What PFF grades say about the nation’s top QB battles
Perhaps the most compelling quarterback competition in the country right now is Alabama’s, as the Crimson Tide have a four-way battle underway to see who will replace Jake Coker as the starting QB of the defending national champions.
But while Cooper Bateman appears to have the inside track, it’s difficult for us to offer much of an opinion seeing the limited playing time all four competitors have received previously.
Among the bigger competitions where we do have PFF grades on the quarterbacks, however, what do the numbers tell us? Let’s take a look, starting with a tough two-man battle in South Bend:
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: DeShone Kizer vs. Malik Zaire
Of all the teams on this list, the Fighting Irish are in by far the best shape. Kizer became the team’s starter after Zaire’s season-ending injury in Week 2, and he reeled off strong performances in eight of his next 12 games, with his two worst grades coming in a rain-soaked Week 5 loss to Clemson and the team’s bowl loss to Ohio State. He graded well as both a runner and a passer, particularly excelling on deep throws – his 51 percent adjusted deep completion rate ranks ninth among returning passers.
But as good as Kizer was, Zaire has actually graded better on a per-snap basis – albeit in less game action. He was outstanding in the team’s Week 1 blowout win over Texas, and graded well in his limited opportunities in 2014. There isn’t a wrong answer here, per se, but Zaire gets the slight nod based on the PFF grades.
Texas Longhorns: Shane Buechele vs. Jerrod Heard vs. Tyrone Swoopes
Buechele, the early-enrolling true freshman, is being considered the front-runner after an excellent performance in the team’s spring game, but that’s all we have to go on right now seeing as how he hasn’t played a snap in a college game. The Longhorns’ offense really struggled during the team’s 5-7 season, but while Swoopes earned a negative grade, Heard actually performed pretty well.
Among returning Power-5 QBs, Heard earned the third-best rushing grade behind only Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. His passing grade was just average, but he did flash some upside in that area as well, particularly as a deep-ball passer: His 59.4 percent adjusted completion rate on throws of 20-plus yards was tops among returning Power-5 QBs, after such throws made up 20 percent of his attempts.
There is certainly room for Heard to improve – he posted a 5-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio, and he struggled quite a bit versus pressure — and for all we know Buechele could be ready to start from Day 1. But if the Horns do turn to Heard, he could be a productive option for them.
Georgia Bulldogs: Jacob Eason vs. Greyson Lambert vs. Brice Ramsey
Colleague Gordon McGuinness did a good job of making the case for why the Bulldogs should go with the true freshman Eason as their starter this season.
The basics behind his argument are that Eason offers some upside, and we saw some impressive performances by true freshman QBs last season in the form of UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington’s Jake Browning. Perhaps more importantly, Lambert posted just average grades last season outside of an outlier performance against South Carolina that was one of the top-graded outings by a QB all season, and Ramsey has never proven himself to be a successful starting quarterback.
No matter which QB starts, he’ll have a lot a support around him in the form of running back duo Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and a very talented defense.
Michigan Wolverines: Shane Morris vs. John O’Korn vs. Wilton Speight
There isn’t much good news to provide Wolverines fans on the PFF grades front here: Morris earned a negative grade in limited action in 2014, Speight did the same in 2015, and outside of one strong showing against BYU, O’Korn produced poor marks as Houston’s quarterback in 2014.
The good news? Michigan won’t need excellence at the quarterback position to contend for Big Ten and national titles this season. For starters, the Wolverines might have the best defense in the nation, led by a remarkably efficient pass rush and the top-graded cornerback from 2015 in Jourdan Lewis. Moreover, Michigan had awful QB play for much of the season last year until a late-season surge from QB Jake Rudock, and still remained one of the country’s best teams. From Weeks 1 through 9, Rudock ranked No. 98 among 101 qualifying QBs in PFF grades; from Week 10 on, he ranked second.
Whichever QB lands the starting job will need to play better than he has to this point in his college career, but he won’t need to be a superstar to have the Wolverines in the playoff mix.
Auburn Tigers: Johnathan Franklin III vs. Jeremy Johnson vs. Sean White
Johnson entered the 2015 season as Auburn’s starter and carried with him some distant Heisman buzz – which was quickly silenced following his very rocky first three outings. It’s worth noting that he did grade better in late-season games versus Texas A&M, Idaho and Memphis, but barring some significant improvement it’s safe to say he won’t begin the season as starter.
We don’t have anything to go on with Franklin, other than he is a junior college transfer known for his running ability, which could make him a good match for head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense. However, it’s worth noting that White graded out positively in his action last season as a redshirt freshman. His raw statistics were uninspiring – 57 percent completion rate and a 1-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio – but in the six games in which he took the majority of snaps, he earned two poor game grades, two average grades, one good grade, and one outstanding grade. In that game, a 54-46 four-overtime loss to Arkansas, he again didn’t produce a great stat line (19 of 34 for 254 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but earned one of the highest grades from an SEC QB all season long, overcoming six dropped passes from his receivers.
Like some other QBs on this list, White has to get better to provide his team with a great option at QB, but there are some indications he’s capable of doing exactly that.