What started as a plea to the public for content ideas to help fund my baby’s diaper fund has turned into my first-ever player profile. And not just a player profile. A player profile spanning 1,800+ words, and yes, don’t mind me while I squeak out a few extra here.

Austin suggested a 3,000-word Payton Thorne player profile, and at first, I immediately resisted the idea. Then I remembered he cut my checks, and I liked this job very much. So, here I am talking about the Auburn starting quarterback today. I can’t come up with 3,000 words on Thorne, and to be honest, nobody needs to be subjected to that. 

As someone who follows Michigan football and has Auburn season tickets, I’ve seen plenty of him over the past few seasons. This isn’t an elite CFF performer in 2024, no matter how you want to look at him. But I do believe there’s a chance he could have value late in best ball drafts. Let’s dig in before putting that stamp on him…

Biography

Thorne comes into the 2024 season with a height and weight of 6’2″ and 200 lbs. He committed to Michigan State to play college football after being the 2018 USA Today Illinois offensive player of the year. He was a 3-star both as a high school player and as a college football transfer. Thorne redshirted in 2019 before playing three seasons at Michigan State, throwing 861 times and connecting on 49 passing TDs.

Courtesy of Michigan State Athletics

This guy has a lot of athleticism and football in his family, with his dad being a college coach from the mid-1990s until 2022, where he was the Offensive Coordinator for one year at Western Michigan. John Thorne, Payton’s grandfather, was also a college coach and sits in North Central College’s Hall of Fame. Payton’s other grandfather, Dave Martin, played at Wisconsin! Bet you didn’t see all that coming did you?   

System

Now that I’ve gotten his bio out of the way, let’s get started with the most appealing reason to roster Thorne in your best ball leagues: the system he’s playing in. Hugh Freeze has really churned out some great fantasy QBs during his time at Ole Miss and Liberty. He gifted us with incredible seasons from Chad Kelly and Malik Willis. Even a guy very few of us remember in Stephen Calvert was rosterable! Calvert ended as QB35 back in 2019, averaging 22.2 FPPG. Since 2014, Freeze QBs have averaged 25.5 FPPG, led by 426 rushing yards and 7 rushing TDs. (A big thank you to Mike Bainbridge at www.thecffsite.com for providing historical data.)

Great news! Thorne is more than capable of providing the rushing production to hit Freeze’s averages. He ran for over 500 yards last year and could certainly hit 7 TDs with a little luck. The key to getting a serviceable QB in best balls is the passing usage. Was the 265 passing attempts an anomaly, or was Freeze shielding a defect in his game?

Since 2014, Freeze QBs threw for 328+ times five times out of eight seasons. Odds say that 300+ attempts are in the cards, except I’m a little worried that Thorne has similarities to the three guys who did not hit that 328 mark. Jonathan Bennett, Stephen Calvert, and 2023 Payton Thorne were all just old guys who had more experience than they were talented. Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly, and Malik Willis were talented guys (at least for college football purposes) who could win games on their own.

Competition

Unlike in 2023, Thorne has no real competition behind him. Robby Ashford stole playing time last season, but he has since transferred to South Carolina. Those getting reps behind Thorne include redshirt freshmen Hank Brown and Holden Geriner. Those two have just 24 attempts in their career and are just guys. Walker White is a true freshman who comes with promise. Starting a true freshman QB in the SEC is rarely a smart decision.

Walker White Courtesy of AL.com

I think most of us considered Auburn a likely spot for a quarterback to transfer to this offseason. That has yet to happen, and the options out there are grim. Freeze has said some really positive and confident things about Thorne, leading me to believe this offseason was intentional and that Thorne will be the guy come Week 1. 

Past Production and Talent Level of Thorne

This one feels pretty easy to tackle. Thorne has a short throwing motion, but in no way is it a quick motion. His arm strength is fairly average, and you would never consider his ball consistently tight. The motions aren’t the same, but I think Brennan Armstrong’s levels of passing ability. It doesn’t look pretty but it has worked in the past in the right system. Thorne threw for 3,240 yards as a Michigan State Spartan (2021) with Kenneth Walker III on the roster. With Walker gone, though, Thorne saw that number drop to 2,679 yards on two fewer attempts for Michigan State in his final season there. 

He does have some athleticism to him making him a very capable runner. Thorne is certainly willing to get hit, and in his first year with Freeze, he ran for 515 yards on 134 carries (3.8 YPC). He won’t break any records in the 40, but he has run a 4.65 in years past. That number passes the eye test when watching him in action.

Courtesy of Auburn Athletics

What’s really interesting is that in Thorne’s best year, he still didn’t run as often as he did in 2023. The 2021 season saw 21.6 FPPG for him, yet his rushing numbers were 53 attempts and 344 fewer yards. Could we see a marriage of the two in his second year with Freeze? We’ve seen older QBs have great success in the second year of a new-to-them offense. Thorne certainly won’t become Jayden Daniels, Bo Nix, or Michael Penix, but it wouldn’t be that crazy to think that the added experience for a sixth-year player will be beneficial to his fantasy output. 

The Talent Around Him

Last year, Thorne didn’t have a ton of help around him. He had a rag-tag group of receivers that continuously split snaps, giving him no real alpha out wide. This year, we see a pretty big difference in weapons for the Auburn signal caller. Robert Lewis (Georgia State) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (Penn State) both come to the Plains as big-time transfers. Those two combined for 123 receptions, over 1,500 receiving yards, and 11 TDs in 2023. The offense also sees Cam Coleman join the roster from the high school ranks, where he was a 5-star recruit. Coleman had himself a great spring game scoring the only TD thrown by Thorne. 

Returning production is bleak, but the guy to look at here is the tight end, Rivaldo Fairweather. In his first season with Auburn, he caught 38 passes for 394 yards and six TDs. He was a big transfer from Florida International and is now in his second season with Auburn. He’s going to be a really nice weapon for the offense as a versatile TE. Caleb Burton III and Camden Brown provide some solid depth to the room but aren’t too exciting to talk about. Perry Thompson is the final piece of this puzzle as another big recruit for Auburn. He’s a 4-star but ranks eighth overall at WR.

Jarquez Hunter Courtesy of 247Sports

The running back room is really just Jarquez Hunter and a bunch of guys. Damari Alston, Brian Battie, and Jeremiah Cobb scream role players, giving the Auburn offense a bunch of options but nothing all that sexy. Hunter certainly has some appeal to his game. He’s a five-yard carry guy in the SEC, but we’ve seen Freeze never really hammer home one RB.

How does Freeze tackle the 450+ rushing attempts we’re likely to see this season? Hunter is surely getting 150+, with 185 likely being the cap on his usage. Alston/Battie/Cobb likely command 40-50 carries each, leaving us with about 150 carries left for Thorne. This lines up quite well with last season, with Robby Ashford’s 46 attempts gone and Thorne rushing 134 times. Is it even possible that the low end of the RB usage happens, and we see 175+ carries out of Thorne? Possible but not likely. 

(Editor’s Note: Our hearts and prayers are with the Battie family; we hope for a full recovery!)

The Schedule

This schedule is STIFF. It’s not Florida Gators’ level of tough, but it’s close. Auburn’s two rivals (Alabama and UGA) being elite teams in college football and automatically on the schedule every year is rough for the overall outlook. Add games against Missouri and Kentucky on the road and Oklahoma and TAMU at home and it’s quite possible Auburn ends the season with 5-6 wins.

Having a difficult schedule like this is not a great sign for Thorne’s outlook. A fun future study would be looking at how win/loss record impacts production for QBs. That’s time I don’t have currently, but maybe one day down the road, we here at Campus2Canton can dig in. It wouldn’t be surprising to see teams that finish .500 or worse don’t have many fantasy stars because it’s quite likely they don’t score enough to get them there. Last season, Auburn ended the season at 6-7 and managed just 15.7 FPPG from Thorne. 

Current ADP

As it currently stands, Thorne doesn’t really have an ADP. In the nine best ball drafts I’ve participated in, he’s been taken just once (by me), and that was at pick 28.11. He’s legitimately free at the time of writing this.

To give you an idea of the QBs being drafted around him in that lone draft, guys like Graham Mertz, Alex Orji, Luke Altmyer, Spencer Petras, and Jayden Maiava were all taken after him. Katin Houser, Tyler Van Dyke, and the two Western Kentucky QBs were all taken 1-2 rounds before him.

I totally understand the appeal of Western Kentucky QBs, Tyler Van Dyke, and even Mertz with his solid floor, but I just can’t get behind guys like Orji and Houser. Both are unproven in a bad offensive system. Maiava is going to go into the season as the backup.

Final Thoughts

I’m not going to sit here and pound the table for Payton Thorne as a top-tier QB in CFF drafts this season. That’s just not the case. What I will say is this is a guy who has a non-zero shot at being a top 30-40 CFF QB with a floor of top 60 at the position. He ended last season QB74, splitting time with Ashford and with zero talent out wide. Thorne also doesn’t have a TD vulture at running back, so I suspect his TD rate will increase on the ground in 2024.

Ultimately, the added experience in the offense, along with no real threat to overtake Thorne, has me saying that he should be taken in every draft with an ADP in the 23-27 round range. In 12-team leagues, there should be 72+ quarterbacks taken, and there’s no reason for a Freeze quarterback not to be one of them.

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