The hunt for a quarterback is an on-going exercise in NFL draft rooms. Wily evaluators constantly monitor the college game to see which young quarterbacks exhibit the qualities needed to become franchise players at the next level.
While it is remains a challenge to identify and develop elite players at the game's toughest position, I believe there are a handful of young players already flashing big-time ability and potential as neophytes. Here's a list of underclassmen quarterbacks to keep an eye on down the road:
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State
The Heisman Trophy winner is the prototypical franchise quarterback at the next level. He exudes the poise and confidence of a winner, while also displaying a game that is ready made for the pros. Winston routinely makes high-degree-of-difficulty throws with spectacular zip and velocity, but also shows the ability to make touch throws to all areas of the field with pinpoint placement. From a mechanics standpoint, he exhibits terrific footwork and body control in the pocket, yet remains an explosive threat capable of delivering big plays outside the pocket as a runner or thrower. Although he needs to clean up some of the rough patches of his game, Winston is on track to be an elite playmaker at the next level.
2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The Ducks' star quarterback could revolutionize the position in the NFL, with a set of skills that will allow him to terrorize defenses with his arm or legs. As the director of one of the most explosive offenses in college football, Mariota has been indefensible from the pocket or on the edges. With at least another year in Eugene to refine his skills as a passer, he will be the ultimate offensive weapon when he enters the league.
3. Devin Gardner, Michigan
Don't let the Gardner's midseason slump take away from the tremendous talent and potential that he displays at the position. The junior standout is a terrific playmaker with the capacity to wreak havoc on a defense in a movement-based passing game. Although he must correct some minor mechanical flaws to maximize his potential, Gardner has the physical tools and "it factor" that coaches desire in franchise quarterbacks.
4. Bryce Petty, Baylor
It's easy to cast Petty as a system quarterback based on the remarkable statistical success of his predecessors (Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence), but that would discredit the impressive work that he has put in since stepping into the starting lineup. Sure, Petty posted remarkable numbers like all of the Bears' quarterbacks have done under coach Art Briles, but it was the efficiency of his play from the pocket that impressed me the most. He is a playmaker with a knack for getting it done; there is always a place in the NFL for guys like that.
5. Kevin Hogan, Stanford
Stanford coach David Shaw has raved about Hogan since he took over the reins of the Cardinal offense a year ago. The spunky junior is an exceptional pocket passer with just enough athleticism to create chaos on the edges. He capably executes the movement-based passing game and zone-read concepts, while efficiently picking apart defenses on traditional throws. With the NFL coveting quarterbacks with arm talent, athleticism and intelligence, Hogan is destined to be a game changer in a few seasons.
6. Connor Cook, Michigan State
The college football world witnessed Cook's breakout performance in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State. On the way to dashing the Buckeyes' national title hopes, Cook showed scouts the full repertoire of skills at the position. He made accurate throws to every area of the field, while also exhibiting poise and confidence under pressure. Those traits are not critical to success at the collegiate level, but they are essential to becoming a standout performer as a pro.
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7. Shane Carden, ECU
The Conference USA Player of the Year is probably a surprise inclusion on the list, but his resume is certainly worthy of recognition. He has topped the 3,000-yard mark in each of his seasons as a starter, and exhibited a game that is advanced beyond his years. Of course, some critics will suggest that his numbers are inflated due to the Pirates' spread offensive system, but my eyeballs tell me that he has the goods to be an effective player at the next level.
8. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
A knee injury prematurely ended Keeton's spectacular junior campaign, but not before scouts took notice of his rapidly developing game. Keeton is an explosive dual-threat playmaker with a game that shines inside or outside the pocket. Although his wiry frame is not conducive to taking licks at the next level, the fact that he is a spot-on passer with impressive arm talent could make scouts reconsider their physical dimension requirements.
9. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Evaluators typically don't pay close attention to first-year starters, but something tells me that the NFL scouting community already knows about Hackenberg after his impressive debut in Happy Valley. The freshman sensation lit up the Big Ten directing the Nittany Lions' pro-style offense under the direction of noted quarterback guru Bill O'Brien. Hackenberg capably makes every throw in the book with zip and velocity, but also flashes pinpoint accuracy and ball placement. Although his completion percentage (58.9 percent) falls below the standard benchmark established by most coaches, Hackenberg is already on track to realize his potential as a future franchise quarterback.
10 (tie). Jared Goff, California
The Golden Bears took a number of beatdowns this season, but Goff emerged as a bright spot for a team devoid of stars on both sides of the ball. The first-year standout passed for 3,500 yards with 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. More importantly, he finished the season with 531 pass attempts -- the fourth-most attempts in FBS. With game experience and repetition serving as the ultimate teacher, Goff could finish his career at Cal as the most pro-ready quarterback prospect in college football.
10 (tie). Anthony Jennings, LSU
It's hard to make strong assertions on a prospect's potential based on only 10 throws, but Jennings is such a special player that he deserves a spot on this list. Although he only played briefly as a backup to Mettenberger this season, Jennings made quite an impression on the SEC by engineering a 99-yard drive against Arkansas with the game on the line. The confidence and poise displayed by Jennings in that moment was impressive, but it matches the reputation that preceded his arrival at LSU. If he continues to deliver big plays in big moments, Jennings could vault to the top of the list by the time he finishes his work as a Tiger.