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2022 NFL draft: Can Nevada's Carson Strong end up as QB1?

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Each week during the college football season, we'll stack the quarterbacks with 2022 NFL draft eligibility based on their pro potential — and nothing else.

Some of the players we list below may not enter next year's draft, but we'll list anyone who has a remote shot to declare early.

Here's how we see the NFL QB prospect hierarchy stacking up after the first nine weeks of college football.

1. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

(Last week: 1st)

It was a tale of two games on Saturday for Pickett.

On the one hand, Pickett passed Dan Marino for most touchdowns responsible for in school history and posted the first 500-yard passing game in Panthers history.

On the other, Pickett threw a disastrous interception late to help deliver a victory to Miami, one of two interceptions in the game. Trailing 38-34 with 4:07 remaining, Pickett just seemed to misfire to a wide-open Jordan Addison, with the ball ending up in the hands of Miami's James Williams. 

Pickett's first INT was also regrettable, as he appeared to stare down his target, having his pass undercut by Tyrique Stevenson, whose 39-yard return set up an eventual Miami TD that gave the Hurricanes a 31-17 halftime lead.

It was really the first time since the Western Michigan game back in mid-September that Pickett played a sloppy game — even with some fireworks. You can probably count on one hand the number of truly bad throws Pickett has made this season, but two of them came on Saturday.

Is he QB1? It's likely we cannot at all say that with certainty. This debate rages on.

2. Malik Willis, Liberty

(Last week: 3rd)

Willis turned in a spectacular performance Saturday against UMass, as he's mostly dominated lesser competition this season (even with three-INT games against Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee State).

This was the throw that got everyone lathered up, and rightfully so:

There could be some teams that rate Willis as their QB1 this coming draft. Other teams might view him as a talented project or a "Slash" type player such as Kordell Stewart. There likely will be no consensus with Willis, although we've seen enough to be interested in investing in his vast upside.

3. Carson Strong, Nevada

(Last week: 6th)

When we put together our first 2022 NFL mock draft last week, Strong was not one of our first 32 selections listed. That said, we mentioned Strong as a first-round possibility pending a strong postseason period.

The biggest thing holding him back might be the health of his knee. Strong suffered a knee injury as a prep and had to have it scoped just prior to camp. Early in the season, there were times when it appeared he didn't trust the stability of the knee and was moving around the pocket fairly gingerly.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) looks to throw against UNLV in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Reno, Nev., Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) looks to throw against UNLV in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Reno, Nev., Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)

Strong's comfort has improved over the past several weeks. He's not very agile when fully healthy and never will be regarded as a scramble threat. But that little bit of added assurance has appeared to help Strong put together a hot streak the past four games, with a 16-3 TD-INT ratio, an average of 416.3 pass yards per game and a completion rate of nearly 74 percent.

Strong might have the best arm talent in the class. He's shredding opponents through the air despite minimal help from the run game. And he's doing it in spite of a bothersome knee. 

But if that knee checks out during the medical portion of the pre-draft process, and if the cocksure quarterback also can also win over teams during the all-important interview process, Strong easily could make a play for QB1 — even if he lacks the dual-threat ability many teams now favor in their quarterbacks.

4. Matt Corral, Ole Miss

(Last week: 2nd)

Corral has been on a slide recently, although it's hard to question his toughness or resilience after suffering an ankle injury on Saturday and returning to the game in the first half. He finished the game 21 of 37 passing (56.8%) for 289 yards and a pick in the loss to Auburn.

His 11-yard TD run came after the injury and helped cut into a 21-10 Tigers lead. Corral initially suffered the ankle injury two weeks ago against Tennessee and confirmed postgame that he had aggravated it on Saturday. It's not coincidence that his recent downtick has coincided with the injury.

Are we unfairly dropping him down? Perhaps. But there remain questions about how the splendidly talented Corral will adapt to an advanced offensive system in the NFL. His talent, toughness and playmaking potential, however, very much keep him in the first-round picture if he declares.

5. Sam Howell, North Carolina

(Last week: 4th)

Howell played well in the loss at Notre Dame, continuing to make big strides as a runner and find ways to lead the Tar Heels into the end zone after some earlier-season ups and downs.

He's a bit of a confounding prospect in some respects, but watching him bounce off Irish linebackers' tackle attempts has us thinking we need to reevaluate just how effective a scrambler he might be at the next level.

6. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

(Last week: 5th)

That's two straight weeks where Ridder and the Bearcats started slowly before rebounding. There wasn't anything alarming with Ridder's performance, but he also didn't wow in any real way against a shorthanded Tulane team. His second TD pass to Josh Whyle was pretty, but Ridder's throw-to-throw consistency still warrants some criticism. 

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) delivered his team to victory against Tulane in a so-so effort on the road. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) delivered his team to victory against Tulane in a so-so effort on the road. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

He's a talented, experienced and tough-minded competitor with some holes in his game. How fixable they are and figuring out just how much of a ceiling he has will determine how high he ends up being drafted this spring. We view him as a top-50 possibility but not quite the first-round lock some are touting.

7. Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

(Last week: 10th)

Zappe started out hot, throwing for two TDs and running for another, to lead the Hilltoppers to a 21-3 edge. Then he took two steps back with interceptions that led to 10 unanswered points by Charlotte. 

But Zappe finished off what he started, adding two more TD passes down the stretch in a mostly good performance (with one cold spell in the middle) and another step forward as an NFL prospect.

It wasn't the cleanest game for Zappe, and he'll have his share of doubters in the 2021 NFL draft arena. But he's a live thrower with a quick trigger and terrific accuracy.

8. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

(Last week: 9th)

McCall took over late in Thursday's win over Troy, hitting Jaivon Heiligh on a key 3rd-and-10 conversion prior to the game-sealing touchdown run. Although McCall actually left the game briefly after vomiting on the field, he came back to help finish off the victory, rushing for one score and throwing for two more. He also had a pick, just his second on the season, ending an 87-throw streak without an interception.

We still view McCall as more likely to enter the 2023 NFL draft picture, but he could be a surprise entrant in this coming cycle.

9. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State

(Last week: 7th)

Daniels surpassed the 1,000-yard career rushing mark in Saturday's loss to Washington State, becoming just the fourth Sun Devils QB to accomplish the feat. His team also was undone by four early turnovers that put them in a 28-0 hole it couldn't climb out of.

But Daniels also threw two INTs in the loss. The first was an against-the-body throw into traffic in the first quarter, and the second was an underthrown ball and a regrettable decision with the Sun Devils down 21 points late in the third.

His play has been up and down of late, although there's a very moldable NFL talent in Daniels, we suspect.

10. Tanner McKee, Stanford and Brennan Armstrong, Virginia

(Last week: 8th, n/a)

McKee struggled in the loss to Washington, throwing two picks and taking four sacks. His ascension has been a fun story to track in recent weeks, although it's clear that the first-year starter needs seasoning and probably shouldn't consider coming out in 2022.

Armstrong enters the top 10 after a wild game Saturday against BYU. The 66-49 Cougars win was like a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster — there was barely time to catch your breath watching it. Armstrong threw for four scores and ran for two more, as he continued to rack up silly stats this season. The lefty has some overconfidence in his game and perhaps a need for better pocket recognition, but there's something about him that's hard to take your eyes off of.

Is he Steve Young? Please, no. But Armstrong's unusual, freewheeling style and southpaw slinging certainly evoke some fun comparisons.

Just missed the cut

Jake Haener, Fresno State; Kedon Slovis, USC; Brock Purdy, Iowa State; Will Levis, Kentucky; Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma; JT Daniels, Georgia; Sam Hartman, Wake Forest; Skylar Thompson, Kansas State; Chase Brice, Appalachian State; Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M; Phil Jurkovec, Boston College (injured); Jack Coan, Notre Dame; Malik Cunningham, Louisville; Levi Lewis, Louisiana; Tyler Shough, Texas Tech; Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA; Emory Jones, Florida; Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland; D’Eriq King, Miami (injured); Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan; Sean Clifford, Penn State; Tanner Morgan, Minnesota; E.J. Perry, Brown; Dustin Crum, Kent State; Myles Brennan, LSU (injured); Chase Garbers, California

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