Update: The Titans picked Falk in the sixth round.
Only one quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft — and just six others in FBS history — have thrown for more yards in his college career than Washington State’s Luke Falk. No one in this draft has thrown more passes. He’s been the engine behind a resurgence in Pullman, the player who led the Cougars to their first AP ranking in nearly a decade back in 2015 and went 26-11 in his final three years with the program to re-establish it as a power in the Pac-12. His carer includes 20 passing performances of 300-plus yards (and one epic 601-yard day as a freshman).
Despite all that, you won’t hear Falk’s name called on the first day of an NFL Draft expected to feature a deep run on quarterbacks. Falk’s prolific college career has made him a viable pro prospect, but he’s stuck in the third tier of this year’s QB class.
His peers aren’t Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen, but Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White, Richmond prospect Kyle Lauletta, and Marshall’s Chase Litton. Even with a resume few others in his class can match, there’s a very real possibility Luke Falk is the 10th quarterback selected in this year’s draft.
And there’s a reason for that.
NFL history does not favor the prolific college quarterback
Here’s a comparison to give you a better idea of how often the Cougars had him take over in the pocket. In his past three seasons, and just 37 games, Falk has thrown 1,811 official passes. In his past three seasons — 47 games — Drew Brees leads the NFL with 1,830 attempts.
That’s the product of Mike Leach’s preferred spread offense, the same strategy that allowed QBs like Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, and B.J. Symons to throw for several miles worth of passing yards each season while he was leading Texas Tech. Before Falk, Leach had turned Connor Halliday into a gunslinger at Washington State, where he threw for 385 yards per game as an upperclassman. Massive passing stats are to Leach offenses as by-the-numbers crime procedurals are to CBS.
There’s one big problem there for Falk — none of those Leach quarterbacks amounted to much in the pros. In fact, the list of the top 10 passers (by volume) in college football history returns a pretty disappointing list of NFL quarterbacks.
How major college football’s most prolific passers fared as pros
|Luke Falk||Washington State||2,054||?||?||?|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||2,011||0||0||0|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||1,883||0||0||0|
|Sean Mannion||Oregon State||1,838||1||0||1|
|Luke McCown||Louisiana Tech||1,775||10||9||15|
It’s not great company to keep, though further down the list come stars like Brees (15th) and Philip Rivers (13th). Falk’s best-case scenario is Keenum, a man who went undrafted and was never anyone’s first choice at quarterback until a perfect situation with the Minnesota Vikings led to a breakout season last year. Neither Chang, Cato, nor Robinson played a snap in the NFL. Landry’s opportunities to replace Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers’ lineup has resulted in wins over the Browns and little else. Mannion’s lone start with the Rams saw him use 34 pass attempts to tally just 169 yards.
Falk will have to prove he’s an outlier among that group. There are some signs working in his favor. Unlike Chang, McCown, Robinson, or Cato, he played at a Power 5 school, meaning his arm was tested by higher-caliber defenses. His career completion rate (68.3 percent) is better than anyone else in the top 10 save for Keenum or Harrell.
But the Washington State standout wasn’t asked to do as much downfield as these other prolific QBs. His relatively conservative 7.1 yards per pass, lower than anyone on the list but Chang and Kingsbury, shows the majority of those accurate passes didn’t travel far. Per NFL.com, 74 percent of his throws came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Why could Falk break from this trend?
Falk has excellent measurables for an NFL quarterback at 6’4 and 225 pounds, and just looking the part is sometimes enough to get drafted. That and 119 career touchdown passes will get him drafted. From there, it’s up to him to prove big volume quarterbacks can translate their inflated numbers to the pros.
His aforementioned accuracy will give him a solid foundation from which to build. The biggest factor working in his favor, however, is his ability to elevate a wide range of receiving targets. With Falk taking the bulk of his team’s snaps last fall, nine different Cougars targets had at least 30 receptions. In 2016, 10 players had 20 receptions or more.
His success hasn’t been the product of one or two elite receivers through his college career. He’s proven he can hit targets up and down the Cougars’ depth chart and retain his upper-tier accuracy. He’s solid when it comes to finding and delivering the ball to open targets in the middle of the field and along the sideline.
His pro day workout drew solid reviews, too. After a middling showcase at the NFL’s Draft Combine, Falk was able to even out his NFL stock by showcasing an improved deep ball and solid arm strength.
WSU QB Luke Falk worked out today at Utah State pro day in front of 29 teams. Bengals sent their QB coach.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 28, 2018
I was told he had an outstanding workout, throwing beautiful long ball, with velocity, accuracy. Threw 51 passes, 5 that were uncatchable. Mid-round pick. https://t.co/fmKxrAOzpE
But there are caveats. Falk was benched early in a 58-37 loss to Arizona last fall. He’d only completed 13 of his 23 passes before getting the hook.
He’s also a damage sponge. Throwing more than 2,000 career passes has left him in a vulnerable pocket more than any other member of this draft class, and he’s been sacked 125 times in 42 games. Those hits led to a wrist injury that kept him from this year’s Holiday Bowl, but he’s been otherwise fortunate to escape serious issues with the Cougars. Part of that can be chalked up to offensive line issues, but another part of the problem is just that Falk’s kinda slow. While he hasn’t let that rattle him in the past, it’s something NFL offenses will have to consider when grooming him as a project QB.
Falk will have his work cut out for him as a pro, but a heavy workload hasn’t scared him off in the past. Only three players in FBS history have ever thrown more passes than he did at Washington State. The real challenge is going to be proving he’s capable of a Case Keenum breakout — and not a Kliff Kingsbury career.