Two months before the 2018 NFL Draft, the evaluation is far from finished on any prospect, especially quarterbacks.
Nobody has gotten a detailed medical report. Many coaches haven't dug into tape. Even scouts who have tracked players over the past year and spoken to everyone possible about them may not have shaken their hands. That's what makes the next phase in the process so critical for any team thinking about instantly transforming one of these guys into the face of the franchise.
Still, in my conversations with NFL people about Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Co. since last fall, it sticks out how often I've heard some version of the phrase there are questions when it comes to every one of these guys. Or, as one general manager -- the lone person I spoke to a year ago who accurately predicted three QBs in the 2017 NFL Draft would go within the first 12 picks -- put it recently: "This year, I have major concerns about all of them."
Over the past week, I spoke to 15 veteran evaluators from 12 NFL teams, from decision-makers to area scouts, who have closely studied this year's QBs, to provide a window into the questions teams will be trying to answer about each of them, starting this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Josh Allen, Wyoming
How sound is the shoulder? Allen broke his right (throwing-side) collarbone as a high school sophomore and again as a Cowboys freshman in 2015, when it broke in seven spots and required eight screws and a plate to fix surgically. Then, this past November, Allen suffered an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder that sidelined him for two games. "From that one surgery, he's got a whole bunch of staples in there," one college scouting director said. "So I think everybody's going to take a look [at the combine], MRI him and see what the structure is and see how he's feeling." Said an NFC scout: "That's what everyone's going to poke and prod at, is his shoulders and make sure everything's right." One person close to Allen told me he's pain-free, and he certainly looked healthy during an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl. But it's a QB's throwing shoulder, so teams will gather all the info they can.
Can the mechanics keep improving? Allen probably has the biggest arm in this draft and figures to impress in testing. (Word is he could run the 40-yard dash in the mid-4.6-second range at almost 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds.) But his accuracy remains a concern, even for scouts who point out all the drops that contributed to Allen completing just 56.2 percent of his college pass attempts. There were signs of progress at the Senior Bowl. "I thought his feet were under him a little bit better and he was a little bit more balanced," an NFC executive said. "He's been working with a guru (Jordan Palmer), and I think it helped." Allen's base is one primary area of focus. One NFC scout said Allen often misses high because he's overstepping 4 to 6 inches, then will overcorrect, understep and miss behind. Carrying over what he showed in Mobile would be a good sign as he tries to overcome inconsistent tape. "He's super talented. He's got the best arm I've ever scouted. But I have no idea if he knows what he's doing on the field," an AFC scout said. "He's a great kid, too. He's tough. He's not Carson Wentz, but he's got good intangibles. He kind of scares me the most of all of them, because I haven't seen the improvement from one year to the next."
Sam Darnold, USC
How much football does he know? Darnold's considered the cleanest of the quarterbacks in this class: tough, competitive, instinctive, humble, hard-working and at his best in big moments, with enough arm, vision and mobility to give him, in one NFC executive's opinion, the most upside as a pro QB in the group. But Darnold is still just 20 years old, was a late convert to quarterback and made enough bad decisions (36 turnovers in 27 college games) to leave scouts wondering how much he really understands about offense at this stage. "The board and his knowledge is going to be important to test, because I think he's got some strides to make there," a college scouting director said. "I think he's almost more of a streetball player than he is a classic quarterback." Darnold went into high school as a linebacker and receiver and has the mechanics to match, including a funky, elongated throwing motion, though he gets the ball out quickly enough. Where it goes has created some head-scratching moments on tape. "He'll make some boneheaded throws and decision-making," one AFC scout said, "so I think some of the (football) intelligence questions may be lurking for him." But one NFC scout pointed out the Trojans' lack of weapons and offensive-line problems and said the word from coaches is Darnold is "totally capable" of grasping an NFL offense. "You can see him go through progression," the scout said. "You can see him look off safeties. You can see him understand where his outlet is. You see a lot more out of him than you see out of a lot of these (spread) guys."
Is there more to his personality? No one has a bad word to say about Darnold's character, but several scouts told me they're interested to see how he comes across in interviews. "He's not a real dynamic dude," an NFC executive said. "He's kind of a flat-liner. That can be good and bad." That California cool demeanor is also part of what Darnold's fans like about him. He's steady. "He's got fire, but it's more internal fire, competitive, going to be shown to his teammates and coaches and staff there," another NFC exec said. "They love the competitiveness. They love the makeup of the kid. He's just not going to flaunt it." Said an AFC scout: "There's no issue with the kid, but can he step in and command the locker room, and they respect him? He's not going to be that vocal leader type -- which is fine. But are guys going to look at him, like, 'Who's this 20-year-old kid, this baby-faced kid?' "
How big are his hands? Some scouts laugh off the importance of hand size, but ball security was an issue for Darnold, so there will at least be interest in seeing this measurement. He fumbled 21 times over two seasons. "There's a couple of plays where the ball slips out of his hands," an NFC scout said, "but considering how far he drops it in that motion, he would lose it if (his hands) weren't big enough." Said another NFC executive: "His game translates to the cold. He's rugged. He can extend plays. He can throw it short. He can throw it deep. He's tough as hell. I wouldn't be worried."
Lamar Jackson, Louisville
How ready is he for the NFL game? Jackson is a rare runner who has a strong arm and a quick release that yield some "wow" moments on tape, and he's improved overall as a QB over three years in Bobby Petrino's offense, which utilizes pro concepts. One AFC executive called Jackson the "most dynamic" of any QB in this draft; another AFC scout said he might have the highest ceiling. But Jackson's accuracy has been inconsistent, and many scouts describe his game as one-read-and-go, so teams are certain to challenge him on the board. "It's the same thing for every one of these quarterbacks," an NFC executive said. "I just think with Lamar, it's a little further away. And then they kind of tell you that a little bit at the school, if you talk to the right people." That exec also predicted the majority of NFL teams won't have Jackson evaluated as a full-time quarterback, though other scouts pushed back on the idea he's destined for another position, at least in the long run. "To be able to read defenses and play in the pocket -- I'm not saying he can't, he's really talented, but it's going to take him awhile to do that," another NFC exec said. "Now, you can throw him in there and he's going to run around and make plays, but how long can you do that? I like the kid. You're going to have to really adjust what you do offensively." A team that wants to run an outside zone-heavy, Kyle Shanahan-type offense heavy on play-action that could exploit Jackson's mobility is an intriguing fit.
How does he measure up? Jackson is easily the lightest of the top QBs at 6-3 and 200 pounds -- a point of some concern for a player whose role in the short term may be as a red-zone package threat, meaning he's bound to take some hits. "His weight's going to be big on him," an NFC executive said. "He hasn't been hurt, but he is a leaner dude."
Why didn't he hire an agent? Negotiating rookie contracts isn't exactly difficult under the rookie wage system. It's well-documented that Jackson's mother, Felicia Jones, has been a strong influence in her son's life, and it's believed she's running the show here, too. But as one AFC scout pointed out, that's an unusual tack for a top quarterback prospect to take, given the ringer these guys are put through in the run-up to the draft.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Can you get comfortable with the guy? Some incidents on and off the field notwithstanding, scouts struggled to find anybody at OU who'd say a bad word about the program's unquestioned leader. "The kids gravitate toward him, just because he's so high-energy," an NFC scout said. "The staff members you talk to, they were all like, 'I want this dude in my corner. I'm ride-or-die with Baker Mayfield.' " Mayfield is ultra-competitive and a winner. He's also a unique character who may turn off some people in interviews. "He's almost cocky, arrogant, believes in himself," an NFC executive said. "He's the walk-on that nobody wanted, and he just earned his way. Now people believe in him, and he's almost got the, 'I f---ing told you so,' attitude about it." Several scouts described Mayfield as surly after his late arrival at the Senior Bowl, though some of that may be attributed to his mother's illness. His meetings in Mobile were limited, so the combine will be the first opportunity for many teams to get to sit down with him. "It's just a matter of, can you work with him?" a college scouting director said. "Can he listen? Can he process? Can he rein it in to a degree? And he will as he matures." Mayfield's profile can make him a target for taunting, as evidenced by two high-profile issues last year -- an arrest last year for public intoxication, plus a televised crotch grab during a game against Kansas. But it's worth noting several scouts went out of their way to reject Johnny Manziel comparisons, as a player or person. "It really is just part of what makes [Mayfield] competitive on the field with that chip on his shoulder," another NFC scout said. "That chip is going to carry over a little bit off the field, so you just have to know how to deal with him. But it's not like I'm worried about drugs and womanizing and running the streets all hours of the night and not being prepared. This kid loves football."
How good an athlete is he? Quarterback workout numbers generally aren't all that important (see: Brady, Tom), but they'll draw more scrutiny on a prospect who's a shade over 6 feet tall and may need to have an offense designed to get him outside the pocket and let him see the field, limit batted balls, etc. In terms of athletic traits, Mayfield isn't Russell Wilson, or Manziel, for that matter. "His 10-yard time is probably pretty good, but he's not that fast," an AFC scout said. Two scouts predicted Mayfield will run the 40-yard dash in the mid-4.8 range; Wilson ran 4.55 in 2012. Mayfield does have short-area quickness, though. He's instinctive. He has a better arm than most short QBs. Multiple scouts also went out of their way to praise the job Sooners coach Lincoln Riley has done in developing Mayfield's football IQ beyond what a traditional "Air Raid QB" might have. He has been working with former NFL quarterback Jimmy Clausen during the pre-draft process. Can Mayfield be the same type of playmaker when the opponents are bigger, stronger, faster? "I think he's got enough arm to make all the throws," an NFC scout said. "He's accurate enough. He's mobile enough. He's not going to be a great athlete, testing-wise and all that, but he's going to be athletic enough to move in the pocket and get the ball out."
Josh Rosen, UCLA
Can he be the face of a franchise? Rosen may be the most polarizing prospect in the draft. Many scouts regard him as the class' most talented quarterback. He's picturesque fundamentally, accurate as a passer, crazy smart. But he's a complex, strong personality and rubs some people the wrong way. "The biggest hole in his makeup is, can he endear himself to his teammates?" an NFC executive said. "And I think that was a challenge for him at UCLA. When he had, let's just say, less-intelligent receivers or a less-intelligent group of quarterbacks, he made them feel like s---." An AFC scout said Rosen wasn't known as an easy guy to coach, either. "He never thought that those guys were doing anything for him," the scout said. "He always thought he was doing something for them." He's blunt and can come across as a know-it-all. Skeptics bring up names such as Jay Cutler and Jeff George. Still, scouts who tracked Rosen throughout his career say he matured during his college career. The party antics of his freshman year abated. He worked harder. He was the leader of the offense. Teammates competed for him, and some liked that he took a stand publicly on controversial issues. "I think everything that's out there about the kid is a little overblown," an NFC scout said. "I know he enjoyed the nightlife a little bit, but what are the major concerns there? Because he had a hot tub on social media? Because he said some real stuff that people are afraid to say about collegiate athletes getting exploited by the NCAA? I guarantee you a lot of old-school evaluators will be like, 'Forget this kid. He's an arrogant, rich, d-----bag.' And some other people will be like, 'Man, this guy was a 4.8 student coming out of high school, he's a 3.5 econ major at UCLA, he's thinking beyond football, he's trying to be the mogul-type guy.' He wants to be successful, so I feel like he's going to do what's necessary."
What does the medical report look like? Rosen has a leaner frame at 6-4, 218, and he has been beat up. Shoulder surgery ended his sophomore season in 2016. He left a game this past season with a finger injury, had two concussions and was held out of the Bruins' bowl game. "That'd be the one guy I'll be really concerned with (medically)," an AFC scout said, "to see where they view the concussions, how many concussions he really had, and then where his shoulders are structurally." Scouts say Rosen's movement within the pocket is excellent, but he's not blessed with great mobility, either. He's a pocket passer. One scouting director said the tape makes him question how Rosen will respond, not only physically, but mentally, to getting knocked around in the NFL. "If you hit him a couple times, I think he might shrink," the scout said.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
How quickly can he pick up an NFL scheme? One scout described the Cowboys' offense as "highly remedial." Said an NFC executive: "There's so much spacing. Sure, you've got to have the accuracy to get it there, but I don't think you get guys that are that open at this level." Rudolph can counter by saying he made 41 college starts (the most of any QB on this list), had audible power and was consulted in game-planning over the past couple seasons. Rudolph's arm talent isn't in question. He has prototypical size at 6-4, 229. But scouts describe him as a little mechanical and clunky as an athlete, and there are mixed reviews on his poise, pocket presence, etc., especially when asked to extend plays in the pocket and make reads. "When it breaks down, it gets tough on him sometimes," an NFC scout said. "He's probably not the athlete Baker is, which is saying something." The first chance to see Rudolph in a pro-style scheme was lost when he sat out the Senior Bowl with a foot injury. (The foot has since healed; Rudolph has been working with private coach Zac Robinson and will throw at the combine.) He's yet another prospect that teams will challenge on the board. "How much ball does he know?" another NFC scout said. "Because that scheme has made a lot of guys look really good."
Can he be "the guy"? Everyone says Rudolph is a good kid, but several scouts raised questions about how developed he is as a leader. One NFC executive described Rudolph as "a little quirky." Another scout pointed out Rudolph has a somewhat unusual background, having been home-schooled until junior high. "He improved in that regard this year, just as far as being a leader," an NFC scout said. "He's got to continue to develop relating to everybody, getting on the same page."