In this week’s GamePlan, we’re bringing you our annual overview of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks—and how guys who coach the position actually see them.
But it’s hard to start a column today anywhere but in San Francisco, with a focus on the Deebo Samuel situation. And if you’re asking for my initial thoughts on it, I have a few, from why Samuel’s upset, to whether money can solve the situation, to why we’ve gone from an environment in the NFL where teams would engage in long staredowns with unhappy players to one, now, where guys who want out are so often shown the door. Let’s dive in …
• My reading of the situation is that two of Samuel’s issues with the Niners dovetail with each other, both relating to the shift in role he undertook midway through last year—when he went from sometimes-gadget guy to part-time tailback. The numbers, obviously, reflected it. Starting with the 49ers’ bruising Monday night win over the Rams, Samuel carried the ball 53 times over his final eight games, an average of 6.6 carries per game. And then, he added 27 carries in three playoff games, bringing the 11-game total to 80 carries.
Prior to that, over two and a half regular seasons plus the Niners’ run to Super Bowl LIV, he had 34 carries over 30 games played. What’s more, the carries he was taking late in the season last year weren’t all on reverses, jet sweeps, end-arounds, and outside runs—the Niners were having him take the ball between the tackles, to leverage his physicality.
So that’s one part of it. For a guy who entered the league with injury concerns, and has lost 11 games to injury through three years as a pro, it’s understandable that there’d be concern over his shelf life doing what he did last year.
• The second piece, as I gathered it, is how Samuel views himself—truly as a receiver. Through 10 weeks last year, finally healthy and ready to roll, he was second in the NFL in receiving yards, with 882 on 49 catches. After the Rams game in Week 10, when Samuel logged a career-high five carries (he’d never had more than three in a game prior to that), the real change in role took place, and he became the third option in the Niners’ passing offense.
Check it out …
Week 1 to 10
Samuel: 49 catches, 882 yards, 4 TDs.
TE George Kittle: 25 catches, 328 yards, 2 TDs.
WR Brandon Aiyuk: 19 catches, 130 yards, 2 TDs.
Week 11 to 18
Kittle: 46 catches, 582 yards, 4 TDs.
Aiyuk: 37 catches, 696 yards, 3 TDs.
Samuel: 28 catches, 523 yards, 2 TDs.
Now, it’s hard to argue with the results—the Niners went from 3–5 to the NFC title game, and Samuel’s switch was an enormous piece of that. It’s a credit to Kyle Shanahan and his staff that they’d have the vision to do something so outside-the-box at such a critical point of their season. But it’s also easy to see where Samuel, if he’s looking at the next five to 10 years of his career, might be really worried that the change is permanent.
Which, again, would also bring longevity into the picture.
• There’s also the question of how the rest of the league values him. And the NFL has struggled at times to get the most out of the jack-of-all-trade types that have emerged from the spread-offense explosion in college football. Percy Harvin was probably the first example of it. But it’s shown, too, in how it’s taken time for guys like Cordarrelle Patterson—guys who probably would’ve been bell cow tailbacks 25 years ago, and are receivers now because that’s where the best athletes go—to find their footing as pros.
That’s why it’ll be interesting to see how many teams get involved on Samuel.
He’s unique and brings so many different things to the table. But you’ve also got to have a plan for him if you want to get the most out of him. I had one experienced receivers coach say to me that Samuel isn’t really a “plug-and-play” receiver, in emphasizing that San Francisco is, actually, a really good place for him to be. And if he wants to play receiver in a more traditional way? It’d be interesting to see how teams outside of San Francisco value him.
• There are lots of questions out there about how players like Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams have used contract crossroads to push their way to new locales, and what that means for players league-wide. And then the question becomes … what changed?
To be sure, the fact that guys like Hill and Adams were already financially secure, as guys pursuing third (and not second) contracts made a difference. The NBA “I’ll play where I want to play” influence is there too. But just as much, I believe how draft picks have been valued is changing the dynamic, too—and this is an area where the Rams winning it all, I believe, accelerated an already emerging trend that the Chiefs and Bucs rode to titles.
Back in the fall of 2019, I dove into the numbers and saw that over the first seven years of the ’11 CBA, just eight players were dealt for first-round picks (or first-rounders and more). In the 18 months to follow, from April ’18 to October ’19, the NFL matched that number, with eight more such trades, and things have not slowed down since. Over the last two months alone, we’ve seen four examples of that level of trade (Adams, Hill, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson) with, potentially, more to come.
Bottom line, teams are valuing first-round picks differently now. It used to be GMs would rather hand off the deed to their house than future first-rounders. Now, they’re flipping them like Airbnb properties. And because of that, teams with disgruntled players usually have a much more attractive escape hatch from awkward situations. The same principle could apply with Samuel, in that the Niners don’t even need to shop him to figure out his trade value, since teams will come to them.
• And then, there’s the supply and demand dynamic for the Niners to consider in mapping out the next week. Simply put, keeping a receiver (see: Adams, Hill, Stefon Diggs) has become nearly as costly as keeping a great pass rusher, and is as costly as keeping a great left tackle, at a time when you could argue it’s easier than it’s ever been to find a readymade (and cheap) one in the draft.
Along those lines, you’ll notice the Packers traded Adams at a time when they’re carrying a very expensive left tackle (David Bakhtiari), and have contracts for a young corner (Jaire Alexander) and pass rusher (Rashan Gary) on the horizon; and the Chiefs dealt Hill with a young left tackle (Orlando Brown) and, eventually, corner (L’Jarius Sneed) to take care of, while carrying a deep investment in their defensive line (Chris Jones, Frank Clark).
Did we mention Nick Bosa’s eligible for a new deal?
So, long story short, I don’t know if the Niners will deal Samuel in the next week.
San Francisco, for its part, has conducted itself like a trade isn’t coming. But I know well enough to understand there are a lot of things at work here.
SCOUTING THE QUARTERBACKS
Every year around this time, we hit up a handful of offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches to get their read on the QB class. The idea is that they’ll have a different point of view than the scouts I talk to on those sorts of players throughout the year, and they’ll be able to help project what these guys might become as pros.
And the best way I heard the group summed up came from an AFC quarterback coach.
“If I had to guess, based on the film, based on the interviews, if he’d returned to school, Davis Mills would be, easily, the best guy on the list this year,” he said. “Does that answer the question?”
Another quarterback coach added this: “It’s like with [Mitch] Trubisky, if he was a second- or third-round pick, I bet he’s still in Chicago. I really believe that. But he goes in front of Deshaun [Watson] and Pat [Mahomes], so he’s viewed as a failure, even though you can win with him. That’s where it’s unfair for these guys. They’re just not first-round picks.”
But, as is always the case, a couple of them will go in the first round. It’s been 26 years since a draft class failed to produce a first-round quarterback (Tony Banks was the first QB taken in 1996, going 42nd overall), and there’s a reason that probably won’t ever happen again.
That said, the point our second coach was making is a good one for another reason—in the right situation, with the right expectations, a couple of these guys could actually make it. So let’s dive into who the five top guys are.
Malik Willis, Liberty
Dimensions: 6' ½", 219 pounds.
Ceiling comp: Rich man’s Jalen Hurts.
Willis is built like a tailback, is explosive like Michael Vick and has a cannon for an arm—so if you’re looking for a guy who could really develop into something in the class, he’s the one. “Malik’s the best by far, he’s the most talented—the only one with the talent to be a real guy,” said one offensive coordinator. “He has rare ability to throw the ball, he’s real quick twitch, strong arm, good release, he doesn’t need space to generate power. He’s raw, and most of the throws you like are outside the numbers, and you see where the concepts are simple, so he needs development. But in the meantime, you can run him like [Jalen] Hurts, you can run an offense like Philly or Baltimore, and mix new stuff in as you go.”
There are some questions about his transfer from Auburn, which happened after he couldn’t wrest the job from Bo Nix (who’s since transferred to Oregon). “It didn’t click there for whatever reason,” said a quarterback coach. “He gets to Liberty because Gus [Malzahn] and Hugh [Freeze] are buddies, and the kid will tell you he didn’t do the work he had to at Auburn, and he takes off, and he’s the dude. At Liberty, everybody loves him. The question is where the guy needs growing. You hear he needs a redshirt year, so will he do the work when he’s not the guy?”
And where is the development necessary? It’s not that Willis can’t do what an NFL team will ask him to. It’s simply that in Freeze’s simplistic, fast-moving offense, he really never had to do that sort of thing. “He’s talented as s---, but at this level, you’ll have to process more than he was asked to,” said another quarterback coach. “On tape, he’s just playing ball out there. All his drops are the same, there’s no three-step/five-step, he’s out there reacting, and he doesn’t make anticipatory throws. He has to see things will be open presnap, and he still wants to see the receiver’s weight drop, his foot plant, he doesn’t let it rip and trust it. He gets away with it. But he’ll have to learn to do that.”
That said, what teams do see is a guy carrying a team. “Liberty’s offensive line was embarrassing,” said one of the QB coaches. And it’s not like there aren’t guys who’ve been projected before. “I think Malik can be a real guy,” said our offensive coordinator. “He’s got something to him. … I think he’s a better prospect than Trey Lance was, better arm, quicker release, better runner. His arm is closer to Josh Allen’s than people think.” Another OC added, “Really good arm—the accuracy’s not always there, but he has plenty of juice. He showed it at the combine and at his pro day. It’s not Josh Allen, but maybe Mike Vick. He can sling it.”
Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Dimensions: 6' 3", 217 pounds.
Ceiling comp: Andy Dalton.
This is the one where there seemed to be the most agreement. Good player. Ready. Can he be great? Well … “Super high floor, but he’s 24,” said a quarterback coach. “He’s played in a lot of games. In any other year, I think he’s an awesome second-, third-round prospect, I’d be fired up to get him there. And he’s probably the first quarterback taken. My concerns are he’s played 45, 50 games, and it took him until this year to blow up, he averages 12 touchdowns a year, then this year he throws for a million.”
“I just think everything around him has gotta be good in order for him to be successful,” said an offensive coordinator. “He’s a solid player, but I don’t know how high his ceiling is. He takes way too many sacks, bad sacks, and then there’s the fumbling. And he had one good year. He’s average, then blows up in his sixth year. I think he’s played with poise, he’s productive and you see him work through NFL concepts. So projecting him is easy, because you see him doing it. He’s a safer pick. But to me, you draft him in the first round, and he’s your guy, you’ll be dying a slow death.”
Another coordinator, though, countered in saying, “Pickett’s my top guy because he’s plug-and-play. You know what you’re getting. He’s got good arm strength, accuracy, movement skills. The hand size worries me, mostly because the tape doesn’t lie, and the ball’s on the ground on tape. It’s concerning. … There may not be a ton of upside, but that’s O.K.. He can function. The question is whether he’ll ever be a ton better than he is right now.”
“He’s a quick learner, a quiet leader, he’s got moxie, I was impressed with him,” said a quarterback coach. “You can win with talent around him; he can be a good starting quarterback. I just don’t know that there’s any ceiling there. It looks like there’s no room for growth, he’s not gonna get much better.” A third offensive coordinator, who spent time with him, said, “He’s got concerns, but he’s very smart, accurate enough, understands enough. He can be a good player in the right situation.”
Dimensions: 6' 1 ½", 212 pounds.
Ceiling comp: Raw Zach Wilson.
The Rorschach sketch of this year’s quarterback class—with different people seeing different things in the package that Corral is bringing to the table. “As a player, just where the ball goes, I’m a big fan,” said one quarterback coach. “He was 212 pounds at the combine. I doubt he plays at that weight. But he’s got a super quick release, it’s like Jimmy [Garoppolo’s], it can almost be too fast at times. He’s got a strong arm, his arm might be a tad overhyped, just because he makes more tight-window throws, so he has to display it more. … And he’s very tough, they used him as a runner, and his interview was solid.”
Then, there was this take from an offensive coordinator: “He’s kind of a mess. … His offense was a true college offense, he pushes the ball, he plays reckless with his body, he won’t hold up playing the way he did in college. And there are character concerns. I’m not sure you want him leading your program, his sorts of issues aren’t the kind solved by giving a kid millions of dollars.”
So, in many ways, the physical skills—how he whips the ball, how he’s a loose, daring athlete who’s a little slightly built, and how he has creativity in his game—does remind some of Zach Wilson. But there are differences, too, where his issues mirror Willis’s. “Wilson, on tape, you saw him process,” said a quarterback coach. “This guy, it’s all zone read, he’s looking at one defender and throwing behind him. … The trait for him is this guy gets the ball out fast. In a spread offense, where things are spaced out, and he looks at one side, and replacing the defender, he’ll be good. The big question is if he can be more than that.”
As for the off-field questions, that’s another area where it’s all in the eye of the beholder. He got into a fight with one of Wayne Gretzky’s kids in high school that led to his transferring, and there’d been questions about his maturity his first couple of years at Ole Miss, but the message he’d given teams was he really turned a corner, with Lane Kiffin’s help, in the summer of 2020, and is ready to be a pro. “Yeah, if we were interested, I’d do a way deeper dive on that,” said another offensive coordinator. “You hear he’s a big party guy, and that he had issues, but he’ll tell you he’s gotten himself together.” But, the coordinator continued, “He’s my third guy, I’d stop there at guys I think are starting.” And then he summed up the overall consensus here: “He could be a backup, he could start, he could bust. He’s got the arm strength, can run, and the one thing that stood out is as the ball was coming out it was accurate. Even if it’s in the RPO game, everything’s on the facemask. They’re dotted.”
Dimensions: 6' 3", 211 pounds.
Ceiling comp: Ryan Tannehill.
For what it’s worth, universally, there’s respect and admiration for what Ridder accomplished as a collegian. “I love Ridder,” said a quarterback coach. “He’s a competitor, a leader, really smart. He’s been exposed to dropback concepts that translate, he can process, he’s tough. He just has the accuracy issue. It shows up on tape—he misses throws you can’t miss. It’s really my only knock on him. The mental makeup, the arm, athleticism is there. But the biggest thing, and it’s the easy one with him, is the inaccuracy, and it’s not just missing throws, it’s ball placement, putting the ball on the receiver’s back pad, things like that.”
And that one knock? No one argues that it’s not a problem. “He’s robotic, and he tries so hard, but the fatal flaw is the accuracy. He’s a good athlete, but it’s sort of a linear speed, a build-up speed. You don’t see the athletic splash plays,” said an offensive coordinator. “He’s a great kid, he wins, so you don’t want to kill him, he’s a big part of building that program. And he improved a little with the accuracy. But it’s not like Josh Allen where there’s inaccuracy, but he’s so physically dominant that he makes up for it. It’s not like that.”
The good news is, as part of a very clean package character-wise, his team will be getting a self-aware kid who knows he has to work at it mechanically to improve that area of his game, which is how Allen did it. “If you ask him, he’ll tell you Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill are the two guys who play-style-wise are similar to him,” said a quarterback coach. “And those are good quarterbacks, but they’re kind of athletes that learned to play quarterback. Tannehill was Texas A&M’s leading receiver. Marcus was great at Oregon, but in Chip [Kelly’s] offense, and it hasn’t translated great. Desmond’s like that, a lot of tools, ran 4.5, even if he doesn’t play 4.5. … Big frame, huge hands, great guy, super mature. He’s an adult.”
So can he overcome that one issue? It depends on who you’re talking to. “This is a guy, I told our guys, he’s being undervalued,” said an offensive coordinator. “He’s a better player than people think, he can be a low-level starter in our league. The accuracy thing, he misses some, but so did Josh Allen. There’s stuff you can do with him to help him.”
A QB coach added, “there’s definitely something to the kid, he had 50 starts … you talk to people in the program, they love him, three-time captain, they swear by him, and he elevated that program. What you hear from them is you gotta get to know him. … But I don’t know about the accuracy thing. For example, his pro day, it’s Jordan Palmer designing it, fully scripted and he had about seven balls that weren’t close, let alone others that were great catches. He’s not a great natural thrower. But he’s got a quick, tight delivery, so if he’s in rhythm and on time, it can look good.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Dimensions: 6' 1", 218 pounds.
Ceiling comp: Level-headed Baker Mayfield.
Howell has his fans for similar reasons Ridder does—he’s an A-plus kid who’s a gamer. “I love him,” said a quarterback coach. “He’s probably my favorite in the class, if you’re talking about taking him in the second round. … Traits-wise, he’s not a first-round pick. But he has the best vision of all of them, and he’s a natural thrower, he gets a lot of RPMs on the ball. The team around him this year wasn’t good, and they won seven games, and I doubt if you switch any of the other guys here in for him, they do any better.”
“He might be the one with the least holes, if you can deal with a guy who’s 6' tall,” said another quarterback coach. “He might be the safest bet. … He doesn’t throw many picks, he generated offense all three years, he’s a smart guy, knows football really well. … He can place the ball in tight windows. There are times he stays in the pocket too long, locks into his progressions, takes too long and takes a sack he shouldn’t, where he could not make a bad play worse by getting to his checkdown.”
But part of that this year was, again, what was around him, which wasn’t great (the Tar Heels lost Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown to the NFL, and had a shaky line). And in the face of that, Howell showed teams something, too, in shouldering the load in the run game (even if that won’t translate to the league.) “You look at his [sophomore] tape, and you see better players out there,” said an offensive coordinator. “He sees the field really well, he has a strong lower body, and can pull through sacks, and he did a good job as a runner, by necessity, this year. … I like him as the second-best guy. He has a chance. His ceiling, at his absolute best, I think is maybe [top] 10–15 in the league, where I think Pickett would be like 18–22.”
There are a couple things to work around. One, he’s more of a lead-by-example type. And two, he could be tightened up a little mechanically. “When it’s a clean pocket, he gets up on his toes, and you see this long motion that sometimes causes some intermediate accuracy issues,” said a quarterback coach, who said Howell grew on him. “It’s a loopy motion, he gets overextended. But if the pocket’s closing on him, he tightens that up and gets it out—so he can get it out fast … he just has to perfect that.”
Of course, this is another one where some see the ceiling as limited, which has a lot of teams seeing him as a solid Day 2 play. “He’s a backup at best, I don’t see a starter,” said an offensive coordinator. “He’s a tough little player, he reminds me of Baker, the way he plays on his toes. He’s a tough kids, can extend plays enough where he gets out there with his legs. But I don’t see a Day 1 guy.”
And after that? Look out. Nevada’s big-armed, slow-footed Carson Strong hasn’t helped himself in the predraft process, and Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe is seen as a developmental guy (“If you were picking a flag football team, he’d be at the top of your list,” said one QB coach), while some are intrigued by the idea of Brown’s EJ Perry as a very late pick or undrafted free agent.
Which sort of sums up where most are on the group as a whole.
Whether you’re looking for a starter or a backup, this isn’t a great year to be heading into draft week with a need at the position.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1. This, from new Patriots WR DeVante Parker’s Thursday media availability, was interesting: “I chose to get traded here. My agent [Jimmy Gould] hit me up, just telling me what the situation was, and the options I had for the teams to go to. The first on my list was the Patriots. I’m just excited we were able to get everything done.” Good on the Dolphins for giving Parker a say in the matter after the Tyreek Hill trade, but the fact that Miami was willing to flip him in-division caught my attention (in that either other teams Parker wanted to play for weren’t interested, or that the Dolphins weren’t concerned it’ll come back to bite them).
2. While we’re there, the Samuel situation blowing up pushes the spotlight to his draft classmates A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin. At the very least, teams are going to check in on the availability of those guys as they make their draft calls over the next week—it’s not like they need the Titans’, Seahawks’ or Commanders’ permission to do that. For their part, until now, those three teams haven’t seemed very open to entertaining such conversations.
3. Detroit having Liberty’s Malik Willis and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett in on the last two days teams were allowed to host prospects at their home facilities caught the attention of rival teams. I still think they’ll take a defensive player at No. 2. But I’m not completely ruling out the quarterback curveball.
4. Cardinals GM Steve Keim said Thursday there’s “zero chance” he’ll trade Kyler Murray ahead of the draft, and I believe him. But Murray’s camp has viewed the draft as a deadline all along, because the leverage swings toward the team as other teams’ rosters become more set. So the next six days bear watching.
5. I’d still watch for teams to trade and move draft capital from 2022 to ’23 over the next week. And I think Eagles GM Howie Roseman showed some foresight in getting that kind of deal done early.
ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
What I really like about this year’s draft is the unpredictability of it.
Without true blue-chippers at the top, even the first few picks are up in the air less than a week out. Which is in stark contrast to how the last three years went. At this point of the process in 2019 (Kyler Murray and Nick Bosa), ’20 (Joe Burrow and Chase Young) and ’21 (Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson), we had a very good idea of who the first two picks would be. That’s not the case this time around.
So the next few days should be a lot of fun.
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