The 2023 NFL Draft is unlike any draft we've seen in recent years. There are several high-profile quarterbacks -- five to be exact, with four of them considered possible/likely top-10 picks -- and a whole bunch of ... stuff. It's a very deep draft class, but the top-heavy talent is not there.
And when the quarterback discussion is framed in a broader context it makes more sense: this draft simply isn't good. The big four quarterbacks -- Will Levis, Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, if you prefer in alphabetical order by last name, as I do -- are enticing but not overwhelming.
Some expectation exists of these four quarterbacks going with the top four overall picks on Thursday or, at bare minimum if you believe some subsets of whatever Draft Twitter is these days, three in the top five.
Before looking at how rare that would be, let's look at this draft class as a whole. Trying to find a comparable class for this group is tough. Maybe 2018 could work (four quarterbacks, all with a host of question marks plus one of THOSE running backs) but that draft had elite blue-chip defenders (Denzel Ward, Bradley Chubb, Roquan Smith, Minkah Fitzpatrick) and a superstar/can't miss offensive lineman in Quenton Nelson.
Maybe it's a case of the pandemic having a direct-line effect on the quality of draft classes we're getting? Logically it makes sense: a slew of elite players bolted early (some after not playing in 2020) during the 2021 NFL Draft. Eight of the top 15 players in that draft already made a Pro Bowl. Of the seven who didn't: Jaylen Waddle, Jaycee Horn, DeVonta Smith and Justin Fields. The other three are Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Alijah Vera-Tucker. Quibble over Mac Jones Pro Bowl all you want, it's a loaded draft class.
2023 was a drop-off in terms of top-tier talent from previous draft classes. But the last two years have been real steep dips. Since 2014, NFL.com has maintained a consistent grading approach: if you are graded 6.70 or higher, you are considered someone who can start Year 1. The number of Year 1 starters varied, but we saw a massive dip in 2020, with just 6.70 or greater grades for 15 prospects.
In 2021, that number dropped to 11 players before bottoming out at eight last season and then staying flat this year.
Of the eight who qualify for 2023's class, two are quarterbacks: Jalen Carter (7.05), Will Anderson (7.02), Bijan Robinson (6.84), Bryce Young (6.82), Tyree Wilson (6.77), Peter Skoronski (6.73), Christian Gonzalez (6.70) and C.J. Stroud (6.70).
So here's where this gets really interesting from a macro-draft perspective. These quarterbacks are not elite! But they are relatively better than the overall draft class. So they're being pushed up because of their relative position value, with most people assuming a substantial number of NFL teams at the top of the draft plan to select a young signal caller this year.
However, the notion of tons of quarterbacks going early isn't quite as simple as we might think (see: what was referenced earlier). 2021 was the last time we saw three quarterbacks go in the top five of the NFL Draft. Trevor Lawrence was a stone-cold lock, Zach Wilson (oopsies) went second overall and Trey Lance (TBD) went third.
Prior to that, it was 1999 since we saw QBs go that early. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith went 1-2-3 that year. Six quarterbacks taken and only two of them don't massively regret the selections at this current moment. Things are going well!
Now the Devil's Avocado play here is to point out we could see more quarterbacks taken because of the weaker draft class pushing up these signal callers. I'm fine with it, but context is needed with who would be drafting the quarterbacks.
So with all that under our belts, let's introduce the Quarterback Draft Desperation Tiers. First-round quarterbacks only matter here and the qualifications may vary year-to-year, but you'll get the overall point.
There is only one thing we KNOW about this draft and it's the Panthers are selecting a quarterback first overall. This team is taking a QB and if they don't, it will mean the Panthers made the single dumbest trade in the history of professional sports. We don't give David Tepper a ton of love 'round these parts but we should at least give him little credit for not being that insane.
Well ... Why? Well ... Why Not?
Why -- Chris Ballard wouldn't do something stupid, but Jim Irsay would LOVE to do something stupid. He's itching for it. He NEEDS HIS QUARTERBACK. He's basically Geriatric David Tepper but he's obsessed with classic rock and thinks it's OK for him to play cover songs of The Band because he's a billionaire. (Side note: it's really not OK. If you want to strangle cats and mangle the classics, maybe just find a karaoke bar in Indy, Jimbo.) The Colts can't really trade up unless Irsay forces it (Houston won't swap with them because of the division and paying for a move from No. 4 to No. 3 is dumb) but considering they hired Jeff Saturday midseason last year (REMEMBER THAT?!?!?) they're a pretty good bet for a QB based strictly on the owner's whims ........
Why Not -- UNLESS Ballard and Shane Steichen remind Irsay how well tanking worked in 2012 when they landed Andrew Luck. The Colts eschew one of the quarterbacks in this draft to get a stud-ish defender and submarine to the bottom of the NFL so they can scoop Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. I had them in the tier above until the last second on Sunday night.
Why -- The Texans don't have a franchise QB on the roster. Nick Caserio might feel heavy pressure from ownership to draft a QB. Cal McNair could simply step in and force their hand. They love Will Levis or C.J. Stroud. The Panthers don't take Bryce Young, causing the Texans to sprint for the proverbial podium.
Why Not -- Young is their No. 1 QB and they have Levis, Stroud and Anthony Richardson clumped together further down their draft board. They have the No. 12 pick and can maneuver if someone falls. A defender drafted second overall is a lot less likely to "bust" than a quarterback just by nature. DeMeco Ryans signed a long-term contract, is in his first year, and the Texans might not view "right now" as their timeline to grab a quarterback.
Why-- The world decided not to believe in Geno Smith despite: 1) the Seahawks publicly backing him before last year (an idea that was ruthlessly mocked!), 2) Geno playing incredible football in 2022; and 3) the Seahawks signing Geno to a big contract this offseason. Anthony Richardson/Will Levis are perfect fits for the Seahawks if they want to sit him for a year, see what he becomes behind Geno and possibly unleash the future at QB. I'll never forget John Schneider's face when watching Josh Allen's pro day at Wyoming and it's easy to see him thinking similarly about Levis or Richardson. The best argument is the Seahawks love to get weird in the first round and while that may be simplistic, I won't argue with it.
Why Not-- Seattle just doesn't draft quarterbacks very high. Schneider and Pete Carroll have been replicating their approach in 2010-2012 pretty similarly and taking a QB at No. 5 would fly in the face of the previous valuation of the position and overall holistic approach to roster construction. The Seahawks also likely view their roster as extremely competitive in a watered-down NFC -- adding two stud players who can start right way in this first round would put them in a very good spot to make a run. Also ... have you watched Bijan Robinson play football?
Why -- The Lions really like Jared Goff and no one will believe them which isn't a reason they'll draft a QB, just a reason people think they will. They have two first-round picks which always makes it easier to justify taking a QB with one of them despite having the position "filled." Some people are even throwing out "The Lions won't be drafting this high again for a while" as if they don't know the entire existence of the Detroit Lions for the last 4,000 years.
Why Not -- With two first-round picks you can't rule out a move to get a future signal caller, but they're the NFC North favorites and once Aaron Rodgers is traded, you have to believe they can make a run in the watered-down NFC with Goff under center and two starter-caliber players from the first round added to this stout roster. Brad Holmes drafted Goff in St. Louis (!) and believes in him. Detroit wants to build in the trenches. People assuming cornerback here might even miss, much less quarterback.
Why -- C.J. Stroud is accurate and fits the system, in theory. Jimmy Garoppolo's contract is structured in such a way Las Vegas could easily move on after a year, so quarterbacks are definitely in play for Josh McDaniels' club. The Raiders need a long-term answer at the position.
Why Not -- It's tough to see McDaniels attempting to harness the power of an Anthony Richardson or a Will Levis. His only attempt to dabble in utilizing that type of athlete in his offense was with Tim Tebow in Denver. That didn't go well! Las Vegas needs to win now after a rocky first year for McD and Co. The Raiders have lots of other positional needs that are not quarterback. People seem to love ignoring this about a lot of teams.
Why -- The Titans rode Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry to the No. 1 seed two years ago so they're rebuilding now, since people don't like Ryan Tannehill. The Titans have a new general manager and therefore need to draft a quarterback. People think this offense is boring. Anthony Richardson will launch the Titans into the future. The Titans didn't win nine games or more for the first time under Mike Vrabel and thusly must completely reconfigure their approach to playing in the NFL. C.J. Stroud going to Ohio State and possessing similar athletic traits to Tannehill is actually the best answer.
Why Not -- The Tennessee power structure is going to be fascinating to see play out -- how much sway does Vrabel have in draft-day decisions after Jon Robinson's ouster? They're a prime trade-up candidate at No. 3 but I wouldn't guarantee it, even with the Arizona connections. If the Titans pass on an Ohio State guy like Stroud, watch out for a free fall.
Why -- Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heineicke aren't it. The Falcons could fashion a sick Arthur Smith run game around Anthony Richardson given what we've seen from his offense with Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill. Atlanta pursued quarterbacks the last few years amid dumping Matt Ryan.
Why Not -- Seeing what Desmond Ridder can do for a year versus forcing a trade up or a pick is fine with me? The Falcons could see their roster as "getting better" but not want to throw a first-round quarterback in the mix. There's still a large subset of NFL coaches who believe the next Russell Wilson is out there and it drives some of the narrative around big-name QBs taken in the third round or later (Ridder, Malik Willis and others, see below).
Why -- Sam Howell is a fifth-round pick from 2022 who massively disappointed in his final year of college for Mack Brown's North Carolina Tar Heels. The depth chart is bereft of human beings who play quarterback. There's a new offensive coordinator in town after the last one was fired, which oftentimes indicates pressure on the head coach to win.
Why Not -- They really like Howell. I swear, they really do! More importantly: making an expensive QB decision in the middle of an ownership sale, particularly one that likely requires a trade up in the draft, simply doesn't happen. No one has the huevos.
Why -- No more Tom Brady and Baker Mayfield on a one-year deal. The Bucs could be in QB Purgatory (see: below) but they have a recent Super Bowl and don't really have the answer at the position. Baker behind a questionable OL with Todd Bowles running things is tough to picture, which is a great excuse for drafting Richardson if he somehow falls.
Why Not -- The draft position they're in and the state of the roster -- it feels a lot like the 2015 Broncos, trying to reimagine things and get "right" in other spots post championship before trying to lock in the next quarterback.
The Derek Carr contract isn't a massive long-term deal. It's really more like a two- or three-year deal max, which puts the Saints firmly in the range of a team willing to take a chance on a young signal caller. Anthony Richardson or Hendon Hooker would make sense for New Orleans, but the Saints also likely view this roster with Carr as ready to win in 2023, particularly given the state of the NFC and, more specifically, the NFC South.
Kirk Cousins has one year left on his contract but the Vikings are pretty far outside of where you'd expect them to land a quarterback. Cousins -- knowing Kevin O'Connell's history with the oft-maligned QB -- could hang around more than just a single year. Hendon Hooker obviously would be a different story/interesting plot twist if the front office fell in love with him.
No one knows what the Rams are doing. They traded for Baker Mayfield last season then let him walk. Matthew Stafford should be back, but they dealt Allen Robinson for a ham sandwich after making him a splashy offseason signing. The front office/management chatter involves rebuilding after "Eff Them Picks" landed the team a Super Bowl and left them void of assets. L.A. seems more likely to acquire assets and assess life after 2023 than to be aggressive at the QB position in this draft.
Does Bill Belichick hate Mac Jones??? The rumors aren't great! The Patriots shouldn't be ruled out from taking a quarterback but they JUST took a first-round QB. If Mac is traded it's one thing, but Belichick grabbing Levis or Richardson at their current spot without dealing Mac would be wild. Almost as wild as the Pats moving up to No. 2 by dumping future draft currency, in order to get one of those guys.
Probably Have Their Guy ... For Now
Aaron Rodgers lingers pretty large here.
Sean Payton wouldn't go first-round quarterback on Russell Wilson ... at least not this year.
Kyler Murray's contract prohibits this ... for now.
Lamar Jackson is a "not involved" the second he has a signed contract somewhere.
Too much new stuff in Chicago for me to simply buy Justin Fields is the guy going forward.
Jordan Love could be elite and he could stink. Everything is on the table.
Daniel Jones got a big deal and I don't *think* the coaching staff and front office sign off on that without expecting him to hang around long term.
No first-round pick for Miami thanks to tampering with Tom Brady, otherwise obviously they'd be in the tier above.
The lack of first-round picks makes this difficult! Trey Lance is likely the guy but the Niners apparently remain in various conversations (I'm skeptical but we'll see).
Not Involved on QBs
Love or hate Dak Prescott all you want, Dallas isn't drafting a QB this year.
Tied to Deshaun Watson whether they want it or not.
Drafted Kenny Pickett in the first last year with minimal GM transition and no ownership change.
Joe Burrow is getting paid.
Justin Herbert is getting paid.
Trevor Lawrence is getting paid.
Josh Allen's skeptics are lurking on the perimeter but 28+ NFL teams would take him over their current option.