NFL teams are wrapping up the preseason, and they aren’t the only ones about to begin official games. The 2021 college football season kicked off for a few this weekend, and begins for all this week. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So as the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft.
This preview concludes today with quarterbacks, intentionally saved for last. It’s been almost two decades since the Pittsburgh Steelers were in the market for a quarterback, and when a team is in desperate need for a new franchise face, it takes importance (and the finale spot in any series) over everything else. And despite the season beginning this past Saturday, none of the draft’s top passers will begin play until this coming weekend.
Steelers’ Need: Immediate
Whether Ben Roethlisberger wraps up his almost two-decade-long career after this season or comes back for one more year, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in immediate need of a first-round, blue-chip quarterback in the draft. If it’s after this season, it’s to find an immediate starter who can take over in the manner Roethlisberger did in 2004. And if Roethlisberger comes back for 2022, it is to get an heir in to learn from him for a season before taking over. Mason Rudolph came in with the team calling him a first-rounder, but has proven he is not a starter, and Dwayne Haskins remains a project that needs work to reach his first-round ceiling, and likely won’t be ready to take over unless Roethlisberger is back for a 2022 season.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma: If a quarterback is to go first overall yet again in 2022, Rattler is the current clubhouse favorite, as a second-year starter from the Oklahoma QB factory that threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions in his first year in charge in 2020. Watching his tape, Rattler looks like a first-round QB, with on-the-money accuracy on all types of throws and when on the run, good zip on the ball, and the ability to avoid unnecessary risks. He can get mobile and pick up yards with his legs when he has to, as well. He doesn’t scream first overall pick yet, but Rattler has the 2021 to build himself to that level while competing with other possible top picks.
Sam Howell, North Carolina: Rattler’s main competition at this point to be the first quarterback gone is Howell, a passer who has already earned a large amount of Baker Mayfield comparisons during offseason scouting. He got the UNC job as a true freshman, and has put together two seasons of over 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, with seven interceptions in each. Howell can squeeze it in to tight windows to the short and intermediate fields with power, and is adept at keeping plays alive, sensing pressure, and pulling the trigger on running, though he won’t wow with his legs or speed. His deep ball is there, but he needs to improve his accuracy — his 2020 is littered with under and overthrown passes.
Malik Willis, Liberty: Willis made a gamble by choosing Liberty, a small school just entering the FBS level, over a bigger name program when transferring as a backup from Auburn. That gamble paid off when Willis drew national attention to the Flames by getting them into the AP Top 25, while throwing for over 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns (with six picks), and rushing for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns. Willis is a step below Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson, but he is the top scrambler in the 2022 class by a mile, and a very talented runner who will be one of the fastest QBs in the NFL, with the ability to improvise and see the field, and strength to absorb a hit or shake off a tackle. As a passer, Willis has a strong arm and can hit to all fields on the run, creating some highlight reel plays. His accuracy is a work in progress but improving. Willis is more raw than his counterparts, but with maybe the highest ceiling of the class.
Carson Strong, Nevada: Strong brings effortless power to his throws, and has one of the strongest arms in the class that immediately plays well with NFL burners. He puts throws where only his man can make a play, with main accuracy issues being putting too much power on it and getting out ahead of his target. Good pocket awareness to bail and relocate, but not a scrambler who will break off big runs. A proven leader for the Wolfpack who avoids turnovers, with over 5,100 yards and 38 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in two seasons as the starter. Another good season should close to lock his name into the first round.
Kedon Slovis, USC: Slovis is a pure pocket passer who has lit it up in two seasons with the Trojans, first with 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman, then 1,900 and 17 in a shortened 2020. He has shown he can be a productive gunslinger, but interceptions have been a problem (16 in two seasons), and he has to make great improvements to his accuracy and decision-making. Slovis can overthrow or miss receivers left/right, and will force a lot of throws (especially under pressure) into double and triple coverage. A highly polarizing prospect with wide range of outcomes based on his 2021 tape.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss: At his best, Corral is a first-round quarterback with one of the draft’s highest ceilings and a talented arm. At his worst, he is someone who gives his own team headaches questioning mistakes. Corral’s big weakness is turnovers — he threw 14 interceptions last season in 10 games. But he also threw for 29 touchdowns and 3,337 yards while rushing for over 500. If he takes care of the ball more, the sky is the limit for his draft status, and he shows the underlying ability of a first-round pick. Even if he slides out of the first, a team will fall in love with his potential too much to not select him in the earlier rounds.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati: One of the best passers in school and conference history, Ridder has been consistent in three years as a starter, with 2,100-2,500 passing yards and 18-20 touchdowns per season, with 580-650 rushing yards every season. His rushing touchdowns more than doubled to 12 last year, as he showed his ability to run and break off big plays. He is a gamer and aggressive competitor willing to fight for yards every down, as a runner and in taking shots deep as a passer. His arm plays to all fields with power, his accuracy just needs fine-tuned so his receivers don’t have to break stride to adjust to throws. A tangible higher ceiling that he can only add to this year.
Other Names To Know
Phil Jurkovec, Boston College: Jurkovec is not a Hall of Fame quarterback yet. At this point, he’s not even a player favored to go in Round 1. But on some of his plays, the only comparison available is Ben Roethlisberger, with the way he can shake off contact, evade pressure and extend plays to make something happen. In that regard, Jurkovec is a special prospect, but he has growing to do in his second season starting for BC after a transfer from Notre Dame. He needs to grow on his 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns, and prove he has the arm strength and velocity to consistently deliver on-target throws.
JT Daniels, Georgia: It seems like a long time since Daniels was the next prized recruit arriving to lead the USC Trojans to glory. Instead, Daniels had 10 picks against 14 touchdowns his true freshman season, lost the job, and ended up at Georgia, where he earned a second chance last year. There, in four games, he threw 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, while topping 1,200 yards and looking like more of a leader. Daniels has the arm to deliver passes quickly, with high velocity and to stretch the field. He just needs to display his talent over a full season, while taking fewer unnecessary hits against pressure. Another who could lift his name to potential first-round discussion.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh: Pickett has no shortage of experience, and will be starting his fourth season for the Panthers. His numbers in the prior three — 7,475 yards, 38 touchdowns — are productive but not tremendous, and he also has 24 interceptions. Pickett has room to grow in all areas, but has an all-around base that indicates he does have sleeper starting potential, and (with growth) could thrive as a risk-taking passer in an aggressive offense. Taking a step forward this season and guiding Pitt to its first nine (or double-digit) win season since joining the ACC in 2013 could convince a franchise to buy in to him as a possible franchise guy.
Tyler Shough, Texas Tech: Shough got his chance, in his third year at Oregon, to lead the Ducks last season, and completed 106-167 passes for 1,559 yards, 13 touchdowns, and six interceptions. But he steadily lost playing time, and transferred to Texas Tech this season. Shough brings an element of mobility to his game, able to escape pressure and create some yardage with his legs on designed runs. His arm velocity is one of his biggest strengths and is among the best in the class. He needs a bigger sample size with Texas Tech, as well as to show he can throw to all fields and improve his accuracy and decision-making, and not force passes into double or triple coverage.
Emory Jones, Florida: Jones held off the challenge of highly-ranked redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, and will get his first chance to start for the Gators in 2021, his fourth year. It makes him one of the most unproven names in the class. Jones has been a runner as much as a passer for the Gators in limited action, one of the better runners among QBs. He has good vision and plus speed and athleticism, and finds lanes quickly to get to space. As a passer, Jones has some growing to do with his accuracy and decision-making, expected for a QB tie 86 career attempts in college. His throw power is evident, and when he misses, he typically keeps it away from defenders. A risk-taker who will air it out deep, where only his man can get it. Occasionally forces throws short.
Jayden Daniels, Arizona State: Daniels has had two seasons as the Sun Devils’ starter, but the shortened 2020 year allowed him only four games to build on a season where he was the first true freshman starter in program history. He had 701 yards in those games, with five touchdowns and an interception, averaging far fewer yards than a 2,943-yard freshman year (with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions). But Daniels showed more dual-threat ability with 223 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He is very elusive as a runner and gain rip off chunk plays while making players miss. He needs more seasoning as a passer, but shows a high ceiling with the ability to deliver passes on a rope to all fields.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State: A big part of Iowa State’s rise in the polls last year was Purdy, who in three years as the Cyclones’ starter has over 8,900 yards passing, 62 touchdowns, and 939 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns. He holds or will hold after 2021 most of the program’s passing records. Purdy has deceptive mobility and very surprising speed, and uses an excellent pump fake on the run to buy himself space. He plays mistake-free football, but lacks the top-end ceiling of other quarterback prospects.
Who I’m Watching
I love a quarterback that can run, so my eyes are fixed first on Willis, who is one of the most entertaining players in the entire draft. He has a lot of work to do to prove he is NFL-ready, but the upside is enormous and he brings durability to his game. Rattler looks the part of a first-rounder, the question is if he can take the step forward to prove he is No. 1 overall material. The same with Howell, who I’m not even sold on as a first-round talent yet.
A lot of names among those tossed around as possible first-rounders have intriguing upside. Strong has an incredible arm and excellent potential, as does Corral if he can shake off his boom-or-bust nature. They could both end up top 10 picks. Ridder is in a similar vein, but has a bigger step to take to get that high on the board. But he has starting potential.
The key to the rest of the class is development. Of them all, Jurkovec is the one I see the biggest ceiling for, but he also has some of the most to prove. Jones and both of the Daniels need to add a full season to their resumes before they can be truly assessed for the 2022 Draft. And then there is Pickett, a player who I ended up liking a lot more than I expected after watching his 2020 film. I wouldn’t consider him an NFL starter yet, but he can get himself there.
Anyone and anything is on the board for the Steelers in 2022. Every first-round QB is in play, but the team will be stuck in a position where it needs to trade up (with a steep cost) for one of the top names, wait and take who falls to them, or try to turn a Day 2 pick into a starter. Each option faces longer odds than the former of working out for the team.
What the Steelers will do regarding the position (if they address it in 2022) will depend entirely on how the class looks at the end of the season, and where they are picking. Among the potential first-round names now, Strong and Ridder jump out as fits for the Steelers, as does Rattler. Jurkovec will always draw links to the team because of his comps to Roethlisberger and that he grew up just above the city, as will Pickett because of playing his games at Heinz Field. But more than any position in the draft, the ranking of the quarterback class and how the team wants to address it in the draft will change considerably over the next half-year.