Daily Focus: Is Deshaun Watson the best college QB since Cam Newton?
Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
Is Deshaun Watson the best college QB since Cam Newton? That’s what Alabama head coach Nick Saban told ESPN during his visit to the network’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters on Tuesday – or at a minimum that Watson was the best QB Alabama has faced since Newton was at Auburn, and that the Clemson Tigers deserve to be considered national title favorites because of it.
PFF’s college grades don’t date back as far as Newton, with numbers only available for 2014, but we can tell you that Watson’s 2015 season grade ranks fourth overall among Power-5 quarterbacks the last two years, trailing only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014 and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and California’s Jared Goff in 2015. We also went back and graded Jameis Winston’s 2013 Heisman-winning campaign, and he outranked Watson’s 2015 season as well.
Seeing as how three out of those four QBs ahead of them have since gone on to be selected either first or second overall in the NFL draft, that’s good company to be in. Watson was one of the top-graded running quarterbacks in the nation last season, and he also ranked fourth in adjusted completion rate versus Power-5 opponents. He appears poised for a big season, and recently ranked sixth in our ranking of the top 101 college football players entering 2016, and went first overall in our way-too-early mock draft for 2017.
The Big 12 is returning the most QB firepower in college football: Most of the headlines coming out of the Big 12 were of an off-field nature (losers: Baylor; winners: Mike Gundy’s haircut), but if there is one defining characteristic of the conference entering the 2016 season, it could be quarterback play.
There isn’t another conference in the nation returning the same level of production as the Big 12. That begins with a couple of proven stars in Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, who last season ranked No. 1 in overall PFF QB grades and PFF passing grades, respectively, among returners. Mayfield in particular excelled when under pressure, and also graded well as a runner, while Rudolph’s adjusted completion rate on deep balls of 57 percent was the best in the country.
But there are plenty of other QBs in the conference with high ceilings entering the season. Baylor’s Seth Russell was a top-10 QB in PFF grades before his season-ending neck injury, and he’s back healthy this year. Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II made our list of the 10 best running QBs in the country after excelling at both evading the opposing pass rush and as a red-zone runner, and was also one of the nation’s leaders in adjusted completion rate. Kenny Hill hasn’t yet won TCU’s starting job, but his grades in 2014 for Texas A&M suggest he could perform very well for the Horned Frogs this year.
While the Pac-12 has a few rising stars and the ACC returns a Heisman finalist in Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, no league has quite the same level of returning QB play as the Big 12.
Here are the top 15 returning Power-5 QBs in overall PFF grade, listed by conference:
- Big 12: 5 (Mayfield, Rudolph, Russell, Mahomes, WVU’s Skyler Howard)
- Pac-12: 5 (Arizona’s Anu Solomon, Washington’s Jake Browning, Washington State’s Luke Falk, UCLAs Josh Rosen, Colorado’s Sefo Liufao)
- ACC: 3 (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Pittsburgh’s Nate Peterman)
- Big Ten: 1 (Iowa’s C.J. Beathard)
- SEC: 1 (Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly)
Who will be this year’s surprise teams? College football guru Phil Steele has revealed his top surprise team candidates on ESPN.com. While most of the teams on his list performed well in PFF grades last season, there are three worth calling out as particularly intriguing:
1.) Washington – The Huskies could be returning the most production of any Pac-12 team, and with rising stars in QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin on offense teaming with a very solid defense at all three levels, they are a legitimate contender to win the Pac-12.
2.) TCU – The Horned Frogs are bringing back some good pieces on offense and have a potential breakout QB in Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill (if he wins the starting job), plus key contributors on defense, starting with a loaded secondary. Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the Big 12, but TCU is worth keeping an eye on.
3.) North Carolina – Elijah Hood might be the most underrated running back in the country, after earning the highest yards after contact per carry average among returning Power-5 backs, at 4.1. The Tar Heels return five offensive linemen who earned positive run-blocking grades a year ago, making up for some poor performances in pass protection, and Mitch Trubisky made our list of breakout QB candidates after posting an excellent grade in very limited action a year ago. The defense is arguably in even better shape, with strong performers against the run up front and a very good pair of corners in M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. The Tar Heels have a real shot at challenging for the ACC championship, particularly if they can survive a pair of October road trips to Florida State and Miami.