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2016 NFL Draft position watch list: Jared Goff, Connor Cook among quarterbacks to watch

The 2016 NFL Draft is a long way off, but with college football getting started in a couple weeks, it is time to figure out who we should be watching. We start with the quarterbacks.

The San Francisco 49ers are only midway through their 2015 preseason schedule, leaving them two preseason games and 16 regular season games (and hopefully some playoff games!) until we reach the next offseason. While the NFL season is only just beginning, it is never too soon to start draft coverage! In the past, we have put together weekly prospect reports for college games on a given weekend. We have also done some work with prospect rankings later in the season.

This year, we're adding something new. I thought it would be helpful to come up with a preseason watch list for each of the main positions on both sides of the ball. We still don't even know what the 49ers roster will look like in two months, let alone next offseason. However, some folks are already going to be looking at next year's draft. And so, I wanted to get started with some top prospects at each position.

We have a change in our writing crew this year. Nick and Trevor are not going to be able to assist this year, so I have two new writers helping out. This year, Greg Valerio and Jake Narayan will be taking on the task of helping prepare for the 2016 NFL Draft. To get things started, they will alternate offering up position watch lists. Greg starts us off at quarterback. He sent along this intro, and then the list of names and commentary below. The list of names is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather some of the big names to help get things started. Additionally, this depends on some of the players declaring for the draft, so again, it is just looking at some potential top options at each position.

I have been a 49ers fan for well over 30 years, and not having the luxury to be born in the Bay Area, let alone the state of California, or having any family members that are 49er fans, I became a 49ers fan by choice. The choice was an easy one, since I had to find something to combat my older brother's forceful attempts of indoctrinating his disturbing and distorted love of the Dallas Cowboys on me. So technically, my 49ers fandom was born out of sibling rivalry. As for my interest in college football and the draft, I am a huge New Mexico Lobos fan (yay Dillon Farrell), and since it is definitely a grind being a fan of a team that does not produce many wins, I simply became engrossed with the entire sport of college football and fell in love. The draft just became a product of that love; besides, who doesn't like to do their best Trent Baalke imitation anyways!

We start with a position that is locked up this year, and ideally is locked up for the foreseeable future. Colin Kaepernick is signed through 2020, and while the deal offers the 49ers several outs along the way, the hope is that Kap outperforms the deal and sticks around. Blaine Gabbert signed a 2-year extension as well, and Jim Tomsula has had a lot of praise for him. Nonetheless, the quarterback position is rarely a sure thing, and anything is possible. And so, we start here!

Connor Cook

Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

#18  |  Senior  |  Michigan State Spartans
Height: 6'4" |  Weight: 220 lbs.  |  Age: 22
2014 Stats: 212-365 (58.1%) 3214 YDS 24 TD 8 INT passing, 2 TD rushing
Second Team All-Big Ten in 2013 and 2014

Strengths: One of my favorite college prospects I have seen develop since 2013, Cook showcases great size, arm strength with a quick release, decent mobility (sneaky athleticism), and good footwork in the pocket. His accuracy from within the pocket is impressive. He is adept at reading the entire field and making all NFL level throws, and showing off pinpoint accuracy in tight windows with some beautiful over-the-top throws reminiscent of snowflakes falling from the sky. Shows the tenacity and toughness in taking hits, but also possesses the escapability to extend plays and make throws on the run. Very intelligent prospect with great vision and experience operating in a pro-style system.

Weaknesses: Inconsistent. When Cook ventures outside of the pocket, he has a tendency to forgo mechanics by failing to set his feet resulting in off-balanced throws with sporadic accuracy. He struggles with inside pressure and when the pocket starts to collapse, his eyes come down, wide-eyed ensues, and jitteriness takes form. The loss of poise under pressure results in very poor bone-head type decisions. However, he does show the grit to shake off mistakes, taking advantage of a short-term memory quarterbacks are required to have at the next level.

Conclusion: Likely the most pro-ready quarterback in this class, Connor Cook made a wise decision to forgo the 2015 Draft and remain in school. His capacity to improve each year should bode well for him entering into the 2015 season. If he can clean up some mechanic issues, work on the accuracy outside of the pocket, and improve his decision making, he should solidify himself as a first round pick entering the 2016 Draft. Cook might not become an elite NFL talent, but he will be a solid quality starting quarterback excelling when operating from a clean pocket.

Jared Goff

Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

#16  |  Junior  |  California Golden Bears
Height: 6'4"  |  Weight: 215 lbs.  |  Age: 20
2014 Stats: 316-509 (62.1%) 3973 YDS 35 TD 7 INT passing
Honorable Mention All-PAC-12 honors in 2013 and 2014

Strength: Well, I hate to be the one to pump the brakes on proclaiming Goff as the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. Goff does display very impressive skills on an ever increasing resume. He showcases ideal length, pin-point accuracy, sound mobility, good decision making, big-time arm (not super strong) with a quick motion and snappy high release, solid vision, and great field awareness. A technician operating in an up-tempo spread offense, Goff is an exciting player to watch take apart defenses at every level, where he can beat defenders with quick passes, mobility, driving a pass in a tight window, or gracefully loft one over-the-top with amazing touch. He shows poise in the pocket with impressive footwork and mechanics, always looking downfield and easily looks-off defenders. Shows toughness and grit absorbing a lot of hits.

Weaknesses: Operating exclusively from the shotgun, Goff will need to learn to operate under center at the next level. He has a very lanky build and will need to gain muscle in order to avoid injuries in the NFL. He can definitively improve his poise in the pocket especially when an inside rush comes, since he has a tendency to get happy feet and make off-balanced throws failing to set his feet, jeopardizing his accuracy.

Conclusion: No doubt there will be a lot of buzz and excitement with Jared Goff this season, especially in the Bay Area. Even though he comes from a high producing system, he possesses transferable skills for the next level that could take him to elite status. His game is definitely transcending and although he has two years of eligibility left under his belt, another great season will make it hard for him to turn down the NFL. If he continues his impressive trajectory, Goff will likely be a first round pick in the 2016 Draft.

Cardale Jones

Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

#12  |  Junior  |  Ohio State Buckeyes
Height: 6'5"  |  Weight: 250 lbs.  |  Age: 22 (turns 23 in September)
2014 Stats: 56-92 (60.9%) 860 YDS 7 TD 2 INT passing, 1 TD rushing
Big Ten Championship MVP

Strength: Although the sampling size of games from Cardale "12 Gauge" Jones is incredibly small (three collegiate starts against top college opponents), what we have seen thus far has been absolutely impressive. Will Jones continue his rise? It is difficult to forecast, especially when Ohio State's head football coach, Urban Meyer, is remaining mum on who the starting quarterback will be; at least we know it is not Braxton Miller (switched to wide receiver). Nevertheless, Jones showcases an ideal physical mountain of a frame, strong arm easily capable of making every throw, fascinating mobility with power and quickness, and decent fundamentals to make good accurate throws over-the-top. It appears his physical traits are limitless. Very high upside.

Weaknesses: Extremely raw. Can throw on a rope, but lacks the necessary touch when throwing underneath. Would like to see more growth in his game beyond one-read throws to wide open players and vertical single-coverage throws over-the-top, as well as better placement with his throws. Needs to improve his intermediate game. Also, would like to see him keep his eyes up when breaking out of the pocket.

Conclusion: Although it is not everyday you see a collegiate quarterback plow over NFL level talent and offer a howitzer of an arm easily capable of launching footballs into the heavens, it takes a lot more than those two dominant traits to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. He does have tremendous upside, but will have to show improvement on the nuances of NFL level quarterbacking in order to justify a top tier draft status. If his game continues to skyrocket, I can see him as a first round prospect, but if he shares the similar path like once highly touted Logan Thomas, his draft status could fall. We will know soon when this season plays out.

Christian Hackenberg

Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

#14  |  Junior  |  Penn State Nittany Lions
Height: 6'4"  |  Weight: 234 lbs.  |  Age: 20
2014 Stats: 270-484 (55.8%) 2977 YDS 12 TD 15 INT passing
2014 Pinstripe Bowl MVP

Strengths: After a remarkably successful 2013 outing, Hackenberg fizzled a bit throughout his 2014 campaign. Of course former Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien's jettison to the NFL and becoming an impromptu cult superstar on Hard Knocks can definitely dampen one's progression, not to mention a lackluster offensive line. Nevertheless, Hackenberg showcases an NFL ready frame as a prototypical pocket passer, solid arm strength, can make all NFL level throws, decent mobility and athleticism, good accuracy, capable of reading the entire field, and quite simply a physically gifted quarterback with natural talent. Has experience operating in a pro-style offense. Potential franchise type quarterback? Well, he definitely has the talent for it.

Weaknesses: You never want to regress from one year to the next, and unfortunately, it did so with Hackenberg. Now there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle to help explain the regression, namely a new everything (scheme, coaching, and a lot of players wet behind the ears), but a lot of it was on Hackenberg himself. Very poor decision making at times, poor mechanics with a tendency to throw flat footed, accuracy issues, failing to appropriately read defenses, poor ball placement, and struggling to make quick passes. All in all, a big "I" for Inconsistency.

Conclusion: There is a lot of potential with Hackenberg and many view him as top-shelf talent ready to explode at the next level. I am not drinking the kool-aid in crowning him the top quarterback prospect in this years' class, but I do know he has undeniable talent. A talent that can easily make him a top tier prospect provided he fixes his issues and becomes more consistent. Hopefully, a strong year will help him improve upon his craft and regardless of the outcome, I believe he will declare for the 2016 Draft. As it stands right now for me, I see Hackenberg as a second round selection.

Gunner Kiel

Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

#11  |  Junior  |  Cincinnati Bearcats
Height: 6'4"  |  208 lbs.  |  Age : 22
2014 Stats: 233-390 (59.7) 3254 YDS 31 TD 13 INT passing, 1 TD rushing
Honorable Mention All-American Athletic Conference honoree in 2014

Strengths: It has been a long and arduous journey for the nation's highly touted top-ranked high school quarterback. It all started with Kiel kicking the tires on Indiana, decommitting from LSU with a parting gift of smack-talk from Les Miles, enrolling at Notre Dame and shockingly transferring to Cincinnati, where he finally got his chance and ran with it. Last year, Kiel exploded during the very first game of the season turning heads with a six touchdown passing performance. He showcases an impressive arm with a quick release, solid accuracy, amazing touch, good vision, and nice athleticism with sneaky escapability. Confidently stands tall in the pocket with good mechanics and sound footwork, and will make impressive throws in tight windows. Lastly, he has a pretty sweet quarterback name too. <Gunner Kiel>

Weaknesses: Kiel performed fantastic his inaugural season, but he did have his ups and downs. Going forward he will need to improve his decision making and accuracy. He also occasionally tends to throw off his back foot instead of fully stepping into the throw causing accuracy concerns and passes sailing over targets. Operating exclusively from the shotgun, Kiel will need to learn to operate under center at the next level.

Conclusion: Cincinnati is poised for a tremendous high productive season. There are a bevy of gifted wide receivers at Gunner Kiel's disposal, so I expect large numbers from him, hopefully diminishing his interceptions (13) and improving his accuracy (59.7%). Ideally, it would benefit Kiel to enter his senior year (he is currently a junior), with two solid performing seasons lighting it up, polishing his game, working his way on becoming the top quarterback of the 2017 Draft. However, with the anticipated college success I totally expect during Kiel's junior season, and the proclivity for him to jump around football institutions, I think it is quite possible Kiel will declare for the 2016 Draft. Hoping to avoid the pitfalls of Kiel being a one-year wonder, I rank <Gunner Kiel> (I can say that name all day) as a second round prospect in the 2016 Draft.