Ranking the top 15 quarterbacks in college football
Watson and Mayfield lead the way, while a couple lesser-known names earn a spot on our list.
Ranking the top 15 quarterbacks in college football
With the start of college football just a few days away, we turn our attention to a preview of the quarterback position. Though 2016 has been deemed the “year of the running back, part II,” there are plenty of talented QBs ready to put their name on this season.
Returning at quarterback this year are two of the top four Heisman finalists from a season ago, a pair of outstanding second-year players as well as several others ready to build off of strong 2015 campaigns. Let’s dive into the PFF data to see who will be the top returning QBs in the nation this season:
- Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Deshaun Watson is often mentioned as a candidate for the top overall draft pick in 2017, and it’s with good reason. Watson enters his junior year as the most talented QB in the country, posing a major threat to defenses with both his arm and his legs. Through the air, Watson proved to be one of the most accurate passers in the nation, completing over 67 percent of his passes on his way to more than 4,000 passing yards. His ability to get the ball out quickly was also impressive, on average releasing the ball in just 2.10 seconds – the fastest rate in the nation. He finished the season strong, posting a +34.5 from Week 9 on which was the highest grade in the nation over that span. If there were one glaring weakness in Watson’s game it would be his performance under pressure. Watson had a -10.5 passing grade and completed just 36.8 percent of his passes when pressured last season. Watson will have to improve in this area, but expect him deliver another outstanding season for Clemson in 2016.
- Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield emerged seemingly out of nowhere last season to post PFF’s highest overall grade among quarterbacks. He earned the starting job at Oklahoma after transferring from Texas Tech, quickly taking hold of the offense and leading the Sooners to one of their best seasons in years. Mayfield’s PFF QB rating of 101.16 is the highest of any returning quarterback in the country, with his deep passing ability being one of the areas that really sets him apart. On passes traveling 20+ yards downfield, Mayfield had one of the highest accuracy rates in the country (51.7 percent), throwing for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He offers a threat on the ground as well, rushing for nearly 600 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015, forcing 23 missed tackles along the way. Look for Mayfield to be firmly in the Heisman Trophy discussion once again this season.
- Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Mason Rudolph’s passing grade of +43.5 ranks second in the nation among returning quarterbacks. While he doesn’t offer the same running threat that Watson and Mayfield do, Rudolph more than makes up for it with his ability to distribute the ball accurately to every area of the field. He threw for the fifth-most yards on deep passes last season with an outstanding deep pass accuracy rate of 57.3 percent, ranking second among returning quarterbacks. Rudolph’s accuracy remained consistent even when under fire, completing 64.1 percent of his throws when pressured. With a talented group of receivers returning to Stillwater, Rudolph should have no problem putting up similar numbers this season.
- Greg Ward Jr., Houston
The performance of Greg Ward Jr. has played an integral role in the resurgence of Houston Cougar football over the past two seasons. Ward Jr. graded well in 2014 but took his game to a new level last season, earning the designation as the best running quarterback in college football. His +21.9 rushing grade was tops in the nation for QBs as he rushed for 1,201 yards, over half of those coming after contact. While there’s certainly room for improvement in his passing game, Ward Jr. graded positively through the air as well and ranked 15th in the nation with an adjusted completion percentage of 76.6. As he improves through the air, Greg Ward Jr. will continue to step into his role as one of the best offensive weapons in the country.
- Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
His journey to the SEC was not an easy one, navigating several off-field issues and a dismissal from Clemson, but after finding a landing spot at Ole Miss it didn’t take long for Kelly to establish himself as one of the most gifted passers in the country. Kelly finished 2015 ranked first among SEC quarterbacks with an overall grade of +34.5. His passing chart is littered with positive grades, but he especially excelled when throwing it deep. On passes traveling 20+ yards downfield, Kelly threw for 1,218 yards with an accuracy rating of 52.9 percent, again leading the conference in both categories. He was a major threat on the ground as well, rushing for 10 TDs on the year and grading out at +10.9 as a runner. Kelly is one of the more exciting athletes at quarterback this season and could easily find himself earning Heisman consideration with another strong performance in 2016.
- Nick Mullens, Southern Miss
Probably the least-known quarterback nationally on our list, Mullens actually had the highest passing grade of any returning QB in the nation, posting a +49.0 in 2015. He graded positively in every game but one last season, tossing 38 touchdowns and throwing for 4,474 yards. He was also one of the most accurate passers in the country with an adjusted completion percentage of 77.6 percent — the second-best returning rate this season. Mullens posted a +34.5 grade on throws down the middle of the field, clearly one of the strong points of his game. If he continues to put up numbers at a similar pace this season, Mullens will start getting the national attention his play deserves.
- Seth Russell, Baylor
Injury derailed Seth Russell’s 2015 season, putting an end to a campaign that saw him throw for 29 touchdowns through only seven games of play. Before his injury, Russell was the 10th-highest graded quarterback in the nation, grading positively as both a passer and a rusher. His PFF QB rating of 106.47 was the third-best in the country through eight weeks and he threw 13 touchdowns on deep pass attempts (20+yards in the air) — the second-most in the nation at that point. If fully healthy, expect Russell to return to form and be one of the top performing QBs in the country again this season.
- Luke Falk, Washington State
Luke Falk is another quarterback whose play deserves far more attention than it’s received. As the orchestrator of Mike Leach’s Air-Raid offense, it’s no surprise that Falk led the nation with his 649 pass attempts. What may be surprising however is that despite so many attempts, he still had the highest completion percentage of any returning QB, completing 68.9 percent of his passes last season. When things broke down in front of him Falk’s precision remained intact, leading all returning passers with a 69.1 percent accuracy rate under pressure. He was impressive throwing it deep as well, ranking seventh among returning quarterbacks in deep ball accuracy. His natural passing ability paired with the Air-Raid attack should lead to another season of impressive output for Falk and the Washington State offense.
- Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
Gunner Kiel had a solid campaign in 2014 but showed marked improvement in his play this past season. His +26.0 passing grade was the eighth-highest of any returning quarterback in the nation last year. Most of his success came on intermediate routes, where he earned a grade of +19.5. Kiel also showed impressive accuracy at this range, completing 74 percent of his passes traveling 10-19 yards downfield. He proved he can rise to the occasion, posting his highest graded game of the season against the Houston Cougars — the 12th-best pass defense in PFF’s team grades. If Kiel can keep up that level of play, he could have himself a breakout season in 2016.
- Josh Rosen, UCLA
Rosen exploded out of the gates his freshman season, earning his highest grade of the year in Week 1 against Virginia. Throughout the season Rosen was able to showcase his ability on the intermediate to deep routes especially, where he earned a +26.0 passing grade. He graded negatively on throws less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and could stand to improve upon his -6.0 passing grade under pressure, but Rosen displayed immense potential his freshman year and proved why he was so highly regarded as a recruit. As is to be expected out of a true freshman quarterback, Rosen’s grades saw some severe peaks and valleys throughout the season. Fortunately though, there was far more good than bad and Rosen seems primed to develop into one of the top QBs in the nation this year.
- Jake Browning, Washington
Jake Browning was part of a stellar freshman class for the Huskies in 2015 and is one of the primary reasons they are a dark-horse candidate to make the College Football Playoff this season. Browning impressed in his debut season, grading out as the best freshman quarterback in the nation last year with a +21.6 overall grade. He excelled throwing the ball downfield and was accurate on 50 percent of his passes over 20 yards which was the 12th-best rate in the country. Possibly most impressive of all was Browning’s +8.0 grade on plays where he faced pressure, a very encouraging thing to see out of a true freshman. Browning’s career is off to an impressive start and his continued development will play a key role in what should be an exciting season for the Huskies.
Just missed the cut:
- Brad Kaaya, Miami
- Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
- Dane Evans, Tulsa
- Zach Terrell, Western Michigan