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Under the Radar 2022 NFL Draft Targets: Quarterbacks

by Bo McBrayer | @Bo_McBigTime | Featured Writer
Feb 9, 2022

Football is allegedly a team sport. It would still be an arduous task to convince anyone other than Kyle Shanahan that it helps to have a good quarterback to win games at the NFL level. Drafting quarterbacks is a lot like raising children, in that there is no instruction manual. Looking for a fool-proof secret to produce the next Tom Brady? That warrants a belly laugh. Nurturing a successful NFL quarterback is more complicated than keeping an orchid alive. At least these teams have the luxury of choosing their kids as if they were a litter of puppies.

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Defining a successful NFL quarterback has caveats. He must be athletic (or at least possess great footwork in the pocket). He must make good decisions and protect the ball (unless he has a Mahomesian knack for putting the ball in the end zone from anywhere on the field). He must throw with accuracy and anticipation (unless he is the superhero type who can shred defenses with his legs). He must be coachable (no caveat). He must command the huddle with the confidence and fire of a generalissimo (unless he’s the strong, silent type like Justin Herbert (QB – LAC)). He must make his complimentary players better (unless they’re already great).

Quarterbacking in the NFL is a tough job. The greatest one in the history of the sport is hanging his cleats up after a 22-year career stemming from pick 199 in the Draft. There cannot be another Tom Brady, but the baton will be passed to someone in 2022 and will probably exchange hands many times in the next 22 years. The talk around the league is that it would be unlikely for that baton to fall into the hands of any quarterback in the class of 2022. Although I don’t disagree with that sentiment in haste, this group of maligned signal callers does have potential. One could scream into the abyss that all of these incoming rookie quarterbacks are flying under the radar. There are four of them, however, that are borderline black ops when it comes to earning due respect for their prospects of NFL stardom.

Carson Strong: Nevada

According to folklore, Carson Strong is a pseudonym he assumed to protect his true identity and push himself to the forefront of the quarterback conversations. The name is in agreement with his skillset. Strong has a rifle for an arm. Statistically, he produced Zach Wilson (QB – NYJ)-esque passing numbers in the Mountain West Conference twice. Strong’s last two seasons at Nevada saw a 70% completion rate and a combined 63 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions. On tape, Strong has a veritable encyclopedia of NFL-level throws.

Aside from his elite arm talent, Strong also has incredible poise in the pocket along with pro-ready footwork. Think, “small-school Tom Brady.” In order for Strong to remotely sniff a real comparison to the GOAT, he must improve his understanding and recognition of defensive schemes. The knock I am hearing most about him is that he does not always make the correct throw to squeeze all the juice out of a play. This is a concern that could affect his draft capital, along with below-average athleticism for the position. Do not mistake a lack of elite mobility with him being a statue in the pocket, however. Strong shows an ability to feel pressure and climb the pocket, while keeping his eyes downfield. This is a trait that is lost on most rookie quarterbacks as they enter the league.

Carson Strong is not quite ready to start in the NFL, but then again, none of these quarterbacks are. I, along with a few analysts, see him as a second-day draft pick with real potential to stick around the NFL for a very long time. Strong’s success will not be as dependent on landing spot as some of the other quarterbacks in this class, as he already possesses desirable professional traits. His growth areas are similar to those of Zach Wilson or Josh Allen (QB – BUF), even though he’s not in their tier of athleticism. Wilson rebounded nicely after a horrendous start to the 2021 season. Allen struggled as a rookie, but was molded into a superstar through hard work and excellent coaching in his formative years. Carson Strong (if that is his real name) projects to be as sure of a bet as anyone to become the most productive of this 2022 crop of QBs.

Kaleb Eleby: Western Michigan

We cannot be entirely certain that Marshawn Lynch didn’t actually say, “I’m about that MACtion, Boss.” Some of the NFL’s greatest football minds have cut their teeth in the Mid-American Conference, from Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes to Nick Saban. Great MAC quarterbacks like Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger had a lasting impact on the NFL. Even Julian Edelman transformed his career to become a star wide receiver for the Patriots during their dynastic run. Kaleb Eleby is a player who has the ability to follow in their footsteps, even if he is a second-day draft pick (at best).

What I love most about Eleby is how he plays much bigger than his 6’1″, 210-pound frame. He looks 6’4″, 230 on tape with the way he carries himself. Eleby also made huge strides in his technique during the 2021 season, especially in his throwing motion. He led the Broncos to an 8-5 record in 2021, culminating in a decisive win over Nevada in the Quick Lane Bowl. Eleby’s 3,277 passing yards and 29 total touchdowns (23 passing, six rushing) speak to his big play ability and sneaky athleticism. He accomplished all of this behind one of the worst offensive lines in the FBS. Some of his 29 sacks were from holding the ball too long, which is a habit he will need to quell at the next level. I was thoroughly impressed with his touch and accuracy on downfield passes. Eleby has a very talented arm and his recognition and decision making will continue to develop, as he has improved these dramatically each season.

Kaleb Eleby reminds me a lot of Case Keenum (QB – CLE) coming out of Houston. He is undersized, but carries a lot of moxie and pure arm talent that translate well to the NFL game. Although Eleby isn’t blessed with elite athleticism, he’s no slouch moving around and throwing on the run. It takes a lot of guts to declare for the draft early coming out of the MAC. Eleby is someone I can definitely picture flashing in the preseason and stirring up a quarterback controversy in a couple years.

Bailey Zappe: Western Kentucky

Jumping out of the MACtion and into the Conference USA fire, we land upon a supremely-productive Hilltopper. Bailey Zappe‘s 2021 stats are absolutely absurd. Zappe seemingly burst onto the scene from out of thin air as a fifth-year transfer from Houston Baptist University. He had one more year of eligibility left and decided to rejoin his former coach at HBU, Clay Helton’s little brother Tyson. Western Kentucky deployed an Air Raid barrage on the conference, with Zappe attempting a staggering 686 passes. It was very successful. Zappe broke Joe Burrow‘s (QB – CIN) seemingly unattainable record with 62 touchdown passes to only 11 interceptions. Before you discount his accomplishments due to strength of competition and a wild scheme, I should remind you that nobody in FBS history has approached these efficiency numbers with similar volume.

Zappe was a phenomenal college passer. So what? Does it translate well to the professional game? A good portion of his game actually does. As much as it induces angry screaming from ardent fans, every quarterback in the NFL is a “system quarterback.” Zappe was truly an elite performer within his system at WKU. He did throw a ton of passes close to the line of scrimmage to wide open receivers, but he hit them in stride and on time. NFL offenses are evolving to include many more of these concepts than ever before. The most important trait of a successful quarterback is decision making, and Zappe showed almost surgical precision with which he attacked opposing defenses through the air.

Bailey Zappe is not an imposing figure or gifted athlete, relatively speaking. At 6’1″ and 220 pounds, his professional hay will have to be made with his arm. I would like to see him throw at the NFL Draft Combine to see him in off-schedule situations. I also need to see that he can push the ball down the field vertically and to the boundaries against better defensive competition. If he checks those boxes, his ceiling is late-stage Drew Brees. If not, Zappe is the type of player who won’t stick around long. The deck is stacked against players like Zappe, but the special players still come up aces.

Chase Garbers: California-Berkeley

The East Coast elitists want you to believe that there is no reason to stay up to watch Pac-12 football (and some wonder how so many analysts missed on Justin Herbert). Those of us on the Best Coast did not need to burn the midnight oil to observe the talent and grit of Cal Golden Bears quarterback Chase Garbers. Cal was never a formidable group during Garbers’ four-year career as their starting quarterback, nor was his statistical production eye-opening. Some say that is a cause for concern, since the Conference of Champions isn’t exactly known for its defense. My belief in Garbers as a professional prospect stems from his cache of skills that translate perfectly to the NFL.

I have seen some proponents of Garbers compare him to Davis Mills (QB – HOU), who impressed as a rookie for the hapless Texans out of Stanford. Although Garbers possesses some of the same positive passing traits as Mills, he is much more of a dual threat (456 rushing yards in 2021) and started 35 games over four seasons (Mills only had 13 starts over two seasons). The two quarterbacks really couldn’t be less alike as professional prospects. Garbers has all the arm talent, poise, and footwork in the pocket that NFL teams yearn for. He also has a sixth sense for pressure, which translated into him scrambling at the right times and with great effectiveness. Garbers is built like a brick house, at 6’2″ and 225 pounds. He also plays football like he’s carved from granite, never shying away from contact.

Chase Garbers‘ draft capital will be difficult to predict. He is light years better than a guy like Kyle Trask (QB – TB), who was selected by Tampa Bay in the second round last year. At the same time, it will be easy to overlook his contributions for a bad team in a second-tier Power-5 conference. Much like some quarterbacks are elite college players and fizzle out in the NFL, some of the best signal callers hit their stride when the professional game demands a different set of skills. Garbers is the type of player with an NFL makeup that can seemingly hit the ground running and excel at the professional level if thrust into action. If all goes well for Garbers, he has the potential to follow in the footsteps of other Cal greats like Aaron Rodgers (QB – GB) and Jared Goff (QB – DET) and earn an NFL living for many years. He isn’t close to Rodgers’ tier, by any stretch of the imagination, but could very well exceed Goff’s NFL accomplishments.

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Bo McBrayer is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Bo, check out his archive and follow him @Bo_McBigTime.

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