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The 2022 Draft looked a poor one for quarterbacks going in, and hasn’t turned out great either, with only Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett taken in the first two rounds – and he has been at the low end of the low-ceiling expectations placed upon him.
Meanwhile Desmond Ridder can’t dethrone Marcus Mariota even though the Falcons coaches barely trust their starter to throw multiple times a game; Bailey Zappe had a burst of relevancy in New England but that was it; heck, Mr Irrelevant Brock Purdy (the last player taken in the draft) is now the most relevant, forced into duty at the helm of a star-studded contender, thanks to the 49ers losing starters Trey Lance and Jimmy Garroppolo to injury.
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But the 2023 class of QBs has looked strong for some time, and with the woeful and surely-sick-of-Davis Mills Houston Texans careening towards the No.1 pick, it’s almost certain a signal-caller will go first, as seen every year between 2018-21.
The college football campaign has reached its post-season, with only quasi-exhibition bowl games and the four-team playoff remaining – starting in mid-December and running through early January – meaning we’ve already seen 95% of the body of work we’ll ever get from the top prospects.
One top prospect – Ohio State’s CJ Stroud – has reached the playoff (though as the No.4 seed, meaning we’re only likely to see him once more) while the others, such as Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson will play once more or not at all.
We add not at all, because in modern college football, draft-ready players will often skip not-really-relevant bowl games to keep themselves healthy for the draft process, ensuring they don’t ruin their long-awaited payday.
Just last year Ole Miss’ Matt Corral was hurt in the Sugar Bowl, and he ended up sliding to Carolina late in the third round; this year Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker has the unfortunate reality of hurting his draft stock, tearing his ACL late last month (though that was at least in an attempt to make the playoff).
Already Richardson has announced he’ll be skipping Florida’s bowl game – it’s a particularly low-ranking one so he’s not going to get much flak for that. (Levis has declared for the draft, but not yet confirmed if he’ll play in Kentucky’s bowl game.)
So all eyes will be on the decisions, and then potentially the play, of Stroud, Young and Levis. One game isn’t likely to shape the order in which they’re picked, but the three first-round candidates can leave a positive impression over the next month.
Stroud and Young are generally viewed as prospects 1a and 1b, in whichever order you prefer – the exception being ESPN veteran Mel Kiper Jr, who has Levis second, over Young.
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They’re nearly impossible to split. Young was the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner as the best player in college football; Stroud is one of four finalists for the 2022 Heisman, though he seems unlikely to win (and we’ll get to the likely winner later).
Young has a slightly stronger arm; Stroud has slightly better accuracy. Both are athletic, in the modern prototype of star college quarterbacks which maligns the traditional pocket passer profile, though Stroud is taller – and taller enough to a degree where NFL teams will definitely care.
We would lean towards Young if we were Houston (the almost certain No.1 pick holders) and most experts lean his way too.
“Opinions on Bryce Young will be split from team to team because his undersized frame (under 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds) makes him a complete outlier, especially for a potential No. 1 pick,” The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote last week, mocking him No.1 to the Texans.
“But Young has special instincts along with the accuracy, poise and processing that should translate very well to the NFL.”
ESPN’s most recent mock draft also had Young joining the Texans, with Matt Miller writing: “The biggest takeaway is the Texans need a quarterback who can step in to be the guy right away. The AFC South is not the NFL’s strongest division, and with Ryan Tannehill ageing in Tennessee, there could be an opening to quickly move to the top of the pack.
“With Young’s instincts, field vision, pocket poise and accuracy, he can be a Week 1 impact player as a rookie.”
Whoever holds the No.2 pick will still have plenty of leverage to trade down if they don’t need a QB, and as it stands, that’d be Chicago – who are just starting to get the most out of Justin Fields.
Other teams likely at the top of the draft who don’t need a passer include Seattle (currently No.3 thanks to the Russell Wilson deal, and Geno Smith has surely been too good to dump), Philadelphia (who’ll have New Orleans’ first pick, currently no.5), Jacksonville (currently No.7 with Trevor Lawrence progressing slower than you’d like, but progressing nonetheless), Arizona (No.8, and realistically unlikely to move on from Kyler Murray) and Green Bay (No.11, and Aaron Rodgers would probably combust if they took another first-round QB).
But that still leaves teams like Detroit (who it feels like have been waiting for this draft ever since the Jared Goff deal and own what’s now a juicy LA Rams pick, currently No.4), Carolina (taking Matt Corral in the third-round shouldn’t stop them from taking a top prospect if they can, currently No.6), and Indianapolis (rather than signing another bad veteran, currently No.9), plus confusing situations in Atlanta (currently No.10, and having not even trialled Ridder yet), Las Vegas (currently No.12, and surely considering a clean break from Derek Carr) and Washington (currently No.18, and making the playoffs might ruin their chances at getting one of the top prospects).
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The Lions and Panthers loom as the most likely future homes for whichever of Stroud or Young doesn’t get picked up – in our case, that’d be Stroud.
“I do like Stroud for Carolina. He fits with the personnel already on the team,” ESPN’s Miller wrote.
“We’ve seen a little more running from Stroud lately, which could unlock in his game as a pro, similar to how Herbert started using his legs more once getting drafted by the Chargers.
“As a passer, Stroud displays full-field accuracy and enough arm strength to reach every level of the passing tree.”
The third QB-needy team in this draft will be the one taking on the most risk, because Levis is a project player – talented, yes, and has the physical traits pro teams adore.
But for every Josh Allen, who converts his potential into elite NFL play, there are many more of your Daniel Jones, Drew Lock and Paxton Lynch types who have size but little else.
“Though Will Levis has struggled to elevate the Kentucky offence this season, the Wildcats’ recently-fired play caller (Rich Scangarello) and a shaky supporting cast deserve blame as well,” Brugler wrote at The Athletic.
“Levis still should check enough boxes (well-built, athletic, power arm, super competitive) to entice a quarterback-needy team.”
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Young, Stroud and Levis create a strong top tier of QB prospects this year, while Hooker, Richardson and others like Stanford’s Tanner McKee give the class depth. It’s a good group.
Yet this year the biggest story in college football hasn’t been any of the 2023 QBs – it’s been the likely dux of 2024.
Caleb Williams wasn’t able to lead USC to the playoffs in his first season at the school, after a stunning transfer from Oklahoma (former home of Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts, among others) to follow the shock poaching of coach Lincoln Riley.
But he was damn close; and if it wasn’t for a hamstring injury suffered during the Trojans’ Pac-12 championship game against Utah, he might’ve got them over the line. Instead he merely threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns while hurt.
ESPN analyst Mina Kimes raved while watching that loss: “It’s like Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes had a baby.”
With size, athleticism and ability, Williams appears to be the total package – watch out, Lex Luger – and will be an enormous prize for whoever earns the 2024 No.1 pick.
“He is one of the most unique talents I have ever seen at the quarterback position with the way he scrambles around and runs with the football and also the off-platform throws,” former NFL QB and analyst Brady Quinn said on The Dan Patrick Show last week.
“I think you will see NFL teams tank for him in the 2024 NFL Draft because he will go No. 1 overall. He’s that talented and that special of a player. He’s got the size and the ability. He checks off every box you are looking for.”
Williams’ emergence creates a unique scenario for some teams.
If you’re Carolina, Detroit or whoever else ends up picking third from the 2023 QBs after Young and Stroud are taken – would you be thinking a year ahead? Perhaps, knowing you’re not going to be very good in the 2023 season without a solution at QB, you could choose to be bad again, and hope to gain access to Williams over a secondary prospect like Levis, Richardson or Hooker.
Perhaps we’re playing 5D Chess here and we need to slow down. But with how important the QB position is, it may be better to ensure you get the absolute best possible prospect, rather than settling for very good.