Is 2016 the Year of the Big Ten QB?

Just before the NCAA season kicks off has always been a prime time to preview the potential candidates for the upcoming NFL Draft, as fans of less promising NFL teams follow the potential top picks to see who they could end with next Spring in the 2016 NFL Draft.

So who are the big names to watch this season?

It would be easy to focus on the Big Ten Conference, as Ohio continues to dominate and the conference has built itself into a football powerhouse. The Big Ten also features the top three prospects for the NFL Draft.

You may be asking yourself why this is so significant. The answer lies in the last Big Ten quarterback to be selected in the first round — Kerry Collins, selected fifth overall by the Carolina Panthers out of Penn State in 1995.

Cardale Jones, Ohio State University

Jones certainly has momentum on his side after taking over for the Buckeyes following injuries to both Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. Entering the season as part of the Buckeyes’ trio of quarterbacks, Jones made his first career start in the Big Ten Championship Game versus Wisconsin after Barrett’s injury the prior week. Ranked sixth in the country by the AP poll, Jones led Ohio State to a 59-0 trouncing of the Badgers and earned the MVP honors.

Jones then turned around and led the Buckeyes to a 42-35 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in order to advance to the CFP National Championship, where Ohio State took down the Oregon Ducks to make Jones a 3-0 starter as a redshirt sophomore against three very good teams.

So why didn’t Jones go pro with everything going his way? Simply put, three starts doesn’t quite make a player pro-ready. He’s already got the arm and build (6’5″ 250 lbs) that scouts are looking for, but there’s just not enough film for teams to take a shot at him. He needs to show more ability to read defenses and make quick decisions before scouts will determine his value.

Even with his flashy stint last season, Jones isn’t the guaranteed starter and is in the midst of a tough battle with Barrett (Braxton Miller has converted to receiver) to start for Urban Meyer this season. If Jones can win the job —  scouts like CBS’ Daniel Jeremiah think he’s the country’s most talented passer, if not the favorite to start —  he could use the 2015 season to solidify a potential top quarterback spot in the 2016 NFL Draft. If he fails to do so, expect Jones to return to Ohio and try again for 2017.

Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

It seems every draft class has a quarterback that scouts view favorably who either doesn’t have much starting experience or didn’t perform admirably prior to their final season in school. Logan Thomas was one such talent, viewed as a potential first round quarterback prior to the 2013 season even though he only threw for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Thomas ended up a fourth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2014 despite an equally pedestrian senior season in 2013.

Hackenberg is in a similar situation to Thomas, as the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback is viewed by ESPN guru Todd McShay as the the potential no. 1 pick next Spring (ESPN insider access required). Hackenberg’s 12:15 TD to INT ratio and 55.8 completion percentage last season leaves much to be desired, but he possesses ideal size (6’4″ 236 lbs) and has quite a game reel of high difficulty completions that scouts love to see.

While last year was not quite what the Penn State staff was looking for, many have attributed Hackenberg’s struggles to a new coaching staff under James Franklin after previous coach Bill O’Brien departed for greener pastures as the new head coach of the Houston Texans. In fact, Hackenberg performed drastically better as a true freshman in 2013 under O’Brien, racking up just under 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air.

Major issues for Hackenberg include a propensity to hold on to the ball too long (see Blaine Gabbert’s disastrous stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the results of that flaw at the pro level) and a tendency to float or plain miss on deep passes. Pro Football Focus went as far as grading Hackenberg as the worst college football quarterback of 2014, taking into account a shocking apparent lack of effectiveness on play action, struggling under pressure and poor accuracy rates when compared to starters of other top teams.

Hackenberg will need to put the tools that scouts claim to see to good use on the field in 2015 to avoid another season of very lack-luster production and gain that high draft spot for next Spring and avoid a free-fall on draft day similar to A.J. McCarron’s 2014 experience (fifth-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals) after being touted as a top quarterback. As a Junior, he could return to Penn State in similar fashion to Cardale Jones at Ohio State if 2015 doesn’t pan out in his favor.

Connor Cook, Michigan State

A major difference between Cook and the likes of Jones and Hackenberg is that Cook is heading into his redshirt senior year at Michigan State. This means that while the other two could go back and play another year of college ball to raise their stock, Cook is at the end of the line.

While Jones may not have the experience and Hackenberg may not have the numbers, Cook has both. In his past two seasons, Cook has won 23 of the 26 games he has started and thrown for 46 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. Cook has quite the pedigree heading into the 2015 season, having won the Big Ten Championship and earning the MVP honors in 2013, following that up with a Rose Bowl victory early in 2014 and then a Cotton bowl victory earlier this year.

Cook may not be the most accurate passer out there, but he’s proven to be great at exploiting one-on-one coverage in his time at Michigan State, and, unlike Hackenberg, done very well when blitzed. Pro Football Focus attributed a 128.6 QB rating and 16:1 TD to INT ratio when Cook was blitzed last season.

While Cook has played it smart with match ups at the collegiate level thus far, his tendency to loft the ball to the outside and let the receiver win the battle worries scouts. Single coverage at the pro level is much tougher to pass on, and Cook will need to show scouts he knows when he’s being baited by a corner and avoiding interceptions in similar situations.

Cook is the complete package as a quarterback — 6’4″ 220 lb size, a solid arm and athleticism that may not wow but is more than simply functional — that scouts view as a mature and intelligent player with a very high ceiling. He’s also coming from a school with an solid recent history of preparing passers for the pro level, having produced the likes of Drew Stanton (2007 second-round), Kirk Cousins (2012 fourth-round) and Brian Hoyer (2009 undrafted) in the past nine years.

If Cook can put up another impressive season for the Spartans, he could play his way into a top ten selection in the Spring.

Other NCAA QBs to Keep an Eye On For 2016:

Cody Kessler, Southern California

Jared Goff, California

Carson Wentz, North Dakota State

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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