I’m more surprised than anybody that I have become fully Anthony Richardson–pilled. I have always believed in the revolutionary concept that the best NFL draft prospects are the players who were clearly great at college football—Heisman winners, national champions, record-setters, players who leaped off the screen every snap, their performances screaming: Why do you have me playing with these amateurs when I’m a pro?
This logic has led me astray sometimes—hi, I’m The Guy Who Thought Josh Allen Would Suck—but more often than not, I feel like it works. Lamar Jackson, a Heisman winner, is a good NFL quarterback even though he nearly fell out of the first round of the NFL draft. Mitchell Trubisky, a random midtier ACC quarterback that I had never really thought about until he was picked second overall in his draft … not so much.
So I should be thrilled with the recent news that the Panthers seem likely to pick Alabama QB Bryce Young first overall. Young has done it all on the field, he’s a great passer, and when watching him play actual football, I thought he was the obvious no. 1 pick.
And yet here I am now, hooting and hollering over clips from the NFL scouting combine that do not involve actual football at all. I watched this video of Anthony Richardson doing the broad jump—something that bears no resemblance to anything he’ll ever have to do during a game—and my thoughts about Young’s five-touchdown Sugar Bowl performance for Alabama left my brain, slipped out of my ear, and splatted onto the floor. Bryce Young won a Heisman Trophy? Well, Anthony Richardson won the Jumps High, Man Trophy.
Anthony Richardson just set a combine record for quarterbacks with a 40.5” vertical with this… pic.twitter.com/68muNURNwq— StaceyDales (@StaceyDales) March 4, 2023
No, Anthony Richardson didn’t win any college awards or national championships or SEC championships. Sorry, the best I can do for you is a 6-7 season with an appearance in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl. Richardson played a bit as a redshirt freshman in 2021 and had one forgettable season as Florida’s starting QB in 2022, leading a disappointing Gators offense that ranked 57th in scoring offense. Of the 77 college QBs that took at least 350 dropbacks last season, Pro Football Focus gave Richardson the 53rd-best passing grade. He ranked 77th in adjusted completion rate—dead last.
But Richardson leaped off the field—quite literally—in Indianapolis. He posted the longest broad jump and highest vertical jump ever by a quarterback. He also ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, which would be great for any player but is completely preposterous for someone measured at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds. It was the greatest combine performance ever by a quarterback.
Richardson has been billed as the ultimate high-risk, high-reward prospect. “Richardson personifies the ‘boom or bust’ moniker,” says PFF’s NFL Draft Guide. “You watch some games where he looks like he should be the no. 1 pick and others where he looks like a guy who should’ve stayed in school,” writes Danny Kelly in The Ringer’s 2023 NFL Draft Guide. On top of his athleticism, many draft experts feel Richardson has the draft’s best arm, even if he can’t use it for “accurately throwing footballs to teammates” yet.
It makes sense that NFL evaluators are so intrigued and terrified by Richardson. If he pans out, he’s Josh Allen 2.0—and Allen is a one-man wrecking crew who bends games to his will and single-handedly makes the Bills a perma-contender. But Richardson hasn’t shown the passing ability that other QBs in this class have. He doesn’t have C.J. Stroud’s accuracy or Young’s precision while throwing on the run or even Will Levis’s touch on deep balls. Simply hoping a QB will learn how to harness their massive arm often doesn’t work out, and the graveyard of big-bodied busts features plenty of headstones, from JaMarcus Russell to Blake Bortles to Blaine Gabbert.
But I think simply framing Richardson as a prospect with a high ceiling and low floor is a misunderstanding of what elite athleticism means at the QB position in the modern NFL. We are past the era in which a dual-threat quarterback was a gimmick and mobility was a skill QBs used on only a handful of running plays per game. A quarterback’s athleticism is a tool that fundamentally changes every snap they take—and that means they can thrive even if things don’t pan out perfectly.
The archetype for Richardson is Allen, who showed that a quarterback with college accuracy issues could develop into one of the best passers in the NFL. The question still remains whether that’s a replicable career path or something only Allen could pull off—but before Allen became a world-beating superstar with elite passing skills, he taught us something about quarterbacks in his mold: In 2019, Allen’s second year in the league, he finished last in completion rate and 26th in yards per attempt. But he ran for over 500 yards and scored twice as many rushing touchdowns (nine) as all of the Bills’ running backs combined (four). The Bills went 10-6, and Allen ran for 92 yards and caught a touchdown pass in a playoff game that the Bills lost in overtime. Before reaching his final form, Allen’s formidable physical skills won games for the Bills, even if his throwing accuracy wasn’t there yet.
Now, the Bears have Justin Fields, who ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day in 2021. Fields’s first two seasons in the NFL have been a struggle at times—but his ongoing development as a thrower has been offset by his spectacular running ability. Fields nearly set the single-season QB rushing record in 2022 and led the NFL in yards per attempt, routinely busting through defenses for 40-plus-yard touchdowns.
JUSTIN. FREAKING. FIELDS.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 6, 2022
: #MIAvsCHI on CBS pic.twitter.com/jFMAg0BeH7
His knack for breaking these big runs has changed the way teams defend him—which has allowed him to do damage with his still-developing passing skills. All 11 of Fields’s interceptions this year were thrown when defenses lined up with six or fewer defenders in the box; when defenses had seven or more defenders in the box, Fields threw nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Seven of those nine touchdowns came after Fields’s 88-yard rushing performance in Week 6, when defenses started committing to stopping Fields’s legs. Fields still needs to work on his passing—but he’s already a menace to defend.
An exceptional athlete with a half-baked passing game can win in the NFL. And if a quarterback with spectacular athleticism does figure things out as a passer? They immediately vault to the top of the league. Jalen Hurts is a former competitive powerlifter whose broad jump was only 4 inches shorter than Richardson’s, but he fell out of the first round due to concerns about his accuracy. Fast-forward three years and one NFC championship later, and Hurts is the highest-paid player in NFL history. Similar concerns about Lamar Jackson’s passing caused him to drop to the bottom of the first round; in his second year in the NFL, he led the league in passing touchdowns, set the all-time QB rushing record, and won MVP. When defenses had six or fewer defenders in the box in 2019, Jackson averaged 9.3 yards per carry. When they had seven or more defenders, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns and one interception. When a quarterback is a frightening runner, defenses need to commit to defending quarterback runs. When that quarterback can throw well, defenses are screwed no matter what.
It’s possible that Richardson’s quarterback skills are as weak as they’re made out to be. My colleague Ben Solak believes he’s more accurate as a passer than dire scouting reports claim; Nate Tice of The Athletic has praised his ability to read defenses and move in the pocket; and some of the issues with his Florida stats may stem from Marx Brothers–style slapstick comedy performances from his receivers. And Richardson’s college output was better than Allen’s at Wyoming. (Five years on from being extremely wrong about Josh Allen, I remain firm that Josh Allen was very bad at Wyoming.)
But I’m honestly a bit indifferent about how refined Richardson’s passing is right now. This man is as fast as Justin Jefferson and the same size as T.J. Watt. He weighs about the same as Cam Newton but is faster and more explosive than the former MVP was—and Newton’s athleticism and power broke NFL defenses. Richardson’s standing vertical was just an inch shy of the best jump in the history of the NBA’s draft combine; he can jump nearly 5 inches higher than slam dunk contest champ Mac McClung, and he could also probably dunk Mac McClung. The NFL has seen the power and potential of athletic quarterbacks, and Richardson is the most athletic one ever.
Teams should be excited by Richardson’s high potential—and they should also be assured by the high floor that his off-the-charts athletic capabilities provide. Even if Richardson doesn’t hit his best-case scenarios, he’ll still be able to win games. He might struggle to hit passes in tight windows, but the beauty of quarterback athleticism is that it creates open receivers. When playing against Richardson, defenses will need to worry about stopping a football kaiju.
An unathletic quarterback who doesn’t develop as a passer is just a bad quarterback with no utility to an NFL offense. But the bad version of Anthony Richardson is still an asset because he’s faster or stronger than everybody on opposing defenses. The bad version of Anthony Richardson still gets loose for touchdowns and bulldozes his way into the end zone. The bad version of Anthony Richardson will still throw some touchdowns because defenses will be so damn worried about stopping him that they’ll inevitably leave receivers open and hope he can’t hit them. And the good version of Anthony Richardson could be a Hall of Famer.
And if he really doesn’t pan out as a QB? He just posted Round 1 defensive-end numbers at the combine. I’m tired of the trope that fast quarterbacks should switch to wide receiver—we’re putting Richardson on the edge, and he’s gonna get 20 sacks.