NFL scouts are always looking to the college ranks to find next-level talent, and while it's too early to speculate about which quarterbacks will thrive in the NFL, the signal-callers listed below certainly have the attention of evaluators heading into the 2016 season.
Last year, there weren't many sexy names on this list. This season's list has a much more intriguing collection of talent at the position, including a couple of Heisman front-runners at the top two spots.
This is not a list previewing the 2017 NFL Draft, but a look at college quarterbacks that are generating interest from NFL scouts and/or are expected to post big seasons for their teams. Here are 10 to watch in 2016.
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Last year in this same space, I proclaimed that Watson "might just be the most talented quarterback in college football." As we head into the 2016 season, he is clearly at the top of the list. Watson has an outstanding delivery and release, and can crank up the velocity NFL teams want to see. Watson is a true dual-threat quarterback with the talent to beat teams with his arm or his legs as his 35 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing touchdowns should indicate. Before 2015, Watson had multiple injury issues to contend with, including a torn ACL. It will be interesting to see if Clemson still asks as much from Watson as a ball carrier considering his importance to the offense and status as a player who could be eligible for the 2017 draft. He needs to improve his deep-ball accuracy and fix his issues with staring down targets in 2016.
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
When you watch Mayfield in games, you will see a variety of quick hitches and short throws. So how is it that he averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and had 32 completions for 25-plus yards? Mayfield has very good natural accuracy, meaning his default throw is going to be accurate more times than not. This is equally true of his deep-ball accuracy. Of equal importance is his ability to extend plays with his legs and beat teams on the move with his arm or his legs. While Mayfield is quick to exit the pocket, it's hard to argue with the results, which included 43 total touchdowns and just seven turnovers. Mayfield is as confident a quarterback as anyone in the college game, and his energy and fearless attitude are infectious. His playing style is reminiscent of Johnny Manziel's during his heyday at Texas A&M.
3. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
The casual football fan might assume the draft departures of left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell will create a challenging 2016 for the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, but that should hardly be the case. Ole Miss returns talented wideouts in Damore'ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, and one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in Evan Engram. Kelly's explosive release quickness, overall arm talent, ability to elude pressure and make plays on the move make him a must-watch quarterback on Saturdays. Kelly tends to rush things and play too fast at times, which can cause his mechanics and accuracy to break down. Kelly has a history of off-the-field issues that will have NFL teams vetting him to differentiate between character concerns or simple immaturity.
4. Josh Rosen, UCLA
While Rosen has been taken to task in the past for being a little too cocksure and for challenging coaching at times, his freshman season showed why pundits are already raving about his high ceiling as a quarterback. Rosen has added about 15 pounds of muscle to his frame, and should benefit from a scheme change away from the quick-hitting passing attack favored by departed offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to the pro-style attack favored by incoming coordinator Kennedy Polamalu. UCLA's offensive line will have to fill in for lost starters and there will be quite a bit of turnover at the skill positions, but with his quick release and ability to read and react to defenses, Rosen will be just fine.
5. Luke Falk, Washington State
When a quarterback throws for 4,561 yards, 38 touchdowns and completes almost 70 percent of his passes, he likely will make this list. While healthy skepticism will persist regarding "Air Raid" quarterbacks and their ability to function outside of the system, Falk has good size, a compact release and a noticeable calmness in the pocket that allows him to work his way through progressions. He will stand in and take the hit to deliver a strike, but his ability to slide around in the pocket to buy more time is impressive. He is inconsistent in leading receivers at times and needs to work on driving throws with his lower body to increase velocity on intermediate routes. Falk should post some of the top passing numbers in the game, and might be one of the most discussed quarterbacks on the NFL scouting circuit.
6. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Insiders at Ohio State rave about Barrett's maturity and leadership, which was on full display with the way he handled the quarterback situation at OSU in 2015, when he began the season as Cardale Jones' backup before eventually supplanting him as the starter. Barrett is an outstanding decision-maker in the zone-read packages, and grinds out the tough yardage near the end zone or to move the chains. Barrett throws with solid touch to the perimeters, and his arm strength looks improved from his freshman season. It is worth noting that 83 percent of his throws in 2015 came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and tape shows Barrett failing to locate open receivers in the intermediate game. With the offense all his this season, Barrett's stats could soar beyond where he was as a freshman.
7. Brad Kaaya, Miami (Fla.)
Kaaya lost so many key contributors from the 2014 Hurricanes offense that his decline in passing touchdowns from 26-16 was predictable. However, Kaaya also saw his yards per attempt move up slightly (8.3 to 8.5), and his interceptions drop from 12 to five in his second season under center. Kaaya doesn't have a big arm and he won't beat anybody with his mobility (his longest rush of the season was just 9 yards), but he operates with very good poise in the pocket and an ability to cruise through his progressions. Despite his lack of physical attributes, he completed 39 passes for 25-plus yards while taking just 16 sacks. With an offensive line full of returning starters and a quality running back at his side, Kaaya is poised to take a big step forward from a statistical standpoint.
8. Pat Mahomes, Texas Tech
In 2015, Mahomes led the nation with 393 total yards per game, and joined Chad Kelly and Deshaun Watson as the three quarterbacks to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 or more scores. Mahomes has an NFL arm, and can crank up plenty of zip for the deep outs or to fit the ball into tight spots. He plays with an undeniable swagger, and has the mobility to extend plays and win with his arm or feet. While he has size, toughness and arm strength, Mahomes' accuracy needs to improve and he will need to eliminate his careless interceptions on intermediate and deep throws. He doesn't always throw with anticipation or win from the pocket, but he's a natural-born leader and competitor.
9. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
The Big 12 is the land of high-flying passing attacks and Rudolph could be one of this season's shining stars. Rudolph has his top target back in James Washington, and the two hooked up for 272 yards and five touchdowns against Baylor and TCU last season. He has great size and stands tall in the pocket, allowing routes to develop rather than rushing his throws. Rudolph needs to eliminate his habit of staring down targets and dropping his eyes a bit when pressure starts to close in.
10. Greg Ward, Jr., Houston
Under the direction of head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, Ward finished 2015 with 21 rushing and 17 passing touchdowns, and had more explosive plays (passes of 25 yards or more) per attempt than Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield, J.T. Barrett and Chad Kelly. Ward has proven an ability to thrive in Houston's tempo-based offense and should be able to torment conference defenses once again with his outstanding dual-threat abilities. Ward is small and lacks the arm that NFL teams look for, so he might end up switching to a wide receiver spot once his college days are behind him.
Others to watch
C.J. Beathard, Iowa: Beathard will be an interesting quarterback to watch this season more for his pro potential than his expected college output. While his accuracy needs improvement and his production is unlikely to excite, Beathard works out of a pro-style attack and has the combination of arm strength and mobility that teams want to see. Beathard shows signs of hesitancy to cut throws loose, which lead to incompletions and sacks. He must correct that issue moving forward.
Josh Dobbs, Tennessee: While his tape shows a troubling lack of accuracy and consistency as a passer, there is no denying Dobbs' ability to affect a game with his run/pass ability. The Vols' four losses were extremely close and the team finished the season on a six-game winning streak. Look for Dobbs' numbers to jump this season for a dangerous Tennessee squad.
Seth Russell, Baylor: To assume that everything will be the same as last season for Baylor, despite the departure of Art Briles, would be foolhardy. Russell proved he could master Briles' combination short/deep attack, but with the departure of WR Corey Coleman to the NFL and the firing of Briles, the numbers might not come rolling in for Russell at the rate some expect.
Brett Rypien, Boise State: Rypien was a quick study as a freshman, throwing for 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns. With his leading receiver in tow and a year under his belt, it shouldn't shock anyone if Rypien approaches 3,800 yards passing and 30 touchdowns.