Clayton Thorson leaves Northwestern with his name etched in its history books. He set records for games started, touchdowns, passing yards and completions. He helped NU to four bowl games, winning three of them. He recovered from a career-threatening knee injury to be a crucial part of NU’s Big Ten West title run in 2018. One thing that Wildcat fans know, as he attempts to take the next step, is that the moment will never be bigger than Clayton Thorson.
With that being said, thanks to his inconsistent play, Thorson just isn’t a top-tier NFL quarterback prospect. I thought NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein summed things up accurately in his profile, writing “Thorson was hamstrung by below-average talent at the skill positions but never showed an ability to work beyond his offense’s limitations.”
Thorson is a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect with the size, fundamentals and experience to stick around in the NFL. He’s not going to be someone’s franchise quarterback in 2019, but he will certainly get attention, and, barring catastrophe, will enter the fall with a job.
Here are Thorson’s measurables and how they stack up against his peers at quarterback:
Thorson’s size is certainly working for him, and he’s got that prototypical frame that talent evaluators drool over. The four-year starter didn’t participate in any of the testing that most draft prospects go through because of the leg injury he sustained in the Holiday Bowl. I doubt Thorson has the straight-line speed he had early in his Northwestern career — a catastrophic knee injury probably sapped some of that explosiveness. Thorson has solid athleticism, but no one will be drafting him because of what he can do with his legs.
Short and intermediate passing accuracy
Thorson progresses through reads quickly and delivers the ball accurately in the short and intermediate passing game. Only 30 of his 490 attempts in 2018 traveled more than 30 yards, meaning Thorson was asked to make a lot of quick reads and deliver the ball on time. Thorson’s best moments of the year came when he looked for medium gains. He was efficient in the 10-29 yard range, averaging over 8.5 yards per attempt and tossing nine touchdowns against one interception.
Here’s a beautiful toss to Cam Green for a touchdown against Michigan State:
Northwestern moved the pocket and used designed rollouts to leverage Thorson’s athleticism, a skill No. 18 can bring to the next level. When he’s locked in, Thorson can be lethal at intermediate range, marching an offense down the field in a matter of moments.
Say what you will about Thorson’s deep-ball accuracy, but the guy can chuck it. He looked great throwing the ball deep at the NFL Scouting Combine:
And while the deep ball wasn’t a very efficient play for NU during his career(partly because of slower receivers), Thorson did have his share of special throws down the field.
Good size/running ability
Thorson finished his NU career with 27 rushing touchdowns. As a freshman, Northwestern used his legs a lot, as Thorson averaged over 30 yards per game on the ground. Who could forget Thorson jaunting through the entire Stanford defense in his first career game?
Thorson’s abilities as a runner became less of an asset later in his NU career as the Wildcats tried to protect his legs due to injury. But his size allowed him to be an excellent goal-line option for the Wildcats, and he definitely had some highlight moments on the ground and when extending plays with his legs.
His size and frame are a plus for NFL evaluators, though his injury history is probably a demerit.
Thorson had some very, very confounding games this season. Over a four-game stretch in 2018 (at Rutgers, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Notre Dame, at Iowa), Thorson was pretty bad, at least statistically. He missed on a lot of throws and threw some bad interceptions ... and Northwestern won three of four games, including on the road at Kinnick to clinch the Big Ten West. It made no sense. (Except, of course, that NU’s defense and run game were both excellent.) But Thorson made all the necessary plays to win those games, most notably his throw to Ben Skowronek to give NU the lead in the fourth quarter.
Thorson’s career is littered with moments like that, key flashes of brilliance in otherwise disappointing performances. Thorson never really turned into the dominant quarterback many were expecting after his breakout sophomore year, but he’ll be remembered for making huge plays when it mattered most, especially in 2018.
Thorson can be wildly inconsistent from game to game and even play to play. He’ll set his feet, but his throws can sail wide of his intended targets, even when they’re close to the line of scrimmage.
Quarterbacks are not expected to complete every throw, but it felt like Thorson missed an open guy once or twice a game.
Thorson’s downfield accuracy leaves a bit to be desired as well. He completed about a quarter of his throws 30 or more yards down the field, and often threw the ball to the wrong shoulder or too late.
Here, the Ohio State corner is out of position at the snap but Thorson throws the pass much too short, allowing the defender to recover and make a play on the ball.
Northwestern’s issues with downfield passing were myriad, but Thorson’s deep-ball accuracy didn’t help.
He can get antsy in the pocket
Northwestern was absolutely terrible against the blitz for most of the season. Not all of that is on Thorson; NU’s offensive line struggled immensely during the first few games. But against teams with excellent defensive lines, Thorson often struggled to find his rhythm. He was quick to check down to a safety valve or simply tuck the ball and run when he feels the pressure.
No. 18 got skittish in the pocket from time to time as well, resulting in late or inaccurate throws.
As Thorson’s career progressed, his ability to extend plays with his feet diminished, and it’s hard to peg him as a guy who will be able to ad-lib at the next level, given the superior athleticism of the competition.
Thorson threw 27 interceptions in 27 games to close out his careers. A sizeable percentage of his interceptions came randomly, like on a tipped pass, or even a doink off a running back’s facemask. But even as a senior, Thorson made some head-scratching decisions.
Here, he misdiagnoses a coverage and throws a pass right into the outstretched arms of a defender, part of a three-interception day.
Thorson had six multi-interception games in 2018, including against Akron, where he made an off-balance, ill-advised throw that resulted in a touchdown for the Zips.
He’ll have to mitigate mistakes like these if he wants to stick at the next level.
Thorson’s 53 career starts set a Big Ten record. He never quite replicated his 2016 success, though he led NU to more wins in both 2017 and 2018. Talent evaluators will note the meager 6.3 yards per attempt, though NU’s conservative approach and possession receivers are two key reasons for that low number as well.
Thorson will probably be a day three pick. Tom Pelissero’s QB rankings article, which uses sources within the league, has Thorson as the ninth-best quarterback with a fourth or fifth round grade. CBS Sports also pegs Thorson as the No. 9 QB, and the 158th-best prospect overall. WalterFootball.com, which has often been bullish on Thorson, has No, 18 as the sixth-best prospect and a second-day selection. Finally, Sports Illustrated pegs him as the No. 7 QB prospect.
Clayton Thorson is going to stick somewhere. He’s got experience that no other quarterback in his class can boast, solid size and good-enough accuracy to make it at the next level. He’s generated interest from New England and Carolina, and any team in need of a young backup should be interested in Thorson’s services.