QB1 | Kenny Pickett
6’3″, 220 lbs | Pittsburgh
Pickett took over as my top dog a little over a month ago and I am rather confident that he sticks in this position for several reasons. First, I think the intangibles are as good as they get in this class. He is not only the highest IQ passer, but also has one of the best arms and dissects defenses better than anyone. He clearly throws with great anticipation and has the timing down and trust in his receivers to make the anticipatory throws. He’s athletic enough to get loose, which reminds me of Joe Burrow in that aspect, but he likely is even a bit faster. While many young QBs love to take deep shots for the home run ball, Pickett often elects the easier pass that will move the chains…a sign on maturity on the field. Often times, young NFL QBs will get caught chasing the big time plays, which often leads to frequent 3 and outs, which is something that no QB can win games doing.
The common stigma surrounding Pickett was that he is far less athletic than others in the class and lacked the next level arm strength, which I find to be a farce. On film, he often displays a deceptively strong arm, with certain instances where he makes incredible throws across his body and off-platform. Although those type of aggressive throws will be scolded by his future coaches in the NFL, it is a magnificent display of his natural arm strength. He, by no means has the arm strength of Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but those guys are outliers in NFL history and it is not often that a prospect like that comes around. Pickett reminds me a bit of Russell Wilson with the way he keeps eyes up when rolling out, which is a trait that many young NFL QBs still haven’t learned.
Now, for the downside…Pickett has some of the smallest hands we have ever seen for a QB. In the last five draft classes, we have seen just two prospects drafted with hands that are smaller than 9 inches. Those were Brandon Allen (6th round) and Jake Fromm (5th round), both who did not make their team’s 53 man rosters. Pickett’s hands will likely be in the 8.25″-8.5″ range, which is significantly smaller than both of the aforementioned others (8.875″). The concern does not only rely on the lack of success from smaller-handed QBs, but also because we have not seen a highly graded QB with hands anywhere in this realm. This is an experimental scenario.
However, the production speaks for itself and maybe he is on to something with the gloves that he wears. I predict that the hand issue will be outweighed by the positives and Pickett will be the first off the board and fit any scheme that is looking for zone-shredding, chain-mover.
QB2 | Malik Willis
6’1″, 215 lbs | Liberty
I’ve bounced around with my ranking on Willis, but the high ceiling and raw ability is too good to ignore. To say that Willis is comparable to Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes as an unpolished prospect is a major reach, but there are times on tape where he flashes off platform throws that certainly scream “NFL”. Simply put, Mahomes and Allen belong in a class of their own and are just two prospects that ended up becoming elite level talents and should not be the standard for “unpolished” prospects.
Willis is sturdy and runs like a running back, which is just another strength to add to his repertoire. At times his twitch and quickness can turn broken plays into big gains, which is certainly a plus for a young QB in the NFL. The WOW-factor is certainly there for Willis and at times he made some of the craziest throws in the class, but he also played at a lesser level of competition and got away with some things that he probably wouldn’t have at the speed of the SEC or ACC. Lastly, the mental processing needs some work as he clearly is caught off guard at times and even baited by opposing safeties, which is something that usually should be reversed for a top QB candidate. I am excited to see Willis play in person at the Senior Bowl and this could be a huge week for him, especially now that the playing fields are leveled.
QB3 | Matt Corral
6’0″, 200 lbs | Mississippi
Corral has shown a ton of upside, but there are also some significant questions surrounding him. He is significantly small for a QB prospect and despite several of similar stature league finding success, Carrol also had issues with durability and staying on the field. He ran a heavy RPO scheme under Lane Kiffin, but thrived in the offense due to his ability to move the ball with extreme quickness, while portraying great discipline and vision. Although this scheme could be a knock against him in the past, the NFL has adapted and many players are being featured in RPO heavy schemes (check out Hurts, Tua and Lamar).
Despite this high RPO rate, he still has a huge arm and made some massive throws throughout his career. His true strength is that he is an extremely quick decision maker that wastes no time from snap to pass. Like Pickett, Corral is a chain-mover who can throw it deep when necessary and has one of the better all-around arms in the class. The biggest knock against his arm is that he can trust it a bit too much at times, which will be a tough adjustment in the NFL when those windows close much quicker. It is also worth noting that he minimized his interceptions from 14 to 5 over the last two seasons.
Corral had a big season the ground and added 11 TDs and 614 yards, but I don’t think his rushing ability with translate like some of the others in the class. The durability reminds me a bit of Tua, outside of the major hip injury. It seemed like most of his career he was playing through something and he also had multiple ankle sprains that he was carted off for. However, the clean footwork and impressive ability to read the defense (especially the LBs) and run the play action plays should ease the concerns with his rushing abilities and durability. The bottom line is that Corral is a talented athlete with a solid arm, but I think his stock is very closely aligned with the next two prospects and the order could be determined by scheme fit. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that he is the only top 7 prospect that will not be at the Senior Bowl, which could unintentionally become a detractor for him.
QB4 | Sam Howell
6’1″, 215 lbs | North Carolina
I’ve been big fan of the rocket-armed QB out of North Carolina since he took over the program as a true freshman, but I haven’t seen him take the leap of development that I originally expected. Howell experience a disappointing dip from 2020 to 2021, and although he lost his top four offensive weapons to the NFL, the drop was not just in production. He put out some of the worst tape of his career at moments and really solidified his potential to being a strong-armed gunslinger, rather than a polished veteran controlling games. He was not the best decision maker and at many times showed some questionable throws for some of the simplest reads.
As mentioned before, he has a very solid arm, but that arm is not always on target and he frequently missed passes all over the field. It is very live and the zip is there, but the accuracy is only good, not great. To add more concern to that, his footwork is extremely sloppy and at certain times it limited him from moving the ball to certain areas, without having a strong platform. It seems as if Howell is always looking for that home run ball, even when there is an open guy across the middle that can easily move the chains. Lastly, Howell often bails out of the pocket quickly and you will almost never see him stand tall and drive a throw through contact.
His athleticism is up to par with Malik Willis and I truly think his rushing ability with directly translate to the next level, similar to guys like Trevor Lawrence. He certainly will never be a run first type of guy, but it will help tremendously in his early career and also can help scheme up a lot of RPO offense to get his feet wet in the NFL.
Lastly, probably the most concerning part of his game is the amount of time it takes him to make a decision and move the ball. It is well below the three QBs above him and also attributed to him being one of the most sacked QBs in college football. At initial instinct, I thought that this number was inflated because of a bad offensive line, however, on film I place a lot of the blame on Howell. Yes, the offensive line struggled at times, but Howell was sacked 36, 33, and then 47 times respectively, and a lot of those were due to holding onto the ball far too long and his inability to throw the ball away and live to play another down. It is also worth noting, all of his statistics, outside of rushing the ball, regressed. In conclusion, Howell is still a borderline first round guy due to his raw arm strength and untapped athletic potential.
QB5 | Carson Strong
6’4″, 220 lbs | Nevada
Strong is one of my favorite prospects, but is extremely difficult to grade due to the uncertainty surrounding his medical history. Those records will be highly confidential, however, every front office interested will know much more than what’s on the outside. Since this material won’t be public, we will have to heavily base his draft stock upon sources familiar with the front offices as well as other NFL insiders. However, what we can tell you is how he compares on tape and the type of passer he has been in his career.
Strong has a huge arm and loves to air it out, and does this as well as anyone in this class. He makes great reads and especially loved to challenge man defenders on the outside against his favorite target, Romeo Doubs. He gets knocked on for his mobility, but I actually find it above average when trying to move around the pocket, which happens a lot. However, he almost never scrambles and finished every season with negative rushing yards because of that. The mobility reminds me a bit of Big Ben; he is never going to be taking over with his legs, but he often escapes collapsing pockets and finds a way to get a throw off down field.
The arm talent might be the best in the class and he hits routes all over the field and plays with great anticipation, which I’d say place him second to Pickett in that category. His mental processing and QB IQ are above Willis and Howell, but also below Pickett and most comparable with Matt Corral. The biggest knock on Strong, outside of his questionable medical past, is his inability to manage games…it is almost like he had zero clutch ability in some pretty big moments. For example, during one bad moment against San Diego State where the Wolfpack were up three with just five minutes remaining, Strong elected to take a 3rd down deep shot while he had a wide open receiver across the middle well past the chains (3rd and 3 to be exact). Although the team still won the game, this could have been costly and portrayed terrible clock management as well as poor play calling.
There are other frequent moments where he goes for deep rather than moving sticks and was not amazing in red zone because he almost always favored forcing the ball outside the numbers when had guys wide open across the middle. He is a big shot gun slinger, but has great placement and accuracy, so he got away with it. In the NFL, that could translate to a ton of 3 and outs. Strong really kept impressing me with his accuracy all over the field, but there is a lot of growth ahead of him at the next level. He can drop it in a bucket and threads the needle with solid zip, but the game management will be a constant area for improvement.
Outside of the Top 5, Looking In
QB6 | Bailey Zappe
6’1″, 220 lbs | Western Kentucky
Zappe is a really fun prospect to watch on film and has slowly been gaining a following after his record breaking senior season. After transferring to Western Kentucky, he led the nation in both yards (5,967) and TDs (61). He reminds me a lot of Taylor Heinicke and just plays backyard football the way it is supposed to be played…he is just that fun type of play style and gamer mentality that is hard to find these days. He’s as tough as nails and plays with an extremely fast pace. Although his stats are a bit inflated due to a ton of screens and short passes, he also can absolutely drop the ball in a bucket. He’s not the most traditional prospect on paper, but he is a ton of fun to watch and absolutely could rise up many draft boards following a strong Senior Bowl week. The production was phenomenal and can’t be slept on, but I am ready to watch Zappe play against level competition with NFL coaching.
QB7 | Desmond Ridder
6’4″ 215 lbs | Cincinnati
Ridder had the best season his career in 2021, which peaked after he secured a playoff birth for the first ever group of 5 team. His production improved as a passer and he added 1,000 more yards and 11 more TDs than he had in 2020 (finished with 3,334 yards and 30 TDs). A lot of his production, especially in the bigger games against P5 teams, came from RPO work and quick manufactured touches. The offense relied a lot on screens, play action and dump downs. His arm is big and he can really air it out, but he significantly struggled with any consistency with his accuracy. Another area that was an issue was getting balls batted at the line of scrimmage, which became the story against Alabama. He makes some really great throws, but they are rarely with any consistency and I was waiting all year to see his breakout game. He had many great games, but it was rare that it felt like he had taken over or was the most talented player on the field, which is something that is a must for an NFL QB to have sustained success. As of now, I haven’t seen enough to warrant Ridder with an early draft pick, but he certainly could show his true potential at the Senior Bowl if he takes over as the alpha.