NFL draft: How Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts has become a pro QB prospect

The moment Jalen Hurts seemingly was first written off as an NFL quarterback prospect was when the former Alabama QB overthrew Calvin Ridley in the first quarter of the national title game against Georgia during the 2017 college football season.

An easy throw. Pitch and catch. Hurts airmailed it.

We saw too much of this from Jalen Hurts at Alabama.

If Hurts could not complete a wide-open fade against a corner who fell down, the thinking went, well, that wasn’t going to cut it at the next level. That seemed to be backed by Alabama coach Nick Saban benching his former SEC Player of the Year whom he didn’t believe was the right man to rally the team — read: throw their way back — from a 13-0 halftime deficit.

Saban went to Tua Tagovailoa, who dropped back 26 times in the second half and overtime (Hurts attempted only eight passes in the first half) and led the Crimson Tide to a thrilling 26-23 win. Bama had a future top draft pick at QB locked in for at least the next two seasons. Hurts’ future seemed to be cast in stone: He was then branded a gifted run-first college quarterback who might as well switch positions in the NFL.

“So much about quarterback is processing,” one longtime NFL evaluator. “You saw him holding onto the ball, second-guessing, unsure of himself. ... It just left you to think that might not ever change.”

Everything has changed since then. Hurts stuck around at Alabama last season as Tagovailoa’s backup, and his final parting gift to the school was a heroic relief appearance for a banged-up Tagovailoa in the SEC title game. It was incredible poetry, leading a comeback against that same Georgia program he was benched against in that same Mercedes-Benz Stadium — a dramatic 35-28 victory that sent Bama to the College Football Playoff.

After the Crimson Tide lost the national title to Clemson, Bama fans knew they had to let go of the one they loved. Hurts was the first teammate to congratulate Tagovailoa after the 2017 championship and was the best soldier the teammates ever could have hoped for the next season, earning a spot in Bama fans’ hearts for his selflessness and leadership.

But Hurts had unfinished business elsewhere: He had committed to Oklahoma to complete his graduate degree in NFL quarterbacking 101. And now he stands as the NCAA’s current leader in passing efficiency. The move appears to be paying off quite well.

Stacking up well vs. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray

There might be no better NFL quarterback incubation tank right now than at Oklahoma with head coach Lincoln Riley. Developing his innovative spinoff of the Air Raid offense and preparing the NFL’s past two No. 1 overall draft selections — Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — has amplified talk that Riley could be an NFL head coach. If he keeps developing Hurts the way it appears he has, Riley might start getting blank checks in the mail.

If the former walk-on Mayfield and the diminutive Murray could become paradigm breakers as NFL prospects, why can’t Hurts do the same? Through five games this season at Oklahoma, Hurts’ production has matched — and even surpassed — his predecessors through the same points of their Heisman Trophy-winning seasons.

Jalen Hurts has even surpassed his two predecessors statistically through his first five games. (Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Three of Hurts’ four best passing yards games in his college career have come this season, including a career-high 415 yards on only 17 completions vs. Texas Tech. For good measure last week, he even hauled in a 21-yard catch on a trick play. It’s no wonder then that he has been ahead of the pack in Yahoo Sports’ Heisman Trophy watch the past few weeks, ahead of his former teammate, Tagovailoa.

And you could argue that Mayfield and Murray played with better talent around them on those Sooners teams, with a combined 11 offensive teammates drafted in the first four rounds since 2016. Mayfield and Murray also had more time in Riley’s system to develop — Mayfield had three years of starting and Murray backed up Mayfield for a year before taking over in 2018.

“Baker could really process and handle a lot. Kyler, obviously, his athleticism,” Riley told Fox’s Joel Klatt. “And with Jalen, it’s such a different scenario. I had each one of those other guys for multiple years. This will barely be a calendar year.

“If I compare them all, there [are] far more similarities [than differences].”

It’s obvious now: Hurts is a future NFL quarterback.

Some were surprised at placing him at the end of the first round in our initial 2020 mock draft last week. But what are people holding back on with Hurts?

We asked a scouting director point blank: Could Hurts be a first-rounder?

“I think he’s that Dak Prescott type,” he said. “I know where Dak went in the draft [Round 4]. I know he has a few games here or there where he’s not great. But looking back now … should he have been a first [rounder]? Well, yeah, I think so. ... I am not betting against it.”

Not Jalen Hurts’ first rodeo

Saturday’s test in the Red River Shootout is one many NFL evaluators will be watching. This will be Hurts’ biggest test at Oklahoma to date, too, although there might be bigger games down the road if the Sooners remain unbeaten.

The Longhorns rank 126th (out of 130) in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game (325.0). LSU’s Joe Burrow carved Texas up in the second week of the season, although the Longhorns tightened up the past three games with better coverage and pass rush. Still, it should be quite the proving ground as Hurts tries to match haymakers with Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, another talented running QB. And as Hurts reminded folks this week, this game will not be his first big rodeo in a hyped environment.

“I played in the Iron Bowl,” he said of his matchups against former rival Auburn. “I think I’ll be alright.”

There’s that chip — and that edge — Riley speaks about. Hurts has the competitive drive pro scouts drool over, plus the tools to be an NFL quarterback, whether you’re on board yet or not.

How Jalen Hurts has made major strides as a passer

Here’s what NFL evaluators are drilling down to find out: Does the success come mainly from Riley’s system, Oklahoma’s incredible offensive talent or the individual quarterback talents? The feeling here is it’s all three, to varying degrees.

Riley’s ability to develop quarterbacks can’t be overlooked, even those with obvious skills. All three possessed the ability to run and throw to differing degrees when they entered the program, but Riley has found ways to cater his passing game to their strengths in an unmistakable fashion. Having star backs and receivers and bulwark offensive lines year in and year out certainly doesn’t hurt. But with Hurts, he has tightened up his pocket footwork, throwing motion and improved his ability to patiently go through progressions. Some of that process actually started at Alabama in 2018 — even in a season when Hurts attempted only 70 passes.

“I think Jalen has certainly improved in the pocket,” Saban said last September. “There's no doubt about that. There's never been any question about his arm talent. It's always been making decisions, choices, second reads, that type of thing, which I think he's really made a lot of improvement on.”

Even in the smaller sample size as Tagovailoa’s understudy, Hurts’ performance last season reflected what Saban said: far fewer throwaways in 2018 (one in 84 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, or 1.2 percent of the time) than in his first two seasons (47 in 793 combined dropbacks, or 5.9 percent). That 2018 ratio has carried over at Oklahoma, with two throwaways in 132 dropbacks (1.5 percent).

Hurts also has improved throwing to his left, across his body. On passes that traveled 10 or more yards downfield to the left third of the field, Hurts completed only 15 of 52 passes (28.8 percent) in 2016 and 2017 combined. The past two seasons, his completion rate has been 11-for-18 (61.1 percent) to the left 10 yards or more.

Stepping up against pressure

His first two seasons at Bama, Hurts was poor as a passer vs. pressure. In 2016, he completed 26 of 83 passes (a mere 31.3 percent) for 286 yards (a 3.4-yard average) with four TDs and four interceptions, taking 20 sacks and scrambling 27 times. That earned Hurts a PFF grade in those situations of 43.1, which is considered poor.

The following season in 2017, Hurts cut down on his interceptions (zero) when facing pressure. But he saw his completion percentage go down (to an unsightly 29.3), his yards per attempt fell (3.2) and his rate of sacks (28 of them) went way up. Hurts’ PFF passing grade in those spots slipped even more, to 42.4.

In 2018 and 2019 combined, Hurts has shown marked improvement. His completion percentage under pressure the past two seasons is up to 53.1 (26-of-49), and his yards per attempt have skyrocketed to 10.5 — more than triple the rate he put up his first two seasons. Hurts also has a sterling 8-0 TD-INT ratio in these situations since the start of 2018 and has taken off to scramble a mere 12 times with only six throwaways.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has received great play from Jalen Hurts so far. (Getty Images)

Bottom line: Hurts is keeping plays alive longer, working through his progressions and pulling the trigger on tougher throws. He’s become more of a passer than a thrower.

“The clear difference to me is the tight-window throws,” one NFC college scouting director said. “He just wasn’t even trying those throws before, not much anyway. He was risk-averse, or maybe he didn’t trust his accuracy, but you saw him scrambling or taking sacks before he tried to thread those balls in there.”

How NFL scouts will view Jalen Hurts

Hurts’ personal and football character should rate extremely high. Scouts weigh Hurts’ work ethic, preparation and mental toughness as major plusses. Following in the footsteps of the previous two Heisman winners has been impressive enough, as well as sitting for a year at Alabama, and Hurts being named a team captain in August didn’t go unnoticed by NFL people.

Then there’s his drive as a player. After Hurts threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 70 yards and another score — the 485 yards of total offense are the eighth-most in school history — in the Sooners’ win over Texas Tech, he hit the gym.

“You have to work pretty damned hard to find someone [at Oklahoma] or Alabama to say a bad word about him,” said an area scout whose territory includes Oklahoma.

At 6-2 (or perhaps a shade under) and 219 pounds, Hurts has ample size. As a runner, Hurts isn’t a blazer like Murray, but he glides in the open field, makes people miss and has underrated acceleration.

As Saban noted, Hurts has the requisite arm talent. With the improved accuracy, Hurts also has displayed a cleaner, more compact throwing motion and better footwork. When throwing from the pocket, Hurts is keeping his legs underneath him better, generating more torque and power from his lower half, keeping his front leg loose and stepping better into throws.

Even with Hurts’ improved pocket feel and patience, there’s still room for development. He’ll still underthrow deep balls and throws outside the numbers. His placement and touch can be spotty. And he also has a nagging habit of running himself into pressure. Hurts will drift from the pocket — old habits can die hard — and fall away or off his platform when throwing on the move. He’s improved in that area but certainly can get more consistent.

He’s also running a scheme that’s incredibly favorable, with top-tier offensive talent in wideout CeeDee Lamb, tight end Grant Calcaterra and others. Hurts’ receivers have dropped only one pass all season, per PFF.

Hurts can take another step at the Senior Bowl

The Senior Bowl could be an excellent opportunity for Hurts to boost his stock. Mayfield committed to play at the event in 2018, and there was a wide swath of opinions on him coming in. Some viewed him as a first-round pick; others remained conflicted. After he showed out the way he did in Mobile, Alabama, Mayfield made his way into the hearts of many and became the top pick.

Other recent quarterbacks have enjoyed similar boosts with strong weeks of work down there in recent years: Daniel Jones, Josh Allen, Carson Wentz and more. Even with Allen and Jones occasionally misfiring on passes or enduring tough practices, scouts saw their skills up close and watched how they adapted to new surroundings.

Hurts also would be returning to his former state, and the media attention would be immense. NFL teams would be able to take notice of how well Hurts handles the spotlight in that setting. He’ll likely knock his interviews dead, and he can show how far he has come as a student of the game by quickly absorbing a Senior Bowl playbook and applying it to throws in practice against NFL-caliber talent.

Oh, and remember that first overthrow we showed you from a few years ago? He would be returning to the state of Alabama as a different passer. Here’s a throw from last week against Texas Tech.

We've seen more of this from Jalen Hurts in 2019.

Notice the difference? This is an example of why you safely can evaluate Hurts as an NFL quarterback in the making, an idea that was far-fetched not long ago.

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