Saturday in Austin was just another day at the office for Cal quarterback Jared Goff. With the Golden Bears defense staking his offense to a 10-point deficit, Goff rallied Cal for 31 straight points. And while the defense tried to falter again down the stretch, Cal held on to move to 3-0. The Golden Bears are right on the fringes of the AP Top 25 as they begin conference play next week against Washington, thanks in large part to Goff’s stellar play.
And NFL scouts have begun to take notice.
Before the season, draftniks saw Goff as a quarterback in the first-round mix. But depending on how much you wanted to emphasize tools versus skills, he wasn’t seen as the top guy on the board. Scouts drooled over the raw attributes flashed by Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones led his team to the BCS Playoff championship last season in impressive fashion. Michigan State’s Connor Cook would have been a first-round pick in 2015 had he come out.
But as these other quarterbacks have stayed level or regressed, Goff has taken his game to the next level this season. Through three games, Goff is completing 73.1 percent of his passes. He’s raised his yards per attempt from 7.8 in his sophomore year to 9.7 this season. It’s no easy task to put up that sort of yardage given the high volume of Sonny Dykes’s pass-focused “Bear Raid” offense.
While a lot of the throws are pre-determined and simple — as is the norm in college football — Goff displayed a few NFL-level passes in the game against Texas. Perhaps the best of these was a back-shoulder throw to wideout Kenny Lawler on fourth-and-3 for Cal’s second score of the game.
The placement on this ball (first replay) is immaculate. Texas was not playing the sort of aggressive man-to-man that would make this throw necessary, but this ball would beat NFL-caliber coverage. It’s a throw that young NFL quarterbacks of a high pedigree, like Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, have struggled to complete early in their careers.
Another thing that might be sliding in Goff’s favor is the early returns on Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota has played at a high level early in his career. NFL scouts pushed Jameis Winston over Mariota because there were more NFL-level throws on Winston’s college tape. But that didn’t mean that Mariota hadn’t shown the ability. It just meant that Oregon’s offense didn’t put him in those circumstances often.
Mariota fell to the second pick because scouts engineered uncertainty out of a lack of sample size rather than actual on-field failings. Failings like, say, throwing 18 interceptions in his sophomore season, as the quarterback selected No. 1 did.
Mark Helfrich was told by a head coach & GM before NFL Draft that “Marcus Mariota not having any red flags was a red flag” #NFLthinking
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 29, 2015
The NFL is nothing if not a copycat league. The Wildcat went from interesting gimmick to extinct in the span of about two seasons. NFL head coaches are paying attention to gambles that work. And if Mariota continues to pan out, it can only do good things for Goff’s draft stock. While Goff isn’t as physically gifted as Mariota, he shares a lot of the same passing traits and tape limitations.
Teddy Bridgewater’s draft-year saga proves that you can invalidate an entire college career of franchise quarterback play with skinny knees and a bad pro day. But if I were ranking the first-round quarterback candidates as of today, Goff would top the list at this point.
The NFL is a quarterback-starved league that somehow always finds a way to give starting jobs to journeymen like Josh McCown and Brian Hoyer. Being the best quarterback on the board can get you drafted first with ease.
The next steps for Goff’s candidacy are simple: he has to keep a team with a bad defense relevant in the Pac-12, and he has to keep posting good tape. Good showings against the top defenses left on the schedule, on the road against UCLA and Stanford, will be important for his stock. An anonymous NFL scout has already told Sporting News’ Matt Hayes that “there’s not a doubt in my mind, he’ll be the first pick [in the NFL draft] next spring.”
I don’t expect Goff to be a realistic Heisman candidate — barring a lot of help and lucky breaks — but he’s already proven his worth to the Golden Bears.
And, as far as the NFL goes, his value appears to already be well-established as well.
Rivers McCown is a contributor to The Washington Post’s college football coverage. His writing has appeared on ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, Football Outsiders Almanac and SB Nation Houston.