Welcome back to our series on strong positions in the 2015 draft. As I mentioned in earlier installments, the leaders in the clubhouse are running back, quarterback, defensive end and inside linebacker. This can impact draft position: when a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value.
And, in recent years, the Cowboys appear to have pursued this strategy, targeting players at deep positions, with the thought that they can accrue value by doing so. For evidence, look no farther than the selection of Devin Street in the fifth round a couple of short months ago. The Cowboys had a third-round tag on Street, but were able to nab him two rounds lower thanks to an unusually rich WR crop. As a result, they got good value on the player.
With this in mind, we are taking a longer look at the top candidates at the above delineated positions of strength. Last time around, we offered a list of running backs for your delectation; today, its the signal callers. Where better to draft Tony Romo's replacement than from a draft tree with an unusually rich harvest?
As was the case with the runners, most of the better quarterbacks are juniors, which presents a bit of a problem; unlike RBs, signal callers need time for development and seasoning - and scouts need more tape to assess a QB's game than they do for other positions. So, while the top prospects are juniors, remember that senior quarterbacks and/ or QBs with a lot of starts tend to yield more accurate grades. Let's take our telescope and gaze into the quarterback solar system, shall we?
Note: Juniors are designated with an *
The Three Junior Supernovae:
*Marcus Mariota, Oregon (6-4. 218):
Mariota is the latest quarterback to benefit from Oregon's multi-threat offensive system. In 2012, as a redshirt freshman, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 898 yards with five more scores. In 2013, Mariota completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, adding 715 yards and nine TDs on the ground. I have read that if Mariota entered the NFL Draft this past year, he would have been the No. 1 quarterback on most boards.
Why? Well, Mariota is a superb athlete with rare mobility in the pocket and the ability to put tremendous pressure on rival defenses. In the passing game, the exhibits a very strong arm, and also shows good touch, lofting passes over defenders down the seam or to backs and receivers on swing routes.Moreover, Mariota is oft lauded for his intelligence, humility and work ethic
On the downside, reports from Eugene suggest that he needs to become more of a leader. Plus, he's overly reliant on his first read (something that applies to all of the QBs under Chip Kelly's tutelage) and sometimes throws late across his body (an NFL sin for which there is no redemption). These are all correctable issues that scouts expect will witness growth in 2014. But don't take my word for it; check out the tape. Here are four minutes of Mariota's fine work:
The redshirt junior needs use the 2014 campaign refining his footwork and throwing mechanics, showing scouts he has the ability to be a pocket passer as well as a superb runner. If he can do so, he'll join former Ducks Akili Smith and Joey Harrington as top-five picks.
*Jameis Winston, Florida State (6-4, 228):
In 2013, Winston took college football by storm, completing 67 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns (both national freshman records) and 10 interceptions, with another 219 yards with four touchdowns on the ground. He ended the season awash in accolades: ACC Player of the Year, ACC Rookie of the Year, consensus All-American, and Heisman Trophy winner, all accrued as he led Florida State to a dominating season that resulted in a National Championship (he was named the offensive MVP).
As with Mariota, scouts believe Winston would have been the top QB taken in the 2014 draft - and perhaps the top player overall. That's because he's a terrific athlete and a natural passer, with rare field vision and decision-making. And, while FSU spent the majority of the year blowing out its opponents, he did show some resolve in their final contest; although he struggled early in the National Championship Game, Winston righted the ship and lead the Seminoles to 21 clutch fourth-quarter points. The negatives revolve around his off-field behavior (cue the shellfish jokes) and some questions about the consistency of his technique. To wit:
WInston's draft stock has taken multiple hits since he walked off the field after the National Championship Game - so much so that it may take more than one season of good, mature work for a NFL club to give him the keys to its shiny new car. Still, he (and his fellow Seminoles) are sufficiently talented to demonstrate that he deserves to be selected at the top of the '15 selection meeting.
*Brett Hundley, UCLA (6-3, 227):
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Hundley led the Bruins' revival and helped get his team to the Pac-12 Championship Game, completing 66 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards with 29 touchdowns (11 interceptions) and tacking on 702 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, including a 72-yard touchdown run against Rice. He followed that up with a 3,071 yard, 24 touchdown campaign in 2013 (67% completion), adding a whopping 970 yards and 11 scores with his legs.
Hundley certainly looks the part of a prototypical NFL quarterback, with NFL size and a big arm. He goes through his reads before delivering an accurate pass. Moreover, he has been trained in a pro-style offense; the UCLA coaching staff (led by former Falcons and Seahawks head coach Jim Mora) has a lot of NFL experience and has prepped him well for the next level. Check out his highlight reel here:
The 2013 season was an up and down one for Hundley: in the season's first half, his decision making was called into question; however, he got better as the year progressed and finished strong. And when he's on, Hundley can be special. 2014 will help scouts determine which Hundley they expect to get on Sundays.
The Bright Senior Suns:
Bryce Petty, Baylor (6-3, 230):
Petty is solidly entrenched as this class' fourth quarterback after an impressive debut season for as Baylor's starting quarterback. After backing up Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence for three seasons, Petty led the Big 12 in passing last season with 4,200 yards, 62% completions and a 32-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio, also running 339 yards and 14 scores.
On film, Petty looks like a younger, more athletic version of current Cowboys' project Brandon Weeden. Both put up startling numbers playing in spread offenses that relied on simplified, one-read plays that make it easy to identify single match-ups. In that scheme, Petty has little experience under center or with standard NFL three, five and seven step drops, and needs to improve his pocket presence to feel pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. In spite of all that, the Baylor product displays excellent timing and has more than enough arm strength to make every throw.
Wanna see some highlights? You have arrived at your destination:
Although he is eclipsed by the three junior prospects, Petty leads the senior group and, with a 2014 season resembling his 2013 campaign, has a chance to be a top-32 pick less than a year from now.
Sean Mannion, Oregon State (6-5, 214):
A three-year starter, Mannion has improved his passing skills each season. He became the Beavers' starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2011, completing 65 percent of his passes for 3,328 yards with 16 touchdowns and a hefty 18 picks. The following season, he threw for 2,446 yards, and got on the plus side of the TD/ INT ledger, with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Last year, Mannion blew up, completing 66.3 percent of his passes for 4,662 yards with 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Mannion boasts NFL size, the arm to make every throw, and possesses a smooth, natural throwing motion. he demonstrates impressive accuracy on intermediate and deep passes, lofting the ball with perfect trajectory over his receivers' shoulders. Another positive is that he's grown up in a pro-style system, coached by a former Chargers head man Mike Riley. That said, Mannion needs to show improved decision-making and ball security. He is prone to hold on to the ball too long as he took 25 sacks as a junior and 24 sacks as a freshman (only 12 as a sophomore).
With a good 2014 campaign, Mannion can join former Riley pupils Derek Anderson, Matt Moore and Sean Canfield as NFL players.
Major Junior Planets:
*Connor Cook, Michigan State (6-4, 218):
In 2013, Cook's first year as the full-time starter, he got off to a slow start before coming on strong in the second half of the season, finishing with 2,755 yards (58.7 completion percentage) with a nifty 22 touchdowns and six interceptions and leading the Spartans to big wins in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State and in the Rose Bowl against Stanford (where we was 22-36 for 332 yards with two touchdowns and an interception).
Cook is pocket passer who shows very good anticipation and awareness, especially on throws between the hashes. He handles pressure well and has the size, arm (he can make NFL-caliber throws) and field vision to be a good pro-level pocket passer. He's just a bit green. Have doubts? Check out this highlight tape:
To scouts, its not out of the question that Cook can be a first-round prospect. However, given the amount of time and number of snaps he needs to polish his game sufficiently, passing on the 2015 NFL Draft and returning for his senior season of college football would probably be his best course of action. If he does decide to come out next spring, he'll probably need to sit and learn for a year or two.
*Kevin Hogan, Stanford (6-4, 220):
Hogan started out 2012 as a backup before taking over the starting QB position and playing superbly down the stretch, completing passes at a 72 percent clip and guiding Stanford to a Rose Bowl win. In 2013, he helped the Cardinal return to the Grandaddy of them All, boosting his passing numbers while compiling a staggering 10-1 record against Top 25 teams. For the season, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,630 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding 314 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Although his 2013 tape runs hot and cold, Hogan will impress pro scouts with his NFL body and game. Hogan throws to all levels with very good accuracy, boasting an impressive touch on deep passes when he has the room to step into his throw. He exhibits poise, toughness and quick decision-making (exhibit A is his game in Stanford's 2013 upset of Oregon). Plus, NFL scouts will like the fact that he's developed in Stanford's pro-style offense, a scheme that features lots of play-action, bootlegs, throws on the move and deep shots -- all skills that will translate well to the pro game.
On the other hand, NFL evaluators will be taken aback by Hogan's passing motion; he has an elongated wind-up that is likely to earn plenty of criticism in the lead-up to the draft process. What they will find comforting is his resemblance to the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Like Rivers, Hogan's instincts, accuracy and velocity should be enough to overcome his quirky delivery. Here is a nice compendium of Hogan's highlights:
Orbiting Planetoid Bodies: The Best of the Rest:
Braxton Miller, Ohio State (6-2, 215):
Miller is a three-year starter whose best skill is his running ability. While Miller improved his mechanics and footwork going into the 2013 season, it's clear he's still more an athlete than he is a QB, as he doesn't yet consistently anticipate people coming open but relies too heavily on his ability to extend plays with his feet. If Miller can develop his accuracy and ability to stand in the pocket as a senior, he should rise up draft boards.
Jacob Coker, Alabama (6-5, 230):
Coker is a projection; he might not even start for the Tide in 2014. He is a Florida State transfer who nearly beat out Winston to start for the Seminoles, and is the favorite to be the starter for Nick Saban's reloading bunch. Coker moves well, has a big arm and, if he starts, will have the luxury of operating behind a big-time offensive line and an impressive set of skill position players in T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and tight end O.J. Howard.
*Chuckie Keeton, Utah State (6-2, 200):
Keeton had a breakout sophomore season and was the 2012 First-Team All-WAC quarterback after completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,373 yards with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions and scampering for another 751 yards and eight TDs. Keeton started the 2013 campaign off well before suffering a season-ending knee injury against BYU. Because of that 2014 will be a big year for Keeton to remind NFL scouts of his mettle.
Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (6-2, 203):
Kelly replaced Brock Osweiler as the Sun Devils' starter 2012, and has acquitted himself well in the two seasons since. While he lacks above-average arm strength and is thus overly reliant on accurate underneath and intermediate passes, Kelly is athletic and tough, and he runs well and has a quick release. In addition, he anticipates well and is willing to stand in the pocket, taking hits to get the ball out to the best option.
Vernon Adams, Eastern Washington (6-0, 190):
Adams brilliant 2013 campaign kicked off with a season-opening of then-ranked Oregon State in which he amassed 518 total yards and six total touchdowns, becoming only the fourth FCS quarterback to lead his team to a win over a top-25 BCS team. He finished the year with an average of 367.1 yards of total offense per game and Big Sky offensive player of the year honors. Plus, there's this:
Just going through 2013 film on Vernon Adams QB from Eastern Washington. This guy has serious talent. Need to make a northwest scouting trip— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) June 28, 2014
If the Cowboys are in position to draft one of the top three QB prospects, it will almost certainly mean that they had a miserable season, which in turn will almost certainly result in a new regime in Big D. And new regimes like to kick things off by drafting a new franchise quarterback. So, as much as I like many of these guys, my hope is that, if Dallas goes to the QB well in 2015, its to grab a guy like Hogan somewhere in the second or third round.
How about you, BTBers? Any of them strike your fancy? Make you uneasy? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip...!