The NFL Draft has the ability to create true sentences that would seem baffling at first glance, at least to college football fans. The latest one? Josh Allen is being projected as a higher draft pick than Deshaun Watson.
It's a statement that is true for now, one that illustrates the familiar NFL/college divide of the draft, and one that also likely has many casual football fans mostly just asking, "Who's Josh Allen?"
The football world has turned its unlikely focus to Laramie, where Allen, the Wyoming quarterback, is being hailed as the next big thing in the sport. So much so that ESPN reporter Adam Schefter, at the end of the 2017 NFL Draft, relayed a message from an NFL executive declaring that Allen will be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft:
Schefter's sources are hardly alone. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora cited similar thoughts. The cascade of "way-too-early" mock drafts in the past few weeks have followed suit with at least top-10 hype: CBS has Allen going 10th. ESPN's Todd McShay has Allen second in his mock draft, and Mel Kiper Jr. has Allen ranked third on his big board. Bleacher Report has Allen going second. SB Nation third. SI.com sixth.
NFL Draft evaluators have been tossing Allen's name since around the middle of last season, but it's safe to say that not many college football fans have seen him play. Everybody knows about USC's Sam Darnold. Everybody knows about Josh Rosen. Allen, however, will enter the 2017 season as college football's most intriguing mystery player.
Like last year's No. 2 pick Carson Wentz, Allen was an overlooked prospect recruited by coach Craig Bohl. Bohl didn't stick around at North Dakota State to see Wentz develop into a starter and top NFL prospect, but now Allen is the face of what is proving to be Bohl's successful rebuilding job at Wyoming. Ignored out of high school, Allen was an unrated quarterback after spending one year at Reedley Community College, when he signed with the Cowboys in the class of 2015.
Wyoming was coming off a 4-8 season in Bohl's debut as head coach. Allen started a game in 2015, but he was quickly lost for the season and underwent shoulder surgery, and the Cowboys stumbled to a 2-10 record. There was hope for 2016 improvement with a healthy Allen at the helm, but Wyoming ending up enjoying an unexpected breakthrough, starting 7-2 with upset wins over Boise State and San Diego State to capture a division title, before losing to the Aztecs in the Mountain West championship game. Wyoming's eight wins tied for the most the program has had in any season in the past 20 years.
Allen earned second-team all-conference honors, completing 56 percent of his passes for 3,203 yards, 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also rushed for 523 yards and seven touchdowns. He finished 32nd nationally in passer rating. Only four players threw more interceptions (to be fair, one of those players was Watson).
It wasn't hard to see the raw talent that Allen owns. Listed at 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, Allen is a big quarterback capable of putting zip on his throws, someone who can push the ball downfield with ease and fire the ball on a rope through traffic. And it may seem simple, but NFL types undoubtedly will love that Allen frequently takes snaps from under center, a rarity among many top college QBs in recent years.
Allen has a knack for fitting passes into tight spots. He often toys with defensive backs, putting the ball where only his receiver can catch it without a lot of room to spare. He's also capable of manipulating defenders to throw receivers open.
There's no doubt that the athletic ability is a big part of what makes Allen so intriguing. He's not a burner, but he can successfully execute designed runs. More important, when the pocket breaks down, he has the ability to improvise with his legs. There's pocket mobility, and there's the ability to move the chains as a runner when necessary.
Few players are capable of making some of throws that Allen makes on the move. He does have a tendency to bail from the pocket too quickly -- something that won't fly nearly as often in the NFL -- and he can get into trouble making ill-advised throws, forcing passes instead of throwing the ball away. However, he can also keep his eyes downfield and launch eye-popping deep passes while on the move, all of which is why you'll inevitably hear the word "gunslinger" attached to him.
Allen's 15 interceptions weren't all his fault -- one of his five against Nebraska was a horrendous drop -- but he can rush mechanics under pressure, and he does have up-and-down accuracy on short and immediate throws, which is part of the reason for his somewhat low completion percentage.
Part of Allen's 56 completion rate is due to inexperience. Part of it is due to erratic accuracy. Part is due to Wyoming throwing downfield. Fifteen percent of Wyoming's pass attempts resulted in completions of 20 yards or more, a higher percentage than all but six FBS teams, allowing Allen to rank 13th in yards per attempt despite being 89th in completion percentage.
Right now, it's almost as if Allen's game is above criticism. There's a newness to game, as he's just being discovered. With only one year of FBS starting under his belt, there's a small sample size, and he's a young player. At this point, as NFL teams hope for truly great quarterback prospects in next year's class, it's easy to downplay weaknesses as fixable and focus on the elite traits and the upside. Allen certainly has that, with the type of arm strength ready for NFL teams to fall in love with.
Allen's placement in the draft class of 2017 would have been interesting had he decided to turn pro. Instead, he'll return to Laramie for his redshirt junior season, bringing sudden attention to the quarterback who has had a rapid rise from unrecruited obscurity to coveted NFL Draft prospect, a quicker rise than Wentz.
There will be some hurdles to overcome. Wyoming is in the tougher Mountain West division, the Mountain, where Boise State will inevitably be favored behind its own star QB, Brett Rypien. The Cowboys say goodbye to first-team all-conference center Chase Roullier, 1,800-yard rusher Brian Hill and their top three receivers, so Allen will have new faces around him in vital roles. They'll be in the spotlight quickly, too, as Wyoming opens the season on the road at Iowa and actually hosts Oregon in Week 3. Allen is the centerpiece now, and everything he does will be heavily dissected with the attention descending on the Cowboys.
For all the hype right now, it's impossible to know what comes next. A year ago at this time, Watson was widely projected to be the No. 1 overall pick. He ended up 12th. Miami's Brad Kaaya was believed to be a first-rounder. He ended up in the sixth round. A lot can change in one year, and everybody is guessing this far out.
Curiosity about Allen will soon turn to the avalanche of intense scrutiny that comes with every top quarterback prospect, and it will only grow over the next 12 months as he tries to build off last year's impressive season and improve his accuracy and his ability to handle pressure, the latter of which is particularly crucial for a quarterback successfully making an NFL transition.
Despite the rawness to aspects of his game, a year away from the draft, it's hard not to fall in love with Allen's potential. Thus, the eyes of the NFL world won't just be on places like Tuscaloosa and Columbus this year. They'll be on Laramie, a sudden proving ground for the future of an NFL franchise.