Who could be the Joe Burrow of the 2021 NFL draft?

Joe Burrow-type seasons don’t come along often. After all, we’re talking about the author of perhaps the greatest individual QB season in college history

There have been plenty of surprising draft skyrockets in recent years at QB, including top overall picks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Of the two, Murray feels like the bigger leap given his size, his being a top-10 baseball draft pick the year prior and his meager production prior to winning the Heisman Trophy.

There’s also a category for quarterbacks we likely couldn’t have projected as top-10 picks entering their final college season, which would include names such as Daniel Jones, Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton, among others.

So this type of ascent — even if few reach the Burrow plateau — isn’t at all unheard of.

We identified a few QBs for the 2020 college football season (with 2021 draft eligibility) who might fit in this spectrum. Not all will rise to that lofty level, but if all goes right, they at least have the chance to do it.

Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields aren’t listed here; we know all about them, and they’re expected to go that high. We’re even rendering North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, the unbelievably hyped redshirt sophomore, ineligible here after his spring buzz.

Also exempt: Texas’ Sam Ehlinger and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan. They’re just a little too well-known at this point, even if neither are surefire first-rounders now.

Brock Purdy, Iowa State

Purdy is well-respected in college football circles but only now starting to gain draft momentum. The junior-to-be is almost on that exempt list for this story, but it still would require another step up in his game to see him land in the top-10 range.

Purdy made a big leap last season and still has room to improve. He might lack a cannon and size (he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, which might be a hangup for some teams), and he had a few clunkers last year. However, Purdy has what most great QBs possess: outstanding processing speed and great coolness in the pocket.

Iowa State's Brock Purdy could end up as the school's highest-drafted QB ever.
Iowa State's Brock Purdy could end up as the school's highest-drafted QB ever.

Purdy needs to hang in the pocket more and not fall back on his scrambling ability as often, and his ball security (seven fumbles in 2019) must improve.

His toughness, instincts and creativity are huge plusses in his game. He’s got some nice weapons, including a great tight end group, to work with.

With a fine 2020 season, Purdy easily could end up the highest-drafted Cyclone QB. (Tim Van Galder was taken 86th overall in 1966, but the highest-drafted Iowa State QB in recent years was Sage Rosenfels at 109th overall in 2001.)

Kyle Trask, Florida

Trask has taken an odd path to success, having not started a single game between his freshman year of high school in 2012 and last season at Florida. That’s because he attended the same high school as thrill-a-minute QB D’Eriq King (see below) their final three seasons, and Trask couldn’t beat out Feleipe Franks initially, mostly because of a foot injury.

Once Franks went down last season, Trask elevated the Gators’ QB play with a fascinating season in which he completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven INTs with four rushing scores in 12 games (10 starts).

The foot is a question for NFL talent evaluators, and Trask will have to do it again this season amid far higher expectations. He has a big frame, decent arm talent and some surprising poise in the pocket. Look no farther than his toe-to-toe performance against Burrow and LSU last season for how well Trask has stepped up his game in big moments.

If there’s a candidate for a Burrow-esque rise, Trask fits the mold. Can he stay healthy and deliver? If so, it would be a wild rise from high-school backup to NFL first-rounder.

Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

It’s surprising he hasn’t received more buzz, perhaps because Mond’s improvement has been more gradual. Still, that closing kick is coming. The 6-3, 217-pound Mond is a talented dual threat QB with some skills to invest in. A little more refinement could yield some big results.

The Aggies’ schedule (assuming it stays as is) looks manageable, at least until an October visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face Auburn. From that point on, the bar is raised quite a bit. If Mond can improve his consistency and ball placement, he’s a dangerous weapon in something of the Dak Prescott mold.

Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher helped turn Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel into first-round picks, for crying out loud, and he helped make Jameis Winston the first overall pick. We don’t know if Mond will be a first-rounder by next spring, but the mobile QB’s talent is not a question.

K.J. Costello, Mississippi State

One of the more fascinating transfer QB-new coach pairings is Costello heading to Starkville to play for Mike Leach. This means Costello is switching systems completely from Stanford’s pro-style offense to Leach’s “Air Raid.” 

How will the 6-5, 223-pound pocket passer fare? Well, the physical traits — especially arm talent — are there, and he also has shown some nice anticipation and touch. Costello, a two-time captain for the Cardinal, also checks off all the boxes for intangibles.

Injuries collapsed his 2019 season, and Costello must prove he can adapt to his new surroundings in tough circumstances this offseason. Imagine if he does. That fantastic 2018 season (3,540 yards, 29 TDs, 11 INTs, 65.1 percent completions) wasn’t that long ago, and a healthy season likely means Costello will attempt around 700 passes this year.

Jamie Newman, Georgia

We’re hedging fairly hard here, even if Newman displayed some intriguing traits last year with Wake Forest. He outgunned Jordan Love in the opener and was cranking out the production at the midpoint last season, appearing to be a star in the making.

A brutal performance vs. Clemson derailed his season, as did the injury to Wake Forest wideout Sage Surratt. (Newman’s own shoulder ailment earlier in the season also can’t go overlooked). In his first seven games in 2019, Newman completed 166 of 247 passes (67.2 percent) with 20 TDs, five INTs and five rushing scores. In the final five games, he completed only 54 of 114 passes (47.4 percent) with six TDs, six INTs and one rushing TD.

Can Jamie Newman play at Georgia the way he did early last season at Wake Forest? That's the biggest question. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Can Jamie Newman play at Georgia the way he did early last season at Wake Forest? That's the biggest question. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now Newman might have to battle for a starting job at Georgia with USC transfer JT Daniels, whose eligibility for 2020 is currently unclear. The Bulldogs have the core of a good offensive line, and some young receivers — including potential star George Pickens — who can make this offense hum under new coordinator Todd Monken.

Newman is in that wait-and-see category until we’ve seen more.

Davis Mills, Stanford

From a technique standpoint, Mills is a very polished, natural passer with textbook delivery and mechanics. Taking over for an injured Costello in 2019, Mills completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,960 yards, 11 touchdowns and five INTs. He also got hurt last season but enters 2020 as the unquestioned starter for a coach in David Shaw who has tutored some respectable NFL passers.

Mills has a nice support system up front with center Drew Dalman (“a real ass-kicker,” one scout told us), right tackle Foster Sarrell and left tackle Walker Little, a potential first-rounder who missed nearly the entire 2019 season. There also is a fine group of receivers, led by Michael Wilson, Simi Fehoko, Connor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown.

Don’t forget that Mills was ranked higher coming out of high school than every other QB in the Class of 2017, including Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm. The 6-4, 216-pound Mills has a chance to be really good this season.

Anthony Russo, Temple

If there’s a QB whom I think could shock some folks this season, it’s Russo. Style-wise, he’s a little like Burrow in that he doesn’t wow with his arm strength but has the touch and timing to make some impressive drop-in-the-bucket throws. 

On paper, Russo doesn’t look that accurate with a 58.1 percent completion rate in 24 games. But his receivers dropped a whopping 31 passes last season, per Pro Football Focus; only three quarterbacks with at least 350 pass attempts had a higher drop rate with their receivers.

Russo has an athletic build to be an effective runner, but he’s not Burrow in that department. Still, there’s enough talent to suggest the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Russo could be a fascinating riser this season.

Mac Jones, Alabama

Jones isn’t an immensely talented passer, but you can tell that Nick Saban sees something in him. With good poise, decision-making, touch and ball placement, Jones could be the next Bama QB to receive strong NFL consideration. He handled taking over for an injured Tua Tagovailoa with resolve and equanimity. That didn’t go unnoticed.

Jones first must beat out five-star recruit Bryce Young for the job, and his ceiling might always be a question for scouts. Does he have an NFL arm? Can he be accurate deep? Those are big questions, especially with the Tide’s army of skill-position talent likely to mask some of his shortcomings.

Still, he’s an interesting test study this season if Jones can thrive again.

D’Eriq King, Miami

We’re only two years removed from King’s brilliant 50-TD season at Houston, even if his shine has worn off a bit in the interim. Now at Miami, King has one final shot to wreck college football defenses and make his case as an NFL prospect.

Could another huge season do that? It’s debatable. After all, King is by no means a classic prospect, needing to overcome questions about his size (5-11, 195 pounds), mechanics, deep-passing ability and pocket work.

But King’s outstanding athleticism and knack for making big plays with his arm and feet make him a fascinating wild card for the 2021 draft. We’re excited to see what a career reboot can do for him.

Shane Buechele, SMU

Buechele didn’t meet sky-high hype at Texas, but he’s reinvented himself at SMU under Sonny Dykes, who previously coached NFL QBs Jared Goff and Davis Webb. In a terrific 2019 season, Buechele threw for 3,929 yards, 34 TDs and 10 INTs and kept the Mustangs in pretty much every contest (until the bowl game) with his gung-ho style.

NFL scouts would like to see Buechele temper his penchant for playing hero ball at times, and he must use his eyes better to manipulate defenders. He also is on the small side, checking in at around 6-1 and 207 pounds, and doesn’t wow anyone with his arm.

Buechele has some interesting traits and should put up big numbers again, even with some big personnel losses at SMU’s skill positions.

Chase Brice, Duke

Probably our biggest wild card on the list, Brice is a fairly talented passer who grad-transferred to Duke to work with one of the best QB coaches in the country in David Cutcliffe. In limited mop-up duty at Clemson behind Trevor Lawrence, Brice fared well: 50-of-85 passing, 581 yards and a 4-1 TD-INT ratio.

Is he the next Hunter Johnson or Kelly Bryant? We won’t know until we see Brice working with far less talent with the Blue Devils, even with a solid offensive line and a respectable tight end in Noah Grey. 

Still — roll your eyes if you must — Dabo Swinney insisted that Clemson had the two best quarterbacks in the ACC last season with Lawrence and Brice. His finest hour was a tremendous relief appearance for an injured Lawrence against Syracuse in 2018, completing 7 of 13 passes for 83 yards and leading a game-winning, 94-yard drive to prevent a massive upset that year.

Others of note: Ian Book, Notre Dame; Kenny Pickett, Pitt; Chase Garbers, Cal; Myles Brennan, LSU; Tommy DeVito, Syracuse; Jack Coan, Wisconsin; Michael Penix, Indiana; Brandon Peters, Illinois; Dustin Crum, Kent State; Myles Brennan, LSU; Zac Thomas, Appalachian State; Brady White, Memphis; Charlie Brewer, Baylor; and the winner of the Joe Milton-Dylan McCaffrey battle at Michigan.

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