If you ask any NFL coach or scout which position is the toughest to evaluate, most would cite quarterback. It's widely considered the most challenging position when it comes to projecting long-term potential.
During my 17 years as an evaluator, I've had my fair share of hits and misses while grading QBs. There's already plenty of buzz about the next wave of passers in the college game, although I'm not as high on the group as some of my colleagues. Looking back at my notes of every quarterback class since the 2001 draft, I thought it would be interesting to rank the quarterbacks based on the grades that I placed on them during the pre-draft process.
Before you @ me on Twitter with comments suggesting I'm crazy for having some of the top guys rated in the middle of the pack here, I have to tell you that some of the stars at the position had warts on their game prior to entering the league and they had to rectify those flaws before ascending to the top of the league at the position.
With that said, here are the top 10 quarterback prospects I've scouted.
Editor's note: Click through the tabs above to see rankings for other positions.
1. Cam Newton, Auburn
Despite questions about his inexperience (only one full season as a starter at a major college program) and readiness for a pro-style offense after directing Auburn's spread system, I viewed Newton as a transcendent talent at the position due to his combination of rare size, athleticism and arm talent. I thought his charismatic leadership style would help transform a franchise into a title contender, just like he did at Blinn College (where he spent a year before transferring) and Auburn.
The 2015 NFL MVP certainly lived up to the hype by shattering a host of records on the way to becoming the first player in NFL history to have at least 20,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in his first six seasons. In addition, his 48 rushing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. With a Super Bowl appearance also on his resume, Newton has already exceeded most of the expectations that preceded his arrival in Carolina.
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford
After watching the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year rewrite the record book during his three-year career at Stanford, I was among the legion of scouts who believed Luck was one of the best quarterback prospects to enter the league in the past 20 years.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound QB was a classic drop-back passer with a pure throwing motion and exceptionally high football IQ. Luck was also regarded as a feisty competitor capable of putting a franchise on his back as a one-man show from the pocket.
True to form, Luck immediately made the Colts a legitimate Super Bowl contender with three straight playoff appearances to start his career, including an appearance in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. While injuries have stunted his growth as a player, he has posted three 4,000-yard seasons and finished as the touchdown leader (40) in 2014. Considering the hype that accompanied his arrival and the big shoes that he had to fill in Indy as Peyton Manning's successor, Luck has certainly justified his lofty grade as a No. 1 overall pick.
3. Philip Rivers, N.C. State
Before Rivers became one of the most prolific and accurate passers in NFL history, he was a highly productive pocket passer with an unorthodox throwing motion who shattered ACC records at N.C. State. He ranked second all-time in passing yards (13,484) and tossed 95 touchdowns while leading the Wolfpack to four straight bowl games (three wins) as the team's starter.
Although I worried about his quirky motion and lack of mobility, I was impressed with his leadership skills and pinpoint accuracy, particularly after he earned MVP honors at the 2004 Senior Bowl. I thought he was the best quarterback in a stellar quarterback class (Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger) and expected him to shine as a franchise player for a team willing to put the ball in his hands.
Rivers has played up to his lofty grade as a six-time Pro Bowl selectee with eight 4,000-yard seasons on his resume. While his turnover woes remain a concern (led the NFL in interceptions in 2014 and 2016) due to his gunslinger mentality, he is unquestionably one of the few quarterbacks in the league capable of winning with a B-level supporting cast on the perimeter. With franchise quarterbacks expected to raise the play of their teammates, Rivers' consistent production with so many different pass-catchers in the lineup over the years is a testament to his greatness.
4. Eli Manning, Ole Miss
The two-time Super Bowl MVP checked all of the boxes during the pre-draft process as a four-year starter chiefly responsible for reviving the Ole Miss program during his tenure.
The rock-solid pocket passer displayed plenty of arm talent and passing skills as a classic drop-back thrower, but Manning's high football IQ, winning pedigree and clutch reputation made him one of the top quarterbacks in the class. Not to mention, he was football royalty and well-equipped to handle the responsibilities associated with being a franchise quarterback after watching his dad (Archie) and brother (Peyton) shoulder the burden.
As a pro, Manning has delivered the goods as a two-time Super Bowl champion with a handful of epic moments that showcased his confidence and composure as one of the best big-game players at the position. In addition, he has been a model of stability with 199 consecutive starts heading into the 2017 season.
Now, Manning is certainly a turnover machine (three-time league leader in interceptions) and a streaky passer (59.7 percent completion rate for his career), but he is a proven winner in the playoffs (8-4) and that matters in a league where quarterbacks are primarily judged on rings.
5. Aaron Rodgers, Cal
The two-time league MVP has blossomed into the gold standard at the position, but he wasn't a sure thing as a franchise quarterback when I checked him out at Cal after an impressive two-year run as a starter.
Despite posting impressive numbers and showing outstanding skills as a rhythm passer for the Golden Bears, Rodgers was a slender gunslinger (reportedly 6-foot-2, 215 pounds when I made my school visit) playing in a QB-friendly offense (under coach Jeff Tedford) that had delivered some overhyped prospects to the NFL's doorstep. With those failures fresh in mind, it was hard to fully endorse the Packers' QB1 as a franchise savior at the position.
Needless to say, I greatly underestimated his work ethic, athleticism, competitiveness and arm talent when I slapped a starter grade on him (bottom of the first round) instead of grading him as a franchise quarterback with the potential to take the league by storm as an ultra-athletic passer with pinpoint accuracy and A-plus arm talent. Those traits have helped him claim a Super Bowl title and Super Bowl MVP award while also redefining the position as one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
He is the model as a franchise quarterback, exhibiting the ability to put a franchise on his back and carry it deep into the postseason without a running game or a true No. 1 receiver at his disposal.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (Ohio)
Drafted: 11th overall, 2004, Pittsburgh Steelers
The MAC was considered the cradle of quarterbacks when Roethlisberger made his way through Miami (Ohio) as a big-bodied gunslinger with a fearless mentality and an unbelievable set of passing skills. As a three-year starter, Roethlisberger shattered the record book while also carrying the program to a top-10 ranking during his final season.
He finished his career with nearly 11,000 passing yards, 84 touchdowns and a 65.5 percent career completion rate. With those numbers and traits in mind, I thought Roethlisberger had the potential to be a franchise player if he could quickly adapt to the pro game after crushing small-school competition as a collegian.
Obviously, Roethlisberger proved his worth, winning a pair of Super Bowls and earning five Pro Bowl selections during his career. He has become the contemporary model for big, athletic quarterbacks to pattern their games after as a young pro. With Big Ben showing coaches, scouts and young quarterbacks how to evolve from a game manager to playmaker to efficient passer over a 13-year span, the Steelers' QB1 has more than outplayed the conservative grade that I placed on him as a talented underclassman QB from a small school.
7. Jameis Winston, Florida State
The Heisman Trophy winner exhibited all of the traits I coveted in a franchise quarterback when I checked him out at Florida State. He was a charismatic leader with a high IQ, exceptional arm talent and swagger. Winston's unshakeable confidence and composure in big moments made him a perfect franchise quarterback prospect, particularly after he led the Seminoles to a national title and a playoff appearance.
I thought he showed a unique ability to focus, which would serve him well as a QB1 for a team in need of a franchise player at the position. While I worried about his immaturity and turnover woes, I thought his flaws were correctable and a good coach would help him take his game to another level.
As a pro, Winston is on track to exceed expectations as a 2015 Pro Bowl selectee who's growing increasingly comfortable at the position. The third-year pro has posted back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons while helping his team climb over the .500 mark during his second season. In doing so, Winston has continued to exhibit the strong arm and outstanding anticipation skills that piqued the interest of offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches around the league.
Although he needs to cut down on his turnovers (33 interceptions in two seasons), Winston's combination of confidence and fearlessness could make him a Super Bowl winner down the road.
8. Matthew Stafford, Georgia
The ballyhooed five-star high school recruit was a sensational player at Georgia as a true pro-style quarterback in an NFL-like system. Stafford exhibited extraordinary arm talent and passing prowess in the Bulldogs' offense, as he routinely carved up SEC defenses with a series of pinpoint throws to every area of the field. Although he was a bit of gunslinger, he took care of the ball and made smart decisions in critical moments for his team. Most importantly, Stafford played well in big games, as evidenced by his 3-0 record in bowl games and 6-3 mark in rivalry games against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech.
As a pro, Stafford has grown from an undisciplined gunslinger to a clutch QB. The Pro Bowler has orchestrated 28 game-winning drives and 25 fourth-quarter comebacks, including eight in 2017 (most in the NFL). In addition, he has completed more than 65 percent of his passes in each of the past two seasons. While he hasn't been able to consistently get the Lions into the playoffs or lead them to the NFC Championship Game, Stafford is the kind of franchise quarterback you expect to come off the board with the No. 1 overall pick.
9. Mike Vick, Virginia Tech
The electric dual-threat quarterback teased scouts with his unique playmaking prowess as Virginia Tech's QB1. Vick ushered in a new style of quarterbacking as a dynamic run-first QB with exceptional arm talent. He was one of the rare quarterbacks capable of taking over the game as a runner or passer, which I rarely saw in the signal-callers that I had scouted. While I worried about his ability to master a complex offense after shining in the Hokies' simplistic scheme, I thought his athleticism, running skills and arm talent could make him a Steve Young-like playmaker in the right system.
As a pro, Vick revolutionized the position as a run-first playmaker in the NFL. He became the first quarterback to post a 1,000-yard season as a rusher and finished his career as the NFL's rushing leader for quarterbacks. While he teased coaches with his passing prowess from the pocket, the four-time Pro Bowl selectee never quite mastered the game from the pocket, which prevented him from fully maximizing his potential as a starter.
10. Alex Smith, Utah
It might come as a surprise to see Smith's name on this list, but the Utah standout was an outstanding prospect in the 2005 draft.
He guided the Utes to a 21-1 record as a starter while flashing sneaky playmaking skills as a dual-threat quarterback. Smith totaled more than 5,200 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards as the director of Urban Meyer's spread offense. He was a pinpoint, quick-rhythm passer with enough arm strength and touch to make every throw in the book. He also displayed the speed, quickness and movement skills to threaten defenses on the edges on quarterback keepers. With Smith also showing a high IQ and a winning pedigree, it was easy to envision him blossoming into a franchise quarterback at the next level.
While his career got off to a slow start in San Francisco, Smith has shown the football world in the past several seasons with the Niners and Chiefs that he can play at a high level when surrounded by a solid supporting cast in a system that suits his skills as a dual-threat playmaker. While it's not always pretty, the veteran has become a proven winner as a QB1.