Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater entered the college football season as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in my rankings for the 2014 NFL draft, and he remains there through the first half of the season.
But there are a pair of redshirt sophomores who, if they continue to perform at the level they have in their fast starts to the season, could make the race to be the first QB taken in the draft very interesting: UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Neither is a lock to enter the draft early, and I think an additional year in college would be beneficial to their development (there is a strong correlation among QBs between NFL success and college experience). But if they do opt to come out early, the upside they have shown will make them very intriguing for NFL teams picking at the top of the draft.
I sat down to study the coach-copy tape of both players and update their preseason evaluations (here they are for Mariota and Hundley). Let’s take a look at how each grades out in the four key categories we use to evaluate QBs (on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the best possible score) and compare them as prospects.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon Ducks
6-foot-4, 211 pounds
Mental makeup: 2
Mariota is highly competitive and shows excellent poise. His eyes are faster this season, and his feet are married to his eyes when he’s going through his progressions. Granted, he benefits from the Ducks’ up-tempo spread attack, which features many simplified reads and large throwing windows (his biggest obstacle coming out in the draft will be proving he can succeed in a different system, unless of course his former college coach, Chip Kelly, decides to draft him for the Eagles). He has been overly cautious as a passer this season, but he clearly has increased awareness of the importance of ball security (zero turnovers through six games).
This is where Mariota has made his biggest improvement from last season. He is much more consistent with ball placement and is leading receivers to yards after the catch. He’s in balance far more often and shows the ability to make accurate throws on the run and when forced off balance. He has above-average deep-ball accuracy and is showing tempo on intermediate throws that require him to drop in a pass over a linebacker. He flashes the ability to anticipate throws but still has room to improve in this area.
Release/arm strength: 2
Mariota has a very quick release and has good (but not elite) arm strength. He can make all the NFL throws without any problem.
Pocket mobility: 1
His quickness isn’t on the elite level of Michael Vick in his prime, Russell Wilson or Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, but he’s just a notch below and does have quick reaction skills. His speed is elite. He looks faster than Colin Kaepernick (4.63 40-time) and Cam Newton (4.60), and, although Wilson (4.55) is quicker, Mariota appears to have better top-end speed.
Brett Hundley, UCLA Bruins
6-foot-3, 222 pounds
Mental makeup: 2.5
Hundley’s mental clock has sped up from last season. He isn’t holding on to the ball as long and isn’t taking as many sacks, but he also is still patient when appropriate. He is even-keeled and difficult to rattle and shows the ability to go through progressions. Additionally, he does a really nice job versus the blitz by identifying where the ball needs to go and getting it out quickly. He does, however, make some questionable reads and can show poor judgment (he made a terrible decision on the pick-six play against Utah).
Hundley’s mechanics are good, as he stays balanced, has bend in his front leg and drives through his throws with good hip rotation. He has good tempo on his throws and has demonstrated great deep-ball accuracy under pressure.
Release/arm strength: 2
Hundley has adequate-to-good release quickness and good-but-not-elite arm strength. He has a bit of a three-quarter delivery but is tall enough and gets the ball out quickly enough to avoid having balls batted down at the line of scrimmage (at least based on the tapes I’ve studied so far).
Pocket mobility: 2
Hundley isn’t as quick or as fast as Mariota, but he is still a good athlete for the position and is thicker and stronger than Mariota. He does have a tendency to vacate the pocket too early at times, and he occasionally will drop his eyes when looking to avoid pass-rushers, rather than keeping his eyes downfield.
Comparison: Mariota versus Hundley
Both of these guys are improving, and neither has a glaring flaw to his game. Hundley plays in a system that features more NFL reads and throws, which might make him more pro-ready after this season. It’ll take more tape study to get a quality sampling of Mariota’s NFL throws, but there’s enough evidence in six of his game tapes (four from last season and two from this year -- Tennessee and Washington) to build a case that Mariota’s passing skills will translate to the next level. Hundley is more consistent with his accuracy and has slightly more velocity on power throws, but Mariota makes more “wow” throws (anticipating, fitting passes into tight windows downfield, etc.).
Hundley has a more filled-out, sturdier frame, but Mariota is a bit taller and can easily fill out his frame in pre-draft training and beyond. Mariota also is noticeably quicker and faster, a better all-around athlete with better hand-eye coordination, and a better decision-maker and more naturally instinctive player.
In short, although Hundley is more developed and consistent right now with his accuracy and decision-making, Mariota has the higher ceiling. Not only does he have the potential to eventually be better in those two areas than Hundley but he makes some throws I just don’t see from Hundley.
I’ve moved Mariota ahead of Hundley in my latest rankings, and the gap between Bridgewater and these two guys isn’t what it was to start the season. Bridgewater is No. 1 with a grade of 95, Mariota No. 2 with a 94 and Hundley No. 3 with a 93. (In case you’re interested, Johnny Manziel and Miami's Stephen Morris round out the top 5 with grades of 87 and 86, respectively.)
If all three QBs come out, it’s going to be very interesting to see which emerges as the top quarterback taken. Given the performance we’ve seen out of each so far and the lack of separation among them, it could just come down to who carries himself the best through the character, psychological and interview tests that will take place during the draft process.