If it were to actually exist, Trevor Lawrence would deserve to have his face etched into stone as the fourth member of the Mount Rushmore of modern-era quarterback prospects, an occasion that, to many, would foreshadow a much smaller and bronze sculpture of his countenance enshrined on a Pro Football Hall of Fame bust years from now.
Trying to find a fifth member genuinely worthy of that prestigious fraternity is a task, which thereby eliminates any one "possible" candidate from contention.
John Elway, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and now Lawrence are the most highly regarded, sought after, talented, and polished passers to enter the NFL in the last 40 years. But we're a month away from Lawrence going No. 1 overall, so let's push the envelope. Where does he rank inside that distinguished circle?
Because I was five years away arriving on the scene when Elway was picked and a scrawny 10-year-old kid who thought he was Jim Kelly in backyard football games when Manning was drafted, I went on an extensive search to find what people truly thought about those two before they were the first picks in their respective drafts.
While not technically analyzing draft prospects in 2012, I covered the draft that season and have vivid recollections of the consensus on Luck. Before I get to the rankings, remember that the margins are razor thin between these four all-time great prospects, therefore I had to cast a wide net with criteria to separate them. You'll see the main justification for their ranking below their name.
4. Peyton Manning, Tennessee
Separator(s): Athleticism, arm strength
This Peter King Sports Illustrated profile on Manning vs. Ryan Leaf before the 1998 draft is oozing with amazing nuggets, including the fact that out of the six prominent football minds on King's panel for the piece, Bill Walsh stood alone saying he wouldn't pick Manning at No. 1 overall, providing quotes like, "I don't see Favre or Elway, I see those guys on the next level," and, "I'd pick another top player and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."
While the NFL was significantly more pocket-based at the quarterback spot in 1998 than it is today, Manning was widely considered an average-at-best athlete for the position without a high-caliber arm. His accuracy, decision-making and poise within the friendly confines of the pocket were universally lauded -- and ultimately were the reasons he has a case for the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
But he's at No. 4 on the list because by his era's standards, he was not a special physical specimen when he was a prospect.
3. John Elway, Stanford
Separators: Attitude, size
Elway didn't have problems convincing anyone he was a tremendous athlete with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder. He was picked in the second round of the 1981 MLB draft by the New York Yankees and starred on the Stanford baseball team during his time in Palo Alto.
He was the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore and senior and led the conference in essentially every major passing category. Old Stanford film is littered with majestic frozen ropes from Elway to Cardinal pass catchers. His physical and athletic traits were absolutely No. 1 overall quarterback prospect in history-like, although he wasn't overly big.
The main reason Elway lands at No. 3 on this list: the diva reputation he carried into the NFL, mainly based on his disdain for being picked at No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts. The ESPN 30 for 30 Documentary "From Elway to Marino" chronicles the epic quarrel between then Colts GM Ernie Accorsi and Team Elway before the 1983 draft. Elway, his father, and his agent were stubborn. They formed a united front hoping to force a trade from the Colts, even after they picked him at No. 1.
This New York Times article famously quoted Elway's father saying, "He will never play for (Colts owner) Irsay or Coach Kush." In a post-draft press conference, Elway himself said, "Right now it looks like I'll be playing baseball with the Yankees. It will be a couple of days, or maybe even two weeks, before I make the final decision. We haven't ruled out football, but it doesn't look good right now.'
While a player-empowerment stance was far ahead of its time in 1983, Elway's unwavering desire to not play for the team that selected him with the first overall pick rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford
Separators: Running ability, age (compared to Lawrence)
It's essentially impossible to poke holes in Luck's profile as a prospect. He checked the physical boxes -- athleticism, size, arm talent, and accuracy. He efficiently operated a complex, pro-style offense that featured the shotgun but also asked its quarterback to take classic drops from center and execute a multitude of play-action fakes and rollouts.
He had NFL bloodlines -- his father, Oliver, played in the NFL for five seasons. Luck also rarely made mistakes on the field, and when he did, the strong-armed passer demonstrated amazing bounce-back capabilities on the next throw or the next drive. After a dazzling redshirt sophomore season, Luck could've competed with -- and likely beaten -- Cam Newton to be the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.
He decided to return to Stanford to finish his architectural degree at one of the finest universities in the country. Importantly, Luck didn't have a dip in production during his final season with the Cardinal. His completion percentage rose to 71.3% -- an unheard of figure at the time -- with more touchdowns to just two more interceptions on 32 more attempts.
At the combine, the 6-foot-4, 234-pound Luck tested like one of the most athletic quarterbacks in event history, especially for his size.
1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Lawrence gets the nod as the best quarterback prospect of the past 40 years for a few reasons, and I'll mostly compare him to Luck, his closest competitor.
Lawrence, arguably the most hyped high school recruit in history, played at Clemson as an 18-year-old true freshman, and just turned 19 when he assumed full-time starter duties for the Tigers. Luck redshirted as a freshman and took the reins of Stanford's offense as a 20-year-old quarterback in 2009.
While in completely different style offenses,, Luck completed 56.3% of his throws at 8.9 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and four picks that season. In Lawrence's true freshman season, he connected on 65.2% of his tosses at 8.3 yards per attempt with 30 touchdowns to just four picks, the gold-standard for a debut college seasons that culminated with a national title game demolition of an Alabama defense that was essentially an NFL's scout team.
He simply looked the part earlier than Luck, or any of the other legendary prospects on this list.
Beyond that, Lawrence brings it as a pure passer with ball placement, pocket poise, and arm talent in every imaginable way -- strikes to his second read without pressure to perfectly lofted long balls while on the run near the sideline.
The final element that pushes Lawrence over the top -- his athleticism. While Luck quietly had a combine that closely compared to Cam Newton's the year before, Lawrence is a twitchier, more sudden runner with straight-line speed more impressive than what Luck offered nearly a decade ago. He's more apt to break off a 50-yard run than Luck was.
Time will tell how Lawrence fares in the NFL, but he genuinely is the best quarterback prospect we've ever seen.