Ranking the Best QB Prospects of the Internet Recruiting Era

2018 has been dubbed the year of the quarterback as four signal callers were taken of the top ten picks of the NFL Draft. A similar theme occurred at the high school level months earlier, with quarterbacks finishing as the 247Sports Composite's top two overall prospects (and another coming in at 16th). 

The historic cycle begs the question: where do Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and JT Daniels stack up among previous top quarterback prospects? With that in mind, I've set out to retroactively rank the top prospects in the internet recruiting era, which we'll define as 2002 (the earliest the 247Sports Composite ranking) to present. While some degree of hindsight is unavoidable, this can be a valuable exercise in diagnosing and defining qualities that tend to indicate future success at the position. 

It's important to have defined critical factors in evaluations, otherwise we're shooting in the dark with no direction. With that in mind, here are the basic criteria used for parsing these prospects.

  • Athletic profile and physical skill set. Height, weight, speed, arm strength, etc.
  • Position-specific skill set. Throwing motion, running ability, creativity, etc.
  • Production, specifically the year before college enrollment. Total yards and touchdowns relative to interceptions. Taking care of the football is an endemic quality and rarely improves with increases in level of play.

Thirteen quarterbacks from the 2002-2018 cycles are featured and divided into three tiers. 

  • Eleven of the thirteen were multi-sport athletes.
  • Seven quarterbacked their school to a state and/or national title.
  • Seven were state Gatorade Players of the Year.
  • They combined for a cumulative record of 151-24 in the season prior to enrolling at their college choice.

In an effort to not get too wrapped up in hindsight, we'll only focus on quarterbacks ranked in the top 100 overall prospects by at least one recruiting network. Industry misses like Johnny ManzielPatrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert who happen to meet the desired criteria are omitted. 

Tier One

1. Matthew Stafford, Dallas (Texas) Highland Park (2006)/Georgia

Senior season stats: 64.9%, 4230 total yards, 46 total TD, 6 INT (missed first three games with an injury)

Stafford was a preternatural arm talent and to this day has the most impressive passing video I've seen from a high school quarterback prospect. Sadly, much of that video has disappeared. Stafford was pre-YouTube/Hudl and recruiting networks that previously housed the extensive highlights have inexplicably scrubbed their video catalogs.

You're going to have to take my word for it- Stafford was unreal. His release, arm strength and processing speed are unrivaled. An above average athlete as a pocket passer, Stafford had excellent feet and was able to escape the pass rush making improvisational plays while delivering from multiple arm slots to any area of the field with consistency.

Then there's his high school career. While Highland Park has some of the best coaching in the state of Texas, Stafford took the Highlanders to a 15-0 record and state title in a high classification. His talent and skill set made a wide receiver corps that physically resembled the Junction Boys appear unguardable. This is the biggest no-brainer top quarterback prospect of the internet recruiting era. 

2. Justin Fields, Kennesaw (Ga.) Harrison (2018)/Georgia

Senior season stats: 7 games (injury)- 63.8%, 2337 total yards, 31 total TD, 2 INT

Justin Fields has the most complete physical skill set that we have seen from a high school quarterback prospect. Possessing a ++ arm, he can drive the ball to any point on the field as illustrated in the play below. You will be hard-pressed to find many more impressive throws from a pure arm talent perspective. 

Fields is also a nuanced passer with the ability to change speeds and drop the ball in small windows with touch. 

As an athlete, Fields is among the best in the 2018 cycle regardless of position, ripping off a 4.51 second 40-yard dash at 220 pounds. That speed translates to the field and when coupled with his size and elite passing ability presents opposing defenses with a scary proposition. 

The metro-Atlanta product was a bit of a late-riser by modern day quarterback hype standards as he didn't burst on the scene as a five-star level prospect until the  spring before his senior season. Unlike many top quarterbacks in the 2018 cycle, Fields did not play at a school that has a strong tradition on the gridiron. Lorenzo Nunez preceded Fields as the quarterback at Harrison High School. Nunez, who signed with South Carolina in the 2015 cycle, passed for two touchdowns and five interceptions as senior. That is the offense Justin Fields inherited at Harrison. 

While some may contend that Fields lacked the career body of work of other top quarterbacks in his cycle, it is worth noting that he was tracking as the most statistically productive top quarterback prospect in the country as a senior prior to a season-ending finger injury. This is all while playing in a top classification with a less than ideal supporting cast. A career body of work can certainly minimize risk in projecting quarterbacks, but a player's early high school production (which is oftentimes highly circumstantial, especially with freshmen) should rarely trump late career development and physical skill set. 

There are no holes in Justin Fields' game and that's why he comes in at number two.   

3. Cam Newton, Blinn College (Texas)(2010)/Auburn

Redshirt sophomore season stats: 61%, 3488 total yards, 38 total TD, 5 INT

It's important to note that Newton sits on this list as a junior college prospect. While Newton ended up as a 247Sports Composite five-star as a high school prospect, he was much more of a physical projection than an established commodity. Playing in an ill-fitting offense at Westlake High in College Park, Georgia, Newton was underdeveloped as a passer and unable to fully showcase his special running ability, so much so that several SEC teams initially recruited him as a tight end.

Newton enrolled at Urban Meyer's Florida program and showed promise as a true freshman. He ran into trouble in his second season and ultimately left Gainesville for the junior college ranks. It was at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas where Newton got what he most needed after his lack of high school development and being stuck behind Tim Tebow at Florida- quality game reps.

At 6'5", 240 pounds with an elite arm and a sub 4.6 second 40-yard dash time, it's not hyperbole to proclaim Newton as most physically gifted quarterback prospect to date. His game quickly jumped to a new level at Blinn, both as a passer and run threat. 

Newton was dominant and played efficiently in leading Blinn to a national championship. Just one year later he would carry an Auburn team that had one other legitimate NFL player to an undefeated season and BCS title, running away with the Heisman Trophy in the process.

Tier Two

4. Vince Young, Houston (Texas) Madison(2001)/Texas

Senior season stats: 3819 total yards, 59 total TD, 4 INT

Vince Young topped the 2002 247Sports Composite rankings- an undoubtedly correct call by the recruiting networks. A schoolboy legend in Houston, Young attracted crowds you'd see at a college or NFL contest, forcing games to be played in the Astrodome. 

It was in high school where we first saw Young's unparalleled running ability. Operating Madison's split-back veer offense, Young showcased his abnormal outside speed and gait. He was the epitome of a "two-stepper"- a prospect who covers five yards in two strides. While still developing as a passer, Young managed to throw just four interceptions as a senior. There is no telling what the Heisman runner-up and NFL Rookie of the Year would've done in a spread option offense had he come along fifteen years later. 

5. Jameis Winston Hueytown (Ala.)(2012)/Florida State

Senior season stats: 69% 3487 total yards, 43 total TD, 2 INT

Deciding between Winston and Trevor Lawrence at number five was the toughest call of this bunch. Both operated at near exact levels of production and efficiency, but Winston gets the slightest of nods due to his ability in the run game. While he would never be mistaken as a runner in the NFL, Winston was a serious threat on the ground at Hueytown, rushing for 1,063 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior. The Birmingham area native turned around the struggling high school program in a major way and even played linebacker at times. Already a great player, Winston's natural athleticism and multi-sport skills (was a MLB draft pick) hinted at his considerable ceiling.

6. Trevor Lawrence, Cartersville (Ga.)(2018)/Clemson

Senior season stats: 69%, 3512 total yards, 43 total TD, 1 INT

The 247Sports Composite's top-ranked prospect in the 2018 cycle, Lawrence had one of the best high school careers in Georgia history, leading Cartersville to two state titles and smashing records in the process. A prolific passer, Lawrence is as good as you will see at driving the ball downfield on straight-line throws from the pocket. 

Lawrence excels at making "pure arm" throws and shows the ability to deliver from multiple platforms- an increasingly desirable trait in today's football. 

Unlike many top quarterback prospects who plateau after early high school success, Lawrence continued to show steady improvement throughout his prep career, particularly with accuracy, ball placement and overall efficiency. While he still tends to toss the ball up for grabs at times, he did manage to cut his interception total from nine to just one as a senior. You would like to see more rushing production from an elite quarterback prospect in 2018, but Lawrence is an above average athlete at quarterback and should run for more yards at the college level than he did in high school, which is rare. 

7. Andrew Luck, Houston (Texas) Stratford (2008)/Stanford

Senior season stats: 3355 total yards, 19 passing TD (rushing TD unknown)

First thing's first: Andrew Luck would've been a five-star had he been offered by Texas. That's a near absolute and I'd have a hard time being convinced otherwise.

In what was perhaps the most notable of his extensive recruiting gaffes, Mack Brown opted to pass on Luck and any 2008 quarterback for that matter. In doing so, Brown committed the cardinal sin of quarterback recruiting: passing on talented options as a ploy to entice an underclassman prospect. The Longhorns did not take a quarterback in 2008, going all in on local product Garrett Gilbert, a five-star in the 2009 cycle. Luck would've admittedly jumped on the Longhorns' offer and Gilbert was an Austin native. It's not out of the question Texas could have had both on roster. That type of decision-making is how a national championship program's roster regresses to that of a Conference USA team in a matter of years. 

The high school Luck is a skill set evaluation, more so than any of the quarterbacks to this point. He played on the worst high school team of this group as Stratford hadn't made the playoffs in the thirteen seasons prior to Luck's tenure. Playing behind a weak offensive line, Luck was forced to develop unique pass rush avoidance skills and creativity as a passer. With much of his time spent spinning away from and shrugging off opposing defensive linemen, the then 6'4" 215-pounder became a master in operating within a dirty pocket and general chaos- a highly translatable skill. While he didn't rack up the prolific stats of most on this list, Luck was still productive and regularly made plays that ooze "future star" like the one below- an accurate 50+ yard throw made on the run into double coverage while falling out of bounds. 

8. JT Daniels, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei (2018)/USC

Junior season stats (graduating early): 71.1%, 4684 total yards, 61 total TD, 4 INT

Daniels may have the most decorated prep career of any prospect on this list, which is saying something considering he's forgoing his senior season to graduate early and enroll at USC this summer. Mater Dei's offense was a laser light show with Daniels at the helm, averaging over 48 points per game en route to a 15-0 season and number one national ranking.

Flip on the video and you'll see a vertical passing clinic. While Daniels was throwing to a wide receiver group that included five-star prospects Amon-Ra St. Brown and Bru McCoy, it is the pinpoint ball location that jumps off the screen. Very rarely does the receiver have to adjust in the slightest to make a catch. It's next level accuracy.

Daniels isn't as impressive physically as the others in this group but continues to maximize his talents in addition to his already considerable skill for the position. This is evident in his jump in rushing numbers from 2016 (37 yards, 2 touchdowns) to 2017 (556 yards, 9 touchdowns). 

9. Josh Rosen, Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco (2015)/UCLA

Senior season stats: 63.6%, 3564 total yards, 35 total TD, 4 INT

A pure pocket passer, Rosen is the least mobile of this group. Even then, he was more of a run threat (376 yards, 6 touchdowns as a senior, 416 yards, 8 touchdowns as a junior) and able to avoid pressure at a higher level than similarly ranked top passers like Max Browne, Kyle Allen and Jacob Eason.

A nationally-ranked youth tennis player, Rosen translated that fundamental precision to the gridiron and had pristine mechanics at an early stage. That strong fundamental foundation along with his ability to diagnose pressure pre-snap allowed him to make high level plays from the pocket. While lacking a true run threat limits ways he can affect a defense, Rosen was a very low-risk prospect given his heavily developed passing ability and operating efficiency. 

Tier Three

Senior season stats: 66.8%, 4509 total yards, 57 total TD, 10 INT

Trubisky was the lowest-rated prospect of this group as he was ranked in the top 100 by just one network (79th overall by 247Sports) and 206th by the 247Sports Composite. The Cleveland area native showed rapid improvement over his career and when surveying the very weak 2013 quarterback class, a strong case could be made that he should've been even higher than 79th. 

Highly productive, mobile quarterbacks who fail to be invited to the Elite 11 finals have proven to be the most significant market inefficiency in the recruiting industry's rankings for the position and Trubisky is one of the more prominent examples. Trubisky turned in a masterful senior season, highlighted by a scintillating playoff run. His games against perennial powers St. Edward and St. Ignatius are among the stronger and gutsy four quarter performances you will see from a high school quarterback. 

A high-level athlete with a sub 4.7 second 40-yard dash and ability to run through arm tackles, Trubisky was a versatile threat and able to stress defenses in multiple ways. As a passer, he was highly accurate and able to throw with touch and zip when needed. 

Senior season stats: 66.3%, 4382 total yards, 61 total TD, 8 INT

Watson and Trubisky were very similar as high school prospects from a skill set and production standpoint. Both are more appreciated in the larger sample size of a 14-15 game season than operating as a stationary passer in a day long camp setting. Having seen Watson in multiple camps, he was more steady than spectacular and could struggle to spin the ball at times. The Georgia product shows the value of a varied threat at the position in today's football. 

Intangibles are often cited as an amorphous attribute that comes at the observer's typically biased discretion. Such analysis is commonly inaccurate if not completely baseless when evaluating a prospect. However when it comes to quarterbacks, a degree of toughness and grit can be quantified by one's ability to carry a heavy load for an offense in multiple facets, which is evident in the numbers. Watson and Trubisky demonstrated this quality throughout their prolific high school careers. While he may have lacked some flash, Watson posted eye-popping numbers in his final two years at Gainesville, accounting for 7,799 yards and 97 touchdowns (16 INT) through the air while also rushing for 2,498 yards and 38 touchdowns. 

Senior season stats: 70.3% 3903 total yards, 50 total TD, 3 INT

Had the Baylor sexual assault scandal not occurred, we could very well be talking about Stidham has a first round pick in the recent NFL Draft. Stidham was set to take the reigns of college football's top offense, but instead found his coach fired and was subsequently out of football for a year before transferring to Auburn. Despite the circumstances out of his control, it's important to not overemphasize hypotheticals as talent tends to rise despite setbacks. Cam Newton obviously thrived after a transfer and Mitchell Trubisky was the 2nd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft after just one year of collegiate starting experience and sitting behind a clearly inferior talent at North Carolina. 

As a high school prospect, Stidham hits nearly all of the thresholds. He began his high school career as a wide receiver on state championship team and shined in his two years as a starter, passing for 5,547 yards and 65 touchdowns (8 INT) and rushing for 1,790 yards and 29 touchdowns. Most comfortable as a volume passer, Stidham showed ideal abilities for operating an uptempo, spread attack as he could to drive the ball downfield while also providing a run threat with a verified 4.66 40-yard dash time. Fundamentally, he had a solid base despite his relative inexperience and less time with private quarterback trainers than many of his contemporaries. 

 Senior season stats: 2326 total yards, 36 total TD, 4 INT

Playing in a rudimentary offense and against tough competition in the famed 757 area code, Taylor was the least productive of this group. Despite the scheme limitations at Hampton High, Taylor was still able to post 36 total touchdowns while leading the Crabbers to a 22-3 record his final two years at the helm. The three-sport athlete showcased an elite combination of mobility (sub 4.6 40-yard dash) and arm talent with ++ velocity and a high release point. 

Additional Notes

  •  The first stated goal of recruiting rankings are to project the longterm success of a prospect, i.e. the NFL Draft. With that in mind, this ranking was formulated to weigh a longterm career ceiling over a high floor as a college prospect. Players like Tim Tebow and Kyler Murray (one of the three best high school players I've seen in person along with Jadeveon Clowney and Derrick Henry) who projected as outstanding college players but showed limitations as longterm prospects were omitted. Both fit much of the qualifying criteria of the the prospects listed above, but Tebow's obvious mechanical issues and Murray's diminutive stature are hard to ignore. It is also worth noting there is an increasing amount of crossover between the qualities that constitute a great college quarterback and NFL prospect, mainly due to the proliferation of collegiate schemes in the pro game. The Browns' selection of Baker Mayfield at the top of the 2018 draft is among the best illustrations of this trend. A prospect like Mayfield- and perhaps even a Tua Tagovailoa down the line- would not have been considered a first rounder in past years. 
  • Why not 2015 five-stars Jacob Eason or Shea Patterson? Eason hits the mark as a passer, but rushed for a paltry 70 yards as a senior. For a prospect who was much more comfortable improvising and playing outside of structure, Patterson managed to rush for just 592 yards and nine touchdowns in his final three high school seasons. The majority of the thirteen quarterbacks featured above outdid that total in just one fall. Additionally, Patterson played what equated to half a season as a senior at IMG Academy, missing out on crucial live game reps. His senior season resembled an extended scramble drill with little rushing output. But why is rushing total so important? The obvious answer is it indicates the ability to stress a defense. But the rushing total, which also accounts for sacks also hints at ones ability to deal with pressure. 

Alvin Kamara and translatable versatility at RB

High School to NFL: Athleticism Matters