This is the third part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the quarterbacks.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl.
One thing definitely is going to be different about the 2022 draft. For the first time in five years, the first name out of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s mouth isn’t going to belong to a quarterback.
A year after quarterbacks went 1-2-3 for only the third time in history, there’s a very good chance one won’t go in the top 10 this year. Or even the top 15.
Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is regarded as the best quarterback in this draft, but the enthusiasm NFL personnel people and draft analysts have for him is tepid at best. Draft analysts Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network and Mel Kiper of ESPN both don’t have him not going until 18th to New Orleans. Then again, as the saying goes, it only takes one team to like you.
The only other quarterback being mentioned as a first-round possibility is Liberty’s Malik Willis. He’s an exciting athlete with a strong arm, but is considered a project. If Pittsburgh doesn’t take him at 20, he could slide out of the first round.
The last time a quarterback didn’t go in the top 15 was 2013, when Florida State’s E.J. Manuel went to Buffalo with the 16th pick. That also was the last time just one quarterback went in the first round.
The lack of quarterback talent in this draft is one reason why so many teams have spent the last two weeks trading for one.
“It’s not a great quarterback class,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “Like most positions, these things are cyclical. It was very deep last year with five quarterbacks going in the first round. But this is the bounce-back year.”
It’s hard to project landing spots for Pickett and Willis because a) there aren’t really any teams that absolutely, positively need an immediate starter; and b) neither really is a plug-and-play guy anyway.
“There’s no huge hole or void (at quarterback) where a team can’t function right now,” Fennell said. “The teams looking for a quarterback of the future, like Carolina, Seattle and Detroit, New Orleans, Pittsburgh or Washington, none of them are in panic mode where they’re going to be compelled to reach for one of these guys higher than they should. They all have quarterbacks they can play with this year, whether it’s (Marcus) Mariota or Drew Lock or (Jared) Goff or (Carson) Wentz or (Mitchell) Trubisky.”
The top-rated quarterbacks after Pickett and Willis are Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Mississippi’s Matt Corral and North Carolina’s Sam Howell. But Fennell has third-round grades on all of them.
“Corral is a short guy with a live, whippy arm,’’ he said. “Ridder is tall and loose, but doesn’t know what he’s doing. Howell is short with a thick frams and big arm. He looks like Colt McCoy.”
Fennell’s top 5
1—Kenny Pickett, Pitt, 6-3, 217, Rd. 1
2—Malik Willis, Liberty, 6-0, 219, Rd. 1
3—Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati, 6-3, 211, Rd. 3
4—Matt Corral, Mississippi, 6-2, 212, Rd. 3
5—Sam Howell, N. Carolina, 6-1, 218, Rd. 3
Hands: 8 ½ inches
40 time: 4.73 seconds
Vertical jump: 33 ½ inches
Ben’s take: “Pickett really capitalized on a strong 2021 season after being pretty unproductive the previous three years at Pitt. He had a plus-35 touchdowns-to-interceptions differential last year. His first three years it was just plus-14. His receivers led college football in drops those three years, so he didn’t have a very strong supporting cast until Jordan Addison came along in 2020. Addison had 100 catches and 17 touchdowns last year and was the Biletnikoff winner.
“Pickett’s more of a pocket-passing guy. A distributor more than an athletic playmaker. He has average tools, but he’s a guy you can win with, a guy you can run an offense with. Just don’t ask him to be Superman. He’s not a guy who can put a team on his back. But if you put a good supporting cast around him, he’s going to make good decisions.
“Most of his comps are backups who have started. Guys like Kyle Allen and Garner Minshew and T.J. Yates and Brian Hoyer. That’s Pickett. Backup tools, but you can put him in a starting spot and win games with him. There’s just not a lot there that excites you.
“He had a real nice season and it’s easy to project him forward into a system and an offense. I don’t think you want to put him in a pass-heavy system or an Air-Raid system and say use your arm and pick defenses apart. But a balanced run-pass system where you take your shots off play-action and make those couple of throws on third and medium/long, I think he can do that.”
Round projection: 1
Hands: 9 ½ inches
40 time: N/A
Vertical jump: N/A
Ben’s take: “This guy has a lot of tools, including a really strong arm. He’s an exciting athlete with a thick lower half. He’s kind of small; just a smidge over six-foot. He reminds me of a combination of a couple of former Ohio State quarterbacks – Troy Smith and J.T. Barrett. He has Smith’s athleticism and strong arm, and has Barrett’s thick frame and leadership ability and composure.
“The issue is he made a lot of plays out of structure using his athleticism. We need to see if this guy can actually run a system and make throws on time with rhythm and timing and accuracy, and know where to go with the ball and recognize things pre- and post-snap.
“Watching his tape, I’m not convinced he knows what he’s doing. At Liberty, he was able to out-athlete a lot of people with his speed and thick body. He’ll let guys drape off of him. He’ll fight for extra yards. He’ll put his head down and lower his shoulder.
“I fully expect him to be a starter. I fully expect him to make plays that will be on SportsCenter on Monday. And I fully expect him to be a complete disaster on a down-to-down basis. He’s going to make exciting plays. Johnny Manziel made plays that were exciting. But down-to-down, you didn’t know what you were going to get.
“Now, can he become accurate all of a sudden and know where to go with the ball? Sure. Everybody likes to point to Josh Allen. But it doesn’t happen very often. If you’re putting your chips on an outlier, you’re probably going to be disappointed.’’
Round projection: 1
Hands: 9 ¾ inches
40 time: 4.88 seconds
Vertical jump: 30 inches
Ben’s take: “Transferred to Western Kentucky from Houston Baptist. A short-statured guy with a huge arm. Insanely productive. Threw 62 touchdown passes last season. That’s a lot, regardless of the competition. He had a nice week at the Senior Bowl. Physically, he reminds you Drew Brees and Baker Mayfield. Thick short guy with a live arm.’’
Round projection: 7-FA
Hands: 31 3/8 inches
40 time: 4.83 seconds
Vertical jump: 32 inches
Ben’s take: “He’s a little more prototypical than Zappe. He played in a pro-style system with a lot of play-action, a lot of under-center stuff. He’s got a big, accurate arm. Good touch. Nice size. Looks the part. You can really see a lot of the translatable skills on the tape.”
Round projection: 7-FA