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Rumblings Draft Scouting: Evaluating Top QB Play

When it comes to (very early and highly speculative) 2011 NFL Draft buzz, three collegiate quarterbacks are receiving the most pre-season hype. Those three quarterbacks are Washington's Jake Locker (a senior), Arkansas' Ryan Mallett (a redshirt junior), and Stanford's Andrew Luck (a redshirt sophomore). In fact, ESPN's Todd McShay projected Luck to the Buffalo Bills in his first 2011 NFL Mock Draft this past April, despite the growing unlikelihood of Luck leaving Stanford after the '10 season.

Florida State senior Christian Ponder is getting some hype, too, though the people labeling him with as much pre-season hype as Locker, Mallett and Luck are far fewer and far between. That, in my opinion, is a mistake.

Much of the draft projection that goes on this time of year is based on projections and player potential. That's why Locker (a phenomenal athlete with a rocket arm), Mallett (who possesses one of the strongest collegiate arms in recent memory) and Luck (owner of the sharpest mind, best instincts and most poise of any collegiate signal-caller) are getting the publicity. But when we get down to April, year in and year out, production is an incredibly important factor in determining where a prospect is selected - and it's doubly important for an old-school personnel evaluator like Buddy Nix.

Right now, Ponder has proven himself as a collegiate passer to a far more impressive degree than Locker and Luck, and to a certain degree Mallett as well. Another strong season in Tallahassee should, at the very least, put Ponder into the hype conversation, and would cement his status as a legitimate first-round prospect.

None of these four quarterbacks (yes, I'm tossing Ponder's name into the conversation right now) are particularly experienced, but that will change as each leads his team through the 2010 season - and all four of these players and their respective teams face very high expectations.

When I'm looking at a quarterback prospect, obviously, I want the things that everyone talks about in April - arm strength, accuracy, decision-making, leadership ability, and all of that - but I also want a guy that's proven he can play on the field. I want good production, proof of good decision-making, proof of an ability to score the football, and proof that the player performs at or above expectations in big-game situations. That's what we'll talk about today in relation to all four of these quarterbacks.

We'll start with Luck, as the redshirt sophomore is the least experienced of the group, and also - by an extremely wide margin - the least likely of these four players to enter the 2011 NFL Draft. From there, we'll progress to Mallett, Locker, and wrap it up with the underrated Ponder. (Note, also, that "big games" and the delineation between "poor competition" and, more often than not, "non-conference opponents" is somewhat subjective - or very subjective in the case of big games. Rest assured I went into this thing having no clue how well Ponder - or Locker and Luck, for that matter - would grade out.)

Sophomore (RS), Stanford
6'4", 235 pounds :: 12 career starts

2009 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 46 66 644 69.7 3 2
vs. Conference Opponents 116 222 1,931 52.3 10 2
in Big Games 60 122 976 49.2 6 1
in Bowl Games 0 0 0 0.0 0 0

Luck had a lot of help from stud running back Toby Gerhart, but for a kid making his first set of starts in a power conference, Luck was outstanding. His 10-2 TD-INT ratio in the Pac-10 was very impressive, as was his 6-1 ratio in big games. However, his completion percentage must improve in those areas; most expect it will as he continues to gain valuable experience. He proved himself a poised leader in big moments, however; now, the question is whether or not he can not only continue to improve without the protection of Gerhart in the lineup, but also if he and head coach Jim Harbaugh can make a run at a Pac-10 championship within the next year or two. If he does those things, he'll be the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 or 2013.

Junior (RS), Arkansas
6'7", 238 pounds :: 13 career starts* (has additional experience from time at Michigan)

2009 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 31 38 557 81.6 4 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 40 57 676 70.2 9 2
vs. Conference Opponents 139 272 2,189 51.1 16 5
in Big Games 53 111 661 47.7 4 3
in Bowl Games 15 36 202 41.7 1 0

For a huge man (6'7", 238 pounds), Mallett does well to avoid the "statue" label; he does throw pretty well on the move (though he can certainly improve in that area). It's very difficult not to respect Mallett's 16-5 TD-INT ratio in a very competitive SEC conference, and he obviously trounced cupcake opponents and non-conference teams. Aside from needing desperately to improve his touch, accuracy and ability to process information, it'd be nice if Mallett played a little better in big games. He'll get an opportunity to do all of those things in 2010 - Arkansas is going to be very fun to watch offensively this year, folks - but some concerns linger over a foot injury that required surgery and kept him out of spring practice.

With the underclassmen out of the way, let's talk about the two players we're absolutely certain will be in the 2011 NFL Draft class - Locker and Ponder.

Senior, Washington
6'3", 220 pounds :: 28 career starts

     2009 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 17 25 253 68.0 3 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 47 85 602 55.3 3 1
vs. Conference Opponents 166 285 1,955 58.2 15 10
in Big Games 140 241 1,697 58.1 11 6
in Bowl Games 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
     2008 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 33 56 358 58.9 1 0
vs. Conference Opponents 17 37 154 45.9 0 0
in Big Games 45 84 461 53.6 1 0
in Bowl Games 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
     2007 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 52 94 630 55.3 2 5
vs. Conference Opponents 103 234 1,432 44.0 12 10
in Big Games 61 131 720 46.6 3 7
in Bowl Games 0 0 0 0.0 0 0

There are two caveats to consider when perusing Locker's numbers here: Washington has ranged from dreadful to mediocre during Locker's three years, and as he's the dual-threat quarterback in the nation, he's made plenty of plays with his legs that don't show up in these numbers. People scoffed when he decided to return to UW for his senior season, but it was the absolute right decision; Locker's just not good enough as a passer yet. He'd have been the biggest project passer taken No. 1 overall since Alex Smith.

Lots of folks are worried about Locker's injury history; he suffered a neck injury as a freshman, then missed most of his sophomore season with a bum thumb. However, teams were obviously encouraged by his progress in Steve Sarkisian's pro-style offense early in 2009, as the buzz surrounding him reached a fever pitch very early in the season, and never went away. For playing on such a bad team, Locker performed very well in big games, and held his own against some very solid conference opposition.

He still has room to improve as a passer. His accuracy remains an issue (just take a look at those subpar completion percentages), as does his touch. Mechanically, he's not quite there yet. But his talents are undeniable, and further improvement on his solid '09 campaign (along with taking better care of the football and leading the Huskies to a bowl berth) would go a long way toward cementing his status as the No. 1 overall pick next year.

Now we'll get to why, just for the moment, I like Ponder better than Locker.

Senior, Florida State
6'3", 218 pounds :: 22 career starts

     2009 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 22 35 324 62.9 0 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 46 63 464 73.0 2 0
vs. Conference Opponents 159 232 1,929 68.5 12 7
in Big Games 104 133 1,243 78.2 12 1
in Bowl Games 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
     2008 Comp. Att. Yds % TD INT
vs. Poor Competition 24 39 376 61.5 6 0
vs. Non-Conference Opponents 15 36 179 41.7 0 3
vs. Conference Opponents 120 212 1,252 56.6 6 10
in Big Games 83 136 869 61.0 6 5
in Bowl Games 18 31 199 58.1 2 0

Athletically, Ponder is a kind of poor man's Locker - he's a good runner, and has made plenty of plays with his legs in two years as FSU's starting quarterback. In fact, Jimbo Fisher's offense uses that skill set to its advantage, as Ponder is often moved around on fake keepers to create throwing lanes and keep defensive backfields off-balance. Technically, Ponder needs to work on his feet; he doesn't set them consistently, and will throw off his back foot as a result. That's a bad habit easily broken. (He also throws a terrible spiral on occasion, but so do the best quarterbacks in the league.) It'd be nice if he exhibited better arm strength on out routes and fly patterns, as well.

As a pure passer, however, it's tough to find many faults with Ponder's numbers, even in an offense that is a little shy of being considered "pro style." Many of the reads are akin to pro reads, but he'll have to do a little work on drop-backs once he goes pro. His completion percentages set him apart, as Ponder completed 68.8% of his throws overall a year ago, proving his efficiency. That stat line in big games from 2009 - 78% completions, 12 TD, 1 INT - is obviously outstanding, and he wasn't bad in that category in 2008, either. He's a big-game performer that, like Locker, can beat defenses multiple ways and absolutely drips intangibles and leadership ability. His ceiling isn't as high as Locker's, but he's clearly a much more proven passer at this point in time, surrounding talent notwithstanding.

I'm not saying that Ponder is a better pro prospect than Locker, and especially not the two underclassmen. I'm just saying that Ponder's performance over the last two years is being overlooked because of the other, bigger-hype guys, and that's a mistake. Ponder's the best college quarterback of the group at the moment, and he belongs in the same breath as those guys. As I said up top, a strong senior season with Fisher and the Seminoles could make him a hot commodity in the early-to-mid portions of the first round in 2010.