Perhaps even more so than past drafts, the talking point in the 2021 NFL Draft is the quarterback class.
Featuring five first-round locks and a handful of other potential Day 2 picks, this year’s draft has the potential to play a pivotal role in the “changing of the guard” happening at the quarterback position right now.
Considering how talented this year’s class appears to be at the quarterback position, I figured I’d see where the 2021 draft’s quarterbacks stack up among other quarterbacks to enter the draft in recent years. I won’t be comparing since-drafted prospects to how good they have become at the NFL level, but rather, where I evaluated them coming out of college.
I’ll skip the pleasantries; here are the top 10 NFL Draft quarterback prospects I’ve evaluated over the last three years.
1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Trevor Lawrence is such a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick next week that it seems like barely anybody is talking about him.
With three seasons as a starter, two national championship appearances and a championship ring, Lawrence certainly has the best resume of any quarterback to enter the NFL Draft in quite some time. He seemingly has it all: he’s tall, he has a cannon of an arm, he’s a very good athlete, he has an elite sense of anticipation behind his throws, and he has sound throwing mechanics in both his footwork and his release. There are slight lapses of judgment when he makes full-field reads, but there really aren’t any glaring holes in his game.
The presumptive selection for the Jaguars at No. 1, Lawrence brings a rare skill-set that hasn’t been matched since Andrew Luck at Stanford or Peyton Manning out of Tennessee all the way back in 1998. Whether he’ll develop into as good of a player as those two quarterbacks remains to be seen, but the future certainly looks bright for the former Clemson signal-caller.
2. Joe Burrow, LSU
Joe Burrow’s 2019 season is some of the finest collegiate quarterbacking I have seen in my life.
Burrow showcased an incredible sense of anticipation and timing behind his throws. He was consistently able to hit his teammates in stride and deliver an accurate ball, regardless of his platform. He showed plenty of promise in terms of going through his progressions and looking past his first read, and his deep-ball placement was reliable each and every time. Perhaps his best trait was his pocket manipulation: his ability to maneuver the pocket, evade defenders and keep scanning the field looked like that of a seasoned NFL pro when he dissected SEC defenses in 2019. The Heisman Trophy winner led LSU to an undefeated, championship-winning season to cap off one of the best quarterback performances in recent memory.
Even though his arm strength and athletic ability were fairly average by top quarterback prospect standards, Burrow was surgical at LSU and showcased elite accuracy and mental awareness. It remains to be see how he’ll bounce back from his torn ACL suffered in his rookie year, but he certainly lived up to the hype as the No. 1 pick when he was able to play for the Bengals in 2020.
3. Zach Wilson, BYU
It’s hard not to fall in love with someone who’s as dynamic and talented on the field as Zach Wilson is.
In a way that’s somewhat similar to Kyler Murray or Patrick Mahomes, Wilson has fantastic natural arm talent that allows him to deliver bullets from any angle. Whether his feet are set or if he’s on the move and throwing off-platform, his throws have heat behind them on a consistent basis. He has a quick release and throws with good timing behind many of his passes. Poised in the pocket and collected in his progressions, Wilson has the mindset and swagger of a pro.
Wilson is likely to be the No. 2 overall pick, sending him to the Jets. The franchise hasn’t had the best of luck in recent years, but a multi-dimensional talent like Wilson could help them emerge from the cellar of the AFC East. Though he can struggle with decision-making and doesn’t have a strong resume against top competition, the tools he brings are evident. The pressure of playing in the Big Apple will be high, but if he can overcome that, the sky is the limit for him.
4. Justin Fields, Ohio State
The gap between Wilson and Justin Fields is incredibly slim; I honestly view them as 2A and 2B in the 2021 class. Regardless of where he’s ranked, Fields has the makings of a franchise quarterback in the NFL.
A two-year starter with consecutive playoff appearances and two first-team All-Big Ten nominations, Fields absolutely lit it up upon entering the Buckeyes’ starting lineup. He was consistently able to light it up throwing to all parts of the field, showcasing great deep accuracy and an uncanny ability to dominate across the middle of the field. His throws are delivered with good velocity and a compact upper-body motion. Fields is generally a good decision-maker who reads the field well and has a good feel for when his targets are going to get open. He’s also a dynamic athlete with strong dual-threat value and very good lateral quickness and speed in the open field.
The pre-draft process has seen Fields’ draft stock fluctuate after reports surrounding a lack of work ethic and an inability to look past his first read, both of which having since been proven false. It’s a complete unknown as to where he’ll end up come Thursday, but wherever he goes, he has the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback.
5. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
Were it not for his size knocking him down a few pegs on my grading scale, Kyler Murray would be a top-3 quarterback over the past three drafts.
A Heisman Trophy winner in 2018, Murray was the most electric player in college football during his lone year as a starter at Oklahoma. He was obviously an incredible athlete, showcasing elite agility, breakaway speed, and ball-carrier vision needed to be a dangerous threat with his feet. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was his arm talent. His baseball background was apparent in his uncanny ability to deliver throws with stellar velocity from just about any throwing angle. Murray’s sense of touch behind his deep ball was impeccable, and his lightning-quick release projected well for the NFL level coming out.
The big issue for Murray was that he only stood at 5-foot-10 and weighed 207 pounds. Entering the 2019 draft, the sample size for quarterbacks that small was, well, small. His height hasn’t really proven a detriment to him in the NFL, having made a Pro Bowl appearance this past year and looking like the Cardinals’ franchise quarterback. Murray’s is a tale that tape and ability is more important than size, particularly at the quarterback position.
6. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
His rookie season with the Dolphins was underwhelming, but let’s not forget just how great Tua Tagovailoa was at Alabama.
Ever since dominating in the 2018 national championship, Tagovailoa was seemingly destined for NFL stardom. He would be named an All-American that next year, starting full-time for the remaining two seasons. He was remarkably accurate at Alabama, hitting his receivers in stride consistently and throwing with eye-opening timing. Tagovailoa showcased a strong arm capable of stretching the field and threading the needle, and he also looked the part of a capable athlete from a dual-threat perspective.
Tagovailoa struggled with full-field reads for the Dolphins in 2020, resulting in some questionable decisions and turnover-worthy throws. However, the accuracy he put on display at Alabama translated to the NFL level, and with a full offseason of being healthy and preparing for the regular season, a Year 2 breakout could be in order.
7. Justin Herbert, Oregon
I was admittedly higher on Justin Herbert than a majority of the draft community, but even I couldn’t see the tremendous rookie campaign he put together this past year.
If you built an ideal quarterback in a lab from a physical standpoint, you would get a player very similar to Herbert. A big-bodied thrower with a rocket arm and above-average mobility, the three-year starter certainly looked the part of a future NFL starter during his time in Eugene. His ability to stretch the field with fantastic velocity and flashes of ideal deep accuracy made him an intriguing talent from an arm talent perspective. Herbert’s athletic ability forced defenses to account for him on read options, adding another wrinkle to his team’s offensive gameplan.
Oregon’s one-dimensional offense saw Herbert receive very little exposure to full-field reads and much more than basic route concepts, but he quickly showed that he was able to grasp NFL passing concepts and looked like a seasoned pro in his ability to stretch the field and make big-time throws. The Chargers certainly hope he can build upon his Rookie of the Year campaign.
8. Trey Lance, North Dakota State
Trey Lance is as risky of a prospect as they come in the 2021 draft, but man, if he isn’t incredibly enticing for a team in need of a franchise quarterback.
Lance put forth a rare 2019 season which saw him avoid throwing a single interception while tallying 42 total touchdowns and over 3,800 yards combined with his production through the air and on the ground. The Bison finished with an undefeated season and a national championship win under Lance, whose dual-threat ability made him a force to be reckoned with.
He displayed stellar arm strength with fantastic velocity behind throws and the raw talent needed to stretch the field farther than most quarterbacks at the FCS or even FBS level. His elusiveness as a ball-carrier and ability to pick up yards with his feet makes him an elite athlete for the position, and the flashes he has shown in terms of intermediate-to-deep touch project him as a future NFL starter.
It’s unlikely that Lance will see much playing time in his rookie year, if any at all. Being an FCS one-year starter with concerns as a processor in the pocket, it may take him a little bit of time to adjust to the speed of NFL defenses. If a team is willing to be patient with his development, though, he can be a superstar. His arm talent and athletic ability place him in the upper echelon of physically-gifted quarterbacks over the past several years.
9. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
I never said my process was perfect...
Dwayne Haskins has certainly been the least successful of the quarterbacks to enter the NFL on this list. Released by Washington after two seasons and finishing with a 12-to-14 TD:INT ratio, Haskins is now a backup for the Steelers whose roster spot for the 2021 season is far from guaranteed with Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs also on the team.
Though I didn’t get the hype surrounding Haskins as a legitimate first-round graded talent, I liked him enough to put him as my QB2 in 2019. I was impressed by his arm strength and his ability to throw on the run or off the back foot while maintaining strong velocity. His thick frame and flashes of deep-ball accuracy were certainly intriguing to me, too. Even though his athletic testing numbers were poor, I liked his vision as a ball-carrier.
I had concerns about Haskins’ ability to make full-field reads and his tendency to stiffen up in the pocket under pressure, and both of those have come to haunt him at the NFL level. He is a great example that a quarterback can have a strong arm and make some good throws on tape, but when he doesn’t play with poise or precision, he’s going to make plenty of mistakes in the pros.
10. Mac Jones, Alabama
We close out the list with Mac Jones, who may not have the highest physical ceiling of the quarterbacks on this list, but is certainly one of the more accurate.
Though he started four games in 2019, it wasn’t until 2020 that Jones truly had his coming-out party among NFL draft circles. A key catalyst for Alabama’s undefeated season, he threw 41 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions and had exactly 4,500 yards with a 77.4 completion percentage. His accuracy took a massive jump from his sophomore year to his junior year, as his touch on the deep ball and consistency in ball placement is up there as the best in the 2021 class. Mechanically sound and standing tall in the pocket with poise, Jones excels in a lot of the fundamentals and shouldn’t require as much fine-tuning as some of the more raw prospects in the 2021 class.
Concerns surround Jones in terms of his arm strength and athletic ability, and for a quarterback praised for his mental acumen, he did struggle a bit with throws past his first read. The ceiling him might not be incredibly high, but the floor is higher than that of most quarterbacks in the 2021 class. For a team looking for steady quarterback play and not so willing to swing for the fences, Jones could be an option.