There is a quarterback prospect out west no one is talking about
The 2024 NFL Draft features a ridiculous number of high-level quarterback prospects. Caleb Williams has been the QB1 of the class since he was a freshman at Oklahoma, Drake Maye emerged as a potential star last season, and other quarterbacks like Michael Penix Jr., Shedeur Sanders, and Bo Nix are putting together their case to be first-round picks.
While those players are setting college football on fire and getting all the attention, there’s one PAC-12 quarterback who is coming off an incredible performance in week four and has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in college football: Washington State’s Cameron Ward.
Cameron Ward became a popular name in the college football world in 2021 after he had a tremendous season for Incarnate Word, an FCS school in Texas. That season, he was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the FCS, completing 65% of his passes and throwing for 4,648 yards, 47 touchdowns, and ten interceptions.
After two seasons at Incarnate Word, Ward transferred to Washington State in 2022. His first season with the Cougars was a bit of a rollercoaster. His counting stats were solid, as he completed 64.1% of his passes and threw for 3,228 yards, 23 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. However, he was inconsistent vs. conference opponents, and he didn’t have any elite performances, failing to record a PFF grade of 80+ in a single game that year.
Although his transition to a power five school was a bit rocky, Cameron Ward has grown a lot as a player, and now it appears that he might be an NFL-caliber quarterback. Let’s dive into Ward’s performance through the first four weeks of the 2023 season and see why he could potentially become a highly-regarded prospect in the upcoming draft.
Cameron Ward is one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football
Four weeks into the 2023 college football season, Cameron Ward has been ridiculously productive, completing 74.5% of his passes and throwing for 1,389 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just zero interceptions while leading one of the best offenses in the nation.
His counting stats are eye-popping, but when you consider some extra context, they become even more impressive. You might think that Ward has been beating up on low-level non-conference opponents, which would partially explain why his production is so good. That’s not the case, though. In fact, Washington State already has two wins over top 25 opponents.
In week two, Washington State faced off against Wisconsin, who was ranked 19th at the time. Ward was decent in this game, completing 63.6% of his passes and throwing for 208 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It was far from an elite performance as Ward took four sacks and only had one big-time throw, but he was good enough to lead the Cougars to a 31-22 victory over the Badgers, who currently rank 26th in points allowed per play.
While Ward had some trouble vs. Wisconsin, he was much better this past weekend vs. then 14th-ranked Oregon State. In his week four matchup vs. the Beavers, Ward exploded, completing 82.4% of his passes and throwing for 404 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He completely dominated Oregon State, recording a PFF grade of 92.4, as Washington State won 38-35.
Cameron Ward is playing at a much higher level than he did a year ago. Last season, he didn’t have a single game in which he had a PFF grade of 80+. He has done that twice in the last two games alone. Not only that, he has been one of the more efficient passers in college football, ranking 8th in PFF passing grade,10th in yards per pass attempt, and fifth in passer rating among power five quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts.
His passing productivity has been unreal, but he’s also been fairly productive as a runner, recording 160 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Last season, he had a career-best 341 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, but he is on pace to destroy those marks this year.
As you can see, Cameron Ward is on fire right now, and he is producing at an extremely high level as both a passer and rusher. Now, let’s dive deeper into his skillset and see why he has taken a step forward as a prospect.
Cameron Ward is a different version of himself than he was a year ago
Cameron Ward is a dual-threat quarterback who has developed into a highly skilled passer with a lot of traits that could translate to the next level.
The first thing that pops off the screen when you watch Ward is his throwing mechanics. He has a unique throwing motion that’s quick and looks like a baseball pitcher who delivers his pitches with a sidearm delivery. He does a good job rotating his hips when throwing the ball down the field, which appears to be an adjustment he made coming into this season.
One of the biggest improvements Ward has made this season is his accuracy. For the first three seasons of his college career, Ward peaked with an on-target throw rate of 75.3%. That isn’t terrible, but it’s not quite an elite mark. Through four games this season, he has an on-target throw rate of 82.1%. This might regress a little bit as the season moves along, but it’s great to see his accuracy get better, and getting more rotation in his hips when he throws might be the reason for this improvement.
Ward is also really good at pushing the ball down the field. He has nine big-time throws this season, and his ability to make throws outside the numbers with touch is extremely impressive. It’s why his PFF passing grade on deep throws has risen from 37.5 in 2022 to 92.4 in 2023.
While Ward’s ability to throw deep balls is awesome, he has also developed into a remarkably effective intermediate passer. Here is his passing chart from PFF.
This season, he has completed 14 of 16 passes 10+ yards down the field in between the numbers for 267 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions for a perfect passer rating of 158.3. He also has a PFF passing grade of 95.1 on all intermediate throws. In the NFL, it’s hard for quarterbacks to be great if they can’t consistently deliver the ball over the middle of the field. If Ward can continue to excel in this area, that would be huge for his projection at the next level.
The last thing that has been eye-catching about Ward’s performance so far this season is how he has handled pressure. Here is his production under different forms of pressure in 2022.
He struggled immensely under pressure and when blitzed last season, sporting a PFF grade below fifty in both categories. Prospects who struggle this badly in these situations have almost no hope of becoming a star in the NFL, so this was a major concern coming into this season. Luckily, Ward has gotten significantly better at handling pressure and blitzes.
It cannot be overstated how much better Cameron Ward is at handling pressure and blitzes than he was in the first three seasons of his collegiate career. He has gotten so much better in this area that you could argue it is now one of his strengths as a quarterback. This is a huge deal because the best quarterbacks in NFL right now, like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, are fantastic even when they are under pressure.
Cameron Ward is extremely talented, but he has some very big flaws
While Cameron Ward has a lot of great qualities and has grown a lot over the last year, he has some glaring flaws that will likely keep him from being a high draft pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
For starters, all of the signs of tremendous growth in his game have come in just four games. This is by far the peak of his collegiate career, so we’re projecting based on a very small sample of games. There’s no guarantee that his performance will continue for the rest of the year.
Also, he is not a great decision-maker, and he tends to put the ball in harm’s way too often. This season, he has a turnover-worthy play rate of 3%, which is a little high for a prospect. To be fair, this makes sense because Ward is an aggressive quarterback who likes to extend plays and make things happen outside of structure. However, you would like for him to be more protective of the ball.
Speaking of Ward’s desire to extend plays, this leads to another big issue of his: taking sacks. Like a lot of aggressive quarterbacks who like to play outside of the pocket, Ward struggles to avoid sacks. This is a problem because sacks can kill drives, and they lower a team’s chances of scoring on a drive when they occur. This season, Ward has been sacked nine times, and 20% of his pressures have turned into sacks. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re higher than you’d want, and many quarterback prospects with these issues tend to flame out in the NFL.
These issues can be overcome, but it will require Ward to be incredibly effective as a passer and generate big plays at a high rate to offset the risks he takes. Maybe he can do this in the NFL, but it’s a pretty big ask and not something you can be confident will happen.
Cameron Ward is the wildcard of the 2024 quarterback class
Cameron Ward’s journey from Incarnate Word to Washington State has been a wild ride, and it appears that he may have a chance to become a strong quarterback prospect in a class featuring many elite talents at his position.
While he has a lot of talent, there are still hurdles for him to overcome. He’ll have to work on his weaknesses while also continuing to play at a high level throughout the season. Time will tell where his future in football leads, but for now, he’s a rising star to keep your eye on moving forward.