So as we start to pivot our attention to the 2023 NFL Draft, it's a good time to begin playing matchmaker with the top five quarterback prospects and the remaining teams still seeking upgrades at the position. Here are the pairings we think make the most sense for the prospects and the QB-needy teams.
The Panthers are in the draft's catbird seat after trading with the Bears for the No. 1 overall pick. They might stick there, or they might slide back a slot (or three), depending on what kind of offers come in. That said, I don't believe any team makes such a bold move without having conviction about at least one of the quarterbacks in the draft prior to making the move from No. 9 to the top of the board.
Frank Reich has assembled quite the staff, including offensive coaches who have worked with a variety of QBs in their past, but it would be hard to believe that he suddenly would break character when searching for his next quarterback. Reich has tended to seek out the bigger-framed quarterbacks similar to the ones he's worked the most with: Philip Rivers (6-foot-5, 228 pounds), Carson Wentz (6-5, 237), Nick Foles (6-6, 243), Andrew Luck (6-4, 240) and Matt Ryan (6-4, 217). All of them, save for Wentz, can also be categorized as fairly prototypical pocket passers with good accuracy. The Panthers' recent signing of Andy Dalton provides another clue as to what type of QB Carolina might be seeking, even if the backup doesn't need to play the game the same way as the starter. (You could make the case that Jacoby Brissett and Sam Ehlinger, whom Reich started at times in Indianapolis, don't fit Reich's traditional mold, but neither of them should be viewed as the coach's first choices to start when they did.)
This doesn't automatically eliminate Alabama's Bryce Young, who checked in at the NFL Scouting Combine at 5-10 and 204 pounds, but Reich admitted in Indianapolis that Young's size "is a concern." Kentucky's Will Levis could be a pocket passer, we suppose, but putting him in that role might not best utilize his skill set. Florida's Anthony Richardson passes the size threshold, at 6-4 and 244 pounds, but what about his sub-55 percent college completion percentage?
That leaves us with Stroud (6-3, 214 pounds). He checks off the most boxes here as a (mostly) pocket passer who can make all the throws, even if he isn't blessed with a rocket arm. But it's the accuracy and timing that clinch it. To me, Stroud is sort of the Justin Herbert of this class; many draftniks seem to define him by his limitations, but I see untapped upside there. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Josh McCown, the Panthers' new QB coach, appears to be a fan of Stroud.
We can't rule out Richardson (who might be this generation's Cam Newton), especially if Carolina eventually moves back down. But my feeling, if the Panthers stay at No. 1, is that Stroud is the easiest projection.
It's hard to glean too much about what new Texans coordinator Bobby Slowik's passing game will look like, other than to suggest it should be heavily influenced by the Kyle Shanahan system, given that all of Slowik's NFL experience to this point has been spent working with Shanahan in Washington or under him in San Francisco. The core principles of that offense are leaning on the outside-zone run game, running play-action off of that and mixing and matching personnel to disguise any run-pass tendencies.
But the real test case played out late last season, when Brock Purdy took over a 49ers offense overseen in part by Slowik as the passing game coordinator. First off, Slowik's brother, Steve, who works as a scout for the 49ers, was credited by GM John Lynch with putting Purdy on San Francisco's map last year. Second, there's some overlap between Purdy's game and what Young does. Both can extend plays and attack the middle of the field very well. The latter trait shows up on Young’s passing charts, which look very similar to where Purdy succeeded last year. I'm not trying to argue that they're clones -- merely that if a coach can have success with Purdy (albeit with more talent surrounding him), that coach should be able to accomplish similar things with Young in time.
There also are some nice Alabama connections on the roster of the Texans (who hold the second and 12th overall picks), with WR John Metchie III and LB Christian Harris able to provide some background on the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. And, heck, new head coach DeMeco Ryans once played for the Crimson Tide, for whatever that's worth. (No, it should not be awkward for Bill O'Brien's college QB to come to the city where O'Brien's time as an NFL head coach reached a messy end, thanks for asking.)
New Colts head coach Shane Steichen was asked at the NFL Scouting Combine what he thought the most critical traits of playing quarterback are.
"Accuracy, decision-making, the ability to create -- and that can come in all different shapes and sizes -- a guy that is obsessed with football, that loves it," Steichen said.
The "shapes and sizes" portion of the quote felt intentional, with the 5-10 Bryce Young out there, although it's easy to fall into semantic traps when dissecting coach-speak. Still, I think Young would be in play for the Colts. It's easy to see how GM Chris Ballard would appreciate Young's high-level acumen and toughness, and he'd notch the boxes on Steichen's combine QB checklist.
But would the Colts, who currently hold the fourth overall pick, trade up to No. 1 to get Young? Because that's what it might take. Ballard also played some word games with the media, saying "there's got to be a guy worthy of" the cost of moving up in order to pull that trigger. While that could be interpreted as posturing, I think there was some truth to what he was saying.
Short of the Colts jumping to the No. 1 spot, there might be two alternative options: stay put at No. 4 and draft whichever quarterback is left, or slide up one spot to guarantee getting their preference after the first two QBs are taken. The cost for the Bears to move up one slot in the 2017 NFL Draft was third- and fourth-round picks that year and a 2018 third-rounder. I think Ballard would do something like that.
So, do the Colts want Richardson or Will Levis? On the surface, both players have some skills that overlap with what Jalen Hurts showed coming out: Like Hurts in 2020, Levis and Richardson are thickly built dual-threat passers with some refinement required. Both Levis and Richardson make some measure of sense there, especially with Gardner Minshew under contract as a potential bridge starter for the Colts.
But something tells me that as much as Ballard is likely to appreciate Levis' toughness and confidence, the GM might be willing to concede that Richardson could be -- at some point -- a supercharged version of Hurts, whom Steichen (in his former role as Eagles offensive coordinator) shepherded to a brilliant 2022 season as the MVP runner-up to Patrick Mahomes.
Imagine how physically imposing the Colts could be with an offense featuring Richardson, Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, Jelani Woods, Michael Pittman Jr. and others. If one were to sell it to Ballard that way, I bet he'd be on board with the plan, even if he had to make a jump.
Carthon's last job was in San Francisco, where he was working when the Niners traded a haul to draft Trey Lance at No. 3 in 2021, so you could see how Carthon and the Titans might be motivated to acquire the similarly fleet-footed Richardson. (Plus, Carthon was a Gator once upon a time.) Stroud was also reportedly very high on the Titans' pecking order. But it's hard to imagine that a Titans team seemingly in limbo between contending and rebuilding would make a bold enough trade upward to secure one of those two.
Taking Will Levis with the No. 11 overall pick, though? We could see it. There seems to be a borderline cocky confidence in Levis, and he exhibits the toughness to play in a ground-and-pound run game mixed with play-action in the passing game. All those traits are especially visible when you watch Levis' 2021 tape, with one-time Rams assistant Liam Coen calling the plays. (Kentucky liked Coen so much -- after a tough 2022 with Rich Scangarello in that role -- that they brought Coen back this year as OC.)
My confidence in this pairing is lower than some of the other ones mentioned above. If Levis is still on the board after the top four picks are made, someone else could snap him up. But if teams like the Seahawks (at No. 5), Lions (No. 6) and Raiders (No. 7) pass on him, Levis simply could end up in Tennessee's lap, much the way Mac Jones was sort of just there for the Patriots to take at 15th overall in 2021.
The Lions have two first-round picks, at Nos. 6 and 18 overall, and have been connected to quarterbacks by analysts and mock drafters. It makes sense. After all, even as well as Jared Goff played last season, it's not hard to look at the 28-year-old's contract (which runs through 2024) and see a path where the Lions eventually move on.
But using a first-rounder on a quarterback -- even if, say, Richardson somehow floated down to No. 6 -- just feels a bit rich to me right now. The Lions were active in free agency again this year, landing help for their overburdened defense, and they could approach the draft with a best-contributor-available mindset.
Having won eight of 10 down the stretch in 2022 to make a valiant run at the playoffs, the Lions are contenders now. Which is why a player such as Hooker feels like an almost perfect concession to the need for a future QB. They can get a guy with some Round 1 traits -- arm talent, athleticism, experience and a good physical build -- without paying a premium price. Hooker then can spend Year 1 continuing to rehab the torn ACL he suffered late last season and immerse himself in Ben Johnson's offense, with little pressure to contribute immediately.
It may be a bit like comparing apples to kumquats, but the Lions did trade up to spend a first-round pick on receiver Jameson Williams in the '22 draft, knowing there was a chance he might not provide much in Year 1 coming off his own ACL tear. Granted, the stakes have changed in Detroit one year later -- the Lions could be the NFC North favorites, with Aaron Rodgers on his way out of the division. But the move for Williams at least gives us a window into how the Lions view a prospect coming off a significant injury, and shows they're not just thinking one year at a time with these draft picks.