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Under the Radar NFL Draft Targets: QB (2021 NFL Draft)

Under the Radar NFL Draft Targets: QB (2021 NFL Draft)
cameraUnder the Radar NFL Draft Targets: QB (2021 NFL Draft)

The 2021 NFL Draft is stacked at quarterback. There are no fewer than five quarterbacks expected to be drafted in the first round. The talent does not end there as there are a number of other names that would be considered potential first round talents in weaker draft classes. The big five consists of three tantalizing prospects in Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance, and two impressive potential starters in  Zach Wilson and Mac Jones. After that, there is usually Jamie Newman, Kyle Trask, and Kellen Mond in some order on most big boards. However, a number of other quarterbacks who are not projected to be drafted on Day 2 who could eventually outperform those who are. We will take a look at two quarterbacks, who if they can overcome their arm strength and accuracy concerns, could, in time, develop into starting-caliber quarterbacks at the next level. 

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Sam Ehlinger (QB – Texas)

Tape watched: Oklahoma (2020), LSU (2019), UTEP (2020), Oklahoma (2019), Senior Bowl

Sam Ehlinger is an intriguing prospect. He does have his physical limitations, but as a four-year starter for the Texas Longhorns, Ehlinger has moved into second place for virtually every school passing record, trailing only Colt McCoy. Ehlinger’s 2020 season started with a bang, but his play started to drop off as his top receivers started to miss games. He still managed to post impressive totals of 2,566 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, and five interceptions to go with 113 carries, 337 rushing yards, and eight rushing touchdowns. Yes, his raw numbers were affected by a COVID marred season, but he still played in 10 games, and his averages dropped in most categories. Ehlinger dropped from 281.8 passing yards per game in 2019 to 256.6 in 2020 and from 4.1 yards per carry to 3.3. He scored ‘just’ seven rushing touchdowns this season, down from the eight in 2019, but both numbers are well below the career-high 16 he cashed in during the 2018 season. 

As mentioned, Ehlinger does have a limited physical skillset. He has an average arm at best, which may limit the number of teams interested in him going into the 2021 NFL Draft. He has been touted as a good leader on and off the field but still may struggle to be viewed as anything more than a long-term backup with spot starter potential. However, in the right scheme with the right supporting cast, there is reason to believe that Ehlinger could function as a stopgap starter for a full season or two. He will have to improve his game quite a bit to get there, but he has enough impressive tape to stick on an NFL roster and be given a chance down the line. 

So why is a prolific quarterback who is obviously also a threat on the ground not in the starter discussion? Replaceability of talent. Ehlinger is more talented than former first round picks like Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, but 10 years ago, there were not five other true first round talents for them to compete with, and there was far less overall talent in the NFL at quarterback. If Ehlinger showed up during the 2011 NFL Draft, he would likely be a top-15 pick. In 2021, he will probably be a Day 3 or late Day 2 pick. 

Like many college quarterbacks, Ehlinger has limited experience under center, something the Senior Bowl coaching staff made a concerted effort to see more of throughout the week. Ehlinger has enough athleticism to continue to be a running threat in the NFL but has proven that, outside of designed runs or options, that his first instinct is to progress through his reads. He is dynamic enough to be drafted with the hope that he develops into a starter. Still, his arm strength concerns coupled with his resulting accuracy issues on deep balls limits his system fits. He is much stronger on short to intermediate throws, making him better suited for a West Coast based offense with some RPO concepts. He will not be much of a dunker unless he has tall, high-level receivers to bail him out the way Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Collin Johnson, and Brennan Eagles did over the past two years. However, he has the anticipation skills to run a timing-based offense that only takes the occasional shot downfield. 

Aside from arm strength and accuracy, Ehlinger also has to work on touch and ball placement. There were simply too many instances where a more talented thrower would have easily completed passes that went errant on his targets. Good anticipation and the ability to pick up yards with his legs won’t matter much if accuracy and touch issues prevent him from taking the field. I personally like Ehlinger as a late Day 2 pick. He can be a strong backup to a mobile quarterback in a West Coast offense and could put heat on a younger quarterback who has yet to establish himself as the future of his franchise. Don’t be surprised if Ehlinger ends up hearing his name called before more highly touted quarterbacks like Kyle Trask, Jamie Newman, or Kellen Mond. 

Shane Buechele (QB – SMU)

Tape watched: Texas State (2020), Memphis (2020), Tulane (2020), Tulsa (2019), Memphis (2019), Temple (2019)

Shane Buechele is another intriguing prospect that regularly falls outside of the top six at his position in analyst rankings. Buchele started his career at Texas but was pushed into the transfer window by then freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger stepped up when Buechele was sidelined with an injury and never looked back. Buechele was able to keep himself on NFL radars despite the program downgrade thanks to impressive on-field play. 

He benefited from playing with two NFL level receivers in 2019 in James Proche and Reggie Roberson, a luxury that helped propel him to 302.2 passing yards per game, 34 passing touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Buechele actually managed to improve in 2020 despite losing Proche and his 15 receiving touchdowns. His touchdowns per game dropped slightly, but he increased his passing yards per game to 309.5 and managed to increase his completion percentage from 62.7 to 65.4 and his yards per attempt from 8.0 to 8.4.

Buechele has some very impressive tape, primarily due to his ability to throw off-platform. His accuracy does drop slightly, but his baseball background is evident when he throws strikes on the run. Playing in the air raid system of course raises some concerns, but there is enough to get excited about on tape that he should be drafted sometime on Day 3. With no consensus outside of the top five, Buechele could hear his name called much earlier than some currently project. 

Buechele averaged 61 rushing attempts over his last two college seasons but is not athletic enough to be as effective as a runner in the pros. He can step up and take advantage of wide open gaps, but he will not be able to lean on his legs as much as he did at SMU. Buechele would do well to learn to use his mobility to extend the pocket and on bootlegs instead of looking to scramble when the pressure comes. 

Buechele has an average arm but can hit passes downfield and outside the numbers when his feet are set. He reacts to pressure by looking for the short pass, at times to the detriment of the offense, but the fact that he keeps his eyes downfield is a plus. Like all quarterbacks, he is much better when not pressured and given time to go through his reads. 

All in all, Buechele is a flawed but intriguing prospect that could appeal to any spread based offense. He will need time with an NFL quarterbacks coach to iron out his kinks and adjust to life outside of the air raid scheme, but he has low-level starter upside and could shine as a backup who remains ready for spot starts. Buechele could impress in spurts with a strong supporting cast, and when the book is finally written on the 2021 NFL Draft, he could prove to be quite a value for the team that ends up pulling the trigger on him. It will be interesting to see where he lands. 

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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his profile and follow him @FantasyContext.

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