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Nickel Package: Junior QBs on the move

10/24/2012

Teams looking for quarterback help in the NFL draft clearly expect early-round picks to contribute right away, and the 2012 rookie class is doing just that.

However, for teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and others that could be in the market for quarterbacks early in the first round in 2013, the failure of a trio of underclassmen to jump to the next level has the current market looking lean.

Three of the junior quarterbacks we at Scouts Inc. included in our preseason evaluation process -- including Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, who entered the 2012 season with a first-round grade -- have been taken off our board altogether. We've seen enough tape of all three to reach the conclusion that they are not ready to become NFL quarterbacks at this point.

That's not to say Thomas and the others won't eventually become good players at the next level, or that we have any information regarding their decision to stay in school or enter the draft. It only indicates that what I've seen on the field so far tells me they are not yet prepared for the NFL.

With that in mind, this week's Nickel Package looks at the fortunes of five junior quarterbacks -- the three mentioned above, one who remains on the board and one trending up -- and why their draft stock is coming under scrutiny.

Off the board

Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech

Thomas has size (6-foot-5, 254 pounds), arm strength and an ability to shake defenders in the pocket that are reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger, but the difference between the two is accuracy.

Big Ben doesn't have the best mechanics, but he is a naturally accurate passer who gets the ball where it needs to be. Thomas has thrown some nice deep balls this season, but his overall accuracy, especially on short-to-intermediate throws, is nowhere close to being at an NFL level right now.

There is some concern that the ball does not come off his hand naturally, and that may or may not be something Thomas can correct. However, he must work tirelessly to improve his overall mechanics and his footwork. Thomas also needs to become a more complete quarterback in terms of reading defenses and getting through progressions. He too often gets stuck on his primary read.

It's true that Thomas hasn't gotten much help from his supporting cast and Virginia Tech's vanilla scheme doesn't do him any favors, but those are separate issues from those related to his potential jump to the NFL.

Tyler Bray, Tennessee

Bray might have the best arm talent of any quarterback in the nation right now -- which earned him a second-round preseason grade -- but scouts also said the same thing about guys like Jeff George and Ryan Leaf. Success in the NFL goes well beyond how far or how hard a quarterback can throw the ball.

Bray (6-5, 215) is naturally accurate with his passes and that's a big plus, but he does not have much quickness in the pocket, and his inability to avoid the pass rush is a concern. And because of that lack of foot quickness, Bray has to get better at recognizing the blitz, where it's coming from and where to go with the ball to beat it. He does not have the ability to create when the play breaks down. Bray also tends to force balls into traffic or throw them up for grabs.

He has a chance to be a very good NFL starter, but Bray has to improve significantly in the mental areas of the game. Showing a 24-7 commitment to improving and working to improve his physical weaknesses is a must for Bray. Superstars like Tom Brady and Drew Brees have done it, but it remains to be seen whether Bray can flip that switch and take the next step.

Tajh Boyd, Clemson

Boyd came out of our preseason evaluations with a third-round grade, the ball comes off his hand well and I like his passing skills. However, I just haven't seen much improvement in terms of consistent accuracy on certain NFL throws.

Clemson does not run a prototypical pro-style system, but Boyd (6-1, 225) would still benefit from more reps and game experience at the college level. I would say a junior should return to school if he's not convinced he'll be a first- or second-round pick, and while Boyd has the potential to become an early-rounder, I'm not comfortable putting him in that mix at this point.

Still on the list

Aaron Murray, Georgia (Grade: 71)

Nearly every 2012 game tape I've studied of Murray shows improvement over his body of work from last season, especially in terms of decision making and consistent accuracy. The loss to South Carolina is a notable exception, though, and that's troubling because that game was closer to the speed and tempo of an NFL game than any of Murray's other tapes.

He did not appear to check out of bad plays as often as he should have against the Gamecocks, and his failure to move his feet and find passing windows led to some poor throws and a couple that were batted down. That's a concern because Murray (6-1, 212) lacks prototypical height, and also because he has the natural foot quickness to do so.

However, Murray remains on the board for a few reasons. First, he has made the above-mentioned strides since last season. Secondly, he has plenty of experience in big games in the SEC. Thirdly, going back to school isn't going to make him any taller and ease concerns about his size.

Finally, Murray is far closer to realizing his full potential than the other quarterbacks on this list, and I just don't know that going back to school would boost him much higher than the late second or early third round.

Might join the list

AJ McCarron, Alabama

McCarron has been unfairly branded as simply a "game manager" because that's how his predecessors John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy were characterized. I'm not saying McCarron has elite physical tools, but he does have far more mobility and arm strength than Wilson or McElroy. It's not even close, in fact.

McCarron is showing the ability to make all the NFL throws, and he's done a good job delivering the ball accurately when moving outside the pocket to both his left and right. He's also connected on some deep balls, but because his arm is not elite McCarron has to improve his timing on downfield throws in order to consistently hit his receivers in stride.

Still, beginning with the BCS title game in January, I'm not sure any quarterback in the country has made bigger strides than McCarron over that time. I expect him to return to Alabama and be part of the 2014 class, but McCarron -- who does not have a full 2013 evaluation -- is definitely catching the eyes of scouts and could very well be in the early-round mix at that point if he continues trending up at this pace.