From 2006-2013, every Super Bowl was won by a quarterback drafted within the first 32 picks. Quarterback is the most discussed and dissected position leading up to the draft as NFL scouts search for the one capable of leading a team to the title. Today, that quarterback is redshirt sophomore Gunner Kiel of the Cincinnati Bearcats.
In high school, Kiel was rated by several scouting services as the top quarterback; ahead of Jameis Winston. After signing with Notre Dame, Kiel was beaten out for the starting job by Everett Golson. Losing a QB battle as a true freshman to Golson, who led the Irish to the National Championship game, shouldn’t hurt Kiel’s confidence. The competition and practice time he spent with an offense that went 12-1 can only be beneficial to Kiel’s growth.
Last year, Kiel was forced to sit out after transferring to Cincinnati. During this time, he was able to study Tommy Tuberville‘s pro-style offense run by the Bearcats. In 2014, Kiel will finally have the opportunity to take the field as a college quarterback.
The season to learn a pro-style offense will certainly help Kiel, who should amass huge numbers while competing for an American Athletic Conference title. The Bearcats’ schedule features 10 games against pass defenses ranked 87th or worse last season. Even the tough non-conference games come against poor pass defenses Ohio State (110th in 2013) and Miami (90th in 2013). His first season starting will put NFL scouts and draft analysts on notice, similar to Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Winston in 2013.
There are several aspects of Kiel’s game which will translate well. First and foremost are his mechanics. From his footwork, shoulders and positioning of the football, Kiel has the mechanics of an elite NFL QB both inside and outside the pocket. When unleashing the ball, Kiel throws with authority. Whether the receiver is five yards or 40 yards away, the ball arrives quickly. Kiel may also have the fastest release in college football, making it nearly impossible for defenders to undercut receivers.
Together, this makes Kiel an outstanding prospect. So why is he better than Winston or Marcus Mariota of Oregon?
Although a Heisman Trophy and National Championship have created buzz for Winston, there are several mechanics that need improvement. Playing almost exclusively in the shotgun allows Winston to hop around in the pocket far too often. In the NFL, he will need to slide his feet in order to take the traditional three, five and seven step drops.
An even bigger issue is his throwing motion. Whereas Kiel has an extremely quick release, Winston has a long, slow delivery in which he drops the football below his elbow. Deliveries and muscle memory are difficult to change, as seen with Tim Tebow. The long delivery allows defenders to undercut routes and the low ball placement can lead to strips from pressuring defenders. Winston has been bailed out several times by his receivers when the ball was slow to arrive.
Another quarterback expected to be drafted early is Mariota. The lack of NFL success can’t be ignored. Since Chip Kelly took over, only Dennis Dixon has started a game. While Mariota is the best of the bunch, he is comparable to past Ducks. His passing statistics are similar to Darron Thomas while his rushing numbers mirror Jeremiah Masoli. Those two combined for zero NFL passes.
History isn’t the only concern when evaluating Mariota. His ball protection needs work, as evidenced by 11 fumbles in 13 games last year. Matthew Stafford was the NFL leader with 12 in 16 games. Teams will also monitor his partially torn MCL and completion percentage, which dropped almost five percent from 2012.
What separates Kiel from Mariota is the deep ball. Where Kiel has accuracy and zip, as shown by three 40+ yard completions in the Cincinnati spring game, Mariota throws with too much loft. He’s avoided this being a major issue at Oregon because his receivers frequently blow by defenders. At the next level, this will allow corners to get back into plays and safeties to cover more ground.
While Winston and Mariota will be picked apart by evaluators every week, Kiel enters the season an unknown. Whether he decides to be a one-and-done by entering the 2015 draft, or waiting until 2016 or 2017, Gunner Kiel is the best quarterback prospect in college football today.