The past two NFL drafts saw multiple draft analysts argue about the top quarterback prospects. The Andrew Luck-built Blake Bortles vs. under-appreciated Teddy Bridgewater vs. the superstar Johnny Manziel debate was one of constant discussion. And of course, the argument that team’s should “wait” on a quarterback for the later rounds or the following year draft persisted.
For team’s that may have opted to wait a year on quarterbacks may not be all that pleased with the 2015 class as it stands now.
As I focused on the seniors only (juniors will be evaluated after they officially declare), there were no passers that graded as first-rounders. Following that, just two garnered second-round worthy grades. And finally, those two quarterbacks share a very unique school trait: they both were recruited and signed with WAC programs out of high school.
While names like Bryce Petty or Sean Mannion or Braxton Miller may be more known in the major media as some of the top senior quarterbacks, it’s Chuckie Keeton and Cody Fajardo that may be the names to know for fans of college football and the NFL Draft.
Chuckie Keeton: Returning From Injury with Top 50 Aspirations
Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton was on pace for a fantastic junior campaign, boasting 17 touchdowns and one interception before the team’s game against BYU. However, an ACL and MCL tear in the team’s game against BYU on October, Keeton’s junior season was cut short. He was finally cleared for full football contact in early May and is ready to be not only the team’s offensive leader, but one of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football this season.
With efficient, composed mentality, especially when working in the short area, Keeton showcases plus velocity control and patience as a passer in the pocket and when asked to move on designed rollouts or off of read options. One of the biggest pluses I’ve seen from Keeton’s underclassmen film is his control in the pocket as he checks down. In the play below, you’ll see him check the screen while also forcing the linebacker to bite, then checking the seam behind the linebacker, followed by changing his field vision and finding his check down, all with composure in the pocket.
Keeton also possesses plus velocity control down-field, but doesn’t have the deep touch to consistently deliver on in-stride vertical throws. His throwing style vertically is a bit of an issue, as he tends to lean back too far and float passes without ideal NFL velocity past 25 yards on the perimeter. However, his placement and use of velocity is a plus against zone, attacking gaps well and utilizes pumps and eye movement to move defenders. As a plus-runner as well, Keeton has forced defenses to only send four or five rushers, as they’re constantly addressing his running threat as well as his short and mid-area passing ability. Here’s an example of his play-making ability.
What Keeton Needs to Improve On
As mentioned earlier, Keeton needs to continue to improve his vertical ability, both mechanically and as work to improve his downfield velocity. With improvements there, his deep touch could see substantial improvement, and it appears his issues in this area are coachable. Also, while it’s not a major issue, he does need to improve his overall pocket awareness. He has experience in read-option situations, shotgun drops, and from-center drops, but his timing and active feet in the pocket could use some improvements. In the play below, you’ll see him get to the top of his drop, but labor a bit too long in the pocket before stepping up, leading to the pressure off the edge reaching him too early and forcing a fumble.
And finally, his size is an issue. Despite being listed at 6’2, he’s likely more in the 6’0 range. While Russell Wilson and Johnny Manziel have reduced this concern, along with teams now utilizing more movement of their quarterbacks in the offense to minimize size concerns, Keeton will need to be extra special, either with tremendous composure and control (like Wilson) and/or play-making ability (like Manziel), if he hopes to be deemed worthy a Top-40 pick. He garners a second-round grade from us at the moment, the best of the senior class, but he’ll need to sell evaluators on his upside if he hopes to maintain (or rise) that grade throughout the 2015 draft process.
Cody Fajardo: Can He Follow Colin Kaepernick’s Path?
Despite Big 12 (Nebraska) and Pac-12 (Arizona, Washington State) offers, Cody Fajardo opted to play for the then-WAC Nevada program and then-head coach Chris Ault. Fajardo was named the starter in the fifth game of his true freshman season and quickly gave Wolfpack faithful a reminder that while Colin Kaepernick may be gone (he was drafted the year before), the quarterback play at Nevada wouldn’t fade away.
Fajardo has a little bit better size that Keeton (more in the 6’1 range), and possesses a fluid, high release point, plus arm velocity across the field and a natural feel to move in and out of the pocket. He controls his arm and trajectory very well, reducing velocity and adding touch without any forced mechanical changes, a huge plus for a passer who’s mostly working off of read-option drops or quick in/out of pocket decisions. He’s a bit over-aggressive in the middle of the field at times, but he has the required toughness in the pocket to stand tall and finish throws. In the play below, you’ll see Fajardo get to the top of his drop, hesitate to allow his receiver positioning over the linebacker, and take a big hit as he finishes the throw. While the receiver didn’t finish the catch, it was a high velocity, well-timed and placed pass in the middle of the field.
What Fajardo Needs to Improve On
While he has the required natural ability as a runner and toughness as a passer, Fajardo does have some limitations. His velocity is strong enough in his upper half, but his footwork needs plenty of work. You can see in the play below that he gets enough velocity on the throw, but his feet and lower half is completely stationary. His lack of top-end velocity can easily be fixed with improved footwork, something I hope the coaching staff should be able to improve on.
Fajardo’s injury history is certainly a cause for concern as well. A knee sprain early in the 2013 season and a foot injury later that same year will concern teams, especially if he’s banged up during his senior campaign as well. But if he can show an improvement in his placement (stemming from his footwork) and develop more down-field velocity, he could be viewed as less of a project and more of a worthwhile second-round pick. He’ll face Washington State and Arizona (in Tucson) in Week’s 2 and 3 of his senior season, so he’ll have the opportunity to start quick and prove his worthiness of a future-NFL starter grade.
What About the Rest
Baylor’s Bryce Petty has NFL size (likely over 6’2) and has certainly flashed in the Baylor offense and has NFL upside, but his lackluster play the second half of his junior season (especially versus TCU) and the lack of elite NFL throws in the offense should temper some of the first-round hype that Petty is likely to receive in the early stages of the 2014 season.
Oregon State’s Sean Mannion has the ideal size and arm strength, but his placement, pocket composure and accuracy in the short and mid-range area under pressure is lacking compared to other similarly built top-100 quarterback picks. Watching him and seeing where he may be projected (as a first rounder) should force evaluators to consider if they under-appreciated Mike Glennon out of NC State.
I’m a big fan of East Carolina’s Shane Carden. He’s in the mix for the second best quarterback in this class based off of the film I’ve watched, and don’t be surprised if he makes a big leap in his progression this year and emerges into the national spotlight. If not, he looks the part of a quarterback built to impress evaluators in the post-draft process.
Finally, don’t sleep on Braxton Miller’s play-making ability, as he could be viewed as a lesser Johnny Manziel, Washington State’s Connor Halliday’s development and progression under Mike Leach, and the potential for first-year starters like Georgia’s Hutson Mason or Eastern Illinois’s Andrew Manley.