We might be hours away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, but NFL scouts have been researching a deep and talented pool of quarterbacks for some time now. In fact, the depth of the next few QB classes is so impressive I believe it was the reason several teams passed on quarterbacks early in the 2013 NFL Draft.
This season, there's no shortage of star power at the most important position. Starting with this post, I will be tracking the top quarterbacks to see which ones are emerging as legitimate franchise candidates. As I see it, there are 16 worthy of mention.
While my list isn't strictly about pro potential, I will certainly take draft status into consideration as the season progresses and make some updates to the rankings based on what I'm seeing and hearing from scouts along the way.
My preseason quarterback rankings:
1. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
After enjoying a coming-out party against Florida in the Sugar Bowl, scouts are salivating about Bridgewater's potential as a franchise-caliber quarterback at the next level. From his precise pocket passing to his extraordinary leadership skills, Bridgewater is everything that an offensive coordinator could want in a triggerman at the collegiate level. With a schedule that features few defensive juggernauts, Bridgewater might help the Cardinals bust the clock a few times this fall.
2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
The Heisman Trophy winner's tumultuous offseason has overshadowed his on-field brilliance in 2012. As only the fifth player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, Manziel is a freakishly talented dual-threat playmaker adept at playing sandlot football. While NFL scouts struggle projecting his game to the next level, the fact that he has torched SEC defenses, including the defending BCS national champions, has certainly helped his evaluation as a dynamic franchise quarterback candidate. If he can demonstrate growth as a pocket passer, Manziel might break the mold for what NFL evaluators covet in an elite quarterback.
3. AJ McCarron, Alabama
It's rare for a quarterback with two national championship rings to fly under the radar, but that is certainly the case with McCarron. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound senior has been unfairly categorized as a game manager despite posting an impressive 30:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2012 that indicates otherwise. Additionally, he is a masterful play-action passer who frequently fools defenders with strong run fakes before pushing the ball downfield for easy scores. With the NFL game built to fit his non-descript playing style, McCarron is more valued at the next level than many of his more decorated peers.
4. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Casual observers might consider Mariota a system quarterback based on the Ducks' high-octane spread offense, but a closer look at the film reveals an efficient playmaker with a game that brilliantly blends superb pocket-passing skills with underrated athleticism. Mariota completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and compiled an impressive 32:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a first-year starter directing an offense that places a premium on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands, particularly on an assortment of wide receiver screens. If he can continue to display a polished game from the pocket, while also showing the athleticism to be an effective dual threat with the ball in hands, Mariota could become the new standard for quarterback play at the next level.
5. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Whenever a quarterback totals 40-plus combined touchdowns in a single season scouts take notice, particularly when it is done with the kind of flair and sizzle that Boyd displayed during his junior campaign. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound standout raised his game to become a dynamic dual threat directing the Tigers' high-powered spread offense. Although scouts consider him a pass-first playmaker based on his penchant for stringing together pinpoint passes, Boyd's sneaky running skills stood out on the designed quarterback runs featured prominently in the game plan last season. With Boyd slim and trim heading into his senior season, the sky's the limit on his potential as a playmaker.
6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Urban Meyer set the bar high for Miller when he tabbed him as one of the two best athletes (Percy Harvin was also cited) that he has ever coached in career. That's a hefty praise coming from a coach who also coached a Heisman Trophy winner (Tim Tebow) and a No. 1 overall pick (Alex Smith) during his distinguished coaching career. Miller certainly deserves kudos after rushing for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Buckeyes' primary weapon in a run-heavy spread attack. While he must continue to make strides as a passer (58.3 completion percentage, 2,039 yards passing with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions), Miller's effectiveness as a playmaker is enough to merit a spot near the top of this list.
7. Brett Hundley, UCLA
For all of the credit that deservingly goes to Jim Mora for orchestrating a quick turnaround in Westwood, the fact that a star quarterback was already on campus definitely keyed the Bruins' transformation. Hundley connected on more than 66 percent of his throws, with an impressive 29:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio that reflects his careful decision-making from the pocket. Although his 355 rushing yards (on 160 carries) fail to jump off the stat sheet, a look at his sneaky athletic game makes him a viable candidate to execute the zone-read concept that is taking the football world by storm.
8. Stephen Morris, Miami (Fla.)
The key to identifying a star on the rise is finding a prospect with a game that is ascending at the conclusion of the previous season. Morris fits the mold after finishing 2012 with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions during the Hurricanes' final four games (3-1 win-loss record). Those numbers are impressive for a quarterback at any level, particularly an A-plus arm talent with the athleticism to thrive inside or outside of the pocket as a mobile passer. With plenty of opportunities to put a multi-faceted game on display against tough competition (Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech), Morris could surge to the top of the rankings by season's end.
9. Aaron Murray, Georgia
The SEC coaches slightly shook up the college football world when they named Murray as the first-team quarterback on the preseason all-conference team. But few observers can dispute his skills as a superb pocket passer after watching him toss for more than 10,000 yards as a three-year starter for the Bulldogs. Murray displays flawless footwork and mechanics in the pocket, while also showing capable arm strength to make nearly every throw in the book. Although scouts harbor reservations about his height and big-game performance, Murray's spectacular play in the SEC Championship Game has started to change that perception.
10. Bryn Renner, North Carolina
After quietly posting back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons, Renner has started to create a buzz in the scouting community after shining at the Manning Passing Academy. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior stood out as one of the best pure passers in the camp by displaying superb arm strength, accuracy and touch in drills. Those traits are confirmed on the game tape when Renner repeatedly drops dimes to open receivers on the way to tallying at least 26 touchdowns in consecutive seasons. With the Tar Heels set to play a few marquee games in the fall, the college football world could soon find out about Brenner.
11. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
If this list was based solely off last season's performance, it would be hard to include Thomas. But few quarterbacks in college can match his impressive physical dimensions and natural talent. Measuring 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, Thomas is built in the mold of the athletic hybrid quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger) who traditionally give opponents fits in the backfield. He is big enough to shake off rushers in the pocket, while displaying speed and quickness to outrun defenders to the corner. Additionally, he is a strong-armed passer capable of throwing deep balls over the top. Although his inconsistencies with ball placement and decisions will drive coaches crazy, it's hard to find a quarterback with a higher ceiling.
12. Devin Gardner, Michigan
The Wolverines lost a terrific player in Denard Robinson, but Gardner is the kind of quarterback who could lead the Maize and Blue on a legitimate title run. The redshirt junior provided the college football world with a glimpse of his talent when he tallied over 1,200 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in a handful of starts replacing an injured Robinson at the end of 2012. Most importantly, Gardner showed scouts he is perfect in the pro-style offense favored by Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges. Given a full offseason to master the nuances of the system, Gardner could emerge as a monster playmaker in the Big Ten.
13. David Fales, San Jose State
Fales' name has bubbled up in the scouting community after reports of his outstanding showing at the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp in Portland. The news confirms some of the greatness Fales displayed while guiding the Spartans to an 11-win season as a junior. While some scouts question whether he has the arm strength to play at the next level, Fales' ability to connect the dots with tremendous efficiency makes him an intriguing player to watch this fall.
14. Derek Carr, Fresno State
Carr stepped out of his big brother's (David Carr) looming shadow a season ago when he posted his second straight season with more than 3,500 passing yards. He did so in impressive fashion (4,104 pass yards with 37 touchdowns and seven picks), while displaying good touch, accuracy and anticipation. Although some scouts question his ability to execute full-field reads and wonder if he is big enough to withstand the pounding at the next level, he certainly is intriguing enough to merit serious consideration as a potential franchise quarterback.
15. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
Todd Graham handed the keys to the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense to Kelly upon his arrival; the junior standout absolutely thrived in the system. Kelly showed flashes of brilliance as a runner-passer in the scheme, tallying over 3,000 passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards executing variations of the read-option. Additionally, Kelly showcased a big arm and stellar improvisational skills that make him a nightmare to face in an up-tempo offense. With Graham telling me at Pac-12 Media Day that it takes about two full seasons to grasp and master his system, the college football world should pay close attention to Kelly's game this fall.
16. Keith Price, Washington
The rise in prominence of dual-threat playmakers in football helps Price earn a spot on the list despite a shaky junior season. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound senior perplexed observers with his inconsistencies and poor decisions a season ago after terrorizing the Pac-12 as a sophomore (3,063 pass yards with 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). If he can regain his superstar form from a few seasons ago, Price might catapult more prominent names on this list to become a legitimate consideration in the 2014 draft.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.