The 2023 NFL Draft class of first-round quarterbacks featured a small, high-floor passer with creativity at the top of his resume, an ultra-precise pocket passer, and an otherworldly athletic specimen with a rocket arm.
Let's look back on these quarterbacks as a prospect, pinpoint what they must improve, how their strengths can be maximized, and formulate a projection for their rookie seasons factoring in their supporting casts.
While sapped quickness means Adam Thielen can't be a 1,200-plus yard pass catcher anymore, his keen understanding of cornerbacks' leverage, how to exploit it, and super-soft hands mean he should be a rare wideout who ages like fine wine well into his 30s. Over the last three seasons in Minnesota, as Justin Jefferson erupted into a player most regard as the best receiver in football, Thielen still averaged 70 receptions, nearly 800 yards, and 10 touchdowns per year. Worth noting, though, Thielen's figures have mostly dropped in each of the last two seasons.
I'm the most giddy about fourth-year pro Laviska Shenault Jr., and it goes back to my pre-draft memories of his collegiate film. Shenault was a galloping moose in space at Colorado and, frankly, those insane, tackle-breaking ways have translated to the NFL; he simply hasn't been even a No. 2 option in any offense since entering the league with the Jaguars in 2020.
Shenault forced a hard-to-believe 15 missed tackles on just 27 receptions last year in Carolina. In his first two seasons in the league, 36 missed tackles forced on 121 receptions. If used in a screen/gadget/underneath role, Shenault can be a fun extension of the run game who'll punish defensive backs in space all game long. Then there's second-round pick Jonathan Mingo, who was a Shenault-type at Ole Miss. Can't forget about free agent addition D.J. Chark either. From December on with the Jaguars, Chark had contests of five grabs for 98 yards, six snags for 94 yards with a score, and four receptions for 108 yards. He's an established vertical threat.
The backfield featuring Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard isn't spectacular yet should be plenty good enough talent-wise to keep defenses reasonably honest. Up front, Carolina's offensive line should be at least middle of the pack. Last year's first-round pick, Ikem Ekwonu, flashed in Year 1, and most tackles take a step forward in their second NFL seasons because they've had time to add power to the the pass-protection portion of their game. Taylor Moton remains one of the best -- and most underrated -- right tackles in the NFL and the interior of Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett should be solid albeit unspectacular.
Improving his weaknesses
In evaluating Young, I didn't have a direct problem with his lack of size. Because size itself doesn't make or break a quarterback in the NFL. However, unlike other small-statured quarterbacks who've recently come before him -- Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray -- Young has the arm strength typically found in a passer of his size. That concerns me.
There were a fair number of Young's 949 attempts in college in which his average-at-best arm led to an incompletion. Whether it came when he couldn't set his feet perfectly in the pocket because of chaos around him or when a long throw across or down the field needed to be made, it was apparent to me that Young's arm will make achieving success in the NFL more of a challenge for him, particularly early on.
Now, how does he "improve" this? He probably doesn't. Not in Year 1 anyway. You can skirt around the issue in an offense that features an inordinate amount of easier throws or by learning to not attempt as many passes that need high-level velocity to reach the intended target in time.
Strengthening his strengths
Young has the natural, creative flair quarterbacks need to thrive in the modern day NFL. Last year at Alabama, on 53 throws outside the pocket, he averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, the fifth-highest figure in all of college football. He's bouncy and while not possessing a Murray-level of explosiveness, Young isn't a cinch to corral even in tight quarters.
That's the fun, extra element to his game. Young too is very cerebral, typically understanding where he needs to go with the football based on the pre- or post-snap look. Head coach Frank Reich will likely plan things nicely for Young in most passing situations, and even if Young has to get to his second or third receiver in a progression, he can.
With Shenault, Mingo, a savvy underneath weapon in Thielen, and a known commodity to stretch defenses vertically in Chark, the offense should be constructed to maximize his strengths in 2023.
Young should be the most productive rookie quarterback, from season's start to season's end. Why? He has the highest floor of his draft-class contemporaries, and is in one quarterback-friendly environment in Carolina with the staff the Panthers have constructed with Reich, Jim Caldwell, Sean McVay disciple Thomas Brown and former NFL passer Josh McCown.
Do I think he lights the NFL on fire en route to breaking rookie passing records? No. His weaknesses were glaring on film, and they will hinder him from attaining immediate stardom. His propensity to create off-script can lead to gorgeously placed passes at all levels yet I don't think he'll be able to run away from NFL defenders at anywhere close to the same rate he did at Alabama. Plus, at this size, Young does not want to absorb many hits from professional defensive tackles, edge rushers, or blitzing linebackers.
Nico Collins. Robert Woods. John Metchie. Tank Dell. Those are the likely top four receivers in Houston this season. It's not too dissimilar from the setup Young has in Carolina -- and both clubs traded away a formidable veteran in the wideout room.
It's not as good as the Panthers group. More question marks. Collins does have sneaky upside at 6-foot-4, 215-pounds with 4.45 speed and deceptive quicks for his size. Metchie, triumphantly returning from leukemia, was a big-play creator at Alabama, and Dell led all of college football with nearly 1,400 receiving yards in 2022. Woods isn't an explosive option yet one of the most crafty, blue-collar veterans at his position.
The offensive line could hold Stroud back. Laremy Tunsil is an elite left tackle. Shaq Mason can probably still play like a top 10 guard but turns 30 in August. There's uncertainty with the other three positions in the trenches, and interior pressure is incredibly agitating and damaging to every quarterback, specifically the young ones.
Improving his weaknesses
Stroud's not an escape artist. He doesn't have designed-run game athletic gifts. While he doesn't play with cement feet in the pocket, Stroud is about as stoic of a top-flight quarterback as we're going to see today. Stroud did throw 11 touchdowns to only one pick when roaming outside the pocket, but his completion rate was under 53% with a pedestrian 6.3 yards-per-attempt average in those scenarios in 2022 at Ohio State.
Stroud won't suddenly be an improvisational wizard in the NFL. No, not with the size, length, and explosiveness featured on every single professional defense. So he can't simply "improve" in that area in his first season with the Texans. Naturally, he can work around his weaknesses by sharpening his already refined processing skills, which will lead to him getting the ball out quicker than he did in college. Believe it or not, Stroud had an average time to throw of 2.77 seconds last year, one of the slower rates in among full-time starters at the Division 1 ranks. That time must go down in his rookie campaign.
Strengthening his strengths
Stroud's precision and calm acknowledgement that sometimes the needed throw is the most difficult one are the most glaring strengths to his game. His Big-Time Throw rate of 7.0% was the highest in the 2023 draft class, which built upon an already strong, higher than Young 5.9% rate in 2021.
Stroud needs to let it rip. The miscommunications will be there. So will the incorrect coverage identifications. And the interceptions will happen. But those are all part of the learning process in the NFL. Also, if Stroud sustains his aggressive passing mentality, the confidence-building, game-shifting, wow throws will occur.
Stroud is in a familiar situation for many young passers. He has the inherent talent to become a franchise-altering quarterback, but Year 1 he is going to battle through struggles because of the team around him, particularly early. The Texans roster is noticeably better from where it was a season ago, yet it's still one of the least-imposing lineups in football.
The run game should be sneaky good -- with Kyle Shanahan mentee Bobby Slowik calling the plays and Dameon Pierce and Devin Singletary toting the rock. If Stroud is asked to really lean on the ground game while not taking many chances, he could settle into a nice game-manager type role on a, at times, competitive team. My guess is Stroud's natural affinity to sling the ball all over the yard will lead to him making a few mistakes each outing. He'll flash down the stretch and give Houston reason to believe he is the long-term answer given his ball-placement specialty.
With the Colts -- during GM Chris Ballard's tenure -- it's vital to know one thing: the team is going to prioritize athleticism arguably more than any other club in the NFL, which made the Richardson selection no surprise.
Around Richardson is the perpetually on-the-verge-of-breaking-out Michael Pittman, a large, physical specimen in his own right at receiver. I'll believe the breakout when I see it with Pittman. Can't discount his 1,000-yard season in 2021 and the 99 grabs he had a season ago with less than stellar quarterback play. After that, there's loads of promise with mostly -- or totally -- unproven players. Combine star Alec Pierce made his case for a starting gig on more than just a few occasions as a rookie and Josh Downs profiles as classic, water bug-type possession slot receiver. In the past two years at North Carolina, Downs caught 195 passes for more than 2,400 yards.
I'm most intrigued by the tight end group in Indianapolis for Richardson. Jelani Woods is a mountainous man with stunning explosive tendencies. He caught three touchdowns on 25 grabs as a rookie and went for 98 yards on eight grabs in the second half of the season against the Steelers. Mo Alie-Cox is still roaming the seam as another gargantuan target, and Kylen Granson along with 2023 fifth-round pick Will Mallory -- another freaky athlete -- are the smaller, flex tight ends on the roster.
If 2022 third-round pick Bernhard Raimann continues the positive momentum from the latter stages of his rookie campaign, the Colts could field a universally regarded top 10 unit in 2023. Quenton Nelson is still a man among boys at guard, and Braden Smith is a nasty brawler at right tackle. The blocking contingent is unlikely to be a problem for Richardson in Year 1.
Improving his weaknesses
Richardson's accuracy needs fine-tuning. He and the Colts staff would probably admit that at this stage. His 64.3% Accuracy Percentage was, by far, the lowest among the drafted quarterbacks, and he had four contests with completion rates under 50% in 2022. Not great, Bob.
Surely, Richardson and the Colts staff will be working on his mechanics, no doubt. Schematically, new head coach Shane Steichen will play an integral role in hiding Richardson's precision issues early on by providing the quarterback plenty of RPOs, screens, you know, high-percentage, easy throws in which Richardson can hone in on his fundamentals instead of having to dissect a complicated coverage while simultaneously thinking to keep his mechanics in line. Fortunately for Richardson, Steichen was part of an Eagles staff that did a marvelous job developing Jalen Hurts, a prospect with similar strengths and weaknesses to Richardson.
Strengthening his strengths
Richardson will have to do a delicate dance between accentuating his immense natural athletic talents by running when things break down and not taking too many extra hits after holding it too long. In 2022, Richardson's average time to attempt was 2.94 seconds, the third-highest in all of college football among starters.
As scary as that fact may be, Richardson was sacked just 13 times last year and ran for nearly 700 yards with nine scores, all of which speaks to his ridiculous movement skills. I'm actually OK with Richardson hanging on to the football for what at times will seem like forever as a rookie. It's what Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen did as they were acclimating to the speed of the NFL. Plus, Richardson is a rare cat who possesses the physical gifts to continue his highlight-reel creation with his legs in the NFL. His uniqueness should be celebrated in the Colts offense, and I have a hunch it will be. Let's hope we see a hefty amount of play-action deep shots too, because of how enormous Richardson's arm is.
There will be ghastly drives, ghastly quarters, and even ghastly games from Richardson. Prepare yourself for that. There'll also be, oh-my-goodness-what-did-he-just-do eruptions with his legs and majestic long balls that fall perfectly into Colts receivers' hands with Richardson too.
I'm amped for Richardson's growth potential with Steichen as his coach, and the quality offensive line will keep him from being shell-shocked at the outset of his career, which typically leads to bad habits for young passers. I expect Richardson to instantly be among the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the game and be overtly boom-or-bust when throwing the football. Remember, Jalen Hurts only completed 61.3% of his throws in his first full season as a starter -- in Year 2 in the NFL -- with Steichen as his QB coach in 2021.
This season with Richardson, it'll be important to remember -- it's all about the long-term future.