Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Quarterbacks

Photo: Oct 28, 2017; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate (14) signals to the crowd during the first half against the Washington State Cougars at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, the quarterback conference for the NFL is the Pac-12.

Across the past four drafts, 13 QBs went in the first round -- and of those 13, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen comprise the biggest representative chunk for any conference. You know what else is exciting? They're all gonna start (probably). Sam Bradford and Rosen are still competing, and even if Bradford takes the field initially, I'd be shocked if we don't seen Rosen at all in 2018.

And again in 2018, the Pac-12 has the most interesting quarterbacks from an NFL Draft perspective. The SEC might get more run in terms of potential first-rounders with Missouri's Drew Lock and Auburn's Jarrett Stidham. I like Oregon's Justin Herbert's tape better than both, but none of the three deserve Round 1 clout yet. Could any else from the conference rise up to early consideration? There's several players with decent shots.

1. Justin Herbert, Junior, Oregon (6'5 225)

I can't emphasize this enough: Herbert doesn't have first round tape as of this moment in time. Doesn't exist. So we're projecting.

Now that's fine: there isn't a clear-cut Round 1 guy yet in this Draft class. We'll figure out who QB1 is after they all put out 2018 tape and we can verify who has taken the necessary strides. In Herbert's case, the necessary stride comes in terms of activity under pressure -- not an uncommon complaint for young QBs. His internal clock is stunted, in that he plays in a first-read heavy offense, and when it doesn't uncover quickly, he immediately panics: if the first-read wasn't open, then pressure must be coming.

As such, we see a few things: firstly, he doesn't have excellent pocket presence, because his entire mental process is tethered to the first read. He can adjust and climb and dodge, all that, but there's some consistency feeling pressure that's missing, from what I see. Secondly, there's a drop-off in accuracy beyond the first read. And finally, there's a tendency to break the pocket after the first read, even without pressure, and scramble instead of looking to create downfield.

But many a good quarterback struggled with similar instincts in college. Herbert is as naturally gifted of a passer as you'll find, with a straight cannon that can easily reach 50+ yards down the field. He can thread zone coverage with a lotta heat without losing accuracy to the intermediate levels of the field, which is big. I'm enamored with his willingness to just test coverage. One-on-one on the boundary? Strap in; we're taking a shot.

What to watch for in 2018: Lower body mechanics. Herbert has a bad tendency when he's looking for extra power to load his weight on his back foot and widen his stance. It's quite unnecessary, but it will introduce variance in his ball placement and also lengthen his throwing process, delaying his snappy release. It shows up especially on his deep ball, which is disappointing, because he has the profile to be a stellar deep passer. If he can clean up that inconsistency alone, his profile becomes more appetizing in Round 1.

2. Manny Wilkins, RS Junior, Arizona State (6'2 200)

I want to like Manny more than I do. Actually, that's not entirely true. I want to like Manny more than I'm letting myself like Manny.

Arizona State's offense is more spready than butter on toast, and as such, you just don't see things you need to see from Wilkins' tape to feel solid in a QB evaluation. He rarely tests the middle of the field or attacks the intermediate level, so his ability to slice up zone coverage or anticipate breaks is a question mark. If his first read isn't open, it's bedlam -- and Wilkins does well to direct that traffic and create with his legs and his arm alike. 90% of his tape is stick/snag, flare/bubble screen, or a vertical shot. Tag RPOs/play-action on all of that, too.

But Wilkins can uncork a mighty fine deep ball. He excels at placing the ball on the leverage side for the wide receiver to win with spacing down the field. What's even more impressive is how willing he is to make those throws when the situation around him is...less than ideal. Wilkins will look pressure straight in the eye and sling it 40 yards down the field, and I love that stone-cold instinct. He doesn't lose much accuracy when adjusting his arm angles, throwing off-platform, or when working across his body on the move.

As far as arm strength, he won't knock you over, but he can get it where it needs to go on time. He has the zip, especially in the short game, to thread closing defenders--his release is nice and snappy. When he does look for extra juice into the boundary or down the field, he will get too much of a whiplash effect in his throwing motion by bending his back and slicing forward, which affects his ball placement.

What to watch for in 2018: Anticipation. That need for extra juice is solved by just starting the throwing process a half-second sooner, and would check a major box for Manny's evaluation. If I can get clips of Manny throwing to covered-soon-to-be-uncovered targets--even if it's just on go routes down the field--I'll feel better about his understanding of spacing and timing. That makes it easier to project his play on full-field, multi-read concepts that require those traits.

3. Khalil Tate, Junior, Arizona (6'1 215)

Yeah, I dunno if you heard, but we should be excited about Khalil Tate. Not only as a Hesiman contender, jetpack for Kevin Sumlin's new-look Arizona offense...but as an NFL Draft prospect as well.

Similarly to Manny, we are limited in our ability to project forward at this juncture: Tate's tape is a whole lotta one-read-and-oh-no. Part of that is due to offensive structure; part of that is due to Tate's instinct to escape. An explosive runner who can win the edge against any second level defender, if Tate sees space, his almost always going to take it; and even when he's in the pocket, he prefers to get outside of it. And at this juncture in his career, Tate is a bigger threat when looking to pass outside of the pocket: the threat to run sucks in short zone defenders, and it wasn't like he was going to make a full-field read anyway.

Tate as a passer on the move also excites because his motion is super quick. He never telegraphs his release and accordingly, when he's on the run and you can't see him set his base, he beats defenders to the catch point with that instantaneous motion. In the pocket, the motion is still very quick and clean, and his upper body mechanics serve him well for generating velocity between windows and down the field.

But the lower body mechanics create worry. Tate doesn't normalize his weight distribution from the pocket, and as such, his transfer can be super wonky and his accuracy likewise, especially down the field. He needs to learn how to settle his feet underneath his hips without widening and feel comfortable resetting his feet to his targets. As of this point in time, you have to call Tate's accuracy scattershot; there's too much inconsistency to ignore.

But man, if he cleans it up for this season...we've got a live one.

What to watch for in 2018: Decision-making. Even when Tate has the opportunity to work secondary reads and manipulate a defense, he doesn't take them. He's a one-track quarterback at this juncture of his career: designed read...nope? We runnin'! And while he frequently makes good decisions as a scrambler to maximize yardage, there's a lot of air yards left on the field that we can't ignore.

4. K.J. Costello, Junior, Stanford (6'4 217)

Watch K.J. live -- just chillin', watching a game for fun -- and he'll fool you. You'll wonder how this kid wasn't starting over Keller Chryst of all people; you'll wonder how far Stanford's offense could go under his command.

Scout him, and you catch the lie. The tools are all there; the flashes are sublime; the snap-to-snap consistency doesn't exist. He's a scared rabbit in the pocket, with feet all over the place and a lot of wasted movement in his drops, which prevent him from being always at the ready to ignite his throwing process and hit a receiver on time. Generally, the timing between drops, release, receivers' breaks -- it's all off. He'll be too far ahead of quick-breaking routes on one-step drops and far too late to deep balls after hitching multiple times off three- or five-step drops. That normalized process only comes with reps, and in his first year as a starter, he'll finally get those.

Introduce pressure to the mix, and it's a goshdarn bonanza in there.

He overreacts to the slightest flash of color and will run himself into sacks. When his throwing platform is even further affected by bodies around his feet, all of his mechanics -- upper and lower body -- fly out the window. When everything is clean, he's an accurate passer -- but things are never clean in the NFL; that's the reality. Costello can't yet keep cool in the mess.

That being said, Costello is clearly a gifted passer and a smart player. He can manipulate short and deep zone defenders with his eyes, and understands how his passing concepts attack the coverage presented to him. He's got a lot of touch, especially with his sidearm release, and a lot of zip as well. It's one of those 'can make any throw' sort of evaluations: you could splice together his 20 best attempts and turn in the Round 1 card in a heartbeat. With a 2018 season of experience, we just might get there.

That said, it's a long road.

What to watch for in 2018: The deep ball. Costello can reach down the field, but given his lack of timing with his receivers, he's regularly late to the vertical route and underthrows his targets badly. With his level of touch and arm strength, he has the profile to make some impressive bucket throws -- and again, those did show up here and there. I'm comfortable in projecting him forward as a successful short/intermediate passer given what I've seen in terms of eye manipulation/accuracy/velocity. The deep third is my question.

5. Tyler Huntley, Junior, Utah (6'1 200)

Y'all sleepin' on Tyler Huntley.

Okay, not really. I mean, there's a reason he's fifth on the list: He isn't good at football right now. But unlike the two players below, who failed to crack the list, Huntley's most optimistic developmental path illustrates a really fun NFL quarterback.

Huntley reminds me of Jackson when he runs -- uh, that's Lamar Jackson, Heisman winning QB for Louisville and first-round selection of the Baltimore Ravens. It's the thin frames, the gangly strides, yes -- but also the impossible body control, the "YO REWIND THAT!" levels of suddenness and slipperiness. Nobody holds a candle to Lamar's instincts as a runner, but Huntley gives you some flashes of that athletic ability.

Huntley also doesn't have the release issues that Lamar did. He has a clean, over-the-top throwing motion and has sufficient levels of zip to the boundary, as well as a nice bucket throw or two. He can be an accurate quarterback, not unlike the Lamar of 2016, who put up good numbers but was still a major question mark as a passer.

But Huntley is severely underdeveloped in terms of processing. He does not know what he's looking at from the pocket, and regularly glosses over wide open crossers, opens to the wrong side of the field given pre-snap alignments, pulls the ball on read options -- everything. He doesn't see the field quickly or clearly at all, and his release gets loopy the further downfield he's looking to throw, which lengthens the process. Huntley can't win in a timing based offense, or an offense that necessitates multiple reads. Which is, you know, a lot of offenses.

What to watch for in 2018: Accuracy. We'll continue to work on reading the field, of course -- but if the ball doesn't get to the right spot, what does it matter anyway? Huntley will minimize YAC opportunities and put the ball in harm's way because he isn't yet a precision passer. Another first-year starter, I'm interested to see what constant reps will do for his profile thereof.

Keep an eye on

Steven Montez, RS Junior, Colorado (6'4 225)

Toolsy and rocket-armed, Montez will check the initial boxes that NFL teams love. As of right now, he's an inaccurate passer who garners 85% of his season's passing yards on bubble screens -- but hey, the world is all about potential, right? Like Costello and Huntley, he's a big-time project, though he's had the starting experience they haven't yet, so I do wonder what the developmental track looks like for him.

Notable omission

Jake Browning, RS Senior, Washington (6'1 210)

Please see this article, written by a bold, witty, and handsome Draft analyst, which includes the quote "He should not be considered an NFL prospect." Thank you.