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NFL Draft Primer: This Year's Top 5 QBs

The NFL Draft will take place this Thursday night. Rumors are swirling around almost every pick in the draft, as no one truly knows who will be going where. I have compiled my top five quarterbacks in this draft class as if I was a scout in an NFL front office. After watching game film on all of these players and evaluating how their skill sets could transfer to the next level, here are the results:

1. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Stroud lost just four games at Ohio State, one of which was a dominant performance in last year’s 42-41 loss to Georgia in the CFP semifinal. The other three were against Oregon, which was Stroud’s second career start, and twice against Michigan. In those games, Stroud combined to throw for 1227 yards (409 ypg), seven touchdowns, 66.2% completion rate (100-151), and three interceptions, two of which were deflected off the hands of the intended receiver. With stats like these, it’s clear that Ohio State’s offense, and Stroud in particular, was not the issue in these games.

With time in the pocket, Stroud has lethal accuracy against all coverages at all levels of the field.. While he struggled with some high misses early in his career, he has completely remedied that issue. He makes “wow” throws with regularity, which was on full display in the CFP Semifinal against Georgia. He seems to will plays to happen for him, fitting the ball into tight windows where only his receivers could catch the ball. Stroud thrives in the intermediate and deep game, which fits with many NFL schemes.

Stroud was certainly the beneficiary of the talent around him, as he had at least three first round wide receivers on the perimeter over the last two years in NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson, Saints WR Chris Olave and future 1st rounder Marvin Harrison Jr. He also had multiple first round talents on his offensive line, including the top tackle in this year’s class, Paris Johnson Jr.

Stroud is not necessarily mistake free, as he will sometimes force a ball down the field to try to make a play work. He got away with a dropped INT against Maryland in the second that would have flipped the whole game and likely the Buckeyes’ season. He also struggles against strong zone looks, which was particularly evident against Michigan this year. However, Stroud was able to find windows down the field in the first half, but Ryan Day’s offensive scheme seemed to move away from that later in the game, forcing Stroud to keep the ball underneath, allowing Michigan to stall the Buckeye attack. Georgia employed a similar scheme, but Day’s game plan was better prepared, allowing Stroud to put up 41 points on the eventual national champs.

The biggest knock against Stroud is his mobility, as many claim he can’t extend plays like other QBs in the class. However, this is based on his stats beyond the line of scrimmage. If you watch the film, Stroud is adept at extending the pocket and finding receivers down the field. Additionally, he showed he has the ability to gain yards past the line of scrimmage during the Georgia game, as he rushed for 32 yards on the final drive to put Ohio State in field goal range. It seems he is learning how to better incorporate the run game, particularly in late-game scenarios.

Stroud is certainly a first round pick and should be the number one overall pick. Despite the relative lack of talent in this year’s QB class, Stroud would be a first rounder in any class. However, the media seems to have latched onto some negative reports that truly have no bearing on Stroud’s ability to play in the NFL, artificially tanking his draft stock, much like what happened to fellow former Ohio State QB Justin Fields. I can’t see Stroud falling out of the top ten, because if he begins to slide out of the top five teams like the Titans or Commanders would certainly trade up for him if the Raiders or Falcons go a different direction.

2. Bryce Young, Alabama

Currently, all signs point to Bryce Young being the Carolina Panthers selection at #1. While he isn’t my number one QB, I certainly can see why teams would think that he is the top guy. He evades pressure well, creating time and space to find receivers. His play often put Alabama in a position to win, especially this season, when Alabama needed multiple late-game drives to come out on top. It took a 15 second drive from Tennessee and an overtime two point conversion from LSU to down Young’s Crimson Tide last season. Overall, Young makes winning plays in crunch time.

In 2021, Young put up gaudy stats, throwing for 4872 yards and 47 touchdowns while throwing only seven interceptions. While he had some help from a supporting cast of first round WR Jameson Williams, second round WR John Metchie and third round RB Brian Robinson, Young was not only a product of talent around him. He made the throws necessary to get Alabama to the national championship game, completing 66.9% of his passes. There’s a reason that Young won the Heisman Trophy after all.

His 2022 stats took a slight step back, but that is in large part due to a less talented supporting cast and injuries. Young still had 32 touchdowns and just five interceptions, showing that he doesn’t make many mistake throws.

However, Young’s accuracy plummets against pressure, which became especially noticeable this year with a worse offensive line in front of him. If he is forced to make off-platform throws, his accuracy will suffer tremendously. He also does not have the arm strength to make up for this, which can be a serious concern when throwing down the field at the next level. Additionally, his size will pose a concern to some scouts, as he measured in at 5’10.

Alabama’s offense has been focused heavily on screens and short/intermediate RPOs, which is effective, but limited Young’s experience at reading a defense in a progression and throwing the ball down the field. He is very efficient underneath, but needs an RPO scheme in the NFL in order to see early success.

I would give Young a mid-to-low first round grade, which is where I believe most teams would have him on their boards. He will definitely be drafted in the top ten and likely first overall, but I am not sure that he is worth the value at that spot. The Panthers will certainly be drafting a good quarterback, but Frank Reich will need to work in order to make Young the franchise’s answer at the QB position.

3. Anthony Richardson, Florida

Anthony Richardson has been the most hyped prospect of this class by the media this draft cycle. He was nowhere near the top ten picks at the end of the college football season, as Florida was just 6-7 this year. However, once the national championship comes to an end, every so-called “draft expert” forgets how to watch football and only compares combine stats and Pro Day throws with no shoulder pads, helmets or defenders, much like what happened with Zach Wilson a few years ago.

Richardson became the latest target of this media hype, as his combine record 40.5 inch vertical jump and record tying 10’9 broad jump put the draft community into a frenzy. His 4.43 second 40 yard dash just added fuel to the fire, with people catapulting Richardson to their top player in the draft.

I don’t know about you, but I think all quarterbacks should be evaluated on their jumping ability considering how often quarterbacks jump during the course of a game. Right???

The numbers I am more focused on are 59.4 and 53.8. Those are Richardson’s completion percentages from 2021 and 2022, respectively (you know, an actual quarterback stat). Those are very troubling, because you are barely getting more of a chance than a coin flip that Richardson will complete a pass. Florida’s receivers did him no favors, but his accuracy on simple underneath throws is heavily inconsistent. He couldn’t complete most of his passes on WR bubble screens.

Richardson’s accuracy struggles mightily when facing pressure, leading to wild throws at all levels of the field. He has a hard time moving off of his first read and then will make poor reads once in the progression. The Florida coaches did not have much faith in him in crunch time early in the season, going to designed quarterback runs against Utah late in the fourth quarter when they needed to get points on the board.

However, the tools to become a better quarterback are there. Richardson has a strong arm and can extend plays well. He is an athlete in the pocket and is very dangerous in the open field. He can make defenders miss at any level. He is willing to take hits and is decisive once it is time to tuck and run. Richardson is also arguably better outside of the pocket at finding receivers than he is inside the pocket.

Richardson can become a good quarterback in the NFL. He needs a good situation and proper coaching. I think the Vikings would be a great fit for him, as he can sit and learn behind Kirk Cousins for a year and then step in with good talent around him. I do not think he can step in and start right away in most schemes, with the Ravens being the only exception, as a run-first scheme could help ease him in. Richardson could be the second QB off the board and taken within the top five, but that is a mistake. A quarterback that threw for just 2549 yards, 17 TDs, a 53.8% completion rate and 9 INTs does not scream “NFL ready QB” to me.

4. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee

I debated heavily whether or not to put Hendon Hooker at third on my list. Hooker has four years of starting experience between his time at Virginia Tech and Tennessee. He just led the Vols to arguably their best season since 1998 and was a Heisman favorite until he tore his ACL in week 11 against South Carolina. Hooker threw for 58 touchdowns and just five interceptions over the last two years at Tennessee, maintaining a 68.2% and 69.6% completion rate in each season, respectively.

Hooker sees the field well and can read defenses. He is decisive and trusts in his reads. He thrives in the RPO system that Josh Heupel ran at Tennessee. He has a cannon arm that can take the top off of any defense, which was on full display against Alabama this season. He is also effective on the ground and will eat up ground in the open field.

However, Hooker’s pocket maneuverability is not great and needs to improve in both the pass and run game. Finding room to step up and either deliver or scramble is necessary at the NFL level, so Hooker will need to improve there or he will be sacked consistently. His throws on the run are often inaccurate, even with a generally open receiver. Hooker will have misfires when there is pocket disruption.

Hooker is a good quarterback that would likely fall in the 3rd-4th round in a normal QB class. However, he realistically could sneak into the back end of the first round this year if a team panics. He has a chance to be a good quarterback in the NFL, but I would have a hard time spending a 1st or 2nd rounder on a 25 year old QB coming off of a torn ACL, which is why I have him behind Richardson.

5. Jake Haener, Fresno State

Haener has a strong arm that can deliver throws into tight windows across from the hash marks to the far sideline. He can put good touch on passes and place the ball where his receivers can go make a play. Haener has the ability to read the field and can find holes in zone defenses. He ran an RPO heavy scheme under Jeff Tedford at Fresno State, but he has the ability to diagnose defenses at the line of scrimmage pre and post snap.

Haener is a tough player and is willing to take hits. According to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, an NFL scout stated: “His guys gladly go to war with him because he puts his ass on the line every play”. It is very evident on film that Haener fears no defense or opponent. He battled against Oregon and UCLA, making big time throws to win while battling an injury late in the 4th quarter in the UCLA.

Despite not being a true running QB, Haener poses a threat to scramble, as he effectively navigates the pocket, can evade free rushers and break into the open field. However, he does lose his throwing base at times against pressure while in the pocket, leading him to fade away from his throws. He will also occasionally have high misfires, which can be dangerous at the NFL level.

Haener could be a third round pick, but I think he likely ends up in the fourth round. I believe he can easily outperform that draft value, and could become a steal of the draft. He projects similarly to Desmond Ridder despite the size difference, as both had sub-par supporting casts, evade defenders and extend plays well, and are efficient passers with occasional misfires. In the right system, Haener could easily see some success at the NFL level, especially as a high level backup, such as Gardner Minshew.

Where's Will Levis?

Rumors are swirling that Levis could be a top two pick, as gambling odds have shifted dramatically in that direction over the last few days. However, I just don’t see it. He has low pocket awareness, misses simple throws and has poor mechanics. Levis looks like a baseball infielder while throwing the ball (he was a shortstop in high school), which can be beneficial against pressure, but his front foot fades away to his left, which can lead to inaccuracy. It could also lead to elbow injuries, as we just saw with Matt Stafford. While his arm strength bailed him out in college, that won’t cut it in the NFL. He doesn’t read the field, as screens and underneath throws were the majority of Kentucky’s offense. Kentucky’s best offensive play all year was the run after catch by receivers that broke a tackle.

That’s not to say that Levis has zero upside. He is a big body that can zip a ball into a tight window. He can take the top off of a defense if his receiver beats a corner. With proper coaching and development, he could have success at the NFL level. However, all of the QBs listed above are better passers on film. They have more tools that lead to being a successful NFL QB. Levis couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford at Penn State and had no success against superior opponents at Kentucky. If I was in an NFL front office, I would not be risking my job on selecting Levis. He is at best the sixth QB in this class.

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