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2023 NFL Draft: Texans, Colts, Titans pick up QB prospects while chasing Jaguars in AFC South

The most impactful trend of the 2023 NFL Draft was not the early run on quarterbacks, the mid-first-round run on receivers or the scramble for offensive linemen. 

It was the race to stop Trevor Lawrence.

Lawrence represents what everybody else in the AFC South needed badly in this draft: a franchise quarterback who could seize control of the NFL's most wide-open division, which has been won by every one of the four member teams at least once in the last nine seasons. By the time the 2022 season ended, though, the Jaguars -- who won the division title, beat the Los Angeles Chargers in a wild-card playoff game and have an ascending Lawrence under center -- seemed poised to lord over the AFC South the way Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts once did for more than a decade.

But on Thursday and Friday nights, all three of the Jaguars' divisional foes drafted quarterbacks, potentially creating rivalries for years to come. The Texans and Colts did so with the second and fourth overall picks, selecting C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson, respectively. And while many pundits and analysts pegged Richardson as a developmental prospect, in contrast to likely rookie starter Stroud, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said in an interview Saturday that he expects Richardson to start sooner than later. Irsay explained that the only way quarterbacks get better is when they play, and that new coach Shane Steichen will develop an offense that Richardson, who started just 13 games in college and attempted just 393 passes, can run early on as he develops.

Will Levis, who was selected with the second pick of the second round (No. 33) on Friday night and was the fourth quarterback taken overall, is going to be the third quarterback on Tennessee's roster, according to coach Mike Vrabel. That said, with Ryan Tannehill in the final year of his contract and the Titans seemingly losing faith in 2022 third-rounder Malik Willis, Levis could eventually compete for the starting job if coaches can hone his form to get the most from his big arm. 

"I can't remember it ever happening where all of a sudden the division fills up with three teams getting three of the top four quarterbacks," Irsay said. "It's going to make for some really interesting division games. Trevor is still young and we always knew he was a matter of time, so they're going to be the ones to try to catch, because of Trevor's experience. It's all the difference in the world when they are a three-year guy rather than a rookie."

There is a huge caveat to the idea that the four quarterbacks will compete against each other for years -- the odds are against all three of this year's draftees having success. Irsay believes that only about one-third of recent first-round quarterbacks have struck with their original teams and thrived. He has already talked to Richardson about how difficult success in the NFL is. 

With Steichen coming off a tenure as Philadelphia offensive coordinator in which he helped Jalen Hurts thrive, the Colts were so sold on Richardson as a dual-threat talent with extraordinary physical traits who has the desire to be great that, Irsay said, they likely would have taken him even if they had the first overall pick. And they went into Thursday night thinking that if they could get Richardson without having to trade up, they would be over the moon. Irsay said that last year, he was glad every week if the Colts were not facing a quarterback like Hurts, the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes or the Ravens' Lamar Jackson, because dual-threat quarterbacks -- like Richardson -- are so hard to defend and have become dominant in the league. When the Colts selected Richardson, Irsay said, he received a congratulatory text from Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, welcoming him to the club.

"Anthony and I have talked about developing his passing skills because the forward pass is the way you're going to get it done," Irsay said. "This isn't the Olympics. It's not running and jumping. Those things are great, but in the end you have to be an outstanding quarterback, with a feel for the game, with vision, who can assimilate things very quickly. Shane really did see him in his mind, see what he needs to see to feel he can develop into an outstanding passer. You can imagine throwing the ball downfield but at some time, with Richardson and (running back) Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, the difficulty is when Richardson pulls it back and you have two guys who are so dynamic."

The recent history of the Colts, as much as any team in the NFL, encapsulates the fruits of quarterback stability, the desperation to find it and the eternal hope with each first-round pick.

The Colts went to the playoffs 11 times, reaching two Super Bowls and winning one, with Peyton Manning. When Manning suffered a career-threatening neck injury, the Colts released him and, in 2012, drafted Andrew Luck, the surest thing coming out of college since John Elway. The Colts went to the playoffs in each of Luck's first three seasons, including to the AFC Conference Championship game in his third season. But then injuries started to pile up, the Colts took a step back, and Luck stunned the team by retiring just before the start of the 2019 season, leaving backup Jacoby Brissett to take the reins.

Indianapolis has been stumbling ever since, cycling through a series of veteran quarterbacks -- Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan -- in three straight seasons. With Ryan splitting starts with Sam Ehlinger and Nick Foles in 2022, the Colts scuffled. Frank Reich was fired as head coach in November, replaced with interim Jeff Saturday, and the team finished 4-12-1.

Irsay was all for the Rivers move, and the Colts made it to the playoffs with him in 2020. But Irsay is, at heart, a fan of drafting and developing young quarterbacks, and he acknowledged on Saturday that he had reservations about getting Wentz and Ryan and embarking on reclamation projects rather than going younger. Irsay said Luck's retirement shook the organization, which even initially tried to talk Luck into coming back. 

"It's that hangover after Andrew Luck," Irsay said. "It really had a huge impact on the organization. It's a lot to get over. Four years this summer. No team has ever had to face that. Here we are in 2023, finally, we come to a point we have a new quarterback we drafted and we can develop ourselves." 

With Irsay expecting Richardson to start in the near future, the work of developing what Irsay calls "the whole package" begins immediately, and it will include lessons in when to get down, although the Colts are confident that Richardson, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 244 pounds, can stay healthy. 

"I couldn't dream going back to late January that we'd be able to put a combo like Shane and Richardson together to lead our future," Irsay said. "It's really a godsend. Everyone is going to have high expectations and they'll have to temper those. It's about winning two Lombardis in the next decade. If you go 6-11 this season, you do. It's tough for rookie quarterbacks." 

The future of the AFC South will be shaped by how long Richardson, Stroud and Levis look like rookies.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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