With the arrival of the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, your Twitter timeline and Facebook feed is about to be inundated with footage of prospect media sessions that are difficult to hear, clips of head coaches and general managers remaining coy about their plans, and sportswriters talking about shrimp cocktails.
(Just a heads-up, my trip to St. Elmo’s is scheduled for Saturday night, so be warned).
Of course, another massive topic this week — and really for the next few months — is the battle for QB1. By now you probably know the candidates: Will Levis, Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud, and Bryce Young. We talked about those four earlier this week, highlighting the most important place for each of them in Indianapolis.
But here is a different question.
Who is QB5?
After all, consensus holds that those quarterbacks are the top four in the class, in some order. There are other opinions, of course, but looking at the consensus big board at NFL Mock Draft Database those four QBs are well above the group.
So who is fifth?
Let’s look at the main options for that title before we head to Indianapolis and get our hands on that shrimp cocktail.
The first option is Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. Hooker put up massive numbers this season for the Volunteers, playing himself into Heisman contention and putting Tennessee to the top of the polls for a period of time. Hooker completed 69.6% of his passes this season for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns, against just a pair of interceptions.
Beyond the numbers, there are traits that stand out on film. Hooker can use his eyes and a variety of ball fakes to manipulate defenders, and works through the options in the Tennessee offense quickly. There are also examples of him learning from mistakes, even over the course of a single game. For example, against Alabama this season Hooker missed on a wide-open vertical route early in the third quarter, but a few plays later, he connected with Jalin Hyatt on another deep shot for a touchdown:
However, there are some questions Hooker will need to address over the next few months. First, is his age. Hooker is 25, putting him on the older side of prospects this draft cycle. Next is the knee injury that Hooker suffered near the end of the season, as the quarterback tore the ACL in his left knee in Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina.
Finally, he will face questions about the Tennessee offense. Josh Heupel’s vertical offense, with a bevy of switch concepts and wide formations, certainly worked on Saturdays. But how well will that system translate to the NFL?
Now, there are ways to address all those concerns for Hooker. First off, the age factor might have been a problem years ago, but in the modern NFL young quarterbacks are seeing the field earlier, so Hooker’s age is not the problem it once was. There is a similar rebuttal to the concerns over his knee, given the advances in medical technology and the fact that Hooker may be cleared to work out at Tennessee’s Pro Day.
The offensive system part of the discussion might be a bigger hurdle for Hooker, but you could argue that if a team wants to implement that kind of offense, he would be a perfect fit. But making that argument — and an NFL team actually carrying it out — are two different discussions.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener is another fascinating quarterback prospect. Haener put up massive numbers two seasons ago, throwing for 3,812 yards and 32 touchdowns, and at the conclusion of the 2021 season he briefly entered the transfer window. He also considered entering the NFL draft, given that an invitation to the Senior Bowl was in hand.
However, Haener returned to Fresno State for one final season. He played in ten games this season, suffering an ankle injury that initially put the rest of his season in doubt. He made his way back to the field, and finished the year having completed 72% of his passes for 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Haener closed out his career with the Bulldogs with a win over Boise State in the Mountain West Championship Game, and then a win over Washington State in the LA Bowl.
He is an experienced quarterback, adept at working through half- and full-field reads. He has great feel for the RPO game, and his strength as a quarterback might be with his ball placement. Haener does a tremendous job at layering throws, and shows great feel for leverage. On a throw against USC before his injury Haener spots the cornerback shift his leverage to the inside and, reading it on the fly, Haener puts his throw towards the boundary to make sure of the completion.
The biggest questions facing Haener focus on his size as well as his arm strength, and these concerns might leave some NFL teams to project him more as a backup/spot-starter type, in the mold of Taylor Heinicke. Still, for teams looking to upgrade their QB room with a QB who can perhaps thrive in the right system, he could be a good fit. He is also off to a solid start this draft season, having stood out down in Mobile during the Senior Bowl, where he was named the game’s MVP.
The Purdue Boilermakers made a surprising run to the Big Ten Championship Game, and quarterback Aidan O’Connell was a big part of their 2022 season. O’Connell completed 64.1% of his passes this season for 3,490 yards and 22 touchdowns, along with 13 interceptions. He earned an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, and there are some in the scouting community and NFL world that believe that years from now, O’Connell could emerge as the top quarterback from this class.
Watching O’Connell on film, one of the first things that stands out is his willingness to attack the middle of the field. He throws with decent timing, rhythm, and anticipation when attacking over the middle, on crossing routes or dig routes, and he also does a good job at identifying opportunities pre-snap due to alignment and formation, and then taking advantage of those opportunities post-snap.
Perhaps the biggest question regarding O’Connell, at least when studying him, is a continuation of that last point. There are moments — such as an interception late in the first quarter against Illinois — where he makes his mind up pre-snap, and even when the picture changes after the snap he stays committed to his first read.
There was a time when the draft discussion regarding Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee would not focus on whether he was QB5, but whether he was in fact QB1. McKee is your prototypical pocket quarterback, with size and play-style reminiscent of Joe Flacco.
But this is not Joe Flacco’s NFL, and the game has changed. Some of McKee’s limitations as a quarterback — pocket movement, athleticism, and ability to create — are becoming non-negotiables at the position.
Still, there are moments where he puts the football exactly where it needs to be, as he does on this third-down conversion against Notre Dame late in the contest:
Again, if this were 2005 we would be having a much different conversation. But it is not 2005. He has the size the arm to play from a clean pocket, but the questions about how he fares when the picture gets muddied might hold him back.
One of my favorite draft exercises each yar is the Dr. Frankenstein experiment, where you assemble the ideal draft quarterback using traits from different prospects.
In terms of pocket poise, feel, and footwork, Jaren Hall is a strong option when that day comes. Throughout his film you can see examples of him simply feeling pressure, even on the backside, and creating space with his feet to give him time in the pocket. He also shows great footwork when working through his reads, even if he is avoiding multiple points of pressure simultaneously. An early completion against Boise State working off play action is a prime example.
As far as the negatives, there are moments where it all crumbles around him, and he forces ill-advised passes under pressure that have disastrous results. An interception in that same game against Boise State is one example. Another is a sack for a safety he took against Notre Dame, where he seemed impervious to the fact that he was operating in his own end zone:
Still, his pocket poise is something to enjoy. After all, life is not easy in the NFL, and you are going to face pressure. A lot of pressure.