Zach Mettenberger’s NFL prospects: What now?

Just a few days ago, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was a highly projected NFL draft prospect leading a high-powered offense in the final weeks of his senior year.

He’s now hobbled with only surgery in his immediate future.

LSU confirmed Wednesday that Mettenberger will miss the Tigers’ bowl game with a season-ending knee injury suffered Friday in the win over Arkansas.

In its statement, the school would not specify the injury. ESPN reported Tuesday night that Mettenberger tore his anterior cruciate ligament and sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Mettenberger will have surgery in three weeks, team spokesman Michael Bonnette said.

Mettenberger suffered the injury when Arkansas defensive tackle Byran Jones hit him as he released a long completion midway through the fourth quarter in LSU’s 31-27 comeback win over the Razorbacks. His left leg was pinned under the 318-pound Jones.

Teary-eyed and red-faced, the QB left the field on crutches.

“We are very disappointed for Zach,” LSU coach Les Miles said in the statement Tuesday. “He’s been a tremendous leader for our team and he’s as a competitive a guy as I have ever been around.”

True freshman Anthony Jennings is expected to start LSU’s bowl game. The 14th-ranked Tigers (9-3) will know their bowl destination Sunday. Most feel they’ll land in the Cotton or Outback bowl.

Meanwhile, the future of one of LSU’s most productive passers is in question.

Before the injury, many NFL draft experts projected Mettenberger as a late first-round or second-round selection. He was in the top five among quarterbacks.

His status now is unclear.

Some analysts, like NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks, say he drops a round.

Others, like ESPN and WWL radio’s Mike Detillier, say he stays the same.

There are a few who won’t dare to guess.

“Mettenberger’s draft projection was all over the map before his ACL injury. Now? Who knows,” CBSSports.com’s Dane Brugler tweeted.

Better projections will come in April, experts say, when the quarterback’s rehabilitation is a few months in.

Either way, Mettenberger will miss the Senior Bowl, an invitation-only all-star game for college seniors with NFL potential.

Mettenberger was expected to be invited.

He also won’t be able to work out during the NFL Combine, a week-long showcase in February in Indianapolis where college stars perform physical and mental tests in front of NFL scouts and executives.

Normal recovery time from ACL surgery is six to eight months. The NFL draft has been moved back to May this year, something analysts say will help Mettenberger.

By April, the quarterback might be healthy enough to makes some throws for NFL scouts, but fully working out for teams is a long shot.

That’s not so important, said Rob Rang, NFL draft analyst for CBSSports.com.

“Everybody who’s watched him knows the velocity he has,” Rang said.

Mettenberger has a lot of positives in his corner, Detillier and Brooks agree, that could prevent him from slipping too far.

At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, he has the physical attributes. His style as a true pocket passer is alluring to teams searching for a franchise quarterback.

He has captained a pro-style offense and has blossomed while playing under a former NFL coordinator in LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

And, as Rang alluded to, Mettenberger’s arm strength is known around the league.

“Because of those factors, he might not experience a drop,” Brooks said.

Still, there is a sense among analysts that Mettenberger is no longer considered a blue-chipper who can play next season. He may have to sit out next year, similar to a redshirt in college, Rang said.

Mettenberger’s interviews with team officials and the progress of his rehabilitation will likely determine his selection.

He’ll likely attend the combine, analysts say, and take part in the mental exams. Teams will review his rehab and the extent of the injury.

“It’s all about the rehab,” Detillier said during a radio interview on Wednesday with WNXX-FM, 104.5. “If this were 10, 12 years ago, you might say this would really be devastating to his draft stock.

“You see these guys five and six months after major knee surgery back on the field practicing,” he continued. “It’s the biggest change I’ve seen in 27 years doing this.”

Mettenberger, though, still must win the interviews, Rang said. The quarterback has been arrested in the past, an incident that led to his dismissal from Georgia three years ago.

He left there for a Kansas junior college before landing at LSU.

“He’s going to have to be impressive in the interview sessions,” Rang said. “There have been some questions about why he bounced around.”

In the meantime, surgery and an arduous rehab await a player who just days ago was riding so high.

“I know Zach will work extremely hard to rehabilitate his knee,” Miles said in the statement, “and I don’t anticipate this injury having any impact on what should be a great future in the NFL.”