An NFL general manager’s main goal is to win a Super Bowl, but you can’t do that if you’re out of a job. The quickest way to lose one is to take a risk that doesn’t work out—especially when it comes to a quarterback. So playing it by the book—or even punting the decision—is almost always justifiable when there isn’t a clear path forward. Colts GM Chris Ballard basically admitted to doing that when he was asked in 2021 why Indianapolis still hadn’t drafted a replacement for Andrew Luck.
“Taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well,” Ballard said, “I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.”
Ballard hasn’t drafted a quarterback before the sixth round since making that comment, and guess what? He’s still cashing checks despite the fact that the team finished 4-12-1 last year and the head coach was fired.
But while Ballard is still employed, Indy isn’t any closer to winning a Super Bowl. You don’t make it far in today’s NFL without a superstar quarterback, and those are rarely handed to you. Many players in the league’s current horde of dynamically talented 20-something QBs were seen as relatively risky picks entering their respective drafts: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert. Really, the only slam dunk QB1s in the last 10 years have been Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence.
Those other guys got to their respective teams as heavily scrutinized prospects, with flaws like reckless decision-making (Mahomes), inaccuracy (Allen), or processing issues (Herbert). They were widely seen as projects. Guys that needed fixing. And yet those five will combine to make about a bajillion dollars over the next decade—and deservedly so.
Without a golden ticket to draft a generational prospect like Burrow or Lawrence, teams have become increasingly willing to convince themselves they can “fix” toolsy passers who lack polish but contain plenty of potential—like Florida’s Anthony Richardson or Kentucky’s Will Levis in this year’s class. Both are big, fast passers with strong arms, but both can be wasteful with the football, and neither has a long track record of success.
Those two stand in sharp contrast to a passer like Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, who was seen as the favorite to go first not too long ago. Statistically, Stroud has a massive advantage over someone like Levis. He passed for 8,123 yards with 85 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions over his last two seasons at Ohio State. (Compare that to Levis’s 5,218 passing yards and 43-to-23 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same time.) And an interrogation of their tapes would yield a similar conclusion: Stroud is the more efficient passer and more consistent decision-maker.
But NFL general managers don’t draft players based on what they are right now; they draft them based on what they could be. Levis and Richardson are unquestionably the biggest gambles of this quarterback class. But could they pay off for the teams that take a chance on them?
We haven’t seen a QB prospect as polarizing as Levis since the 2018 draft, when Wyoming’s Josh Allen entered the league. Allen’s tape made him look the part of a top NFL quarterback—showing off his size, arm, and mobility—but his numbers suggested he was more fit for a backup role. In his final collegiate season, Allen completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt for a mediocre Mountain West team. When draft season rolled around, the suggestion that Allen could be a top pick confused a lot of draft pundits. How could league execs possibly be enamored of a guy who wasn’t very good at football?
Bills GM Brandon Beane was the one who drafted Allen, and he traded up twice in the first round to get him. What did Beane see that made him believe so strongly in Allen?
“We watch these guys all fall, and you watch them on tape, but you don’t know them,” Beane said in 2021. “The one thing that I saw about Josh was this guy’s driven; he’s gonna work extremely hard. He’s raw. He’s got a lot of things that he needs to develop in his game. But … we felt that he had a lot of things that we liked, and the things that he wasn’t doing well, we thought he would have the drive [to fix them], and he’s really shown that.”
Buffalo drafted Allen over the more polished Josh Rosen and the more accomplished Lamar Jackson. The pick was widely criticized and viewed as a reach on a player who was more of an idea than an actual prospect. We now know that wasn’t the case and that Allen’s competitive drive has allowed him to correct the issues that plagued him in college. He’s developed into the superstar Beane imagined he would become—a perennial MVP candidate—and he’s been everything Buffalo could have hoped for.
Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen doesn’t compare Levis directly to Allen, but he does speak about the quarterbacks in similar terms. Coen coached the soon-to-be 24-year-old Levis during his promising junior season—when he threw for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns—and together, they modeled an offense after the Los Angeles Rams, where Coen coached under Sean McVay from 2018 to 2020.
Because of his firsthand knowledge of how NFL offenses operate and his experience coaching Levis, Coen has a unique perspective on the quarterback’s pro potential. Like anyone else who’s watched Levis play, the 37-year-old coach raves about his arm and his athletic ability, which allowed Kentucky to supplement the core of McVay’s offense with an extensive QB run game. Coen also praises Levis’s ability to take a snap from under center and run play-action fakes, saying that is his former pupil’s “superpower.”
Even the most fervent Levis detractors would agree with Coen on those things. But they’d argue that his troubles with processing and decision-making outweigh those strengths. Levis has some brutal interceptions on his film, and he’s been known to run into sacks if his first read isn’t open. But Coen doesn’t see those as red flags.
“He was a glorified running back at Penn State [in 2019 and 2020],” Coen told me in April. “And so being in an NFL system in your first year starting … in the SEC, on a team with limited passing experience, I thought he processed just fine. In 2021, there wasn’t a lot of times where I was like, Holy cow, how did you not see that? or How did you not know that that was occurring? It wasn’t like he was sitting there making a ton of really bad decisions.”
Coen also balked at the notion that an outsider would be able to gauge how well a quarterback processes without knowing the instructions from the coaching staff.
“You never really quite know exactly what the play was designed to do or what the other 10 on the field did or didn’t do,” he said. “Like last year, Will is playing with two true freshmen receivers. Sometimes, you don’t know if the receiver is running a curl route. Is he going to be at 10 [yards], is he going to be at 12, is he going to be at 11?”
Coen said that those communication issues were a recurring theme on Kentucky’s team last season, and some plays that looked like bad decisions by the quarterback were really caused by mistakes elsewhere.
There were fewer of those mental errors in 2021—the lone year Coen worked with Levis. The Wildcats offense was more coherent overall that season, and Levis had receivers he could rely on, which allowed him to show off his processing chops more often.
On this play, Coen says Levis quickly read the post-snap rotation of the secondary and immediately knew to layer the ball over the top of the flat defender and in front of the dropping corner:
Finding the open receiver required quick thinking and a tricky throw to execute. To the untrained eye, it may look like a risky pass into a tight window, but Coen graded it as a “great decision” against a disguised defense and was impressed that Levis was able to diagnose the coverage so quickly.
It’s hard to gain a full appreciation of plays like that without getting some context. So NFL teams spend hours with prospects and their coaches, trying to gain the inside knowledge behind what they’ve already seen on tape. That’s a level of access amateur evaluators don’t enjoy, and that can explain some of the disconnect between the league’s view on certain prospects and the public’s perception of them. That certainly seems to be the case for Levis this year: While fans and media may be down on him, it appears the league is much higher. And the betting markets reflect that: Levis is now the second favorite to go first on Thursday night.
Levis’s experience in a pro-style offense is also probably being undervalued by the public. As Coen explains, Levis won’t have much of a learning curve when it comes to the administrative tasks NFL quarterbacks complete ahead of every snap.
“He isn’t standing there looking at the sidelines for a signal to run a bubble screen [run-pass option],” Coen said. “He is in the huddle, calling a wordy play. … He knows how to check plays; he knows how to communicate at the line of scrimmage. Those are all things that are being asked of all 32 quarterbacks in the National Football League.
“Whether it be with me in 2021 here or even last year—even though it wasn’t as successful in some ways—he was still operating an NFL, pro-style offense every single day.”
Quarterbacks are paid for what they do after the ball is snapped, so this may sound like a small thing that other prospects will eventually get the hang of. But having that head start could allow Levis to get significant practice reps early on. If the coaches trust him to run the offense, he could see the field even earlier than his more polished peers. This stuff is easy to overlook for those of us watching from home, but for NFL coaches, it’s important.
Richardson, this year’s other boom-or-bust prospect, doesn’t have that pro-style experience. But he does have the best combine performance we’ve ever seen from a quarterback.
Anthony Richardson is a QB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 10.00 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 1 out of 890 QB from 1987 to 2023.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 30, 2023
Just putting this out there early.https://t.co/g6dAq3ALm4 #RAS pic.twitter.com/hjB54xb3o2
Running a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his 6-foot-4, 244-pound size is nonsensical. Plus, he’s got an arm capable of this:
Sure, Richardson could use some seasoning. He’s easily fooled by disguised coverages, he needs to tighten up his throwing mechanics, and he’ll have to be more accurate at the next level—he completed just 53.8 percent of his passes last season. But he did so in a vertical offense with unreliable receivers and poor pass protection. Per Sports Info Solutions, he had the nation’s 10th-highest average depth of target (10.7) while his receivers ranked 58th in drop rate.
Richardson’s accuracy isn’t nearly as bad as the completion rate implies. And with his athletic profile, teams have plenty of offensive options to help mitigate his shortcomings. We saw Jackson and Hurts, supposedly raw passers, take their teams to the playoffs early in their careers while leading offenses built more around their running abilities. That allowed them to get valuable live reps early on and speed up their development as dropback passers, and both eventually turned into MVP candidates.
Richardson has only one year of starting experience in a spread offense, so he will have a bit of a learning curve before he’s ready to lead an NFL huddle. But at age 20, he has plenty of time to make up ground.
If there’s a blueprint for how Levis or Richardson can hit the ground running in the NFL, it’s Justin Herbert. Like Levis, Herbert was also the most polarizing prospect in his class. Following a successful junior season that had NFL teams ready to take him first overall, Herbert regressed in his final collegiate year, dropping his stock ahead of the 2020 draft. Despite Herbert’s overwhelming physical talent, teams were understandably concerned about his accuracy and how quickly he was able to read out plays and throw the ball.
Those problems seemed to go away as soon as he entered the league. John Beck, who trained Herbert, told me in 2021 that the issues existed only because Oregon’s coaches didn’t have the time to correct small mistakes. They had games to win, and Herbert was getting the job done.
“The coaches knew how talented he was, and they didn’t want him to get hung up on those throws,” Beck said. “It was always, ‘Just let it go, Justin. Go get the next one. It’ll be fine.’ But he had a desire to know why he wasn’t making those throws.”
Like Allen before him, Herbert eventually found the answers and became the quarterback that only the most optimistic evaluators thought he could be. But that doesn’t always happen for incomplete prospects with dazzling talent. Zach Wilson was compared to Mahomes before the Jets drafted him no. 2 in 2021. He didn’t last even two years as a starter and seemed to get worse in his second season. Trey Lance was viewed as a boom-or-bust prospect in the same draft, and he has suffered through injury after injury and played in only a handful of games. The 49ers, who traded three first-round picks to draft him, are reportedly looking to trade him this offseason. Sometimes, these big swings lead to ugly strikeouts.
Both Levis and Richardson seemed to have aced the predraft process. Both fared well on the S2 Cognition test, which judges athletic intelligence using reaction times to visual stimuli, that NFL front offices value. And both boast rare arm strength, first-class athleticism, and impressive frames. But in a class with other potentially “safer” quarterback options, what drives a team to go for broke?
Former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff has said that if he got another front office job, he’d draft a quarterback who can make plays outside of the pocket. That’s coming from someone who drafted Matt Ryan and went to a Super Bowl with him.
“If I ever got [another] opportunity, I would love to have someone with that much more mobility to see how it was to ‘game break’ that way,” Dimitroff said on his podcast in March. “Matt did wonderful things for us, of course, but that athletic quarterback is enticing when you look at these guys. Especially the special ones who can rip off 75- and 80-yard runs. You do daydream.”
Dimitroff said he started thinking along those lines near the end of his career in Atlanta—right around the time Mahomes and Jackson won MVP in back-to-back years and Allen completed his turnaround from maligned prospect to undisputed star. Based on how teams are drafting quarterbacks, there seems to be a preference for QBs who have some ability to play outside of the pocket. We rarely see statue quarterbacks—even the ones with big arms—go early anymore. Mac Jones’s elite accuracy and production were not enough to get him drafted in the top 10. And with him struggling in the first two years of his career, it may be a while before we see another team use a high pick on a pure pocket passer.
Drafting Levis or Richardson before they’ve really proved to be good quarterbacks is inherently risky, and it could cost a GM their job if the players don’t pan out. But the same could be true for the GMs who pass on them to take a safer option and miss out on generational talents. On Thursday night, we’ll find out which teams are willing to take a chance—and how high in the draft they’re willing to take it.