Saturday Spotlight: Draft Prospects To Watch Week 8
There is little doubt as to the identity of the top quarterback prospect expected to be available in the 2014 NFL Draft. Even the most ardent 12th Man in College Station would have to admit that Johnny Drama, as a prospective professional passer, is not in the same league as Teddy Ball.
The question, then, is Who's No. 2?
Despite the rising tide of Mariota Momentum, I'm not sure the erstwhile Heisman frontrunner is ready for the next level just yet. If it's not Mariota or Manziel or Morris or Murray or McCarron (Mettenberger, maybe? Oh, where have you gone, Matt Mauck and Moses Moreno?), who then might be the second-best quarterback prospect behind Teddy Bridgewater?
We'll get a good look at two candidates for that second banana spot on Saturday, when Clemson's Tajh Boyd faces Florida State and UCLA's Brett Hundley faces Stanford.
At the moment, Boyd looks every bit the seasoned veteran that he is, five years into his Death Valley days. His name is all over Clemson and ACC record books, and he's no less than "part of the bricks and mortar" at the foundation of the Tigers program, as coach Dabo Sweeney said in this week's coaches teleconference.
With an average outing, he'll throw his 10,000th yard in a Clemson uniform. That's pretty rare territory for ACC quarterbacks -- a club of one (Philip Rivers), coming into Saturday -- and not a milestone you reach being a dual threat quarterback.
To be sure, Boyd is a passer, first and foremost. He's mobile and elusive, can throw accurately on the run, and he'll weave his way comfortably through traffic on designed runs (at 6-foot-1 and a thick 225 pounds, he's built more like a running back than an NFL quarterback). He may be the team leader in rushing touchdowns, but Boyd looks for passing answers first, which no doubt impresses the NFL and distinguishes him from any-reason-to-runners like Mariota and Manziel.
It helps, no doubt, that he's spent his Clemson career throwing to NFL receivers -- DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins have accounted for nearly half of those 10,000 yards. But Boyd's arm strength and ever-iimproving accuracy and decision-making are as responsible for his receivers' success as their hands are for his.
Coming into this season, accuracy was one of two lingering concerns the NFL had about Boyd, the other being his height (was hasn't changed, though he has shown the ability to change arm angles and release points to fit balls through passing lanes wherever they appear). Boyd takes a lot of shots downfield, which takes a toll on completion percentage. But it's been specifically in the area of ball security that the NFL has to be impressed by Boyd's progress.
In 2011 and 2012, he threw 25 interceptions, roughly one every 37 attempts. This season, Boyd has been picked twice, both in the Syracuse game -- one on an overthrow downfield in an already lopsided game, the other off the hands of his intended receiver. There's not a coach in the NFL who would grouse about one INT every 92 pass attempts or so, especially when you consider the frequency with which Boyd goes deep.
Saturday's matchup will be interesting to watch, as Florida State's is by far the toughest defense Boyd will face this season. The Seminoles have the nation's second-stingiest pass defense, and that's because they have NFL talent all over the field. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, Mike backer Christian Jones and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner all look like second-round picks, and free safety Terrence Brooks is a likely Day Two prospect, as well. And that's without Karlos Williams, a promising strong safety prospect who is now trying to establish himself as a promising running back prospect.
Joyner, in particular, will be a test for Boyd, who rarely has had to worry about a cornerback managing to stay with Watkins. This is a game film NFL scouts and coaches will be wearing out during their evaluation process; that makes Saturday a huge opportunity for Boyd.
And for Hundley, too.
He'll be facing a defense far more generous than what Boyd will see (Stanford is 93rd in pass yards allowed) but with no shortage of future NFLers. There are linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, and free safety Ed Reynolds -- the youngest of the group (he's a mere fourth-year senior; the others are all fifth-years). On Saturday, Skov, Gardner and Murphy will have 100 career starts between them, so Hundley is facing the most talented and the most seasoned defense he's seen this season.
Which makes this a watershed moment in his development as a pass-first quarterback. Yes, he threw for a school record 3,740 yards last year. Yes, he has 41 career touchdown passes (as many as Troy Aikman had in his two seasons at UCLA.)
Too often for NFL tastes, though, Hundley's read progression skips ahead to "run!" too quickly. Mobility is an asset at the NFL level -- a weapon, even -- but there's a difference between the threat of the run and a quarterback calling his own number too often. Running the ball exposes a quarterback to too many hits, and any NFL franchise would rather place its fate in the hands of a passer who can run when he has to rather than a short-fused scrambler.
Hundley is becoming more patient. In 2012, he had double-digit rushing attempts in 14 games, which includes designed runs and those made out of necessity. This season, he's restrained himself to single-digit carries three times in five games, though the two double-digit games were excessive relapses (19 rushes against Nebraska, 20 against Utah). That's a signal to the NFL that he's not yet entirely comfortable with life in the pocket.
Couple that with inconsistent results on his intermediate and deep throws, and it suggests to scouts that Hundley -- like Mariota and Manziel, and even junior Kevin Hogan on the Stanford sideline -- probably could benefit from one more year with the Bruins before declaring for the draft.