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Does Northwestern QB Kain Colter have a future in the NFL?

Every year, the NFL draft reminds us about the chasm between “good college player” and “good NFL prospect.” In a venn diagram of draft eligible players, the “good college player and good NFL prospect” overlap is substantial, but not comprehensive. There are some college players whose skill sets or physical attributes are not suited for the NFL. Sometimes players need their roles tweaked, their positions switched, to latch on with a team, while others never make it past their school’s own pro-day.

Reaching the NFL is the endgame for some college football players – others prefer to move on to stable office jobs, or coaching, or something else. Count Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter as one of the former. He relayed his NFL aspirations at Big Ten media days, and offered medical school as a possible fallback plan. Colter has an entire season to play before he needs to start worrying about pre-draft workouts and 40 times and team interviews, but recent conversations with NFL scouts at Northwestern’s preseason camp piqued my interest, so I thought I’d explore the topic a little further.

Does Colter belong in the NFL? And if so, what position would he play?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. Everyone I’ve spoken to believes Colter has a future in the NFL. They see a dynamic, heady, multi-skilled player who can be used in a lot of different ways to elevate an offense. NFLdraftscout.com ranks Colter 17th out of 140 quarterbacks in the 2014 class; here are a few excerpts from their scouting report:

“The Wildcats projected starting quarterback, Colter has also seen time at wide receiver and running back over his career at Northwestern and is more of an “Offensive Weapon” type of prospect.” 

[…]

“He has admitted in the past that he likely won't be a full-time quarterback at the next level, but is also willing to do whatever it takes to find the field in the NFL.”

[…] 

“Colter has terrific athleticism with a natural feel as a ballcarrier to find running lanes and slip through the grasp of defenders. Coach Pat Fitzgerald calls him the “most dynamic young man” in the Big Ten due to his versatile skill-set and ability to create and pick up positive yardage, anyway possible. Colter is expected to share the quarterback duties again in 2013, but scouts will certainly pay attention to what he does when he's not lined up under center and that versatility could make him a draftable prospect on some draft boards.”

In case it wasn’t clear already, Colter – barring miraculous improvement in his throwing ability – probably won’t play quarterback in the NFL. More likely, he will be used as a multi-purpose threat in various offensive packages; his role will be anything but conventional. The best comparison seems to be former Michigan quarterback and current Jacksonville Jaguar Denard Robinson, who – curiously enough – is listed on the depth chart with the very “OW” (or offensive weapon) designation used to describe Colter in the above scouting report.

The Jaguars have lined up Robinson at a few different positions and formations during training camp, and could use him at receiver, running back, on special teams and even in special “Wildcat” or spread option sets. Robinson has struggled with ball security and the nuances of route running, and the fundamental receiver discipline of catching passes has not come as naturally to him as many expected, given his immense athletic tools.

That’s where Colter is different. Northwestern’s senior may not be as fast as Robinson, but he has proven himself a capable pass-catcher; in three seasons as a part-time wideout, Colter recorded 60 receptions for 667 yards. He may also be a better passer than Robinson, though it’s probably best to wait until after this season to assess his throwing ability. Colter has looked better throwing the ball in training camp than he did at any point last season, and his receiving instincts certainly didn’t disappear over the span of one offseason. No definitive judgments will be made until the end of the season, but if Colter is able to flash the versatility he’s shown over the first three years of his career, he should be able to carve out a niche on some team, in some offense, at the next level.

Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke recently compared Colter and Robinson in his NFL 2014 Big Ten Draft primer:

"How much fun is this guy to watch? The 6-0 Colter served as Northwestern’s starting QB last season but actually ran the ball more times than he threw it (170 attempts to 149), then mixed in 16 catches for good measure. He racked up 43 receptions in 2011, to go along with 82 passes and 135 rushes, and Northwestern continues to utilize him all over the field, from QB to running back to wide receiver.

"He may have a hard time getting to the NFL as a quarterback, which makes his experience elsewhere extremely valuable. Whereas Denard Robinson entered the draft extremely raw as a pass-catcher and just learning how to play running back, Colter has shown he can do both. Colter is an electrifying athlete, one who makes big plays over and over again, no matter where he’s lined up."

Of all the comments I have heard or read about Colter from NFL talent evaluators, there seems to be one common critique: that Colter might be too small to last in the league. That’s not an unfair criticism – 6-foot, 195-pounds is small by modern quarterback standards – but if we can all agree on the fact Colter won’t be playing much (if at all) quarterback at the next level, his size shouldn’t be too much of an issue. After all – and yeah, I know, totally different players – the Saint Louis Rams just burnt their first round pick (8th overall) on West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin, generously listed at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds. Colter, obviously, is much bigger than that.

Between now and next April, Colter will be evaluated weekly by NFL talent evaluators, and his stock will wax and wane with his performance. This is a preseason assessment. His outlook could be completely different after the season.