Kenny Pickett-Sam Howell duel was fascinating study

Each week during the college football season, we’ll stack the quarterbacks with 2022 NFL draft eligibility based on their pro potential — and nothing else.

Some of the players we list below may not enter next year’s draft, but we’ll list anyone who has a remote shot to declare early.

Here’s how we see the NFL QB prospect hierarchy stacking up after the first 10 weeks of college football.

(Last week: 2nd)

Outside of a few risky throws against Texas A&M, Corral was very much in control in the big win over the Aggies and a talented defense. Week in and week out, he seems to face the toughest tests of any 2022 QB prospect and more often than not, he comes out looking effective.

We like that Corral seems to adjust his game depending on the opponent and the flow of the game, although we do wish he’d feature his legs as a scrambler more — perhaps not as much as he was forced to do earlier in the season against Tennessee but maybe more than we saw Saturday.

NFL teams have been digging into Corral’s character even more now that he’s emerging as one of the two or three best QB prospects in this somewhat underwhelming class. But his toughness and high-end skill are two alluring traits that should put him on the first-round radar.

(Last week: 1st)

Pickett and UNC’s Sam Howell engaged in a fascinating, rain-soaked battle on Thursday, a game that was attended by more than three dozen NFL evaluators, including four GMs: the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert, the Eagles’ Howie Roseman, the Raiders’ Mike Mayock and the Broncos’ George Paton. (Vikings GM Rick Spielman was expected to attend but did not.)

Pickett was on fire early, throwing for 208 yards and two TDs in the first half. But as the rain fell harder, the less accurate his passes were. Pickett made some curious decisions, including a potentially disastrous pass that should have been picked late.

In the end, Pickett and the Panthers gathered themselves for a gutsy series in the first OT, doing just enough to win. Credit to the QB for that after he really scuttled late in regulation. But the postgame talk has been about Pickett’s extremely small hands and how the weather seemed to wreak havoc on his ball placement — a storyline that will linger into draft season, we highly suspect.

(Last week: 3rd)

Almost the inverse of Pickett, Howell started out very slowly before coming on against Pitt and making some tremendous plays in the comeback, forcing overtime on the road in tough conditions. While Pickett thrived, Howell struggled — and vice versa — all the way through to OT.

North Carolina QB Sam Howell was sacked six times at Pitt but kept gunning until the end. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

North Carolina QB Sam Howell was sacked six times at Pitt but kept gunning until the end. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In a stroke of bad luck, the rain went from heavy to downright biblical once the Tar Heels got the ball for their overtime possession. It’s nearly criminal to suggest Howell blew it for UNC late considering those conditions, and he deserves a ton of credit for willing his team back. Without Howell, this team might have two or three wins this season.

But his early-game struggles also can’t go overlooked, even with borderline awful pass protection again (six sacks). We’re fans of Howell, and the NFL likes him more than some online evaluators do. He’s far from a complete package, but there are enough alluring traits in his evaluation to make him a solid-to-good QB prospect.

(Last week: 5th)

On bye last week. His move up is more of a correction from last week’s rankings than anything. NFL evaluators aren’t necessarily smitten with him on the whole as an immediate contributor, but there are some really redeemable traits and intangibles worth mining and developing for the long haul.

(Last week: 4th)

Strong’s season has been defined by toughness, as he’s played through a painful knee injury that nearly delayed the start of his campaign. It’s been defined by resilience, too, as the Wolf Pack lost WR Elijah Cooks early in the season and have been without TE Cole Turner — one of Strong’s favorite targets — for parts of the past two games.

So when you look at Strong’s statistical season, it’s hard not to be impressed. He’s completed 70.7% if his passes, averaged 354.7 yards per game and compiled a 28-7 TD-INT ratio. Not bad for a team that barely features the run game, meaning defenses know exactly what’s coming.

But when we floated Strong’s name to two NFL evaluators last week, we received a mixed bag of responses. “Where’s the upside?” one asked rhetorically. Even the prospect of playing next season with a healthier knee comes with a caveat, as NFL teams believe their medical staffs will need to do a thorough examination of it before assuming he’ll be cleared, health-wise, for the long term.

San Diego State beat the Wolf Pack on a late field goal, and it was clear the strategy was to bury them deep and force Strong to drive the distance of the field every time. For three quarters it worked beautifully. Strong did uncork some beautiful balls late, totaled 350 pass yards and gave the Pack a late lead at one point. But his final drive came up short. it was a noble effort, all in all.

But the more we’ve mulled Strong as a prospect, even with all of his throwing potential, the more ambivalent we’ve become. He’s an interesting prospect for sure, but one who comes with some possible pitfalls.

(Last week: 6th)

We caught some of Ridder’s game Friday night against South Florida, and following an early pick (that was almost returned for a TD) he settled in and delivered yet another highly efficient performance: 31 of 39 passing for 304 yards, two TDs and just the one interception. He also ran 10 times for 65 yards and a score.

Granted, it came vs. a Bulls defense ranked near the bottom of the FBS rankings in multiple categories. The pick was a risky throw too far to the inside of his best target, Alec Pierce. But we loved Ridder’s confident dart up the seam for a first down against a prevent defense right before the half to set up a field goal.

Ridder led the Bearcats on six scoring drives in seven possessions following the pick, with five of those drives ending in touchdowns. This wouldn’t be another UC nail biter; the game was pretty much over early in the second half despite USF cutting the deficit to 10 points with six minutes left.

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder has a fairly high floor as an NFL prospect. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder has a fairly high floor as an NFL prospect. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

There’s not much to hate about Ridder’s game. He has a fairly high floor as a prospect, and that can’t be overlooked. Once coaches enter the scouting mix, Ridder’s improved accuracy and ball security will score some points with them. Scouts might question how high his ceiling is, however. He’s going to be an interesting draft-room debate for a lot of teams.

If you like safe projections, with just enough perceived upside, Ridder’s your man. We don’t believe he’ll ever be a star, but there have been plenty of star-talent QB prospects who will have had shorter NFL careers than what Ridder is capable of having, we suspect.

(Last week: 7th)

Even while his attempts have remained low the past two games, it’s hard not to get excited about Jurkovec’s performance since returning early from hand surgery. In Saturday’s 41-30 win at Georgia Tech, he completed 13 of 20 passes for 310 yards, with two TDs and no interceptions and added 71 yards rushing on eight carries with three more scores.

In short, he carried the Eagles on his back. All game long, Jurkovec was launching some pretty bombs and connecting on most of them, averaging a robust 15.5 yards per attempt. But what really sung to our hearts was the drive that started at the BC 10-yard line with just under nine minutes left. Jurkovec’s gorgeous 21-yard seam ball in traffic on third-and-13 from his own 7-yard line was wild. His 31-yard TD run to cap the drive — which finished off Tech — was the icing on the cake.

He’s on the move, folks. The only question now: Come out in 2022 or stay in school? Jurkovec is a big man with some terrific toughness, athleticism and arm talent. He’s not Josh Allen nor Ben Roethlisberger, but he’s somewhere on that spectrum as a prospect.

(Last week: 8th)

On Saturday, Zappe returned to the town where he cut his teeth as a college quarterback, at Houston Baptist, and wrecked his opponent with throw after accurate throw. The Hilltoppers beat Rice in Houston, 42-21, as Zappe connected on 80.1 percent off his passes and averaged 11 yards per attempt, hitting four different receivers on his five TDs and throwing for 330 yards in the first half alone.

Zappe also faced the kitchen sink defensively, as Rice threw every look it could dream up, coverage- and pressure-wise. When WKU tried to go tempo on the opening drive, Zappe fumbled a snap from the Rice 8-yard line and tried to force a pass into the end zone that was picked. It was one of the few regrettable plays in the game.

Otherwise, he was on point, especially on downfield passes. His projection is as a backup NFL quarterback, but there’s absolutely a player worth developing here, despite average traits.

(Last week: n/a)

Haener has been a bit hot and cold week to week. But his ultra-competitive style, solid skills and intriguing running ability have him back in the top 10 this week following a dominant outing against New Mexico.

(Last week: n/a)

O’Connell and Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman — two relative nobodies entering the season — were strong candidates to enter the top 10 this week. We chose the former, even in a loss to Ohio State, because O’Connell was dialed in against the Buckeyes, completing 40 of 52 passes for 390 yards and no turnovers.

It was his second straight impressive performance against top competition after beating Michigan State the week before, and it was O’Connell’s fifth straight game completing 74% of his passes or higher. His NFL ceiling isn’t going to be exceptionally high, but like predecessor David Blough, O’Connell has put himself on the NFL radar with some big performances.

Just missed the cut

Brennan Armstrong, Virginia (injured); Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina (injured); Hendon Hooker, Tennessee; Brock Purdy, Iowa State; Kedon Slovis, USC; Sam Hartman, Wake Forest; Devin Leary, North Carolina State; EJ Perry, Brown; Tanner McKee, Stanford; Will Levis, Kentucky; Jayden Daniels, Arizona State; Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma; JT Daniels, Georgia; Sam Hartman, Wake Forest; Skylar Thompson, Kansas State; Jack Coan, Notre Dame; Dustin Crum, Kent State; Malik Cunningham, Louisville; Levi Lewis, Louisiana; Chase Brice, Appalachian State; Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M; Tyler Shough, Texas Tech; Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA; Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland; D’Eriq King, Miami (injured); Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan; Sean Clifford, Penn State; Tanner Morgan, Minnesota; Chase Garbers, California

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