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College Football: Which quarterbacks are in the next tier after Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields?

Quarterback debates are always one of the biggest topics of conversation during the college football offseason, but this year the debate isn’t about who is the best — it’s about who rounds out the top three. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields are the consensus top two — and rightfully so — but there isn’t even close to consensus when it comes to who the third-best quarterback in college football will be in 2020.

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Taking into account what the current crop of quarterbacks have done in their collegiate careers, there are seven from Power-5 schools who stand out as candidates to emerge as the true college football QB3. In no particular order, here is the second tier of quarterbacks in college football and why they might or might not end up as the next-best quarterback after Lawrence and Fields.

(Note: This is NOT a consideration of these quarterbacks' pro potential.)

SAM HOWELL, NORTH CAROLINA

Argument for: Last year, Howell had one of the best true freshman seasons we have seen by a quarterback in the PFF College era. Trevor Lawrence’s 2018 was the best by a mile in regard to PFF WAA (Wins Above Average), but  Howell’s 2019 ranks second. From a clean pocket, Howell destroyed defenses with his deep ball. When clean and throwing 20-plus yards downfield, Howell was the second-highest-graded passer in the FBS. On such throws, he put up a big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio of 26 to 2 and touchdown to interception ratio of 17 to 0. Howell has a legitimate cannon of an arm, which was the backbone of his great season — he had 15 touchdowns throwing 30-plus yards downfield, which was five more than anyone else.

Argument against: While his clean pocket performance was great, Howell’s performance under pressure was pretty poor in 2019. His grade rank actually dropped to 94th when under pressure, and he posted the 19th-most turnover-worthy plays (10). Howell’s pocket presence made him look like a typical true freshman, as he converted pressure to a sack at 24.5% — the eighth-highest rate in the FBS. On top of that, we charged him with 11 sacks on the year, which was the fourth-most. Clean pocket play is more stable year-to-year, and struggling under pressure is expected for someone of Howell’s age and experience level. This doesn’t mean he’ll automatically improve drastically in this aspect in Year 2, but I wouldn’t expect him to perform as poorly under pressure with additional experience and coaching.

KEDON SLOVIS, USC

Argument for: During the run-up to the 2020 NFL Draft, we at PFF (along with virtually every other scout) praised Joe Burrow’s sharp accuracy. There was only one quarterback in college football who even came close to Burrow’s accuracy this past year: USC true freshman Kedon Slovis. In his first year for the Trojans, Slovis produced the highest rate of 10-plus yard throws deemed accurate according to PFF’s ball-charting process. And it’s not because he saw a high rate of open throws, either — Slovis still ranked first when throwing into a tight window. Combine that with his strong arm, and you have yourself a top-tier passer. With a little improved decision-making in his second-year campaign, Slovis could separate himself from the pack.

Argument against: Slovis’ decision-making wasn’t all that great in 2019. This is expected for an 18-year-old playing for a Power-5 school like USC, but it's still something to watch. Slovis had one of the lowest negatively graded throw rates, but a collection head-scratching decisions led to a turnover-worthy play rate that ranked 85th among 106 qualifying quarterbacks.

Slovis can maneuver the pocket and keep his eyes downfield as well as any quarterback, like so:

But there were times where Slovis would play with fire late in the down by trying to extend the play, making things worse. For example, there were 11 instances in which we charged Slovis with a sack or quarterback hit, and some of those resulted in a fumble. In fact, Slovis tied for the most fumbles among FBS quarterbacks when under pressure (7). Again, this is common for someone with little experience, but it's still something that could prevent Slovis from taking that next step forward to elite status.

JAMIE NEWMAN, GEORGIA

Argument for: Newman actually rang in at No. 3 in our top 10 college quarterback rankings for the 2020 season, which caused an uproar and inspired this article. There are a few reasons why we put him there. First and foremost, his situation at Wake Forest wasn’t necessarily great, and the scheme didn’t cater to his strengths. Wake’s offense was up-tempo and RPO-heavy, and it relied heavily on his athleticism in the run game — Newman had 128 designed carries. At 6-foot-4 and 230-pounds, Newman is athletic and can handle a designed rush, but his arm talent is far better and should be relied upon more than it was. Now that he has transferred to Georgia, we can expect Kirby Smart to utilize him in a better way.

Newman threw into a tight window at the highest rate in college football by over 5 percentage points in 2019. Yet he managed to produce the second-highest passing grade behind only Joe Burrow on those throws and also had the third-best uncatchable pass rate. Newman is also the highest-graded returning Power-5 quarterback on 20-plus yard throws.

Argument against: From Weeks 1 through 11 in 2019, Newman was the third-highest-graded passer behind only Burrow and Fields. In his last four games of the season against Clemson, Duke, Syracuse and Michigan State, Newman had his four lowest-graded games as a passer. This is a big reason why many don’t view Newman as a top-three quarterback in college football. It’s understandable why one would have doubts about Newman, but the drastic improvement in situation from his supporting cast to the offense Georgia runs is something we all have to keep in mind. Newman is finally going to be asked to win with his arm and will have more pure dropback situations, which should serve him well.

TANNER MORGAN, MINNESOTA

Argument for: Morgan was one of the biggest year-to-year improvements we saw in 2019, raising his PFF passing grade rank from 104th in 2018 to eighth in 2019. He was one of the most poised passers we saw all year long when under pressure — his pressured passing grade was the second-highest among Power-5 quarterbacks, and he joined Joe Burrow and Tyler Huntley as the only quarterbacks to produce top-10 marks in both negatively and positively graded play rate. He executed Minnesota’s RPO offense to perfection, too. Morgan worked the RPO slant like clockwork (more than anyone and better than anyone, I might add) and produced the highest grade on RPOs in college football.

Argument against: Morgan displayed sharp decision-making under pressure, but there were a handful of head-scratching throws he tried to force to his first read when clean. This was an issue during his first taste of collegiate action in 2018. Morgan was still great on a throw-for-throw basis on these plays in 2019, posting a PFF grade around the 75th percentile, but his 4.5% turnover-worthy play rate is a concern and a result of the forced throws. Again, this is remarkably better than his 2018 when he didn’t even crack the top 100 in turnover-worthy play rate or passing grade when clean and throwing to his first read, but he still has to clean up his decision-making a little bit more.

BROCK PURDY, IOWA STATE

Argument for: Purdy didn’t quite take the next step forward in 2019 like we thought he would. His PFF grade dropped from 89.3 as a true freshman — which ranked 10th in the FBS — to 79.4 in 2019. That said, he’s still been one of the best quarterbacks on a throw-for-throw basis when in rhythm — an area in which you want your quarterback to excel. Over the last two years, Purdy has posted the lowest negatively graded play rate when in rhythm, en route to the ninth-best passing grade on those dropbacks. This week, PFF's Mike Renner explained why he thinks Purdy could end up cracking the top-three in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Argument against: Purdy never wants to completely give up on a play — he’ll do whatever he can to extend it and make something magical happen. This, in turn, has resulted in some gunslinger tendencies. When creating outside the structure (i.e. non-designed attempts outside the pocket), Purdy can make game-changing plays, but he can also do the contrary, which really hurts the offense. Purdy's passing grade on non-designed attempts outside the pocket since 2018 ranks second-to-last, and his turnover-worthy play count is the fourth-most. He was able to produce the seventh-most big-time throws when trying to create outside the structure, but he completed just 18 of his 57 pass attempts.

D’ERIQ KING, MIAMI (FL)

Argument for: Kyler Murray was the highest-graded quarterback of the 2018 season, but the player behind him in second was none other than D’Eriq King. King's athleticism makes him one of the best dual threats in college football. During his breakout season in 2018, King posted a 75.5 rushing grade, which was 10th among quarterbacks, and averaged more yards after contact per attempt (4.65) than anyone. He avoided sacks under pressure at an impressive rate that season, as well, and could escape a collapsing pocket and make something out of nothing. In fact, he has the second-highest passing grade since 2018 when creating outside the structure and is the only quarterback with at least 50 such attempts to have recorded one or fewer turnover-worthy plays.

Argument against: While King performed at a high level in 2018 and exceeded expectations, his 2019 didn’t go according to plan from a passing perspective. His negatively graded throw rate nearly doubled, and his passing grade fell from elite status at 90.3 all the way down to 59.9 in his four starts under new head coach Dana Holgorsen. Subsequently, King opted to redshirt the year and ended up transferring to Miami in January. Some of King's struggles can be attributed to a difference in scheme that didn't cater to his strengths, but the dropoff is still a big concern heading into 2020. He did, however, display the same top-tier mobility and rushing ability, as he broke 16 tackles and busted off the highest rate of runs resulting in a 10-plus yard run by a quarterback at 34%.

SAM EHLINGER, TEXAS

Argument for: Over the last two seasons, Ehlinger has produced a two-year overall grade that is the fifth-best at his position and has been among the 10 most valuable players in the country both years. Ehlinger has squeezed some impressive throws into tight windows in that span — his 33 big-time throws to a tight window since 2018 is tied with Burrow for most. He's been particularly good when leading the receiver across the field — his horizontal lead passes have been his bread and butter. Ehlinger’s grade on such throws and accurate pass rate both crack the top-five.

Argument against: Ehlinger’s mobility can be an advantage at times, but there are just far too many instances of him bailing on clean pockets and trying to create a positive play with his legs instead of his arm. In fact, it happened 40 times in 2019, which was six more than any other quarterback. Sometimes this works out for him, but a majority of the time he bailed way too early and had a better option.

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