The quarterbacks are always the primary position on display at the Senior Bowl. Through the years, plenty have emerged as top NFL Draft options, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Philip Rivers are names that helped their stock at the Senior Bowl and turned into NFL superstars. Usually there are a few duds on the roster with simply not enough QB depth to sustain (players like Antonio Pipkin or Jacob Coker come to mind). For 2022, there are no duds, which should lead to competitive practices and a QB or two emerging as legitimate NFL starters.
This year’s QB class is a strange one. There is no elite option like Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence, and 6 of the top 7 QBs are all Seniors (all of which are playing in the Senior Bowl). The Lions, coaching the American team, have Jared Goff playing solid, but they likely are interested in finding a future franchise QB in this draft since they have 3 picks in the top 34 picks. The Jets, coaching the National Team, took their future signal caller last year in Zach Wilson, so they are unlikely to draft another one high. But, there are more teams than starting caliber QBs in the NFL, so look for many with a hole at QB to be intently watching Senior Bowl week.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Howell stepped onto the field for the Tarheels as a true freshman in 2019 and looked phenomenal. He was in a pro style offense and already going through progressions at a young age. With some development, it appeared he would be the next superstar going to the NFL. In year 2, surrounded by NFL players in Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, and more, the North Carolina offense continued sailing. Unfortunately, this past year was Howell trying to strap the offense on his back and carry them. He ran a lot more and made some bad decisions along the way, but he could still sling it. With some questions about his upside as an NFL starter, the Senior Bowl will be a big opportunity for Howell to show he belongs.
One of the keys of the week will be seeing how Howell takes to NFL coaching from the Lions. If he can improve in his areas of anticipation and reading defenses, it could be a huge step. Also, building a relationship with that coaching staff can be key. Howell could be a target for the Lions in the late first or early second. He definitely has the opportunity to show off his accuracy and moxy at practice while delivering accurate passes. It’s doubtful he is the “star” of the week, but expect some solid buzz coming out of the week and he should go in the first round.
Malik Willis, Liberty
Willis has had a wild ride to get to where he is. From back-up at Auburn to Liberty starter, his athletic talents and big arm give him tremendous upside as an NFL QB. If a team is willing to build an offense around a rushing talent who can throw downfield, Willis is their guy. He has had his struggles holding onto the football too long and sloppy footwork, but getting to work with the Lions coaching staff could be a great way to start working on those. Could Detroit see him as their future franchise guy and find a way to maneuver themselves to take Willis. The Senior Bowl can be a great platform for QBs with big arms and movement skills, as evidenced by Colin Kaepernick in 2011. If Willis has some dazzling downfield throws in practice while showing leadership, his stock could be on the way up after this week. If there is one QB I expect the draft world to be buzzing about after Senior Bowl week, it is Malik Willis.
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
Zappe is the most unheralded of the Senior Bowl QBs, but he is no slouch. A transfer to Western Kentucky from Houston Baptist, Zappe followed his Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach, Zach Kittley, to WKU. The Air Raid type offense led to Zappe breaking the NCAA record for passing yardage AND passing TDs in a season. That doesn’t happen by accident. Though Zappe isn’t the best athlete nor does he have the strongest arm, his ball placement is impeccable and he stands tough in the pocket. With some flashes of downfield passing, he could be an intriguing early Day 3 pick to develop.
Zappe might be the least valued of the QBs at the Senior Bowl, but he also is one of the most accurate. In 1-on-1s, this should pay off and he could turn some heads (and to be fair, he is the best 6th QB on the roster of the past 20 years). It is the best case scenario for Zappe. He has many similarities to Jared Goff and should work within that system at the Senior Bowl. With a good enough showing, Zappe could sneak into the back end of Day 2.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
Pickett was the biggest QB riser of this season. After a lengthy Pitt career, he led the Panthers to the ACC championship outdueling QBs like Sam Howell, Sam Hartman, and Hendon Hooker along the way. Pickett flashed arm strength and toughness in the pocket throughout the season with solid zip. He is at his best throwing accurately on the move outside the pocket and has flashed rushing ability at times. Seasoned end experienced, he fits the old school NFL mentality about QBs while still have enough movement ability to work in today’s league. The Senior Bowl will be an opportunity to showcase starting QB ability and compete to be the top QB selected in the draft.
The first big hurdle for Pickett will be at the weigh-in. Pickett’s hand size was confirmed by BLESTO this offseason to be 8 ¼ inches, incredibly small for a typical NFL QB. Once that is done, Pickett can take the field and continue where he left the season off. I’d expect solid buzz to come out of the week confirming Pickett to be a top two QB and Top 20 pick in this class. Being a “one year wonder” can be worrisome, so a great Senior Bowl week would put those worries to rest. Pickett’s experience should come through and improve his stock.
Carson Strong, Nevada
Strong is a divisive prospect in this class who has plenty of high end strengths as well as high end weaknesses. He has, arguably, the best arm in the class with some beautiful downfield passes throughout his career. If you want a downfield passer who reads defenses well, Strong has an excellent resume. But, there are major medical hurdles for him to clear. In 2017, an MRI showed a Osteochondritis dissecans lesion after knee surgery. Nails were inserted to mend a crack in the bone, so the Combine medical check will be important. Add in another knee surgery in January 2021, and there is some medical concern. He also is not mobile in the slightest. A negative career rusher, there are questions on if he fits in the modern NFL. The Senior Bowl will be an opportunity to put these questions to bed.
This week is huge for Strong to show he belongs in the first round conversation. If despite the medical and mobility concerns he proves he is NFL ready, there could be teams with certain systems intrigued. Strong is likely to remain a controversial prospect during this week. We may see a few great throws through the week that get highlighted, while Strong is likely to also miss a few passes (like he did in season). Being compared directly against Kenny Pickett rep after rep will be an interesting narrative throughout the week.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Ridder had a great college career leading the Bearcats to the college football playoff after an undefeated season this past year. He has the makings of a modern NFL QB. Good mobility, solid arm strength, and a track record of success. He is still raw at many things including his ball placement, lack of drive with his feet and pocket presence issues. This could be a great time to work on improving those things and put him in the Top 50 conversation at QB.
This is a solid environment for Ridder to shine, especially in some of the 11-on-11 drills to establish his unique skillset. Out of the three National Team QBs, he is the most like Zach Wilson and it could allow for some interesting reps schematically. If Ridder can take to coaching and improve on some of his technique areas, there is a big ceiling for him. Keep an eye on the Ridder buzz throughout the week