My 2022 NFL Draft scouting series rolls on with reports on Kenny Pickett and Carson Strong below, as well as my full QB4-QB15 rankings with comps and advanced stats. Check back in the coming days for the unveiling of my QB1-3 and deep-dives on Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral. Statistical rankings below courtesy of PFF and ESPN. Rankings below are based on 39 qualified draft-eligible quarterbacks. FCS quarterbacks not included in rushing QBR (19 qualifiers).
4. Kenny Pickett | Pittsburgh | 6'3/217
PFF grade rank: 1
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 4
PFF big-time throw % rank: 20
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 14
BTT/TWT rank: 14
PFF clean pocket rank: 1
PFF under pressure rank: 16
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 9
2021 dropbacks: 581
In April 2016, Kenny Pickett committed to play for Temple HC Matt Rhule. Pickett told the media it was because of his connection to Rhule and QB coach Glen Thomas. Rhule’s Owls had an underdog mentality, and Pickett, an overlooked recruit, responded positively to it. “I’ve definitely had a chip on my shoulders throughout my high school career,” Pickett said. “I think that’s really helped me in the long run, actually, in the way I compete on the field."
Even at Temple, he was going to need it. At the time, 2016 Elite 11 QB Anthony Russo was seen as Temple’s heir apparent to P.J. Walker, who was about to embark on his senior year. But in the months that followed, Pickett received scholarship offers from Pitt, Boston College, and Iowa.
At the time Pickett flipped to Pitt, among the three-major recruiting services, one rated Pickett a three-star prospect, another as a two-star, and ESPN had no rating on him at all. That eventually changed, with the Power 5 offers changing the narrative. ESPN ultimately tabbed Pickett as a three-star dual-threat quarterback.
Pickett stayed for five years, serving as the full-time starter for the last four. His reign actually began at the very end of his true freshman season, a campaign he began hopelessly buried on the depth chart behind veterans Max Browne and Ben DiNucci. Tabbed to start against Miami in late-November, Pickett spurred an upset win.
In the ensuing three years, 2018-2020, Pickett never threw for more than 13 touchdowns nor 7.3 YPA. Coming into this past season, he was viewed as a potential late-Day 3 pick. But Pickett went ballistic in 2021, throwing for 4,319 yards with an ACC-record 42 passing TD. Pickett finished third in the Heisman voting and was named second-team Associated Press All-American and the ACC Player of the Year.
Pickett was in a really good situation last season. Pitt WR Jordan Addison, one of the best receivers in the nation, finished with a 100-1593-17 receiving line as Pickett peppered him with targets. Some of these were freebie completions and yards for Pickett, with Addison posting 278 YAC on his 31 receptions behind the line of scrimmage. Addison, a slot dynamo we'll be talking about in the next class, had 28 more receptions between 0-9 yards of the LOS.
Former OC Mark Whipple’s passing scheme attacks the defense sideline-to-sideline out of the spread in order to set up deep shots. Pitt’s receiving corps legitimately went five-deep with Jared Wayne, Taysir Mack, Shocky Jacques-Louis and Melquise Stovall behind Addison. Whipple gave fits to opposing defensive coordinators, who would run out of secondary bodies who could be trusted in space.
Whipple’s intermediate philosophy is levels, with receivers on the same side running similar routes to see how the defense reacts and to allow the quarterback to see multiple routes unfolding at once, naturally doubling his progression rate. The Panthers were often in 11 formation but boasted two solid receiving tight ends in Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew and also made good use of 2-TE sets.
Pitt had a strong three-headed monster at RB that in the aggregate averaged nearly five yards per carry. And on top of all that, the Panthers ran into scheduling luck, playing the No. 60 SP+ strength of schedule in 2021. This was a unique confluence of factors, and it deserves to be mentioned as context when discussing how Pickett leaped from a 69.8 PFF grade in 2020 to 92.2 in 2021.
Here are the SP+ defensive rankings of all 13 opponents Pickett played last year (out of 130) before he opted out of the bowl game: 130, 47, 91, (3-8 FCS team), 103, 55, 3, 51, 118, 101, 100, 54, and 92. If you rank FCS New Hampshire No. 200, which is probably conservative, these defenses would rank, on average, No. 88. For context, last year Louisiana Tech played the No. 88 SP+ overall SOS. Sneakily, Pickett's slate of opposing defenses was almost as weak as Zach Wilson's in the last class.
Pickett still has work to do diagnosing and anticipating, but these areas of his pocket game took big steps forward in 2021. And they played up because Pickett had, over those four-plus years starting, become very comfortable in the pocket, with a good feel for how to navigate it, and a sound internal clock.
But that cut both ways, with Pickett finishing with the second-highest time to throw in the nation last year. This despite 54.9% of his passes coming within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, one of the highest numbers in the class. He’s going to have to make quicker decisions and unload the ball faster in the NFL.
Nodding back at ESPN’s dual-threat designation coming out of high school, Pickett is more mobile than is commonly perceived. He posted a 4.73 forty at the NFL Combine along with a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Pickett isn’t a huge threat outside of the pocket because he prefers to be in it – he ran for 459 yards on 6.8 YPC last year with sacks omitted – but mobility remains a staple of his aerial game.
One of the things I appreciate most about Pickett is his devotion to keeping his eyes downfield while buying time. He’s a skilled scrambler, one reason his time-to-throw ranking is so high. He can be difficult to corral, and he retains his accuracy on the move. Pickett throws from a variety of arm angles as the situation dictates and doesn’t need his feet set to throw an accurate ball.
Accuracy is a strength. Pickett ranked No. 4 in the class in PFF’s adjusted-accuracy metric last year, and was top-3 amongst the consensus top-7 QBs in this class in ESPN’s on-target percentages both 10 or fewer yards downfield, and 11-20 yards downfield. He retains this accuracy deep.
Pickett has enough arm strength and touch to viably test deep in the NFL. Per PFF, he ranked No. 3 in the FBS last year in deep-ball adjusted accuracy. But Pickett’s propensity for palming the ball as long as possible, in conjunction with his below-average release time and aggressive bent, put the ball in too many dangerous situations downfield. Pickett ranked No. 6 in the FBS last year in turnover-worthy throw percentage on deep balls.
Pickett possesses above-average velocity when driving the ball short, but not all NFL throws will be his friend. To the sideline beyond 10 yards, he loses zip and his placement becomes more precarious. Pickett had the lowest completion percentage in the top-7 QBs in this class last year on sideline throws in the 11-20 yard range as charted by ESPN.
Much has been made of Pickett’s 8 1/2" hand measurement, tied with Michael Vick for the smallest in NFL history at the quarterback position. I don’t put a ton of stock in that. No correlation has been shown between fumbling rate and hand size in multiple studies, and Pickett had enough grip to win deep playing outside in the cold in college.
Honestly, I’m more concerned about a one-year wonder having his only standout season against a poor schedule while surrounded by A-grade talent. Inarguably, Pickett’s situation inflated his stats and flattered him. I don’t think Pickett has enough arm talent to be a top-10 starter in the NFL. But his plus-accuracy, ability to buy time, and experience testing all three levels of the field give him a chance to be a league-average starter.
Comp: Andy Dalton
5. Carson Strong | Nevada | 6’3/226
PFF grade rank: 9
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 6
PFF big-time throw % rank: 11
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 6
BTT/TWT rank: 6
PFF clean pocket rank: 4
PFF under pressure rank: 31
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 19
2021 dropbacks: 580
Strong was an overlooked two-star recruit in the 2018 class. He took the only FBS offer he received, from Nevada, and redshirted his first season. Strong won the starting job the following year and had a respectable-but-not special redshirt freshman year (2,335 yards and 11/7 TD/INT rate on 6.2 YPA).
Strong took off from there, winning MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2020 as a redshirt sophomore by averaging 317.6 passing yards per game with a 27/4 TD/INT rate on 8.1 YPA and 70.1% completions. In February 2021, Strong underwent surgery, “a tire swap on cartilage,” as he described it, on the same knee doctors had operated on prior to Strong’s senior year of high school.
Generally, this is a procedure with a one-year recovery timeline. Five months later, in August 2021, with less than a month to go until the opener, Strong underwent an arthroscopic procedure to clear out scar tissue that had accumulated. He was determined to be on the field Week 1, and he was.
Rushing back double-time on an accelerated rehab schedule, Strong’s knee was far from 100-percent in 2021. He wore a knee sleeve to suppress swelling. The knee was drained multiple times. Strong said at the NFL Combine that many of his 2021 throws were “all-arm” because his plant leg was compromised.
Not only that, but the bum wheel greatly affected his mobility, and made him think twice about stepping up into bodies to unleash a downfield throw. This, in turn, hindered his ability to operate under pressure, nailed to the ground without a sturdy platform to work from. Despite all this, Strong managed to repeat as MWC Offensive Player of the Year in 2021 with 4,175 passing yards and a 36/8 TD/INT rate on 70.0% completions across 12 starts.
Strong has a big-time arm. Top-three arm talent in this class along with Malik Willis and Matt Corral. Strong’s a proven commodity in the pocket by this point. But questions about his problematic knee have dogged his process, with some labeling it degenerative. Instead of being credited with excelling on the field at less than 100-percent, Strong has faced questions about if the knee will ever be sound, if his career will be cut short because of it.
We know that Strong has been long-term cleared by at least two medical staffs: his own, and, per our own Crissy Froyd reporting for The Draft Network, the Los Angeles Rams’. He underwent extensive examinations during the NFL Combine’s medical checks in early-March. At present, he has not yet heard what each teams’ medical staff concluded.
But we can independently conclude this: Strong is a really tough kid. His Nevada coaches and teammates marveled at how he played through on the recovering, swollen knee. “Unless my leg snaps in half and my bone is sticking out of my skin, I’m gonna play. Unless I can’t walk, I’m going to play,” Strong said. “I’ve always said, if I can walk, I can play. There was never a thought that I was going to head for the sidelines or not finish the game.”
My question is this: If it turns out the knee isn’t degenerative, and we know the knee affected his mobility and ability to throw last year, shouldn’t Strong be getting extra credit for his 2021 work, as opposed to his eval being stained with what could in essence be a false-flag scarlet letter?
Without that scarlet letter, Strong is absolutely in the first-round discussion because of that golden right arm. The ball shoots out of his hand and gets there in a hurry in a tight spiral. Quick release. High-end velocity to consistently beat Cover-2 safeties playing forward. Ball comes out with smoke rings even when Strong is throwing off-platform.
The best of Strong’s deep balls are heart-breakingly beautiful, rainbow moonshots that drop into tiny buckets. Easy, natural 60-plus yard arm strength. But Strong can sail long throws or have them drift towards the sidelines. He can be forgiven for some of that – the Air Raid asks quarterbacks throwing deep to miss long instead of short – but in some cases it’s inaccuracy.
In 2020, of quarterbacks with 350 or more attempts, Strong ranked No. 3 in PFF deep-passing grade behind only two 2021 first-rounders -- Zach Wilson and Mac Jones. He also was one of only four quarterbacks who had an aDOT of 7.5 or above with an adjusted accuracy percentage higher than 80%, alongside 2021 first-rounders Wilson, Jones and Justin Fields. This past year, playing with a compromised base, Strong still ranked No. 12 in PFF deep-passing grade. I'm telling you: He has a first-round arm.
Strong is a merciless head-hunter for one-on-one situations. He is going to dial up a long ball if the look is there. Fearless due to implicit trust in arm. Won't shy away from any throw. Has the juice to get it there, and the touch to drop it in.
Strong managed to avoid putting the ball in harm’s way despite a modus operandi of ripping it vertically. In 2020, Strong went 299 attempts without throwing an interception at one point and tied for No. 2 among qualified quarterbacks with a 1.7% turnover-worthy play rate, per PFF. In 2021, his 2.0% turnover-worthy throw rate ranked No. 7 among FBS qualifiers.
Nevada’s Air Raid heavily skews towards the short- and deep-passing games. Strong does a really job, even in instances where he ultimately goes to his primary target, manipulating safeties with his eyes. But the offense didn’t afford Strong as opportunities to attack the middle of the field as many of his contemporaries. Intermediate throws accounted for only 15.8% and 17.8%, respectively, of Strong’s total output the last two years, on the low-end for the class.
Strong had ditched his knee brace by the regular season finale. He didn’t wear it at the Senior Bowl, and in Mobile we saw him moving around better than we had at arguably any time over the past two years. If the knee weren’t a long-term issue, and Strong was going to be a little more mobile going forward along with having a sounder throwing base under him, just how capable would he be of improving under pressure?
In 2020, Strong’s 92.0 PFF passing grade in clean pockets dropped to 48.2 under pressure. In 2021, the splits were even more pronounced, with a 93.8 clean-pocket grade and a lowly 42.6 grade under pressure. At least some of last season’s struggles in this area were attributable to the knee, as well as how bad Nevada's offensive line was. The Wolf Pack ranked No. 108 in PFF pass-blocking grade. By my numbers, Nevada's OL ranked as the No. 112 unit in the FBS last year (out of 130).
But this is a concern area, as Strong's play dropped off under pressure his entire collegiate career. He has a habit of bicycling backwards dropping-back instead of the more traditional shuffle from a ready-aim-fire throwing base. Quick pressure off the snap chews him up, particularly from the interior, as Strong doesn’t always have time to square his shoulders. Sometimes he’ll just fling it up mid-backpedal to avoid the sack.
The pre-2021 tape shows myriad instances of Strong losing stock of his lower-half and throwing balls all-arm in the face of heat in order to get rid of it. Revamping his set-up and consistently marrying his lower- and upper-halves on throws will lead to an accuracy boost, likely improving Strong’s performance under pressure while naturally up-ticking his velocity.
Strong told the media at his NFL Combine podium session that he's been throwing the ball harder while working with QB coach Jordan Palmer in pre-draft training because he finally trusts his knee enough to fully drive off it while throwing. Despite concerns about his ability to deal with pressure, and with my eye's wide-open about his knee, Strong’s arm talent is such that he still warrants a Round 2 grade.
Comp: Jared Goff
6. Sam Howell | UNC | 6’1/218
Comp: C.J. Beathard
PFF grade rank: 7
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 26
PFF big-time throw % rank: 12
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 8
BTT/TWT rank: 8
PFF clean pocket rank: 11
PFF under pressure rank: 15
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 2
2021 dropbacks: 462
7. Bailey Zappe | Western Kentucky | 6’0/215
Comp: Chase Daniel
PFF grade rank: 12
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 7
PFF big-time throw % rank: 4
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 19
BTT/TWT rank: 12
PFF clean pocket rank: 12
PFF under pressure rank: 24
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 15
2021 dropbacks: 730
8. Dustin Crum | Kent State | 6’1/210
Comp: Nathan Peterman
PFF grade rank: 6
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 20
PFF big-time throw % rank: 2
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 1
BTT/TWT rank: 1
PFF clean pocket rank: 8
PFF under pressure rank: 25
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 3
2021 dropbacks: 462
9. Jack Coan | Notre Dame | 6’3/218
Comp: Greg McElroy
PFF grade rank: 16
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 10
PFF big-time throw % rank: 8
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 5
BTT/TWT rank: 4
PFF clean pocket rank: 15
PFF under pressure rank: 19
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 16
2021 dropbacks: 436
10. Cole Kelley | SE Louisiana | 6’7/249
Comp: Paxton Lynch
PFF grade rank: 2
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 1
PFF big-time throw % rank: 26
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 9
BTT/TWT rank: 11
PFF clean pocket rank: 3
PFF under pressure rank: 11
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 630
11. E.J. Perry | Brown | 6’2/211
Comp: Taylor Heinecke
PFF grade rank: 26
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 18
PFF big-time throw % rank: 37
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 29
BTT/TWT rank: 37
PFF clean pocket rank: 13
PFF under pressure rank: 36
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 512
12. Kaleb Eleby | Western Michigan | 6’1/208
Comp: David Fales
PFF grade rank: 29
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 17
PFF big-time throw % rank: 21
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 30
BTT/TWT rank: 23
PFF clean pocket rank: 18
PFF under pressure rank: 38
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 14
2021 dropbacks: 434
13. D'Eriq King | Miami | 5’9/196
Comp: Quinton Flowers
PFF grade rank: 20
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 2
PFF big-time throw % rank: 28
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 20
BTT/TWT rank: 20
PFF clean pocket rank: 24
PFF under pressure rank: 13
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 151
14. Brock Purdy | Iowa State | 6’1/212
Comp: Jake Browning
PFF grade rank: 23
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 5
PFF big-time throw % rank: 39
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 12
BTT/TWT rank: 36
PFF clean pocket rank: 16
PFF under pressure rank: 21
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 12
2021 dropbacks: 467
15. Chase Garbers | California | 6’2/218
Comp: Brian Lewerke
PFF grade rank: 18
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 16
PFF big-time throw % rank: 25
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 2
BTT/TWT rank: 7
PFF clean pocket rank: 25
PFF under pressure rank: 10
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 8
2021 dropbacks: 417
16. Skylar Thompson | Kansas State | 6’2/217
Comp: Sam Ehlinger
PFF grade rank: 17
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 8
PFF big-time throw % rank: 24
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 32
BTT/TWT rank: 29
PFF clean pocket rank: 19
PFF under pressure rank: 9
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 11
2021 dropbacks: 266