The 2022 NFL Combine is fast approaching, with workouts kicking off on Thursday, March 3. To prepare Atlanta Falcons fans and fellow draft enthusiasts for the “underwear olympics”, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch at every position heading into the event. In case you missed any of my previous entries, you can find them all listed below:
DEFENSE: EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S
OFFENSE: QB | WR | TE | OT | C/G
Today, we switch over to the offensive side of the ball, starting with the most important position of all: quarterback. This is by far the most controversial position on Atlanta’s roster. To some fans, it’s a massive need. To others, it’s something to be ignored entirely. The reality is...it’s kind of in the middle, and depends on Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot’s long-term plan. Complicating things is a relatively lackluster class that offers few first-round options and then a lot of developmental players on Day 2.
Read on for some of the top quarterbacks to watch in Indianapolis.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
If Matt Corral hadn’t injured himself in his team’s bowl game, I wonder if he’d be talked about more as the potential QB1. As it stands now, he’s certainly one of the most intriguing options in the class. Corral improved his accuracy and decision-making this season, and when combined with his mobility, he looks the part of a mobile, modern NFL QB. The concerns mostly stem from his lack of ideal size at just 6’1, 200, and fairly average arm strength. Corral needs to go to an offense that’s willing to let him use his dual-threat ability, but I think he’s got the upside of an above-average NFL starter.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
I think I thought I’d like Sam Howell more than I did, but I came away feeling sort of...meh. Howell had a fine Senior Bowl and was one of the more consistent QBs there, but what is his upside? I don’t know if he really elevates the talent of players around him and I’m not sure how dynamic he really is as a dual-threat option. Still, an impressive Combine could once again lift Howell into Round 1 conversation. Here’s how I described his game in my Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Kenny Pickett, Pitt
If you need someone to start Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season, I think Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is clearly the best option. He’s experienced, calm under pressure, and offers the most pro-ready skillset of any QB in this class. The issue is that I don’t necessarily see Pickett as ever rising above that 10-15 range in terms of NFL QBs. You can compete with that level of QB play, but for the Falcons, I’d rather shoot for someone with more upside. Here’s how I described Pickett’s skillset in my Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder is currently the QB I’d predict to land with the Falcons, if I had to choose one. While I do prefer Malik Willis and think he’s got the better projection, Ridder is similarly intriguing as a high-ceiling developmental player. The difference is Willis will require the 8th overall pick, while Ridder has a chance to still be available in the second. Here’s how I described his talents in my Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Carson Strong, Nevada
A little bit of a dark horse candidate for the Falcons, Nevada’s Carson Strong has everything you want from a passing game standpoint. He’s got a great arm, makes good decisions, and has a thick, classic QB build. He just doesn’t offer you anything as a scrambler, and is never going to be someone who can extend plays or escape with his legs. A surprisingly good day of testing could alleviate some athletic concerns, however. Here’s how I described Strong in my Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Malik Willis, Liberty
It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was with Malik Willis at the Senior Bowl. Based on his tape, I expected him to struggle to adjust to a pro style offense and to have issues with his accuracy. Instead, he adjusted very quickly, and was by far the most impressive QB in Mobile. That gives me a lot of hope for his NFL future, and I can’t think of a better situation for him than sitting behind Matt Ryan for a year in Atlanta. Here’s how I described Willis’ talents in my Senior Bowl preview:
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 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.
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
While I don’t think Bailey Zappe lifted himself into the first round discourse, he more than proved himself worthy of the NFL at the Senior Bowl. Zappe looked like he belonged with this class of quarterbacks, although his lack of ideal size and mobility probably limit his ceiling to that of a high-end backup or spot starter. Here’s how I described his game in my Senior Bowl preview:
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. He has a chance to really wow folks and lift himself into the Day 2 discussion.
I hope you enjoyed this NFL Combine prospect preview! Stay tuned for our next position group tomorrow.