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CFP National Championship Sets Up Important Duel Of NFL QB Prospects: Washington's Michael Penix Jr. Vs. Michigan's J.J. McCarthy | TheSportsDay CFP National Championship Sets Up Important Duel Of NFL QB Prospects: Washington's Michael Penix Jr. Vs. Michigan's J.J. McCarthy | TheSportsDay

CFP national championship sets up important duel of NFL QB prospects: Washington's Michael Penix Jr. vs. Michigan's J.J. McCarthy

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For the first eight years of its existence, the College Football Playoff National Championship minted future high-end NFL quarterbacks.

Marcus Mariota. Deshaun Watson. Jalen Hurts. Tua Tagovailoa. Trevor Lawrence. Joe Burrow. Justin Fields. Mac Jones. Bryce Young. Aside from Hurts, they’re all first-round picks with a mixed bag of success on the NFL level. Indeed, had it not been for the Stetson Bennett vs. Max Duggan matchup one year ago, the title game would still be working on an unblemished streak of at least one first-round quarterback pick appearing in the game. But streaks are made to be broken — and then begun again. And come Monday, barring something unexpected, a new streak will launch when Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy face each other in the national title game, then depart for the NFL as likely first-round picks.

The remaining questions: Will McCarthy join Penix in the 2024 NFL Draft, and if he does, which player will come off the board first?

Apart from the title hopes on the line, that’s one of the subplots of Monday’s matchup, featuring a pair of quarterbacks who each have at least one more big stage opportunity to audition for NFL evaluators. And the stakes certainly aren’t small, with Penix and McCarthy likely jockeying for the fourth quarterback slot in the next draft, behind the trio of USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels.

“They’ll probably settle out at the top of the second tier,” an AFC general manager said of Penix and McCarthy. “Jayden Daniels — if he’s not in the first tier [with Williams and Maye], he’s at the top of the second tier. But I think most will have a first-round grade [on Daniels], so he’s in that first tier. Penix and McCarthy, I can see having different opinions with play style preferences and the medical and some other factors. There’s some stuff, some things not to like about both players. … Penix is rolling right now, definitely, and McCarthy could get some momentum [in the championship game]. What they do here, positive or negative, it’s the kind of moment that leaves an impression.”

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Michael Penix Jr. #9 of the Washington Huskies warms up prior to a game against the Texas Longhorns during the CFP Semifinal Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Michael Penix Jr. #9 of the Washington Huskies warms up prior to a game against the Texas Longhorns during the CFP Semifinal Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. has impresses NFL scouts with his incredible deep-ball accuracy, but his injury history gives some teams hesitation. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports spoke to a cross section of evaluators ranging from the general manager level to area scouts, in an effort to stack up how Penix and McCarthy compare in terms of assessments — as well as how the national championship game could impact their draft stock. As with most draft conversations about quarterbacks, opinions and focal points on both players varied. Some evaluators were more versed on one player versus the other, but there were certainly some overlapping thoughts on both.

The first thing we learned: The championship game will feature a contrast between two quarterbacks, offering evaluators a chance to weigh differing tools, leadership styles, experience and more. Despite potentially jousting for the fourth quarterback slot in the 2024 Draft, Penix and McCarthy are certainly different players when it comes to the data. Not only in terms of the physical attributes each brings to the table, but also in terms of their age, medical history, resume and other factors. Even their eligibility is different, with Penix locked into the 2024 Draft class, but McCarthy still having the option of returning to Michigan for another season of development — which did factor heavily in the minds of some evaluators.

The seasoned player with a lot of arm, tape … and injuries

“Deep ball accuracy travels!”

That text from a longtime quarterback evaluator encapsulated the one overwhelmingly loved part of Penix’s game. Evaluators fawn over how precisely he throws deep passes. It was an attribute displayed to perfection in Washington’s 37-31 semifinal win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl — not to mention repeatedly over the course of the Huskies’ undefeated season — which saw Penix feather deep balls to wideouts Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk. Penix finished the win over the Longhorns with 430 yards passing and two touchdowns, as well as an impressive 76.3 percent completion rate.

“With what I just witnessed in person at the Sugar Bowl, Penix is an assassin and has absolute, total command of the offense and incredible poise, nothing fazes him,” one evaluator said. “J.J. McCarthy is a great athlete but not nearly the arm talent Penix has. Penix is the most accurate downfield passer I’ve ever seen in college, ever. And I’m not exaggerating. Texas had good coverage on a lot of those big plays and it didn’t matter. And the designed QB draws were daggers. [E]very time Texas thought they were figuring out how to stop Washington, Penix would rip off a 10-plus yard run for a first down.”

The deep ball precision is a skill that defined the two seasons of Penix’s pay for the Huskies, capping off a six-year college career that first saw him suffer four season-ending injuries with the Indiana Hoosiers from 2018 to 2021, before he transferred to Washington in 2022 and then posted back-to-back healthy campaigns with eye-popping numbers. In those last two seasons, Penix has thrown for 9,289 yards, 66 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, showcasing an ability to win in structure, from the pocket, and with an element of deep accuracy that is extremely rare. But in some ways, it also masks some consistency issues in short and intermediate routes.

“It’s a little odd, because he can throw into a bucket deep, but then he has some inconsistency with his accuracy on the shorter stuff,” an AFC scout said. “His throwing motion and mechanics are a little different, too. He definitely doesn’t have a classic over-the-top motion. But it’s not terrible, either.”

Ultimately, evaluators agreed that refining Penix’s timing and mechanics on shorter passes is both doable and worthwhile, particularly given a level of long-ball precision that is more difficult to coach into existence.

“I’ve watched Penix for two years — he can really spin it [and] throws the best deep ball I’ve evaluated in 30 years,” one high-level NFL personnel man said. “I saw Penix in the wind last year at a practice and was astounded at how accurate he was on the seams, overs and deep balls. It really grabbed my attention. But the injury history is super scary.”

Every evaluator pointed to Penix’s injuries as being the significant factor weighing down his evaluation. They include torn ACL’s in both knees, as well as an AC and sternoclavicular joint injuries that will be meticulously picked over during his draft assessment.

“I like him a lot, but I think he’ll probably be off our board medically,” an AFC area scout said. “I’ll be interested to see what happens with it at the [scouting] combine. Knees and shoulders are just huge red dots on the medical.”

“[I] would be surprised to see whether [Penix or McCarthy] surpass any of the top three consensus QBs,” and NFC scout said. “If Penix didn’t have the injury history it might be a different discussion, but two ACLs make it an easy tiebreaker.”

Unfortunately, the injuries and eventual transfer to Washington also came with the expense of an extended college career, with Penix turning 24 years old in May. McCarthy turns 21 later this month.

“[Penix] is quite a bit older, but I also think that’s becoming a little less relevant,” an NFC general manager said. “Good arms can last longer now, but you have to look at overall health in that picture. He’s a couple years older, paired with a bunch of injuries. But he’s also been healthy for two years in a row, too, and [24] is still a pretty acceptable range with his skills. He can also step in right away with his experience, as well. There’s a lot to turn over on him, especially if you’re justifying a pretty high draft pick. Now, if he’s sitting there in the third round — he won’t be, but if he was — you can probably run that pick in without all the nerves that are there in the first [round].”

The younger player with upside and leadership … but a lack of tape

As it stands, the two clear edges that McCarthy has on Penix are his age and health. But when you start moving down the assessment, it gets trickier. While Penix has some love vs. hate assessments that are very much rooted in his medical history, McCarthy’s are more rooted in a lack of throws on tape. Consider that in his last two years at Washington, Penix has 1,058 pass attempts. In that same span, McCarthy has 636. That’s a distinct disparity.

“I haven’t seen McCarthy as much as some of the other quarterbacks coming out, but what I have seen, [Michigan] runs a lot of offense through the running game and then to some degree the tight ends,” an NFC evaluator said. “It makes the CFP national championship sets up important duel of NFL QB prospects: Washington's Michael Penix Jr. vs. Michigan's J.J. McCarthy game pretty interesting, because it’s like in boxing, styles make fights. They’re not similar, so it’s possible McCarthy might have to throw a lot more, similar to last year [against TCU].”

So what do evaluators like about McCarthy? It’s a varied list: He’s athletic and can make plays on the move and out of structure; his arm shows velocity without a windup; he has gotten more accurate and consistent as a passer; he has showcased toughness running with the ball (maybe too much at times); he’s shown some improvement in his pocket patience; he’s not afraid to throw into tight windows; etc.

“He’ll win his meetings,” an NFC area scout said. “He’s got charisma and you see the leadership come through when you watch him — he handled all the [Jim] Harbaugh drama really well.”

The general theme of the assessments is an agreement that McCarthy got notably better and more consistent from 2022 to 2023. But there was also an overwhelming belief that he could still take advantage of another year in college.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) rolls out during the second half of the Rose Bowl CFP NCAA semifinal college football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) rolls out during the second half of the Rose Bowl CFP NCAA semifinal college football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy is younger than Penix and has shows improvement, which is why some evaluators believe he could benefit from another year in college. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

“He should go back — and I don’t mean that as a knock on him,” an AFC scout said. “I just think he could benefit from another year of being in that offense, where they could open it up a little more for him. His development as a player is the kind where you see him gaining more confidence with more opportunities. To me, he’s kind of in that [Texas QB] Quinn Ewers situation, where you know he’s going to grow and refine with another year and then just be a more clean, tested player in a year.”

“McCarthy is solid but I don’t know if he can elevate his team the way Penix can,” and NFC area scout said. “I think [going back to Michigan] would be smart. Seems like an underwhelming class [of QBs] next year, too, as of now.”

“Penix seems like a no-brainer first [round pick],” another longtime NFL evaluator said. “J.J. will be when the coaches get to know him. I didn’t think he played great in the Rose Bowl [win over Alabama]. I hope he’s better Monday night.”

That’s the crux of the matchup Monday night. Penix played a remarkable game in the semifinal and has nothing but momentum. McCarthy comes in less established and with an immense amount to gain. One of them seems like a certain first-round pick, while the other might be a top-five pick in the 2025 Draft with another year of seasoning. However it plays out, the two cross paths Monday, with a meeting that could define their trajectories in this draft and beyond.

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