This story, the first in a series of six columns that will make a case for an underappreciated draft prospect, appears in the March 21, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The NFL’s latest free-agent frenzy offered another reminder that franchises without reliable quarterbacks are desperate to find one. That’s why more of the have-nots should be carefully evaluating Stanford senior Kevin Hogan, a mid-round value who’s projected as a late-round pick.
Many front offices begin their assessments of quarterbacks by asking very basic questions: How strong is his arm? How big is he, and how big are his hands? How athletic is he? Can he manage a huddle? Can he take a snap from under center?
That last one sounds simple, but it’s not. “That’s like an elementary skill in the NFL, but some of these guys have never done it,” says Texans coach Bill O’Brien. But Hogan checks that box. While the Cardinal often used pistol and shotgun looks, he spent plenty of time under center. In a 45–16 Rose Bowl win over Iowa in January he used the more traditional setup on 37% of Stanford’s plays. Contrast that with Cal junior Jared Goff, a projected first-rounder who, according to NFL.com, took only .2% of his snaps last season from under center. Or consider Memphis junior Paxton Lynch, a fellow round 1 candidate, who was under center less than 10% of the time.
Perhaps the buzziest draft phrase relating to quarterback evaluations is “NFL ready”—a reference to the intangible measurement of how quickly a college prospect can adapt. In this category, Hogan is near the top of his class. Besides his proficiency with a snap, Hogan excels at handling the mental demands of the position. “I played in a pro-style offense, a West Coast system,” he said in February at the combine. “[I] handled the whole offense at the line of scrimmage, all the protections, the run checks, the pass checks. So I was a student of the game. I feel like I am able to learn offenses very well.”
The questions about Hogan are mostly physical. He did have a strong combine, checking in at a well-built 6'3" and 218 pounds with 10¼-inch hands. He also ranked top five among quarterbacks in the 40-yard dash (4.78 seconds), vertical jump (32.5 inches) and three-cone drill (6.9 seconds).
But neither in Indianapolis nor at the Senior Bowl was he able to put to rest worries about his arm. Hogan’s delivery is elongated, which means he needs more time to get the ball out. Pressure can cause him to forgo his typical mechanics entirely, which is what happened in Stanford’s 16–6 loss to Northwestern last September. Hogan made inaccurate pass after inaccurate pass—he was 20 of 35, for just 155 yards—often off his back foot.
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Even so, Hogan piled up 9,385 yards passing and 75 touchdowns while leading the Cardinal to three Rose Bowls (two wins) and 36 victories. He accomplished that mostly by playing to his strengths. The throws deep downfield or from one hash mark to the far sideline may not be the highlights of his repertoire, but he thrives in short-to-intermediate windows.
Hogan can also use his legs, rushing for 1,249 career yards and 15 touchdowns. He made numerous important first downs last season by getting out of the pocket, keeping the play alive behind the line of scrimmage then finding a target.
Hogan’s game looks to be that of a sharp, valuable long-term backup with a chance to develop into a starter. Think of the Redskins’ Colt McCoy or the currently unsigned Matt Flynn, with an upside of the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, who has a cleaner game but similar mechanics. While GMs may not be inclined to draft that type of prospect early, they would be smart not to wait too long.