Detroit Lions 2022 scouting combine preview: Quarterbacks

Detroit News

This is the third installment of a multi-part series previewing the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. The event will be broadcast over four days on the NFL Network, Thursday, March 3 through Sunday, March 6. Today, we’ll look at the quarterbacks.

Lions’ pre-free agency needs

Jared Goff’s strong finish to the 2021 campaign, and a contract that has him under team control the next three years, implies there isn’t a forced sense of urgency to address the quarterback position this year. That doesn’t mean the franchise can take the long-term future of the position for granted, only that they don’t have to push the issue if they’re underwhelmed by the available options in this draft class. They also shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if they do have an affinity and vision for a specific prospect, since the worst time to be looking for a quarterback is when you need one.

Beyond Goff, the Lions’ backup situation is unsettled. Both Tim Boyle and David Blough are set to be free agents, although it’s possible one or both are brought back on a short-term contract ahead of the draft. Boyle would be the leading candidate to be retained. The former Packers backup missed the first half of last season with a thumb injury, but started three contests down the stretch, completing 64.9% of his passes for 526 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions.

Metrics to monitor

► Hand size, throwing drills, 3-cone drill

It all begins with a quarterback’s ability to consistently grip the football. The minimum threshold from tip of the thumb to tip of the pinky is generally viewed as 9.5 inches, although there have been starters under that mark, including Goff. Kenny Pickett, one of the top prospects in this class, is an interesting case because he claims to be double jointed, which prohibits him from fully extending for a proper measurement. He declined at the Senior Bowl and is expected to get it done at the combine.

Obviously, there’s only so much the timed drills can tell you about the position beyond general athleticism, although the three-cone can highlight an ability to dodge traffic in the pocket and extend plays, an increasingly important trait for modern QBs. As for the throwing drills, even though they’re conducted without pads (or a pass rush), they demonstrate a capability to make all the throws required at the pro level.

Top prospects

► Kenny Pickett, Pitt

Following in the recent footsteps of Joe Burrow and Zach Wilson, Pickett went from an unheralded prospect to top of the board off the back of one strong season. As a fifth-year senior, he completed 67.2% of his passes with 42 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. With 49 collegiate starts, often in less-than-ideal conditions, his experience is an asset that should help him see the field quickly as a rookie.

► Malik Willis, Liberty

Starting his college experience at Auburn, Willis struggled to seize the starting job and transferred after two seasons, landing at Liberty. There, under coach Hugh Freeze, the quarterback’s dual-threat skill set blossomed. With a big arm and the ability to do serious damage with his feet, the stocky 6-foot-1, 220-pounder offers tantalizing potential.

► Matt Corral, Ole Miss

Corral had a lot going for him coming into his senior year, but was held back by his propensity to turn the ball over. In 10 games during the 2020 season, he threw 14 interceptions, many of which were the result of poor decision-making. He ironed out those issues as a senior, tossing just five picks in 13 games, contrasted against 20 touchdowns, all while completing 67.7% of his throws. He possesses a strong arm with above-average mobility, but would benefit from developing more touch instead of firing lasers on every throw.

► Sam Howell, North Carolina

The top quarterback for many analysts heading into the year, Howell had some early struggles adjusting to the loss of several key weapons to the NFL. While the passing numbers were down from the previous year, the roster changes resulted in Howell showcasing his running ability. After rushing for fewer than 200 yards his first two seasons as a starter, he broke out with 828 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2021.

► Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

A four-year starter, Ridder steadily improved during his four seasons with the Bearcats. Leading the school to the playoffs this year, he completed 64.9% of his throws with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He ran less as a senior, but consistently showed dual-threat ability throughout his time at Cincinnati, gaining more than 2,100 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns on the ground.

Sleepers to watch

► Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

After three seasons at Houston Baptist, Zappe transferred to Western Kentucky where he rewrote the record books, breaking the NCAA marks for both passing yards (5,967) and touchdowns (62). Smart and accurate, Zappe is clearly a draftable talent, but probably doesn’t have the necessary arm strength to develop into a long-term starter.

► Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan

Eleby flourished his final two seasons with the Broncos, tossing 41 touchdowns against eight interceptions across his final 19 games. Like many of the quarterbacks in his class, he’s on the smaller side, likely a touch shorter than the 6-foot-1 height listed by the school. And he doesn’t offer the dual-threat skill set of several other options in that size range. Still, Eleby’s strong arm and recent production carries intrigue.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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