Over the past 12 months, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz went from nearly unknown quarterbacks to first-round NFL draft picks. Since these stories and player developments are part of what makes college football so exciting, in this article we explore which quarterbacks outside of the Power 5 could follow in Lynch's and Wentz's footsteps and emerge on the NFL radar.
The following three candidates are guys with the potential to rise into the first round of the 2017 NFL draft:
(Note: As we are looking at quarterbacks with pro-style skill sets, we had to exclude Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., the nation’s best dual-threat quarterback, from this list.)
1. Nick Mullens, Southern Miss
Who is the returning quarterback with the highest PFF passing grade in 2015? It is actually not Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield or Clemson's Deshaun Watson, but Southern Miss’ Nick Mullens. Last year he was able to build on a promising sophomore season and finished tied for fourth in the nation with 38 touchdown passes. While this number may experience a drop due to the departure of Mullens’ top two targets, his adjusted completion percentage of 77.6 shows that his 2015 performance was not only because of his electric wide receivers. Another strength of the Southern Miss quarterback is his deep ball, as last year he was accurate on 52.7 percent of his passes that traveled 20 or more yards, which is good for third among returning passers.
The Golden Eagles offense is expected to rely on Mullens more than ever in his senior season, especially with the departure of Thomas. However, this also provides a big opportunity for the signal-caller to demonstrate to scouts how he can lead an offense with less experience around him. The senior quarterback’s biggest challenge will come on Oct. 15 against LSU, when he can showcase his talent in Tiger Stadium while facing one of the best pass-rushing units in college football. A strong performance against the Tigers would certainly put Mullens on the map for good.
2. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
It’s fair to say the former Notre Dame quarterback’s career has not been seamless. Kiel had to sit out the 2013 season after transferring from South Bend due to NCAA regulations, and he missed several games in the past two seasons at Cincinnati because of injuries, and he didn't play in last year's bowl game due to a personal issue. However, when he was able to stay on the field, Kiel showed enough promise that we can be optimistic about his final season with the Bearcats.
Kiel finished the 2015 season with the 14th highest passing grade in the nation; however, he had much fewer dropbacks than any of the quarterbacks who finished ahead of him. Furthermore, among quarterbacks who will play college football in 2016, Kiel had the highest passing grade in 2014.
Last year the Cincinnati signal-caller had as good a three-game stretch as anyone in college football. He accumulated a passing grade in Weeks 9 through 11 — when facing UCF, Houston and Tulsa — that was the highest in college football during that stretch. He didn't even play all 60 minutes against the Knights, but he did manage to complete all 15 of his pass attempts for 315 yards and five touchdowns. He continued his strong form in the Houston and Tulsa games, as he combined to complete 70.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 908 yards including six touchdowns in those two contests.
It is unfair to expect perfect completion percentages from Kiel; however, he would improve his draft stock by a large margin if he could stay on the field in 2016 and come somewhat close to that excellent three-game stretch throughout the season.
3. Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
Similar to Kiel, Rush played very well back in 2014, when he passed for 3,157 yards and 27 touchdowns. While Rush had a very similar 2015 campaign in terms of box-score numbers, his passing grade more than doubled. In addition, the Central Michigan passer has become more consistent, as he reduced his negatively graded individual games to just two from the six that he had in his sophomore season.
The fact that Rush saw pressure at the sixth-most rate among returning quarterbacks (on 36.4 percent of his dropbacks) makes his performance even more impressive. He was able to throw accurate passes on 61.0 percent of his attempts under pressure, good for 15th in the nation among returning quarterbacks. The fact that the Chippewas quarterback had a completion percentage of 60.6 percent on plays when he released the ball after 2.5 seconds is further proof of how good he is at handling pressure and making plays when the pocket is already breaking down around him.
So far, Rush has been developing consistently throughout his career at Central Michigan, and is on the verge of turning heads in scouting departments, if he has not already. If he could make the same leap between his junior and senior seasons that he made the last offseason, he should have every chance to be one of the highly touted quarterback prospects of the 2017 draft class.