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Published: July 12, 2017 at 11:58 a.m.

Top 11 college football QBs to watch in 2017

» Top players to watch at each position

Editor's note: NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2017 at each position over the next two weeks, continuing today with quarterbacks.

NFL scouts are always looking to the CFB ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the QBs I've studied, here are the top 11 to watch.

11 Photos Total

  • Thorson still has a ways to go, but when quarterbacks are able to make drastic improvements from Year One to Year Two, as Thorson did, evaluators tend to take notice. Thorson has good NFL size as well as natural throw-and-catch accuracy and ball placement that will endear him to scouts. Thorson has a good feel for touch throws and operates with desired timing. I'm curious about whether he has the arm strength to attack the wide side of the field or the deep middle with consistency. 11

    Margaret Bowles/Associated Press

    11. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern

    Thorson still has a ways to go, but when quarterbacks are able to make drastic improvements from Year One to Year Two, as Thorson did, evaluators tend to take notice. Thorson has good NFL size as well as natural throw-and-catch accuracy and ball placement that will endear him to scouts. Thorson has a good feel for touch throws and operates with desired timing. I'm curious about whether he has the arm strength to attack the wide side of the field or the deep middle with consistency.

  • I don't believe Mayfield has much of a shot of going inside the first four rounds of the draft due to his lack of size (listed at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds) combined with the fact that he plays in a spread system. With that said, I want him on this list. Mayfield has outstanding consistency and production as a Sooner and he is a mobile quarterback who is able to extend plays and hit targets in stride when rolling outside of the pocket. Mayfield has nice touch and is a mentally tough competitor. Mayfield will have to improve his anticipation and footwork for the move to the pros. 10

    Ric Tapia/Associated Press

    10. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

    I don't believe Mayfield has much of a shot of going inside the first four rounds of the draft due to his lack of size (listed at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds) combined with the fact that he plays in a spread system. With that said, I want him on this list. Mayfield has outstanding consistency and production as a Sooner and he is a mobile quarterback who is able to extend plays and hit targets in stride when rolling outside of the pocket. Mayfield has nice touch and is a mentally tough competitor. Mayfield will have to improve his anticipation and footwork for the move to the pros.

  • White is a former high school pitcher with a 90 mph fastball and that arm strength shows from the pocket. His ability to alternate between his fastball and throwing with nice touch on vertical throws has scouts excited. White completed a staggering 57 percent of his attempts of 20 yards-plus, but he has to prove he can continue that torrid pace without the likes of WR Taywan Taylor getting wide open this season. White posted 37 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions last year, and we should expect similar results in 2017 in the Hilltoppers' explosive passing scheme. 9

    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    9. Mike White, Western Kentucky

    White is a former high school pitcher with a 90 mph fastball and that arm strength shows from the pocket. His ability to alternate between his fastball and throwing with nice touch on vertical throws has scouts excited. White completed a staggering 57 percent of his attempts of 20 yards-plus, but he has to prove he can continue that torrid pace without the likes of WR Taywan Taylor getting wide open this season. White posted 37 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions last year, and we should expect similar results in 2017 in the Hilltoppers' explosive passing scheme.

  • Francois put some "wow" flashes on tape last season and there is no doubting the high ceiling that he possesses. However, in order to reach his potential, he needs to improve his footwork and timing so he can get his accuracy and ball placement where it needs to be. Francois is a pocket passer with good size and a big arm. He showed a surprising ability to connect on his deep throws with quality touch for a redshirt freshman. Francois has a tendency to get a little lazy with his feet, which contributed to his inconsistency from an accuracy standpoint. If he can tighten up in that area, he could be one of the hot quarterback names in college football, provided his young receivers handle their roles. 8

    Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    8. Deondre Francois, Florida State

    Francois put some "wow" flashes on tape last season and there is no doubting the high ceiling that he possesses. However, in order to reach his potential, he needs to improve his footwork and timing so he can get his accuracy and ball placement where it needs to be. Francois is a pocket passer with good size and a big arm. He showed a surprising ability to connect on his deep throws with quality touch for a redshirt freshman. Francois has a tendency to get a little lazy with his feet, which contributed to his inconsistency from an accuracy standpoint. If he can tighten up in that area, he could be one of the hot quarterback names in college football, provided his young receivers handle their roles.

  • There will continue to be questions about whether Falk will be able to transition from Washington State's Air Raid offense into the pros. For now, it's a no-brainer to put the quarterback responsible for 76 passing touchdowns over the last two seasons on this list. There were few variances from Falk's sophomore passing stats to his junior stats, but I didn't come away from my film study as impressed with Falk as I was after his sophomore season. Falk's quick setup and compact release is a perfect fit for the tempo of Mike Leach's offense. His touch throws down the field and near the end zone can be a thing of beauty. 7

    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    7. Luke Falk, Washington State

    There will continue to be questions about whether Falk will be able to transition from Washington State's Air Raid offense into the pros. For now, it's a no-brainer to put the quarterback responsible for 76 passing touchdowns over the last two seasons on this list. There were few variances from Falk's sophomore passing stats to his junior stats, but I didn't come away from my film study as impressed with Falk as I was after his sophomore season. Falk's quick setup and compact release is a perfect fit for the tempo of Mike Leach's offense. His touch throws down the field and near the end zone can be a thing of beauty.

  • Insiders at Baylor called Stidham the most talented pure passer that the school had ever recruited and that does not look like a stretch based on his very limited sample size. Stidham sat out 2016 after transferring from Baylor to Auburn, but I would expect him to step right into the starter's job once it is all said and done. Stidham is a little more slightly built than desired and he suffered a back injury and broken ankle in back-to-back games in 2015, so his durability could be in question. What's not in question is his combination of arm strength, mechanics and athleticism. Stidham has the arm strength and ball placement to attack all three levels of a defense and the mobility to make teams pay outside of the pocket. Granted, his starting experience is extremely limited at this point (3 games), but look for this talented passer to come out and post some impressive performances early on. 6

    Todd J. Van Emst/Associated Pres

    6. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn

    Insiders at Baylor called Stidham the most talented pure passer that the school had ever recruited and that does not look like a stretch based on his very limited sample size. Stidham sat out 2016 after transferring from Baylor to Auburn, but I would expect him to step right into the starter's job once it is all said and done. Stidham is a little more slightly built than desired and he suffered a back injury and broken ankle in back-to-back games in 2015, so his durability could be in question. What's not in question is his combination of arm strength, mechanics and athleticism. Stidham has the arm strength and ball placement to attack all three levels of a defense and the mobility to make teams pay outside of the pocket. Granted, his starting experience is extremely limited at this point (3 games), but look for this talented passer to come out and post some impressive performances early on.

  • Rudolph has quality NFL size and made huge strides as a passer from 2015 to 2016. Granted, Rudolph doesn't play in what would be termed a "defensive-oriented conference", but he was a better decision maker and operated with a much better understanding of the offense last year. Rudolph's arm is average and he has to prove he can challenge talented cornerbacks with velocity throws to the perimeter. He displays quality pocket presence and an ability to slide around to open spaces to make his throws. He's also a tough guy outside of the pocket, where he is a willing finisher as a runner. With talented wideout James Washington back to haul in the deep balls, Rudolph is headed for a monster year. 5

    Austin Gay/Associated Press

    5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

    Rudolph has quality NFL size and made huge strides as a passer from 2015 to 2016. Granted, Rudolph doesn't play in what would be termed a "defensive-oriented conference", but he was a better decision maker and operated with a much better understanding of the offense last year. Rudolph's arm is average and he has to prove he can challenge talented cornerbacks with velocity throws to the perimeter. He displays quality pocket presence and an ability to slide around to open spaces to make his throws. He's also a tough guy outside of the pocket, where he is a willing finisher as a runner. With talented wideout James Washington back to haul in the deep balls, Rudolph is headed for a monster year.

  • Jackson, the reigning Heisman winner, proved to be an elite playmaker last year with his ability to devastate teams with his running ability outside of the pocket and his willingness to take and complete the long ball off of play-action. Jackson has a tight release with a wrist-flick reminiscent of Michael Vick's that can get the ball out quickly and with plus velocity. Jackson tends to gun the ball too often and needs to improve on his touch. There's also no getting around the fact that he is slightly built by NFL quarterback standards and that could be a non-starter for some NFL teams. Jackson's rapid improvement as a passer and improved mental toughness caught the attention of NFL scouts, but he has to prove that his inconsistent finish to the 2016 season was a mirage. 4

    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Pre

    4. Lamar Jackson, Louisville

    Jackson, the reigning Heisman winner, proved to be an elite playmaker last year with his ability to devastate teams with his running ability outside of the pocket and his willingness to take and complete the long ball off of play-action. Jackson has a tight release with a wrist-flick reminiscent of Michael Vick's that can get the ball out quickly and with plus velocity. Jackson tends to gun the ball too often and needs to improve on his touch. There's also no getting around the fact that he is slightly built by NFL quarterback standards and that could be a non-starter for some NFL teams. Jackson's rapid improvement as a passer and improved mental toughness caught the attention of NFL scouts, but he has to prove that his inconsistent finish to the 2016 season was a mirage.

  • Watching Josh Rosen operate can be a thing of beauty for an evaluator. His background as an elite youth tennis player provides a baseline for footwork that no other college quarterback can match. He's extremely bright and has experience in multiple offensive concepts. Rosen's willingness to get through his progressions and his ability to slide around in the pocket are huge check marks in his favor. When he's protected, Rosen is able to deliver the ball with an effortless release and good velocity. However, durability and coachability are concerns and that is hardly a secret in college football and NFL scouting circles. Rosen, who missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, has to prove that he can stay healthy and become the leader his team needs. The talent is there for Rosen to continue his rise if he can stay healthy. 3

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    3. Josh Rosen, UCLA

    Watching Josh Rosen operate can be a thing of beauty for an evaluator. His background as an elite youth tennis player provides a baseline for footwork that no other college quarterback can match. He's extremely bright and has experience in multiple offensive concepts. Rosen's willingness to get through his progressions and his ability to slide around in the pocket are huge check marks in his favor. When he's protected, Rosen is able to deliver the ball with an effortless release and good velocity. However, durability and coachability are concerns and that is hardly a secret in college football and NFL scouting circles. Rosen, who missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, has to prove that he can stay healthy and become the leader his team needs. The talent is there for Rosen to continue his rise if he can stay healthy.

  • Allen has rare arm strength and overall arm talent that separates him from every other quarterback on this list. Allen can rip the deep sideline shots with the type of pace that can keep him ahead of the safeties looking to help off the hash. He's able to drive the ball into highly trafficked, intermediate areas of the field and does a very nice job of playing traffic director to strike with a big play when he rolls outside of the pocket. He's big and he's mobile. All of those check marks make this junior one of the most exciting quarterback prospects in the game, but there is no getting around his 15 interceptions and borderline disdain for taking care of the football. Allen makes throws that only he can make, but he also takes chances that nobody should be taking. You will likely hear Brett Favre's name mentioned as a comparison for him due to Favre's gunslinger bravado and his propensity for making ill-advised throws. 2

    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    2. Josh Allen, Wyoming

    Allen has rare arm strength and overall arm talent that separates him from every other quarterback on this list. Allen can rip the deep sideline shots with the type of pace that can keep him ahead of the safeties looking to help off the hash. He's able to drive the ball into highly trafficked, intermediate areas of the field and does a very nice job of playing traffic director to strike with a big play when he rolls outside of the pocket. He's big and he's mobile. All of those check marks make this junior one of the most exciting quarterback prospects in the game, but there is no getting around his 15 interceptions and borderline disdain for taking care of the football. Allen makes throws that only he can make, but he also takes chances that nobody should be taking. You will likely hear Brett Favre's name mentioned as a comparison for him due to Favre's gunslinger bravado and his propensity for making ill-advised throws.

  • Darnold will enter the 2017 college football season as the top quarterback thanks to his size, mobility and natural accuracy. Darnold is listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and that doesn't seem like much of a stretch. While he has the size to stand tall in the pocket and take the punishing hits he will see at the next level, he was only sacked six times last season thanks in part to his pocket awareness and ability to get rid of the ball on time. Darnold has a windup in his release that is one of the first things that people ding him for, but his release quickness and velocity are good enough to mitigate the effects of the windup. Darnold has only one year of starting experience and he still has room for improvement with his intermediate touch and his willingness to stare down his targets a little too long. Ultimately, what will get evaluators the most excited about Darnold is that his intangibles and poise already look like those of an NFL quarterback. 1

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    1. Sam Darnold, USC

    Darnold will enter the 2017 college football season as the top quarterback thanks to his size, mobility and natural accuracy. Darnold is listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and that doesn't seem like much of a stretch. While he has the size to stand tall in the pocket and take the punishing hits he will see at the next level, he was only sacked six times last season thanks in part to his pocket awareness and ability to get rid of the ball on time. Darnold has a windup in his release that is one of the first things that people ding him for, but his release quickness and velocity are good enough to mitigate the effects of the windup. Darnold has only one year of starting experience and he still has room for improvement with his intermediate touch and his willingness to stare down his targets a little too long. Ultimately, what will get evaluators the most excited about Darnold is that his intangibles and poise already look like those of an NFL quarterback.

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