The college football season is finished. The title has been won and the hardware has been handed out. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to highlight the best quarterback play of the season, with some superlative honors!
This edition of the Film Room is a little different. We’re handing out trait-based awards to the nation’s top quarterbacks. This isn’t a ranking of the best quarterbacks; it a showcasing of the things this collection of talented signal callers do well, and who does it the best.
A quick disclaimer: I limited the number of categories for which Baker Mayfield was eligible. Otherwise this exercise would have been little more than another ode to the Heisman winner. No one wants that. Well, maybe no one other than Sooners fans.
We’ll discuss several aspects vital to playing quarterback at a high level, and award the college football quarterback who best exemplifies that trait.
To the Film Room!
Most Electric — Lamar Jackson, Louisville
I’d like to take a moment to reflect on how bonkers it is that the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner somehow got better this season — and yet was largely overlooked for most of it as attention diverted to high-profile games and a new crop of Heisman contenders.
Heisman winners aren’t supposed to master three or four new facets of the game.
Lamar Jackson’s growth this season is unfathomable. He goes into the Hall of Fame of electricity, alongside peak-Michael Vick and peak-Johnny Football. Anytime he’s on the field, your eyes stay glued to the screen.
Anything is possible on every play. Perhaps he’ll slip a defender and burst off a 50-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper. Or maybe he’ll launch a long bomb downfield on one of Bobby Petrino’s intricate, pro-style concepts. Better yet, how about we get a little bit of it all in one serving.
I present the most audacious play of the year:
That’s just Jackson avoiding a defensive back screaming in on a cat blitz. There isn’t another quarterback who can put that move on a defender. Jackson was left defenseless rolling out on a naked bootleg (leaving the backside defender unblocked). Rather than conceding the play, he hit the pause button, freezing time and giggling as the blitzer flew by him. Oh, and he capped it by delivering one of the best throws of his career.
Thanks for all the fun, Lamar.
Best Rhythm Passer — Mike White, Western Kentucky
Mike White isn’t a household name, but he’ll have a decent career at the next level thanks in part to his ability to throw in rhythm.
He isn’t the most graceful in the pocket. He’s not as nimble or bouncy as Jackson, Mayfield, Josh Rosen or even Mason Rudolph. An elongated release compounds the matter.
Yet he remains ruthlessly efficient: Hit the back foot, get the ball out. Three-step, five-step, seven-step drop — it doesn’t matter. He stays within the structure of the system, working as the point guard in an egalitarian offense:
He had an adjusted completion percentage of 75 percent this season, good for third in the nation, per ProFootballFocus.
White kept a struggling offense (77th S&P+) on time and in rhythm in the passing game. He led the Hilltoppers to the 21st-most successful offense on passing downs.
He doesn’t have the physical tools to match some of the nation’s best, nor is he as fun to watch. But White’s ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes, and keep his offense on track, ranks as high as anyone.
Best Pocket Presence — Josh Rosen, UCLA
What Rosen did this season was a near miracle. He somehow put up 26 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. All of that behind an offensive line that was routinely caved in.
His line often looked confused and lost:
There’s a reason UCLA is paying Jim Mora $10 million-plus to not coach its football team: He failed to surround a generational talent at the most important position with enough men with the ability to keep Rosen upright.
Rosen was surrounded by a rotating cast of mediocrity. Too often he was left to fend for himself as a beleaguered offensive line had it handed to them by the bullies on the other side of the ball.
Rosen played on survival instincts. He had to get better at moving in the pocket to avoid pressure; create a sixth sense for when pass rushers were careening in from behind; and become a more delicate mover in the pocket, having to take shorter half steps rather than slide in the traditional sense.
It worked. He wowed.
Rosen keeps his feet light. He’s perfected the art of the stick, slide, climb, throw. And when he needs to, he can go into full wizard mode:
He’s still prone to stretches of frustration. He forces throws he needn’t. He will hang in the pocket even though he has the skills to slink away from an oncoming rusher, almost a symbolic wave of the white flag.
Still, few navigate a messy pocket better. And no one has had as much practice.
Others bob and weave like a boxer, keeping a play alive until they scamper away or find an open teammate. Rosen’s movements are more old school. It’s Tom Brady-like.
It’s as if he’s the Roadrunner setting a trap for Wile E. Coyote. He’ll slow time, alter his body by a degree and watch as a pass rusher goes flying off the cliff:
It’s more of a shuffle than the traditional slide. But unlike his wicked cartoon contemporary, it doesn’t always work:
Yet Rosen’s pocket mobility has helped him churn out more production than some of the more electric pocket movers — Mayfield, Jackson et al. It’s a big reason why NFL teams will be falling over themselves to pick him in the upcoming draft.
Best Fun Factor — Quinton Flowers, South Florida
Yes, this is essentially the same category as most electric. And yes, it’s another way of me sneaking in an extra player. You’ll just have to deal with it.
It hurts to leave Khalil Tate out, but that dude has at least another season ahead of him — he’s got plenty of fun left to give.
Quinton Flowers is off to the NFL. Hopefully as a quarterback, more likely as a hybrid runner-receiver. Either way, he’s been one of the best one-man shows in college football the last two seasons.
If Jackson was capable of delivering a jaw-dropping moment on any play, Flowers was more likely to make you scream holy bleep as you jumped up from your couch:
Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be the best athletes on the field. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to have the most swagger of anyone on the field.
Watching Flowers was an experience. That’s the best compliment you can give. You never knew what was coming — I’m not always sure he did, either.
Best Big-Time Throws — Will Grier, West Virginia
Don’t get too upset, Sooners fans. We’ll get to Mayfield in due course. For the sake of diversity, I’ve handed this honor to his Big 12 compatriot.
Will Grier remains a maddening player. For every dime he rips 20 yards downfield from a funky platform, we’re treated to a silly decision — often throwing the ball into a batch of defenders or passing up a simplistic throw for a more difficult one. And he still falls victim to arm arrogance: Leaning away from throws, losing some zip and accuracy in the process:
Still: He remains an unconscious thrower. No matter what happened before, he’s willing to let the ball fly.
The ball explodes out of his hand. The special looks effortless:
When he’s in full form, the whole field is open to the West Virginia offense. Grier can throw the ball 30 yards downfield to the back shoulder better than if he walked down and handed it to his buddy. There’s no defending 1-on-1 matchups.
Best On-Field IQ — Josh Rosen; Lamar Jackson; Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
We’re going with a three-way tie here. Each player operates a vastly different system. But there’s no separating the top-3 quarterbacks in the country when it comes to managing their offenses and making particular throws based on coverage principles.
Rosen has run a more traditional pro-style system — as pro-style as it gets in this modern age — than most. Jackson has arguably had the most to process: running a creative blend of veer-run concepts tagged with brilliant passing designs Petrino ran in the NFL. And Baker is Baker. Lincoln Riley likes to use obscure route combinations and a heavy bag of difficult run-pass options (RPOs).
Mayfield downloads it all in an instant and rarely, if ever, makes the wrong decision. He’s also taken a big leap in manipulating coverages. He now throws precise balls against certain kinds of coverage, rather than winging it to an open man to keep his completion percentage ticking along. There’s a big difference.
Best Thrower Off-Platform — Justin Herbert, Oregon
One of the nation’s most under-discussed, top-level quarterbacks. Justin Herbert was quick to figure out Willie Taggart’s fun-n-gun offense. Together, in their sole season working together, they torched everyone they faced.
A broken collarbone that kept him out for six weeks robbed us of the full Herbert experience. With him on the field, the Ducks averaged more than 50 points a game. The offense was a shell of itself without its top signal caller, however.
His calling card: Throwing off-platform.
Herbert can deliver an accurate ball from any base or arm angle, regardless of what’s around him or how he has to contort his body.
He has this peculiar way of delivering balls from awkward angles, even when he needn’t. It’s as though the laws of physics don’t apply to him. The result: The ball gets on defenders a tick before they’re used to.
It’s sometimes odd. But it works. When you chuck in his fleet-footedness, accuracy and ability to deliver throws anywhere on the field — you have an all-around game wrecker.
At times, he goes through mechanical breakdowns. He’ll lean away from a throw. There will be players flailing around his feet. He may have to flip the ball across his body.
No problem. He’s creative. He uses the lines as a guide, not a rule. He cares not for the Bill Walsh credo of quarterback mechanics. He will figure out the way to get the ball to his guy on his own, thanks.
Herbert should be a Heisman front-runner in 2018. He’s effective, he’s fun, he has enough razzle-dazzle to beat voters over the head with highlights, and he plays quarterback. That’s the formula in this vapid, social media-driven era.
Worryingly for opposing defenses, it feels like there’s more to come.
Best at Throwing with Anticipation — Josh Rosen
Rosen was one of the best anticipation throwers in the country the instant he took to the field as freshman. He’s continued to improve.
Part of it, again, is survival skills. He’s getting hit a lot; therefore, the ball needs to be out quicker. His guys aren’t winning downfield; therefore, he needs to tip the deck in their favor by getting the ball out early.
He has improved at throwing to landmarks, releasing the ball before his receivers break and letting his guys go get it (even if they flub their own lines):
There’s an issue on crossing routes. He gets fidgety. Anticipation turns to recklessness. He fires off a throw over the middle of the field before his receiver is ready — despite the window being there. It’s a recipe for tipped balls and turnovers.
Sometimes patience is needed. It’s understandable why some of his may have run out: He’s thinking steps ahead of his teammates.
One extra tidbit: Rosen has mastered the art of the pick-up-and-flick-it box RPO, now a staple among the NFL’s elite. Where some — see: Aaron Rodgers — prefer to just whip the ball across their body or without setting their feet, Rosen quick-jumps his whole body into position. It’s nifty:
Toughest — Austin Allen, Arkansas
Austin Allen took one hell of a beating throughout his Razorback career. His supporting talent wasn’t up to his level. Instead of discussing his future pro prospects, we’re left wondering if he will play football again.
Brett Bielema routinely left him to take a walloping even when games were out of hand. It was unfair.
Allen never complained. He bounced back, and knifed opponents as best he could. He’s the best thrower of the ball off play-action the SEC has seen in the last five years.
He has talent. He moves in the pocket well, he can deliver every throw — if lacking a cannon — and has an immense sense of timing and anticipation. He routinely delivers balls a full two seconds before he should, just to avoid a closing pass rush. He’ll put the ball up with a hang time most punters would be proud of. He figures out ways to get the ball to his receivers.
Allen will unfairly be judged on his raw numbers and the team’s success with him at the helm. He’s infinitely more talented than the Bielema staff showcased. He routinely played banged up. The staff repaid him with anemic game plans that would see him take deep, five- and seven-step drops (often off play-action) against elite-level pass rushes. That’s dumb.
Allen’s toughness and willingness to fight for his teammates, staff and school is beyond admirable. He should earn plaudits from everywhere, not just in Arkansas.
Best Play-Action Thrower — Josh Rosen, UCLA
Traditional play-action throws are a dying art in this pace-and-space, spread-option era.
Rosen has an innate knack for turning his back, resetting his feet, scanning the field and getting the ball out before the defense comes calling. (So does Georgia freshman Jake Fromm, by the way.)
Traditional play-action calls have been replaced by newfangled RPOs. The reasoning: They’re easier to sell (no one is acting, because they don’t know if they’re getting the ball); they morph on the fly; the defense cannot be correct; and it makes football a 1-on-1 contest.
There’s a place for classic play-action shots, though:
Rosen is a play-action artist. It utilizes his best traits: moving in the pocket, throwing down the field, throwing with touch and making quick decisions.
Best Thrower off RPOs — Baker Mayfield
Play-action is the past. RPOs are the present and the future.
Mayfield is the best RPO thrower I’ve ever evaluated. The speed of his decision-making; the quickness of his release; and his ability to throw, accurately, from the most inconvenient of arm angles and platforms is a deadly cocktail.
I never thought someone could gazump Marcus Mariota. Mayfield has.
The Sooners embrace all the RPO goodness. First-level (defensive line), second-level (linebacker), and third-level (safety) reads are littered throughout the playbook. Whereas other put the emphasis on simplicity, Lincoln Riley embraces complexity:
That’s an outside-zone play tagged with a deep crosser. It sits somewhere between the spring-out and bootleg family. Mayfield has to roll to his left, reset his feet, look off a deep safety, then unfurl a ball 40-yards downfield. He made it look straightforward.
Figuring out how to defend RPOs is the biggest question in coaching circles right now. It keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Solving the riddle keeps them in jobs.
Mayfield’s unique abilities allow Riley to draw up designs other coaches only dream of. There’s no chance to defend them.
Best ‘It’ Factor — Sam Darnold, USC
Sam Darnold is a tantalizing pro prospect. But he doesn’t grade out as the top QB in any of the previous categories.
Still: There’s something irresistible about a tall, big armed quarterback who can move and extend plays. It’s that “it” factor. That put-the-team-on-your-back-in-a-big-spot factor.
He’s scheme-proof, too. He has enough of everything to change things up midstream if you like. Something not going right in the first half? Discard it and draw up something new for the second half.
That alone is an intoxicating skill.
A lot of the time it’s not orthodox or pretty. Darnold is far from polished. He will throw without planting his feet. He’ll forget what he’s supposed to do with his non-throwing hand. And he has a quirky way of running while all four of his limbs point in opposite directions. But at the end of it, he’s often picking up a first down.
Darnold needs to learn when a play is dead — rather than enter the Brett Favre territory of recklessness for recklessness’ sake. But he’s an evolving player; he struggles with some of the complexities of position. Ohio State and Greg Schiano bamboozled him with a series of zone pressures in the Cotton Bowl:
That’s a zone pressure specifically designed to attack an inside-zone run tagged with a quick slant (an RPO). Darnold was lazy with his decision making: “Oh, the linebacker drives, I flip the ball behind him.” It was a trap coverage and the quarterback fell for it. Wilting under an overwhelming pass rush is no great shame. Failing to see rotating safeties and playing pitch-and-catch for pick-sixes is a concern.
But Darnold has a way of figuring stuff out. His “feel” for making plays bails him out of some tough situations. He can make throws others wouldn’t dream of, rolling to either side. He’s not afraid to abandon strict quarterback mechanics in order to get the ball where it needs to go:
There are not many quarterbacks on earth who would have the guts to make that throw. There are even fewer who could pull it off.
Best on the Move — Baker Mayfield
For someone so brilliant inside the pocket, I’m not always sure Mayfield wants to be there. He goes through patches where he gets fidgety.
He’s a master at manipulating the pocket in order to open up throwing lanes. Few short quarterbacks figure that out. They run around, make plays, win accolades, then bomb out at the next level.
Not Mayfield. He works the pocket as well as any colligate quarterback you will evaluate, regardless of size. And yet, he still prefers to break out and do a lot of his damage on his move.
You can see why:
He may be even better throwing on the move. How does that even make sense?
He pulls of the ridiculous effortlessly. He makes throws that should be career highlights for most, on a down-in-and-down-out basis. Bail out, flick the wrist, move on with the game. He’ll come back the next drive and deliver something equally stupefying.
Mayfield could genuinely be the top pick for almost all of these categories. He’s that good. While there’s little separating him from others in some categories, he’s head-and-shoulders ahead in terms of his accuracy moving to either side.
Most Arm Power — Drew Lock, Missouri
Say what you will about Drew Lock as an all-around quarterback, but the guy has undeniable jump-out-of-your-seat arm power.
As I’ve written a bunch, an “NFL arm” is not about raw velocity as some would have you believe. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s about mixing up trajectories and velocities across the field, being able to hit any kind of throw to any level.
Lock cares not for your scouting parlance. He’s going to sling it. No matter the situation, no matter the necessary throw, he’s going to rip a 90 mph fastball — accuracy be damned.
It helps that Lock played in Josh Heupel’s pump-and-dump system the last couple of years.
His progress as a total quarterback prospect was harmed. But his arm was showcased. You best believe some NFL general manager will talk himself into that 12-gauge — see: Cardale Jones, Logan Thomas or any number of guys whose stock has been inflated due to physical tools.
Most Arm Talent — Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Jarrett Stidham is the definition of arm talent.
He can hit all the throws: Bucket throws over linebackers and in front of safeties; cover-2 beaters, splitting a corner and safety along the sideline; quick window throws with a linebacker quickly closing on a receiver cutting over the middle of the field; deep bombs; and throwing a catchable ball, where guys can go create after making the grab.
You will be hard-pressed to find a better arm anywhere in the nation than the one attached to Stidham’s right shoulder. He’s a nuanced thrower. He vacillates between sidearm whipped throws over the middle of the field and inch-perfect tear drops lofted over a scrambling defensive back:
Stidham leads all quarterbacks in passer rating on downfield throws outside the numbers, per ProFootballFocus. With his return to the Plains now official, he will also be included in the short list of Heisman front-runners for next season.
Best Under Pressure — Baker Mayfield
I tried to squeeze Rudolph into this spot. But Mayfield has a 112.7 passer rating on throws when pressured, people! How is that even possible?
This one isn’t even a contest.
Most Surprising Performer — McKenzie Milton, UCF
In McKenzie Milton, Scott Frost found his option soulmate — and the Knights hit lift-off.
The undersized quarterback is a wizard at operating a modern wishbone-style system, resplendent with split-backfields and all kinds of motion and movement: Reading unblocked defenders; never panicking; adjusting to quirky fronts; knowing when to pitch or not to, he does it all at a high level.
He toys with defenses, often using motion backs to flip the triple-option threat at the last second, before perfectly running what’s tantamount to a speed option:
Frost the player would have been proud.
It’s not just on creative options, either. Milton led all FBS quarterbacks in deep passing yards this season (throws of more than 20 yards), per ProFootballFocus.
His brilliance was overshadowed by the excellence of his coach. But he was more than worthy of his eighth-place Heisman Trophy finish.
Who’s got next? — Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
I know you don’t want to hear this, but the next special quarterback resides in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Deep breath.) This title-winning thing ain’t over yet, folks.
This isn’t a case of being a prisoner of the moment. When I originally penned this column prior to the playoff, I included this line: “Give Nick Saban’s staff some truth serum, and they’d confess Tua is the more talented of the pair” — referring to Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Saban & Co. answered that question with their switch from Hurts to Tagovailoa in the second half of the National Championship Game.
When I evaluated him coming out of high school, it was evident that Tagovailoa was something special:
I believe Tua to be the next GREAT quarterback. Putting him at 'Bama (after Hurts) is going to be unfair https://t.co/AbCFNk472G
— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) December 16, 2016
He has a rare combination of smarts, field vision, a rapid release, accuracy, and the ability to move and create offense by himself. In talking with people around him, those rare on-field traits also translate into rare off-the-field intangibles. What we witnessed on Monday night was the early moments of an all-time great career.
Brian Daboll has shifted the Alabama offense back to the vertical style of old — with option elements that use the quarterback as the downhill threat rather than the running back.
Tagovailoa is perfect for that vision of a modern Saban attack. And, as shown on Monday, he can stretch the field vertically in a way Hurts has failed to in his two years as a starter.
Oh, and he’s a lefty. Lefties are more fun. That’s just a fact.