After careful maneuvering over the last couple of years, the NFL has strategically made its “season” last all year round. With the calendar officially turning after the completion of Super Bowl 50, the league will now be operating in full “Draft Mode” all the way up until late April. Already, the Senior Bowl and the East vs. West: Shrine Game have been completed, so now, with what we have learned from those games, combined with seemingly endless archives of collegiate game tape, we should have our work cut out for us in terms of gauging these future NFL stars.

Next up on the docket is the NFL Combine, which will be held in Indianapolis from Feb. 23-29. Here, these young men will perform a series of physical tests and feats of athletic strengths. To go along with all of the running, jumping, throwing, catching, lifting, foot chopping, stutter stepping, and hip flexing, will be a series of psychological examinations and team-run personality interviews of the potential draftees. It will certainly be an exhausting week, but many talent evaluators and draft pundits put a lot of stock into how players perform at the Combine, so it’s certainly an event worth keeping an eye on.

Whenever draft season begins to heat up, the first discussion that everyone wants to have is about the new crop of quarterbacks. So in the spirit of giving the people what they want, this iteration will focus solely on the potential rookie signal-callers.

Names to Remember

In what might prove to be good news for many of the quarterback lacking teams across the league, 2016 features one of the deepest classes of young signal-callers in recent memory. Some believe that 15, or potentially even more, quarterbacks will have their names called on one of April’s three draft days, as opposed to only seven in 2015. Out of this deep class, here are three key names to remember as the draft process plays out. While right now these happen to be my “top three” the process has just gotten underway and a lot is still subject to change, as within these next couple of months, players will begin to see their stock rise and fall at a seemingly unpredictable rate.

Jared Goff (Jr.) – California

Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 210 lbs.

Right now, Goff is the No. 1 guy by default, but this argument couldn’t be farther from settled. He is the most polished of the three as a passer and has played against the best competition. As I said, though, a lot is still subject to change.

What the tape says:

Right off the bat, you will notice that Goff has some of the best pocket footwork that a young quarterback could have. Admittedly, in fear of getting too carried away, I had to stop myself as I said that his footwork reminded me of Peyton Manning in his prime. To go along with excellent drop back rhythm, Goff features a lightning-quick release that many new-age offensive coordinators are looking for these days. He seems to look off his receivers well when he needs too, has excellent pocket presence, and is never afraid to take a shot when protection breaks down, so long as it means throwing a receiver open. His efficient style of play baffled one college defensive coordinator so badly that he couldn’t help but compare Goff to former NFL MVP and Cal alum Aaron Rodgers.

Where some will worry about him is in his slight frame. At 6-foot-4 Goff comes in really light at only 210 lbs. However, with a couple of months to weight train, his Combine weigh in will tell evaluators a lot about what they need to know about his body’s ability to put on functional mass. Weight is important to a quarterback for obvious reasons, as taking unanticipated hits can really do a number on one’s body over time. The other major critique of Goff is the system that he operated out of. The “Bear Raid Offense” as it is called features a game plan predicated on singular read passing plays and uncomplicated route trees. Oftentimes in this offense, Goff was in read-and-shoot mode, which allowed him to make simple one-read decisions, while exclusively operating out of the shotgun and pistol.

Considering all of this, Goff seems to have the natural gifts for quarterbacking not only with his arm and legs, but also above the shoulders. He projects as a high-volume passer at the next level, best suited in a temperate climate or dome setting. The Cowboys at No. 4 make the most sense, while he shouldn’t slide any further than the No. 7 slot, where the 49ers and Chip Kelly are looking to land a franchise changing signal-caller.  

Carson Wentz (Sr.) – North Dakota State

Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 232 lbs.

For now, we’ll call him No. 1A, as Wentz comes in neck-and-neck with Goff as the class’s top quarterback prospect. As a two-year starter, Wentz led his North Dakota State Bison to their fourth and fifth consecutive FCS National Championships in January of 2015 and 2016. He may have played inferior competition in the FCS as opposed to the stronger FBS, however his poise, leadership, and physical gifts really showed over his two years as a starting quarterback.

What the tape says:

Wentz comes in as a grown man, properly filling out his 6-foot-5 frame and it really shows on tape. For his size, Wentz is an athletic quarterback, capable of extending plays by avoiding pressure, and even making things happen down the field as a runner. These physical traits should shine for him at Indy next week, likely boosting his draft stock even higher. As a thrower, Wentz uses the whole field well. He handles pressure in his face, can fit the ball into tight windows, and trusts play design. He naturally glides through his progressions and has a great idea for route concepts. Wentz allows receivers to fully run their routes and waits until the perfect moment to sling the ball in there, with a mature sense of trust in his pass-catchers. When watching game tape, an incalculable confidence is seen from Wentz. He showed very well at the Senior Bowl during the game and at practice all week. Most importantly about him is that he made it clear that he had something to prove. Rather than taking easy completions during the Senior Bowl, Wentz consistently took shots down the field, showing talent evaluators that he will never settle for being a game manager.

While this may be true, something else that he has to prove at the Combine is how good his arm strength really is. The tape showed that he possesses a strong arm, but it doesn’t come as easy for him to stretch the field as some would like. He also acknowledged that he needs to improve on his footwork, as at times he was seen throwing flat-footed. In terms of judgment, Wentz at times can be baited by free safeties, and while he didn’t have a huge issue with that at the FCS level, some worry that he may run into some trouble with this as an NFL quarterback.

Regardless of the concerns, Wentz is a proven leader and has the “it” factor that talent evaluators love to see jump off the screen. He has functional mobility in and out of the pocket, and doesn’t lack in arm talent to zip the ball into tight spaces or put proper loft on fades and touch passes. When all is said and done, Wentz may very well end up being the top rated passer in this class, going as early as No. 2 overall to the Cleveland Browns.

Paxton Lynch (RS Jr.) – Memphis

Height: 6-foot-7 Weight: 245 lbs.

Lynch’s stock reached unexpected heights during December, as he was absolutely thrashing conference opponents, compiling unbelievable statistics. Lynch-mania peaked after his video-game-esque performance against SMU, where he completed 9-of-14 passes for 222 yards and seven touchdowns in only one half of play. After a month off, his hype train took a wrong turn when he looked lost in the Birmingham Bowl against Auburn, completing only 16-of-37 passes for 106 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception. Putting his roller coaster draft stock aside, most scouts acknowledge that Lynch is the most physically gifted passer in the class, and likely has the highest ceiling out of any quarterback invited to Indy.

What the tape says:

Physically, Lynch has it all. He measures in at around Cam Newton’s size and isn’t afraid to play like him. At Memphis, Lynch was asked to operate – in many ways – like Newton did during his Heisman winning season at Auburn. Lots of designed runs up the gut and read options, however on top of this, Lynch was asked to do much more as a passer than Newton was in 2010-11. As a passer, Lynch has a cannon. He can bomb it with the best of them and successfully rifles the ball into tight windows on intermediate-to-deep over the middle throws. Because of his size, Lynch seems unafraid to take a hit when making throws, while he also possesses a natural feel for pressure on his blind side. One of his most impressive traits is his ability to sell the play-fake. He throws very well out of play-action, and exhibits feather touch on sideline throws and jump-ball fades.

With all of his noted arm strength, Lynch’s downfall can at times be too much zip on short-to-intermediate throws. It’s not what many receivers would call a “catchable ball,” leading to him struggle to find “easy completions.” His throws down the field seem more polished than his 12-yard out or running back banana route. Another concern is that while he may measure like Cam Newton, athletically, Lynch is just not that. His combine numbers might actually come in a bit slower than his rushing production indicated in the box scores. This is not the biggest drawback for his NFL transition, however for scouts not preparing for this, they might continue to drive down his stock. Finally, pundits have worried about the offense in which he operated out of during his time at Memphis. The designed runs don’t worry people, but in an offense that often relied upon gimmicky-type rollouts, Lynch has a lot to prove in the standard dropback drills at Indianapolis next week.

Featuring likely the highest ceiling out of any quarterback prospect this season, Lynch’s recent fall down draft boards is due to his exposed weaknesses on tape that have some worried about him potentially busting. Consider him a candidate to sit for at least half of his rookie season, as his mechanics and accuracy still are just too raw. Potentially fitting landing spots for Lynch seem to come in as early as seven with the 49ers and Chip Kelly who would love his size and mobility, and would slowly transition him into the NFL game with some familiar gimmick rollouts and single-read pass plays. The Eagles at 13 are also in play, while the Rams have made it no secret that they are in the market for a new quarterback as well.

Something to Prove

As previously mentioned, this class is loaded with quarterback talent. Just a couple of months ago, the top half of this list included a completely different group of names. Listed below is a group of players – unintentionally all from Big 10 schools – who have the most to prove at the Combine next week in terms of reclaiming recognition amongst the scouting community as an NFL caliber quarterback.

Cardale Jones (Jr.) – Ohio State

Height: 6foot-5 Weight: 250 lbs.

It wasn’t that long ago that Jones and the Buckeyes were hoisting the National Championship trophy after completing an improbable underdog run in the first College Football Playoff. Jones was the catalyst in that historic stretch that saw Ohio State defeat favored opponents in three consecutive postseason matchups. While they may have ridden Ezekiel Elliot hard down the stretch, Jones was the game-changing presence that opposing defensive coordinators had no answer for.

Had Jones entered the 2015 NFL Draft right after his title run, no one would have questioned him, especially considering many had a first to second round grade on him. Instead, Jones decided to return to school for his junior season, and things couldn’t have turned out worse. In 2015-16, the bulky quarterback was exposed. Jones displayed a limited understanding for offensive concepts, shoddy accuracy, and questionable decision-making. While he never lost a game as a starter, coach Urban Meyer had no choice but to bench Jones due to his shortcomings. Ultimately, without his game changing presence, the Buckeyes fell short of repeating as champs, despite returning arguably the most talented roster in the country.

Headed into the Combine, Jones has a ton to prove. He had no choice but to declare for the draft, as he is unlikely to win the starting job back at Ohio State next season. As of now, scouts have no consensus on where his draft stock lies. Some consider him a day two prospect based off of physical traits alone, while many consider his travesty at OSU this season bad enough to keep him off of their boards entirely. At Indy next week, with as good as advertised physical measurements, drastically improved footwork and passing mechanics, and a proven better understanding of offensive concepts, Jones might be able to salvage his draft stock that at one point was soaring. Strong team interviews will be key for him here.

Christian Hackenberg (Jr.) – Penn State

Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 236 lbs.

It’s rare for a freshman quarterback to receive as much NFL buzz as Hackenberg did three years ago, but his potential really seemed that good. Under then Penn State and now Houston Texans head coach, Bill O’Brien, Hackenberg looked to be one of the rising stars in the college football world. He entered college as the top rated passer in his class and had the arm, the size, and the brain to live up to his lofty billing. After his freshman season, coach O’Brien left for greener pastures in the NFL, and left Hack hanging. James Franklin came in without any legitimate recruits to surround his wonder boy with, leaving Hackenberg to regress badly in his two seasons that followed.

He displayed a noted bad attitude as time went on, the hits piled up, and the losing continued. Since being touted as one of the game’s best freshmen, Hackenberg began to develop some bad habits. His rhythm as a passer seemingly disappeared on tape. He started to anticipate pressure first and foremost instead of making his reads down the field and firing the football. No quarterback took more ball-held sacks in recent memory, and his accuracy with pressure coming down on him became almost non-existent.

Having said all of this, Hack still possesses one of the most gifted arms and minds in this entire class. He can make all of the throws, and can dissect a defense pre-snap almost better than any of his contemporaries. He needs to prove this at Indy next week to talent evaluators and team interviewers, as his potential may be salvaged still if he can finally get into an offense that has a functional line and some actual weapons to work with. Expect someone to take a mid-round flier on him, potentially starting somewhere in the early third.

Connor Cook (RS Sr.) – Michigan State

Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 216 lbs.

Ah yes, the curious case of Connor Cook…Because we all pretty much know what Cook is capable of physically as a passer, I'll spare you his complete collegiate backstory. He’s got a strong arm, can make almost all of the pro throws, possesses functional mobility when he needs it, and could likely start right away in the NFL. Where Cook has lost many along the way this draft season is his character questions. There have been many reports that Cook’s teammates don’t exactly like him, that he can be aloof, and that he has questionable leadership in crunch-time. He was never voted captain in any of his five seasons at MSU, and looked helpless against Alabama during their nationally televised matchup in the College Football Playoff this past January.

He is sure to pass all of the physical drills without any hiccups next week, but where he needs to prove himself most is in the personality tests and during team-led interviews. All it takes is for one GM to fall in love, and with Cook there is a lot to like on the field. If his attitude improves or was never an issue at all, don’t be surprised if he is taken on the second day or even in round one.

*** As for the rest of the quarterbacks invited to Indy next week, here is the complete list. Other notables include Jacoby Brissett of NC State, Dak Prescott of Mississippi State, and Jeff Driskel of Louisiana Tech. ***

Vernon Adams, Oregon
Brandon Allen, Arkansas
Trevone Boykin, TCU 
Jacoby Brissett, NC State
Connor Cook, Michigan State
Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky
Jeff Driskel, Louisiana Tech
Jared Goff, Cal
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Kevin Hogan, Stanford
Cardale Jones, Ohio State
Cody Kessler, USC
Paxton Lynch, Memphis
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana
Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
Josh Woodrum, Liberty