Extremely early looks at prospects for the 2017 NFL draft, beginning just days after the conclusion of the latest one, may seem on the surface to be a bit crazy to many, but it is in fact very useful to build a foundation overview of the players prior to the start of the new college football season. The mock drafts, yes, those are of no meaning beyond a bit of fun, but I’ll build a very extensive database of statistics and scouting notes on these guys in preparation for the upcoming year, with plenty flexibility for them to go in any direction from that starting point. The player who was right at the very top of the list that I was excited to take a closer look at was Washington State’s junior quarterback Luke Falk, who was impossible to miss when watching the Cougars in PAC-12 play in 2015. He’s already become a bit of a favourite name to include high up on various versions of these mocks and big boards at this stage. I expected to have a high initial grade myself, but after a closer look at his film in more detail, came away relatively disappointed (compared purely just with the anticipation going in), and I’m actually going the other way, and calling for a little bit of easing off on the early round talk, as he isn’t there yet. Not to say that with a big leap forward over the course of the 2016 season he can’t get there but right now there’s a long way to go.
Falk joined WSU initially as just a walk-on to the team (not on a scholarship). After taking a redshirt year in 2013 and then the backup role for most of his redshirt freshman season in 2014, he broke into the line-up late that year when first choice Connor Halliday went down with injury against USC, playing the majority of that contest and starting the final three games. His introduction to big-time college football was hit and miss as expected; over those four games he threw for 443 yards per game and 12 touchdowns, but also got picked off 7 times while ultimately losing 3 of the 4. With Halliday graduating, Falk took over for his first full season as Washington State’s starting quarterback for the 2015 season, and excelled in leading the Cougars to a 9-4 record (with one of those defeats a game Falk missed due to injury), a 6-3 record in conference play, and a Sun Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes to cap a great year, and setting very high expectations for his second season leading the team and with the eyes of the NFL firmly on him just for added pressure.
The first thing to note and get out of the way, is Mike Leach’s air-raid style offensive system that Falk operates from. Working almost exclusively from the shotgun, the scheme is conducive to very high production through the air, that saw Falk lead the nation in total pass attempts last season with a massive 644, throwing over 60 times on four occasions during 2015, including a high mark of 74 in the impressive win over Oregon in week five. It’s no surprise therefore to see him averaging 380 passing yards a game and 4,561 total yards over his twelve starts. Even though it is of course the case to some extent with every single college quarterback entering the professional ranks, there will be a transition required to a more balanced pro-style system once he hits the NFL. There’s a heck of a lot of positives in building up all those passing reps along with the confidence in his decision making, and the key thing is that he proves to scouts and decision makers that he has the football IQ that will transcend beyond what he’s been asked to do in college.
At 6ft 4, Falk has desired height, though there’s no doubt that he could do with adding more bulk to what was a fairly thin frame, not unlike the points made regarding Jared Goff this past draft process. There are other similarities to the recent number one overall pick. He’s highly efficient, with a completion rate of 69.4% as well as an excellent 38:8 touchdown to interception ratio. He lacks a strong arm though, and while he might add a little velocity on his throws as and when he adds some muscle and weight to his frame, it might always be an area that doesn’t feature prominently in his repertoire. The numbers are good, but Falk often fails to be convincing in the pocket. His general footwork and movement isn’t the smoothest and he can really let his co-ordination abandon him as the pressure closes in around him. Frequently, that can include failing to realise when backside pressure is about to reach him, to know that he needs to get rid of the ball. When moving out of the pocket as the play breaks down, he does try to keep his eyes downfield and release a pass, but doesn’t keep the best form when doing so, again often let down by his lower body mechanics and losing accuracy as a result. In fact, more often than not, he tends to get lost when having to scramble, losing composure and control over his feet. Even when in a relatively clean pocket, Falk has a tendency to sail many of his passes over the head of his intended targets, and generally seems to lack that finer level of accuracy to make things easier on his receivers. Too often they are made to work harder than should be necessary to bring in basic throws. That little extra touch on his passes in the corners of the end zone, on back-shoulder throws, on fades, and on the deep ball just aren’t there, and might never really be. All that said, there are times when Falk can hit perfectly and beautifully on some tricky balls to the sidelines and in traffic that make you sit up and applaud. They don’t happen quite often enough but the ability to make great plays is unquestionably there. A final negative in his play right now is a bad habit of staring down his intended target, telegraphing his plans with his eyes that better defensive backs can take advantage of.
There’s plenty of issues there detailed above, but with all that said, there’s just something about this kid that yells out winner. While there’s questionable mechanics and consistency, he thrives under the pressure of having to conduct his pass-heavy offense, he trusts his reads, isn’t afraid to release the ball, and shows evidence of a developing football IQ and a strong mentality. Some fundamentals in basic progression work are there, as well as knowing when to find his check-down options. He has ‘game’, and those on-field intangibles to lead and drive a team to victory. In his still young career to date, Falk has routinely stepped up in clutch moments that include the afore-mentioned win over Oregon, in which the Cougars trailed by 10 points in the 4th quarter with just 6 minutes to go, yet came away with a 45-38 win. He played superbly in a narrow loss to Stanford in a high pressure game that was in the national spotlight, putting his team in position to get the win before a final push from the Cardinal secured it at the death. Good opposition in UCLA, both Arizona’s and Miami also all fell to losses led by Luke.
There’s a highly frustrating combination of likeable traits and massively obvious deficiencies in Luke Falk, that makes his overall prospects as a future NFL quarterback a difficult one to unravel. Some of the more questionable elements might take more prevalence as they are hard to rectify. Either way though, Luke Falk is going to be one of the more fascinating players to watch during the upcoming college football season. He has time, and two more years of eligibility remaining however, and as of right now, he looks like he could do with making full use of both those seasons, despite his popularity as an early name to quote for the next NFL draft in 2017.