Although the NFL still has 12 teams remaining, draft season is already starting to get into swing once more. With the Senior Bowl just around the corner in Mobile, let’s take a look at the six QBs that will be peddling their wares to talent evaluators in hopes of landing in the first round of April’s draft.
National Team – Coached by the New York Jets
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
What we know: The 6-3 passer broke out in 2021 with the help of Biletnikoff-winning WR Jordan Addison, winning the ACC Player of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. A highly-accurate passer from an athletic family, he won his first ever start against #2 Miami and never looked back. With relatively clean mechanics, outstanding anticipation, and few warts, he has the pole position to be the first QB selected.
What the analytics say: Pickett led all draft-eligible FBS QBs with a 76.7% adjusted completion percentage while being the only passer in the top 10 with an average attempt farther than 10 yards downfield. No NFL QB since at least 2010 has hit both of those marks in a season (min 100 attempts), but the short list of recent college QBs to manage them includes Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield (x2), Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, and Kyler Murray.
What we want to see in Mobile: Outside of closed-door conversations about his several significant injuries, can Pickett move through his progression cleanly and effectively? Are his hands really among the smallest ever?
Carson Strong, Nevada
What we know: With ideal size at the position and a cannon for an arm, the aptly-named Strong will make some throws during practice that will leave scouts drooling. Unfortunately, some long-term knee issues have made statuesque a compliment. A tough competitor who can create throwing windows with his arm, he can get a bit jumpy under pressure but still stands to be a huge boom-or-bust prospect this year.
What the analytics say: With a 2.52-second average time to throw, Strong ranked 9th of all draft-eligible FBS QBs this season in getting the ball out, partially due to his 39 sacks (5th-most) but also due to Nevada’s FBS-low 10.2% play-action rate.
What we want to see in Mobile: Does he have any mobility? Can he display a mechanically-consistent release without relying on solely arm talent?
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
What we know: All he does is win. With a career record of 44-5, Ridder ranks third all-time for career wins and famously became the first QB to take a Group of Five team to the College Football Playoff. With 6’4 size and plus mobility, he’s an excellent decision maker and distributor. The knock is an important one – his accuracy and ball placement is noticeably spotty, a huge turn-off to teams that will compromise on everything but. For Ridder, an accurate Senior Bowl is worth its weight in gold.
What the analytics say: Of the entire FBS, 64 QBs threw at least 50 passes over 20+ yards in 2021. Only three, including Desmond Ridder, threw no interceptions on these passes.
What we want to see in Mobile: Does his accuracy improve when there’s no progression to go through or rushers in his face?
American Team – Coached by the Detroit Lions
Malik Willis, Liberty
What we know: The latest in a wave of extremely athletic passers to hit the league, Willis is a former Auburn recruit who has taken Liberty to new heights. With a shifty running style, surprising accuracy, and sufficient arm strength, Willis has been a Twitter darling all season. He’s as raw as they come, with mechanics and especially footwork will cause NFL coaches to wince while his decision-making can come close to hero ball. Some team will take a chance on his athletic talent, but his performance at the Senior Bowl will determine how high.
What the analytics say: As a runner, Willis led all QBs with 0.6 missed tackles forced per attempt, with only UNC’s Sam Howell (0.48) and Akron’s DJ Irons (0.46) even remotely close. Even Lamar Jackson managed only 0.25 over his amazing collegiate career.
What we want to see in Mobile: Has he worked on his throwing motion? It’s naïve to expect a finished product, but any signs of improvement will speak to a coachable, hardworking player who can be molded.
Sam Howell, UNC
What we know: An ultra-competitive QB who shifted to a run-heavy quarterbacking style after losing four skill-position players to the NFL Draft, Howell will elicit several comparisons to Baker Mayfield throughout the draft process. He makes for a difficult evaluation due to his Air Raid offense, backpedaling in shotgun drops and using his physical running ability as a check down. With a history of award after award, he’ll be tough to bet against.
What the analytics say: Howell’s 0.48 missed tackles forced per attempt are discussed above, but he also ranked 6th in the ACC for completion percentage (62.5%) and finished 2020 with the conference’s top mark for yards per attempt (10.3).
What we want to see in Mobile: How clean and confident does he look under center, through his drops, and reading a progression?
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
What we know: Pronounced ZAP-ee, the grad transfer from FCS Houston Baptist only just completed the most productive season in NCAA history, setting FBS single-season records for passing yards and passing TDs. Although he definitely benefitted from WKU’s QB-friendly scheme, Zappe has a quick release and shows excellent touch on his throws for their timing-based offense. With only a 17-34 career record (9-5 in FBS), Zappe will have to answer questions about his role, but a strong showing will catapult him up draft boards.
What the analytics say: Ranking 5th among FBS QBs with an NFL passer rating of 118.5, Zappe passed for 294 first downs, beating out second-place Will Rogers and third-place Bryce Young by 33 and 57 first downs, respectively.
What we want to see in Mobile: Can he anticipate throwing windows and hit receivers in stride with good placement?