There are four quarterbacks projected to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, according to the latest SB Nation mock. But in a surprise, only one of the top three is from a power conference. Carson Wentz of FCS North Dakota State could be a top-10 pick, while Memphis' Paxton Lynch could be picked in the top 20.
Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty, Louisiana Tech's Jeff Driskel and a few others could also be among the dozen or so QBs picked, if not first-rounders. And this is in a class that was once supposed to be headlined by Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Ohio State's Cardale Jones.
Generally, top NFL Draft picks come from power conference schools, because the best high school recruits choose biggest schools and have the best chances of becoming NFL players. However, quarterback is one of the toughest positions to recruit, so it makes sense that some slip through the cracks.
Since 1990, 13 non-power conference quarterbacks (players outside the BCS or current Power 5, or pre-BCS equivalent) have been drafted in the first round. Their success has widely varied.
It's tougher to judge non-power quarterbacks, since they play weaker competition.
No college quarterback is going to be a certainty, but pro prospects are even less certain when they've mostly faced smaller schools. From one NFL scout:
I'd hate to be a team in need of a quarterback. The best two in this draft might end up being from Memphis and North Dakota State and that ought to scare the (expletive) out of you. It takes some courage to turn that card in.
The jump will be particularly big for Wentz. Lynch played in The American, a non-power conference, but he at least played FBS-caliber players and occasionally against power conference teams. Wentz played almost all of his games against much inferior competition in the FCS (while still contributing to the Bison's list of wins against Power 5 teams).
However, Wentz says he isn't worried:
"To a lot of people, (the Senior Bowl) showed I can handle that game speed," Wentz said. "Obviously there's still going to be a big jump going forward, but that was probably the big question everyone wants to know. 'Can he adjust. He was playing FCS ball. All these guys are FBS guys.' I think I went in there and proved that I could handle it."
Competition alone doesn't mean they shouldn't be drafted in the first round.
Since 2004, four of the five first-round quarterback draft picks who weren't from power conferences have worked out, more or less.
Ben Roethlisberger is a four-time Pro Bowler. Alex Smith and Joe Flacco have consistently started and led teams to the playoffs. Flacco's Super Bowl could even be considered elite.
Before them, Steve McNair and Daunte Culpepper worked out very well. And the list above doesn't include players like Tony Romo, Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick, who were picked after the first round.
Beyond the conference level, about as many of the 25 pure QBs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame came from historical lightweights (like Southern Miss' Brett Favre and Louisiana Tech's Terry Bradshaw, plus several low-tier power schools) as from big-name football factories.
In fact, non-power conference quarterbacks have often been better than the other quarterbacks drafted in the first rounds of their draft classes.
Roethlisberger has at least held his own with Eli Manning of Ole Miss and Philip Rivers of NC State in the 2004 class. Smith, while no Aaron Rodgers, has been better than fellow 2005 first-rounder Jason Campbell of Auburn. FCS Flacco has done no worse than Boston College's Matt Ryan.
These players have been better than a number of first-rounders from blueblood schools, including JaMarcus Russell (LSU), Brady Quinn (Notre Dame), Mark Sanchez (USC), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), Tim Tebow (Florida) and Vince Young (Texas).
Sometimes drafting a quarterback in the first round works out. Sometimes it doesn't. But there does not appear to be much of a relationship between the pedigree of a first round quarterback's school and his NFL potential.
Lynch and Wentz got passed up by the big schools because they were late developers.
Shouldn't major colleges have found Lynch and Wentz? Most of the top quarterback recruits end up at the top schools, but in an era when schools are evaluating players earlier and earlier, players who develop early have an advantage.
Lynch and Wentz developed late, but in different ways.
Lynch is an imposing figure at 6'7, just two inches taller than he was in high school, but what hindered him in recruiting was that he was barely a quarterback. He only started playing the position in his freshman year of high school, and even then, he was essentially a running back, he told Sports Illustrated:
Unlike many quarterback recruits, Lynch didn't work with a private coach in high school. He taught himself how to throw a football, basing it on the way he threw a baseball.
But what was harder for Lynch was to garner the attention of recruiters while playing at Trinity Christian. The Eagles' had fewer than 30 players on their football team, and many of them were two-way starters. Making things even more difficult was the fact that Lynch played in a run-first offense.
'I only threw the ball about 10 times a game,' Lynch says. 'We just didn't have a lot of weapons on the outside.'
It didn't make sense for a power to take a chance on Lynch. It did for downtrodden Memphis, though. Now he makes NFL throws with ease.
Memphis was his only real suitor, despite his 6'5 frame and pro-caliber arm strength. The claims are that many schools were worried Florida would offer and win him over easily (Lynch lived only two hours away) or that an injury in his senior season led him to be overlooked. But the kid's only other Division I offers were from FAMU and UCF, which suggests everyone just plain missed on him somehow.
After seeing his "arm talent" firsthand, Justin Fuente chose to start him as a freshman over a returning starter, to the chagrin of Memphis fans.
Wentz's issue was one of physical development. A native of North Dakota, it was hard for him to get looks in the first place. Considering he was 5'8 and 125 pounds entering high school and didn't grow to the height of a true Division I quarterback until his junior year, there is no way any power conference school would have thought to take a look at him.
Growing physically was Wentz's only limitation, he told the Detroit Free Press.
"I always knew I had the physical and mental abilities to play this position, but physically, I finally developed late -- and I'm so thankful," he said. "I wouldn't trade the road I took for the world."
Had either Lynch or Wentz fully developed earlier, they likely would have been sought after by powers. The names of their alma maters don't tell the story of their potential in the NFL.