The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn't stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.
I will share with you some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a look at some of the top field generals (quarterbacks) in college football.
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson: The 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist is entering his third year as a starter after guiding the Tigers to the College Football Playoff title game. Watson is an electric playmaker with a smooth game that reflects his ultra-cool demeanor with the ball in his hands. The 6-foot-2, 219-pounder never appears rattled by the rush and his poise under pressure might be his best quality as a quarterback. Watson wisely uses his athleticism to get out of trouble in the pocket, but he rarely takes a big shot when he flees due to his superb awareness and agility. This also comes into play when he terrorizes defenses on designed quarterback runs (draws, sweeps and powers) between the tackles or around the corner. As a passer, Watson's quick trigger makes him nearly impossible to defend in the Tigers' "catch-and-fire" scheme. He's accurate on slants, seams, sticks and quick outs, and also completes a high percentage of this throws on seams and skinny-post routes at intermediate range.
However, he must improve his accuracy in all aspects (intermediate, deep and on the run) to become a deadly dual threat at the next level. He has shown flashes of putting it together in big games (see Alabama, Oklahoma and North Carolina) and he should be more refined as a passer with a full offseason of work devoted to polishing his game instead of rehab (Watson missed spring ball in 2015 as he recovered from a torn ACL).
2. Brad Kaaya, Miami: The 6-4, 215-pound junior has posted back to back 3,000-yard seasons while displaying a workmanlike game that's tailor-made for the pros. Kaaya willingly works the short and intermediate areas of the field, but also displays the arm strength to push the ball down the field on vertical routes. Although he still needs to become more precise with his ball placement and accuracy, Kaaya has all of the physical tools and management skills to guide a team to the winner's circle. With Mark Richt installing a quarterback-friendly passing game like the one that helped Matthew Stafford grow into a No. overall 1 pick, the Hurricanes' QB1 could make a rapid ascent this fall.
3. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Whenever a young quarterback has bloodlines to a Hall of Fame passer (Kelly is the nephew of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly), scouts will pay close attention to his development because he might have the key ingredients to develop into a franchise player. That's why evaluators are monitoring the progress of Kelly after he led the Rebels to a 10-3 record as a first-time starter. The 6-2, 224-pounder has one of the strongest arms in college football and he isn't afraid to squeeze balls into tight windows. In addition, he is an underrated athlete capable of delivering the ball from unorthodox platforms from the pocket or on the move on the perimeter. He's one of the most courageous quarterbacks that I've seen against blitz pressure.
Considering how hard it is to find a solid pocket passer with grit, athleticism and A-plus arm talent, Kelly certainly piques the interest of scouts looking for a potential star at the position. If he can rein in some of his gunslinger ways and become a little more detailed-oriented (footwork, accuracy and judgment), Kelly could follow his uncle's footsteps into the NFL as a potential star at the position.
4. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: He's rarely mentioned on the national scene, but there is buzz building around Dobbs' prospects as a QB1. The 6-3, 210-pound senior is a slippery dual-threat playmaker with the tools to become a star at the next level. Sure, that has been said about a lot of mobile quarterbacks with big arms and impressive collegiate resumes, but Dobbs also has the intangibles (football IQ, leadership skills and poise) to dominate the game with the ball in his hands. He has teased Vols fans with his impressive flashes (see Georgia 2015 and South Carolina 2014), but scouts want to see him consistently overwhelm opponents with his feet and arm before anointing him as an elite prospect at the position. With a slate of games against tough SEC competition awaiting him, Dobbs will have every opportunity to show evaluators that he can be a dynamic weapon as a QB1 at the next level.
5. Josh Rosen, UCLA: The young Bruin is at least a couple of seasons away from NFL consideration, but that hasn't stopped scouts from keeping tabs on his development as a franchise quarterback. Rosen possesses all of the requisite traits evaluators covet in a prospect (size, arm talent, IQ and toughness) and he's a clutch performer who's undaunted by the bright lights or big stage. The 6-3, 210-pounder passed for more than 3,600 yards and compiled an impressive 23:11 touchdown to interception ratio as a true freshman. Those numbers are impressive for a first-year starter playing against strong competition in the Pac-12, but it's his playing style, talent and developmental potential that has evaluators salivating over his upside at the next level.
Watch list: C.J. Beathard, Iowa; Cooper Rush, Central Michigan; J.T. Barrett, Ohio State; DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame; Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma