Since 2013, the ACC has produced six first-round quarterbacks while the other four Power Five Conferences have a combined total of seven. While the last two seasons have produced the likes of Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Mitchell Trubisky, there isn’t a prospect near that caliber after examining the crop entering the season.
Who are the top passers in the ACC entering the season? Let’s examine my top five.
1. Ryan Finley, Senior, North Carolina State (6’4, 212)
Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Finley returns to campus as the Wolfpack starting quarterback for a third time. Coming off a season where he completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,514 yards with 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions, a prolific season is expected given his experience and talented group of receivers.
The primary component of Finley’s game that stands out when studying him is how efficient he is while still working the football vertically down the field and not putting his team in bad situations. In 881 career attempts at NC State, Finley has thrown just 14 interceptions. In 2017, Finley had a streak of 339 throws without an interceptions.
Finley is a poised pocket passer that does well to manipulate the pocket to avoid pressure and find throwing windows. He throws a catchable football with good touch and understanding of where space and leverage can be found for his targets. He excels at rhythm passes but has success making spot throws down the field.
While Finley’s efficiency and mental processing skills are strengths, his physical traits are modest. He has some success scrambling but lacks the athletic ability to be a true dual-threat passer. He also leaves a lot to be desired in terms of arm strength and the ability to drive the football with velocity to his targets. We’ve seen the NFL discriminate against those types of passers in recent years and Finley fits the description.
As a senior, showcasing a mastery of the offense and command of the huddle while building off his success in 2017 is what Finley needs to showcase in his final season given the unlikelihood that his physical traits develop.
2. Kelly Bryant, Senior, Clemson (6’3, 220)
Stepping in to replace Tigers legend Deshaun Watson is no easy task, but Bryant performed admirably in his first season as a starter where he completed 65.8 percent of his passes while generating nearly 3,500 yards of offense (rushing and passing) with 24 total touchdowns. Clemson boasted a 12-2 record and won the ACC Championship Game before falling to Alabama in the College Football Playoffs.
Not a one-read passer, Bryant demonstrates the ability to work his progressions and deliver throws with anticipation. He showcases a willingness to test man coverage and give his targets a chance to make plays on the ball where they have leverage. He excels as a rhythm passer when operating quick game. He will also hang tough in the pocket, allowing routes to develop and deliver strikes under duress. Rounding out his strengths as a player is how effective he is as a runner. His skill set demands designed runs.
While Bryant has general accuracy as a passer, his ball placement becomes more erratic the further down the field the throw is. His throwing motion is elongated and he isn’t as effective throwing on the run as expected given his physical traits. Bryant is guilty of not recognizing coverage rotations and his field vision is modest. And when defenses key in on taking his ability to win as a runner and force him to win from the pocket, his ability to move the offense steeply declines.
Bryant should take considerable strides in year two as a starter but has the makeup of a developmental prospects as opposed to a coveted high pick.
3. Daniel Jones, Junior, Duke (6’5, 220)
Renown for his work with Peyton and Eli Manning, Jones may be the most physically gifted quarterback that Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has ever worked with. A big-bodied and strong-armed passer, Jones is one of just three returning power five quarterbacks to amass 2,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. Complementing his live arm is the ability to pick up yards with his legs as a runner.
Jones’ ability to win as a runner, combined with Duke’s quick passing game has suited his skill set well. Jones has the physical ability desired in an NFL quarterback.
Among the concerning elements of Jones’ film is the inconsistencies exhibited outside of quick game. When Jones is tasked with non-schemed reads where he is challenged to survey coverage, make the right decision and deliver and accurate throw the results can be underwhelming. Jones does not showcase the ability to throw with anticipation and his ball placement needs to be more precise. And when Jones is forced to speed up his process, find a quick platform and make throws under duress he is noticeably uncomfortable.
It was disappointing to not see more growth from Jones in year one to year two as a starter. In 23 more passing attempts as a sophomore, Jones’ completion percentage dipped from 62.8 percent to 56.7 percent while throwing two less touchdowns and three more interceptions. His passing yards per game fell from 236 to 207.
Surrounded by a veteran group of receivers, Jones needs to take a major step forward in year three as Duke’s starter.
4. Deondre Francois, Junior, Florida State (6’1, 204)
The ACC Rookie of the Year in 2016, Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener against Alabama in 2017. Battling Justin Blackmon for the starting job in Willie Taggart’s first season as head coach in Tallahassee, Francois is no lock to be the Noles starter.
What stood out regarding Francois in 2016 was his toughness. Constantly harassed by opposing defenses, Francois faced persistent pressure on a weekly basis. He hung tough in the pocket and kept dealing despite taking routine shots. Now some of those shots are squarely on Francois’ shoulders. While Florida State has struggled in recent years to pass protect, Francois often missed unaccounted for blitzers or held onto the football for too long.
While Francois is guilty of not regularly feeling pressure, he did show a strong ability to diagnose coverage and attack secondaries where they are most vulnerable. A good athlete, Francois has the ability to extend plays and hit throws on the move. Despite his dual threat capability, Francois is a thrower first and does well to keep his eyes down the field. In fact, Francois would benefit from taking off more to keep defenses honest.
Where Francois needs to also demonstrate growth is in terms of ball placement. His accuracy is inconsistent and he has not shown the ability to hit touch throws. His decision making can also stand to improve as he too often is willing to test double coverage and often leads his targets into coverage more so than he does space.
Entering his junior season, Francois’ plate is full as he is finalizing his rehab, learning a new offense and battling for his job.
5. Eric Dungey, Senior, Syracuse (6’3, 202)
Syracuse’s all-time leader in 300-yard passing games and passing yards per game (248.9), producing when on the field has never been an issue for Dungey. Missing parts of the last three seasons on account injuries, staying on the field has been problematic.
Thriving in Dino Babers’ spread offense that is predicated on spacing, Dungey has done well as a distributor that can also make plays with his feet. Whether it’s a quick hitter or vertical shot, Dungey has a good feel for the spacing and timing of the offense and features a quick trigger.
Syracuse’s offense is lacking in terms of NFL concepts and Dungey operates in a quarterback-friendly system.
When Dungey is tasked with working his progressions and making throws with anticipation, the results are inconsistent. A good portion of Dungey’s production comes as a result of his ability to create with his legs, keeping plays alive and either taking off as a runner or hitting a target that breaks free.
Overall, Dungey has modest accuracy which he gets away with due to the space created for him by passing game concepts. He does flash the ability to hit touch throws into space. His arm strength is ordinary and he doesn’t drive the football to deeper windows with overly impressive velocity.
If Dungey can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe he can’t put together a productive season as a senior. Avoiding injuries and showcasing a more translatable skill set is critical for Dungey to get a serious look for an NFL opportunity.
Others to keep an eye on:
Malik Rosier, Miami
Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech