Big Ten could have three first-round QBs after none in 20 years

BY Bruce Feldman • July 1, 2015

For all the grousing about how the college ranks seem to be drying up when it comes to producing NFL talent at quarterback, there is a very intriguing crop of QBs in the pipeline. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah talked about these college QBs and much more with FOX Sports this week on our latest Audible podcast (click on the embedded player above to listen).

The top QB talent this year is in the Big Ten, a conference that hasn't produced a first-round quarterback since Kerry Collins in 1995. The league has three QBs very high on the NFL radar: Michigan State's Connor Cook, Ohio State's Cardale Jones and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg.

The most established guy is Cook, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior who led the Big Ten in passing in 2014 with 3,214 yards and has a career 47-15 TD-INT ratio. "He reminds me a lot of (former No. 1 overall pick) Carson Palmer," said Jeremiah, now a draft analyst for NFL Network. "Maybe not the same type of top-end arm strength but the same type of size and presence. 

"To me, it's just the variety of throws that he can make — to be able to change ball speeds, to be able to show some touch underneath, which I see from him. His ability to be able to play from inside the pocket in a pure pro offense — that's gonna help him translate to the next level. When you study him, you'll see him work the whole field. You'll see him work left-to-right, full-field reads, get to [the] No. 3 [receiver] in his progression. Those are the things that really excite me about him. Every now and then he'll try and force balls. He gets a little bit too confident in his arm strength, but I think there is a lot to work with. I'm anxious to see what he does in the upcoming season." 

Like every other football fan, Jeremiah is very curious to see how the QB situation at Ohio State unfolds between two-time Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller, who is coming off a shoulder injury; sophomore J.T. Barrett, who made a Heisman run before breaking his ankle; and Cardale Jones, who went from third-string to hero of the Buckeyes' playoff run. Jeremiah's take on Ohio State's three options:

Braxton Miller: "[He] is a phenomenal college quarterback because of his ability to be able to use his legs. He's such an explosive athlete. As a passer he's such a long-term project. Cardale throwing the football is far, far ahead of Braxton Miller. I think it'd be in Braxton's best interest to switch positions."

J.T. Barrett: "[He] reminds me of a more mobile version of Aaron Murray. He doesn't wow you with his size or arm strength, but he's a very good decision-maker. He's very efficient. He's probably a middle-round player."

Cardale Jones: "Cardale looks like 'The Guy.' He has all the tools to work with. The size, the arm strength, the athletic ability, can make every throw and he's built to be able to handle the punishment at the next level. The sample size is just so small. I would be very surprised if Cardale wasn't the guy."

The other QB in the Big Ten whom Jeremiah is keeping an eye on is at Penn State. Hackenberg is still only 20 years old and despite some shaky numbers last season, most notably a 12-15 TD-INT ratio, his name comes up a lot on the (waaaaay) too-early 2016 mock drafts. 

"He has arguably the most talent of anybody (among the college QBs)," Jeremiah said. "He has got a huge arm. He jumps off the tape."

The biggest knock I'd heard on Hackenberg from rival coaches was that he holds on to the ball too long — and that was a recipe for disaster since Penn State had such an undermanned O-line last year. (He was sacked 44 times in 2014.)

"Just watching it on tape, I thought it was just someone who struggled mightily with the change in systems," Jeremiah said. "It [was] his first year in James Franklin's system. He was recruited to play in Bill O'Brien's offense, which is what he is: a pure pocket guy who takes a deeper drop and plays a vertical passing game. With James Franklin, it looked like it was more quick decision making and get the ball out of your hands. The offensive line wasn't good. To me, it just looked like he was never fully comfortable. There were plays when I studied him where he's foregoing some lay-ups and he's trying to be too aggressive, and you gotta figure out a way to reel that in. 

"On the other side of that, [USC senior] Cody Kessler will take those lay-ups all day long and I want to see him be more aggressive. Be a little bit more like Hackenberg and press the thing down the field more."

In 2014, Kessler had a breakout season, completing 70 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards to go with a sterling 39-5 TD-INT clip. Still, the 6-1, 215-pounder does not seem to be generating quite as much hype in NFL circles as some other QBs.

"To me the sum is greater than the individual parts," Jeremiah said of Kessler. "He's got poise. He's a decent athlete and his arm is better than I'd given him credit for. He doesn't have that one outstanding attribute."

One other QB I asked about was TCU's Trevone Boykin, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting last year. Jeremiah's answer surprised me a little.

"I have not heard any buzz on him from talking to scouting buddies across the league," Jeremiah said. "I haven't even taken a peek at him yet."

In 2014, the 6-2, 205-pound Boykin, a former high school sprinter, passed for 3,901 yards and threw 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He also ran for more than 700 yards. Last year, I think Boykin was the most improved player in college football, going from a 7-to-7 TD-INT ratio in 2013. His coach Gary Patterson said that reflects how well he takes care of the ball and makes decisions, and that coupled with his ability to extend plays is what makes Boykin so special. "Nobody's better at making something out of nothing," Patterson said.

As Jeremiah and I discussed Boykin, the former Appalachian State QB made a fascinating point that illuminates just how much connectivity there is in the scouting business as it relates to the development of former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel.

"If Manziel does not produce at the next level, it's going to serve as a cautionary tale for a lot of these guys that aren't playing from the pocket," he said. "That's a positive on the college level, to be able to create something out of nothing, but you're probably gonna see a little reverse in trend." 

Meaning some NFL personnel folks may become more skeptical about those guys and lean more on the guys who solely win from within the pocket, like the aforementioned Big Ten trio. Said Jeremiah, "Manziel and his development, I think it has a big impact on scouting going forward on guys like this."

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.



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