Summary: In recent years, there have been a few quarterbacks who burst onto the scene as freshman and excited the NFL scouting community for their potential in a few years on. Rough sophomore and junior seasons, however, dampened the enthusiasm for those prospects and led to those quarterbacks being overhyped. Christian Hackenberg was that kind of prospect last year, and Brad Kaaya fits in that mold for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Kaaya had a strong debut for Miami in 2014, completing 59 percent of his passes for 3,198 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The freshman had a ton of talent around him in the form of stud left tackle Ereck Flowers, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, running back Duke Johnson and tight end Clive Walford. Those four players all went in the first three rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft, with two of them being first-rounders. Kaaya was more of a game-manager as a freshman, and that was his best season of play.
With those contributors in the NFL, 2015 was a rough year for Miami, and Kaaya had to battle through with a weak supporting cast. He completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,242 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. Kaaya didn't develop and showed signs of regression.
As a junior, Kaaya had a very mixed 2016 season. He did well against some weak opponents early in the year, but then had a very rough stretch in the middle of the season before playing better in the final games. In 2016, Kaaya completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,532 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He, specifically, put together underwhelming performances in losses to Florida State and North Carolina.
As a passer, Kaaya can be excellent when he has a clean pocket. He has a good arm that can make all the throws in the pro game. When the pocket is clean, he is accurate in tight windows, can throw pretty touch passes, and demonstrate field vision to work through his protections. The problem is Kaaya has to be able to thrive without a perfect pocket to throw from, as it puts too much pressure on his offensive line to be flawless. That is an impossible expectation in the NFL, even for the best offensive lines in the league. If the NFL was only a seven-on-seven league, Kaaya would be superstar.
There are two crippling issues that Kaaya consistently fails to overcome. The first is whenever he starts feeling the pass rush, he drops his eyes and watches the defensive linemen swarm around him. On top of that, he is a statue in the pocket and rarely would you see him move to avoid rushers. There are lots of plays during which Kaaya looked like a deer in headlights who was just waiting to be tackled for a sack because he didn't keep his eyes downfield or slide in the pocket. Effective NFL quarterbacks keep their eyes downfield, glide in the pocket to avoid rushers, and deliver accurate passes in the face of a rush. It was a very rare sight to see Kaaya do that. His struggles to pass the ball while under pressure are a huge problem that could lead to him not panning out in the NFL.
Multiple teams also expressed that they have concerns about Kaaya lacking leadership and being self-absorbed rather than focused on the team. During the fall, sources said that Kaaya talked about how this would be a good year to come out because it is a weak quarterback class, and that could push him into the second or third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Sources would have preferred hearing that Kaaya had a singular focus on beating his next opponent.
This draft analyst's opinion is that Kaaya fits as a fourth-round pick for the 2017 NFL Draft. In speaking with sources from teams around the NFL, their grades on Kaaya weren't high. One general manager of a playoff team that is very skilled at quarterback evaluation said they had Kaaya as fifth-round pick. They feel he has no mobility, can't throw well while under pressure, and while his arm is decent, it doesn't blow them away. Two other teams said they graded Kaaya as a late third-, early fourth-rounder.
There are plenty of teams in the NFL that are starved for quarterback talent, so Kaaya could rise in the leadup to the 2017 NFL Draft just because of need and desperation. Kaaya might end up being a second-day pick, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if he goes in the early rounds of Day 3.
Player Comparison: Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert (6-4, 235) is more athletic and a little thicker than Kaaya, but they are the same height with quality arms. Both of them are terrible at passing in the face of a pass rush and have serious problems with their field vision. They take far too many sacks and put too much pressure on the offensive line. Both Gabbert and Kaaya also lack leadership traits that NFL teams want out of their starting quarterbacks. In the NFL, I could see Kaaya being a quarterback comparable to Gabbert.
NFL Matches: Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona, Houston, Kansas City, New York Giants and Pittsburgh
There are a lot of quarterback-needy teams in the NFL, and that will help Kaaya's chances of being drafted higher than where he should go. Obviously, the Browns are in dire need of a solution to their quarterback quandary. Cleveland also is loaded with draft picks, including two in the first round, two in the second, and one in the third. Kaaya could be a candidate for the Browns on Day 2 or on Day 3.
The 49ers are also desperate for a starting quarterback. Chicago, meanwhile, moved on from Jay Cutler after this season, and Kaaya could be worthy of consideration for the Bears. Chicago showed interest in Kaaya during the fall.
Blake Bortles is looking like he could be a bust for the Jaguars. In the mid-rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, Jacksonville could consider taking a quarterback to push Bortles and give the organization another option in case Bortles continues to struggle. Houston will also be in the market for another quarterback this offseason after trading away Brock Osweiler. However, the Texans will probably select a signal-caller early.
The Saints, Chargers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Giants and Steelers all fall into the category of teams that have aging starting quarterbacks. Each one could consider drafting Kaaya in the mid-rounds and developing him with hopes that he could be the heir apparent.