Best traits for top NFL draft 2021 quarterbacks: Eight QBs, eight throws that show their talent

ByMatt Bowen ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The 2021 NFL draftis less than a month away, and pro day workouts are winding down. With Ohio State's Justin Fields, Alabama's Mac Jones and Texas A&M's Kellen Mond all working out for scouts on Tuesday, the top quarterbacks in the class have all shown what they can do in front of teams.

Let's focus on the best throwing traits for each of the top eight quarterbacks in this class.From the arm talent that pops on the tape, to the decision-making and high-level second-reaction ability, this group of quarterbacks can check the critical factors needed to produce at the next level. We'll also include eight video clips that show off these top traits and explain how each signal-caller can reach his ceiling. Some of the traits might surprise you.

We'll go in order of how ESPN NFL draft analystsMel Kiper and Todd McShay rank the eight quarterbacks, highlighting what each player does best. And where else can we start but with their consensus top overall prospect:

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Height: 6-foot-6 | Weight: 213 pounds

Ranking: No. 1 (Kiper, McShay)

Lawrence's best trait: Arm talent

The tape tells us that Lawrence is a high-floor prospect because of his elite traits, toughness and football awareness. The processing speed jumps when I watch him, and so does the movement ability both inside and outside of the pocket. Plus, there is a physical element to his game -- along with ball-carrier vision -- on designed runs. But if we have to focus on one high-level trait, I'm looking at Lawrence's arm talent.

He has more than enough arm strength to attack all levels of the field. We saw that during the regular season in the win over Georgia Tech, with Lawrence finding his backside read on a throw in the high red zone. Check out the clip below. This is a rocket from the far hash with location, as Lawrence drives this ball to wide receiver Amari Rodgers for the score.

In addition to the vertical or the deep boundary throws that pop on the tape, Lawrence can vary ball speeds, too, throwing with both touch and pace. And even with his elongated motion, which can force the ball level to drop in his windup, his natural arm talent will allow him to attack all three levels of the route tree in the NFL. This is why he's the clear top quarterback prospect in the class and the overwhelming favorite to be picked by the Jaguars with the No. 1 pick.

Justin Fields, Ohio State

Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 228 pounds

Ranking: No. 2 (Kiper), No. 4 (McShay)

Fields' best trait: Deep-ball accuracy

Fields has the physical tools to project as a high-ceiling prospect who can produce in a schemed pass game that takes advantage of his arm strength and movement ability to attack all levels of the field. Plus, he brings an added element to an offense on boot/movement concepts and designed runs -- which point to his traits as both a thrower and runner. But the key area of Fields' game that I keep going back to is his accuracy on deep throws.

On throws of 20 or more air yards last season, Fields completed 61.3% of his passes, while putting up a QBR of 99.1, with nine touchdown passes and only one interception. That's outstanding. And, the tape shows that he is a decisive deep-ball thrower, just like we saw in Ohio State's win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff, when he threw for 385 yards with six touchdowns.

In the clip below, Fields moves in the pocket to reset his throwing window and drives the ball vertically to hit wide receiver Chris Olave. Yes, the arm talent is on display here, but so is the ability to process and navigate inside pocket. It's a perfect throw. And with that deep-ball accuracy, Fields can be schemed up as a pro on vertical shot plays in a system that caters to his dual-threat traits at the position.

Zach Wilson, BYU

Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 208 pounds

Ranking: No. 2 (McShay), No. 3 (Kiper)

Wilson's best trait: Ability to escape and extend plays (second reaction)

With his confident and loose playing style, Wilson is an aggressive, nuanced thrower with "plus" arm talent who will challenge opposing defenses on deep shots, second-level windows and boundary verticals. And given his quick, compact release, I see him as a great fit as a distributor in a West Coast system. That's where a team can use both spread and run-pass option concepts, which will allow Wilson to read it out with speed -- and throw it fearlessly.

The one trait that Wilson consistently shows on the tape? It's the high-end movement skills, the ability to escape and extend on second-reaction plays -- while making throws from multiple platforms.I don't put a ton of stock into pro days, but there's no doubt that this was an impressive throw that showed off this skill set.

But let's watch a throw in a live game. We can see it in the clip below with Wilson throwing the deep in-breaker. He climbs, escapes and slips outside the pocket to throw a laser from an off-platform position. With his traits as a thrower -- plus the ability to go off schedule -- Wilson has the skill set to play (and excel) immediately.

Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 224 pounds

Ranking: No. 3 (McShay), No. 5 (Kiper)

Lance's best trait: Decision-making/processing ability

With a style of play that reflects his natural physical tools as a dual-threat quarterback, Lance projects as a future NFL starter who can function and produce in a play-action based NFL pass game. There is a lot of upside here for a prospect with only 17 career starts at the FCS level; he has shown both the decision-making and processing ability to succeed in a pro scheme, even if he hasn't played against FBS talent.

During the 2019 season, when Lance helped lead North Dakota State to a national title, he threw 28 touchdowns with zero interceptions. While there are situations on the tape in which I would like to see him be more aggressive and cut it loose as a thrower, there is no question that he can play within himself off play-action and dropback concepts.

Here's an example below on a mesh concept. With the defense sending pressure, Lance works from his primary target on the wheel, back inside to the inside sit route. He climbs to avoid the pressure and drives the ball to the middle-of-the-field target.

With Lance, system fit will be important to his success, but his ability to process and diagnose what's happening after the snap adds to his potential because of the traits he displays inside and outside of the pocket -- and as a runner. He added 1,100 yards on the ground for the Bison in 2019.

Mac Jones, Alabama

Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 214 pounds

Ranking: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)

Jones' best trait: Ball placement

While Jones doesn't have the movement ability of the other top four quarterbacks in this class, I see him as a prospect with a high floor because of his ability to throw from the pocket with both accuracy and location. In Alabama's heavily schemed passing game, Jones completed 77.4% of his passes last season on his way to a national championship. And while you can make the argument that he was playing with loaded group of NFL talent around him, I point to his ability to throw with touch and rhythm, delivering the ball with placement.

Check out the example below from Alabama's win over Ohio State in the national title game. It's a schemed throw to Heisman Trophy winnerDeVonta Smith to beat three-deep coverage. With the backside cornerback occupied in a 3-by-1 set, there is a deep window to attack. And Jones delivers a "runner's ball" to Smith, making this throw -- with touch -- over the top of the trailing defender.

Jones, who has shown enough pocket movement to climb and slide while under pressure, will have to continue his development as a timing thrower who wins with placement to reach his potential at the NFL level. But accuracy really matters, too, and he has shown that he can pinpoint passes at a high clip.

Kyle Trask, Florida

Height: 6-foot-5 | Weight: 240 pounds

Ranking: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 7 (McShay)

Trask's best trait: Pocket movement

When you turn on Trask's 2020 tape, you can see his ability to vary ball speeds and throw with accuracy on intermediate concepts, while also attacking over the top of the secondary. He's a true pocket thrower who doesn't have the movement traits to create second-reaction plays outside of the pocket. In other words, he's not going to beat teams by scrambling. But watch Trask in the pocket, however, and you can see that he can navigate traffic with the best of the class. He canclimb, slide and reset his throwing window. That's a different type of skill than leaving the pocket and throwing on the run, and it's important at the next level.

Check out the example below of Trask's touchdown throw against LSU in a high red zone situation. With Trask feeling edge pressure, we see the subtle climb in the pocket -- and a quick reset of the platform -- before throwing the fade ball for the score.

While I see him as a No. 2 quarterback in the NFL, his ability to manage the pocket will give him an opportunity to develop at the position, despite his below-average athletic testing.

Davis Mills, Stanford

Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 225 pounds

Ranking: No. 7 (Kiper), No. 8 (McShay)

Mills' best trait: Anticipation

A former five-star recruit, Mills has an easy arm in the pocket. He can attack vertically, hit layered throws or rip the ball up the seams with his efficient release. We see that on play-action throws or the dropback situations that featured pro-style route concepts at Stanford. But with only 11 career college starts, we have to focus on his developmental upside given his natural throwing traits and footwork to offset his lack of movement ability.

When I watch the tape on Mills, I see a quarterback who can deliver the ball with anticipation and location. Here's an example from the game versus Colorado below. There's late rotation in the secondary, and Mills can read it from the pocket, attacking the middle of the field on an anticipatory throw to hit the seam ball.

While Mills doesn't project as an immediate starter, I see a quarterback with Day 2 value who has some potential given his ability to throw from the pocket with anticipation, location and deliver the ball on rhythm. He could develop into a starter in time, but he needs to land on a team that doesn't have an immediate need.

Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 217 pounds

Ranking: No. 6 (McShay), No. 8 (Kiper)

Mond's best trait: Timing and rhythm

Watching the 2020 tape on Mond, I saw a quarterback who projects best as a timing and rhythm thrower in the NFL. Yes, he can be mechanical in the pocket, with up-and-down accuracy on boundary throws, but he has shown the ability to produce in pro concepts off play-action, make plays on movement passes and use his legs to escape and extend plays. And given the offense he played in at A&M, Mond fits best in a heavily defined scheme that creates second-level windows -- in addition to the run-pass option game.

Here's an example below of Mond making a strong, efficient throw on a dropback concept (play starts at 0:51). He reads it and throws with timing to target a zone window on the deep crosser/bender.

While Mond has a ways to go to reach his potential, his floor as a projected rhythm passer will allow him to continue developing with pro coaching -- in a league that is shifting to more play-action based route trees. And with his movement ability outside of the pocket, in addition to the QB run game, Mond does bring another element to the field that can be schemed.

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