Saturday, October 1, 2022

2023 NFL Draft: Under-the-radar quarterbacks who can rise to become the next Joe Burrow, Zach Wilson

The 2022 class was an anomaly at the quarterback position. Only one passer taken in the first round. In each of the six NFL drafts before it, there was one quarterback ultimately selected within the top three overall picks who was barely on or completely off the radar before his final college season. 

In 2021, it was Zach Wilson, the year before that, Joe Burrow. In 2019, Kyler Murray. In 2018, Baker Mayfield. Mitchell Trubisky was that dude in 2017. And in 2016 it was Carson Wentz. While not a top 3 selection, lone first-rounder Kenny Pickett was a consensus Day 3 prospect before his final season at Pittsburgh.

Therefore, it’s a smart practice to scour the college football landscape in August to identify possible rise-from-obscurity passers before their ascension begins. 

Remember, too, none of the quarterbacks listed above were necessarily “well-known” draft prospects many believed could be high first-round selections. They had consensus Day 3 grades before their final collegiate seasons, so the selections this year’s article have to be viewed the same. 

Let’s dive deep. Real deep. That’s where we’re most likely to find the next Wilson or Burrow. (Yes, the transfer portal has become a hell of a drug.) I present to you this year’s Day 3 to Top 3 candidates.

Jaren Hall, BYU

Recruit ranking: No. 20 dual threat (2016)

Best statistical year: 63.9% completion, 8.7 yards per attempt, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions

Ok, so you’re not supposed to scout the helmet, but in Hall’s case, go ahead, draw your Wilson comparisons. He’s a smaller, creative BYU quarterback with springy athletic traits and a snappy release. The play style is uncanny between Hall and the passer he followed in the Cougars program who went No. 2 overall in the 2021 draft. 

Now, the big — and I mean, HUGE — difference between the two: Hall is already 24 years old. He’ll be 25 when he’s drafted. That matters. Wilson played his final season in Provo, Utah as a just-turned 21 year old. 

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If you want to dismiss Hall being close to being legally allowed to rent a car, his 2021 film was a thrill ride. The ball routinely jumped out of his hand, his scrambles were calculated and efficient, and he rarely put the ball in harm’s way. Hall went over 300 yards passing on four occasions and absolutely held his own in the bowl game against USC with two touchdowns, a pair of picks — his first since October 9 — while completing nearly 63% of his throws and amassing 276 yards through the air. 

Hall is going to have a big 2022. He’s going to be on the radar. If teams — or, really, only one team — can ignore his age, it’s conceivable he lands high in the first round. 

Jake Haener, Fresno State 

Recruit ranking: No. 25 pro-style (2017)

Best statistical year: 67.1% completion, 8.4 yards per attempt, 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions

Another older prospect — already 23 — Haener made some noise in 2021 with a gritty, highly productive season. While not a quarterback who’ll be a designed run game weapon in the NFL, the Fresno quarterback is twitchy and has a flair for the improbable completion when protection breaks down or he needs to go deep into a play to find an option streetball style. 

He cooked down the stretch with two games with over a 75% completion rate that paired with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Haener’s smaller size, athleticism, courage in pocket, and improvisational skills give him a Bryce Young lite vibe. Legitimately. 

Haener entered the transfer portal but ultimately decided to stay with the Bulldogs, and Fresno State should be the best team in the Mountain West, which, theoretically, should get him more attention. His age and lack of size are clear-cut concerns on his resume, but Haener can spin it and his moxie will go a long way with many NFL evaluators.  

Cameron Ward, Washington State

Recruit ranking: Zero stars (!) in 2020

Best statistical year: 64.4% completion, 8.1 yards per attempt 38 touchdowns, 10 interceptions

Now we’re deep. Really deep. Whenever you can get Incarnate Word into an article, it has to be done. Ward roasted the competition at The University of Incarnate Word last season, en route to a second-round appearance in the FCS playoffs. Ward amassed over 4,700 yards with 47 total touchdowns (running and passing) to just 10 interceptions. But it’s not just the numbers that earned Ward a spot on this list. His film did.

Quick, accurate release. Quality — albeit not spectacular arm strength –requisite athleticism and a sprinkle of scrambling brilliance to bounce around in the pocket when blocking disintegrates. He effortlessly zips it from arm angles that are awkward for most passers. Ward transferred to Washington State, where he’ll join his former coach Eric Morris, who’s calling plays for the Wildcats as the offensive coordinator. 

Ward can ascend boards — yes, all the way to the first round — with another high-volume season in the Pac-12, on a Cougars team that’ll be competitive in conference. 

Michael Pratt, Tulane

Recruit ranking: No. 47 pro-style (2020)

Best statistical year: 57.6% completion, 7.3 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns, eight interceptions

Sometimes, at the outset of watching a prospect, one play makes you sit up in your chair. With Pratt, the first few throws I saw had that effect — simply because the way the ball erupts out of his hand. Pratt is the quintessential prospect for this article. A true junior, the Tulane quarterback looked the part from his freshman collegiate season.

Pratt’s arm alone is NFL worthy, and through two seasons as Tulane’s starter, he has 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Sure, his completion rate is under 60%, not great. All that means is there’s room for Pratt to sharpen his ball placement. If he can show marked improvement in his accuracy, and it’s combined with his powerful arm, Pratt will get a small, cult following in the draft community that could materialize into widespread adoration among NFL decision makers. 

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA

Recruit ranking: No. 2 dual-threat (2018)

Best statistical year: 63.8% comp, 7.3 yards per attempt, 12 TDs, 3 INTs (Bowling Green, 2017)

The most sought after high school recruit listed, Thompson-Robinson has technically been on the draft radar since he was 18. He’s also the most experienced of this group, with 35 starts to his name to date. 

For me, Thompson-Robinson’s steady improvement is the most encouraging aspect of his profile entering his fifth season with the Bruins. He’s gone from 6.8 yards per attempt as a freshman to 8.5 last season, and he took much better care of the football with only six interceptions. 

Not an imposing physical specimen with a cannon attached to his shoulder, Thompson-Robinson does have tantalizing athletic traits and a quality arm. On what should be a sturdy UCLA team this fall, more development from Thompson-Robinson and some big outings in contests against USC, Utah, and the bowl game could be parlayed into a draft stock many expected when he graduated from high school. 

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