NFL draft may not have first-round quarterback prospect

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell throws during the second half of an NCAA college football ...

The odds on whether Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett will be the first quarterback chosen in this year’s NFL draft have bounced around a bit with Willis as the current favorite.

Former NFL quarterback and college coach Shaun King isn’t sure either is the best prospect in this class.

King, who lives in Las Vegas and hosts a nightly show on VSIN, believes North Carolina star Sam Howell is actually the top prospect in a down year for quarterbacks.

He thinks what sets Howell apart is the leadership ability he showed during his time in Chapel Hill.

“Teams want guys who behave in a championship manner because that’s the way to get everyone to buy in. Your Russsell Wilsons and your Tom Bradys,” said King, the former second-round pick of the Buccaneers out of Tulane in 1999.

“Brady has never been the most talented guy. He’s been out-behaving everyone for 20 years. … I think that’s one of the biggest issues in Green Bay. (Aaron) Rodgers relies strictly on his talent. He’s kind of aloof and does his own thing. Howell, to me, is the guy I would take if I had to take a quarterback.”

Not that he would do it too early. King, who keeps copious notes on all the draft prospects, doesn’t have a first-round grade on any quarterback in this class.

Next year, however, is a different story. He loves the potential of Alabama standout Bryce Young and Ohio State star C.J. Stroud.

“They’ve both done it at such a high level and they can make all the throws,” said King, who coached at the high school level and at South Florida after his career. “Their battle is going to be size. They’re going to have to convince people that frail frame can hold up. But arm talent, accuracy, ball location, success, they are light years more ready to play than any of these guys. If I was a team that needed a quarterback, I’d pass and wait.”

That applies to a team like the Carolina Panthers. King said he would rather trade for Baker Mayfield or even Gardner Minshew and instead draft an offensive lineman at No. 6 overall if he were running the Panthers.

While the Panthers need help at quarterback now, drafting one doesn’t often provide an immediate solution.

“None of my critiques of these guys are unfixable, but it keeps me from putting a first-round grade on any of them,” he said. “Because they are not plug-and-play guys. And if you look at NFL openings, there were nine this cycle. Six of them overdrafted a quarterback in the first round. And the coach that does it isn’t there if and when the quarterback ever does become good.”

It also might be unfair to the quarterback, though they benefit financially by getting picked in the first round. King said expectations rise exponentially and the prospect is deprived the opportunity to enjoy a learning curve. The first-round quarterback is expected to perform immediately, which is rarely the case in the NFL.

“They don’t want to hear it because of the difference in money, but taking them in the first is going to ruin them because you get first-round expectations and you’ll never get the chance to develop,” King said. “If someone goes No. 6, they’ll be expected to save a franchise and that’s not fair. I don’t think any of them are ready to play as rookies and it’s hard to overcome that.

“I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just saying I know the expectations if you go in the first round and what it takes to play at a high level in that league on a consistent basis.”

King said he would be fine taking Howell early in the second round and the rest of the quarterbacks not too much after that.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.