2023 NFL Draft: Will Levis and the inexact science of QB evaluation

Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis (7) holds up the Governor’s Cup trophy after winning the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anything certain in the NFL’s evaluation of quarterbacks in recent years, it’s that most are going to get it wrong. Of the 12 quarterbacks selected in the top three of an NFL draft over the past decade, only four are locks to be starters in Week 1 next season. 

Evaluating quarterbacks properly is simultaneously the most important thing in the sport and the most difficult. 

Maybe it’s because of the nature of the position; no one thing guarantees success at the next level. Bill Parcells' checklist of must-haves when evaluating a quarterback prospect is one of the most widespread sets of guidelines in the scouting world. But reading it now in the modern era? It’s almost comical.

  • Be a three-year starter
  • Be a senior in college
  • Graduate from college
  • Start 30 games
  • Win 23 games
  • Post a 2-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio
  • Complete at least 60% of passes thrown

Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson all would have failed to go 7-for-7 and, in turn, been passed up by the Big Tuna.

So then what about those evaluating quarterbacks currently? Surely, there must be something that unites NFL personnel in a “must-have” on the path to success. Err … not quite. For Bill Belichick, it’s “make good decisions.” Former Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is on the record saying “accuracy.” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says quarterback prospects “have to be able to spin it,” referencing their arm strength. 

It should be no surprise that properly assessing a complex position is, well, complex. But ultimately, the process of quarterback evaluation is no different than any other position. It comes down to how accurately you can answer the following questions:

  • Who are they? 
  • What can they become? 
  • What are their chances of getting there?

There’s no quarterback who will stress test scouts’ ability to answer those questions more at the quarterback position in the 2023 class than Kentucky’s Will Levis — the No. 2 signal-caller on PFF's big board and the No. 3 prospect overall. He’s a 6-foot-3, 232-pound redshirt senior with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder. The Wildcats' pro day isn’t until later this spring, but I can already, without a shred of doubt, say he’ll receive hype from every media outlet afterward for his performance. I mean, just look at these throws:

And how well he can move at his size:

His pros and cons list below doesn’t read too dissimilarly to that of Josh Allen coming out of Wyoming:

  • Flamethrower right arm
  • Ideal build that can take a hit
  • Twitchy mover in pocket
  • Will stand in and deliver strikes under pressure (9.2 yards per attempt under pressure in 2022)
  • Elite QB-sneaker. Converted 22-of-23 sneaks in career
  • Spotty accuracy
  • One-speed thrower
  • Will likely always struggle on touch passes with short-arm delivery
  • Bad habit of trying to do too much and forces throws

Unfortunately, that reads like a lot of athletic projects at the quarterback position in the draft. And for every Josh Allen, there’s a Jake Locker at home watching games on Sundays. It’s why the NFL still prefers those with high-end on-field production toward the top of the draft. 

That’s where Levis falls considerably short (as everyone on Twitter will remind you when his name is brought up). There’s no sugarcoating it: Levis was difficult to watch at times in 2022. However, he suffered a turf toe injury against Ole Miss that he played through for the final six games. 

His stats against Power Five opponents can be seen below:

PFF Passing Grade 61.2
Yards per Game 179.4
Comp % 62.2%
TDs 10
INTs 7
Big-Time Throws 5
Turnover-Worthy Plays 7

There’s nary a data point or advanced stat in the PFF database that can make the above palatable. There are only excuses for why it was the case. He was under pressure on 37.8% of his dropbacks (FBS average: 31.4% | NFL average: 33.6%). He threw a tight-window pass on 46.4% of his attempts targeted 10-plus yards downfield (FBS average: 39.2% | NFL average: 39.7%). While that speaks to just how difficult Levis’ job description was for the Wildcats this past fall, it says nothing about how he’ll fare when his supporting cast improves.

Luckily, we got a glimpse of just that in 2021. When he had a receiver who could get open at an NFL level (Wan’Dale Robinson) and a coordinator who could coordinate at an NFL level (Liam Coen), Levis earned a 90.6 overall grade. His tape against the behemoth Georgia defense that season was as good as anyone not named Bryce Young looked against them all season long.

He finished with an 83.3 overall grade in that game and made a grand total of zero turnover-worthy plays. While it was itself tremendous tape for evaluators, if that was the guy we saw every week, I wouldn’t even be writing this article. Levis would already be a shoo-in to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. And therein lies the most difficult of the three questions to answer in scouting. We’re all just trying to answer the question of how likely it is that a player reaches their maximum capabilities on a consistent basis. Because Levis has proven that his capabilities are sky-high, but he’s shown them so infrequently that a road to consistency seems arduous to attain.

When you have to be the last one standing in a 32-team league chock-full of physical freaks at the quarterback position, however, it’s the quarterbacks with the high-end maximum capabilities who can get you to a Lombardi Trophy. That’s why Will Levis is still very worthy of — and in my opinion, will be — a top-five draft pick come April 27.

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