential was there for those three to head a generational quarterback class, a group that had more than one NFL fan base openly advocating tanking. Conversely, each of those three came into 2017 with far more left to prove than Andrew Luck had going into his final year at Stanford or Marcus Mariota had before his last year at Oregon.
That’s why I figured, here at the midway point of college football’s regular season, the time was right to poll experienced NFL evaluators (I got eight of them on the panel) who’ve watched these quarterbacks on where they stand now. The concept here is easy: Rank them 1-5, with five points for first place, four for second, and so on. These are the results from Monday’s polling:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (35 points, 4 first-place votes, appeared on all 8 ballots): Darnold’s been uneven this year, without question, having already matched his interception total from last year. But the feeling I’ve gotten is that scouts will cut him some slack because of the offensive line issues the Trojans are having. The biggest criticism is that he’s trying to do too much, not unlike what Jameis Winston his final year at Florida State.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (34 points, 3 first-place votes, 8 ballots): The Bruins are 3-3, but it’s hard to pin that on Rosen. He’s played from behind a bunch and still has the best completion percentage of his career (64.2) while throwing for 2,354 yards and 17 touchdowns through six games. That said, he’s been a little sloppy with the ball at times.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (23 points, 1 first-place vote, 8 ballots): Allen’s numbers are mediocre and his team is 4-2. But there’s youth all around him and scouts trust the talent. One voter put him first, and another put him in front of Rosen.
4. Luke Falk, Washington State (10 points, 6 ballots): Falk was really rolling before Friday night’s five-interception meltdown at Cal, resulting in the Cougars’ first loss. He came into that one with a 19-to-2 TD/INT ratio, and is still over 70% passing.
5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (7 points, 3 ballots): There’s more variance on him than any of the other quarterbacks. Is it Mike Gundy’s system and his receivers? Rudolph was second on one ballot, and didn’t appear on five others.
6. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (6 points, 4 ballots): If Mayfield were just a little bit taller, he’d probably be two spots higher on this list.
7. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (5 points, 2 ballots): The Heisman winner is as electric a runner as we’ve seen at the position since Mike Vick, and has flashed a strong arm. But inconsistency as a passer remains.
8. Ryan Finley, N.C. State (1 point, 1 ballot): The junior has a shot to be this year’s Mitchell Trubisky. Two of our eight voters conceded they needed to do more research on him.
So there you have it. And I’d remind you, as that GM reminded me a few months ago, that these things are fluid.
FIVE FROM SATURDAY
1. Let’s start with the global view: Last weekend’s chaos is what college football has over every other North American sport. The fallout from Washington, Washington State, Auburn and Clemson being upset is massive. It eliminates one team (Auburn), and puts the other three on the brink in the playoff picture. And that’s why I’m against a massive expansion of the playoffs. It would take away from these moments.
2. It seems as if ex-Bucs and Bears coach Lovie Smith will soon be fighting for his job. He’s 2-10 in the Big Ten since arriving at Illinois and has lost six straight conference games. Worse, Rutgers came to Champaign on Saturday and snapped its 16-game Big Ten losing streak on the Illini’s home field. The Scarlet Knights were coming off a 56-0 home loss to Ohio State.
3. Syracuse coach Dino Babers got plenty of attention for how he and the Orange celebrated upending Clemson, but he deserves it for more than that. He developed Josh Gordon, Terrance Williams and Kendall Wright as Baylor’s receivers coach, and Jimmy Garoppolo as Eastern Illinois’ head coach, and it seems like that formula’s starting to carry over nicely in Central New York.
4. Bryce Love’s numbers look like someone was putting the old EA NCAA Football game on “freshman” mode and trying to get him the Heisman. Through seven games, Love has 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 carries (10.3 yards per), and he has averaged more thatn 7.5 yards per carry in each of Stanford’s seven games. The tailback put on another show in the Cardinal’s 49-7 win over Oregon on Saturday, with 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. The 5' 10", 196-pounder true junior, by the way, will be draft eligible.
5. In the spring, Bleacher Report named LSU junior CB Donte Jackson the fastest player in college football (Jackson later said, “I agree 100 percent with that”). He looked it at the end of Saturday’s win over Auburn. Jackson was all over the place. And given his tools (he says he runs a 4.24 40), and the history of Tiger DBs in the pros, he’s absolutely one to watch down the stretch.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.
Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.
Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.
The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.
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