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Move The Sticks: Which Heisman-finalist QB is top prospect?

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  • By Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks NFL.com
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Editor's note: NFL.com analysts and former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the Move The Sticks Podcast share some of their college-scouting notes on the eve of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, including:

» A middle linebacker who Jeremiah projects as a top-10 lock
» Why the hunt for the next Dak Prescott could lead scouts to Texas Tech
» Three must-see non-playoff bowl games for scouts.

But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Brooks' category-by-category evaluation of the three QB Heisman finalists as pro prospects.

The Heisman Trophy doesn't guarantee a quarterback a successful career, but that won't stop NFL scouts from taking a hard look at the 2016 class of Heisman finalists to see if they can find the next Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. Considering how the recent winners have already transformed their respective franchises into legitimate playoff contenders in their second season as pros, evaluators are poised to dig deeper into the games of Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield to see if they have the tools to blossom into a QB1 at the next level. After popping in a little all-22 coaches' tape, here's my tale of the tape on the talented quarterback trio.

Athleticism
The college game has raised the profile of the dual-threat quarterback. Each of the finalists is capable of delivering big plays with their legs on designed QB runs or impromptu scrambles. While Mayfield and Watson are credible running threats, they're not at Jackson's level as an explosive playmaker on the perimeter. As a 1,500-yard rusher with 21 rushing touchdowns, the Louisville star is a dynamic offensive weapon capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
Edge: Jackson

Arm Talent
There's so much more to playing quarterback than throwing the ball a country mile, but it certainly adds a dimension to the offense when a quarterback can make every throw in the book with ease. Watson, Jackson, and Mayfield are more than capable of making "big boy" throws at every distance with zip and velocity, but each has been streaky with accuracy and ball placement. Mayfield has been the most consistent thrower this season, as evidenced by his 71.2 completion rate. Most impressively, the Oklahoma star has shown the ability to make pinpoint throws while rolling to either side of the field on impromptu scrambles.
Edge: Mayfield

Pocket Poise
Despite the electricity and excitement generated from the splash plays a dual-threat playmaker can make, top quarterback prospects must be able to thrive from the pocket to cut the mustard in the league. Mayfield and Watson are far more composed and patient in the pocket than Jackson. Mayfield and Watson exhibit superb poise under duress while also showing the ability to work to their second or third read in the progression. Although most of their passing concepts are simple in design, the fact that their eyes immediately go to their next read suggests that they understand where to go with the ball.
Edge: Watson

2016 HEISMAN TROPHY


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Football IQ
Scouts spend a ton of time evaluating the physical tools of top QBs, but elite field generals are able to win games with their mind. Although the spread offense has made a majority of quarterbacks "joysticks" for their offensive coordinators, evaluators are searching for quarterbacks with the capacity to make sound decisions on pre- and post-snap reads. Jackson certainly makes his fair share of reads on run-pass options, bootlegs, and read-option plays, but Mayfield and Watson do more due to their experience as starters. Each player executes a variety of "check-with-me" calls at the line and show solid diagnostic skills as passers. Most importantly, they have high completion rates and fairly low turnover totals.
Edge: Tie - Mayfield/Watson

Clutch Factor
Franchise quarterbacks are expected to win big games and deliver in key moments. Scouts love quarterbacks with a knack for shining on the biggest and brightest stages. Jackson and Mayfield have certainly made a number of splashy plays in big games, but they pale in comparison to Watson's resume in primetime tilts. From his spectacular performance in the 2015 and 2016 ACC Championship Games to his phenomenal play in the College Football Playoff a season ago, the Clemson star has been the best player on the field in a number of contests with significant implications. Considering the pressure associated with playing quarterback at the highest level, Watson is the clear winner in this category.
Edge: Watson

The Pick
I believe Deshaun Watson has the potential a star in the right system at the next level. He has won a ton of games as the QB1 at Clemson and he's shown the ability to take his game up a notch against elite competition. With that in mind, I would tab him as my franchise quarterback ahead of Jackson and Mayfield. I believe he offers the best mix of athleticism, arm talent and confidence at this point of their careers. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

The MLB who's a top-10 lock: Inside linebacker is an important position on the defensive side of the ball, but it's not viewed in the same light as pass rusher, cornerback or defensive tackle. We rarely see true middle linebackers selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft. It does happen on occasion (see Luke Kuechly, ninth pick in 2012; Rolando McClain, eighth pick in 2010), but the top players at that position usually come off the board in the middle or late portion of the first round.

I thought last year would be one of those exceptions. Prior to the Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was widely regarded as an elite prospect, worthy of a top-five selection. Also, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack received lofty grades from personnel departments around the league. However, Smith suffered a gruesome knee injury in the bowl game, while concerns about Jack's knee became apparent at the NFL Scouting Combine. Both players would eventually fall out of the first round.

I know it's been a while, but I do believe we will see an inside linebacker land in the top 10 this spring. Alabama senior Reuben Foster is a one-man wrecking machine on tape. He is so explosive and instinctive. Every NFL team I've talked to loves his game and has him rated extremely high. I've seen him play live several times and I've studied his tape -- he's the real deal. I'll be shocked if he doesn't come off the board within the first 10 selections in the 2017 draft. He's a difference maker. -- Daniel Jeremiah

* * *

From sleeper to star? Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes II has yet to announce his intentions for 2017, but whenever he enters the draft (whether it's 2017 or 2018), scouts will begin the exhaustive process of determining if the 6-foot-3, 230-pound gunslinger is a legitimate franchise quarterback or another product of the "Air Raid" system that produces statistical stars with little NFL potential.

When I spoke to an NFC scout a few weeks ago, he told me that he believes the Red Raiders' standout has the tools to eventually become a starter in the league.

Skeptics will certainly point to the fact that the "Air Raid" scheme hasn't produced any top NFL quarterbacks and Mahomes' mechanics (footwork) need some work, but he already has a lot of reps (1,351 pass attempts) and a big arm. While it takes more than that to play the position effectively, Mahomes' size, athleticism and arm talent definitely piques the interest of scouts. Considering Dak Prescott's success as a fourth-round pick, everyone is looking for the next sleeper QB. Mahomes could benefit as a talented gunslinger with potential. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

Three must-see non-playoff bowl games for scouts

There's a lot of focus nationally on the College Football Playoff matchups, understandably, but there are several other bowl games I'm excited to watch over the next month. Here are my three favorite non-playoff bowl matchups:

North Carolina vs. Stanford: I'm looking forward to this matchup because of the presence of two marquee players: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey and North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky. McCaffrey already announced he intends to enter the 2017 NFL Draft, and Trubisky will have a tough decision to make in the near future. McCaffrey quietly produced another monster season, while Trubisky came out of nowhere to enter the discussion as the most NFL-ready signal-caller in college football.

Florida State vs. Michigan Michigan was a two-day visit for scouts this fall because it was impossible to study and evaluate all of their prospects in a single day. Florida State has some intriguing defensive prospects, but I can't wait to watch their ultra-talented running back, Dalvin Cook, attack this loaded Wolverines defense.

Louisville vs. LSU: We don't know if Leonard Fournette will suit up for the Tigers, but either way, this will be must-see television. This is a huge stage and opportunity for Lamar Jackson. This will be the most talented defense he will face this season and surely will be a tape evaluators circle back to study when he makes the leap to the next level (he's not eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft). LSU has stud defenders at all three levels, including one of my favorite players in the country, safety Jamal Adams. -- Daniel Jeremiah

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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