This is a different group of quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL draft. Over the past three draft classes, there have been clear top options at the position, including eventual No. 1 picks Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. That isn't the case with this crop of signal-callers, as there's no consensus among NFL scouts and execs about which quarterback is the best.
Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett -- who is ranked No. 1 by both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- has been the most consistent of the bunch. He returned for his senior season and catapulted his stock from late-round hopeful to potential top-15 pick.
Matt Corral guided Ole Miss to its first double-digit wins regular season, while Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder is the engineer of a program-record 13 wins. Liberty's Malik Willis, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Nevada's Carson Strong already have rewritten the record books at their respective programs.
Heading into the teeth of the draft process -- with the Senior Bowl and NFL combine to come in February and March, respectively -- the order for the quarterback class could still materialize, as teams will keep doing their homework on each player.
Let's dive into the background stories and journey of each of the top six quarterbacks in this class, with their strengths, weaknesses, rankings from Kiper and McShay, and what's next. We'll start with Pickett and finish with a few late-round options that NFL teams could find intriguing:
Year: Senior | Age: 23 | Career starts: 51
Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 220 pounds
2021 stats: 4,319 passing yards, 67.2% completion rate, 42 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions in 14 games
Scouts and evaluators search every season for the quarterback who could take a big leap in his development. Three years ago, it was Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, who took over for the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft and promptly did the same. Two seasons ago, LSU's Joe Burrow engineered arguably the best offense in college football history. And last year, BYU's Zach Wilson dominated on his way to becoming the No. 2 overall pick.
Could Pickett be that guy for the 2022 draft? Not many saw this rise coming based on the previous two seasons, when he threw 13 touchdown passes and nine picks in both 2019 and 2020. He hobbled through last season with an ankle injury. Still, he flirted with entering last year's draft -- even accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl -- before to deciding to return for one final season at Pitt.
Without a clear QB candidate for the 2022 draft, Pickett wasted little time in throwing his name into the hat of potential breakout players. Through the first month of the season, he had 1,342 passing yards and 17 total touchdowns (15 passing, two rushing) to only one interception. He stayed hot for the entire season, throwing at least two touchdown passes in every game for the remainder of the season. His 42 touchdown passes surpassed Dan Marino's single-season Pitt record (37) set in 1981. He also broke Deshaun Watson's 2016 ACC record (41), putting up the best single season in conference history. Pickett led the Panthers to an 11-2 mark and their first ACC crown.
Pickett is Pitt's career leader in passing yards (12,303), completions (1,045) and touchdown passes (81), and his historic 2021 run put him alongside all-time great Larry Fitzgerald. He was the first player from the program to be invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony since Fitzgerald.
A former point guard and outfielder at Ocean Township High School (New Jersey), Pickett's family also had great college athletic careers. His dad, Kenneth, a former All-American linebacker, is a member of the 2012 Hall of Fame class at Shippensburg University (Pennsylvania) and holds the all-time record for career tackles (455) and single-season interceptions by a player at the position (seven). His mother, Kasey, is a former soccer player at Kutztown University (Pennsylvania).
Pickett will enter the NFL as a 24-year-old rookie who logged 50 college starts. Poised and balanced from the pocket, his eyes, arm and mechanics are routinely in sync. His days as an outfielder are apparent when operating outside of the confines of the offense. Fully healed from that ankle injury, he showed ability as a runner this season, and he was much improved when forced out of the pocket off schedule. He has B-level arm strength but is highly accurate to all three levels of the field. He has experience with diagnosing and attacking coverages and always seems to have a plan while under center.
Because of his physical traits, "ceiling" and "upside" will be terms repeatedly mentioned about him. A few NFL scouts I've spoken with feel the best about Pickett in this class because they have an idea of what they're getting. Here's what one area scout said about him: "No pick is safe, but I feel confident about him coming in and being able to handle the pro game."
Kiper recently compared Pickett to Raiders starter Derek Carr, a second-round pick in 2014 who has become a productive player. Pickett has a strong case to be the first quarterback drafted in April.
What's next: Pickett announced on Dec. 16 that he would skip the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Michigan State and declare for the draft. He has accepted his invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, and we'll next see him in early February in Mobile, Alabama, competing against the best underclassmen prospects in this draft.
Year: Fourth-year junior | Age: 23 | Career starts: 27
Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 205 pounds
2021 stats: 3,349 passing yards, 67.9% completion rate, 20 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions in 13 games
California is known for producing big-time quarterbacks, and Corral is one of several who went to high school there to start for college programs this season, including Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) and D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson). The Ventura native and former four-star recruit was one of the most highly decorated throwers in state history. He threw for more than 11,000 yards and 123 TDs, spending three years at Oaks Christian before transferring and finishing his career at Long Beach Poly.
Corral, who committed to both USC and Florida before signing with Ole Miss, redshirted in 2018 and then started four games in 2019, seesawing back and forth with John Rhys Plumlee while throwing six touchdowns and three picks. The Rebels finished 4-8, which ushered in a new coaching staff led by Lane Kiffin.
The partnership with Kiffin led to Corral taking over as the full-time starter. Starting all 10 games in 2020, he had 3,337 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, but his biggest issue was turnovers. Eleven of his 14 interceptions that season came in two games; he threw six against Arkansas and five against LSU.
Now in his second season in Kiffin's up-tempo system, Corral has settled in and transformed into a more comfortable player. In a scheme that requires a quick processor and decision-maker, his strengths aligned perfectly with the run-pass-option-centric playbook.
Ridder keeps it on read-option for 40-yard TD run
Desmond Ridder keeps it on the read-option and flies to the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown run.
Even though Corral's passing touchdowns declined from 29 in 2020 to 20 this season, he eliminated the turnovers significantly. He threw just five picks, proving to be in much better control of his decision-making. He's a quick and gifted quarterback who has little wasted movement in his game. With active feet and an electric arm, he has the attributes necessary to thrive in a quick-oriented offense.
"Fast" is the word that kept coming up when talking about Corral to an area scout. "If I ran an up-tempo system that's centered around taking advantage of the middle of the field, he'd easily be my top QB," the area scout told me.
Corral is a sudden athlete who can be a plus-one in the running game. He can have runs designed for him in order to place extra stress on defenses by making them account for the quarterback. An adjustment for him on the next level will be post-snap responsibilities. Being in an offense that involves a lot of "this-or-that" throws, he hasn't had a lot of exposure to exhausting multistep progressions. An undersized but competitive runner, he has shown that he will do whatever it takes to tough out victories, as seen during a hard-fought win against Tennessee when he finished with 30 carries for 195 yards.
Scouts love to see Corral's competitive nature, but he also will need to learn how to protect himself in the open field. He frequently dips his shoulder and launches himself head-first into oncoming tacklers, and that could affect durability.
Corral, who led Ole Miss to its first 10-win regular season in program history, has the charisma and competitive drive that is infectious across an entire locker room.
What's next: Corral announced in November that he's entering the draft, and he injured his ankle early in Ole Miss' Sugar Bowl loss to Baylor. His X-rays were negative, and the injury is not considered to affect his draft status. Corral is in the running to be a top-15 pick and potentially the top quarterback off the board. Because he hasn't yet graduated from Ole Miss, he isn't eligible to participate in the Senior Bowl.
Year: Senior | Age: 22 | Career starts: 47
Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 215 pounds
2021 stats: 3,344 passing yards, 64.9% completion rate, 30 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions in 14 games
Cincinnati's run has been one of the best stories of the season, as Ridder has lifted the Bearcats to be the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. His journey to Cincinnati was unconventional and took a bit of foreshadowing. A lightly recruited three-star prospect out of Louisville, Kentucky (Saint Xavier), it took a last-minute workout with his high school teammates to catch the attention of the Bearcats' coaching staff.
At the time, coach Tommy Tuberville wanted to add a quarterback in the 2017 class, but he had reservations about Ridder because of the quarterback's slender frame. A member of the coaching staff made the drive to observe Ridder and a few of his teammates on Kentucky Oaks Day, the day before the Kentucky Derby, which is recognized as an official holiday in the city. At the crack of dawn, Ridder was outside slinging passes left and right. He felt good about the simulated throwing session and later received a phone call from Tuberville while at Churchill Downs. Ridder scrambled to find a secluded area, settling on a nearby port-a-potty, where he received the message that would change his life forever -- his first and only scholarship offer.
Carson Strong airs it out for 28-yard touchdown pass
Carson Strong airs it out for 28-yard touchdown pass
Following a 4-8 season, Tuberville and Cincinnati parted ways but Ridder stayed true with his commitment to the Bearcats and new coach Luke Fickell. Now, 10,995 passing yards, 116 total touchdowns (87 passing, 28 rushing, 1 receiving) and 2,175 rushing yards later, Ridder is arguably the most highly decorated player in program history. Sporting a 41-5 career record, he has positioned the program to compete for its first national championship.
Ridder is one of the most polished throwers in the country, with a résumé to back it up. He is a lanky dual-threat prospect who can win from the pocket, but he also is a dependable option in the running game. He's a long-strider who can pick up yards in a hurry, taking off only when it's designed or when plays break down. When escaping outside of the pocket, he's great about keeping his eyes up in search of reappearing targets to dump off passes.
Within the offense, Ridder displays poise and full control of what he's asked to do. He plays with proper weight distribution, is always on platform and has positive throwing mechanics; he has a clean release and follow-through. Despite playing with ideal mechanics, his ball placement consistency is his biggest flaw.
"From a mechanics standpoint, he's picture perfect," a scout for an AFC team told me. "[He] plays with a good base, nice over-the-top delivery and follow-through. He'll have some awesome throws and then follow that up with sailing a pass over the head of the running back. His ball placement is inconsistent and deep passes flutter a bit.
If he plays well in the playoff and down in Mobile [at the Senior Bowl], I think he'll rise because he's super sharp."
Ridder's completion percentage has hovered around 65% over the past two seasons, but understanding the placement of passes allowing targets to gain yards after the catch is the next step in his development. As a four-year starter with 46 starts, he already has made monumental leaps as a passer and processor. He has a well-developed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the schemes that he plays again, and he has few hiccups going through different variations of reads.
What's next: Ridder completed 17 of 32 passes for 144 yards with no touchdowns and no picks in the Bearcats' loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal. He was sacked six times as Cincinnati scored just six points. Ridder will next be at the Senior Bowl in February.
Year: Senior | Age: 22 | Career starts: 23
Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 215 pounds
2021 stats: 2,857 passing yards, 61.1% completion rate, 27 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions in 13 games
Willis spent his first two years of varsity high school football at Westlake High School in Atlanta, a program that has produced former first-round picks Cam Newton and Adam "Pacman" Jones. He finished his career at Roswell High School, leading the team to a 14-1 record and appearance in the 7A state championship.
Most schools recruited Willis as an athlete and not as a quarterback. In June of 2016, he committed to Virginia Tech as an athlete, and the program planned to transition him to play defensive back. Five months later, he reversed course and decommitted. Firmly believing that he was a quarterback, he verbally pledged to Auburn and then-coach Gus Malzahn.
He signed with the Tigers and settled into the backup spot behind Jarrett Stidham in 2017 and 2018, throwing just 14 passes combined in his first two seasons. With Stidham gone to the NFL in 2019, though, Willis was expected to take over as the heir apparent. Things didn't go as planned, as he was beaten out by Bo Nix for the spot atop the depth chart.
Willis decided to transfer to Liberty, pairing with a respected offensive mind in coach Hugh Freeze. While sitting out the 2019 season because of NCAA transfer rules, he used the time to get ahead on courses for grad school and to digest a new playbook.
In 2020, he had 2,260 passing yards and 944 rushing yards for the Flames. His output on the ground was the most of any quarterback in the FBS ranks, and he also threw 20 touchdown passes and just six picks. He helped the Liberty program get its first-ever win over an ACC opponent, pulling off a heroic four-TD performance against Virginia Tech. That victory helped jump-start some hype around Willis, and he quickly became a name to know in draft circles.
With all eyes on him heading into his senior season, he set the program's single-season record with 27 TD passes, and he threw for 2,857 yards and added 878 on the ground. He doubled his interceptions from 2020, however, including six in his final three regular-season games.
Willis' physical tools are evident from the moment he steps on the field. He has a thick build and powerful arm and looks like a running back when he takes off to scramble. What needs to be refined is his footwork, down-to-down decision-making and his ability to process coverages. NFL teams will take into account that he didn't play with pro-level talent around him.
Sam Howell takes it himself for an 18-yard rushing TD
North Carolina scores the first touchdown against Wake Forest.
"This dude is so physically gifted, but it's so frustrating watching him," an NFC personnel director told me. "There's such a heavy mixture of good and bad, but the physical gifts are impossible to ignore. His surroundings aren't the best and it's clear that he's trying to overcome them, but it's resulted in him developing some very bad habits."
Because of his raw ability, scouts could be intrigued with Willis, but patience will be needed as he's far away from being a finished product.
What's next: Willis' five-touchdown performance in the bowl game against Eastern Michigan means he had the strong finish he needed after struggling during the team's previous three contests. Set to participate in the Senior Bowl, the week of practices is a massive opportunity for him. This will be scouts' first glimpse of how he responds to a favorable environment that includes many of his counterparts who are competing for the QB1 title leading up to the draft.
Year: Senior | Age: 21 | Career starts: 37
Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 220 pounds
2021 stats: 3,056 passing yards, 62.5% completion rate, 24 touchdown passes, 9 interceptions in 12 games
Howell, who set a North Carolina high school state record with 17,036 total yards at Sun Valley High School in Monroe, comes from an athletic family. His father, Duke, was a wrestler at Appalachian State, while his mother, Amy, played volleyball at Appalachian State and was a successful middle blocker. A highly decorated four-star recruit, Howell committed to Florida State in 2018, expecting to be the quarterback who spearheaded the program back to prominence.
After an eight-month allegiance, however, the return of Mack Brown to Chapel Hill convinced Howell to flip and remain in state and sign with UNC. He was seen as the key player who could ignite a program that hadn't experienced success since 2015. He started all 13 games in 2019, setting a freshman program record for touchdown passes (38) and earning 2019 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. With plenty to live up to following an exceptional season, his success continued in 2020 as he led the conference in passing yards (3,586) and touchdowns passes (30) and the Tar Heels went 8-4.
Howell entered his junior season with some hype and was seen as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2022 draft class. With all eyes fixated on him in the season opener against Virginia Tech, however, he had one of the worst performances of his career, finishing 17-of-32 passing for 208 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Although it was just one game, that moment proved to be a learning experience. Howell had lost his top four targets from a season ago -- receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome and running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter -- and he learned what it took to be the catalyst of an offense while also adapting to new players.
He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 37 career starts, but he discovered a newfound running ability this season. After having just 181 rushing yards and six TDs combined during his first two seasons, he had 828 yards on the ground and 11 TDs this season. He also owns UNC career records for passing yards (10,283) and touchdown passes (92).
Howell is an in-rhythm passer who works in harmony with offensive coordinator Phil Longo's air-raid attack. His quick decision-making and lightning-quick release have been able to thrive in a heavy run-pass option scheme. The lower half of Howell's body is always married to his upper half, which means he can throw passes during quick game-based timing routes, and also take advantage of nosey defenders attempting to flood the shallow areas by lofting deep shots over the top.
Staying bouncy and on his toes while in the pocket, his swift body mechanics helps him get the ball out quickly. Accuracy has remained consistent while learning new surroundings this season. Because of minimal false steps, his sharp footwork meshes well with the passing concepts included within the offense.
An area of growth that scouts want to see addressed is Howell adjusting when things are thrown off schedule. A slightly above-average athlete, he has made strides as a runner. As evident by his increased rushing output this season, he must continue to show that he can be a thrower who is able to avoid disadvantageous elements.
What's next: Howell announced after North Carolina's loss in the Duke's Mayo Bowl that he's headed to the NFL. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown in the loss to South Carolina.
Year: Senior | Age: 22 | Career starts: 31
Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 215 pounds
2021 Stats: 4,186 passing yards, 70% completion rate, 36 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions in 12 games
It has been a long journey for Strong to get to this point. A two-sport athlete at Will C. Wood High School in California, he was a good basketball player, averaging just over 14 points and 10 rebounds during his career (84 games).
The smoothness of his game carried from the hardwood to the football field and he experienced a breakout junior season in 2016. In 10 games, he had 2,732 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. Still, he wasn't recruited by many schools and didn't have any offers, until he took advantage of the high school 7-on-7 circuit in the summer. He made the team at powerhouse De La Salle High School, a talented team run by former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and received glowing remarks. Traveling with that team helped him grab the attention of the Nevada coaching staff and following an official visit to campus while playing in an AAU basketball tournament on campus, Strong was sold on the only school that took a chance and offered him.
It almost didn't happen, however. After experiencing pain in his right knee during a basketball tournament, an MRI revealed that he suffered from osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) lesion, which forced doctors to place eight biodegradable nails into his knee in order to heal a crack in the bone. That injury resulted in him being unable to participate in any sports during his senior season, and he has had three surgeries throughout his career.
Nevada stuck by him, and he attended a local community college and took extra classes in order to graduate and enroll early in Reno. He redshirted for the Wolf Pack in 2018 while rehabbing his injury, and he quickly made a name for himself after returning to full health. In 2019, Strong became the first freshman to start for the program in 21 years (Mo Jones in 1998). He had 2,335 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes that season and has improved since.
Transforming into one of the best players in program history, Strong finished the 2021 season with 4,186 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and only eight interceptions while completing 70% of his passes. He finished his career third in program history in passing yards (9,368) and touchdown passes (74).
Strong is a linear-built pocket passer with the arm to layer the ball to all areas of the field. He also has different ball speeds with which he can attack defenses. Of the quarterbacks in this draft class, he has the most maturity from a pre-snap perspective. Strong had full autonomy over setting and changing protections, orchestrating hot routes and audibiling out of plays. On tape, you frequently see him communicating to all 10 of his teammates and placing them in advantageous situations. He has a calming presence in the pocket and a natural feel of how to navigate within it in order to get off throws.
Strong is comfortable attacking down the field, and he takes some chances on throws in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. He is a below-average athlete, though, and has challenges with playing outside of structure. He completed just 44% of his passes outside of the pocket this season, and NFL scouts have questions about his ability once a play breaks down. The NFL has seen more dual-threat quarterbacks recently, but Strong's style of play is decidedly old school, which means he might not be a fit for every offense.
What's next: Strong announced on Dec. 14 that he would skip the Quick Lane Bowl and enter the 2022 draft. Having already accepted his invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, the event and week of practices could provide him an opportunity to answer and silence questions about his durability and playing style.
Best of the rest in the 2022 NFL draft
These are the other quarterbacks who could get drafted in April:
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky: After putting up 78 touchdown passes in 36 games at Houston Baptist, Zappe followed his offensive coordinator, Zach Kittley, to Western Kentucky. He put together the most prolific single-season passing performance in FBS history, finishing with single-season records in passing yards (5,967) and touchdowns (62). He's a decisive decision-maker who throws with plenty of anticipation. At 6-1, 220 pounds, Zappe has a slightly above-average arm, but scouts want to see him outside of the offense that he has a Ph.D.-level of understanding in so they can gain an idea of his next-level projection. Alongside many of the notable players at the position in this class, Zappe will be competing in the Senior Bowl.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State: Purdy is the school leader in career passing yards (12,170). His upright nature enables him to fire the ball and make decisions quickly. He had a breakout sophomore season in 2019 that saw him set single-season career highs in passing yards (3,982) and passing touchdowns (27), and he has constantly been praised for his leadership. Eliminating turnovers and sprinkling in bad decisions are the tendencies that Purdy must continue to remove from his game. At 6-1, 220 pounds, he's the type of quarterback teams could fall in love with during the later rounds who goes on to serve as a high-quality insurance for multiple seasons as a backup. Purdy is set to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
EJ Perry, Brown: Perry, a Boston College transfer, has continued to climb the records books since arriving at Brown. During his first season in 2019, he set an Ivy League record for total offense (3,678 yards) while also leading the team in both passing (2,948) and rushing yards (730). After the cancellation of the 2020 season, he came back and improved his output in multiple categories despite a 2-8 season. He had 3,033 passing yards and 23 touchdowns while also putting up another 402 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. At 6-2, 210 pounds, Perry is a strong-armed and determined runner who has had success in a shotgun-spread-oriented offense. He will compete in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA: DTR is an exciting and strong-armed player. At 6-1, 205 pounds, he showed growth as a passer, but his decision-making is the area that needs to continue to be developed. A six-touchdown performance (four passing, two rushing) against USC provides a snapshot of his entire career because the game started off by him throwing two interceptions in the first quarter. Settling in after that, he had positive flashes. Thompson-Robinson could be a practice-squad candidate for teams in search of developing a player at the position.
Dustin Crum, Kent State: Joining Josh Cribbs as the only players to surpass the 9,000-total yard mark at Kent State, Crum has been one of the most productive players in program history. At 6-3, 207 pounds, he is a dual-threat quarterback who has plenty of value as a passer and in the running game. He had 3,238 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes in 2021, taking another step in development as a passer. Crum could be a developmental option in the NFL.
Chase Garbers, Cal: The son of a former Georgia golfer, Garbers has been a four-year starter under center. His final season for the Bears was his best, as he set career highs in passing yards (2,531), passing touchdowns (16), rushing yards (456) and rushing touchdowns (four). At 6-2, 225 pounds, he has 34 starts and has shown shades of reclaiming his form after back-to-back productive seasons in 2018 and 2019. With an average arm, he has the ability to display consistent touch and timing. His experience and success in different schemes could prove to be attractive to teams.