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Senior Bowl quarterbacks: Names to know as the showcase games approach

Could any of these guys be future Giants?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

(Or, at least, seven of them).

We are ever so close to seeing a finalized roster for the 2019 Senior Bowl. Over the past few seasons the event has taken on more prominence in the run-up to the draft, given the media coverage from both outlets large, such as the NFL Network, and small. While one quarterback slot has yet to be determined — more on that in a moment — we thought it was time to highlight the seven players who have accepted invites and discuss the two players likely being considered for the final invite.

Besides, it is probably better for you, and my sanity, to avoid what would have been a 2,000-word opus on Mark Sanchez.

Gardner Minshew II -- Washington State

Every season there is a quarterback who comes seemingly out of nowhere to insert himself into the draft conversation. Two years ago it was Mitchell Trubisky (or Mitch, as he was known at the time) who took over as the starting quarterback for North Carolina and propelled himself into the first round mix, becoming the first QB drafted. Last year that player was arguably Kyle Lauletta, who went from FCS unknown (at least on a national level) to the MVP of the Senior Bowl itself.

This year it is Minshew. Taking over the spot vacated by the graduating Luke Falk, Minshew put up impressive numbers while leading Washington State to at one point a Top 10 ranking, before they lost to in-state rivals Washington in the Apple Cup.

Minshew effectively operated Mike Leach’s Air Raid-based offensive system, and demonstrated the ability to work through full field progression reads in that system. He also showed a willingness to balance himself between making aggressive throws downfield, but taking the checkdown or outlet route when necessary. That might be music to the ears of New York Giants’ fans.

A concern with Minshew, which is something he’ll get a chance to improve upon during Senior Bowl week, is his tendency to be slower with his decisions when the post-snap look from the secondary does not match with his pre-snap read and expectations. In Washington State’s game against Arizona, for example, the Wildcats rolled their coverage a number of times very well right at the snap. On those plays, Minshew was slow to decipher the adjustments in the secondary, and missed some potential big plays in the passing game as a result.

But in terms of what he can do, this play against those same Wildcats is a nice example:

This is a very creative design from Leach and the Cougars. They pair the Mesh concept (the two crossing routes underneath) with the Mills concept (the post/dig on the left). Minshew (16) peeks first at the wheel route from the running back, then works from the Mesh to the Mills. Granted, he has all day to throw, but this is a nice job of a QB working through the design of a play.

The curiosity factor with Minshew is high, and he has the potential to greatly improve his stock with a strong week in Mobile. With more and more offensive systems incorporating Air Raid designs into NFL game plans, he could make a big case for himself come January.

Jarrett Stidham — Auburn University

I will count myself as a believer in Stidham coming into this season, as illustrated in this video I did with the wise Matt Waldman for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. After a successful 2017 campaign for the Auburn Tigers, Stidham looked like a quarterback who could make a very nice developmental leap in 2018, and wedge himself into the mix among the top draft prospects at the quarterback position.

That leap, however, may have been delayed. Auburn and Stidham took a step back in 2018. After starting the year with an impressive opening win against Washington on opening weekend, they lost a number of big games to SEC opponents and finished the year with losses to Georgia and Alabama in two of their final three games. Statistically, 2018 was the toughest season of Stidham’s career as well. HIs completion percentage, yardage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and quarterback rating were all down from the prior season, and he threw one more interception in 2018 than he did in 2017.

One area I’ll be watching down in Mobile is Stidham’s play speed. Watching him in 2018 you see a quarterback that needs to get much faster with his decisions and play on the the field. Watch this interception on his first passing attempt against the LSU Tigers:

Auburn calls a sprint-out passing play to the right, and Stidham (#8) looks to throw this curl route to the right. But he doesn’t anticipate the break, and the ball comes out late which allows the receiver to make a break on the throw. In addition, the placement is too far inside, and the combination of poor placement and the delay in the throw leads to an interception.

Working in Stidham’s favor is the fact that a clear slate and some NFL coaching might be the best path to making him a solid NFL quarterback. That, however, might take some time, and perhaps the Giants are not in a position to go the full developmental path when it comes to the future of their quarterback room.

Trace McSorley -- Penn State

Watching McSorley’s final moments at Beaver Stadium you learned just how much playing at Penn State meant to him, and how much he meant to that football program. Since taking over from Christian Hackenberg, McSorley has been the heart of the Nittany Lions’ offense, even when playing with offensive weapons such as Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley. As Indiana head coach Tom Allen told me during the 2017 Big 10 Media Days, McSorley was the player that made the Penn State offense go.

McSorley will face some questions as to whether his style of play can translate to the NFL game. In his favor is the fact that more and more spread-based quarterback that rely on their legs in the zone read game are making their way onto NFL rosters, and having success. He will also face the size question, as McSorley is listed at 6’0” on Penn State’s roster, but he might come in under that in Mobile. So the NFL evaluators will have some questions.

But things you cannot question with him are leadership and competitive toughness. McSorley immediately checks those boxes on your scouting report. McSorley suffered a knee injury in Penn State’s game against Iowa, and tried to give it a go the following week against Michigan. Limited by the lower body injury, McSorley still was able to stand in the pocket at times and make some decent throws, before the stout Michigan defense took the game over:

These are the types of plays NFL evaluators want to see from McSorley (9). He is clearly hampered by the injury, but he does a very good job of sliding around in the pocket, creating his throwing lane, and making a strong, accurate throw over the middle.

Right now the ultimate question in front of McSorley is whether his ceiling is that of a great college player, or if he can grow into an NFL quarterback beyond that. History may tell us the former is much more likely, but McSorley is not the type of football player you want to bet against.

Will Grier - West Virginia

Of all the quarterbacks on this list, Grier might make for the toughest evaluation. So many aspects to his game are unorthodox. We can begin with the offensive system he played in under Dana Holgorsen (for more on this offense I would recommend this great piece from Chris Brown). Holgorsen’s offense is his own variation of the Air Raid, quarterbacks from Air Raid offenses have not - historically - made for the best NFL prospects. However, that might be changing with the recent success of players like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, and if so it would be a very welcome change, but I digress …

But continuing with Grier, beyond the offense there is the style of play. Grier’s footwork in the pocket is inconsistent, his throwing motion has a long draw or loop to it at times, and his carelessness with the football is a work in progress, something Waldman and I highlighted in this video. There can be a calculated recklessness to his game.

However, if you dig deeper you can also uncover some of the beautiful subtleties he brings to playing the position, some of the small things you need to excel at playing QB. Take, for example, this play against the Kansas Jayhawks:

The Mountaineers run two half-field concepts here. On the left they have the Dagger concept, pairing a seam route from the slot receiver with a dig route from the boundary player. On the right they run a variation of the Drive concept, with the underneath receiver running the shallow as the deeper receiver throttles down when he finds grass. Grier (7) checks the left side to read the seam, before working back to find the receiver throttling down. He does this while subtly climbing and moving in the pocket.

Grier is going to be a fun evaluation over the next few weeks. He may do some unorthodox things as a passer but with the new schematic trends working into the NFL, he might be a fit for what some teams want to do on the field. You could consider him a darkhorse player to watch potentially rise over the next few weeks.

Ryan Finley - North Carolina State

A player at perhaps the opposite end of the style and scheme spectrum is Finley from N.C. State. The veteran passer is more of a mechanically-sound thrower than Grier, and in years past you might see him given the “pro style quarterback” tag. Finley is familiar operating under center, as well as from the shotgun or pistol formations. However, as more and more teams rely on the shotgun and work in Air Raid-style concepts, those abilities might not carry the weight they once used to.

Similar to Stidham, Finley was another player I was excited to watch in 2018. Also similar to Stidham, he might not have taken the big developmental leap forward that I and others might have been hoping for, but he did show improvement in terms of production. His yardage, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns were all up from his 2017 numbers. However, he did throw more interceptions in 2018, and for a quarterback known to take the checkdowns when available, this is something that warrants further investigation.

Some of the things that NFL scouts will love are his ability to make throws on time and in rhythm in the structure of a play, as well as the proficiency he showed at times in 2018 when throwing on the move or keeping plays alive in scramble drill situations. One of his (seemingly) favorite route concepts to throw is this post/out-and-up/out route from a trips formation, which is a play he ran often in 2017 and yet again in 2018:

Here, Finley (15) reads the coverage and leverage perfectly, and the throw on the out route is on time and in perfect rhythm for this design. The pass is a big high, but catchable, and the Wolfpack move the chains. Finley might lack some of the buzz that other passers in this game have, but he will do some things that NFL scouts are going to appreciate.

Clayton Thorson - Northwestern University

After suffering a knee injury in Northwestern’s 2017 bowl game, the fact that Clayton Thorson is even on this roster is probably commendable. Thorson worked himself back to be ready for Northwestern’s season opener, and that speaks volumes about this young quarterback. Jim Nagy, the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl, has praised Thorson’s leadership and ability to elevate those around him, and that argument is not without merit. This year coming back from the injury Thorson led the Wildcats to their first appearance in the Big 10 Championship Game.

As a quarterback Thorson is pretty clean from a mechanical profile and shows good footwork in the pocket, both on his drops and when needed to move or slide from pressure. That was still visible in 2018 while working his way back from the knee injury. He also shows the ability to move defenders with his eyes and shows good processing speed on a number of West Coast passing designs, which might make him an enticing prospect for teams using that offensive system.

Some of those traits are visible on this play against Notre Dame:

Thorson (18) works this shallow crossing concept perfectly. He checks the wheel route from the running back first, before working to the two routes in the middle of the field. As he does this, he climbs the pocket in a picturesque manner, before delivering a strong, accurate throw.

Thorson and Finley are two players that it seems NFL scouts are going to appreciate.

Drew Lock - University of Missouri

The final accepted invitation to date comes to us courtesy of Drew Lock, who began this draft cycle (right when the 2018 draft ended) by being named as Mel Kiper’s top quarterback to watch in the 2018 season. The reasons were plentiful: Lock put up huge, video-game type numbers for the Tigers in 2017 (albeit with a completion percentage below 60%) and has the kind of arm that makes people stand up and take notice. He returned to school for his senior season to play under Derek Dooley, Missouri’s new Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks coach. It was thought that the NFL influence would do wonders for Lock’s draft stock.

Lock’s senior campaign could rightly be described as a Tale of Three Seasons. Missouri and their veteran signal-caller got out to a hot start against some non-conference competition, as the Tigers started 3-0 and Lock threw 11 touchdowns with just one interception in the first three games. But then, a brutal three-game stretch against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama brought Lock and the Tigers back to earth. They lost all three games and Lock struggled, throwing one touchdown and five interceptions during that period of time. Given that two of those games were against high level competition, perhaps some began to look away.

But down the stretch Lock was much better. He rebounded from the loss to the Crimson Tide with a huge game against the Memphis Tigers, throwing for four touchdowns in his best statistical outing of the season. He also led Missouri to a very solid win on the road against Florida, and the Tigers won five of their final six games to close out the year with a 8-5 record. Lock’s numbers might have taken a step back on the whole, as his touchdowns and yardage was down from his 2017 numbers, but his completion percentage was up, while his interceptions were down. Two things NFL scouts are going to love to see.

They will also love seeing plays like this:

The Tigers employ some eye candy here, with a play-action fake and jet motion, but they run the Yankee concept, a two-receiver concept with a dig route and a deep post route. Lock climbs and slides away from the pressure and throws a strike on the post for a touchdown against the Gators. Plays like this one are going to go a long way towards moving Lock up the board.

The final spot

So with seven down, that leaves one spot left.

Reading the tea leaves, it is likely that the final spot is waiting on the decision from Duke University quarterback Daniel Jones. He is a junior, who is set to graduate this month. If he decides to come out, he’ll likely draw some serious NFL interest given his skill-set as well as the fact he was playing under David Cutcliffe, known for his ability to coach quarterback (among them Peyton and Eli Manning, for example). Those factors would make him a player NFL teams are going to want to study down in Mobile.

Now, if Jones decides to pass on the NFL and play one more season under Cutcliffe, then the player likely next in line is Boise State’s Brett Rypien, a player I implored you to study back when we put together the watch list, and a quarterback I remain very high on. Rypien checks a number of the boxes (especially if you are a believer in the “Parcells Rules,” where he checks all of them) and does a lot of the little things (anticipation, manipulation, pre-snap activity) very well. Now, Rypien has already accepted an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, so we’ll be seeing him in at least one more game (in addition to his bowl game) but it remains to be seen if St. Petersburg, and not Mobile, is in his future.

Whether it is Jones, Rypien or a quarterback to be named later who takes the final spot, Nagy and the rest of the Senior Bowl staff are assembling a very intriguing group of passers for the draft community to evaluate down in Mobile. Is the next quarterback of the Giants among this group? Only time will tell, but you can be sure they will be doing their due diligence on these -- and all -- of the passers in the 2019 group.