Analysis: Is Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer worth a first round gamble?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Drafting a quarterback ultimately amounts to an educated guess.

That may be a thorny pill for the draftniks and amateur scouts of the world to swallow, but consider the recent past. If we excuse the previous two NFL Drafts, for which the jury is still undeniably out, 21 quarterbacks were selected in the first round from 2007 to 2014.

Of those 21 quarterbacks, five currently fit the “franchise quarterback” bill: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (drafted third in 2008), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (18th in 2008, and let’s please sidestep the, ‘Is Flacco really elite?’ argument), Detroit’s Matt Stafford (first in 2009), Carolina’s Cam Newton (first in 2011) and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (first in 2012).

Six of the 21 quarterbacks, however, are no longer in the NFL.

So, if your franchise drafted a quarterback in the last decade, there’s a better chance he’s working a different job than starring on your favorite team.

The point is, even for a quarterback deemed a “sure thing,” drafting one in the first round is a gamble.

And Notre Dame junior DeShone Kizer, who will participate in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week, is far from a “sure thing.”

“He’s the prototype quarterback in the NFL,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said on Monday. “He’s that 6-5, 235-240-pound quarterback. He’s got a big arm. He’s got a quick release. He’s athletic. He’s smart. He’s got enough athletic ability to move around the pocket. I love his physical traits, and I think he’ll work hard.”

OK, so what’s the problem? In his nearly two full seasons as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame, the Toledo, Ohio, native completed 60.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 5,809 yards and 47 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. He added 992 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns, a willing and violent runner.

Scouts and coaches see the upside, sure, but they also see a guy that had a 12-11 record as a starter. They see someone who was briefly pulled in the third quarter of a home loss to Stanford. They see those undeniably troubling Irish collapses, and seven agonizing one-score defeats in 2016.

In fact, Kizer — who has not announced whether he will throw at the NFL Combine this week — completed 62 of 89 passes (69.7 percent) for 954 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception in the first quarter of games last fall. That looks like a top-10 pick.

In the fourth quarter, however, the Toledo, Ohio, native managed to complete just 40 of 83 passes (48.2 percent) for 477 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.

“What I don’t like is how his game fell apart in the fourth quarter of a lot of games,” Mayock said. “It depends on if you like him or you don’t. If you like him, you think his game fell apart because he tried to do too much this year in the fourth quarter. Or, if you don’t like him, you’ll say, ‘It’s never going to happen.’

“I felt like his pocket mechanics fell apart, he tried to do too much. The reason I have him as the No. 1 quarterback (in the 2017 draft) is that I think he’s got the highest ceiling of any of the quarterbacks. But I don’t think he’s ready to play yet.”

Most draft analysts agree, but that doesn’t mean a team won’t take him. Mayock, despite his concerns, ranks Kizer as the NFL Draft’s No. 1 quarterback – ahead of national champion Deshaun Watson (Clemson) and first-year phenom Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina). CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler projects Kizer to the Chicago Bears with the No. 3 overall pick, while NFL.com’s Chad Reuter has Kizer landing with the Arizona Cardinals at No. 13.

Only time will tell if Kizer is worthy of his lofty ranking. But he’s not the only player representing Notre Dame at the NFL Combine with significant talent and pressing concerns.

“It’s an interesting conversation with (defensive linemen Jarron) Jones and (Isaac) Rochell,” Mayock said. “If Jones played every week like he did against Miami, he would be in a completely different conversation than the reality he faces now. He was dominant against Miami. He showed length and power and quickness – everything. He dominated that game, but you don’t see the consistency of his effort and his production, which is going to hurt him.

“Then people look at Isaac Rochell and they don’t see quite as much talent, but they see a guy that comes to work every day.”

A 6-foot-6, 315-pound nose guard, Jones recorded six of his 11 tackles for loss last season in the 30-27 victory over Miami on Oct. 29. After missing the entire 2015 regular season with a torn MCL, the Rochester, NY, native returned to post 45 tackles, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble in his fifth fall in South Bend.

For Rochell, on the other hand, consistency was never an issue. The 6-4, 290-pound defensive end wrapped up his four-year Irish career with 167 tackles and 22 tackles for loss.

Mayock expects both players to hear their names called on the third day of the NFL Draft, somewhere in the third, fourth or fifth rounds.

The same probably can’t be said about linebacker James Onwualu or running back Tarean Folston, neither of whom were invited to participate in the NFL Combine.

“I really like Onwualu,” Mayock said. “He doesn’t have as much talent as maybe you want, but you want to talk about a hard-working, tough kid. He’s assignment sound. He knows what he’s doing. Onwualu is going to be late draftable or a free agent, but he’s going to play special teams and he’s not going to make any mistakes mentally.”

That was certainly the case last season, as the 6-1, 232-pound linebacker and defensive captain closed his Irish career with personal bests in tackles (75) and tackles for loss (11.5)

Folston – who rebounded from a torn ACL to run for just 334 yards and two touchdowns, largely in sophomore Josh Adams’ shadow – is more of an anomaly.

“Tarean Folston is kind of interesting to me,” Mayock said of the 5-10, 214-pound senior. “I don’t think he’s going to get drafted, but when he first got to Notre Dame I thought he had some natural run ability. I thought he had a good feel for the run game. In his workouts, he needs to run well and catch the football even better.”

At Notre Dame’s pro day this spring, Kizer will be the one throwing Folston the football. Scouts, head coaches and general managers will be watching. But where will Kizer be taken?

That’s anybody’s guess.

"You’re looking at about a 20 percent chance of drafting a franchise quarterback with a first round pick," Mayock conceded. "My message to NFL teams would be, ‘You’ve got to keep trying. You’ve got to keep swinging.’”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) at quarterback during the Notre Dame-NC State NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Below are the quarterbacks who were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft from 2007 to 2014.

2007

JaMarcus Russell (1)*

Brady Quinn (22)*

2008

Matt Ryan (3)

Joe Flacco (18)

2009

Matt Stafford (1)

Mark Sanchez (5)

Josh Freeman (17)*

2010

Sam Bradford (1)

Tim Tebow (25)*

2011

Cam Newton (1)

Jake Locker (8)*

Blaine Gabbert (10)

Christian Ponder (12)

2012

Andrew Luck (1)

Robert Griffin III (2)

Ryan Tannehill (8)

Brandon Weeden (22)

2013

EJ Manuel (16)

2014

Blake Bortles (3)

Johnny Manziel (22)*

Teddy Bridgewater (32)

*No longer in NFL