Heading into his junior season at Memphis, scouts weren't sold on Paxton Lynch as an upper-echelon NFL quarterback prospect. But a strong final collegiate campaign and impressive pro day appeared to change their minds.
The Denver Broncos selected Lynch with the No. 26 pick in the first round, which makes him the third quarterback drafted this year after Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were selected with the first two picks. The Broncos traded up to take Lynch, dealing with the Seattle Seahawks.
Lynch, who stands at 6'7 and weighs 244 pounds, has all of the ingredients to be a successful NFL QB -- it just might take some time.
Lynch arrived at Memphis as a dual-threat quarterback out of Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona, Fla., where he passed for 2,099 yards. But he missed half of his senior season with a bruised knee, which forced him to redshirt as a freshman. When Lynch first took the field in 2013, though, he never looked back, starting 39 consecutive games for the Tigers to close out his career. Memphis recorded its first 10-win seasons since the 1930s with Lynch as a starter.
One of the biggest advantages for Lynch at Memphis is that he played under Justin Fuente for all three years, which allowed him to grow under the same system. His numbers improved all three years he played:
Lynch's breakout season came in 2015, where he led the Tigers to a 9-4 record by setting single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns. He was largely viewed as a legitimate NFL hopeful by mid-October and broke out during Memphis' Oct. 17 upset against Ole Miss. During that contest, Lynch completed 39 of 53 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns.
Though conventional wisdom says playing in a non-power conference should diminish Lynch's success in the eyes of NFL clubs, history shows that isn't the case. Since 1990, 13 non-power conference quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round, including Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco. This year, Carson Wentz and Lynch make it Nos. 14 and 15.
Despite Lynch's growth, his junior season ended on a down note when he turned in a mediocre performance against Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. He completed just 16 of 37 passes for 106 yards in the final college game of his career.
With that performance fresh in everybody's mind, Lynch had something to prove when the combine came rolling around in February. He also had to fight against the perception that he wasn't ready to play professionally because he ran a spread offense during his time at Memphis.
With the pressure on, Lynch was nothing but impressive in front of scouts throughout the winter and spring. At the combine, he recorded the highest broad jump and vertical leap among quarterbacks and completed the 40-yard dash in 4.86 seconds, which was faster than every QB besides Wentz. With his athletic build and strong arm, there's little doubt he possesses the physical tools to make an impact at the professional level.
Though he didn't play under center often in college, Lynch says he doesn't think adjusting to traditional pro-style offenses will be a problem.
"That's not something I see as a struggle, as long as I work on it," Lynch said at the combine, via the Houston Chronicle. "I know some of the pass protections are similar, just different terminology. And small things here and there. But as long as I get to work, I don't see it as something I can't handle."
As a largely self-taught quarterback who didn't play regularly at the position until high school, the key for Lynch will be getting reps. But as he displayed at his pro day earlier this month, he has good arm strength and strong accuracy. Lynch completed 57 of 69 passes to Memphis receivers on an exceptionally windy day.
Unlike other top quarterback prospects, Lynch probably won't be able to compete for a starting job right away. But he improved every season in college and has displayed an ability to learn the fundamentals.
Once upon a time, NFL teams drafted young quarterbacks with the purpose of developing them instead of expecting them to be saviors. Lynch may need some time to learn at the professional level, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's unclear if the Broncos want him to start right away, but this certainly makes a trade for Colin Kaepernick much less likely, especially as the Broncos already have Mark Sanchez on the roster.