NFL Draft is a lot like the Hollywood reboots flooding our nation's movie theaters these days. Each year we get the same basic characters, played by different actors, maybe with a slight twist here or there.
Just as Tinsel Town supplies a constant stream of sequels and super heroes, each new draft year provides us with nitpicked stars (think Joey Bosa and Jameis Winston), the Big Draft Syndicate (Kiper and McShay, et al), the villainous Anonymous Scouts, risers and sliders, and countless hot take artists in the background.
One of my favorite draft characters is the Sleeper Quarterback. Many times we see this one emerge late in the college football season, or maybe even around the winter All Star games. In 2014, long time NFL personnel man Gil Brandt nominated Tom Savage and Garrett Gilbert for the role. These men, who became fourth and sixth round picks respectively, have combined to throw 19 regular season NFL passes (all by Savage) in two seasons.
That production seems paltry until we compare Brandt's sleepers to #DraftTwitter darlings like Jeff Mathews, Brett Smith, Chris Bonner and Vernon Adams, who all went undrafted and unsigned by NFL teams despite countless articles, videos, gifs and vines singing their collective praises.
Despite a miserable track record, the story of the Sleeper Quarterback is not pure tragedy. In 2016, a champion emerged. An unassuming, walk-on carrottop from the far reaches of the North vanquished the idiot haters (like me) who called him a mid-round value, and triumphantly convinced the Philadelphia Eagles to mortgage their future to make him the face of their embattled franchise. Carson Wentz. Our hero's name rolls off the tongue like a strand of hair that makes you wonder, "how the hell did that get there?"
Naturally, draft analysts will not be satisfied to recognize Wentz as an outlier. The undrafted many will be forgotten in the quest to "first" the next underdog passer. In fact, just days after the 2016 draft had ended, Todd McShay inserted Minnesota's Mitch Leidner at the end of an early 2017 first round mock draft.
Just in case you think a Big Ten QB is too mainstream to assume sleeper status, Bleacher Report's Brent Sobieski wondered if Montana's Brady Gustafson could be the next Wentz. Having seen a fair amount of both Leidner and Gustafson, my immediate reaction was that neither is a first round prospect. But I'm never one to rely solely on my gut or the "eye test," so let's take a closer look at where these two quarterbacks stand heading into this fall.
Career: 29 starts 56.4 COMP% 7.1 YPA 28 TD 20 INT 23 rush TD
2015 Stats: 242/407 (59.5%) 2701 YDS 6.6 YPA 14 TD 11 INT passing, 270 YDS 2.5 AVG 6 TD rushing
Leidner was just a two-star recruit out of Lakeville, Minnesota in 2012, but he made an impression while playing on the scout team during his redshirt season. As a freshman the following year, he started four games, and he graduated to the full-time starting job by 2014. In his career, Leidner has started 29 games, and has become one of the more prolific passers in Golden Gophers' history. He's a tall, solidly built guy, who shows courage and toughness on the field. Leidner even battled through a foot injury late last year, opting to delay surgery until the season had ended.
However, despite admirable leadership qualities, I just don't see the physical ability to overrule the rather middling results Leidner has produced in college. He's 16-13 as a starter, and his accuracy and downfield passing are lacking. For all of his size, Leidner's arm appears average, and he's often late delivering the football. This results in a number of turnovers and close calls. Leidner has thrown 20 interceptions and fumbled 26 times in three seasons, including 11 and eight respectively last season. These are major concerns, and he will need to make tremendous improvements this year to justify any Day One, or even Day Two draft talk.
Preseason Projection: late round-to-undrafted free agent
Career: 7 starts 57.0 COMP% 6.8 YPA 12 TD 9 INT 1 rush TD
2015 Stats: 167/290 (57.6%) 1984 YDS 6.8 YPA 12 TD 9 INT passing, 29 YDS 1.2 AVG 1 TD rushing
Like Wentz, Gustafson had to wait until his junior year of college for a chance to start. Prior to last fall, the Montana quarterback had attempted just six passes during his first three years on campus. Then, in Gustafson's first start, he out-dueled Wentz, throwing for 434 yards to lead the Griz to an upset win over the defending champion North Dakota State Bison. A week later, however, Gustafson threw three interceptions in a loss to Cal Poly, and in his third start of the season he left halfway through a loss to Liberty, and wound up missing the next six games with a broken leg. He returned to lead the Griz to a pair of late-season wins, but in a rematch against North Dakota State in the FCS playoffs, Gustafson completed just 50% of his passes and was picked off four times.
Montana's redshirt senior enters his final season having started just seven games during his college career, and the results have been erratic. While Gustafson has a good arm, and gets rid of the ball quickly, he is a spot thrower who is operating out of an "Air Raid" style of college offense. To his credit, this was a new system for Gustafson last season, and by all accounts he picked it up very quickly. Provided he stays healthy, he should get 500 or more pass attempts, and thanks to his head coach's philosophy, a number of those will come on third and fourth downs. NFL teams will want to see Gustafson convert a higher percentage of pass attempts this season - in particular, down the field - and cut down on his turnovers. If he's able to take those steps, he has a decent chance to be drafted. But if he indeed becomes the next Wentz, and rises to become a first round pick, I may simply have to retire from this draft analysis game.
Preseason Projection: undrafted free agent