Though the NFL Draft has a rich history of churning out late-round success stories, the quarterback position has always been among the most fickle. While Tom Brady became the poster child for value found on the third day of the draft, Dak Prescott and Gardner Minshew have followed a similar path in recent years. This year, however, Florida International quarterback James Morgan won’t be sneaking up on anyone in the NFL Draft.
The pro-ready signal-caller has enjoyed a strong pre-draft cycle, impressing in every facet and elevating his performance when the stakes were highest. This story depicts Morgan’s gradual rise to becoming one of the more intriguing passers in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Early Years
Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, James Morgan didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
In fact, Goelz Field, where Morgan would hold court on Friday nights in the fall, was only a couple blocks away from Lambeau Field.
“I was really a big Brett Favre fan growing up,” Morgan said. “That’s really what caused me to fall in love with the game, his heroics week in and week out.”
Though he drew similar parallels to the legendary Packers gunslinger throughout much of his career, largely due to his rocket arm and fearless mentality, Morgan recalls one game in particular that influenced the way he played the quarterback position.
“Definitely his Monday Night Football performance, the day after his dad died,” Morgan said. “I remember my parents let me stay up late to watch it. That was incredible.”
Morgan went on to lead a decorated career of his own in Green Bay, throwing for a combined 5,964 yards and 60 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Ashwaubenon High School. He was named the Fox River Classic Conference Offensive Player of the Year following those respective campaigns, in addition to earning first-team All-Fox River Classic Conference honors both seasons.
Despite his accolades, Morgan only garnered moderate interest among recruiting circles, ultimately choosing Bowling Green over the likes of Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, North Dakota State, and Southern Illinois. The thought of playing for head coach Dino Babers, the offensive mind behind the brilliant collegiate seasons engineered by Jimmy Garoppolo and Robert Griffin III, intrigued Morgan. An offense predicated on arm talent and spreading the ball around to a multitude of weapons appeared to be the perfect match for the young signal caller.
Bowling Green University
Every freshman handles the transition of going from being celebrated at the high school level to spending his first season on the bench differently, but Morgan found a silver lining in what many in his position would deem as a setback.
“Being a redshirt was beneficial for me,” Morgan recalled. “I remember coming in, right away, I was kind of rushing, but I felt my arm was definitely able to compete at that level. Just to have that year to watch Matt Johnson was a beneficial thing that helped me later in my career.”
Absorbing as much knowledge as he could from starting quarterback Matt Johnson during his redshirt campaign, Morgan was able to implement what he’d learned the following season. Playing in 12 games, including seven starts, Morgan threw for 2,082 yards and 16 touchdowns, leading Bowling Green in all passing categories.
Morgan experienced a turbulent second season with the Falcons, starting the initial three games before a winless start prompted a temporary changing of the guard. He would later regain the starting position, however, finishing with 1,260 yards, nine touchdowns, and seven interceptions in seven appearances.
While Morgan didn’t have the season he envisioned as a redshirt sophomore, it ultimately served as a pivotal building block for his future success. The lesson learned was not lost on the strong-armed quarterback from Wisconsin.
“I had a plan for myself where it was like, high school, Bowling Green, NFL,” Morgan said. “And suddenly, there was a huge dent there. That taught me resiliency and confidence in myself.”
After much deliberation, Morgan was prepared to take the necessary steps that allowed him to develop and grow as a player, and opted to leave Bowling Green in search of a new beginning.
Paying for a lengthy list of college contacts from a friend who ran a recruiting service, Morgan identified every program that he viewed to be a fit and sent out a mass email. The message detailed his background and included a link to a YouTube highlight tape he made for himself.
Bryn Renner, the recruiting coordinator for Florida International University at the time, eventually opened the email, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Brought in to compete for the starting job, Morgan ultimately surged to the top of FIU’s depth chart in fall camp. In 12 games, the 6-foot-4, 229-pound gunslinger threw for 2,727 yards, 26 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Leading the Panthers’ to a program-best nine wins, Morgan’s breakout season included back-to-back 300-yard outings against UAB and Middle Tennessee, respectively. With Morgan at the controls, the Panthers led the Conference USA in total points (450) and points per game (34.6) in 2018.
“For me, it was about trying to earn respect with the guys, and not going in there and trying to demand things of them right away,” Morgan said. “I wanted them to see that I’m trying to work as hard as I can to win the job and earn their respect.”
Morgan thrived in his first season in a pro-style offense with spread principles, and went on to experience similar, albeit individual, success as a redshirt senior.
In 12 starts, Morgan passed for 2,585 passing yards and 14 touchdowns against five interceptions. While the promising season ended with a lackluster 6-7 record, Morgan completed 58 percent of his passes and amassed a 128.9 quarterback rating.
Even though his stay at Florida International was brief, the 2019 All-Conference USA honorable mention selection managed to etch his name in the FIU record books, including most touchdown passes in a season (26) and highest passing efficiency in a season (157.6).
East-West Shrine Bowl
Morgan’s name may have appeared on the Senior Bowl watch list entering his senior season, but his next opportunity ultimately came in the form of an invitation to attend the 95th annual East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Entering the all-star week with little fanfare, it was evident from the first day of practice that James Morgan was the most physically gifted passer in attendance. While he overwhelmed evaluators with his velocity and ability to seamlessly push the ball down the field, perhaps even more impressive was how instantaneous his chemistry appeared with an unfamiliar grouping of pass catchers.
“My goal going into it was just to compete, man,” Morgan said. “Coming from a non-Power 5 school, that was a great opportunity to showcase what I got against some great competition. I took it one thing at a time, one day at a time, one play at a time. That’s how I handled it and had an absolute blast.”
Morgan’s ascension didn’t stop there, however. In fact, his draft stock continued to soar following an eye-opening performance on the grand stage of the NFL Scouting Combine.
2020 NFL Scouting Combine
A common misconception about the NFL Scouting Combine is that the week-long evaluation solely hinges on the athletic testing, when in reality, it’s merely a small piece to an intricate puzzle.
In Morgan’s case, his week began on Sunday — the moment he landed in Indianapolis.
Orientation kicked off his first day of festivities, followed by extensive interviews with scouts in the evening.
Morgan, among a sea of other prospects, reported to a local hospital the following day, where they underwent a series of tests, including x-rays and bloodwork. The day concluded with another round of interviews.
The next day consisted of more testing, only this time, the players were to enter rooms, where various teams would be conducting their own evaluations. They went through this process roughly six times, with different team doctors in each room. If a team requested a specific examination, the prospect was required to return to the hospital to undergo additional testing. After that, another set of interviews.
Following a week of poking, prodding, and endless interviews, Morgan was afforded his long-awaited opportunity to perform in front of a sizeable audience comprised of next-level evaluators and decision-makers. While Morgan represented himself well in the athletic testing, where he really made waves was in the on-field portion of the evaluation, showcasing his pro-level arm and quick decision-making.
“My mentality going in was that I’d done all the drills a number of times, so I was very confident in that,” Morgan said. “The run stuff, I set things that I wanted to accomplish going into it and felt like I checked off the goals with that. With the throwing, just to go out and have fun and spin it around. I really enjoyed that part of it, it wasn’t something I was nervous about at all.”
Many would be hard-pressed to find another signal caller in this class that’s had a more efficient pre-draft process than James Morgan.
Somewhat of an afterthought prior to his Shrine Bowl dominance, Morgan has upped the ante when the stakes were highest, proving to be unflappable in potentially career-altering moments. His arm talent and poise left an impression on evaluators on the field, while his mental makeup, preparation, and unrivaled love for the game likely endeared himself to teams off of it.
Whenever Morgan gets his shot at the next level, don’t expect him to relinquish the chance at becoming Green Bay’s modern-day success story.
“When I take the field for the first time, it’s gonna be about one play at a time,” Morgan said. “Obviously at that point, I’m going to do everything I can to be prepared to go — I want to be like Peyton Manning with that regard. My biggest mentality is just working as hard as you can to be ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.”
Much like Prescott, Minshew, and a slew of others who came before him, Morgan’s opportunity may come sooner than many anticipate.