Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson enter the season as the top returning quarterbacks in all of college football, after each ranking in the top five of PFF’s QB grades a year ago.
Which passers will join them among the nation’s elite this season? We took a look at the PFF database to identify potential breakout quarterbacks for 2016. (Note: This list does not include guys who have not seen enough playing time to this point for us to draw any potential conclusions about how they will perform in 2016, including freshmen and transfers.)
Here are the top 10 breakout candidates at the quarterback position for the 2016 campaign:
- Jake Browning, Washington Huskies
UCLA’s Josh Rosen got far more attention as a true freshman QB starting in the Pac-12, and Rosen finds himself on this list as well (see below), but Browning was quietly having a better true freshman campaign for the Huskies. Among returning quarterbacks, he earned the 15th-highest passing grade in 2015, while also grading positively as a runner. Two more promising signs: Browning ranks sixth among returning passers in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls, and second on throws under pressure. In fact, he earned a better grade per dropback on pressure throws than he did on throws from a clean pocket, which is rare for any quarterback, much less a first-year player.
- Seth Russell, Baylor Bears
Russell ranked 10th in the country in PFF’s QB grades prior to suffering a season-ending neck injury in Week 8, and if he can continue his joint passing and running production for a full season in 2016 he could find himself in the Heisman race. His best work came on deep balls, ranking 13th among returning QBs in adjusted completion percentage on throws of 20 or more yards. (His favorite were rail shots down the left sideline, completing seven of 15 such targets for 276 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.) He was only pressured on 40 of his 212 dropbacks last season, but his passer rating dropped by 73 points on those attempts, so that’s a weakness to monitor this season.
- Kenny Hill, TCU Horned Frogs
In the eight games Hill played for Texas A&M in 2014, he posted two outstanding grades, two good grades, two average grades and two poor grades. That resulted in the No. 21 passing grade in the country that year, just a few points behind eventual No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston out of Florida State, despite playing only a little over half of the amount of snaps. We know TCU’s passing offense is capable of producing big-time numbers after Trevone Boykin ranked seventh in overall QB grades and fourth in adjusted deep completion percentage last season, and Hill could be in store for a big 2016 campaign.
- Brad Kaaya, Miami (FL) Hurricanes
As a true sophomore in 2015, Kaaya produced the 13th-best passing grade among returning QBs. He benefited greatly from the Canes’ heavy use of play-action, with 38 percent of his attempts coming off of it, the third-highest rate in the nation. Outside of a pair of rough outings in Weeks 10 and 11 versus Virginia and North Carolina, he was remarkably consistent all season long, and he excelled on deep throws: He completed 27 of 64 attempts thrown 20-plus yards downfield, for 973 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
- Josh Rosen, UCLA Bruins
Rosen excelled during his true freshman campaign, aside from a few tough performances. If you remove the two games during which he recorded by far his worst grades – Week 3 versus BYU and Week 13 versus USC, when he was a combined 30 for 61 with two touchdowns and five interceptions – he’d be the No. 11 returning quarterback in passing grades. Where he showed best was on intermediate throws, completing 63 of 102 passes between 10 and 19 yards downfield for 1,115 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception. Rosen did a great job of avoiding sacks, with the second-lowest sack rate at 8 percent, but saw a huge drop-off in performance when he faced pressure, with his QB rating falling by 60 points versus when he was given a clean pocket.
- Brett Rypien, Boise State Broncos
Another QB who thrived during his true freshman year, Rypien earned the 14th-best passing grade last season among returning QBs. He overcame some spotty ball skills from his pass-catchers, as he had the eighth-highest drop rate, and his adjusted completion percentage on pressure dropbacks ranked fifth among returners. He had rough showings in games against Virginia, New Mexico and Air Force, but otherwise graded well all season long.
- Luke Falk, Washington State Cougars
Any quarterback in Cougars head coach Mike Leach’s offense is going to be hit with the “system QB” label, and it’s hard to argue that the coach’s pass-happy scheme doesn’t put its quarterbacks in position to succeed. But Falk deserves credit for a very productive 2015 season, during which he earned the 12th-highest passing grade among returning QBs in addition to the No. 1 adjusted completion percentage overall and when under pressure. He was particularly effective on throws 10 or more yards downfield, and if it weren’t for a poor performance versus Stanford and a disastrous one in the Cougars’ bowl game against Miami, he would have graded out in the top 10.
- Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati Bearcats
Kiel is reportedly going to have to win back his starting job after he missed the Bearcats’ bowl game last year for undisclosed personal reasons, but based on how he played in 2015, it’s safe to bet he’ll be able to do so. He earned the eighth-best passing grade among returning quarterbacks, producing a nearly identical mark to Clemson’s Deshaun Watson on roughly half as many snaps. He showed a knack for throwing the deep ball, ranking 17th in adjusted completion percentage on passes of 20-plus yards downfield. Assuming everything is in good shape with him off the field, Kiel appears poised for a huge season in 2016.
- Anu Solomon, Arizona Wildcats
He was overshadowed in the Pac-12 by some bigger-name quarterbacks, but he earned the ninth-highest passing grade among returning QBs last year. His consistency was outstanding, earning zero negative passing grades all season long. He excelled at the intermediate depth, completing 36 of 57 attempts between 10 and 19 yards for 601 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. The only red flag is that Solomon was extremely reliant on play-action fakes. He had the fifth-highest percentage of play-action throws, and the gap in his completion percentage on play-action throws versus throws without play-action was a whopping 20 percent – by far the biggest disparity in the country.
- Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina Tar Heels
We are working off of an extremely small sample size with Trubisky, but his grades were simply so high on a per-snap basis that we felt we had to include him here. He only threw 47 passes all season, with 20 of those coming against FCS school Delaware, but he completed 40 for six touchdowns and zero interceptions. That included 11 of 16 throws 10 or more yards downfield. Between Trubisky and Elijah Hood, one of the most underrated running backs in the country, there is plenty of reason for optimism for the Tar Heels offense this year.