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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Draft Profile: Marcus Mariota

It’s been a while since I’ve been active on here, so I decided to start up once again as we wind towards the 2015 NFL Draft with a big topic: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Mariota is near unanimously considered the second best passer entering the draft this season, behind only first-overall projected Florida State product Jameis Winston. A redshirt junior, Mariota amassed enough awards to fill a trophy case in 2014, including the Heisman Trophy and Rose Bowl Offensive MVP as he led the Ducks to a 13-2 season in which they were edged by Ohio State for the national title.

Where do we start with Mariota? Well, he’s an athletic freak for the position. Mariota led quarterbacks in every combine drill, including an impressive 4.52 second 40-yard dash time. At 6’4″ and 222 lbs, Mariota is also sized like a prototypical quarterback.

The Strengths

While Mariota’s athleticism is obvious, he follows this up with a very strong arm. However, unlike many cannon armed passers coming out of college, he also possesses a solid touch on his passes, lofting the ball when necessary and throwing bullets when needed. Mariota also has a quick delivery with sound mechanics. He’s been very careful with the ball in his time at Oregon, only throwing more than one interception in a game three times in his 41 starts for the Ducks.

Perhaps what he’s best known for are his Tebow-esque skills of improvisation, making would be tacklers miss and extending plays with his legs — keeping his eyes on the field for a play in the process. Similarly to 2014 first-round pick Johnny Manziel, Mariota also has a solid feel for passing on the run and handles off balance throws well.

The Weaknesses

Mariota’s first and foremost criticism is that he did not play in a pro-style offense at Oregon, something that tipped the scales for Winston over Mariota in many profilers’ minds as the top passer in this year’s draft class. The reasoning behind this is solid, as Mariota took few chances as a passer and was not asked to anticipate routes and defenders or throw into tight spaces often in the Ducks’ offense.

In addition, Mariota showed a tendency to sail passes when throwing down the field and overall has some questions about accuracy. His pocket presence is something that needs to be worked on, as he’s quick to pick up rushers and abandon the pocket rather than step up into a pass. Mariota also showed a lack of protection for the ball, coughing up 27 fumbles as a three-year starter.

The Take-Away

While Mariota may not be the favorite for many at the quarterback position as a high potential, medium risk candidate, he’s a much more sure thing than Johnny Manziel coming out of school last season. Mariota will need to prove he can adapt to a pro-style offense and silence doubters by holding on to the football and working on both his overall accuracy and ball placement in tight windows.

The combination of arm, athleticism and improvisation has made some compare Mariota favorably to Robert Griffin III circa his rookie season, but I’m much more inclined to the Colin Kaepernick comparisons due to Mariota’s quick release and abilities outside the pocket.

Mariota is a sure-fire first round pick, and likely to be a top five selection as well, with the Jaguars, Raiders and Redskins (picks three through five) all dearly in need of talent on their rosters and the possibility of a team trading in front of the quarterback needy Bears and Jets (picks six and seven) to ensure they get their guy.

As the 2015 quarterback class is fairly thin and many teams looking for both a short and long term solution, teams will likely scramble over the opportunity to land Mariota, giving him a solid chance to land in the top five next month.


Friday Football: The Supplemental Draft

Unless you’re an avid football fan, you probably missed last night’s excitement around the NFL — or rather, the lack thereof.

Last night marked the 37th year of the NFL’s Supplemental Draft, where teams can acquire players who did not enter the NFL Draft due to extenuating circumstances, such as academic ineligibility or late filing for the draft itself. If a team selects a player in the current year’s supplemental draft, then they would forfeit the corresponding pick for the following year’s draft.

In it’s history, some notable players have been selected by teams — including the likes of Bernie Kosar (’85), Brian Bosworth (’87), and Ahmad Brooks (’06) to name a few. To select these players, teams must put in a bid corresponding to a pick in the following year’s draft, and the team with the highest bid is awarded the player. For example, the Cleveland Browns selected receiver Josh Gordon (Baylor) with a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft, and thus forfeited the seventh pick in the second-round this April.

The most recent selections (in the past five years) in the supplemental draft are as follows: Gordon, Terrelle Pryor (Raiders, 2011), Josh Brent (Cowboys, 2010), Harvey Unga (Bears, 2010) and Jeremy Jarmon (Redskins, 2009). Since 2000, the supplemental draft has passed without a selection only five times (2000, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2013).

So why were there no selections made last night? Simply put, no NFL teams decided that there was a deserving player in the pool of six eligible individuals.

Name College Pos.
James Boyd UNLV DE
Nate Holloway UNLV DT
Toby Jackson Central Fl. DE
DeWayne Peace Houston WR
O.J. Ross Purdue WR
Damond Smith So. Alabama DB

That’s not to say of these six players there isn’t a chance that they’ll latch on with a team in camp — in fact both Ross and Peace have received attention from teams in anticipation of both the draft in April and last night’s uneventful draft. At least several of the aforementioned players would have drawn interest as undrafted free-agents if not for the rule barring players who failed to file for the draft in April signing with teams.

Both Ross and Peace have been judged as talented receivers, yet problems with academic ineligibility and concerns about maturity from coaches at both the collegiate and professional levels will be a potential road block to success in the NFL. With the draft over and all six players now regarded as free-agents, expect several teams to take fliers on most, if not all, of the six.

There are several receiver needy teams that will likely be bringing in Ross and Peace for tryouts in the near future, foremost of which are the offensively-challenged New York Jets. Boyd, Holloway and Jackson could appeal to teams that have hybrid schemes or are looking for personnel to fill out holes in a new defensive scheme, like the Saints or Cowboys. The Lions, Colts, Saints and Dolphins had personnel in attendance for Damond Smith’s workout earlier this week, where the South Alabama dropout showcased exceptional athleticism that could attract any of the four teams to add a player to their defensive backfields.

I’ll be sure to provide updates on each player as developments arise in camps across the country.


Abbreviated Friday: Ravens Rookie Juszczyk Shaping Into Offensive Role Player

Today’s column is a bit late and abbreviated due to some home improvement (resurfacing driveways isn’t a 5-minute task).

The selection of Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth-round was a bit of a surprise back in April, as the Ravens already had talented fullback Vonta Leach on the roster — coming off of his third consecutive All-Pro and Pro Bowl season nonetheless.

Leach, who was set to enter the final year of a three-year, $11 million contract signed prior to the 2011 season. However, Leach’s talents are largely limited to lead blocking for a run-oriented offense, yet the 31-year-old is still one of the best run blockers in the game. However, the replacement of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with ex-Colts head coach Jim Caldwell in a highly publicized move mid-season cast doubt on the utilization of Leach — and therefore also his worth to the team.

Within a couple weeks of Juszczyk’s selection, Leach was released by the Ravens. In Juszczyk, Baltimore had found a capable lead blocker who offered more than Leach in the way of versatility — having played both tight end and fullback for Harvard, Juszczyk had already proved himself as a capable blocker and pass catcher out of the backfield. Naturally, this means that Caldwell can utilize Juszczyk in various roles and in various formations to fool defenses.

It seems the Ravens are already revealing a bit of their hand, as the Akron Beacon Journal has reported that Juszczyk has been lining up as a lead blocker, H-back, tight end and even out of the slot as a pure receiver in camp. In an offense that lost Anquan Boldin and added little in the way of receivers, Juszczyk could be in for a decently-sized load in the way of 20-30 receptions.

With recent developments, it’s all-but certain that Juszczyk will not only make the active roster as a rookie, but quite possible that the 22-year-old could be in for a surprise impact in his first professional season.


Friday Football: How do the Patriots Replace Aaron Hernandez?

The story of Aaron Hernandez’s fall from grace has seemed to add on another chapter every day over the past week. New England’s decision to release Hernandez, a formal charge of murder and further investigation of a previous double homicide are only the latest events in the ongoing saga.

Hernandez’s departure means the Patriots have yet another hole to fix with both Wes Welker and Hernandez missing on the offensive side. The injury situation of Rob Gronkowski makes matters worse — the Patriots have gone from a lethal tight end duo to the possibility of having neither on the field to start the season.

In late June, teams are aware that the free-agent market has dried up at many positions, as is the case with tight end. As such, it’s important that New England identify who to take snaps with the starters before the preseason begins.

Bill Belichick pulled a move on the Giants in 2012, when they claimed Jake Ballard off of waivers when New York expected no team to claim the injured two-year pro only months after Ballard helped to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. In 13 starts in his sophomore season, Ballard put up respectable numbers — 38 receptions, 604 yards and four touchdowns — as he was only surpassed in yards and touchdowns by the receiving duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.

The addition of Daniel Fells last season was at the time an end of the roster move — with Gronkowski and Hernandez established as offensive weapons, Fells saw very little playing time — but now it seems he could play a more visible role in 2013. Fells has a similar skill set to Ballard as a blocker with some receiving work in past seasons. At 29 and with six NFL seasons under his belt, Fells offers the Patriots much more experience than Ballard. A capable starter who hasn’t received much of a shot to play outside of a one-year stint in Denver a couple seasons ago, it would prove interesting if New England chose to start Fells over the more newsworthy Ballard.

The difficulty here is that both veteran players are more suited to in-line tight end positions. While either would make a suitable replacement for Gronkowski in the short term, Hernandez always served more of a receiver role than a tight end — seen when looking at his snap counts on offense this past season, over 50-percent of which were at wide receiver in the slot (only accessed with a premium account at Pro Football Focus).

The only other tight end on the roster is undrafted rookie Zach Sudfield. A 6-foot-7 behemoth of a receiver, Sudfield only started one year of college ball at Nevada without injuries as a senior in 2012, tallying 45 receptions and 598 yards with eight touchdowns. With an athletic skill set suitable to playing a pass-catching role at the professional level, Sudfield is very similar to Hernandez in play style and is a player to watch in camp.

Sudfield’s inexperience could lead to an opening for a former division rival receiver in Donald Jones as a potential replacement for Hernandez on the offense. Jones, still young at 25-years-old, played three years in Buffalo after signing as an undrafted rookie in 2010. Although not incredibly productive as a slot receiver with the Bills (82 catches in 35 games), Jones could be used as a bigger slot target to complement the smaller, quicker former-Rams receiver Danny Amendola — much like the Patriots offense utilized Welker and Hernandez in past seasons. Jones’ pairing with Sudfield could allow the Patriots to gradually integrate Sudfield into the offense rather than throwing the rookie to the wolves.

With the influx of receivers this offseason — including rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce — it’s entirely possible that Belichick gives a different look in 2013 utilizing a combination of Amendola, Julian Edelman and any number of the fore mentioned players rather than sticking with the tight end dual attack.