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2022 NFL Draft: Final QB rankings

Malik Willis

Malik Willis

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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Below you’ll find my final 2022 NFL Draft quarterback rankings. Statistical rankings are courtesy of PFF and ESPN. The rankings below are based on 39 qualified draft-eligible quarterbacks. FCS quarterbacks are not included in rushing QBR (19 qualifiers). RAS size-adjusted athletic composites are provided by Kent Lee Platte. RAS scores should be read as percentiles - i.e., “5.0" is 50th-percentile.

1. Malik Willis | Liberty | 6’1/220

PFF grade rank: 4

PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 31

PFF big-time throw % rank: 1

PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 26

BTT/TWT rank: 5

PFF clean pocket rank: 14

PFF under pressure rank: 5

ESPN rushing QBR rank: 1

2021 dropbacks: 455

In the spring of 2019 at Auburn, Malik Willis took on two more heralded recruits -- Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix -- in a three-man competition to replace Jarrett Stidham. Willis went 9-for-10 in that year’s spring game with some splash plays but was listed QB3 on the depth chart when he announced his intention to transfer to Liberty.

After a redshirt year, Willis won the starting job in 2020. He was a revelation, leading the Flames to a 10-1 season with wins over Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and previously-undefeated top-10 Coastal Carolina in the bowl game. Willis threw for 2,250 yards and a 20/6 TD/INT ratio on 64.2% completions and 8.5 YPA with 1,059 rushing yards and 14 TD on 8.7 YPC (sacks omitted) over 10 games that year. He returned, in 2021, to throw for 2,857 yards with a 27/12 TD/INT ratio with 1,227 rushing yards (sacks omitted) on 8.4 YPC with 13 TD over 13 games.

Willis is a lethal weapon in the run game. His combination of acceleration, agility, power, and straight-line speed is top-5 all-time special for the position – the only comparable quarterback rushing threat in college football over the past decade is Lamar Jackson. Nobody else is remotely close.

Lamar Jackson may be slightly faster and may have a little more wiggle, but Willis is just as dangerous a scrambler because he’s a broken-tackle machine who runs with Jalen Hurts-esque muscle. When he decides to bail, Willis explodes out of the pocket with stupid upfield acceleration from a stand-still and out of cuts. He has tremendous vision in the open field and can decelerate as quickly as he accelerates, allowing him to set up and evade defenders, and cut back against the grain.

Willis declined to test during the pre-draft process, missing the scorching-fast turf at this year’s NFL Combine that by some metrics cut five-hundredths of a second off prospects’ 40 times. Let’s just say Willis ran, didn’t enjoy the time-cut others did, but instead held serve at 4.37, his confirmed speed in 2018 at Auburn. That time would have ranked No. 7 among receivers testing, between Christian Watson‘s 4.36 and Garrett Wilson‘s 4.38.

Willis makes defenders in the open field look silly. He breaks ankles, runs through arm tackles, and runs over defensive backs who don’t bring their lunch pails. It’s so difficult to get a clean shot on him. Last season, Willis led the FBS in broken tackles forced, per PFF, with 90. Willis did so in only 86 rushing attempts. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker, No. 2 with 89, had 262 rushing attempts. If tomorrow Malik Willis suffered an injury that prevented him from throwing a football ever again, he’d still be at minimum an early-Day 3 pick as a juiced-up developmental running back prospect with immediate return utility.

In 2020, Willis had an unfortunate quirk of scrambling with the ball clutched in one hand off to the side like a loaf of bread. He fumbled 15 times in 10 games that year -- four of which were lost -- three more fumbles than any other FBS quarterback. Through Willis’ 2021 improvement in this area, you can see how quick a study he is: Willis slashed his fumbles from 17 to just three in 2021!

Willis became my QB1 for his improvements under pressure. In 2020, his first full year as a starter, Willis was horrible under pressure, finishing third-worst among qualifying FBS QBs with a dreadful 34.1 PFF passing grade on 109 dropbacks. In 2021, we saw enormous improvement in this area, with a 68.3 PFF grade under pressure that topped every FBS quarterback in this class.

Willis has a legitimately world-class right arm. He has the strongest arm in this class, and one of the strongest to enter the NFL since… well, Vick. This bears out in the data. Per PFF, the highest rate of big-time throws in a season since 2015 are 2021 Malik Willis (11.0%) and 2016 Josh Allen (10.6%). Allen’s arm strength was always apparent, but his overall arm talent didn’t always shine through playing around inferior collegiate talent.

Below remains the singular most-impressive collegiate play I saw from any 2022 quarterback prospect, a one-rep encapsulation of Willis’ athleticism, arm strength, and creativity. A full-spin, off-balance dime 50 yards downfield on the road against Virginia Tech. A crucial play, a 4th-and-3 surrounded by zero NFL talent as 17-point underdogs in Blacksburg. Two plays later, touchdown. Liberty went on to stun Virginia Tech 38-35 and improve to 7-0.

Willis throws outs and back shoulders with high-end velocity and NFL timing and steals collegiate corners’ lunch money with quick back-shoulder sideline throws in particular, drilling it to the outside shoulder before his receiver has turned or cut. Last year, per ESPN, Willis was No. 1 amongst the top-7 QBs in this class with a 55.6% completion percentage on throws 11-20 yards downfield outside the numbers.

Willis was off-target on only 11.1% of these throws. The next closest to him was WKU’s Bailey Zappe, at 18.6%. The FBS average was 22.7%, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett finished 23.7%, UNC’s Sam Howell 28.6%. These are NFL throws, folks, and nobody in the NCAA spun them like Malik Willis last year. He’s not as raw as you’ve been led to believe as a thrower.

Willis attempts throws that others wouldn’t, forcing defenders to cover every inch of the field at all times. Fearless testing tight windows. Believes he can fit the ball anywhere and is usually right. Willis has enough juice in his arm to throw across his body on the run and get the ball to his target quick enough to not put the ball in harm’s way. Very quick release, in general.

Liberty’s offense is gimmicky, an up-tempo scheme designed to put specific defenders into no-win situations. It’s full of simple reads, but the throws it asks of its quarterback are anything but. The past two seasons, Willis finished tied-No. 3 and No. 11 in the FBS, respectively, in aDOT. Last year, Willis threw deep (20+) on 20.9% of his passes, almost as much as he threw in the intermediate area (10-19), 21.2%. Willis plays the game like a touchdown is possible every play.

More creator than a facilitator, Willis can make a jaw-dropping play out of structure and then the very next play throw a simple crosser behind his man while standing stationary in the pocket. Willis’ placement needs to improve. There are completed Willis throws on tape where he made it harder for his receiver than was necessary and killed YAC opportunities. Willis finished No. 31 out of 39 in this QB class in adjusted accuracy percentage last year, but improved mechanics led to an adjusted completion improvement from 70.1% in 2020 to 73.6% in 2021, and I believe more improvement is coming working with NFL coaches.

While his overall accuracy needs improvement, Willis is by any measure one of the most accurate deep snipers in this class, ranking No. 23 out of 140 qualifying FBS quarterbacks last year with a 50.7% adjusted completion percentage on throws 20-plus yards downfield. Playing with pro receivers capable of making plays downfield is going to be a boon for Willis. His receivers at Liberty struggled to separate.

At the Senior Bowl, Willis got to play behind a competent offensive line surrounded by NFL talent. He dominated. Willis then went to the NFL Combine and managed to star despite not testing, charming the media, earning raves from NFL teams for his interviews, and going viral for being a good human being -- giving NFL Combine clothing he’d received to a pregnant homeless woman.

Willis isn’t as risky as some have depicted due to his ridiculous rushing ability. It reminds me of Lamar Jackson‘s process, but Willis’ combination of arm strength and athleticism evokes a different player. That player happened to be starring in the Georgia Dome when Willis was a kid, living blocks away, dreaming of playing for the Falcons: Michael Vick.

Willis’ upside is generational. His downside is a top-5 scrambler of all-time with top-5 NFL arm strength and accuracy issues... with a modified Ravens-esque system that suits him (with more downfield throwing), that’s still at minimum a top-16 NFL starter, isn’t it? If Jalen Hurts made it, how does Malik Willis miss? In my opinion, Willis should be Detroit’s pick at No. 2 overall. It’s a risk, sure. Passing on a quarterback with tools this shiny is the bigger one.

Comp: Right-handed Michael Vick

2. Matt Corral | Ole Miss | 6’2/212

PFF grade rank: 15
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 9
PFF big-time throw % rank: 32
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 7
BTT/TWT rank: 10
PFF clean pocket rank: 9
PFF under pressure rank: 29
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 4
2021 dropbacks: 472

Corral signed with Ole Miss as the No. 6 overall quarterback in the 2018 class to play in then-OC Phil Longo’s offense, but he did not get a real chance until Lane Kiffin rode into town sporting an attack similar to Longo’s -- only more aggressive, and run at a higher tempo.

Corral broke out under Kiffin in 2020, throwing for 3,337 yards and 29 TD on 70.9% completions and 10.2 YPA with 605 rushing yards and four TD on 6.4 YPC (sacks omitted). In 2021, Corral returned to throw for 3,349 yards with a 20/5 TD/INT ratio on 67.9% completions with 772 rushing yards and 11 TD on 6.1 YPC (sacks omitted).

Corral throws from multiple arm angles, with side-arm passes used to sneak balls around defenders. He doesn’t need a platform to zing a ball out on the money, and he has high-end touch and velocity up the seam – Lane Kiffin’s system has a lot of these throws, and Corral perfected them.

Corral processes information quickly and plays the position with a creative flair. Corral is on the smaller side, but he has top-three arm strength in the class along with Carson Strong and Malik Willis. There is no throw he can’t make. Corral isn’t one of those hammers that only sees nails. When velocity or moon balls are called for, that’s what he dials up. When the situation calls for a changeup or touch pass, that’s what he does.

Corral’s touch extends to all levels, but his accuracy tends to wane when he gets hurried or sloppy with his lower half. Sometimes this is a result of pressure. Sometimes his brain is moving faster than his feet and he sees something and instantly starts winding up before setting, leading to unforced accuracy or placement errors. This is where Corral’s gunslinging comes back to bite him. When his mechanics start to go, he amps up the aggression instead of calming his game and his feet.

The good news is Corral consistently flashes above-average accuracy when set. Amongst this class over the past two years, Corral finished No. 2 and No. 9, respectively, in adjusted accuracy. We can be a little forgiving for the drop-off this past season. The degree of difficulty ratcheted up with WR Elijah Moore and TE Kenny Yeboah – who combined for 47.5% of Ole Miss’ catches and more than half its receiving yards and TD in 2020 – taking their talents to the NFL’s Jets.

Modifications to the offense as well as the drop-off in receiving talent could explain why Corral fell from No. 1 in this class with 24 big-time throws in 2020 to ranking No. 32 in big-time throw rate (7.0% to 4.3%). His aDOT and YPA fell from 10.9 and 10.3 in 2020, respectively, to 8.5 and 8.5 in 2021. Corral’s receivers dropped 24 balls last year, third-highest in this quarterback class. With the more-conservative approach, Corral proved to be much more caring with the ball, slashing his turnover-play rate from 3.8% to 1.8%.

A tough kid, he will hang in there for a throw and take a shot if necessary. He has a good feel for the pass rush and keeps his eyes downfield as long as possible. Crisp and convincing in the play-action game, he moves well on bootlegs and spins it on the run. Corral is a little hyper-active in the pocket, but, luckily, he’s very adept at maneuvering in tight spaces and makes defenders miss in the pocket.

When it’s time to escape he’s slippery and squirts upfield quickly. Corral isn’t a threat to take it to the house, but he’ll nick you with six-yard paper-cut scrambles all game long if you give it to him.

HC Lane Kiffin’s system didn’t ask Corral to make many full-field reads. It is more about calculating number advantages pre-snap and making decisions based on coverage tells in those first few beats post-snap. Corral looked like the best player in the draft whenever he got the look he was expecting. When he didn’t, it could sometimes turn into an adventure.

Corral has a tendency to audible to secondary reads late. In these situations, he pays little mind to his mechanics. In 2020, he was far too willing to make YOLO snap decisions with the ball while confused. Of Corral’s 14 interceptions that year, 13 came in just three games: against Arkansas, LSU (in a downpour), and Auburn.

In 2021, Corral got much better at getting rid of the ball, taking off to scramble, or just eating the sack in these situations. Instead of forcing balls into eight-man coverage looks, he rushed for more yards while slashing the interceptions from 14 to five despite attempting 60 more passes to an inferior receiving corps.

Corral’s fearlessness cuts both ways. He does not fear being hit, and boy has he taken some big ones. Corral played through injuries throughout 2021 and was finally done in by a high-ankle sprain in the bowl game that delayed the start of his pre-draft process. I fully expected Corral to opt out of the bowl game and he didn’t, giving you a good idea about what kind of gamer the kid is. Nobody questions the toughness, but if Corral’s going to keep running in the NFL, he must start sliding to remain on the field.

Corral is not a fit for a traditional NFL offense. I am ranking him aggressively, and I am ranking him from the perspective of a spread offense that likes to attack deep and has a built-in RPO element. Kiffin put Corral on training wheels with progressions, and this is an area Corral’s NFL staff needs to work with him on as he sits his rookie season (at least to begin it).

There’s work to be done to become an upper-tier NFL passer, and Corral needs to protect his body better as a runner to give himself a chance of getting there. But Corral is the only quarterback outside of Malik Willis in this class that has a top-10 NFL starter ceiling, with a juiced-up arm, a dual-threat element to his game, and moxie for days. I would roll the dice on him starting anywhere outside of the top-10 if I needed a long-term quarterback and my OC ran a system that suited him.

Comp: Rich Gannon

3. Desmond Ridder | Cincinnati | 6’4/211

PFF grade rank: 8
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 15
PFF big-time throw % rank: 3
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 4
BTT/TWT rank: 3
PFF clean pocket rank: 10
PFF under pressure rank: 7
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 6
2021 dropbacks: 435

Coming out of the Louisville prep ranks in 2017, Ridder was thoroughly overlooked. Cincinnati can thank current Bengals HC Zac Taylor for bringing Ridder to town. In 2017, back when he was Cincinnati’s OC, Taylor extended Ridder his only FBS scholarship offer.

Ridder spent a year redshirting and took over the starting job as a second-year freshman in 2018. He went on to be a four-year starter. Following a 2020 season where he was a semifinalist for the Maxwell – 2,296 passing yards and 19 TD on 8.6 YPA and 66.2% completions with 703 rushing yards and 12 TD on 8.8 YPC (sacks omitted) – Ridder seriously explored declaring early for the draft.

After being given a Rounds 4-6 projection from the NFL, he decided to return. Inspired decision. Ridder enters the NFL as the only G5 quarterback to ever lead his team to the CFP. During Cincinnati’s magical 2021 run, Ridder threw for a career-high 3,334 passing yards and 30 TD on 8.6 YPA with 547 rushing yards and six TD on 6.5 YPC (sacks omitted). Ridder is now a top-50 lock, and he could even sneak into the end of the first round.

Ridder’s legs were a driving force behind Cincy’s offensive renaissance, directing an offense heavy in RPO concepts. Ridder is a good runner, with 4.52 speed and explosive initial steps. He’s more of a north-south runner than an east-west mover and probably isn’t going to break many ankles in the open field in the NFL, but he must be accounted for in this area because of how quickly he can get 10 yards upfield and into open space once he decides to bail.

Ridder’s frame is on the skinnier side. He was better at protecting himself than Matt Corral in college, and that will need to continue in the NFL because Ridder’s lack of high-end wiggle can set him up for high-speed crashes when he doesn’t surrender himself.

Ridder is more elusive in short quarters and operating in the pocket. He likes to move around. One good thing about Ridder’s pocket approach is that it can give him more space to operate, a better vantage point, and, sneakily, it can open up running lanes. One bad thing about Ridder’s pocket approach is it can inadvertently put him in danger. Ridder doesn’t have an intuitive feel for defenders honing in on him, so when his compensatory mechanism sends him in the wrong direction like a bad GPS, his options can run out quickly. Ridder winds up to throw, with the slowest release of my top-five quarterbacks. It’s dangerous for him to be in muddy waters.

Ridder’s lower-body mechanics might be the best in the class. In 2021 Ridder also showed increased discipline in marrying his upper-body mechanics – which in the past sometimes had a mind of their own – with his always-superb lower-body base.

Ridder’s throwing motion likely formed naturally as he tried to get more zip on the ball. His arm is average or slightly above-average for NFL starters. He throws a catchable deep ball with plenty of air under it, but things can get iffy pushing beyond 50 yards downfield.

One good thing about Ridder is that he knows his limitations, works on them, and even develops compensatory methods to mitigate them. For instance, his accuracy issues never became full-blown turnover concerns because Ridder learned not to test fate.

He’s willing to wait as long as he can unless an open tarmac has opened up in front of him. He sees the field well, but he wants to see the receiver open, or at least know he has the best of it when dialing up a 50-50 ball downfield (often he did, working with speed merchant Alec Pierce) before throwing.

On the other side of that, Ridder is a more risk-averse passer than any of my top-five quarterbacks. His compensatory mechanism to mitigate the damage of one weakness may cap his overall ceiling as a passer, but it in turn always keeps Ridder within the bumpers. He leaves options on the table but generally makes the correct decision with the ball.

Accuracy will never be a strength of Ridder’s game. He posted PFF adjusted accuracy percentages of 73.5% and 73.9% the past two years, ultimately ranking No. 15 of 39 draft-eligible QBs in that metric this past year, but that finish is a little propped up by all the freebie throws in Cincy’s offense.

Last summer, I ranked Ridder QB9, and based on his work up until that time, compared him to Brett Hundley. The pair shared similar frames and accuracy issues, as well as a notable statistical quirk. In his final season at UCLA, 64.4% of Hundley’s passes came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. In 2020, Ridder easily led my top-10 preseason QB prospects with 61.4% of his passes coming within nine yards of the line of scrimmage.

This past season, Ridder cut that number to 54.6%, more in line with Kenny Pickett’s finishes the past few years but still high. That this coincided with Ridder’s statistical explosion as a passer is the reason Ridder has jumped from a projected Day 3 pick to a top-50 prospect in the last year.

Accuracy and placement will never be strengths, but you can no longer use those areas to disqualify him. And it goes without saying that you can build an NFL offense around Ridder’s plus-attributes. You know you’re getting a great locker room guy – coaches and teammates rave about Ridder’s leadership qualities and work ethic.

I now compare Ridder to Marcus Mariota, who has an eerily similar athletic profile. They came out of diametrically-opposed collegiate offenses, but they share strong stylistic similarities on the field. Mariota hasn’t quite been the runner in the NFL that was hoped of him, and I think the same will prove true of Ridder. Mariota does enough to get you over as a thrower, but not enough to win big. I think this will also ultimately be Ridder’s fate. Ridder will be a low-end NFL starter or a high-end NFL backup quickly. His ceiling is league-average starter.

Comp: Marcus Mariota

4. Kenny Pickett | Pittsburgh | 6'3/217

PFF grade rank: 1

PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 4

PFF big-time throw % rank: 20

PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 14

BTT/TWT rank: 14

PFF clean pocket rank: 1

PFF under pressure rank: 16

ESPN rushing QBR rank: 9

2021 dropbacks: 581

In April 2016, Kenny Pickett committed to play for then Temple HC Matt Rhule. Pickett told the media it was because of his connection to Rhule and QB coach Glen Thomas. But in the months that followed, Pickett received scholarship offers from Pitt, Boston College, and Iowa, and he ended up flipping to Pitt.

Pickett stayed for five years, serving as the full-time starter for the last four. His reign actually began at the very end of his true freshman season, a campaign he began hopelessly buried on the depth chart behind veterans Max Browne and Ben DiNucci. Tabbed to start against Miami in late November, Pickett spurred an upset win.

In the ensuing three years, 2018-2020, Pickett never threw for more than 13 touchdowns nor 7.3 YPA. Coming into this past season, he was viewed as a potential late-Day 3 pick, but Pickett went ballistic in 2021, throwing for 4,319 yards with an ACC-record 42 passing TD. Pickett finished third in the Heisman voting and was named second-team Associated Press All-American and the ACC Player of the Year.

Pickett still has work to do diagnosing and anticipating, but these areas of his pocket game took big steps forward in 2021. And they played up because Pickett had, over those four-plus years starting, become very comfortable in the pocket, with a good feel for how to navigate it and a sound internal clock.

But that cut both ways, with Pickett finishing with the second-highest time to throw in the nation last year. This despite 54.9% of his passes coming within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, one of the highest numbers in the class. He will have to make quicker decisions and unload the ball faster in the NFL.

Nodding back at ESPN’s dual-threat designation coming out of high school, Pickett is more mobile than is commonly perceived. He posted a 4.73 forty at the NFL Combine along with a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Pickett isn’t a huge threat outside of the pocket because he prefers to be in it – he ran for 459 yards on 6.8 YPC last year with sacks omitted – but mobility remains a staple of his aerial game.

One of the things I appreciate most about Pickett is his devotion to keeping his eyes downfield while buying time. He’s a skilled scrambler, one reason his time-to-throw ranking is so high. He can be difficult to corral, and he retains his accuracy on the move. Pickett throws from a variety of arm angles as the situation dictates and doesn’t need his feet set to throw an accurate ball.

Accuracy is a strength. Pickett ranked No. 4 in the class in PFF’s adjusted-accuracy metric last year and was top-3 amongst the consensus top-7 QBs in this class in ESPN’s on-target percentages both 10 or fewer yards downfield, and 11-20 yards downfield. He retains this accuracy deep.

Pickett has enough arm strength and touch to viably test deep in the NFL. Per PFF, he ranked No. 3 in the FBS last year in deep-ball adjusted accuracy. But Pickett’s propensity for palming the ball as long as possible, in conjunction with his below-average release time and aggressive bent, put the ball in too many dangerous situations downfield. Pickett ranked No. 6 in the FBS last year in turnover-worthy throw percentage on deep balls.

Pickett possesses above-average velocity when driving the ball short, but not all NFL throws will be his friend. To the sideline beyond 10 yards, he loses zip and his placement becomes more precarious. Pickett had the lowest completion percentage in the top-7 QBs in this class last year on sideline throws in the 11-20 yard range as charted by ESPN.

Much has been made of Pickett’s 8 1/2" hand measurement, tied with Michael Vick for the smallest in NFL history at the quarterback position. I don’t put a ton of stock in that. No correlation has been shown between fumbling rate and hand size in multiple studies, and Pickett had enough grip to win deep playing outside in the cold in college.

Honestly, I’m more concerned about a one-year wonder having his only standout season against a poor schedule while surrounded by A-grade talent. Inarguably, Pickett’s situation inflated his stats and flattered him. I don’t think Pickett has enough arm talent to be a top-10 starter in the NFL, but his plus-accuracy, ability to buy time, and experience testing all three levels of the field give him a chance to be a league-average starter.

Comp: Andy Dalton

5. Carson Strong | Nevada | 6’3/226

PFF grade rank: 9

PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 6

PFF big-time throw % rank: 11

PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 6

BTT/TWT rank: 6

PFF clean pocket rank: 4

PFF under pressure rank: 31

ESPN rushing QBR rank: 19

2021 dropbacks: 580

Strong was an overlooked two-star recruit in the 2018 class. He took the only FBS offer he received, from Nevada, and redshirted his first season. Strong won the starting job the following year and had a respectable-but-not special redshirt freshman year (2,335 yards and 11/7 TD/INT rate on 6.2 YPA).

Strong took off from there, winning MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2020 as a redshirt sophomore by averaging 317.6 passing yards per game with a 27/4 TD/INT rate on 8.1 YPA and 70.1% completions. In February 2021, Strong underwent surgery -- “a tire swap on cartilage” as he described it -- on the same knee doctors had operated on prior to Strong’s senior year of high school.

Generally, this is a procedure with a one-year recovery timeline. Five months later, in August 2021, with less than a month to go until the opener, Strong underwent an arthroscopic procedure to clear out scar tissue that had accumulated. He was determined to be on the field Week 1, and he was.

Rushing back double-time on an accelerated rehab schedule, Strong’s knee was far from 100-percent in 2021. He wore a knee sleeve to suppress swelling. The knee was drained multiple times. Strong said at the NFL Combine that many of his 2021 throws were “all-arm” because his plant leg was compromised.

Not only that, but the bum wheel greatly affected his mobility, and made him think twice about stepping up into bodies to unleash a downfield throw. This, in turn, hindered his ability to operate under pressure. Despite all this, Strong managed to repeat as MWC Offensive Player of the Year in 2021 with 4,175 passing yards and a 36/8 TD/INT rate on 70.0% completions across 12 starts.

Strong has a big-time arm, a top-three arm talent in this class along with Malik Willis and Matt Corral. Strong is a proven commodity in the pocket by this point, but questions about his problematic knee have dogged his process, with some labeling it degenerative. Instead of being credited with excelling on the field at less than 100-percent, Strong has faced questions about if the knee will ever be sound and if his career will be cut short because of it.

We know that Strong has been long-term cleared by at least two medical staffs: his own, and, per our own Crissy Froyd reporting for The Draft Network, the Los Angeles Rams’. He underwent extensive examinations during the NFL Combine’s medical checks in early March. At present, he has not yet heard what each teams’ medical staff concluded.

My question is this: If it turns out the knee isn’t degenerative, and we know the knee affected his mobility and ability to throw last year, shouldn’t Strong be getting extra credit for his 2021 work, as opposed to his eval being stained with what could, in essence, be a false-flag scarlet letter?

Without that scarlet letter, Strong is absolutely in the first-round discussion because of that golden right arm. The ball shoots out of his hand and gets there in a hurry in a tight spiral. He has a quick release and high-end velocity to consistently beat Cover-2 safeties playing forward. The ball comes out with smoke rings even when Strong is throwing off-platform.

The best of Strong’s deep balls are heartbreakingly beautiful, rainbow moonshots that drop into tiny buckets. Easy, natural 60-plus yard arm strength. But Strong can sail long throws or have them drift towards the sidelines. He can be forgiven for some of that – the Air Raid asks quarterbacks throwing deep to miss long instead of short – but in some cases it’s inaccuracy.

In 2020, of quarterbacks with 350 or more attempts, Strong ranked No. 3 in PFF deep-passing grade behind only two 2021 first-rounders -- Zach Wilson and Mac Jones. He also was one of only four quarterbacks who had an aDOT of 7.5 or above with an adjusted accuracy percentage higher than 80%, alongside 2021 first-rounders Wilson, Jones, and Justin Fields. This past year, playing with a compromised base, Strong still ranked No. 12 in PFF deep-passing grade. I’m telling you: He has a first-round arm.

Strong is a merciless head-hunter for one-on-one situations. He is going to dial up a long ball if the look is there.

Strong managed to avoid putting the ball in harm’s way despite a modus operandi of ripping it vertically. In 2020, Strong went 299 attempts without throwing an interception at one point and tied for No. 2 among qualified quarterbacks with a 1.7% turnover-worthy play rate, per PFF. In 2021, his 2.0% turnover-worthy throw rate ranked No. 7 among FBS qualifiers.

Nevada’s Air Raid heavily skews towards the short- and deep-passing games. Strong does a really job, even in instances where he ultimately goes to his primary target, manipulating safeties with his eyes. But the offense didn’t afford Strong as opportunities to attack the middle of the field as many of his contemporaries. Intermediate throws accounted for only 15.8% and 17.8%, respectively, of Strong’s total output over the last two years, on the low-end for the class.

Strong had ditched his knee brace by the regular-season finale. He didn’t wear it at the Senior Bowl, and in Mobile we saw him moving around better than we had at arguably any time over the past two years. If the knee weren’t a long-term issue, and Strong was going to be a little more mobile going forward along with having a sounder throwing base under him, just how capable would he be of improving under pressure?

In 2020, Strong’s 92.0 PFF passing grade in clean pockets dropped to 48.2 under pressure. In 2021, the splits were even more pronounced, with a 93.8 clean-pocket grade and a lowly 42.6 grade under pressure. At least some of last season’s struggles in this area were attributable to the knee as well as how bad Nevada’s offensive line was. The Wolf Pack ranked No. 108 in PFF pass-blocking grade. By my numbers, Nevada’s OL ranked as the No. 112 unit in the FBS last year (out of 130).

But this is a concern area, as Strong’s play dropped off under pressure his entire collegiate career. He has a habit of bicycling backward dropping back instead of the more traditional shuffle from a ready-aim-fire throwing base. Quick pressure off the snap chews him up, particularly from the interior, as Strong doesn’t always have time to square his shoulders. Sometimes he’ll just fling it up mid-backpedal to avoid the sack.

The pre-2021 tape shows myriad instances of Strong losing stock of his lower half and throwing balls all arm in the face of heat in order to get rid of it. Revamping his set-up and consistently marrying his lower- and upper-halves on throws will lead to an accuracy boost, likely improving Strong’s performance under pressure while naturally up-ticking his velocity.

Strong told the media at his NFL Combine podium session that he’s been throwing the ball harder while working with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer in pre-draft training because he finally trusts his knee enough to fully drive off it while throwing. Despite concerns about his ability to deal with pressure, and with my eyes wide open about his knee, Strong’s arm talent is such that he still warrants a Round 2 grade.

Comp: Jared Goff

6. Sam Howell | UNC | 6’1/218

PFF grade rank: 7
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 26
PFF big-time throw % rank: 12
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 8
BTT/TWT rank: 8
PFF clean pocket rank: 11
PFF under pressure rank: 15
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 2
2021 dropbacks: 462

December 18, 2018. First day of the early signing period. Howell has been committed to Willie Taggart’s Florida State Seminoles since the spring, but he flips and signs with UNC instead. Taggart is fired the next year, while Howell, a native of Monroe, North Carolina, goes on to spearhead a mini-renaissance of Tar Heel football alongside HC Mack Brown.

Brown sealed the deal on a wavering Howell – FSU OC Walt Bell’s defection to become UMass’ HC opened the door – by stealing OC Phil Longo from Ole Miss. Longo’s system is known for two things, simplicity for his players and explosive results. Longo runs fewer than 30 plays, but each has post-snap options that allow the offense to exploit what the defense is giving it. The system simplifies Howell’s post-snap reads, cutting the field in half for him.

Howell was a quick study. He started immediately, and, over his first two seasons, threw for 7,227 yards with a 68/14 TD/INT ratio, with accuracy percentages of 61% and 68% and YPAs of 8.6 and 10.3, respectively. UNC was 5-18 the two years before Howell and Brown arrived, and 15-10 in the two years that followed.

In 2020, Howell led the entire nation with 30 PFF-charted big-time throws, and he finished No. 4 in PFF passing grade on throws 20+ yards downfield. Two names ahead of him on that list – Zach Wilson and Mac Jones – went in the first round last April. The other name on that list, Spencer Rattler, was the only quarterback prospect whose stock fell further than Sam Howell’s last fall.

In hindsight, perhaps not enough of the credit for the 2019-2020 offensive bonanza was given to Howell’s supporting cast of skill stars. RBs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter along with WRs Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome departed for the NFL after the 2020 season. Without them, Howell flashed a dual-threat element to his game (1,100 rushing yards and 11 TD on 8.1 YPC with sacks omitted in 2021), but Howell’s passing cratered across the board, with decreased accuracy, efficiency, and explosion.

While his aDOT rose from 10.9 to 11.7 between 2020 and 2021 as Howell leaned heavily on speed merchant WR Joshua Downs, his YPA dropped from 10.2 to 8.7 as he learned not to trust the rest of his receiving corps. Howell’s percentage of PFF-charted turnover-worthy plays remained static between 2020 and 2021 – 2.2% – but his percentage of big-time throws was slashed from 8.8% to 6.1%.

Howell’s 2020 season with the four NFL skill players was his only collegiate campaign where he finished with an adjusted accuracy percentage of 75.0% or higher. Matt Corral, Kenny Pickett, Carson Strong, and Bailey Zappe, among my top-7 QB, finished 77.0% or higher this past season. What I saw on Howell’s 2021 tape was a new level of risk-aversion, and he wasn’t pinpoint accurate on the throws he decided to make.

The Tar Heels fell off to 6-7. Howell declared for the NFL Draft anyway – the only true junior in this quarterback class – and went on to have a mediocre Senior Bowl. He did not test at the NFL Combine, likely because his athletic profile wouldn’t have flattered him as much as his rushing output did last season. Howell is a tough kid, but the running element to his game is going to play way down in the NFL. The only quarterback with more charted scrambles in college football last year was Malik Willis.

Unlike Willis, Howell isn’t a stud athlete. Howell is short and built compact with average foot speed, a tough runner who makes good decisions on option/zone-read plays and is decisive when tucking and running. He steals yards on broken plays and fights for yards.

Howell’s toughness comes in handy in the pocket. He is comfortable with heat in his face and will hang in the pocket and take a shot to get a throw off. He’s arguably too brave, and he left a small handful of college games battered. In 2020, Howell was sacked 33 times, tied for No. 3 in the nation. Last year, he was sacked 49 times, No. 2 in the nation – this in addition to the extra punishment he took as a runner.

Howell will need to learn to make quicker decisions in the NFL and have a more fleshed-out backup plan than tucking-and-running. This is one of the biggest questions with his eval. Howell knows how to run Longo’s system, and he generally looked fantastic when that system provided Howell with advantageous looks to a future NFL player. When he didn’t get the look he wanted, or his target hadn’t created enough separation, he struggled.

Howell’s pocket game was much crisper in 2020 when he trusted his supporting cast. One thing I really like about him is Howell’s always cocked ready to throw in case a throwing window pops open. This helps expedite his release – which, in a vacuum, is of average speed for this class, with a little windup action.

Howell is very slick at finding throwing platforms in tight quarters. You’ll see him drop dimes and flick spirals surrounded by bodies, from myriad arm angles. When he has playmakers around him, it’s dangerous to send waves of pressure at Howell. If it doesn’t get home quick, your corners are on islands downfield, against a quarterback looking for exactly that.

Howell was more comfortable than Matt Corral in 2020 moving off to secondary options, snapping to the other side of the field for Option 2 or 3. In 2021, Howell was more panicky, very quick to bail if he didn’t like his look. And he wasn’t going to take any chances with the non-Downs receiving options he was working with, in contrast to 2020, when Howell could check down to Newsome, Williams, or Carter if Dyami Brown was covered.

Howell used to get comped to Baker Mayfield a lot, but in my opinion that comp no longer fits because of the aerial risk-aversion we saw from Howell in 2021. Mayfield had more creativity as a passer, more gumption – more gamble, if you want to put it that way. He was always testing the defense. With Howell, that comes and goes depending on how advantageous a situation he’s in.

But the pair share similarities in build as well as smooth, repeatable releases. Howell is especially skilled at giving his man the best of it in one-on-one shots downfield, and he shows requisite arm strength muscling it in against zone coverage or when attacking the seam. Mayfield had clearly superior accuracy and used it to carve up the intermediate area, while Howell is more of an all-or-nothing passer, with scrambling now his default when nothing presents itself.

When Howell makes a mistake, it tends to be self-inflicted. He’s gotten a little better at not telegraphing throws by locking onto his primary option, but he still has work to do in this area. Howell is extremely comfortable in the pocket. But sometimes that comfort invites trouble, like when Howell starts drifting to the throw-side of the field. He can put himself in tight quarters that he can’t escape from. In 2020, Howell ranked No. 9 among qualifying FBS quarterbacks in percentage of pressures he shared responsibility in. Last year, he topped the FBS.

The way Howell plays, inviting the enemy to the gate on lots of throws, he cannot struggle under pressure in the NFL. He was far better in that metric in 2020 than in 2021. In 2020, Howell ranked behind only the aforementioned Rattler in PFF passing grade under pressure. In 2021, just among the 39 draft-eligible quarterbacks in this class, Howell’s PFF grade under pressure cratered to No. 15 (and this includes his rushing utility, which helped him in these circumstances).

Howell’s moxie, fearlessness, willingness to test vertically, and requisite blend of arm talent and athleticism will appeal to NFL teams who see him as a post-hype sleeper value play. If this class were picked last April, Howell would have gone in the top-10.

But his lack of precision placement as a passer and propensity to take sacks are causes for concern, particularly since Howell won’t be able to bank on his legs saving him from sticky situations in the NFL as they did last year against the ACC’s procession of stinky, unathletic defenses.

Comp: C.J. Beathard

7. Bailey Zappe | Western Kentucky | 6’0/215

PFF grade rank: 12
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 7
PFF big-time throw % rank: 4
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 19
BTT/TWT rank: 12
PFF clean pocket rank: 12
PFF under pressure rank: 24
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 15
2021 dropbacks: 730

WKU HC Tyson Helton was done in by a poor offense in 2020. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Helton’s forced him to get creative. So he imported Zappe, WR brothers Jerreth and Josh Sterns, and OC Zach Kittley from FCS offensive powerhouse Houston Baptist. The plan worked so smashingly that one year later, Washington State copied it by importing in-tandem FCS Incarnate Word QB Cameron Ward along with his HC (to be OC).

Expect to see more of this in the years ahead after what Zappe did in his first and only season at the FBS level. He broke NCAA single-season records with 5,967 yards and 62 passing touchdowns and was named the Conference USA MVP. Those around Zappe at HBU and WKU rave about how smart he is. By this point, he’s a verified Air Raid maestro. One of Zappe’s former coaches told me he’s essentially a coach on the field.

Zappe is a pro’s pro in the pocket, sensing danger and stepping up in the pocket to inoculate himself from it. He typically makes sound decisions with the ball, whether that’s shuttling it off short quickly or striking deep. Zappe’s arm was better live at the Senior Bowl than I thought it was going to be.

Zappe has a short, squatty frame that is eerily reminiscent of Chase Daniel coming out of Missouri. Though Zappe doesn’t have a noodle, his arm tops out at average, and Zappe isn’t a gambler testing tight windows with it, probably a sage decision. He can beat defenders playing forward in zone coverage, but often it’s because he saw the opportunity early, not because of velocity.

Zappe must out-process the defense because he isn’t going to beat it with physical talent. The ball doesn’t come out as quickly with him as some of the passers ranked above him on my list. This, in conjunction with his average arm, will play down his aerial game a little at the next level.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Zappe will appeal to offenses with heavy Air Raid influences as a strong long-term backup option. In the NFL, in a scheme that suits him, Zappe will be able to get his offense by when called upon, mostly by taking what the defense gives him and shuttling the ball off to the appropriate receiver.

Comp: Chase Daniel

8. Jack Coan | Notre Dame | 6’3/218

PFF grade rank: 16
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 10
PFF big-time throw % rank: 8
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 5
BTT/TWT rank: 4
PFF clean pocket rank: 15
PFF under pressure rank: 19
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 16
2021 dropbacks: 436

Coan’s ascendence at Wisconsin chased Alex Hornibrook to Florida State. A few years later, it was Coan being chased out of town by a youngster, four-star QB Graham Mertz. After watching Coan’s work at Notre Dame (25/7 TD/INT rate last year), and seeing Mertz flounder as the starter, Wisko probably wishes it could take that one back.

Coan is your prototypical pocket-passer equipped with a strong arm. This past season with the Golden Domers, we finally saw Coan unleashed a little bit, using that arm to stretch the defense vertically. Coan is more of a full-field reader than many other quarterbacks in the class. He’s an efficient processor of information but can be fooled by exotic coverages.

He also, it must be said, is in the discussion for best arm in the class outside of the consensus top-6. When throwing from a sound base, the ball zips out. You don’t want him unloading the ball under duress, when his feet aren’t set, as the decision-making and accuracy both plunge alongside the velocity. His work under pressure has always been middling and I’m dubious that it’ll ever improve.

Though Coan isn’t a rushing threat outside of the pocket, he moves around just fine within it. And you love that he’s willing to step into the fire and take a shot to uncork a ball. But Coan took some big hits in college because he didn’t recognize pressure quickly enough.

It goes without saying that he categorically lacks the foot quickness to beat NFL defenders as a runner. When Notre Dame wanted to run plays that involved the quarterback moving last season, former HC Brian Kelly would send in Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne.

Coan is a fit only for traditional pro-style systems, preferably run-first outfits that set up deep shots with play-action. He projects as a long-term backup. Confined to the pocket, Coan’s only chance of starting in the NFL for a season is if his work under pressure improves.

Comp: Greg McElroy

9. Dustin Crum | Kent State | 6’1/210

PFF grade rank: 6
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 20
PFF big-time throw % rank: 2
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 1
BTT/TWT rank: 1
PFF clean pocket rank: 8
PFF under pressure rank: 25
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 3
2021 dropbacks: 462

Crum was overlooked in the recruiting process because of his frame, but he shouldn’t have been as a two-time finalist for Ohio’s Mr. Football award in high school. After sporadic field time his first two years, Crum took over the starting job early in 2019 and never relinquished it.

He ran Sean Lewis’ break-neck offense in college. Lewis was a longtime assistant of Dino Babers. Babers coached under Art Briles, and Lewis brought some of those old Baylor philosophies back to the MAC, where they previously worked wonders at Bowling Green during Babers’ short stay there.

Statistically, Crum is one of the most impressive quarterbacks in this class, with a career 55/12 TD/INT ratio in college. He was also a threat on the ground, twice topping 700 rushing yards even with sack yardage included. Last year, Crum rushed for 923 yards and 13 TD on 7.5 YPC when you take out sacks.

It’s not just the counting stats. Crum is the only draft-eligible quarterback to rank in the top-6 last season in PFF grade, big-time throw rate, turnover-worthy throw rate, BTT/TWT ratio, and rushing QBR. Even within Kent State’s hyper-tempo, aggressive offensive system, a trademark of Crum’s game was taking care of the ball, one thing the NFL will appreciate when evaluating him as a backup option.

Crum plays chess as a passer, looking off defenders to give his intended target more space at the catch point, and he maneuvers in the pocket well enough to buy himself time if needed. But the lack of juice in his arm is going to be a bigger problem against zone defenses and when throwing deep in the NFL than it was in college. This will be exacerbated by Crum’s slower release and lack of snap-bang decisiveness, factors that will help NFL defenders crowd his receiver’s catch points more than they did in the MAC.

I like Crum’s mobility, controlled aggression with the ball, and experience in the spread passing game. He’s a projected backup for a spread offense that bakes the RPO into its scheme. But with middling arm talent, he’s likely to be asked to be a much different kind of quarterback in the NFL than he was in college, a heady scrambler who must move the ball on the ground and in the short and intermediate areas through the air.

Comp: Nathan Peterman

10. Cole Kelley | SE Louisiana | 6’7/249

PFF grade rank: 2
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 1
PFF big-time throw % rank: 26
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 9
BTT/TWT rank: 11
PFF clean pocket rank: 3
PFF under pressure rank: 11
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 630

Kelley was an intriguing four-star recruit in the 2016 class, a towering, monstrous quarterback with enough mobility to be a weapon in short-yardage situations as a battering ram. He signed with Arkansas. After a redshirt year, Kelley posted a 9/8 TD/INT ratio across six starts the next two years before opting to leave.

So Kelley, nicknamed “The Louisiana Steamboat”, transferred back home to Southeastern Louisiana. He started the 2021 spring season and was immediately a revelation, earning the Walter Payton Award as the FCS’ top player. This past fall, Kelley finished runner-up for that award, throwing for 5,124 passing yards on 9.3 YPA while accounting for 60 total TD.

Kelley is a natural thrower with an easy over-the-top delivery, like a pitching machine. His intermediate throws and seam shots come out with requisite velocity. Kelley feasted in the short and intermediate sectors last year at SELU. A full 62.7% of his passes last year came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, an extremely high number.

He comes from a gimmicky offense, but for whatever it’s worth, Kelley is very accurate and decisive within 10 yards of the LOS, explaining how he led this class in adjusted accuracy last fall. Kelley is better with the seam shots and deep crossers than he is flinging rainbows for go-routes. Despite his size, he lacks a cannon.

You want his deep passes over the middle, not to the sidelines. Kelley went 17-for-33 (51.5%) on 20-plus yard throws over the middle last year for 18.1 YPA, falling off to 17-for-38 (44.7%) on such throws outside for 13.8 YPA. His adjusted accuracy on the deep balls over the middle was nearly 70%, while his adjusted accuracy on deep balls to either side was just a little over 50%. Kelley’s inability to throw moonshots leaves those sideline deep shots a risky proposition in the NFL, where help will arrive quicker and more hungry to pluck ducks and take them the other way.

Kelley shares a similar frame and athletic profile to Paxton Lynch. But whereas the NFL didn’t properly bake in Lynch’s weaknesses during its evaluation process, the league seems to primarily be focusing on Kelley’s, as opposed to his strengths. Belying his towering stature, Kelley is a short-game operator, be it as the short-yardage battering ram or the point guard passing the ball soon after crossing mid-court. A team looking for a get-you-over backup with short-area accuracy and short-yardage utility will take the developmental plunge on Day 3.

Comp: Paxton Lynch

11. E.J. Perry | Brown | 6’2/211

PFF grade rank: 26
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 18
PFF big-time throw % rank: 37
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 29
BTT/TWT rank: 37
PFF clean pocket rank: 13
PFF under pressure rank: 36
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 512

Comp: Taylor Heinecke

12. Kaleb Eleby | Western Michigan | 6’1/208

PFF grade rank: 29
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 17
PFF big-time throw % rank: 21
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 30
BTT/TWT rank: 23
PFF clean pocket rank: 18
PFF under pressure rank: 38
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 14
2021 dropbacks: 434

Comp: David Fales

13. D’Eriq King | Miami | 5’9/196

PFF grade rank: 20
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 2
PFF big-time throw % rank: 28
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 20
BTT/TWT rank: 20
PFF clean pocket rank: 24
PFF under pressure rank: 13
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 151

Comp: Quinton Flowers

14. Chase Garbers | California | 6’2/218

PFF grade rank: 18
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 16
PFF big-time throw % rank: 25
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 2
BTT/TWT rank: 7
PFF clean pocket rank: 25
PFF under pressure rank: 10
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 8
2021 dropbacks: 417

Comp: Brian Lewerke

15. Skylar Thompson | Kansas State | 6’2/217

PFF grade rank: 17
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 8
PFF big-time throw % rank: 24
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 32
BTT/TWT rank: 29
PFF clean pocket rank: 19
PFF under pressure rank: 9
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 11
2021 dropbacks: 266

Comp: Sam Ehlinger

16. Brock Purdy | Iowa State | 6’1/212

PFF grade rank: 23
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 5
PFF big-time throw % rank: 39
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 12
BTT/TWT rank: 36
PFF clean pocket rank: 16
PFF under pressure rank: 21
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 12
2021 dropbacks: 467

Comp: Jake Browning

Thor’s recent NFL Draft work: