2023 NFL Draft: Biggest pro and con for PFF’s top quarterback prospects

Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) scrambles out of the pocket during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch Ncaa Football Michigan Wolverines At Ohio State Buckeyes

The 2023 NFL Draft is now less than a month away, and the biggest focus is still on the quarterbacks. The Carolina Panthers are on the clock, tasked with deciding which of the top prospects will be the new face of the franchise. And that decision also has a significant impact on how the rest of the draft unfolds.

It’s a fascinating conversation because this year’s crop of quarterbacks seems to feature an unusual variety of styles, strengths and weaknesses.

Here, we will look at the biggest strength and weakness of each of the top four prospects, as well as Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, who is making a late push to make it a group of five.

Bryce Young, Alabama

  • Biggest Strength: Anticipation
  • Biggest Weakness: Size

I can’t remember a quarterback draft prospect with better anticipation on his throws than Bryce Young. He consistently throws to spots he knows his receiver will be in long before the receiver has broken to that spot, and it makes him incredibly difficult to intercept. Young’s turnover-worthy play rate was an exceptionally low 2.0% in each of the past two seasons. When you couple elite accuracy and pocket presence with that anticipation, Young stands head and shoulders above any other prospect in this draft (metaphorically) in some of the most important quarterback traits.

His only negative is that most of the other quarterbacks in this draft stand head and shoulders above him (literally) from a stature standpoint. He measured in just a fraction over 5-foot-10 in height, and though he got to 204 pounds in weight by the NFL Combine, his playing weight is as likely to be below 190 than it is above it. That combination of size is virtually unprecedented for a top-tier NFL quarterback, and that level of outlier may terrify teams at the top of the draft. We have no proof that Young’s size will ever be a detriment to his fortunes at the next level, but the lack of uncertainty is concerning.

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

  • Biggest Strength: Accuracy
  • Biggest Weakness: Pressure

C.J. Stroud refers to himself as a “ball placement specialist,” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. His adjusted completion rate for his college career was 76.1%, and PFF’s ball location data gives him the highest accuracy rate by more than 4 percentage points over the same time. Ohio State’s offense regularly gave Stroud open receivers to throw to, but he more than held up his end of the bargain and delivered the ball where it needed to go. On throws traveling 10 or more yards downfield, his accuracy rate of 60% is higher than any quarterback taken in the first round since 2017.

Stroud’s biggest weakness has been play under pressure — outside of his college playoff game against Georgia this season. His PFF grade from a clean pocket this season finished at 93.4 but dropped to 42.0 when he was pressured. His 10.3 yards per attempt from a clean pocket became 5.7 when under duress, and he ranked in just the 10th percentile in PFF grade under pressure. The game against Georgia showed that he has it in him to excel in those circumstances, but the rest of his college tape shows he hasn’t been able to do it consistently.

Anthony Richardson, Florida

  • Biggest Strength: Tools
  • Biggest Weakness: Accuracy

There are quarterback prospects every year whose biggest strength is physical tools. Heck, there are other quarterbacks just on this list for whom that is the case, but it’s important to understand just how good Richardson’s tools are. He posted the highest relative athletic score (RAS) of any quarterback since 1987, and the third-highest RAS of any player at any position behind only Calvin Johnson (a guy nicknamed Megatron) and Jordan Davis.

Richardson isn’t just super athletic, but he’s the most athletic quarterback prospect to enter the draft in decades — perhaps ever. Couple that with a very big arm, and you have the most enticing set of physical tools the position has ever seen.

For as special as Richardson’s physical tools are, his biggest deficiency — accuracy — may be just as important. Any chart of his actual ball location at the catch point looks like the target was merely a suggestion rather than a specific aiming point, and over the past two years his rate of uncatchable passes was 29.5%, by far the worst of the draft class and almost double that of Bryce Young (16.7%).

Will Levis, Kentucky

  • Biggest Strength: Arm talent
  • Biggest Weakness: Lack of big plays

Will Levis may have the best arm in the draft. There are other players who can rival his arm strength for distance and pure velocity, but nobody can generate the kind of zip that Levis can with such a tight and concentrated release. The ball leaps out of his hand with very little windup, and that element of his game is straight out of a textbook and exactly what NFL evaluators want to see.

For a player with that kind of arm talent, however, Levis has surprisingly few big throws on his tape. For his entire college career, his big-time throw rate (PFF’s highest-graded throws) is just 3.4% — less than half Stroud’s figure from this past year. Last season, the number was even lower at just 2.3%. He had 336 dropbacks and managed just seven big-time throws, notching only 26 for his entire career. Fifteen different quarterbacks in the FBS alone had more than that in 2022, and very few of them can come close to matching the arm that Levis can deploy at a moment’s notice.

Hendon Hooker, Tennessee

  • Biggest Strength: Prototypical tools
  • Biggest Weakness: Abstract evaluation/Non-applicable college offense

All of a sudden, Hendon Hooker is generating significant first-round hype, and the reason for it has to be rooted in the prototypical quarterback tools he brings to the table. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he has ideal size as well as the athleticism and speed to make plays with his legs. He has a good arm and carries enough ballast to be a problem for defenders to get on the ground. If NFL teams were running down a checklist of desirable physical characteristics for a quarterback, Hooker would tick every box.

His biggest issue is that he played in a college offense that would struggle to be further removed from any system he will have to run at the NFL level. The issue with that isn’t his ability to learn a different offense, it’s that the system he ran in college simply didn’t task him with doing very many NFL things. His reads were minimal, the system broke open receivers seemingly at will and there was little to no requirement for him to actually process anything complex on defense. For his Tennessee career, Hooker had just 16 pass attempts beyond his first read on a play. He could be asked to match that figure in a single game at the NFL level.

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