Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts should end up as a 2020 NFL draft pick by the time next April rolls around, but will he emerge as an early-round prospect during the 2019 college football season?
The quarterback expected to be taken with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, stole Hurts’ Crimson Tide starting job out from under him in a championship game.
Now, Hurts has to flip that pressure into an excellent final season of college football in the Big 12 and prove his name belongs with the three quarterbacks who hold a monopoly on the top overall selection. It wasn’t easy for Mayfield or Murray to climb to the top of the NFL Draft, but it’ll likely be even harder for scouts to change their collective mind on Hurts.
Early in Hurts’ time at Alabama, most scouts projected he would need to change positions to make it in the NFL, mostly for good reason. Hurts has shown problems checking down, he breaks clean pockets, and has accuracy issues thanks to an elongated release and poor decision making.
“To say he’s a pro prospect right now, I’d say no,” Mel Kiper Jr. said during a conference call in January 2018. “I don’t think — as a quarterback — I wouldn’t say he was an NFL quarterback prospect. But we’ll see if he could maybe make a change to another position down the road.”
We’re now down that road. Hurts, albeit against inferior competition late in blowouts, showed improvement under QB coach Dan Enos in his final snaps with the Crimson Tide. He made better reads, tightened his release, and seemed more willing and comfortable to stay in the pocket.
Hurts raised his completion percentage from the low 60s to 72.9%. Again, late against weak competition.
However, the defenses he’ll play in the Big 12 won’t pose much of a threat and keeping a 70% completion rate will help his draft stock a great deal. For comparison, Murray held 69% while Mayfield held 70%.
Hurts, to overcome the doubters and make his claim as an early pick, will need to have similar or better numbers. The yards, touchdowns, and highlight plays will come as a result.
The biggest thing Hurts already has going for him is his poise and leadership qualities. That ridiculous chip on his shoulder helps quite a bit too. He’ll likely be drafted on these traits alone; lesser quarterbacks are every year. His mobility helps his case as well, making up for his lack of polish as a passer in the same vein as Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick.
Hurts’ leadership, composure, and clutch play earn him some brownie points with coaches, including his current head coach, Lincoln Riley.
Before there was even thought of Hurts leading the Sooners for Riley, the up-and-coming coach praised Hurts for the way he handled his benching at Alabama, saying “we need more guys like him” during the College Football Playoff conference in December.
Not everyone believes the Sooners’ potent offense in the Big 12 will be enough for Hurts to help his name on draft boards. He doesn’t crack Rotoworld’s top 15 2020 QB prospects. Matt Miller told Tide 102.9 in February (timestamp 8:21) if Nick Saban’s staff couldn’t find the NFL passer in Hurts, Riley likely won’t either.
“Watching Jalen for two years, almost three years, I just never saw the accuracy, the natural accuracy of a passer. With Baker you can go back and watch him at [Texas] Tech and see the accuracy. For Kyler he was always this explosive athlete… I don’t see him being enough of a passer to be a true NFL quarterback prospect. I hope I’m wrong…”
Hurts’ focus should be improving his comfort in the pocket, tightening his release and learning to read defenses. Those traits improve a passer’s accuracy naturally. He gave a glimpse of all those traits in his final season at Alabama as well as his Spring debut with Oklahoma.
A team should feel comfortable to take at the very least a third-round flyer on Hurts right now before we see his true progression under Riley’s system. He’s proven he’s coachable with Dan Enos. He’s a proven winner.
To be fair to Hurts’ ability and situation, nobody expected Mayfield and Murray to be No. 1 overall picks until a few weeks from their respective drafts. Mayfield took down a class just as strong. It’s entirely possible, however unlikely.