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Senior Bowl preview: Quarterbacks to watch for the Falcons

The final entry in our Senior Bowl preview is quarterback, where the Falcons must decide when to look to the future after Matt Ryan. The Senior Bowl features 5 of the top 6 QB prospects in this year’s class, headlined by Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

Miami v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

It’s officially Draft Season here at The Falcoholic, with the Atlanta Falcons locked into the 8th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Based on the results of the NFL’s divisional round of the playoffs, we also know that the Falcons will have the 58th pick as a result of the Julio Jones trade with the Titans. That gives the team three top-60 picks—and there’s the potential to add more with a few other player trades, if Atlanta is interested in making additional moves.

The next event on the offseason calendar is the Reese’s Senior Bowl—a showcase of the top draft-eligible seniors (or players who graduated early) that takes place in Mobile right around the first week of February. To get everyone ready for the week to come, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Falcons and the league at large. In case you missed any of the previous entries, you can find them here:

DL | LB | DB | WR | RB & TE | OL | QB

Next up is quarterback, where the Falcons have a decision to make about the future and when to address it.

QB

Depending on who you ask, Atlanta either has a serious need at QB or no need at all. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle—the Falcons have needed a long-term succession plan for Matt Ryan for awhile, and while that plan doesn’t need to be set in motion in 2022, it would probably still be a good idea. While this QB class doesn’t offer the star power of 2021, the depth is better. If Atlanta picks up extra picks in the late 1st-early 2nd round range, there could be an intriguing developmental prospect available.

The Senior Bowl will feature five of the top six QBs in the 2022 class, and I’d expect this showdown to be the headline of the week. Every single QB in Mobile is worth watching, and I’ll break them down below.

Kenny Pickett, Pitt

The current consensus QB1, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett had an awesome senior season where he completed 67% of his passes for 4319 yards (8.7 YPA), 42 TD, and 7 INT. Pickett has good size at 6’2, 220 and offers impressive mobility, both in the pocket and as a runner. He’s got an above-average arm and improved his accuracy and decision-making as a passer over the course of his college career, culminating in his outstanding 2021 season. In terms of this QB class, Pickett is the most pro-ready and I think he’s got a high floor as a solid to above-average NFL starter. The ceiling is the only thing I question: I don’t see Pickett reaching the heights of the NFL’s best. Pickett should still be the first QB off the board, and I think a good week at the Senior Bowl cements him as a top-10 pick.

Sam Howell, North Carolina

The quarterback that many expected to be the top prospect in this class, Sam Howell wound up taking a bit of a step back in 2021 after an incredible 2020 season. Howell lost a lot of talent around him at North Carolina, including multiple WRs and the dynamic RB duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Those challenges did allow Howell to develop a new part of his game, as he became a proficient dual-threat option and averaged 4.5 YPC on the ground (along with 11 rushing TDs).

Howell has solid size at 6’1, 220, has shown consistently good accuracy and arm strength, and has managed to thrive under difficult conditions as a leader. The concern from me once again comes from his ceiling, but he’ll have an opportunity to impress and raise his stock in Mobile.

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

If you asked me to pick a QB for the Falcons right now, I’d go with Desmond Ridder. To me, Ridder has all the tools and the skillset that Arthur Smith looks for to run his offense. TDN even comped him to Ryan Tannehill. I’ve already mocked him to the team in the second round but I expect a good week in Mobile will lift him into the first-round discussion. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Ridder, in particular, and here’s how I described his skillset:

At 6’4, 215, Ridder has excellent size, a strong arm, and offers legitimate dual-threat ability. Ridder is a four-year starter for Cincinnati and improved every year as a passer, culminating in a fantastic 2021 season that saw him complete 64.9% of his passes for 3334 yards (8.6 YPA), 30 TDs, and 8 INTs. He also demonstrated quality rushing ability, averaging 4.4 YPC over his career and piling up 28 TDs on the ground. Ridder is a team leader and fierce competitor, and led his team to an impressive 13-1 record and CFP appearance this season. Even though Cincy was taken down by Alabama, Ridder deserves credit for getting them that far—something no G5 quarterback had ever done.

Malik Willis, Liberty

I’ve been a big fan of Malik Willis since I first started seeing clips of him over the past few seasons. A rare athlete at quarterback, Willis is perhaps the biggest wild card in the entire draft. At 6’1, 215, Willis has a good build for the position and has one of the biggest arms in this class. He can absolutely rip it to any area of the field, which is even more impressive considering how undeveloped his mechanics are.

Despite his incredible tools and ability as a runner, Willis was a very inconsistent quarterback in terms of his accuracy and decision-making. I think he’s at least a year away from being able to start an NFL game, and two years might be the most ideal situation. Still, this is the prospect with the best chance of becoming the next special NFL quarterback. If he’s there in the second round for Atlanta, I’d strongly consider adding him to sit behind Ryan. Willis could lift himself even higher with a great Senior Bowl week, and he’ll be one of my top players to watch.

Carson Strong, Nevada

In a class with exciting dual-threat QBs like Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, and Desmond Ridder, it seems like a very good traditional pocket passer has been left by the wayside. Carson Strong may not have the excitement around him of the other top players, but he’s one of the most accomplished and polished passers in the class. Strong had an excellent 2021 season, where he completed 70.2% of his passes for 4186 yards (8.0 YPA), 36 TD, and 8 INT.

Strong has, forgive the pun, a strong arm and is capable of delivering the ball anywhere on the field with good touch and accuracy. He makes good decisions with the football and has a prototypical old-school QB build at 6’4, 215. Strong was playing through an injury this year which limited his mobility, but I don’t think he’s anything more than a solid athlete overall. I think Strong can be a good NFL starter in the right offense, but I do wonder if Arthur Smith prefers more athleticism under center. I expect Strong to impress in throwing drills in Mobile and to see his draft stock rise.

Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

I’ve not seen much of Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, but any player who breaks the number of records that he did in 2021 deserves attention. Zappe had one of the best seasons ever, completing 69.3% of his passes for 5967 yards, 62 TDs, and 11 INTs in just 14 games. Oh, and it was his first year as a starter at WKU. Any way you slice it, that’s incredible. Zappe seems to have a solid build for the position at 6’1, 220, and I’m very interested to see how he looks against the higher level of competition at the Senior Bowl. Zappe has a chance to really wow folks and lift himself into the Day 2 discussion.

I hope you’re enjoying our Senior Bowl preview series! I’ll be in Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl practices for The Falcoholic from Tuesday, February 4 through Thursday, February 6.