News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Top 10 quarterback prospects

It’s the single most important and valuable position on the football field, which means scouting it correctly has never been more important. While the NFL hasn’t been great in terms of correctly ordering the top prospects at the quarterback position (see 2017 and 2018), the league has been good at identifying who the top talent is.

The past five drafts have netted only three current starters when healthy outside of the first round (Gardner Minshew, Drew Lock, Dak Prescott), while 13 of the 18 first-rounders are currently starters in the league. With another loaded quarterback class, the takeaway is simple: If you want one, get ‘em early.

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1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Write it in pen. Turn in the card. Do everything but hand him his gold jacket. Lawrence will be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Even with some other uber-talented quarterbacks breathing down his neck, Lawrence is still head and shoulders above the rest of the prospects at the position. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean five years from today he’ll be easily the best in the league. Rather, it means that going with anyone else would be a massive overthink.

The scary thing is, after leading Clemson to the national championship game his first two seasons, Lawrence is still getting better. His accuracy issues we saw against LSU in the national championship game vanished prior to him contracting COVID-19. He’s been accurate on 72.7% of his targeted passes so far this season — a figure higher than Joe Burrow’s 71.1% rate in 2019.

What really separates him from the rest of the pack, however, is his quick decision-making. Lawrence processes coverage and blitzes with the swiftness of an NFL veteran before getting the ball where it needs to go. He’s taken fewer sacks (7) on 208 dropbacks this season with a worse offensive line than Justin Fields has (8) on only 101 dropbacks. That will immediately translate to the NFL.

2. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Yes, he holds onto the ball a little longer than you’d like (2.99-second average time to throw this season). Yes, Ohio State’s offense makes his life easier. Yes, he’s got a ton of NFL talent around him. If you think that means Fields isn't a blue-chip prospect, I’d recommend flipping on the tape.

He hasn’t missed this year (not literally, but almost). Through three games, he has a 92.7% adjusted completion percentage on 83 attempts. For context on how absurd that is, there were only 14 individual games in 2019 where a quarterback had at least 25 attempts and finished with an adjusted completion percentage over 90.0%.

And just like in 2019, Fields isn’t racking up yards with screens or underneath passes. Some 71.6% of his yards have come through the air this season — the second-highest percentage of any quarterback in college football this season. Combine that with his rushing ability in short-yardage or option looks, and it’s clear why I’m not too worried about the lack of NFL success from former Ohio State quarterbacks with Fields.

3. Zach Wilson, BYU

Even though his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame may not be as physically imposing as the rest of the quarterbacks in the top five, don’t get it twisted: Zach Wilson has a hose.

What makes the true juniors arm talent so special is that it shows up from the pocket, on the move or wherever he feels like letting it rip.

His ascension to QB3 is no fluke, as he impressed as a true freshman in 2018 with a 78.8 passing grade before injuries limited him in 2019. Now, he’s the highest-graded passer in the country, posting a 94.4 mark in that regard through eight games. He won't last long if he declares.

4. Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Lance's physical tools truly are the most impressive of any prospect since Cam Newton. Look at the kind of juice he gets with a flick of the wrist on the throws below — all traveling 50-plus yards in the air.

Then you see him get out in the open field, and the 6-foot-4, 227-pound quarterback moves like a rocked up wide receiver.

In his 2019 season, Lance rushed for 1,150 yards on 177 carries and broke 40 tackles. He is a specimen as a runner and will be a true weapon in that regard. While he won’t be on Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson’s level, he’ll be a much better battering ram than either in goal-line or short-yardage situations.

The knock on Lance is fairly simple: accuracy. Since the start of 2019, he’s had the lowest percentage of his passing attempts deemed accurate of any quarterback in this top 10 (47.1%). In his defense, his 11.5-yard average depth of target is the second deepest of anyone on this list. Those accuracy issues, however, keep us from completely buying in on him as a sure-fire franchise quarterback.

5. Kyle Trask, Florida

At a position where we constantly talk about how much supporting cast matters, Trask has shown he can rise above. The redshirt senior lost all of his starting wide receivers from a season ago to the NFL and has seen his passing grade jump from 66.4 in 2019 to 91.5 so far in 2020. Yes, he still has legit NFL talents in tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney, but even without Pitts this past weekend against Arkansas, Trask put together his highest-graded game of the season.

Year 2 as a starter in the Florida offense — he didn’t even start in high school — has brought Trask to life as a downfield passer. He’s put up 22 big-time throws already on the season after managing all of nine last season. While pretty much everyone on this list is a better athlete than Trask, he’s not a complete statue and actually has 17 designed runs on the year. He’s putting together a first-round resume.

6. Mac Jones, Alabama

While I’d pump the breaks on the “this year’s Joe Burrow” hype with Jones, I’ll be damned if I don’t see some similarities. Jones' level of accuracy this year is uncanny, as only 10.4% of his targets this season have been deemed uncatchable — the lowest rate of any quarterback with 100-plus targeted passes this season.

Easily Jones’ biggest issue — like Burrow — is his arm strength or lack thereof. The deepest pass he’s thrown in his entire college career traveled only 47 yards past the line of scrimmage (and around 54 yards in the air). But what Jones lacks in arm strength, he makes up for by dropping the ball in buckets.

While the numbers look absurd, with a 142.3 NFL passer rating so far, he’s been throwing into some massive windows with that Alabama receiving corps. He’s racked up stats on some throws with very mediocre ball placement — such as this 87-yard touchdown to Jaylen Waddle.

The numbers aren’t all fake, however. The reason I’m about ready to ignore that lack of arm strength is that Jones is playing with impeccable timing in the Alabama offense this season. His 2.35-second average time to throw is one one-hundredth of a second behind Trevor Lawrence for the quickest of any quarterback on this list. His ability to consistently throw with anticipation without making bad decisions (five turnover-worthy plays all season) is an impressive trait to have for the next level.

7. Jamie Newman, Georgia

It’s the hard truth. Opting out really hurt Newman’s standing in the 2021 quarterback class. Guys like Trask, Wilson and Jones have firmly entrenched themselves ahead of Newman, and don’t be surprised if others hear their name called before Newman come draft day.

While Newman is listed as going to Georgia above, he didn’t actually take a snap for the Bulldogs after transferring there this offseason. He started last year at Wake Forest, where he put himself on the map early in the season with seven straight games that earned 75.0-plus passing grades. From a tools perspective, his arm strength, accuracy and mobility could all be described as “plus” when projecting to the NFL. In Todd Monken’s offense against SEC competition at Georgia, Newman could be doing exactly what Kyle Trask is accomplishing at Florida right now.

Instead, we’re still left wondering whether Newman’s massive decline toward the end of 2019 that saw him earn a 60.9 overall grade over his final four games without top target Sage Surratt was a fluke. Wake Forest’s simplistic offense and the middling level of competition are going to do him no favors in evaluators' eyes, either.

8. Shane Buechele, SMU

If it feels like Buechele has been in college forever, that’s because he pretty much has. He was starting Week 1 as a true freshman for Texas against Notre Dame way back in 2016. That now-infamous “Texas is back” game proved to be his peak with the Longhorns. He was eventually benched before transferring to SMU, where his career has taken off.

One can’t help but love the way Buechele plays the game. He’s got a gunslinger mentality through and through. His 50 big-time throws since the start of 2019 are the most of anyone on this list, but his 23 turnover-worthy plays rank third. Buechele is another guy who has seen his fair share of accuracy struggles. On non-screen passes, 27.1% of his targets over the past year and a half have been considered uncatchably inaccurate — the second-worst rate of any player in this top 10. That’s a tough sell early on for a player already in his fifth season of college football.

9. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

Your quintessential “tools” prospect at the position, Ridder doesn’t have quite the prodigious physical skillset of, say, a Trey Lance, but he offers more from an arm strength and legs perspective than any quarterback not going in the first round. He’s another guy where the ball simply looks different leaving his hand on downfield throws.

As a runner, Lance is likely the only other quarterback on this list who you’d decidedly rather have than Ridder. He’s averaging a ridiculous 10.1 yards per carry this season with 505 yards on 50 attempts.

The worry with Ridder is that he’s been pretty much the same guy he was since he stepped onto the field his freshman year. His overall grade by season went from 74.2 in 2018 to 72.2 in 2019 to 73.8 this season. He’ll alternate those beautiful tosses with wide-open whiffs. As a redshirt junior, though, Ridder is no lock to declare and has the tools to push himself into Round 1 if were he to put it all together in 2021.

10. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

Some quarterbacks have sneaky arm talent when you see them throw a deep ball. Others flash it on every single throw. Pickett decidedly falls into the latter category.

But whether that rocket arm connects with his intended target is a different story altogether. Surprisingly, with all that arm strength, Pickett has only seven big-time throws on 225 attempts this season. Where we have seen him improve, however, is in his decision-making. He had 19 turnover-worthy plays last year but has just seven so far this season on around half as many dropbacks. That’s come as his average depth of target has gone up by 1.5 yards — from 8.2 yards last year to 9.7 yards this season.

Pickett is purely a tools-based prospect, but when you combine his arm talent with continued improvement, he’ll be intriguing for NFL teams.

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