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NFL Draft: Could Clayton Thorson become a top quarterback prospect in 2018?

Could Thorson leave early? It’s certainly possible.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL draft just ended, which saw Northwestern’s Anthony Walker Jr. and Ifeadi Odenigbo selected in the 5th and 7th rounds, respectively. Walker was the first Wildcat in 20 years to declare early for the NFL Draft, and next year, quarterback Clayton Thorson could very well do the same.

If Thorson has a good year, is set to graduate in four years (like Walker Jr.), and wants to pursue a career in the NFL, he would likely forgo his redshirt senior year at Northwestern. There will always be a market for tall, athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Teams are still quite bad at evaluating quarterback talent, but that leaves the door open for fresh faces like Thorson to make an impact.

The 2017 Draft should shed some light on Thorson’s NFL hopes next year. Let’s take a look at all ten of the quarterbacks selected this year compared to Thorson:

Statistical comparison

Quarterback Round (pick overall) Height Weight Full years as starter Completion % Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Quarterback Round (pick overall) Height Weight Full years as starter Completion % Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Mitchell Trubisky 1st round (2) 6'2" 222 pounds 1 68.2 3748 30 6 308 5
Patrick Mahomes 1st round (10) 6'2" 225 pounds 2 65.7 5052 41 10 285 12
Deshaun Watson 1st round (12) 6'3" 221 pounds 2 67 4593 41 17 629 9
DeShone Kizer 2nd round (52) 6'4" 233 pounds 2 58.7 2925 26 9 472 8
Davis Webb 3rd round (87) 6'5" 229 pounds 2.5 61.6 4295 37 12 -110 6
C.J. Beathard 3rd round (104) 6'3" 219 pounds 2 56.5 1929 17 10 -13 2
Joshua Dobbs 4th round (135) 6'3" 216 pounds 2 63 2946 27 12 831 12
Nathan Peterman 5th round (171) 6'3" 226 pounds 2 60.5 2855 27 7 286 3
Brad Kaaya 6th round (215) 6'4" 214 pounds 3 62 3532 27 7 -136 1
Chad Kelly 7th round (253) 6'2" 228 pounds 2 62.5 2758 19 8 332 5
Clayton Thorson N/A 6'4" 220 pounds 2 58.6 3182 22 9 98 5

The most important thing is that Thorson has the build of an NFL quarterback. All ten of the drafted quarterbacks fell between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-5, weighing between 214 and 233 pounds. Thorson emphatically checks those boxes.

(Quick side note, how did C.J. Beathard get drafted in the 3rd round? He was not very good last season but went 21-6 in his career in Iowa City. Actually, Clayton Thorson is 17-9 in two years. That bodes well.)

Statistically, Thorson compares favorably to the ten quarterbacks drafted. He would be in the bottom tier for completion percentage and passing touchdowns, but his yardage totals, interceptions, and rushing numbers all fall in the middle tier. If you take Thorson’s rushing numbers from his freshman year where he ran for 397 yards and 5 touchdowns, it’s easy to see he has similar mobility to Trubisky. If Thorson had entered this year’s draft he likely would have been a ‘Day Three’ selection; the numbers and his skillset certainly reflect that.

When we look at the numbers, it’s important to remember the respective teams that a quarterback plays on. Thorson was sacked an atrocious 38 times and still managed a respectable 58.6 completion percentage. That was the 3rd most times sacked out of all FBS quarterbacks. To put that into perspective, Trubisky was sacked 20 times, Watson 17 times, and Kelly and Webb 16 times apiece. At the very least, Thorson has learned to deal with pressure. Just look at these two touchdown throws against Indiana and Wisconsin. He did not make those throws in his freshman year.

Thorson will never put up the gaudy numbers of Mahomes at Texas Tech (or any other Big 12 quarterback for that matter) or Webb with Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense. But with better pass protection and better offensive weapons, there’s no reason why Thorson couldn’t put up comparable numbers to Trubisky. At North Carolina, Trubisky threw to two fourth-round wide receivers in Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer, as well as fifth-round pass-catching running back T.J. Logan. At Clemson, Deshaun Watson threw to wide receiver and No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams and fifth-round tight end Jordan Leggett.

In fairness, Thorson had Austin Carr, 2016’s Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Carr’s breakout earned him a shot with the New England Patriots, but Thorson’s development is often overlooked when discussing Carr’s success. Unfortunately, there’s an 800 yard drop-off in receiving yards behind Carr right now. If Thorson had better pass protection and a few NFL-bound targets to throw to, his numbers would likely reflect that of a quarterback chosen among the first couple of rounds in the NFL Draft rather than a 5th or 6th-rounder.

Of course, this is all hypothetical because Thorson will return to Northwestern next year, his third season as a starter. He won’t have twice as good pass protection or a few NFL-bound wide receivers. Instead, Thorson will have to do what is under his control, and that’s get his completion percentage up. As he completes more passes, the yards and touchdown totals will follow suit.

He’s grown tremendously since his freshman season, and if Thorson can continue to develop, it may well be be the second consecutive year a Wildcat opts for the NFL early. Thorson has the size, athleticism, and intangibles to be an early selection in 2018. With an improvement on last year’s promising season, the Wheaton native could be among the first 32 selections. Even if Thorson has a similar year to 2016, he could hear his name called on the first two days of the NFL Draft.

Back in November, ESPN’s Mel Kiper had Thorson on his list of Top 10 quarterback prospects for the 2017 draft, which went relatively unnoticed. Thorson will very likely be on Kiper’s list for 2018. It will be a good year for quarterbacks, possibly headlined by Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen from the Pac-12, Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. With a strong junior year, Thorson may find himself on that list as well.