Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the quarterbacks.
Last summer, it appeared obvious to all the world that quarterback Andrew Luck would be the top pick if he decided to leave Stanford after his redshirt junior season. Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, made a run at the No. 1 spot with his combination of athleticism, passing prowess and intelligence. But Luck's position as the top pick -- he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts to replace future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning -- seemed pre-determined.
This year's competition to be the top college quarterback is, comparatively, up in the air. USC star Matt Barkley, a four-year starter in a high-profile program, is the best-known passer. But Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, who intrigued scouts with his growth during his first year leading the Hokies in 2011, certainly possesses the physical attributes to one day be an elite playmaker at the next level. Georgia signal-caller Aaron Murray lacks Thomas' imposing stature, but shows all of the other tell-tale signs of being a very good starter in the future.
Arkansas senior Tyler Wilson also has the toughness and arm strength to be in the mix early in the 2013 NFL Draft, though he'll need to fight through the loss of his head coach and three drafted receivers -- as well as tough SEC defenses. Landry Jones, Oklahoma's quick-strike passer, is looking to impress scouts in his final year, but he lost his security blanket when receiver Ryan Broyles was drafted in April, leaving him with an unsettled situation at wideout. Miami of Ohio quarterback Zac Dysert will attempt to find a place on the national radar this season. With an intriguing mix of playmaking ability and accuracy, Dysert has the potential to rank above fellow seniors Wilson and Jones.
Long story short, the college level is loaded with future NFL talent. Considering the ever-increasing importance of the quarterback position and the shrinking window passers are given to develop, many of the following players will get a shot at running an NFL offense sooner rather than later, assuming they progress during the 2012 season.
1. Matt Barkley, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, USC
Expect Barkley to be the fourth top-10 passer USC has produced since 2003 (joining Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez). Though not elite in terms of his height, arm strength or mobility, Barkley possesses enough of each to capably move an NFL offense with accurate short throws (69.1 percent completion rate in 2011), solid decision making (39 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last year) and the downfield touch necessary to take advantage of a talented receiving corps. The fact he decided to return for his senior season to help his team compete for a national championship in 2012 after going through a postseason ban is just one measure of his intangibles.
NFL comparison:Drew Brees
2. Logan Thomas, 6-6, 262, Virginia Tech
Thomas is a big-bodied physical specimen with the arm strength to stretch defenses vertically (3,013 passing yards in 2011) and the running ability (11 rushing TDs last year) to make coordinators cringe. Scouts thought Cam Newton, who went on to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, was in his infancy as a passer in college, and they might think the same about Thomas. But his ability to make throws to all levels of a defense, and his potential as a pass/run playmaker, mark him as someone to watch.
NFL comparison:*Cam Newton
3. Aaron Murray, 6-1, 211, Georgia
Murray's less-than-ideal size might concern some, and he must reduce his turnovers (14 interceptions and eight fumbles -- three lost -- in 2011) before he can be considered truly elite. But when he and his receivers are on the same page, he has displayed the intelligence and agility necessary to run an efficient movement offense. He also has enough arm strength to hit targets all over the field (3,149 yards, 35 touchdowns last year). Add in a healthy amount of toughness -- Murray returned from an early-season broken leg during his senior year in high school to lead his team to a Florida state title -- and you've got a top-notch future prospect.
NFL comparison:*Tony Romo
4. Zac Dysert, 6-4, 230, Miami (Ohio)
Dysert enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, reminding scouts a bit of former Miami (Ohio) product Ben Roethlisberger by relying more on toughness and playmaking ability than efficiency (he finished with 3,513 passing yards, a 65.8 percent completion rate and 23 touchdowns). He does not possess the two-time Super Bowl winner's elite arm and bulk, but Dysert still has enough of both -- along with the athleticism and deft passing ability to make NFL-caliber plays on the run -- to become one of the top passers in the class.
NFL comparison:Ben Roethlisberger
5. Tyler Wilson, 6-3, 220, Arkansas
Wilson is in for a tough senior season, having lost his head coach to scandal and top three wideouts to the 2012 NFL Draft. He's as tough-minded and strong-armed a passer as you'll find, though, so I won't be surprised if he overcomes those issues and stands tall in the pocket to put up another excellent campaign (to follow up on 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2011).
NFL comparison:Matt Hasselbeck
6. Landry Jones, 6-4, 230, Oklahoma
Jones struggled in his junior campaign after losing Broyles to injury, but he still won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation's top passer in 2010 (registering 4,718 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions). The NFL-sized pocket passer is decisive and flashes the arm and accuracy necessary to pick apart defenses at the next level. However, he must be more consistent in his reads and decisions to keep turnovers and missed opportunities from impeding his efficiency.
NFL comparison:Matt Cassel
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7. E.J. Manuel, 6-5, 238, Florida State
As naturally gifted as any quarterback in the class, the physically imposing Manuel has a chance to shoot up this list if he can show off his strong arm and mobility in 2012. Scouts appreciate his leadership qualities and toughness (he played through a broken leg in last year's Champs Sports Bowl win over Notre Dame). They hope he can prove consistent enough in his decision making and accuracy to reliably move a pro offense, and use his high-velocity throws and athleticism to create big plays.
NFL comparison:Jason Campbell
8. Tyler Bray, 6-6, 213, Tennessee
Despite missing half of 2011 with a broken thumb on his right (throwing) hand, Bray showed potential as a tall and lean distributor of the ball from the pocket, capable of challenging even the tightest coverage. He is not a great athlete, even for a quarterback, but he has a rocket arm and would be an ideal fit for a quick-strike passing offense. If he's healthy enough, he could team up with his group of talented receivers to post a big season in 2012.
NFL comparison:*Kyle Orton