Around this time last year, then-Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch was considered a dark horse to emerge as a future fist round pick, and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz was generally thought of as a "sleeper" who could find his way into Day Two of the draft. Instead of Day two, Wentz was ultimately drafted second overall, and Lynch was indeed chosen in the first round as well. Never sold on either as an early round prospect, I couldn't believe the hype around those two, but part of me definitely should have known. Both players were tall and mobile, capable of big throws, and college football winners; and as the months passed, both continued to gain momentum even in the face of some subpar to lukewarm performances.
Now, I'm not one to anoint players as first rounders during the preseason, but the 2017 NFL Draft quarterback race appears wide open after Clemson's Deshaun Watson (assuming he declares after this season). And, given the ascensions of Wentz and Lynch last year, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph has the look and feel of a player set to catch the collective eye of the scouting community, and make a move into next spring's top 32 picks. The junior passer is a big man, listed at 6'5" and 235 pounds, runs an estimated 4.8-second 40-yard dash, and has posted a 12-3 record in 15 starts thus far in his career. Rudolph is also sixth in school history in career passing yards, currently holds a Cowboys record for yards per pass attempt (9.1), and he just turned 21 years old this past July.
As a sophomore, Rudolph wasn't immune to "deer in the headlights" moments under pressure. In particular, he locked up a few times in a blowout loss to Ole Miss in last year's Sugar Bowl. But in this example, he was able to move to his left (with the help of a little hold), and avoid the sack. He also kept his shoulders square and his head up, and remained in a "ready to throw" position.
Based on the situation (first down, red zone, just before halftime), I have to assume he was throwing that ball away. Unnnnfortunatey, he left that ball a little too close to the field of play, and made that a closer call than it needed to be. Once he got out of the pocket and realized he didn't have a play, he should have sailed that one into the first row. Just after halftime, down four touchdowns, Rudolph made an even worse call. Out of the shotgun, he got the ball out quickly to the left sideline, but the defender was all over that play, and nearly wound up with a pick six.
So, maybe the Sugar Bowl wasn't his best day. But Rudolph played that game just about a month after having surgery to repair a cracked bone in his right foot, and I still saw enough zip on the ball, touch, and ball placement to pique my interests for the upcoming season.
In a win over Kansas State last year, albeit against a porous defense, Rudolph put together one of his best outings of 2015. Down two scores late in the first half, with a pass rusher bearing down, the sophomore starter ripped a deep ball down the right hash, and hit his receiver in stride between two defenders for a 40-yard gain.
Rudolph closed that drive with a pretty, 3rd-and-seven touchdown pass that he floated over the top of the defense to the back of the end zone from 11 yards out.
I was impressed with the deft touch and placement on that scoring pass, and he went on to connect accurately on several back shoulder throws as the game progressed. Rudolph then took over with 3:01 left in the game, and directed the winning scoring drive, converting a clutch 4th-and-eight pass in the process.
Statistically, even as a sophomore, Rudolph compared favorably to members of the 2016 NFL Draft class. He converted 44.9% of his 3rd down pass attempts into first downs (Wentz converted 51.6% and Lynch 46.4%), but Rudolph's 9.2 yards per 3rd down pass attempt were about a yard better than Wentz (8.3%) and Lynch (7.9). Rudolph also completed and attempted a higher percentage of downfield throws (both 15+ yards and 25+ yards) than both Wentz and Lynch.
If Rudolph is to take the next step, he'll need to improve on his red zone passing (just 20/44 last season, though he did not throw an interception), and he'll need to cut down on negative plays. In 2015 he threw nine interceptions, fumbled six times, and took 30 sacks in 491 total pass-plus-rush attempts. Those numbers would have placed him in the bottom third of the 21 draft-eligible quarterbacks I examined last season, but again, Rudolph was still just 20 years old.
At this point, Rudolph's feet, and ability to stay in a pass-ready position, remind me of last year's first overall pick, Jared Goff. For context, I saw Goff as a Day Two draft target - a potential starter, but not a high first round quality prospect. Rudolph's arm is stronger than Goff's - or, at least, his arm strength is more effortless - and his placement in the short areas and middle of the field looked better in the two games I noted earlier. Quarterback prices shot through the roof in 2016. If we see a repeat next spring, and Rudolph maintains his current trajectory, he'll find himself in the first round discussion.