By Russ Lande
As always, the primary focus at the top of the NFL draft is on the quarterbacks that are likely to be first round draft picks. The past has taught us quality passers can often be found in the later rounds of the draft and even as undrafted free agents. Here are five quarterbacks that will likely be third day draft picks, but have shown us enough to think they have a chance to become quality starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
Jeff Mathews: Cornell, 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, 5.26 second 40-yard dash
The quintessential small school player coming from the Ivy League, Mathews proved throughout his college career and then again at the East West Shrine Game that he has the size, smarts and arm strength to be productive throwing the ball at the next level. The biggest issue I saw on film with Mathews was a tendency to be slow to react and make throws once he identifies open receivers, which is going to be an even bigger hurdle to overcome in the NFL. At Cornell, even when he was late getting rid of the ball he had the arm strength to gun the ball to a receiver before the defender could react, but in the NFL the cornerbacks close on the ball so much faster, which will lead to interceptions if he does not improve. Mathews has a quick, compact release and gets rid of the ball fast once he decides to throw it and as he showed during practice at the East West Game and during the combine, he can make every NFL throw, be it a touch or rip throw, with accuracy.
Oddly, the Ivy Leaguer reminds me a little of Alex Smith, because he's so quick to pick up schemes and protections. However, on the field it looks as though he is thinking too much while in the pocket. This is something that can be improved upon but is not an overnight fix, which is why Mathews is a true developmental quarterback prospect.
Stephen Morris: Miami, 6-foot-2, 218, 4.63 second 40-yard dash
After a stellar junior season, a number of NFL scouts told me they expected Morris to take the next step in his senior year and end up a 2014 first round pick. Although he is not a big quarterback, he has a strong enough arm to make every NFL throw, is a big play threat scrambling with the ball and flashes the ability to be a game changing passer at times. However, Morris struggled with accuracy, consistency and decision making in 2013 and at times played like an undraftable quarterback.
Two things in particular really stood out that must improve if he is going to make it in the NFL. In 2013 he did not seem comfortable reading the defense at the line of scrimmage. Morris did not get rid of ball quickly during blitzes and rarely threw to receivers who were left open in areas vacated by rushers. Although some quarterbacks have been successful in the NFL throwing to a receiver once he opens up, Morris needs to do a better job of anticipating and leading receivers to be effective. In the end, he has frontline NFL starter talent, but must improve drastically to become more than just a backup at the next level.
Bryn Renner: North Carolina, 6-foot-3, 228, 4.87 second 40-yard dash
Knowing little of Renner when I started evaluating his film, I was pleasantly surprised by his skill set but also frustrated by his inability to showcase those skills consistently. In the games I evaluated I saw an underrated athlete who was able to avoid sacks, and make strong and accurate throws on the move. Blessed with a strong arm, Renner can drive the ball to make the 18 yard "dig" and 15 yard "out" throws with zip while leading the receiver.
There are two areas that Renner has to improve in if he is ever going to be more than a backup. First, although he does an excellent job of striding into throws at times and is an accurate passer when he does, often he gets lazy with footwork and ends up throwing with poor foot placement, which leads to inaccurate passes. Surprisingly, for a player who often shows a real willingness to throw the ball away at a moments notice, he goes through stretches where he will force passes into bad spots and will throw the ball up for grabs. Renner clearly has the talent to start in the NFL, but he must become much more consistent if he is going to last long as a professional quarterback.
Brett Smith: Wyoming, 6-foot-2, 206 pounds , 4.83 second 40-yard dash
Smith was not invited to the combine, thus when I began evaluating him I had low expectations. However, within the first quarter of the Nebraska game it was clear to me that he is significantly more talented than most of the quarterbacks invited to Indianapolis. A premier athlete, Smith makes it look easy pulling the ball down and making game changing plays scrambling with the ball. Not only productive at scrambling for positive yards, he is also outstanding at avoiding pressure and consistently makes great throws on the move, even though he rarely resets his feet.
It was clear to me early on that Smith has the "plus arm" to easily make every NFL throw, but at times his "Phillip Rivers" like throwing motion, where the ball looks like it is being pushed out of his hand, makes his passes look sluggish. I love Smith's ability to put the ball where only the receiver can make a play, but I'm concerned by his tendency to throw his receivers into big hits. This is usually a red flag for quarterbacks who lack field vision, which obviously is a big concern. Of all the quarterbacks in the Draft, Smith is without question the most underrated and has the potential to be a frontline, game changing passer if he can become more fundamentally sound.
Logan Thomas: Virginia Tech, 6-foot-6, 248 pounds , 4.61 second 40-yard dash
Entering the 2012 season, many around the NFL expected Thomas to have another strong year and declare early for the 2013 NFL Draft, and be picked in the first round. Unfortunately for Thomas, 2011 was his best season at Virginia Tech; he has struggled with accuracy, decision making and footwork since. He is a massive man at slightly over 6-foot-6 and nearly 250 pounds, and possesses the ability to make big plays with his feet. However, his top level arm strength and ability to make great throws with zip and accuracy are what make Thomas so enticing and frustrating at the same time. Rarely do quarterbacks whose level of play goes down their final two seasons ever stop the slide and return to their previous form; but because of his physical skills, character and work ethic Thomas is the type of kid to take a chance on.
I believe that he would be an ideal fit going to the Bears or Chargers where there is a veteran quarterback running the show and a head coach who has a history of developing quarterbacks. Thomas needs to do a much better job of maintaining bent knees while going through progressions and throwing the ball, quickening his release and calming down in the pocket so that he does not force the ball into bad spots when he cannot find an open receiver quickly.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.