- Nick Wagoner, ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The standard perception among NFL draft pundits is that this year's quarterback class is limited to the two stars at the top of the list: Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
Our group at Scouts, Inc. has the biggest drop off from No. 2 (Mariota) to No. 3 (Baylor's Bryce Petty) in terms of grades in any draft class over the past decade. Mariota has a grade of 93 and Petty checks in at 71.
And while that might be a good reason to believe the quarterback class doesn't offer much besides a whole lot of questions after that top duo, there's also some statistical history that would indicate there might be value to be found beyond Winston and Mariota. That could be good news for the St. Louis Rams, a team that has made clear its interest in quarterbacks but doesn't have the draft position to land either of the top two.
To wit, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Half of the quarterbacks taken in the second and third rounds between 2011 and 2014 are projected starters in 2015. It's a list that includes Seattle's Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and the Rams' Nick Foles, among others.
Since 2011, quarterbacks taken in the second or third rounds have combined for a better record, total QBR and more than double the playoff wins than first rounders taken in that span.
Each of the past three Super Bowls has featured a starting quarterback taken in the second or third round.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to any players in the draft, especially quarterbacks. The Rams find themselves in a position where they're very interested in quarterbacks but will have no shot at Winston or Mariota. Which means they could be in the market to take the next signal-caller available. In addition to the top two, they've worked out Petty, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Colorado State's Garrett Grayson and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the next tier of quarterbacks after Mariota and Winston (all statistical tidbits courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information):
Petty put up video game numbers for Baylor and possesses better-than-advertised athleticism and perhaps the strongest arm of the rest of the group. He led all FBS quarterbacks last season with 20 touchdown passes on throws 20 yards or longer, with 13 of those traveling 30 yards or longer in the air. Only four other FBS quarterbacks completed more than 13 throws of that distance all season. In the past two seasons, Petty was one of three quarterbacks in a Power 5 conference to complete at least 60 percent of his throws combined with an average air yards distance of 10-plus yards.
Of course, with Petty, the biggest question will always be whether he was merely a product of the Baylor system. He played only 48 snaps with five pass attempts from under center last season. It wasn't until the Senior Bowl in January that Petty actually had to get a play call, spit it out in a huddle then execute it, which could make for an extremely steep learning curve in the NFL.
Aside from Winston, one could argue Grayson is the most polished pocket passer in the draft. He threw 31 touchdowns and five interceptions from the pocket last season. He was second among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in yards per attempt (10.0), third in touchdown-interception differential and first in 20-plus-yard plays (60).
The question with Grayson is whether his success was a function of playing lower-level competition. Grayson faced only three opponents with a top-40 defensive efficiency (Boise State, Utah State and Utah) last season. He threw three touchdowns and three interceptions in those games and was sacked 13 times of the 26 he had all season in those contests. In the 10 other games, he had 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions.
Hundley probably isn't far behind Mariota when it comes to speed, athleticism and running ability. He had 510 scrambling yards on third down alone in 2014 and escaped pressure 18 times for gains of at least 10 yards. From 2012-2014, only Johnny Manziel exceeded that production on the ground.
On the other side of that, Hundley leaned on his escapability a little too much. He took 125 sacks in his career for the Bruins, 26 more than any other FBS quarterback during that time. He was sacked 75 times when facing four or fewer rushers, most among Power 5 conference quarterbacks since the start of 2012.
In terms of pure look, perhaps no quarterback looks the part more than Mannion, who uses that size to his advantage and stands firm in the pocket to excel against the blitz. Since the start of 2013, Mannion threw 27 of his 52 touchdown passes when facing five-plus pass-rushers. Only Winston had more in that time.
But Mannion's production dipped in 2014 after watching as Brandin Cooks took his talent to the NFL. Mannion's total QBR dropped by 26.1 points from his junior to senior seasons, the second-largest decrease among FBS quarterbacks.
Mannion completed 74.1 percent of his passes with an average of 10.6 yards per attempt when targeting Cooks in his career. Without Cooks, those numbers dropped to a 62.9 percent completion rate with an average of 6.9 yards per attempt to all other wideouts.
The standard perception among NFL draft pundits is that this year's quarterback class is limited to the two stars at the top of the list.