2018 college football season: Top 11 quarterbacks to watch

NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2018 at six different positions with an eye toward their NFL potential, continuing today with quarterbacks.

A year ago at this same time, I was writing about "The Big Three" quarterbacks -- Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen -- and their prospects for the NFL. When it was all said and done, Baker Mayfield passed them all in the race for both the Heisman and the top pick of the draft.

This year's list of quarterbacks to watch doesn't have as many high-profile names attached to it, but it's still an intriguing group that includes some players that could earn high grades from scouts. While Missouri's Drew Lock has exciting size and arm talent, it was Oregon's Justin Herbert that I came away most impressed with after watching his tape. Auburn's Jarrett Stidham has had some ups and downs, but it's easy to see his pro quarterback makeup when he operates. Georgia's Jake Fromm might have the highest upside of all, but he's only played one season.

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11

Khalil Tate - QB

School: Arizona | Year: Junior

It didn't take much tape study to realize how misleading Tate's 62 percent completion rate was in 2017. There were simply too many bad misses by wide margins on throws he has to be able to make. On the other hand, Tate was a terror with his feet, as evidenced by his 26 rushes of 25-plus yards in 2017. Tate had just 180 more yards passing than he did rushing last season and most of the scouts I've spoken with see him as a receiver at the next level due to his outstanding combination of size and speed. However, I want to see how much Tate can improve as a passer under Kevin Sumlin before I consider him as a non-quarterback. If Tate makes the same kind of jump as a passer that Lamar Jackson did from 2015 to 2016, look out!

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10

Shea Patterson - QB

School: Michigan | Year: Junior

Former five-star recruit who transferred to Michigan after two seasons at Ole Miss. Patterson was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA and should be the front-runner to run the Michigan offense. Patterson lacks prototypical size, but he plays with great energy and has a lightning-quick release that allows him to challenge safeties whenever he chooses. He needs to do a better job of sitting down on his throws and working with better anticipation. Working with Jim Harbaugh should also help him cut down on his poor decisions that result in interceptions. While Patterson isn't quitting football, it's worth noting that he recently signed a six-year deal with the Texas Rangers after being selected in the 39th round of this year's MLB draft.

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9

Clayton Thorson - QB

School: Northwestern | Year: Senior (RS)

The senior quarterback puts check marks in the boxes for size, arm strength, toughness, footwork, and mobility, but needs to prove he can convert those tools into a sustainable body of work as the leader of an offense. Thorson's eyes rarely linger on his primary target if he's covered, but he also has a tendency to opt to check-down options a little sooner than he should, as evidenced by his career average of 6.3 yards per attempt. Thorson needs more help from his wideouts in 2018, but he also needs to prove that he can work with a more cerebral approach when it comes to solving problems presented by defenses. Thorson's physical traits are appealing, but he needs a strong senior season to bolster his draft stock. He's also working his way back from the torn right ACL he suffered in the Music City Bowl last season.

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8

Brian Lewerke - QB

School: Michigan State | Year: Junior

Lewerke is a little under the radar from a national perspective, but there are already scouts who see him as a potential pro starter down the road. He might need to add a couple of pounds, but he looks the part. Lewerke's mechanics in the pocket are generally strong, but his release and arm strength appear to be just average. When he's in rhythm, Lewerke plays with very good confidence, which positively impacts his accuracy and timing. However, he tends to play rushed when he's pressured, and that's when his accuracy and decision making can wane a little bit. Lewerke can be a threatening runner when he breaks contain, too.

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7

Tua Tagovailoa - QB

School: Alabama | Year: Sophomore

Tagovailoa became an Alabama legend with his 166-yard, three-touchdown (including the game winner) performance in the second half against Georgia in the national championship game. Tagovailoa sports a sturdy build, which helps the dual-threat quarterback when it comes time to finish as a runner. As a passer, he possesses good arm strength with the ability to push the ball into tight windows or to space on deep outs. While he can heat it up, he has also shown the ability to throw with touch near the end zone. His game tape shows that he doesn't always have a feel for when the ball should come out, and that can lead to questionable decisions.

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6

Will Grier - QB

School: West Virginia | Year: Senior

With the similarity of their playing styles, it's easy to get caught up in comparing Grier to Baker Mayfield, but we all need to slow our roll with that one. Grier is bigger than Mayfield and does possess similar swagger to the first pick of the 2018 draft, but Mayfield took better care of the football and had a better understanding of when he needed to be a game manager over playmaker. Grier still has moments where he tries to play hero ball when he should be checking down and moving on to the next play. Grier is a pocket quarterback with good feel for space inside the pocket and he rarely shows panic in the face of pressure. Grier enters 2018 with potential NFL targets surrounding him, so a run at the Heisman is not out of the question, but where he stacks up as an NFL prospect is still a little murky.

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5

Ryan Finley - QB

School: N.C. State | Year: Senior (RS)

Tall but thin prospect who wins with intelligence over arm talent. Entering his third season as the signal-caller for the Wolfpack, Finley has proven his ability to throw with good ball placement in tight quarters. He does a good job of recognizing lingering coverage underneath and is able to throw his receivers away from the coverage. He also plays with good poise in the face of the blitz. Finley is below average in his release quickness and his velocity could be a concern at the next level. There are plenty of quarterbacks who succeed with accuracy and intelligence, but pro teams will need to see more consistent production from Finley as a passer this season.

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4

Jake Fromm - QB

School: Georgia | Year: Sophomore

Talented sophomore who was asked to do more as 2017 unfolded. Fromm has good size and arm strength. He played with above-average confidence for such a young quarterback. His performances against Auburn, Oklahoma, and Alabama in the final three games of last season are likely indicators that SEC East defenses are in big trouble this season. Fromm is naturally accurate with a willingness to take shots down the field to talented wideouts like Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin. He stares down targets at times, but he should improve in that area with experience.

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3

Jarrett Stidham - QB

School: Auburn | Year: Junior (RS)

At times, it was painful to watch Stidham operating with such a short leash inside the Auburn offense last season considering his football intelligence. This year, I'm expecting to see offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey cut Stidham loose and allow him to play chess rather than checkers. Stidham possesses decent size and an average arm by NFL standards, but he's consistently accurate with his "everyday throws" and displays quality touch when throwing to all three levels of the field. Stidham struggled over the last two games of 2017 (losses to Georgia and UCF), but his performance in a win over Alabama should not be overlooked. His accuracy, fundamentals and intelligence have NFL teams intrigued. He needs to prove he can take better care of the football and take fewer sacks.

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2

Drew Lock - QB

School: Missouri | Year: Senior

Lock has great size, quick feet and a powerful right arm. The problem for him is that his accuracy and ball placement are very sporadic. His plus size and arm talent combined with his inconsistent accuracy are eerily similar to what we saw from former Wyoming QB Josh Allen, who was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the seventh pick of the 2018 draft. But unlike Allen, Lock has been tremendously productive as a starter and he displays rare upper- and lower-body twitch in how he operates when scanning the field. Lock gets into a hurry at times and can be his own worst enemy with overthrows and leaving the ball behind receivers. Becoming more accurate is extremely challenging for quarterbacks, but if Lock can do it, he has a great chance of emerging as the top QB in the 2019 draft.

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1

Justin Herbert - QB

School: Oregon | Year: Junior

The junior quarterback was putting together a very strong sophomore campaign until a broken collarbone knocked him out for five games in the middle of the season. At 6-foot-6, 231 pounds (school measurements), Herbert stands tall in the pocket and is a very natural thrower with a sharp release, good velocity and a very repeatable throwing motion. He plays with good intelligence and displays the ability to manipulate safeties when needed. Hebert is also a mobile quarterback who can escape pressure and move the sticks with his feet. He still needs to learn to throw with more consistent touch.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.