2018 NFL Draft QB Stock Watch: Lamar Jackson passes Mason Rudolph for top spot
Jackson takes over as the No. 1 QB prospect despite being overshadowed as the reigning Heisman winner
It's time. There's a new No. 1 quarterback. Mason Rudolph slipped then regrouped, but his regression reared its ugly head against Kansas State. But for as much as this decision is about his disappointment, it's even more about Lamar Jackson's ascension as a complete quarterback prospect.
He's trumped his statistics from his Heisman-winning season of a year ago, yet he's been playing in the shadows after two Louisville losses -- and poor individual efforts from Jackson -- against Clemson and NC State.
Watching Jackson's entire body of work in 2017, and comparing it to 2016 when he'd show an occasional glimpse of franchise signal-caller abilities, is astounding. He's made a giant leap forward in many key areas, and is the most prolific running quarterback prospect since Michael Vick. Stock. Up.
Here's a look at the updated stocks of the draft's top signal-caller prospects.
1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Jackson's made an unassuming, methodical climb to the top spot. That's a strange sentence for a former Heisman winner. Last week, I touched on the amazing reality that Jackson's rushing ability was being overlooked this season and when projecting him to the NFL. This week, while watching Louisville dismantle Syracuse, I made a concerted effort to ignore his runs. How would I come away from a Jackson performance without the scrambling, read-option carries, and just plain ridiculous jukes in the open field? The answer: thoroughly impressed.
Jackson is one refined quarterback prospect. I'm telling you. Way more often than not, he swiftly avoided pressure like it was white noise around him, then uncorked a rocket 20 or 30 yards downfield into the hands of a tightly covered receiver. Did that receiver catch the pass? Ehhh, maybe, maybe not. In the win over the Orange, Jackson made one or two inaccurate throws and a few short ho-hum passes into the flat. The rest of his attempts resulted in that "thoroughly impressed" reaction. Arm strength? Check. Pocket drifting? Check. Accuracy to all levels of the field? Check. Right now, Jackson is the best quarterback prospect in the 2018 class, and that's even without his running capabilities, which, you know, are reminiscent of Vick.
2. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
It seemed like this game was coming for Rudolph. The injured shoulder. Defenses taking away the deep ball. The worsening weather. Speaking of weather, it was a perfect storm for Rudolph in the stunning loss to Kansas State. He struggled mightily with accuracy and timing with his receivers, the latter of which shouldn't happen for a senior with a slew of veteran pass-catchers. He released a handful of interception-worthy passes, and two other throws were actually picked off. So was a crucial two-point conversion late.
Rudolph's lack of arm strength was more apparent in the loss to the Wildcats because of his wayward accuracy. Things get ugly when a signal-caller is misfiring and his passes aren't getting to the intended target in a hurry. Although I'm not as convinced with his deep-ball touch anymore and now do think the arm-strength questions are valid, I still like his movement in the pocket and intermediate accuracy. The long reign for Rudolph at No. 1 comes to an end, as over the past month or so he's looked like a quarterback prospect who's taken a step back from a strong junior season, not a step forward.
3. Josh Rosen, UCLA
Rosen's team lost the Battle for the City of Angels -- did anyone call it that? Has more ring than the Battle for L.A. -- but he was the better quarterback. Rosen's awesomely hot and cold. When he's hot, playing quarterback looks easy. When he's cold, he looks like he's never played quarterback before. Yes, there are more "hot" moments than "cold" moments, which was the case against the Trojans.
Look, the Bruins clearly have many flaws, mostly on defense. Rosen kept them in a game they had no business being in. Yet, one could say his bad end-zone interception was the difference. And there you have it. That's kind of the book on Rosen, not that he throws a game-deciding pick every game. He screams "Eli Manning" to me, and no, not the Eli Manning of today. The "pro-ready pocket passer" from Ole Miss in 2004 who was the first pick in the draft. The slight upgrade with Rosen in that comparison is a stronger arm and more mobility.
4. Sam Darnold, USC
Am I the only one who thinks Darnold blatantly needs one more year of schooling? He just seems "young" on the field with his decisions, at times crazed scrambling, and happy feet when pressure's mounting. However -- and this is a big "however" -- Darnold's coverage-reading abilities and arm are clearly far ahead of his feet, and unusually outstanding for a redshirt sophomore. He wasn't tremendous against UCLA, and, really, he didn't need to be. I did see the typical three or four No. 1 overall pick passes through coverage and the "oh no" throws too.
Darnold's a fiery competitor with a copious amount of natural talent who can make anticipation throws, a rarity for quarterbacks with his relative lack of experience. He could declare for the 2018 draft and ultimately be a good NFL quarterback. I just think another year of harnessing all of his tools at the collegiate level would likely make him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft and considerably more "ready" to be a high-end franchise signal-caller in the NFL. Then again, would he be concerned about coming back and not playing as well? Ehhh. Maybe. Darnold would likely be a first-round pick if he enters the 2018 draft, which would justifiably be a pretty enticing draw for him to declare in a few months.
Stock Down, Slightly
You aren't here for takes on the sideline gestures by Mayfield, so this sentence is all I'm writing on that topic for now.
In apparently gusty conditions in Lawrence, Kansas, Mayfield had his least-impressive effort of the 2017 season. He was uncharacteristically erratic downfield, had trouble finding open receivers, and relied on wild improvisation behind the line of scrimmage more than usual. Weather conditions aren't easy to see on television at times, but the commentators did mention the wind more than once during the game. Still though, Mayfield relies on an extreme amount of yards-after-the-catch and is playing with, to me, the best supporting cast in the country, which makes it even more difficult to do something super complex in the first place -- predicting how well a college quarterback will transition to the NFL.
6. Ryan Finley, NC State
Stock Up, Slightly
Another game, another steady performance from, in my opinion, the most underrated quarterback prospect in the 2018 class. Finley showed it all -- full-field reading, movement away from pressure inside the pocket, wonderful accuracy down the field, and proper timing on anticipation throws at the intermediate level. Oh, and there was more impressive scrambling. On the day, Finley completed 34 of 52 passes for 327 yards with one touchdown and one pick. And by Pro Football Focus' count, he dealt with three more drops in the loss to Wake Forest, which brings the season total to 29, four shy of the 33 drops by UCLA pass-catchers and two fewer than Jackson's had to endure at Louisville this season.
Honorable Mention: Riley Ferguson, Memphis
The America East conference won't be mistaken for the AFC North in the mid 2000s. However, Ferguson has completed 68 percent of his passes at 9.44 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three games against Tulane, Tulsa, and SMU. He's also scored five rushing touchdowns over that span too. Ferguson made the honorable mention list earlier this season, and the 6-foot-4 quarterback has pieced together a fine senior season for a 9-1 team. His occasional wildness won't be for everyone, but there's plenty to like about his game, particularly his consistent aggressiveness to challenge defenses.
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