In the past 25 NFL Drafts, just two 1st round quarterbacks have hailed from a now-FCS school: Joe Flacco (Delaware) and Steven McNair (Alcorn State). It’s hard enough for major college football teams to find elite quarterback play, and seeing truly “elite, franchise quarterback” talents slip past 100+ FBS teams is an obvious rarity.
Jeff Mathews of Cornell will hope to make the rare jump from the Ivy League to the Pro League, and has the tools to be a franchise quarterback.. Although it’s 11 months until the 1st round of the NFL Draft arrives, there’s certainly the chance that the 2014 draft class could be unique the way the 1995 and 2008 were: With a small school quarterback getting taken surprisingly high.
Small School, Big Arm
Hailing from Cornell, Mathews will certainly face the level of competition question mark as he progresses through his senior season and the rest of the draft process. He lost six games last year, and his pure statistical numbers against even the lesser of the Ivy League programs is concerning. It’s not going to be an easy sell for an NFL team to invest even a Top 100 pick in a quarterback who can’t win at a lower level, nonetheless not put together a winning season.
However, it’s Mathews’s upside and arm talent that should carry the most weight in terms of his team 2013 success and his NFL Draft value. With a quick, three-quarters release, Mathews release consistently is able to generate high velocity, partially in thanks to his footwork and driving ability. His calm, relaxed, high velocity mechanics allow him to be patient against zone coverage and drive the ball into openings, as well as exploit defenses vertically that give him the opportunity.
One of the bigger concerns with Mathews, however, is his need to potentially get a little stronger and thicker in his lower half. His willingness and efficiency in moving around and outside the pocket is a plus (though he could stand to improve his ability to step up in the pocket), but he doesn’t have the necessary lower body strength to shed tacklers the way a similar-talent quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to in college. If he’s able to shake rushers the way Big Ben flashed in college and eventually mastered in the pros, his lack of open-field speed will be rendered a non-weakness.
Elite Mental Makeup
As an Ivy League student and football player, it’s likely assumed that Mathews has very high IQ. And while assuming things of that nature isn’t always correct, you’d be more than right to think that Mathews possesses the necessary mental ability to play the quarterback position.
On the field, he has ample control of the offense, audible autonomy, and has an elite level of route concepts and defensive schematic “tells”. He not only has the ability to utilize a hot route against an unsuspecting defense, but also can change a half-field route concept to give him a new, more leveraged play to attack a defense. He uses his eyes to switch fields with poise, and moves safeties and linebackers subtly in both zone and Cover One man defenses.
Off the field, Ivy League coaches rave about his mental capacity and the little details of the game he’s flashed brilliance on. In speaking with Cornell defensive coaches and other Ivy League defensive coaches, Mathews wows them on a consistent basis with his pre-snap vision, football IQ and savvy, and room to improve even further in his senior season.
Ranks Among Senior Quarterbacks
Mathews still has plenty to improve upon before he deserves to be considered as Top 40 NFL Draft pick. Aside from bulking up to evade tacklers easier, he’ll need to step up in the pocket with more comfort, maintain his pocket mechanics when forced on the move, improve upon his vertical bucket throws, not “pat” the ball as much after he passes his first read, and be a more consistent decision maker post-snap.
However, it’s rare to find a combination of mental capacity, arm strength, poise, confidence, velocity control among the levels, and a calm, controlled release for a quarterback prospect, no matter what level he’s at. Mathews as a top quarterback prospect may not be an easy sell to start, but simply seeing the flashes in his 2012 Yale game and projecting what he’s likely to do in 2013, and it’s not farfetched to bank on Mathews emerging as one of college football’s top quarterbacks.
As of the pre-season, Mathews is in the discussion for the top senior quarterback, battling with Zach Mettenberger, Tajh Boyd, and Aaron Murray for us at Optimum scouting. If he can take the next step as a passer both mentally and mechanically, expect him to remain in that company all of the 2013 season and through the 2014 NFL Draft circuit.
Side Note: The Ivy League boasted some impressive talent last year in the 2013 NFL Draft, and this year continues on that trend. While watching the Ivy League for Mathews, check out seniors Princeton's DT Caraun Reid and Harvard's DT Nnamdi Obukweli.