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Inside the Race for the Next Great NFL Quarterback - Part Two

kenny pickett NFL draft fantasy football rankings draft sleepers

In the first part of this series, I broke down the importance that a true franchise quarterback can make in the NFL.

Now, it's time to figure out what the components are of an elite quarterback and which incoming rookies in the 2022 draft class have that potential.

Keep it locked on RotoBaller for the best NFL Draft coverage!

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What Makes a Franchise Quarterback?

Rather than just go through the normal consensus when it comes to recycled opinions on quarterbacks, it seemed better to seek out someone who is close to the center of influence and has boots on the ground with the world of quarterbacks every day. Through a friend, I was able to get in touch with Sean McEvoy from the Quarterback Takeover to discuss quarterback traits and mechanics, as well as what goes into making a successful quarterback in today's NFL.

Sean has been coaching quarterbacks for 20 years in high school and private training. Along with Quincy Avery, he founded the Quarterback Takeover in 2015 out of Georgia. The QB Takeover has generated $13.5 million in scholarships for aspiring quarterbacks and 140 athletes have gone on to receive D1 & D2 scholarships. Sean has also trained and worked with notable quarterbacks such as Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Malik Willis. Sean is very insightful, humble, and a great person to follow on Twitter.

We talked ball and a little bit about the 2022 QB class. "What is the biggest mistake most people make when scouting incoming prospects?" I asked him.

The biggest mistake that I see people make is not understanding the full context of what the offense is trying to do.

"You have to be aware of who the head coach and offensive coordinator are, what the offensive scheme is, overall supporting cast, current game situation, weather, injuries, opposing defense, overall strength of the schedule, all of these things matter," Sean said. "I'll give you an example: I recently watched a popular member of the media who shall remain nameless give his critique of Malik Willis. He said he had poor decision-making and accuracy on the field. Well, in the particular play that he was referencing, the receiver had run the wrong route and fallen down. When Malik threw the out route expecting his guy to be there, it looked like a porous interception to most people, but they didn't have the full context of what had happened. Without the full context, you aren't able to know what the real truth is and form an accurate opinion."

We talked a little bit more and I asked him if he felt there were three inherent traits that a successful quarterback must have. The answers were:

  • Intangibles (being able to work through adversity)

As a quarterback, having solid improvisation skills when a play falls apart is key. Often a QB has to make a split-second decision. Having good intangibles can also involve knowing when to call an audible and changing the play based on the line of scrimmage. All of these can also be defined as the "It Factor" and are not always seen by everyone. It is something more likely to be seen by a quarterback coach or someone with a true understanding of the position. Mental capacity goes into the intangibles category as well.

One example of a quarterback who seemed to have all of the right intangibles was Joe Montana. While he was never considered an elite athlete or had an elite arm, Montana had everything else from pinpoint accuracy to a mental edge that was second to none. Dubbed "Joe Cool," he always remained calm no matter the situation and inspired confidence in everyone around him. While some of this does tie in with leadership, having great intangibles is the ability to combine doing dozens of small things so perfectly that they build up like a snowball rolling down a hill and become something great. As a quarterback, every little detail matters.

  • Arm talent/consistency with mechanics (making all the throws)

While having a big arm helps on the NFL stage, it is not a sole indicator of success. Guys like Jamarcus Russell and Kyle Boller could throw it to the moon, but it didn't help them make it in the league. The most important aspect of arm talent is being able to perfect your mechanics and use them to be able to make all the throws.

"Aaron Rodgers is a guy who is not very big in stature compared to your prototypical quarterback, but he is probably the most mechanically sound quarterback in the NFL today," Sean said. "While there are plenty of quarterbacks out there who have untapped potential by not improving their mechanics as much as they should, Rodgers' untapped mechanics are probably less than 1%."

Things like footwork, body control while throwing on the run, and powering through a throw with the proper use of one's hips all matter for success. While ball velocity is important, a quarterback's release time and ability to not telegraph a throw to the defense matters just as much.

  • Leadership

Leadership is without a doubt imperative to any quarterback's success. Whether they want to be or not, every starting quarterback out there is seen as the subsequent leader of their team. Teammates look to them to often set the tone as well as be an example for everyone else. Justin Herbert was one player who was knocked for his quiet attitude during the 2020 NFL Draft process. "He's too much of an introvert, a shy kid." one scout said. "How is he going to command his team in the huddle?" Those concerns were very prevalent at the time, but they seem silly now.

Leadership isn't about always being a rah-rah guy, and having a sense of humility should never be mistaken for not being the sort of alpha male that quarterbacks are expected to be. Herbert is a gym rat who loves the game. Just because he doesn't brag about it to everyone doesn't mean he isn't a true leader. One under-looked aspect of being a great quarterback is being able to create a bond with teammates and form that sense of brotherhood. It's not something that can be generated overnight and must be a real, genuine thing for it to be successful.

There were also some very important bits of knowledge from the QB Takeover that most fans who watch football regularly should know:

  • Arm strength can be enhanced, but it is not something that can be improved greatly. Some of it is a little untapped in every quarterback. Ball acceleration comes from the proper mechanics of being able to fully complete a throw with power consistently.
  • Height has continued to matter less and less for a quarterback. While it is a common belief that a shorter quarterback is more prone to having passes batted at the line of scrimmage, batted passes come from an improper throwing motion and a quarterback telegraphing his throws. It has very little to do with height. The only way height should matter is if you have two quarterbacks ranked evenly on your board and one happens to be 6-0 while the other is 6-5.
  • Hand size does matter, but not as much as people tend to think. If you are looking at a list of 47 different boxes that need to be checked for a QB prospect, hand size is probably 46th on that list. Kenny Pickett truthers can now rest easy tonight.
  • Some quarterbacks can still develop from the bench. While game day reps are important, some QBs are better off sitting and learning the system as Patrick Mahomes did in Kansas City for one year before being thrust into the starting role. Trey Lance will be the ultimate case study for 2022 on if more quarterbacks should sit and learn for a year before playing immediately.

 

Scouting the 2022 Class

According to "the experts" the 2022 QB Class isn't a very good one and just about every one of them has high bust potential. This has become a generally accepted narrative, but one completely under-looked aspect is that there are some attractive landing spots this year, Pittsburgh being one of them. An argument could be made that Pittsburgh is the most stable organization in the NFL with Head Coach Mike Tomlin on the job since 2007 along with a patient front office and ownership group. If Pittsburgh does draft a quarterback in the first two rounds, it is a category that any statistical model should add that takes their landing spot into account. While offensive coordinator Matt Canada is not exactly known for being an offensive innovator, the lack of creativity could have stemmed from Ben Roethlisberger's declining arm strength in his final season.

Teams in the hunt for a quarterback: Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, Seattle, Detroit, Pittsburgh

Teams likely staying put on the draft weekend: Philadelphia, Houston

Wildcard teams who have the potential to make a move for a QB: New York Giants, Tennessee, Washington, Indianapolis, Arizona. It's highly unlikely but with Kyler potentially holding out, they could want some added insurance.

The following are my rankings of quarterbacks in the 2022 class who are likely to be taken in the first 100 picks.

  1. Malik Willis (Liberty)
  2. Kenny Pickett (Pitt)
  3. Sam Howell (North Carolina)
  4. Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati)
  5. Matt Corral (Ole Miss)

These rankings could change depending on eventual landing spots, but this is the big board as it stands currently.

 

Malik Willis, Liberty

Measurements: 6-0 1/2, 219 lbs. Age: 22. Hometown: Atlanta, GA

He has a cannon for an arm and is an elite runner. Probably the closest thing we've seen to Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick in recent years. He can make all the throws and has the most "Wow factor" in this class. While he finished his collegiate career at tiny Liberty, that isn't as much of a red flag as people think and more details will be explained as to why below.

Originally recruited to play at Auburn, Malik transferred to Liberty in 2019 after losing the starting job to Bo Nix (who has now transferred to Oregon himself). As the transfer portal was not yet in effect, Malik had to redshirt for the 2019 season before getting his chance to shine. In defense of Willis, his former coach at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, was later fired for making what is now considered the wrong decision by giving the job to Nix. This brings up an important aspect of football that no one talks about: often a player's entire career trajectory can ride solely on one coach's decision. The same is true of certain NFL front offices where one person has the final say on draft picks on draft weekend.

A good overall consensus on a player sometimes can't always be reached because the decision rests solely in one person's hands. It is the reason why there are nine Supreme Court Justices on the bench instead of one. Nine people will generally form a better overall opinion than just one person can.

While many have criticized Willis for playing at Liberty, it's important to take into account that Malik likely will not have anyone on his team at the college level who will end up drafted in the NFL. You can knock him for not playing against elite competition, but Willis had nowhere near the level of players around him as the rest of this quarterback class did and the one main difference that stands out about Willis compared to the rest is that he has the most elite traits of any quarterback in this class. While it is not bulletproof that he will succeed in the NFL, he is the kind of prospect who can elevate everyone around him and has the pure abilities that could go toe-to-toe with the elite passers in the current NFL today.

When comparing quarterbacks in the same draft class, a good exercise is to imagine each quarterback in the draft on each college quarterback's team and project how they might have done in the other prospects' situations. Would Sam Howell have been able to elevate Liberty to an 18-6 record despite recently making the jump to the FBS level in 2018? Would Kenny Pickett have done the same? These are all important questions that should be asked. What if Malik was throwing to the deep plethora of wide receivers at Ohio State?

Malik's medical reports have also come back completely clean and there are no issues there whatsoever. He didn't run at the combine, but there was no need to. Everyone knows he's an elite runner. Willis put up 6,929 total offensive yards, good for 6th in FBS, and had 74 total touchdowns in two seasons (47 passing, 27 rushing).

While it would be a treat for the eyes to see the highlight reels of Malik, Christian McCaffrey, and D.J. Moore together in Carolina on Sundays, Head Coach Matt Rhule starting the season on the hot seat is not great for Malik or his development. Justin Fields suffered a similar fate in year one after Matt Nagy was fired from the Bears and Fields is now stuck with an entirely new front office and coaching regime that may not be fully invested in his success. The better situation for Malik is one of the teams below, where he can mostly sit for 6-8 games while being sprinkled in on red-zone plays and given time to learn the offense before fully taking over much as Lamar Jackson did in Baltimore during his rookie season.

Ideal landing spots: Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, Pittsburgh

QBASE 2.0 Projections:
Bust - 59.9%
Adequate Starter - 23.0%
Upper Tier - 12.2%
Elite - 4.9%

 

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

Measurements: 6-3, 220 lbs. Age: 23. Hometown: Oakhurst, NJ

The question every scout or general manager needs to ask themselves about the 2022 quarterback class is this: "Do we want to chase the prospects with the most upside, or do we want to take a player with maybe a lower ceiling, but is ready to play and help us right away?" While quarterback prospects are universally praised for breaking out at the college level, one must think outside the box a little bit and ask what took them so long, especially in Pickett's case as he will turn 24 years of age this summer. With 49 starts under his belt, he does appear ready to step in and play right away. Is his 2021 season an anomaly where he threw 42 touchdown passes to only throwing 39 TDs from 2017-20?

The one thing that stands out about Pickett is that he does a lot of things well, but doesn't do anything that makes your jaw drop. Is he just another Mac Jones or can he get on a level with a guy like Joe Burrow, who had a similar late breakout in college? Pickett has sneaky good athleticism, he's got more than enough arm to get the job done, and can make plays on the run. He's got the kind of proven experience that scouts and GMs want and has appeared to have done very well in the interviews throughout the draft process.

There is the issue with Pickett having less than 9" hands, but with how much he already played outdoors in the elements at Pitt, those concerns should be put to bed. While Kenny does appear to be ready to play right away, the overall pervading question is this: "What is his overall ceiling?"

Ideal landing spots: Carolina, New Orleans, Pittsburgh

QBASE 2.0 Projections:
Bust - 49.7%
Adequate Starter - 26.2%
Upper Tier - 16.0%
Elite - 8.1%

 

Sam Howell, North Carolina

Measurements: 6-1, 218 lbs. Age: 21. Hometown: Charlotte, NC

Tough as nails and wily as a cat, Sam Howell improvised during the 2021 season as well as anyone after Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams all left for the NFL. While not seen as an overly great athlete, Howell flashed some incredible rushing ability by putting 828 yards on the ground along with 11 touchdowns, an ability he had not used much previously. Howell checks off every box that a scout or GM is looking for in the intangibles category: he's a leader, first-in, last-out kind of guy, experienced, and even-keeled, but will it be enough?

Howell had a lot of quick reads during his time at UNC where he was asked to make one read and then often take off with his legs. He throws a nice ball and made a lot of plays on tape that made you say wow. With the strong supporting cast gone, Howell kept the Tar Heels in games but he couldn't get them over the hump solely by himself as the Tar Heels finished the 2021 season with a record of 6-7. Howell's success in the NFL will be dependent on the situation that he finds himself in. If he goes to an established team with plenty of talent around him, it's not hard to see Howell hitting the ground running right away. However, should he land somewhere where he is asked to be the guy all by himself, it likely won't be the kind of outcome that the optimists are expecting.

QBASE 2.0 Projections:
Bust - 59.9%
Adequate Starter - 23.2%
Upper Tier - 12.0%
Elite - 5.0%

Ideal landing spots: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Carolina

 

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

Measurements: 6-3, 211 lbs. Age: 22. Hometown: Louisville, KY

Probably the most difficult quarterback prospect in this class to project, Ridder has a wide range of outcomes. He has a strong arm and is the second-best athlete (4.50 forty time) in this class only to Malik Willis. At Cincinnati, Ridder participated in a lot of RPOs (where he made one read and then took off or handed it off) which leaves most scouts to believe that there is still plenty of room for him to grow as a passer. Ridder doesn't have gaudy passing stats because UC never needed him to air it out in a lot of games as the Bearcats were usually winning handily at halftime.

Ridder has an impressive 49 starts under his belt while posting a 43-6 career record. He also plays with quiet confidence and appears very mature for his age. He is already engaged and has a daughter as well. Things that are already there in place to help keep an aspiring young athlete grounded shouldn't be easily dismissed. Derek Carr's situation in that regard was very similar when he was coming into the NFL.

The raw athleticism and talent are there for Ridder and no quarterback likely improved their stock at the NFL Combine more than he did. The question that remains is whether he can make the transition to running more of a pro-style offense under center, dropping back to throw, making reads, checking down, throwing balls into tight windows, and seeing the whole field, something he wasn't asked regularly to do at Cincinnati.

Most scouts would have liked to have seen him elevate his game a little bit more against Alabama in the college football semifinal where they lost handily, 27-6. Ridder didn't have any interceptions but only posted a 17 for 32 stat line with 144 passing yards. Since many of the defensive players at Alabama will likely find themselves in the NFL, it was a sort of litmus test for Ridder, one that he did not pass.

QBASE 2.0 Projections:
Bust - 58.9%
Adequate Starter - 23.1%
Upper Tier - 12.7%
Elite - 5.4%

Ideal landing spots: Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Indianapolis

 

Matt Corral, Mississippi

Measurements: 6-2, 212 lbs. Age: 23. Hometown: Long Beach, CA

Is he a me-guy or we-guy? Some red flags stand out about Corral. He had to transfer out of his previous high school for getting in a fight with Wayne Gretzky's son. He had committed to Florida and USC before he changed his mind and picked Ole Miss. Corral also said that he had battled with depression and alcohol early on in his career. People can change, as well as grow up. These aren't things that disqualify him as a prospect, but they are issues that every scout has been made aware of. He does deserve a measure of credit for not opting out and playing in the Sugar Bowl against Baylor where he suffered a lower leg injury and had to leave in the first quarter. You always have to like it when a guy wants to play for his teammates.

In the SEC, Corral played against the best competition of the other quarterbacks expected to be Day One and Day Two picks in this class and it's not even close. He is more athletic than he gets credit for, but he will need to put in some time in the weight room to endure at the next level. Corral screams the most boom-or-bust prospect in this class. He can make some nice throws and did lead Ole Miss to a 10-3 record this past season, but a lot of the offense he ran was based on trickery and featured a high variety of bubble screens. He is the most polarizing prospect in this class and the evaluations on him are all over the board ranging from the first QB taken to being completely off the draft board.

There are some elite traits that Corral possesses and he can spin it quite well back there. He looks like a natural at times in the pocket and can get rid of the ball quickly and make NFL-type throws into tight windows. The question that remains is whether his seemingly brash demeanor will be something that will sit well with his teammates, particularly established veterans already on the roster.

The perfect coach for Corral to help unlock much of his unrealized potential at the next level would likely be notable Zen master: Pete Carroll, whose calming influence and unique relatability with players even at age 70 are second to none. If they can grab one of the tackles at 9 and Corral is still on the board at pick 40 or 41, Seattle's on-the-fly rebuild after trading away Russell Wilson could start all coming together much sooner than expected.

Ideal landing spots: Seattle, Atlanta, Indianapolis

QBASE 2.0 Projections:
Bust - 51.0%
Adequate Starter - 25.7%
Upper Tier - 15.6%
Elite - 7.7%

 

Why QB Scarcity makes Dynasty Tough

If you are in an existing dynasty league, you know all too well how hard it is to find quarterbacks who can produce for a fair trade price. The QB hoarding in dynasty leagues is brutal and for good reason. When it comes to a dynasty rookie draft, you can set yourself up for a big championship window if you were fortunate enough to hit on Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, or Joe Burrow. Quarterbacks always go higher than they should in offseason Rookie Superflex drafts, so if you happen to take a big swing and a miss it can set you back pretty far.

One way to avoid this is to take a robust approach to Quarterbacks in the startup, taking 1-2 elite signal-callers early on and grabbing any quarterbacks at value whenever they are on the board and trading them, later on, should other holes pop up on your roster.

When you are chasing quarterbacks in a dynasty, it can make you feel like you are climbing an uphill battle. While Jalen Hurts and Tee Higgins have pretty similar ADPs in Dynasty Superflex drafts at the time of this writing, you can trade Jalen Hurts to a QB-needy team for Tee Higgins and much, much more if you have other quarterbacks you can rely on. For fantasy production, Willis and Ridder are the two best options due to their athleticism and rushing upside. For Malik, the floor for his fantasy production could very well be Jalen Hurts' 2021 season.

 

Conclusion

There's been a counterargument to all of this out there that says the 2022 QB Class stinks and that it's better to wait until next year by just drafting C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young instead. The odds of landing a top 2 pick even when a team is openly trying to tank are still low and there is no guarantee of it happening. The overall problem with teams who lose for the number one pick is that often they have to strip their entire roster down to the studs to be bad enough to have the worst record in the league. When that franchise quarterback is drafted the following year, usually the roster and the supporting cast around that player are both completely depleted, making their job even harder as we saw with Trevor Lawrence in 2021.

It's no secret that the quarterbacks who have thrived in the NFL are ones who came into stable situations. Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Lamar Jackson all come to mind. Hardly any of them were very early picks, going from mid-first round to later on in the draft. While this argument isn't completely foolproof, it does stress the need for organizational and head coach stability, as well as being provided with a good enough supporting cast while a quarterback develops. Zach Wilson and Tu'a Tagovailoa will be other interesting case studies this year as both of their front offices have given them every chance to succeed by continuing to invest in putting weapons around them.

At the end of the day, there is no perfect formula and no secret sauce to predicting quarterback success. While outliers can be eliminated and some risks can now be avoided with the use of metrics and data like QBASE 2.0 does, no one can get it right 100% of the time because we are dealing with human beings and human beings are imperfect. The Cardinals are living proof of the wisdom in having the guts to take another shot at finding the right quarterback until you get it right. Teams who continually wait for a better opportunity next year to find their guy are only kicking the can down the road.



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