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Steven Senne/Associated Press
The NFL is going back to basics when it comes to evaluating prospects this offseason. This is especially true when it comes to the quarterback position.
The combine, pro day and interviews can serve as a siren’s song luring unsuspecting evaluators into the trap of falling in love with a mirage instead of the actual player. What matters most is they perform on the field and if their skill sets translate.
“I think for me, it’s always been what’s on tape—now let’s do the background on the person,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told reporters.
Coaches and general managers often state how on-field performance is the most significant portion of the evaluation. Well, the notion certainly rings true this year with no combine, team visits and a heavy reliance on pro day results.
Furthermore, each evaluation varies from team to team.
A QB can and should be evaluated in a vacuum. However, two questions must be asked: Where does the prospect excel, and what is or isn’t he asked to do at the collegiate level? Within those questions, a projection is formed based on whether he can reach his potential when placed in a position to succeed.
Situation matters. How a team builds around the quarterback is vital to success. With that thought in mind, the following are the best fits for the prospects expected to come off the board during the draft’s first two days.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars is the closest thing to a guarantee one will ever find when it comes to the NFL draft.
The idea of fit in this particular scenario feels more like an inevitability than an actual correlation between an individual prospect and his best landing spot. Even so, the Jaguars are clearly gearing up to build around the franchise signal-caller.
The team’s presence loomed large over Lawrence’s pro day. In essence, new Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer orchestrated the deal since the 21-year-old took the coach’s advice to move up his throwing session so it could be completed before offseason shoulder surgery. A rapport between the two is already being established.
“Everything he showed on tape showed up in the pro day,” an anonymous evaluator told Sports Illustrated‘s Albert Breer. “He’s big [6’6″ and 220 pounds], athletic, he can throw from the pocket, he can throw on the run going either direction. He’s accurate to all levels. … A little bit [imperfect], there were a couple things.”
It’s difficult to make an argument the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck fits somewhere a little better than other potential landing spots.
Darrell Bevell’s experience makes the pairing in Jacksonville quite interesting. Bevell has his shortcomings as a play-caller, but he did help develop Russell Wilson and had Matthew Stafford playing as well as he ever had at points with the Detroit Lions. He’s an experienced offensive coordinator that will almost certainly attempt to protect Lawrence early and give the presumptive No. 1 overall pick more responsibility as he grows into his role as a starter.
What’s most interesting is how much Lawrence and personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer moved the pocket during his throwing session. Those reps might portend how the Jaguars ultimately plan to deploy their future face of the franchise.
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Richard Shiro/Associated Press
The New York Jets have a massive decision to make regarding Sam Darnold’s future with the organization. As the owners of this year’s second overall draft pick, they are in a position to move forward with another quarterback if one strikes the fancy of general manager Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Saleh.
While Darnold’s status remains in limbo, the possibility of pairing BYU’s Zach Wilson with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will be extremely tempting.
LaFleur will bring his own version of the wide-zone scheme after working alongside current San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan since the 2014 campaign. LaFleur served as the 49ers passing game coordinator the last four seasons.
BYU utilized a similar scheme with many of the wide-zone principles, and Wilson proved efficient and excelled in the system. He’s at his best when working from designed pocket movement. The bootlegs, rollouts and sprint-outs baked into the fabric of the offense would help accentuate the 21-year-old’s strengths. Furthermore, an emphasis on the play-action game would take some pressure off the young signal-caller as he matures as an NFL quarterback.
Another interesting aspect of this potential pairing revolves around LaFleur’s familial ties.
“I don’t know if you can compare it to Aaron Rodgers,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake told the New York Post‘s Steve Serby when asked about Wilson’s arm talent. “I know he loves the way Aaron Rodgers plays, and idolizes the way he plays. He studies a lot of quarterbacks that play in the league right now. The guy’s a very, very advanced student of the game.”
With LaFleur’s brother, Matt, serving as the Green Bay Packers head coach, the Jets coordinator could implement some of the things his sibling has done schematically to make life easier for the rookie quarterback.
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Sam Hodde/Associated Press
The Atlanta Falcons can make a smart investment in North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance whether or not they decide to keep current starter Matt Ryan.
Ryan’s current standing might prevent the Falcons from using this year’s fourth overall pick on a signal-caller. The soon-to-be 36-year-old quarterback will be difficult to move because he’ll cost so much against the cap no matter what they do with him, though a post-June 1 trade is the most tenable option. And even then, they would eat $35.8 million over the next two seasons.
So, why invest in Lance?
First, it might be years before the organization is in as good of a position to draft a long-term replacement. Second, Lance is only 20 years old. He doesn’t turn 21 until after the draft. There’s no need to rush him into the lineup.
“Everything about him is positive: talented and physical runner,” an AFC executive told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. “The question is, how soon does this guy have to play? An ideal spot for him would be somewhere where he can learn for a year.”
The question about Lance sitting doesn’t involve ability or his development. However, some NFL evaluators will be wary of him starting only one full year while playing at the FCS level.
From a schematic point of view, Lance is actually one of the most advanced prospects because of the Bison’s traditional pro-style scheme. He’s already comfortable dropping from center, turning his back to defenses on play action and using multiple drops.
Lance is particularly intriguing for the Falcons due to Arthur Smith’s history with Ryan Tannehill. The new head coach could place Lance in another run-first scheme and take advantage of the play-action game, the quarterback’s athleticism and his ample arm strength to drive the ball down the field.
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Barry Reeger/Associated Press
The Carolina Panthers haven’t hidden their agenda at all. They believe a quarterback upgrade is necessary.
This became clear when they included the eighth overall pick, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, in an attempt to trade for Matthew Stafford. The Panthers are expected to be one of the teams in the mix if the Houston Texans decide to move Deshaun Watson, but the AFC South squad has yet to reach the point of no return with its quarterback.
Teddy Bridgewater isn’t the answer, and the Panthers are eager to upgrade behind center.
After not trading its first-round selection, Carolina can concentrate on the available draft possibilities. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s Justin Fields may be a touch overvalued. After he faltered slightly during the second half of an abbreviated season, scouts began to pick apart his game.
“The main concern is that Justin Fields stares down the primary target,” Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline reported. “He doesn’t look away from the primary target. He doesn’t process things as quickly as they want him to.”
While those concerns might be overblown, they’re part of the discussion for some teams. Pairing Fields with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady makes even more sense as a result.
When Brady took over LSU’s offense two seasons ago, he helped turn Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy winner by spreading the field, increasing the tempo and placing a heavier emphasis on crossers and in-breaking routes.
The same type of approach could be used with Fields to establish a comfort level based on what Ohio State asked the quarterback to do. Then, Brady could sprinkle some designed runs into the mix to create even more opportunities for Fields.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
Once the top four quarterback prospects are off the board, an interesting game of cat-and-mouse will ensue. Multiple franchises will be desperate to invest in a young signal-caller, and Alabama’s Mac Jones will clearly be the best remaining option.
From the 15th overall pick through the 28th selection, five different organizations—the New England Patriots, Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints—are likely searching for quarterback upgrades.
Jones established himself as a legitimate first-round prospect during his time in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Talent evaluators love that particular week for quarterbacks because teams get a feel for the person during interviews, see how he reacts to an uncomfortable situation with new targets, find out how quickly he picks up the basics of an NFL offense and, most importantly, learn if the individual is a leader.
“You get a chance to see his intelligence,” Carolina Panthers and American Team head coach Matt Rhule told reporters about Jones. “He makes really quick decisions. He processes information quickly, highly intelligent. He’s an alpha. He’s the first guy on the practice field. He’s the first guy in the runnings.”
Rhule’s first point was echoed by ESPN’s Todd McShay (h/t SB Nation’s Peter Bukowski) when the analyst revealed former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said Jones picked up concepts faster than any other quarterback he previously coached.
The intelligence, command of the offense, leadership qualities, accuracy and efficiency make Jones the ideal quarterback to replace Tom Brady in New England, albeit one year removed. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels certainly know how to build around a pocket passer while maximizing the offense’s capabilities.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a bind with no clear avenue toward a successful transition from the franchise’s all-time-greatest quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, toward an heir apparent.
“As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters.
Colbert’s tepid response regarding Roethlisberger’s current status confirmed the Steelers’ predicament. The organization didn’t put a long-term succession plan in place, nor does it have the financial means or draft capabilities to adequately address the position.
Realistically, Pittsburgh could miss out on the top five quarterback prospects unless Colbert aggressively approaches the upcoming draft. If not, the Steelers won’t have many chances to address the position beyond the first round.
Florida’s Kyle Trask is an interesting second-round possibility. Much like Roethlisberger at this point in the veteran’s career, he’s an immobile pocket passer. The 6’5″, 240-pound prospect can deliver the football, though. In fact, he led major college football last season with 30 completions of 20 or more yards, per Pro Football Focus.
The Steelers could spread the field with their talented wide receivers, continue to work the quick passing attack and add more of a deep threat with Trask pulling the trigger instead of the declining Big Ben if the soon-to-be 39-year-old chooses to retire.
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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Stanford’s Davis Mills is a lottery ticket. He shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a potential third-round pick with some starting quarterback traits.
However, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline reported that some within the scouting community believe Mills “is the hidden gem at the quarterback position in this year’s draft” and expect the former Cardinal signal-caller to “continually climb draft boards as teams come to know him.”
Mills helped his case by working out in front of coaches and evaluators prior to a Senior Bowl practice.
Exposure is necessary after he started only 13 collegiate games. Scouts don’t forget or give up on talent, though. The 6’4″, 225-pound quarterback was a 5-star high school recruit and has the physical tools necessary to impress. Some team is going to take a chance on him sooner rather than later.
The Washington Football Team makes sense since the organization currently resides in quarterback limbo. Alex Smith may or may not be back next season. Taylor Heinecke re-signed but isn’t guaranteed a starting spot. Kyle Allen is still recovering from a dislocated ankle he suffered in Week 9.
Considering the current setup, why not take a flier on Mills’ ability?
Washington does own a pair of third-round draft picks. Once Mills is off the board, the available options aren’t enticing.