2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the late-round quarterbacks by starter potential

Stanford, California, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee (18) throws a pass against the Brigham Young Cougars during the first half at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

• Tanner McKee tops the list for starter potential: The Stanford product looks the part of an NFL signal-caller and displays good touch on passes up the sideline.

• UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson among most popular late-round QBs: He never finished a season with a 75.0-plus passing grade but could develop into an intriguing dual-threat quarterback in the NFL.

• Aidan O'Connell an up-and-down late-round prospect: The Purdue signal-caller made 21 big-time throws and 25 turnover-worthy plays in 2022 but has the arm talent to get a chance to start in the NFL.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins

As we enter the final days of 2023 NFL Draft speculation, there has been plenty of talk about the class' top quarterbacks. Everyone seems to have their opinions on Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. But those prospects are all projected first-rounders. What about the guys who will likely be Day 3 picks yet will have opportunities to win games for your favorite team?

Here is how we view the late-round quarterbacks in terms of NFL starter potential. 

1. Tanner McKee, Stanford

McKee tops the list of late-round guys who have the potential to start due to his tools as a passer. He’s a shade under 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, so he certainly looks the part of an NFL signal-caller. His arm strength is good, though not a howitzer. If it was, he would be a lot closer to the first-round conversation.

What impressed me most about McKee's tape wasn’t the arm strength but, rather, his touch on passes up the sideline where he had to put just the right amount of air underneath it to hit his player in stride. He finished 2022 with a 75.3 passing grade and a 70.0% adjusted completion percentage, but much of that can be brought into context by saying he had one of the worst supporting casts of any draftable quarterback. He reminds me of a player like Kyle Trask.

2. Aidan O’Connell, Purdue

O’Connell’s tape over the past two years is a roller coaster. He posted an elite 90.6 passing grade in 2021 but then dipped massively to a 67.5 passing grade in 2022. He recorded 36 big-time throws and 17 turnover-worthy plays in 2021, then 21 big-time throws and 25 turnover-worthy plays in 2022. He is Jameis Winston-esque in that regard — a gunslinger who is fearless when he sees the throw he believes he needs to make.

O'Connell has the arm talent to get a chance to start in the NFL, but how he fixes those turnovers will determine how long his leash is, or whether he gets that shot at all.

3. Jake Haener, Fresno State

Haener’s draft stock came into focus two years ago when, through injury, he led his team to a thrilling comeback win over UCLA on the road. He finished out the year with his best season passing grade to that point (80.2) but opted to return for one more season. He finished 2022 with a career-best 86.2 passing grade as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Mountain West conference. He then continued to display that consistency at the Senior Bowl as the best quarterback of the bunch.

Haener isn’t going to “wow” you with his legs or arm talent, but he’s adequate in those areas and stands out by being seasoned and smart. At worst, he feels like a preferred long-term backup in the NFL. At best, he could come in and win some games in a pinch.

4. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA

Thompson-Robinson is one of the most popular late-round quarterbacks in this class, and for good reason. To some, taking a flier on a lower-ranked signal-caller is all about adding a player who has good ability but may lack the requisite consistency. That’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. After five years of college action, he has the overall career stats. But he never finished a season with a 75.0-plus passing grade (70.0-plus only once). However, he finished with a 70.0-plus rushing grade four times and an 80.0-plus mark two times. He’s the ideal late-round dual-threat quarterback to draft and develop.

Related: One riser, one faller at each position according to PFF's Mock Draft Simulator

5. Stetson Bennett, Georgia

Bennett is a polarizing player. As the quarterback of back-to-back national champion Georgia, some are wondering why he wouldn’t be drafted much higher. But the Bulldogs coaches even told stories about how they kept trying to play other quarterbacks instead of Bennett due to his limited ceiling. However, Bennett's efficiency and competitiveness kept getting him on the field as their starter.

Bennett measured in at the combine at just over 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds. Those numbers were in the 3rd and 0th percentiles for quarterbacks in the NFL. He brings decent arm velocity on passes 40 yards and in, but he won’t be a quarterback who can stretch the field. His winning nature and overall competitiveness will likely get him drafted, but as for being a starter, that would once again have to come from efficient play and a relentless attitude to prove everyone wrong.

6. Clayton Tune, Houston

One thing is for sure: Clayton Tune is not afraid to throw the football. He tallied more than 1,100 passing snaps over the past two seasons and added elite grades in both years. When the play remains in structure, he is comfortable and confident delivering the ball where it needs to go. But when things break down, he’s not the best improviser.

Tune has plenty of arm talent to be a good backup in the league, but his chances to become a starter will lean heavily on how fast he can process NFL pressure. 

7. Max Duggan, TCU

Duggan enjoyed a storybook 2022 season. He didn't even begin the year as TCU’s starter, but after an injury to the original QB1, Duggan took back the starting job and never looked back — all the way to the national championship game. As a passer, consistency is not Duggan’s game. He’s a player who will make a big-time throw one second and a head-scratching misfire the next. Those big plays stand out, though, and that’s why an NFL team could take a chance on him either late in the draft or as a priority undrafted free agent.

The TCU product is a tough player, a leader of his team and a quarterback with a lot of rushing production. He likely doesn’t possess the ceiling of an NFL starter, but he could get a shot one day.

8. Malik Cunningham, Louisville 

Cunningham is another player who just did not have the passing consistency to be considered a priority late-round quarterback. However, like Thompson-Robinson, Cunningham has intriguing arm and leg talent. His 2022 tape was not great, but he’s had other seasons, specifically 2021, where he was far more efficient. He’d be perfect for an RPO offense that allows him to be a dual-threat player. He recorded 50 rushing touchdowns over the past five years, including 20 in 2021.

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