The NFL draft season is officially upon us, but we’ve been in serious information-gathering mode for months now. Our Joe Dolan and Tom Brolley watch tons of college football each fall, and they've studied plenty of tape – we’ve included plenty of links for you to watch these prospects too. But we also lean heavily on our friends and sources around the league who not only watch more college football than we do, but they also closely scrutinize these pending rookies’ college tape.
While we’re a fantasy site and these players’ worth in our world won’t be clear until after the draft, we still like to stack these guys against each other based almost entirely on talent and their potential as they transition to the pros. We also break the players up into tiers in an effort to offer more insight into how they project to the NFL and the fantasy world.
Once the draft takes place on April 27-29, then it will be a lot easier to rank the rookies for the 2017 season – and we will in early May. We’ll also reset our long-term outlooks and re-rank the players for keeper and dynasty leagues.
Potential Franchise Players
1. Deshaun WatsoN
There are going to be many varying opinions on this year’s QB class, as there are multiple interesting players who have different things to like about them, but in the eyes of certain beholders may also have fatal flaws. Upon studying these passers, we keep coming back to Watson as the most complete player in the class, and the one who is most likely to succeed in the NFL. At Clemson, Watson was a two-year full-time starter with moderate action as a freshman at Clemson before tearing his ACL. He recovered from surgery quickly, leading the Tigers to the National Championship with a stellar performance against Alabama in his final career game, the year after being the runners-up to the Tide. Watson threw for over 10,000 yards with 90 TDs and 32 INTs in his college career, and he added 1934 rushing yards with 26 TDs, though he isn’t exactly Marcus Mariota out there. Nonetheless, Watson has more than enough mobility, as his NFL Combine results show (mockdraftable.com has his best athletic comp as Donovan McNabb, which is fascinating). Watson also has a very good feel for playing from within the pocket, which is something other top prospects like DeShone Kizer and Patrick Mahomes really need to refine. Watson has the most advanced mental skillset of any passer in this class, and his experience in that area shows. Watson was very good at manipulating defenders with his eyes, and overall, his pocket mechanics were the strongest we saw from the top prospects in the class (aside from maybe Mitchell Trubisky). However, like most QBs coming from a shotgun-heavy offense, he can get lazy with mechanics despite a good feel for them, and he may have the weakest arm of the top prospects. That’s a bad combo that did lead to turnovers at Clemson, and will absolutely lead to them in the NFL. Watson also threw a lot of picks as a junior – 17 – many of them coming on forced throws or just plain bad decisions. And despite a strong overall Combine, reports about horrendous throw velocity showed up about a week later, though we never really found this to be an issue on tape. In all, Watson is an impressive person with an impressive resume, consistently stepping up in big games and showing excellent leadership qualities. Despite some concerns about his height and measured arm strength, he consistently made high-level throws in college. Watson would almost certainly be best in a shotgun-based passing offense surrounded by good weapons, but so would most quarterbacks coming out of college these days. We find him to be the most pro-ready player at his position this year, and though he may not be the #1 overall pick (or even the first QB taken), we think he’ll have the best shot to start a full season as a rookie.
2. DeShone Kizer
Kizer had a roller-coaster college career. He was a two-year starter who wasn’t supposed to start – the much-hyped Malik Zaire was Notre Dame’s QB in 2015, but broke his ankle during the Irish’s second game. In stepped Kizer, who immediately led Notre Dame to a comeback win in that game, then to a 10-3 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance. Though Kizer’s performance was similar statistically in 2016, the Irish performance was not, as ND finished at 4-8. In all, Kizer started virtually two full seasons with ND, completing just over 60% of his passes for a strong 8.4 YPA. He threw for 5805 yards with 47 TDs and 19 INTs, including a 26/9 ratio in Notre Dame’s disastrous 4-8 2016. Overall, if you’re a QB size truther, Kizer is pretty much the only high-end talent you can focus on in this class. His size/arm strength combo is strictly unmatched in this Draft. While Patrick Mahomes probably has more arm talent, he simply doesn’t have Kizer’s pocket-passer frame. And make no mistake, Kizer can make every throw. He has a quick release with a good feel for pocket movement, which is a nice combo with his 4.83 speed. And though he didn’t do a ton under center at Notre Dame, coach Brian Kelly did employ some NFL-style play-action elements out of the pistol. In all, Kizer is a strong body who lacks elusiveness, but can be a red-zone threat as a runner based on size alone (he had 18 rushing TDs in college). On the downside, Kizer can occasionally get lazy with his mechanics, locking his front leg. He can also fail to set his weight and sail the ball, a problem that plagued Carson Wentz as a rookie. And though Kizer showed poise as a pocket passer (of which Mahomes showed just about none), he too often left throws on the field by not pulling the trigger when needed, and that’s a problem that will get bigger in the NFL, especially if his decision-making is affected (he forced some throws in college). Kizer is clearly a smart and talented passer, but he needs to work through things quicker at the NFL level if he’s going to have a chance to be a high-level starter. He likely needs to be coached, and sitting may be the best thing for him. But once again, size/arm-strength truthers will have little to latch onto in this class if it isn’t Kizer.
3. Mitchell Trubisky
In evaluating Trubisky, the question we kept coming back to was “how good can this guy be?” It’s a different answer than, say, DeShone Kizer or Patrick Mahomes would give to the question. Those two guys have outstanding physical traits that Trubisky simply lacks. Trubisky doesn’t have Kizer’s size, nor does he have the arm strength of either player. In fact, he has a very similar athletic profile to DeShaun Watson, though we simply like Watson’s game better on film. Trubisky may have the highest floor of any QB in this draft outside of Watson, but his range of outcomes is capped. All in all, Trubisky is a decent thrower with good pocket feel, perhaps as good as any QB has in this class. When executing within the timing and rhythm of North Carolina’s offense, he looked comfortable and accurate, consistently making good decisions. In one year of starting for the Tar Heels (a big bone of contention for Trubisky critics), the QB completed 68% of his throws at 8.4 YPA, with 30 TD and just 6 INT. Most of the time, he was comfortable executing the offense. But when he wasn’t, that’s when the flaws started to show. When his early reads weren’t there, Trubisky’s mechanics tended to break down, as did his decision-making. In more ways than one, he reminded our guy Greg Cosell of Kirk Cousins, and the comparison fits – Trubisky tends to be an upper-body torque thrower, like Cousins, and gets worse when things aren’t as clearly defined early in the down, also like Cousins. An edge Trubisky has on Cousins is his excellent mobility and playmaking ability, as his workout metrics and 8 career rushing TDs indicates. But like Cousins and Alex Smith, Trubisky sometimes looks like he’s throwing a balloon on deeper throws, which is likely to always be an issue, though cleaning up his mechanics can help (he can lock his front leg). Trubisky was clearly impressive in his only year starting at North Carolina, but another question is how much more he’d be picked apart if he had more time as a starter (like Watson has been). In our view, Trubisky is a supporting-piece QB, the type who needs a good team around him, like Smith and Cousins, and his mobility can add a nice element to a run game (which is why it’s interesting the Chiefs have reportedly watched Trubisky work out). He has a good feel for the position, but there are some flaws that likely will keep him from becoming a truly high-level passer.
4. Patrick Mahomes
Let’s get this out of the way: if you’re laying a big bet on Mahomes, you’re betting on him being an exception to the rule. That isn’t to say Mahomes lacks talent; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. In terms of arm strength and movement ability, Mahomes is the most gifted passer in this entire draft class. He makes some near-impossible throws look easy, and if you squint, you can seen an Aaron Rodgers-like laser attached to his right arm. Despite no feel for mechanics at all, Mahomes was generally a very accurate passer. That may not be surprising, since his father was an MLB pitcher and Mahomes himself was a promising pitcher before quitting baseball to focus on football. But Mahomes, on film, showed almost no feel for the nuances of the QB position at all. In Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense under Kliff Kingsbury, Mahomes put up massive numbers – 11,252 yards (8.3 YPA), 93 TDs, and 29 INTs in a little over two years as a starter. But it’s an offense that doesn’t require a QB to perfect the finer details of the position, and it allows a freelancer like Mahomes pretty much every chance to do just that. So what you’re betting on Mahomes doing is: 1) being able to play in the NFL without pocket presence 2) transitioning from the Air Raid to the league. It’s next to impossible to do 1, and few have had success with 2. Last year’s #1 overall pick Jared Goff was an Air Raid QB, and he didn’t assuage any concerns. In fact, you can argue the best Air Raid QBs in NFL history are Nick Foles and Kevin Kolb. That’s best. Other entrants into the NFL from the Air Raid include Case Keenum, John Beck, Geno Smith, and Brandon Weeden. Now, Mahomes has more physical ability than all of those guys, and in terms of arm strength, he’s in rarified air. So you can argue he’s a much better version of Johnny Manziel without the off-field issues, or he can become a Rodgers or Brett Favre-like improviser. If physical skills are what you want, everything else be damned, Mahomes is your guy. Heck, you may even think mechanics are overrated in his instance, since he was an accurate thrower without them. He also ran for 22 TDs in college, so there’s mobility here to go with the arm. But he has no feel for NFL-style passing concepts, and he was also often injured in college, spraining an MCL in 2015, plus injuring his throwing shoulder and left wrist in 2016 (the latter required surgery). Mahomes has the physical skill and instincts you love to see, but will that be enough to give him success in the NFL? Most scouts suggest he needs some time to sit, perhaps behind a Carson Palmer or Ben Roethlisberger type.
Potential NFL Starters
5. Nathan Peterman
Peterman has something in common with another QB in this class, Davis Webb. He transferred from his original school – Tennessee – when he couldn’t beat out another QB in this class, Josh Dobbs (Webb lost out to Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech). Peterman transferred to Pitt, where he had solid success as a two-year starter, throwing 47 TD to just 15 INT, while averaging a stellar 9.3 YPA as a senior (just 7.3 as a junior). Peterman has the stereotypical “toughness and poise” teams look for from a pocket passer, and dropped back from under center a lot more than most of the top prospects. There’s a polish to his game that even the top prospects lack, and teams will love that about him. However, he has just a solid arm, and occasionally he would overreact to perceived pressure and force throws too early. When watching him on tape, you view him as a player who has way more of an “idea” of how to play the QB position than a guy like Mahomes, but he also doesn’t have the physical ability of a guy like Mitchell Trubisky, let alone Mahomes. With just decent size and arm strength, and with plenty of questions about how much better he can actually get, Peterman just doesn’t have first-round type upside. But we wouldn’t be shocked if a team viewed him as a competent starter down the line, and drafted him on the second day of the draft, much like the Browns did with Cody Kessler.
6. Brad Kaaya
Overall, we think Kaaya should have chosen to stay in school to try to get bigger and to refine his game. There’s a lot to like about him, of course. Though he’s on the thin side, he has good height at 6’4,” has a decent arm, and possesses high-level toughness (he got hit a lot at Miami, and played through a throwing shoulder injury as a junior). At nearly 10,000 yards, he’s Miami’s all-time leading passer (ahead of Vinnie Testaverde, Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, Gino Torretta, Ken Dorsey, etc). But on the other hand, he does everything just… so… slowly. Kaaya’s feet and mechanics can get lazy, but that’s not uncommon of college QBs these days. Our big question is how many of the hits he took at Miami were of his own doing, because he just didn’t get rid of the ball when he should have. Kaaya had a good feel for Miami’s offense and its concepts, he just took too long to execute them. And the question now is, even though we feel he should have stayed in school, how much better can he actually get? His tape was actually pretty consistent throughout his career, as was his production, as he threw for between 3198 and 3532 yards in his three seasons, with a completion percentage between 58.5 and 62.0 and YPA between 8.3 and 8.5, though he clearly took to Mark Richt’s offense well as a junior and his timing got better. You might remember Byron Leftwich’s career being plagued by the overall slowness of his game, not necessarily the “slowness” of him as an athlete. We could see Kaaya having similar struggles, but we see a decent backup at worst here.
7. Davis Webb
Webb had an interesting college career. He started out at Texas Tech, and his performance forced fellow hyped prospect Baker Mayfield to transfer to Oklahoma. However, by 2015, Webb was unseated by another whirlwind, fellow 2017 NFL Draft class member Patrick Mahomes. So Webb graduated early from TTU and transferred to Cal, where he put together the best statistical season of his career. But if you’re paying attention, we already have two red flags against Webb – Texas Tech and Cal. Webb played in the Air Raid at both schools, and if you want the history of Air Raid QBs in the NFL, read Mahomes’ scouting report above (hint: it’s not good). The fact that Webb succeeded Jared Goff isn’t going to help him. Tall and thin, Webb has adequate arm strength and a quick release, certainly more than enough to play in the NFL. Webb’s mechanics can be sloppy, a lot like most Air Raid QBs, but unlike Mahomes, his accuracy was mediocre to poor (he’d make some “WOW!” throws and some “wow…” throws, if you catch our drift). And like Goff, he worked a very thin line between poised and rushed in the pocket on his college film, which led to some really poor decisions in crowded coverage, which is very troubling in an Air Raid offense. On the plus side, Webb tied Goff’s single-season Cal record with 43 total TDs, and has a reputation as a great leader and student of the game. If not for Goff last year, Webb may be viewed as a better overall prospect than he is right now, but fair or not, Webb has to answer for the sins of his predecessors. It was hard to separate that when watching him on film. He’ll ideally sit for a while, like Goff should have.
8. Joshua Dobbs
If you want high character in your QB prospect, it’s going to be hard to overlook Dobbs, who has developed a reputation as an incredible leader and phenomenal asset in the community near the University of Tennessee. An aeronautical engineering major in Knoxville, Dobbs is also brilliant. Moreover, Dobbs is a phenomenal overall athlete, posting some of the best scores at the Combine in this QB class. And Dobbs impressed coaches so much that earning Tennessee’s starting job in 2014 forced Nathan Peterman to transfer to Pitt. The problem is his actual quarterback play. Inconsistent with accuracy, pocket presence, decision-making, and mechanics, Dobbs was more of a phenomenal athlete playing QB at Tennessee than anything else. It often showed up – he had 32 rushing TDs in college – but it also contributed to Tennessee’s inconsistency and disappointment as a much-hyped team. Dobbs chucked 27 TDs to 12 INTs as a senior, which is among the worst ratios from this class. Ball security was a big problem, and he often overreacted to pressure and broke the pocket when he didn’t need to. His delivery can get wonky, and in addition to sloppy mechanics, that will lead to turnovers at the NFL level. Dobbs has a big arm and great movement ability, but needs a ton of work otherwise. Fortunately, he has the smarts to work through his issues.
9. Jerod Evans
There’s no doubt Evans had an impressive season in his lone year with Virginia Tech after two years at Trinity Valley Community College, but we really wish he had stayed in school to refine his game. Evans originally committed to Air Force in 2013, but tore his ACL and left for Trinity Valley. The most impressive thing about Evans on tape is his pure size and power as a runner – he ran for 204/846/12 in his lone season with the Hokies. As a runner, he compares to a lower-case Cam Newton, in that he’ll get his yards more with size and power than with elusiveness (check his agility measurables and you’ll see why). Evans also benefited from Justin Fuente’s offense at Virginia Tech, which relied heavily on one-read plays. If the read wasn’t there, Evans could tuck and run. Evans has a big frame, a big arm, and toughness, but his delivery is a little long and his ball placement isn’t great, plus he threw with just about no anticipation. On the flip side, he rarely turned the ball over, throwing just 8 INTs to 29 TDs in his lone FBS year. There’s ability there for Evans, but he is as big an unfinished product as any player in this class, so he’ll need a ton of time to adjust to the NFL game. Again, another year in school would have helped him.
10. Chad Kelly
Kelly’s clearly a phenomenal athlete, and it’s evident watching him. He has plus mobility, running for 15 TDs in his two years as Ole Miss’ starting QB, and he also has a massive arm. The bloodlines are good, as well, as he’s the nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. The problem is… well, basically everything else. Kelly had originally committed to Clemson, but was kicked off the team after clashing with coaches. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Dabo Swinney and his staff, as Kelly was also suspended in high school. Kelly spent one year at a community college before committing to Ole Miss, but was arrested at a Buffalo nightclub on disorderly conduct charges shortly after that commitment. All in all, he had two relatively successful years at Ole Miss following the arrest, but his college career came to an abrupt end with a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee in November (the second time he has torn the ACL in that knee, the first being at Clemson). On the field, Kelly has sloppy mechanics and footwork, and is pretty much entirely an arm thrower, but he’s not as effective at it as Patrick Mahomes. He’s got an “I’m goin’ deep” mentality to his game, almost to a fault, and sometimes that just doesn’t work in the NFL. So what we have is an unpolished player, coming off a serious injury, with major character concerns. Kelly has all kinds of ability, but the risks will make him a late-round pick, at best.