2016 NFL Combine Preview: USC QB Cody Kessler

Dec 5, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws a pass against the Stanford Cardinal during the Pac-12 Conference football championship game at Levi
Dec 5, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws a pass against the Stanford Cardinal during the Pac-12 Conference football championship game at Levi /

The 2016 NFL Combine is a chance for USC quarterback Cody Kessler to prove his accuracy and intelligence are worth a pick while assuaging concern about arm strength.

At the height of his powers at USC, Kessler was a Heisman Trophy candidate. At his lowest, he was an average Pac-12 quarterback. At the NFL Combine he’ll need to bring the traits which made him the former to the forefront.

What did he do at USC?

Kessler started three years for the Trojans, throwing 88 touchdowns in his career to just 19 interceptions. His career completion rate of 67.5% is a USC record, as is his interception rate of just 1.51. He stands among the top five USC passers of all-time.

As a redshirt sophomore the Bakersfield product beat out Max Wittek for the starting job and helped the 2013 Trojans to a strong season finish following the midseason firing of Lane Kiffin. His brand of efficient play from the quarterback spot allowed playmakers like Buck Allen, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor to thrive.

A second-year starter in 2014, Kessler completed one of the best seasons for a quarterback in USC history, setting single-season records for completions, completion percentage, passing efficiency and interceptions rate. He also tied Matt Barkley’s 39 touchdown record and come yards short of Carson Palmer’s yardage mark.

Jan 30, 2016; Mobile, AL, USA; North squad quarterback Cody Kessler of USC (6) throws a pass during second half of the Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Kessler enjoyed Heisman talk going into 2015 thanks to such a stellar junior season, but the season did not go as planned. Despite an excellent performance by the quarterback against Stanford, the Trojans suffered an unexpected loss at the Coliseum. Kessler then followed up perhaps the best performance of his career against Arizona State with his worst performance as a quarterback in USC’s loss to Washington.

Steve Sarkisian’s firing shortly thereafter derailed the Trojans’ hopes for the season. Though the team rallied behind a resurgent rushing attack to win the Pac-12 South, Kessler’s performance never rose to past levels culminating in a disappointing Holiday Bowl loss. The normally efficient quarterback threw an interception in the waning minutes and then displayed poor decision making on USC’s last gasp Hail Mary attempt.

What’s his current draft stock?

Even when playing his best at USC, Kessler’s draft prospects were limited. After struggles in 2015 he now stands projected as a late pick or undrafted free agent.

Despite exceptional numbers at the college level, there are serious questions about Kessler’s more tangible features. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds he lacks prototypical size. Of even greater concern is less-than-stellar arm strength.

Kessler’s accuracy is agreed to be his greatest asset, especially from within 15 yards, and at USC he proved he can make NFL throws in that range. However, his inability to push the ball downfield with accuracy is the biggest knock against him.

ESPN credits Kessler with underrated mobility and exceptional mental capacity, with great awareness, careful decision-making, toughness and intelligence. However, arm strength is a concern and he is expected to be a Day 3 pick at best as a result.

USA Today’s Draft Wire predicts the Trojan QB to be taken in the sixth round. Jon Ledyard summed up the scout’s view on the player:

"Kessler’s smarts, work ethic, mobility, toughness, experience, and efficiency as a player are all vital traits that he can bring to the next level, but none can make up for the physical limitations that put a low ceiling on his development."

Rob Rang of CBS Sports similarly likened Kessler to Matt Barkley before him as “a good – not great – NFL prospect” with inflated college production belying his physical limitations. He is projected in the seventh round.

What can he improve at the Combine?

Kessler could greatly boost his draft stock by alleviating concerns about his arm strength.

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While he’ll always be limited in that department, scouts will be looking to see just how much of a hindrance it will be towards his prospects. A strong day of more consistent downfield throwing than is present on his tape would go a long way towards convincing a team he’s worth a pick.

From there, Kessler will simply need to reinforce his impression as an exceptionally accurate passer on short and intermediate routes.

On the intangible side of things, convincing a team to take a chance on his potential as a reliable back up and occasional starter could depend on his performance in interviews.