Last July, Dwayne Haskins had yet to start a college game, Kyler Murray had just one start at Oklahoma (and that was a result of Baker Mayfield being disciplined) on his resume and Daniel Jones was a mere curiosity to NFL scouts.
All three went in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft nine months later. Last year, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. This year, we have a better idea of what to expect from the quarterbacks.
Tua Tagovailoa’s been in the national discussion for two years now, and achieved stardom as a true freshman, winning a national title for Alabama before he did the Tide’s starting job. Likewise, you’ve heard Oregon’s Justin Herbert’s name plenty, and you’ve watched Georgia’s Jake Fromm in big game after big game.
This is all to say—the viability of these quarterbacks almost certainly won’t be questioned from this point all the way through draft season the same way that Murray, Jones, Haskins and Co. were.
That, by the way, may not mean much. In 2015, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were considered very solid first and second overall picks, which is where they were taken at the end of that April. The following year, the quarterback picture was muddled, and some teams saw Jared Goff and Carson Wentz as reaches at the top of the draft. And in the end, Goff and Wentz have had objectively better starts to their careers than Winston and Mariota.
So maybe this year’s class isn’t what it’s been made out to be. But based on the information we have now, there’s a lot to look forward to.
“He’s so talented, he’s big time, the type of cat that goes No. 1 overall,” one AFC exec said about Herbert. “He has everything you want. … Physically, you see it with him throwing at practice—he has a hose. He’ll have a top five or six arm in the whole league coming in.”
“Really good instincts, super accurate, really good field vision an NFC exec said of Tagovailoa. Another NFC exec added, “Just a really, really good player. He’s rare.”
“If Daniel Jones can go sixth, and Daniel’s good at a lot of things, but not great in any one are, [Herbert] and Tua are both first-pick-in-the-draft type talents,” ex-NFL quarterback/Elite 11 head coach Trent Dilfer said.
Fromm brings about more disagreement. But the fact is, if teams need quarterbacks next spring, it’s a good bet that there’ll be good top-of-the-draft options—something that was far from assured about the 2019 class at this time last year.
Something that’s become obvious over the last few years—quarterbacks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Herbert is five or six inches taller than Tagovailoa, and Fromm doesn’t quite have the physical look of someone you expect NFL teams to covet. Some teams will like Tagovailoa more than Herbert. Some will love Fromm, others will see him as ordinary.
That’s the fun of all of this. So without any more delay, here’s our annual summer overview of the quarterback class, with the help of a handful of NFL scouts, and ex-NFL quarterbacks Dilfer and Jordan Palmer, both of whom have worked with a number of these guys through the Elite 11 program since they were teenagers.
Justin Herbert, senior, Oregon
Listed at 6' 6" and 233 pounds, Herbert is athletic with a big arm, and he can add more to his frame. A few criticisims: There’s some inconsistency in his accuracy at times (which teams think can be cleaned up), he’s spent his whole life in Eugene, Ore. (which has raised questions about whether or not he’s sheltered) and his personality is reserved (can he be an Alpha in the locker room?).
But overwhelmingly, there’s more good than bad here.
“He’s got traits you don’t find—a big man with twitch, he’s like Trevor Lawrence that way,” Dilfer said. “There are very few guys that size that have twitch like he does. He’s an exceptional athlete, very compact and efficient with how he moves. He’s explosive. He’s a really good thrower of the football. He’s not a great passer yet, but he can become one. There just aren’t many holes. He’s a phenomenal prospect.”
Palmer says that Herbert physically brings to the table what Josh Allen did in 2018, and he’s been a better player than the former Wyoming star. Bottom line, If Herbert stays on the course he’s been on—watch Herbert’s spectacular performance in last year’s heartbreaking loss to Stanford to see the senior at his peak—he’ll be worthy of being the first overall pick.
Tua Tagovailoa, junior, Alabama
The returning Heisman runner-up doesn’t have Herbert’s size or arm strength, but he has just about everything else you’d want. He’s been regarded as a first-pick contender since he first stepped on the field in Tuscaloosa, and word is he’ll declare for the draft in January if his game remains on course.
“He’s one of the most unique quarterbacks that NFL evaluators have had to look at in a long time,” said Palmer. “He’s left handed, he’s explosive, he’s had a very interesting career—how it started, how he battled injuries last year. This year, he has a chance to put it all together. And he’s had as much on his shoulders at young age as any quarterback seen, especially with what that Bama program is. To enter into what he did and do what he’s done is incredibly impressive.”
Dilfer says it’s simpler: “He’s the finest prospect I’ve ever worked with. And I think I’ve worked with almost all the guys, at this point. He’s rare in so many areas, just not in height, and not in physicality. He’s a rare football player, a rare leader, with rare twitch, accuracy and vision, and a rare mind.”
Alabama coaches told scouts that came through last fall they believed the correct comp for Tagovialoa was the one that Saban missed on as an NFL coach—Drew Brees. The drawbacks? Teams will closely be following his injuries this fall, and how often he comes off the field. And Dilfer mentions that the “Superman complex” has gotten him a little too, in that sometimes he tries to do a little too much.
Jake Fromm, junior, Georgia
He may not look like much. But to some evaluators, his story can make him seem like he’s 10 feet tall.
“He’s done something as impressive as anything I’ve seen from a college player—going into his sophomore year, to play well enough to keep Justin Fields on the bench is incredibly impressive,” Palmer said. “And it’s not just having the confidence to do it, it’s just as much being clutch. That’s the No. 1 recruit in the country coming in, a once-in-a-decade recruit, and a kid from Atlanta. They wanted to play him.
“Jake keeping [Fields] on the bench is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen, because it had to be 24/7. He had to be clutch 24/7 to keep Fields on the bench, and not have anyone think it was wrong. He had to compete 24/7. He couldn’t be bad in a practice or a game. It’s amazing he did it.”
Fields has since transferred to Ohio State, and after former No. 1 recruit Jacob Eason transferred from Georgia to Washington in 2018, that makes two quarterbacks having been beaten out by Fromm.
“He’s in the surgeon category,” Dilfer said. “He’s not overly talented, not that he lacks talent. And he’s not just naturally accurate, he’s innately accurate. Steve Young used to say this—there’s the kind of kid who hit the target the first time he picked up a ball. That’s Jake. Super tough, great leader. But he’s gonna be a system fit. He’d be an awesome fit for [Jon] Gruden, where there’s a ton of offense, it’s complex, and a lot is expected of the quarterback. He wouldn’t be great for someone like Kliff [Kingsbury], who wants his quarterback to just go out there and sling it.”
The one thing to watch here. Fromm is said to love Georgia like Herbert loves Oregon, so he could well do what Herbert did last year and stay for his senior year.
Jordan Love, redshirt junior, Utah State
The 6' 4", 220-pound Love is what scouts call “toolsy,” and he has a legit shot to rise in the consciousness of the NFL, similar to Daniel Jones in 2018. Many say he has a reputation for being on the quieter side, but he has a pretty crazy backstory (Love’s father took his own life when Jordan was 14 years old) that should equip him well for whatever comes his way.
“He’s got this natural deep ball accuracy—his deep ball is something to be seen,” Dilfer said. “And he’s also slippery, he’s got that slipperiness in the pocket to keep plays alive. Plus, he can change speeds on his ball, and throw with touch. I love his story. I didn’t know about him, and he just sort comes out of nowhere. I’ve seen four of his games now, and he’ll must-see TV in the fall.”
The NFL will have to catch up on Love, who didn’t start until midway through 2017. But it seems there’s a lot to like with his game.
Blake Barnett, redshirt senior, South Florida
Barnett’s road to South Florida is less than linear—the Southern California native won the Elite 11 as a prep senior and then won the starting job at Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Ahead of the season opener, the Tide coaches put in a few run packages for true freshman Jalen Hurts, who ripped off a couple big runs and effectively overtook Barnett for the starting job. A few months later, Barnett transferred to junior college and then Arizona State. After losing out on the starting job in Tempe, Barnett transferred to South Florida.
“He’s somebody that was on all the recruiting boards four years ago, and he’s been under the radar since,” Palmer said. “He was MVP of Elite 11 the year Sam Darnold was there. Blake’s gone to three different schools. And this year’s he’s gonna be in position to win a bunch of games in a great system. He’s 6' 5", 230 pounds. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s confident. People at Bama remember.”
As Palmer alluded to, USF hired ex-NFL quarterback Kerwin Bell to install a pro-style system in January. If Barnett makes the most of it, he’ll have a shot at being drafted because of his physical ability.
Nate Stanley, senior, Iowa
Stanley’s an interesting sleeper, and those who’ve been watching seem to really, really like him. In fact, one NFC national scout told me, “I think he can be a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback in the NFL, in the [Matthew] Stafford / [Kirk] Cousins category. If you get him in the second or third round, that’s pretty good.”
He’s 6' 4", 244 pounds, and is playing in Kirk Ferentz pro-style system, which loses tight ends TJ Hockensen and Noah Fant, but returns a pair of tackles that figure to be high NFL draft picks.
K.J. Costello, redshirt junior, Stanford
Quarterbacks who go through David Shaw’s program always merit a look, and this former Top 50 recruit has the size and smarts along with two years as Cardinal starter under his belt.
“K.J. is gonna separate himself on knowledge and understanding of football,” Palmer said. “He plays for Shaw, for Stanford, in that system, and his IQ and study habits are off the charts. He’s a football junky, and understands the game moreso than most rookies would. And they lost a lot of guys this year—the tight end, three receivers and Bryce Love. So he really has a chance to develop as a leader, and be the reason they win. A lot will fall on his plate. He’s positioned well to take that on.”
Steven Montez, senior, Colorado
He’s very raw, but he’s got the size (6' 5", 230 pounds), a cannon for an arm and one of the nation’s best receivers in Laviska Shenault at his disposal. And with new coach Mel Tucker bringing OC Jay Johnson with him from Georgia, Montez should have a shot at showing what he can do within the context of a pro offense. Projections I got on where Montez will be drafted varied wildly.
“He’s a good kid with a big arm, who doesn’t throw to the middle of the field with accuracy, like RG3 was,” Dilfer said. “He’s accurate if his eyes stay on the same receivers, but if he has to move them, he hasn’t been very accurate. And he’s got a small catalog of throws right now.”
In other words, the growth potential is there, but time is running short. And so he may have a first-round arm, but he’s a Day 3 pick, at best, until further notice.
Joe Burrow, redshirt senior, LSU
Burrow was in the thick of a position battle with Haskins in 2018 at Ohio State, then transferred to LSU and caught fire at the end of last year.
“LSU’s one of those team, when you play them, you see it’s built on good play at every other position but quarterback,” Palmer said. “But the last five games, he went off, and they’re bringing back pass-rushers, corners, three good running backs. It’s all there. He has a chance to have special year, and you can see it’s not too big for him.”
Other names to watch
Of course, that leaves the next question – who’ll come out of nowhere like Haskins and (to a lesser extent) Murray did? One name that came up was Penn State redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford. Another was Fields, who won’t be draft eligible until 2021. Wisconsin true freshman Graham Mertz’s name was also raised
Another some are watching: Eason, who threw for 2430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a Georgia freshman, and is now playing for Chris Petersen at Washington. But that he hasn’t even won the starting job there yet has gotten the attention of others, and underscores how much he has left to prove.
And maybe there’s someone else coming. As last year taught us, there’s no reason to rule that out in July.
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