A year ago at this time, the Pac-12 said goodbye to some difference-makers at quarterback. That's not the case in 2017. The Pac-12 is loaded at the position heading into a new season, made all the more evident by the NFL draft intrigue the conference's best are generating.
The battle for quarterback supremacy in the Pac-12 will play out over the course of the fall, and spill into the spring, with two of the most ballyhooed prospects coming from the West: USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen. The two ended 2016 on much different trajectories, with Darnold leading USC to a Rose Bowl win and Rosen nursing an injured shoulder.
Still, the duo sets the pace for an impressive class of NFL draft-worthy talent.
1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC (R-So., 6-4, 225)
A year ago, Darnold was second on the USC quarterback depth chart. That could be the last time he plays No. 2. Adoree' Jackson predicted the Trojans quarterback could be the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, contributing to the considerable hype that's built ever since January's Rose Bowl.
The Granddaddy of 'Em All marked the culmination of Darnold's remarkable redshirt freshman season. His insertion into the starting lineup transformed USC's campaign, turning the Trojans from a 1-2 team treading water, into the No. 3-ranked squad by season's end. An NFL front office could put its trust in Darnold's pocket poise, field vision and scrambling to similarly transform their franchise.
2. Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah (Sr., 6-2, 310)
Lotulelei generated considerable NFL draft buzz a year ago, before racking up 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as the anchor of Utah's outstanding defensive line. Much to the good fortune of the 2017 Utes, and to the chagrin of Pac-12 opponents, he's back for one more year. His draft stock could skyrocket as a result.
Lotulelei handles the duties typical of a tackle, drawing blocks and eating up space on the interior, but he also demonstrates a knack for breaking into opposing backfields.
3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (Jr., 6-3, 210)
Draftniks discussed the possibility of Rosen being the No. 1 overall pick while he was still at St. John Bosco. Talk about hype. A shoulder injury in 2016 tempered some of the buzz, but that could be a good thing for the UCLA quarterback. The spotlight – and thus the pressure – has since shifted to cross-town rival Sam Darnold.
Rosen's play upon his return from the sidelines, as well as his performance under a third offensive coordinator in as many years, will dictate his draft status.
4. Dante Pettis, WR, Washington (Sr., 6-0, 188)
Teammate John Ross was a first-round selection in this year’s draft. Pettis brings a similar style to the 2018 class, boasting elite-level speed and uncanny playmaking ability.
Pettis was one of the nation's premier deep threats in 2016, averaging better than 15 yards per reception and scoring 15 touchdowns as Washington's No. 2 target. He'll have a chance to shine as the top Dawg in 2017.
5. Trey Adams, OT, Washington (Jr., 6-7, 309)
Quarterback Jake Browning comes into the 2017 season a Heisman Trophy contender. Key to his success is the performance of his left tackle, Adams.
Adams established himself as one of the Pac-12's best pass protectors in 2016. Operating with clean pockets behind the first-team All-Pac-12 selection, Browning tossed a school-record 43 touchdowns last season. Adams could provide similar protection for an NFL quarterback.
6. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State (Jr., 6-4, 214)
Some of the NFL's iciness toward Air Raid and spread quarterbacks has thawed in recent seasons. That's fortunate, because an organization in need of a playmaker in the pocket could benefit from drafting Falk.
Falk has put up gaudy numbers in each of his two seasons as Washington State's starter, but the most impressive from 2016 is 70. That's his completion percentage on 633 attempts. Falk throws as accurate a deep ball as he throws the short passes that function like runs in head coach Mike Leach’s offense.
7. Cody O'Connell, OG, Washington State (R-Sr., 6-8, 344)
Paving the way for Washington State's prolific offense is one of the biggest offensive lines in college football. None come bigger than O'Connell, the massive interior lineman whose frame is matched only by the sizable strides he's made while at Washington State.
O'Connell was celebrated as one of the nation's most improved players in 2016, earning All-Pac-12 recognition along the way. Interior linemen are not as coveted in the draft, but O'Connell's proving himself such an effective blocker that his skill set could supersede precedents.
8. Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon (Sr., 6-5, 310)
Offensive line play was a cornerstone of Oregon's run atop the Pac-12 from 2009-14. Crosby is the best lineman the Ducks have had on the front five since Jake Fisher, a star on the 2015 College Football Playoff runner-up team. Fisher went in the second round of the 2015 draft.
9. Cameron Smith, LB, USC (Jr., 6-1, 245)
Wearing the No. 35 – a celebrated number in the annals of USC history – Smith made a huge splash from the moment he first donned cardinal and gold. He sustained an injury late in 2015, but bounced back as a sophomore to anchor the Trojans defense.
The ball-hawking inside linebacker is tremendous against the run, but has proven equally effective when dropping back into pass coverage. That's an invaluable trait in the more pass-friendly professional game seen in recent years.
10. Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah (Sr., 6-4, 265)
Were it not for an injury early into the 2016 season, Fitts might have been a highly regarded prospect in this year’s draft class. As it stands, Fitts returns to Utah for one more season, and an opportunity to improve his draft stock.
Fitts registered 7.5 sacks in 2015. He should be able to build on that number as the key pass rusher in Utah's aggressive defense in the coming campaign. Physically, Fitts fits the mold for a 4-3 defensive end on the next level.
11. Porter Gustin, DE/OLB, USC (Jr., 6-5, 260)
With the return of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Gustin moved from outside linebacker to defensive end. The change padi off for both Gustin and the team, as the former five-star prospect piled up 13 tackles for a loss to go along with 5.5 sacks.
Numbers aside, Gustin wreaked havoc rushing off the edge. His game is a powerful combination of speed and strength, and he's only scratched the surface of his lofty potential.
12. Chase Hansen, S, Utah (R-Jr., 6-3, 216)
Hansen plays a style at strong safety that makes him as effective in the secondary as he is supplementing the linebacker corps. He racked up 90 tackles in 2016, assisting the Utes’ rush defense, and added three interceptions.
Hansen's versatility should make him one of the Pac-12's best defensive backs this fall – and a commodity on NFL draft boards once the campaign concludes.
13. David Bright, OL, Stanford (Sr., 6-5, 301)
Bright is a lineman Stanford head coach David Shaw said plays with "a nasty demeanor." The Cardinal wouldn't have it any other way.
Bright will have an opportunity to shine in 2017, playing tackle after spending parts of the previous seasons on the interior. Expect him to get NFL buzz as he establishes himself a leader for the Cardinal front five.
14. Vita Vea, DT, Washington (Sr., 6-5, 332)
The Washington defense thrived in 2016 in large part due to the performance of the interior line. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski rarely had to call blitzes with Vea dominating at the point of attack.
Vea collected five sacks with two quarterback hurries in 2016, demonstrating his ability to get into the backfield. He's also proven capable of impacting the passing game from the line, using his height (6-5) to deflect passes.
15. Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon (Jr., 6-2, 195)
The highlight moment of Oregon's 2016 season came courtesy of Carrington. His touchdown reception at Utah in November sealed an upset win, while at the same time providing a snapshot of his skill set.
He combines superb athleticism and leaping ability with steady hands, and Carrington has also proven himself to be an excellent route runner.
16. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington (Jr., 6-3, 230)
Swarming to the run and keying the Washington defense from the inside linebacker spot, Victor was an underrated star for the Huskies' breakout 2016 season.
While NFL scouts may want Victor to add some more size to his lengthy frame, that's a quality that can be cultivated; Victor's ability to read opposing offenses cannot. He's uniquely skilled as a sort of quarterback for the defense.
17. Quenton Meeks, CB, Stanford (Jr., 6-2, 195)
From the same program that produced Richard Sherman comes a cornerback in the same physical mold. Meeks (6-2) is one of the taller cornerbacks in college football, combining his size with the speed and physicality necessary to thrive at the position.
Stanford sputtered without him in the lineup midway through last season, proving his value to the entire Cardinal defense. He's is Stanford’s best option to shut down opponents' No. 1 receiver – and he has the qualities to do the same in the NFL.
18. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (Sr., 5-11, 230)
A casualty of Oregon's disappointing 2016 season was Freeman's erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidacy. Freeman's production dipped, with 2016 marking the first time he failed to reach 1,000 yards. Returning for his senior year should lead to a rebound – and perhaps some Pac-12 records for this powerful ball carrier.
Freeman's NFL stock could take a hit from his fourth year of college. The pros put a premium on mileage at running back, and another year racking up touches could impact his evaluation. But if he remains healthy the entire season, Freeman will have ample opportunity to show off his abilities.
19. Kenny Young, LB, UCLA (Sr., 6-1, 240)
Young broke into UCLA's starting lineup as a freshman in 2014, and he's made strides every season in Westwood. His greatest leap was evident last season, when he was a breakout star on a talent-rich Bruins defense.
Young will be the leader of the UCLA defense in 2017. That's a role that's been conducive to launching into the NFL draft in recent years, particularly for linebackers. Young's a different player than Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack or Jayon Brown, but he's a promising prospect for the NFL all the same.
20. Iman Marshall, CB, USC (Jr., 6-1, 200)
Few players around college football have the physical attributes NFL front offices value at cornerback quite like "Biggie" Marshall – in particular, the league's growing emphasis on size. Marshall lives up to his nickname as one of the bigger cornerbacks in the game, an attribute that makes him a tough matchup for tall and physical receivers.
Marshall will also get the opportunity to shine as the No. 1 coverage man this season, with teammate Adoree' Jackson headed to the NFL. Should Marshall prove to be a shutdown man in coverage, his stock will soar.
21. Shay Fields, WR, Colorado (Sr., 5-11, 175)
The importance of reliable slot receivers cannot be overstated in today's NFL. The need for such playmakers is becoming more evident on draft day, which could be a boon to Fields' stock.
The explosive Fields set the pace for Colorado's loaded receiving corps in 2016. His speed makes him a threat to break mid-range catches off for huge gains.
22. Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State (Sr., 6-2, 230)
Ballage has never been the featured running back in Arizona State's offense, deferring to Demario Richard for much of his career. As a result, Ballage does not have much mileage racked up – a positive for an NFL running back prospect.
Ballage also has played multiple positions in his time at Tempe, dabbling at linebacker and also returning kicks. His contributions across all three phases speak to unparalleled versatility. Surely an NFL organization could make use of his skills.
23. Casey Tucker, OT, Stanford (Sr., 6-6, 301)
Following in the lineage of great Stanford tackles, Tucker has his opportunity to shine in 2017. The senior will most likely start on the right side, but can move to the left as needed.
His progress as a run blocker will establish Tucker's place among 2018 linemen prospects.
24. Jeromy Irwin, OT, Colorado (Sr., 6-5, 295)
Playing a key role in Colorado's offensive transformation, Irwin earned All-Pac-12 recognition for his performance at left tackle. Irwin's improvement carries him into an important 2017.
Irwin may need to add some bulk in order to make the NFL jump, but his technique is sound. He graded well per Pro Football Focus’ metrics in several of the Buffaloes’ biggest games of 2016, including the win over Washington State late in the season.
25. Jake Browning, QB, Washington (Jr., 6-2, 209)
Browning spent much of the 2016 regular season firmly in the Heisman Trophy hunt. He led the Huskies to a Pac-12 championship in his second year as the starter, and returns as the face of the offense in 2017. As far as his NFL draft standing, however, Browning may need two excellent seasons to launch himself in the upper echelon.
Browning has superior arm strength, but could improve his accuracy (62 percent). He also struggled late in the season against Washington's three best defensive opponents: USC, Colorado and Alabama.