With the 2023 NFL draft on the horizon, which quarterback seems to have the heart of every NFL team? Bryce Young will probably go first overall. C.J. Stroud was rumored to be the top pick for a while. Anthony Richardson is a fan favorite for his high ceiling. Will Levis is a league favorite for his toughness.
The correct answer? Caleb Williams.
No, Williams isn’t a small-school sleeper whose film you need to cram in the few days left before the draft. He’s the Caleb Williams you’re thinking of: the Heisman-winning quarterback who transferred to USC with head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. If you’re unfamiliar with Williams’s game, you can—and should—familiarize yourself quickly.
Williams is not in this year’s draft class. He was a true sophomore this season, ineligible to declare for the 2023 class, and will presumably declare for the 2024 NFL draft. And that has the NFL very excited. Here’s a quote from an anonymous NFL scout to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times on Williams:
It’s kind of hard not to notice him. He would probably have been the top quarterback prospect last year, and this year he might be the top one as well. So he could be next year. He’s got a big arm, he’s athletic, he’s fairly accurate. He can throw on the move. I’m excited to study him when he actually comes out.
“Probably would have been the top quarterback prospect last year” is relatively weak praise—Kenny Pickett, the only first-round quarterback from the 2022 draft, went 20th. But this year? A quarterback (very likely Bryce Young) is going to go first. A quarterback is (probably?) going to go second, and a few more are going to go in the first round. “This year he might be the top one as well” is steep praise.
It gets steeper. ESPN’s Matt Miller remarked that “so many scouts are already enamored with those two prospects—” wait … two?!
That’s right. Williams isn’t the only apple of the league’s wandering eye. He is joined by UNC’s Drake Maye, who finished 10th in the Heisman voting last season. A first-year starter as a redshirt freshman, Maye threw the ball a lot and for a ton of yards and a ton of touchdowns, which is a great way to get on the NFL radar—so is being 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, and so is being a four-star recruit out of high school. Maye is not nearly the household name that Williams is, but the league is paying attention.
Oh, and lest we forget: some Drake Maye highlights.
On with Miller’s quote: “So many scouts are already enamored with those two prospects, and I do think there’s some truth to the idea that some teams are looking at where they are drafting in 2023, then looking at the caliber of QBs available next April and ultimately opting to wait until 2024.”
The allure of next year’s quarterback is not a new sensation—in fact, it borders on being an annual tradition. Last year an NFL scout gave this quote to Yahoo Sports: “I wouldn’t bank on any of [the 2022 draft QBs], wouldn’t assume you’re going to find a Super Bowl–winning QB this year. I just wouldn’t want to be a team that needs to take one this year.” The scout continued that “next year looks better.”
By next year, of course, he meant the 2023 class. The one that, as we’re looking at it now, would be better if Williams or Maye were in it.
Here’s an article written in April 2019 about passing on the 2019 class (Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, and Drew Lock) for the 2020 class—a class that, at the time, was headlined by Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa, but featured Joe Burrow as barely a footnote. As one scout said in that article: “I’d wait. This year’s names are hot now. The average [fan] doesn’t know who [Jake] Fromm is. And may not know who Herbert is. But after this draft is over, they will.” Herbert went sixth overall to the Chargers, of course—Fromm went 167th to the Bills.
Here’s an article written in March 2017 about passing on the 2017 class (that’s, uh, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, and a fella name Patrick Mahomes) in favor of the heralded 2018 class (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen; nobody was talking about Baker Mayfield just yet, and Lamar Jackson was barely on the draft radar despite a Heisman-winning campaign). A personnel man was quoted in that piece as evaluating the 2017 class as “just not a great class”—which, not to beat a dead horse, but Patrick Mahomes was in that 2017 class. Here’s another article from ESPN to that same effect.
Here’s an article from the fall of 2013 in which a scout told Peter King he wouldn’t be surprised if his team had nine first-round grades on the quarterbacks in the 2014 class. The 2014 class famously boasted Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, and Jimmy Garoppolo. But the prospect the scout found most intriguing? LSU’s Zach Mettenberger.
The instinct to wait for next year’s quarterback class is often born from the freedom of not needing to actually evaluate next year’s quarterback class. San Francisco general manager John Lynch commented on looking ahead to future drafts last year, during the 2022 NFL combine. The 2022 QB class? Not so great. The 2021 QB class? Way better, and Lynch’s 49ers had aggressively traded up in that 2021 draft to select North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
“We always task our college staff with forecasting,” Lynch said. “What are we looking at next year? Even the year beyond.” At the same NFL combine, Panthers GM Scott Fitterer said: “We’re already [projecting the 2023 QB class]. … Because the one thing we want to do, we want to build it the right way and not force something. We don’t want to make the mistake of, oh, we need this right now. Let’s fix this right now. Let’s keep the big picture in mind and know what it looks like a year or two out.” Fitterer’s Panthers, of course, passed on last year’s quarterbacks and traded up to get one this year.
But evaluating the present year’s quarterback class is already challenging enough. Every single year, even though teams put in months of work—medical, physical, and psychological tests at the combine; film on the television; plays on the chalkboard—the NFL gets the quarterback position wrong again and again and again. And it’s not their fault! Figuring out who will be good in the NFL is just plain hard.
Now think about how much harder it is to evaluate these players when you’re not a few days out, but a year out. How hard it is without access to the prospects, without physical and medical data, without even the final year of film. Look back at the 2021 look-aheads to the 2022 quarterback class. Where are the concerns over Bryce Young’s height? Did anyone worry about Stroud reportedly performing poorly in the S2 cognition test? We weren’t even talking about S2 tests at this time last year! The data collected over a scouting cycle isn’t enough to nail down the best quarterbacks; certainly a fraction of that data doesn’t do a better job.
But what about a cursory look? You watched those Williams and Maye highlights; you can tell they have what it takes to play in the NFL. The quick glance at the film presents another problem—this one perhaps even greater than the first. Every single flaw on film—every questionable decision, every panic under pressure, every inaccurate pass—is solvable a year out. That’s why the same scouts who were doubting Mahomes in the 2017 class were lauding the 2018 potential of Josh Rosen and Jake Browning. You can’t tell that the shirt is wrinkled until you’re up close.
NFL scouts don’t claim that every single quarterback class is better than the next one (no one was ever too excited about the 2022 class, for example). But there are often voices saying it’s better to wait a year, and it’s worth remembering that scouts are already bad enough at forecasting the current draft class’s crop of QB prospects. When it comes to future drafts, they’re even worse.
But every year, the league has to do it—weigh the risks of taking a quarterback this year over taking the swing next year. Consider the Houston Texans, who own the no. 2 pick; this is a club that has started in recent seasons Davis Mills, Jeff Driskel, Kyle Allen, and Tyrod Taylor. Such a team seems like a shoo-in to take a top quarterback—but ESPN’s Todd McShay reported in his draft notebook earlier this week that the Texans could very well pass on a quarterback this year. There’s no way they’re making that decision without a good sense of what’s coming around the bend next year: Williams and Maye.
The league might murmur that Williams looks like the next generational prospect—that the team that missed out on this year’s quarterback class, be it the Raiders or the Titans, the Commanders or the Falcons, was wise to do so, because next year’s draft should bring bigger and better chances. But they don’t really know. And I don’t really know, either. I can watch Williams film and tell you he’s a stud, but that’s just scratching the surface on him as a prospect. The league has barely dipped a toe into next year’s draft class, let alone waded waist deep. The nitty has not yet gotten a bit gritty.
Recall what that anonymous scout told the L.A. Times about Williams after all that resounding praise: I’m excited to study him when he actually comes out. The grass is always greener in next year’s quarterback pasture, but it won’t look nearly as verdant when the microscope is put to it. I love Caleb Williams as much as the next guy (I’m not totally sold on Maye yet, but again—I don’t know what I’m talking about! Nobody does!), but until next year comes around, it’s all gossip and rumors, hopes and prayers. Next year’s class isn’t better than this year’s class—it is next year’s class, and 700 things will happen between now and Draft Day 2024. I’ll catch you then with my official—and only—Caleb Williams take.