The NFL combine solidified 4 first-round QBs alongside the mystery of Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix

INDIANAPOLIS — And then there were four. Well, at least four.

That seems to be the general consensus among personnel men regarding the quarterback class coming out of this past week’s NFL scouting combine. More precisely: As we roll toward the pro day circuit and personal workouts, a swath of talent evaluators believe that Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy has joined USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye as surefire first-round draft picks. This despite a throwing performance at the combine that was choppy at times for McCarthy, particularly compared to the other potential “second tier” quarterbacks in Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix, who both had smoother sessions (albeit for different reasons) in Indianapolis.

Asked for their opinion on the number of quarterbacks who now appear to be locked into the first round, seven of seven evaluators included McCarthy in that mix. As expected, McCarthy’s 18-minute interview sessions drew some positive reviews, as did his demeanor and interaction in the quarterback drills, when two evaluators noted that others appeared to gravitate toward him. Evaluators were also pleasantly surprised to see him check in at 219 pounds, although there was at least some skepticism over how much of that was “real” weight, versus pounds that were padded for the event through hydration and some calorie-cramming.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy passes during the NFL football scouting combine, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Michigan's J.J. McCarthy showed enough first-round potential as an NFL draft prospect this past week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

That suspicion aside, the general assessment was that McCarthy showed enough at the combine to keep teams intrigued over his above average arm strength, and mix of intangibles and leadership, allowing him to build on this week in his forthcoming Michigan pro day (on March 22) and the slate of personal visits and workouts he’ll be taking on. All of this means that while the teams inside the top three — or those capable of moving into the top three — try to determine a pecking order between Williams, Daniels and Maye, the rest of the quarterback needy teams from No. 8 (the Atlanta Falcons) and beyond are left to get a grasp on McCarthy.

He might not be alone in that sifting process. Among the seven evaluators, three believed Penix or Nix, or both, could also establish themselves as first-round picks in the next seven weeks.

“It could be five [first-round QBs] or more,” one evaluator said. “It just depends how many spots are open — and which spots are open — after free agency, and how everyone feels about the long-term options.”

Added another evaluator, “It’s a soft [quarterback class] next year. In terms of the experience in this class — definitely some of the experience — but also the talent, is better than next year’s group, I think. There’s some scouting the future there, in my opinion. You have to weigh what’s coming [in 2025] with the bigger picture.”

In some assessments, that is what is leading to suggestion that either Penix or Nix could be first-round picks. But they’re clearly both still mysteries in the middle of this process. Like McCarthy, they have some very strong differing opinions about them. Unlike McCarthy, they don’t have the elements of age or a forecasted high ceiling working in their favor. Both will be 24 years old next season, both have started a lot of games and thrown a lot of passes, and both have a much more defined feel for what they can be. Conversely, McCarthy turned 21 in January and appears to have a lot of development (and potential ceiling) left in front of him. Some of which might have been showcased when he showed up at the combine at 219, rather than the low 200s that some personnel departments were anticipating.

What Penix and Nix both have going for them is they looked far more solid in their throwing sessions at the combine. Though there’s still grumbling about Nix’s arm strength, his mechanics were sound and his throwing session showcased the touch and accuracy that will fit a lot of offenses. And he showed that he could throw a deep ball, albeit not as effortlessly as Penix.

Penix, meanwhile, had arguably the best throwing session at the combine. He threw deep passes with modest effort, with clean, tight spirals. He also was effective on intermediate passes, with solid timing despite working with unfamiliar receivers. His measurables also came back in good order, especially his 10 1/2 inch hands that likely have plenty to do with the ease and perfection of his deep balls. And while his medical is what it is — two shoulder and two knee surgeries — there was no indication this past week that teams were alarmed with the health of those repairs. Not that it went without comment.

“[Penix] is a pure thrower,” one high-ranking AFC executive said. “In this venue, he looked really good. On air [versus] with rushers coming at you, those are two different things. But the medical would be the thing to keep him out of the first round in my mind.”

“Penix can sling it,” another evaluator said. “I see Day 2 for sure.”

That particular evaluator stacked the second tier of quarterbacks as McCarthy and Nix having first-round potential.

In some respects, it sounds like the same arguments going into the combine survived as the same arguments coming out. That is true, save for the pieces of information gleaned. McCarthy appears capable of adding weight to his frame, and showcased some leadership and “alpha” while mingling in his quarterback group. Even with a so-so throwing performance, it was something to build upon. Nix was solid and workmanlike and continued to cut the figure of a player who has a ton of experience and is ready to step in sooner rather than later. And Penix showed he could step in with the other quarterbacks (apart from the top three who didn’t work out) and put on a performance as good or better than anyone else on the field.

All in all? It’s a class of four first-round picks that could grow to five or six. Now bring on the pro days.