Top quarterback prospects should consider the depth chart when signing

Earlier this week, Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson announced his decision to leave for another school. Quarterback transfers are no rarity these days as Florida fans well know, but Johnson was notable because he’s the latest in a rash of departures by former 5-star recruits.

As CBSSports.com’s Barton Simmons broke down, five of the eight quarterbacks to get a 5-star rating in the 247Sports Consensus across 2015-17 have transferred.

Two of them left because of dysfunction. Shea Patterson fled the NCAA sanctions at Ole Miss, while Kyler Murray had conflicts with Kevin Sumlin and his staff. It’s entirely coincidence that those happened around the same time as each other.

Two others left because they were beaten out by other highly rated quarterbacks. Jacob Eason’s injury opened the door for near 5-star prospect Jake Fromm to take his job, while Johnson saw the writing on the wall after 2018’s top-rated quarterback Trevor Lawrence impressed everyone in Clemson’s spring practice this year.

Those cases are part of a trend that’s been growing in recent years: highly touted quarterbacks signing at schools that already have other highly touted quarterbacks on the roster. Fromm and Lawrence signed at programs that already had a 5-star, and now Fromm has a 5-star breathing down his neck in Justin Fields.

Another of the 5-stars from the 2015-17 span, Tua Tagovailoa, signed with Alabama despite Jalen Hurts having just taken the Crimson Tide to the national title game as a true freshman. Tagovailoa nearly became part of this trend too. At a speech he gave recently at a school in Hawaii, he revealed that he would’ve transferred had he not played in the second half of the national championship game.

Taking a step back, I looked at where the top ten Consensus quarterbacks signed each year from 2013 to 2018. There are definitely some programs that have managed to load up on top quarterback prospects and seen transfers as a result.

Georgia signed five top ten QBs during that time, two of which transferred. Alabama, Stanford, and USC signed four each; the Cardinal had one transfer, the Trojans two, and the Crimson Tide three. Ohio State also signed three, and while none has transferred yet, it was enough to push out 2015’s No. 19 QB prospect Joe Burrow.

It’s possible to see more likely transfers coming. Michigan has a top ten signee each from 2016 and 2017 now battling with Patterson, and it’s doubtful that both of those signees will wait things out. Washington signed the Nos. 10 and 11 quarterbacks in 2018 and has the No. 4 guy in 2019 committed; there’s very little chance all three of those will finish their careers as Huskies. And, of course, something has to give between Fromm and Fields up in Athens, as well as between Hurts, Tagovailoa, and promising 2017 4-star signee Mac Jones in Tuscaloosa.

While it’s admirable that top high school quarterbacks appear to be increasingly less concerned with competition on college rosters, it doesn’t always work out for the newer guys like it did for Fromm, Tagovailoa, and Lawrence. The fifth 5-star quarterback transfer from the 2015-17 span is proof of that: Blake Barnett.

Barnett signed with Alabama in 2015 into a crowded unit. Jake Coker was on his last year of eligibility, but the No. 4 guy from 2013 Cooper Bateman and No. 7 guy from 2014 David Cornwell were already there. With such a logjam of players fighting over practice reps in the battle to replace Coker, the job in 2016 ended up going to the least polished passer of the group whose running ability differentiated himself: the No. 12 QB prospect of 2016, Jalen Hurts. Barnett transferred to a community college in late September of 2016, a move that allowed him to be eligible in 2017 at a new FBS school.

Not one to back down from a challenge, Barnett transferred to Arizona State where he’d contend with 2016 starter Manny Wilkins. Wilkins held him off, and now Barnett is headed to USF as a graduate transfer.

The fact is, if a high school quarterback wants to play in the NFL, he probably shouldn’t sign with a school that has another top-rated quarterback already on the roster.

Projecting quarterback success in the NFL is notoriously difficult. Many smart people have made many models to try to do it, and only two things are consistent across basically all of them: a quarterback must have a career completion percentage above a certain threshold usually near 60%, and total career starts positively correlates with NFL success.

The latter is the most important one here. If a player wants to stay in the league — not just be drafted and make it, but have a long career — one of the most important factors is simply playing a lot of games in college. Attention from the quarterbacks coach as a backup is no substitute for the attention the starter gets. Practice reps with the scout team or 2s is no substitute for practice reps with the 1s. Absolutely nothing is a substitute for playing against live defenses in meaningful snaps.

If a high school quarterback really has aspirations of playing in the NFL, he should look for a situation that will allow him to start no later than his second year. It should be a place with either no established quarterback or a senior starter with no heir apparent. It should also be a place with at least a system that is pro compatible and preferably with a coach who has put quarterbacks in the NFL before.

By this logic, Emory Jones did it exactly right by flipping from Ohio State to Florida. OSU this spring had a battle of 4-star quarterbacks in Dwayne Haskins and Burrow with 2017’s No. 5 prospect Tate Martell right behind them. Maybe Jones would eventually beat out fellow top ten prospects Haskins and Martell, but the risk of him being a backup in a season in which he could be starting for another team was fairly high.

Florida, meanwhile, had three quarterbacks including a former top ten prospect in Feleipe Franks, but none of them fit the system as well as Jones does. Only Franks among the three had even played, and he did not come close to locking down the job. Jones’s chances of starting by his second year in Gainesville are considerably higher, and racking up as many starts as possible counts a lot towards a player’s NFL prospects. Plus, Dan Mullen has developed multiple NFL starters, so that helps his chances too.

Of course, there are a ton of factors as to why a recruit might sign with a school. Players generally like to be close to home, and they decide heavily based on how well they like the coaches. They may also choose based on where a close friend is going to play, and fit in the system is always important.

At many positions, a player doesn’t really have to worry about the depth chart because there tend to be multiple of them on the field at a given time or at least they rotate somewhat frequently. Quarterback is unique in that only one ever plays at a time and platooning at the position is rare.

Top high school quarterbacks with NFL dreams should take the depth chart into consideration and should look for a place where they can play early. Maybe they could end up the next Fromm or Tua, but they could end up the next Blake Barnett too. Racking up as many games played as possible is the name of the game when it comes to making the pros, and quarterbacks who are serious about playing in the NFL should have that in mind when deciding where to sign.