The quarterback pipeline from college football to the NFL has been flowing at full bore over the past few seasons. Five blue-chip passers—Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones—went off the board in the first 15 picks of the 2021 draft, and the 2020 class produced current starters Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Hurts. The 2019 draft gave us Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones; the 2018 class featured Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield; and the 2017 draft produced Patrick Mahomes. With so many supremely talented quarterbacks arriving in the league over the past few years, it has started to feel like a given that every draft will bring multiple future stars at the position to the NFL. The 2022 class, unfortunately, could break that streak.
With Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler’s future in limbo―the presumptive Heisman candidate has been relegated to backing up true freshman Caleb Williams and will likely transfer―the coming draft’s quarterback class lacks a standout star. And depending on how the rest of the college season plays out, it might not even feature a lock for the top 10. Still, there is some hope for QB-needy NFL franchises. With bowl season just over the horizon, the 2022 class has an intriguing group of passers, from Liberty’s Malik Willis to Ole Miss’s Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Nevada’s Carson Strong, and North Carolina’s Sam Howell. So let’s take an early look at a few of the favorites to emerge as the top quarterbacks in the class.
Malik Willis, Liberty
Willis has put his name on the first-round radar this season with a dynamic performance in Liberty’s Hugh Freeze–led offense. A former three-star recruit from Atlanta, Georgia, Willis started his college career at Auburn, where he backed up Jarrett Stidham for two seasons before transferring. After sitting out a year, he exploded onto the scene for the Flames in 2020, leading the team to a 10-1 record while throwing for 2,260 yards with 20 touchdowns and six picks, adding 944 yards and 14 scores with his legs. A dual-threat quarterback, Willis has passed for 1,679 yards with 17 touchdowns to six interceptions this season to go with his 647 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
Willis reminds me of Jalen Hurts in the way he stresses defenses on the ground. He’s got a sturdy, muscular build and combines breakaway speed and make-you-miss quickness as a runner. He’s capable of creating explosive plays both on designed runs or scrambles, as he did several times against Old Dominion early this season.
Willis’s elusiveness makes him a pain to defend. Opponents not only have to account for what he can do with his arm, but the ways he can win with his legs, and that consistently shows up in high-leverage situations, like these two third-down conversions against Troy.
Willis also brings a big arm as a passer. He has a whiplike release, is capable of changing arm angle to fit passes past defenders, and has shown the ability to throw on the move, generating the upper-body torque to launch passes when running both to the right or left. These two passes from Willis stood out on tape: He effortlessly launched both to the far sideline and hit his receivers in stride.
But Willis is no slam dunk. His ball security can be an issue at times, and he threw three picks apiece in games against Middle Tennessee State and Lousiana-Monroe (the latter a shocking loss for Liberty). His accuracy can wane. And he’ll face questions about the level of competition he’s faced in college. But the bottom line is that Willis has extremely intriguing tools as both a passer and runner, and if he can cut down on turnovers, I’m guessing he’ll continue to rise as we get closer to the draft.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
In the aftermath of Rattler’s shocking demotion, Corral has stepped in as one of the top favorites for the Heisman Trophy this year. A former four-star recruit and top-100-ranked player nationally out of Long Beach, California, the talented passer has filled up the stat sheet in Lane Kiffin’s offense this season, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 1,913 yards with 15 touchdowns to just one pick in seven games while adding 474 yards and nine scores on the ground. His athleticism and playmaking moxie are undeniable.
A third-year starter, Corral is a quick processor in the Rebels’ RPO-heavy scheme. He drops back, hits his back foot, and consistently gets the ball out on time, throwing with accuracy to all three levels of the field. He’s deft at navigating the pocket when pressure arrives and keeps his eyes downfield to find open receivers. He boasts a strong arm but knows how to toggle between different velocities. I loved this throw against Tennessee, where he pump-faked to the outside before lofting a perfectly placed rainbow down the sideline for a touchdown.
Like Willis, Corral offers legit dual-threat ability. He’s a dynamic runner who combines speed and agility in the open field, and he’s shown that he’s capable of being more than just an opportunistic scrambler. In fact, Corral carried the ball a whopping 30 times for 195 yards in the team’s 31-26 win against Tennessee. He showed toughness and determination in that game, overcoming a slightly substandard passing performance (he completed a season-low 55 percent of his passes) by making things happen with his legs. Corral was unstoppable in some of the game’s key moments, including runs that converted first downs on fourth-and-6, third-and-13, and third-and-7.
Coral is one of the flashiest playmakers in this class but has had bouts of inconsistency in his college career. The junior playmaker has been more disciplined as a passer this season, but concerns cropped up last year in disastrous outings against Arkansas (six interceptions) and LSU (five interceptions). If he can finish strong as the season wraps up and avoid any more meltdowns, Corral should see his stock continue to soar.
Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Pickett is the biggest riser in this group, a fifth-year super-senior who’s taken his game to a whole new level in 2021. The Pitt star has drawn comparisons to Joe Burrow not only due to his rapid rise to the first-round conversation, but because of his steely playing demeanor and efficiency as a passer. A former three-star recruit out of Oakhurst, New Jersey, Pickett boasts an unmatched level of experience compared to his draft-class peers, with 43 career starts under his belt. His decision to return to school after the COVID-19–affected 2020 season seems to have been a smart one: NFL scouts were giving him fourth- or fifth-round grades after last year, according to Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy, but Pickett may have a chance at the first round in 2022, particularly after his impressive performance in the team’s win over Clemson last weekend (ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranked Pickett no. 15 on his latest big board).
Pickett has been one of my favorite quarterbacks to watch on tape this fall. He plays with light feet and throws with a solid, wide base, using an over-the-top throwing motion to put plenty of zip on the ball. The ball jumps off his hand, and when he steps into a pass he can really spin it. He’s tallied an extremely impressive stat line this year, completing 69 percent of his passes for 2,236 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just one pick. He made a trio of very impressive throws on one first-half drive against the Tigers last weekend, the third a dime of a touchdown pass that he threw while moving to his right.
Pickett can manipulate defenders with his eyes. That showed up on this fourth-down touchdown pass last Saturday, when he coaxed a few Clemson defenders out of position before launching it over their heads.
He brings a very good feel for the pocket, sliding and strafing to keep himself alive and his eyes downfield. And he knows when to take off and run; he showed that he is athletic enough to make plays out of structure last weekend when, on a key third-and-7 midway through the fourth quarter, he broke the pocket, ran, and dove for a first down―a play that helped Pitt put the game away (Clemson never got the ball back).
Pickett is a late bloomer―he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie in 2022―and that could concern teams. Past that, his passes sail over his intended target at times. He has smaller than ideal hands (reportedly measuring in at 8¼ inches). And it could be a red flag that he wears a glove on his throwing hand. But overall I’ve been impressed with Pickett’s poise and command this season and won’t be surprised if he ends up being one of the top quarterbacks chosen this spring.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Ridder is another exciting quarterback prospect whose tape I’ve liked. A former three-star recruit out of Louisville, Kentucky, Ridder has a tall, slender frame and plays with a silky-smooth, effortless style. He seems to glide around on the field, whether he’s dropping back to pass or taking off on a run, and he’s put together enough big plays for the undefeated Bearcats to be a potential future first-round pick. The senior passer has completed 64 percent of his passes this season for 1,620 yards with 15 touchdowns to just three picks in seven games. He’s added another 124 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The first thing that jumps off Ridder’s tape is his talent as a passer. He throws a beautiful deep ball, delivers a tight spiral, and shows the ability to put the ball on his receiver so they can easily turn and run upfield. He’s aggressive attacking the middle of the field, and trusts his arm to deliver a pass into a tight window.
He also shows nice touch on deep passes, taking just enough off of the ball to loft it into his target’s hands.
Ridder is an excellent athlete and made Bruce Feldman’s 2021 “Freaks List” thanks to a 4.55-second 40 time and 36-inch vert. And he’s certainly mobile enough to make plays with his legs (and has scored a total of 25 touchdowns on the ground in his four-year college career).
The main areas where Ridder must improve are his consistency and accuracy. A few too many of his deep passes sail to the middle and to the sideline over his intended targets’ heads, and while he’s capable of hitting a tight window throw, he runs hot and cold in his accuracy during the course of a game. He lacks touch on short passes at times, missing on easy swing passes, for example, and could stand to be more disciplined in his decision-making. Still, I love the combination of traits he brings to the table, and he’s certainly benefited this year practicing daily against one of the most stifling defenses in the country.
Carson Strong, Nevada
Strong is a rocket-armed quarterback with plenty of size (listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds). The former three-star recruit from Vacaville, California, has vaulted himself into the first-round discussion thanks to his consistent decision-making and his growing collection of big-time throws on tape. Strong got himself on the NFL’s radar with a standout 2020 season in which he completed 70.1 percent of his passes, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, and threw 27 touchdowns to just four picks to lead Nevada to a 7-2 record, and won Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors. Through seven games this season, Strong’s posting almost identical efficiency numbers, with a 70.4 percent completion rate, an 8.0 yards-per-attempt average, and 20 touchdowns to four picks.
Strong lives up to his name as a thrower, boasting effortless arm strength to push the ball downfield and put it in a spot only his target can get.
He can rifle a pass when he steps into it, and he’s fearless when throwing into traffic. He threads the needle a handful of times every game, trusting his ability to fit the ball into tight windows.
Unlike most of the quarterbacks on this list, though, Strong’s an immobile pocket passer who doesn’t offer much as an improvisational playmaker or as a scrambler. He lumbers when he looks to move and he doesn’t always get his feet set when he needs to escape pressure. His accuracy comes and goes, and he throws behind receivers a little too often. There are times when he puts a little too much air under his deep shots, forcing his receiver to slow down, twist, or spin back for a ball. The junior signal-caller will also face scrutiny from NFL scouts because he plays against a lower level of competition in the Mountain West, and with three previous surgeries on his right knee, he could get medical red flags. Ultimately, though, it’s not hard to imagine teams falling in love with his size, accuracy, and decision-making.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Coming into the season, Howell looked poised to challenge Rattler as the 2022 draft class’s top dog, but like Rattler, he’s seen his stock drop thanks to disappointing play. After passing for 3,586 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven picks in 2020, Howell’s numbers have trailed off this season: He’s completed just 61 percent of his passes (down from 68 percent last year), averaged 8.8 yards per attempt (still solid, but down from 10.3), and passed for 18 touchdowns to six interceptions in seven games. Some of that dropoff can be attributed to the fact North Carolina lost offensive skill players in Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter to the draft, but Howell still has the skill set to put himself in the hunt as a potential first-round pick. But he’ll need to play relatively flawlessly down the stretch.
A former four-star recruit out of Monroe, North Carolina, Howell reminds me of Baker Mayfield in both his size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and playing style. He shows good touch on short and intermediate passes and can vary his velocity, letting deep downfield passes rip. He’s an explosive thrower and has tallied double-digit 30-plus-yard touchdowns in 2021. Howell has shown the ability to move and reset in the pocket and keep his attention focused on the routes developing downfield, like he did on this touchdown throw against Florida State.
He’s also tough as nails as a runner and can make defenses pay if they don’t hem him up in the pocket. Florida State found that out the hard way, and Howell rushed for 108 yards in that game.
On the year, Howell’s picked up 494 yards and five scores on the ground. The Tar Heels aren’t afraid to use him on designed runs like quarterback draws, and he can pick up chunk yards when he needs to.
There are times when Howell seems to rely on scrambling a little too much, though, and he breaks pocket and reverts to improvisation instead of sticking with the structure of the play. His accuracy on throws over the middle is hit and miss, and while he does have a strong arm, there are times when his deep passes hang in the air, allowing defenders to close the gap on his targets. The junior passer still has the option to return to school and work on his craft, but if he balls out over the next month, he’s a candidate to enter the draft.
The Best of the Rest
WIllis, Corral, Pickett, Ridder, Strong, and Howell look like the front-runners in the 2022 quarterback class, but there’s plenty of other passers who could throw their names into the hat as the college season goes on. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Kentucky’s Will Levis at times this season, and players like Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, Stanford’s Tanner McKee, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall, Georgia’s JT Daniels, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, and USC’s Kedon Slovis, just to name a few, are all surely on NFL team’s watch lists. So is Rattler, for that matter, who may end up declaring despite being benched. There’s a long way to go in the process, but I’m excited to see how the rest of this year’s quarterback class plays down the stretch.