2018 NFL Draft Preseason Evaluations: Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald /

Dak Prescott set the NFL ablaze as a rookie quarterback, and while 2018 NFL Draft prospect Nick Fitzgerald isn’t on Prescott’s level, could he be an NFL-caliber starter?

Lately, Nick Fitzgerald has been generating some real buzz in draft circles, and it looks like he’s a player who could be on the rise if he’s able to turn in a strong 2017 college football season. As a junior, Fitzgerald may not declare after this season, but it could be a possibility if he moves the needle enough in his second season as Mississippi State’s starter.

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What stands out the most about Fitzgerald is his rushing ability, and while running quarterbacks have a knack for getting knocked by analysts, it’s nonetheless a useful positive trait. Signal-callers with elite mobility are able to remove themselves from unfavorable positions, extend plays, and pick up critical first downs on their own. They also change the way defenses must scheme for them, usually by deploying a spy, which can open things up for pass-catchers.

Fitzgerald is one of college football’s most dangerous rushing quarterbacks. The 6-5, 230-pounder is both tough and slippery. You can frequently watch him evading tacklers with spin moves, sliding past weak arm tackles, or bulldozing safeties for a good five yards before finding paydirt. Last season, he racked up a whopping 1,375 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, which would have seemed more impressive if Heisman Trophy Winner — and my No. 2-ranked quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft — Lamar Jackson didn’t best those numbers with ease.

But just like Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and a few other quarterbacks in this draft class, Fitzgerald struggles mightily with his accuracy. I harped on this frequently in my evaluation of Allen, but Fitzgerald’s accuracy is somehow even more woeful. The guy misses open receivers regularly, and his ball placement on contested catches is abysmal. He’s thrown interceptions on back-shoulder fades that really shouldn’t have been picked, and I’d say he’s lucky he threw only 10 interceptions during the entire season.

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Despite being so inaccurate (54.3 precent completion rate in 2016), Fitzgerald isn’t prone to turnovers because he doesn’t make egregious errors with the football. Although Fitzgerald must give a ridiculous amount of credit to the offensive line in front of him, he does a great job of climbing the pocket and sensing pressure before it develops. He makes risky throws into tight coverage, but this usually isn’t due to a response to a stressful situation in the pocket.

In my book, Fitzgerald is a sound decision-maker, especially for somebody who played in the SEC and had limited experience as a starter. He also shows better anticipation than I expected from a run-heavy quarterback in his first season as a collegiate starter. Additionally, you can see that Fitzgerald frequently reads through his progressions, so he doesn’t fit the stereotype that running quarterbacks have of locking onto one side of the field (or even one receiver).

As far as I’m concerned, arm strength is a threshold judgment; you either have enough or you don’t. Fitzgerald has the arm talent to make every throw in the book — at least in theory. He has one of the classes’s more powerful arms.

After studying Fitzgerald, I do find it interesting that he hasn’t received as much coverage as the top quarterbacks in this class. Because while he is a step below the passers in the first-round discussion, I have a feeling NFL teams will be high on him. They could deem his erratic accuracy as “coachable”, because he isn’t a poor decision-maker by any means. He is also big, incredibly fast, athletic, agile, and possesses a strong arm. Right now, Mason Rudolph is the superior quarterback, but Fitzgerald may be the better pro prospect due to his upside; he clearly has the superior physical tools to the Oklahoma State star.

Next: Sam Darnold Preseason Scouting Report

At first, I was skeptical of Fitzgerald as a prospect, and I don’t see the appeal in him purely as a passer right now. The thing is, nobody stands to improve more in 2017 than Fitzgerald, who gets to work under a coaching staff that is held in high regard for working with quarterbacks. Again, I have to remind myself that, despite his laughable ball placement, he is a novice starter and has plenty of room to grow. He has most of the little details down, and he is definitely a quarterback to keep a close eye on. It’s hard to argue against ranking him as the best quarterback in the SEC right now, and he is very much a draftable prospect whose running ability is a joy to watch.