One of the major storylines coming out of the 2022 NFL draft was the fall of the quarterbacks. While in the closing days it looked like we could see three, or even four, passers in the first round in the end only Kenny Pickett came off the board on the first night.
If the questions about the 2022 quarterback class as a whole were one foundation to that story, another is this:
Expectations for the 2023 class.
After all, mixed in with the stories about “late risers” and “QB-needy teams” as the draft approached were line items about the “strength” of the 2023 crop. Fans of teams with a need at the position spent the finals hours before the draft debating whether taking a quarterback this spring was the right move, or waiting for the next class would pay off in a year.
It is true, that as we sit here right now it looks like the 2023 quarterback class will be stronger and deeper. Many of the “way too early” mock drafts have anywhere from four to six quarterbacks listed in the first round, and as of this moment the “consensus big board” at NFL Mock Draft Database has seven players in the top 32.
Yet one of those players, South Carolina passer Spencer Rattler, is perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale regarding these early projections. This time last year Rattler was viewed as a lock for the first round.
As the quarterback for Oklahoma.
So, things can change in a year.
Still, the summer scouting season is underway and many of you are building your own watch lists. Here is another watch list for you to peruse.
(Before anyone gets upset, this list is in alphabetical order.)
The Virginia Cavaliers finished with a 6-6 record last season, and a big reason why was the play from quarterback Brennan Armstrong. The left-hander took over as Virginia’s starting quarterback last season, and completed 65.3% of his passes for 4,444 yards and 31 touchdowns, against just 10 interceptions.
As the 2021 college football season drew to a close, Armstrong started to generate some draft buzz of his own, with many evaluators wondering if he would enter the 2022 draft and perhaps — given the down cycle at the quarterback position — sneak into an early-round selection. Instead, Armstrong decided to return to school, and the Virginia passer has a chance to build on that buzz from a season ago.
Plays like this one against Pittsburgh will certainly extend that buzz:
It is hard to keep the starting quarterback of the defending National Champions off a watch list prior to the season getting underway. And yet, despite helping Georgia to the title, Stetson Bennett is still viewed with skepticism.
And this is not just on a national stage, but even within the Georgia fanbase. As this article from The Athletic points out, there is excitement about Brock Vandagriff, another quarterback on Georgia’s roster and the number-two overall passer in the 2021 recruiting class.
Bennett’s rise from walk-on to national champion is certainly an incredible story. But his size and lack of impressive physical traits might hamper him when it comes time for the 2023 NFL draft. Still, the league has expanded its thresholds for size at the position in recent years, and if he follows up his 2021 campaign with an impressive 2022 season — without the vaunted Georgia defense to bail him out after mistakes — maybe we will all be singing a different tune next spring.
Another quarterback that entertained some off-season moves is Jake Haener of Fresno State. Haener crashed the national spotlight last season in a thrilling comeback win against UCLA, where the quarterback led a game-winning drive in the closing seconds while dealing with a hip injury. He finished the season having completed 67.1% of his passes for 4,096 yards and 33 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions.
The first question he faced at the end of the year was whether he would throw his hat into the draft ring. Haener decided to return to school, but a second question arose: What school would he attend in the fall? Haener initially entered the transfer portal, and was reported to return to Washington, where he started his college career. But given that he would need a waiver to be immediately eligible — given his earlier transfer — Haener withdrew from the transfer portal and returned to Fresno State.
In addition to the win over UCLA, Haener and the Bulldogs put a big scare into Oregon early in the year, coming up just short in a 31-24 loss at Eugene. This play from that game illustrates Haener’s mobility and ability to create outside the pocket and off of structure:
Given that the NFL draft is now a year-long process, many prospects are propped up during the summer scouting season. One such passer is BYU’s Jaren Hall. After serving as the backup to Zach Wilson, Hall took over as the starting quarterback for the 2021 season, playing in ten games for the Cougars. He completed 63.9% of his passes for 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just five interceptions on the year.
When studying Hall, one aspect of his game that stands out is his pocket presence. On this touchdown against USC, watch as he seems impervious to pressure off the edge, dropping in a deep shot for a touchdown on the post route working off run action:
As the 2021 college football season drew to a close, one of the quarterbacks I was paying strict attention to while we awaited decisions on entering the draft was Sam Hartman from Wake Forest. Hartman earned the starting job for the Demon Deacons as a true freshman in 2018, and led the team to a 4-4 record before his season ended with an injury. The following year, he lost a training camp competition with Jamie Newman for the starting job, and took a redshirt season.
He returned to the starting lineup for the 2020 campaign, completing 58.2% of his passes for 2,224 yards and 13 touchdowns in the COVID-shortened season. This past season he helped Wake Forest get off to an 8-0 start, and the Demon Deacons earned a spot in the ACC Championship game, losing to Kenny Pickett and Pittsburgh.
Prior to knocking off Rutgers in the Gator Bowl, Hartman announced he would be back for one more season:
From Sam Hartman’s Instagram: pic.twitter.com/sPSE8Vm4hT
— Conor O’Neill (@ConorONeill_DI) December 16, 2021
What will I be watching for in 2022? Reduced turnovers. Hartman threw 14 interceptions a season ago, and if he can cut into that number, his stock will certainly rise over the course of the 2022 campaign.
In college football, as in life, it is often not about where you start, but where you end up.
For Hendon Hooker, that path could lead him to the top of the 2023 NFL draft.
Hooker was a four-star recruit coming out of James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. He began his college football career at Virginia Tech, and started 15 games for the Hokies. But prior to the 2021 campaign he transferred to Tennessee as a graduate, and despite being experienced and immediately eligible, he began the year as the backup.
He took over early in the year, and finished the season having completed 68% of his passes for 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He decided to pass on the 2022 NFL draft and take advantage of a “super” senior season. Hooker has some ball placement issues to iron out — particularly in the short area of the field — but if he takes another step forward in 2022, the top of the draft is in play.
One trait that Hooker showed last season was pocket toughness, which was on display against Purdue in the Music City Bowl:
Prior to last season, one of the quarterbacks I was most excited to see during the fall was Boston College passer Phil Jurkovec. After transferring from Notre Dame, Jurkovec took over as the starting quarterback for the Eagles for the 2020 season, and completed 61% of his passes for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns, throwing five interceptions. From my summer scouting last season, I thought Jurkovec had the potential to crash the first-round party in 2022.
Instead, a wrist injury derailed those plans. Jurkovec appeared in just six games, completing 52 of 96 passes for 914 yards and seven touchdowns, against four interceptions. Those first-round dreams now must wait for a season.
Still, throws like this from 2020 have me believing that he could again make a charge up draft boards in the fall:
Last fall, I would write a weekly “Stock Watch” column, outlining which college quarterbacks helped themselves the most during a given week, and who might have taken a step back.
One such player who appeared in those pieces, yet returned to school, is Devin Leary from N.C. State. At the end of September Leary and the Wolfpack shocked the college football world with a win over Clemson, and Leary threw four touchdown passes in the effort.
He finished the season having thrown 35 touchdowns, against only five interceptions, and completed 65.7% of his throws. He did all of this while bouncing back from a broken fibula which ended his 2020 season early.
Leary is an accurate passer to all levels of the field, is comfortable in the pocket and adept at making full-field reads. Those last two traits were on display late against Clemson in the upset victory:
Outside of C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young — two quarterbacks we will discuss in a moment — the passer getting the most buzz right now is Kentucky quarterback Will Levis. Levis began his college career at Penn State, but transferred to Kentucky as a graduate prior to the 2021 campaign.
He took over as the starter for the Wildcats, and led Kentucky to a ten-win season, and a victory over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. He threw for 2,827 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added another nine scores on the ground.
While he might be most known for his eating habits — as he became a viral sensation last summer thanks to his penchant for putting mayonnaise in coffee and eating bananas with the peel still on — Levis is getting real first-round buzz at the moment. Some “way too early” mock drafts even have him as the first quarterback off the board. If he can iron out some ball placement issues, and lower-body inconsistencies with his mechanics, he can perhaps live up to that hype.
If you look hard enough at the horizon, you can see a battle forming between analytics twitter and film-study twitter.
The focus of that battle? The evaluation of Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.
Over the past few seasons McCall has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in all of college football. During the 2022 campaign McCall completed 68.8% of his passes for 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns, against only three interceptions. He actually managed to improve on those numbers a season ago, completing 73% of his throws for 2,873 yards and 27 touchdowns, again with just three interceptions.
However, some will point out that the Coastal Carolina offense — a favorite of many to study — gives McCall some easy reads and throws, and projecting his game to the next level is difficult.
Still, if nothing else, his decision to return to school (and how he framed the announcement) is a huge plus in my book:
— Gray (@McCall_Grayson) December 21, 2021
Let’s be honest: The phrase “when I say I piss teal, I mean it” is the stuff of legends.
Davis Mills rode Stanford’s “pro-style” offense to an earlier-than-expected draft selection, and at times last year looked like the best quarterback of the 2021 class. His performance as a rookie let the Houston Texans use their pair of first-round picks on other positions, showing that the organization believes in him for now.
Can Tanner McKee ride the same kind of wave towards the top of the 2023 NFL draft?
McKee lost a preseason competition for the quarterback spot to Jack West, and was the backup for Stanford’s season opener last year against Kansas State. Yet he still played in the game, and threw a touchdown pass. He took over as the starter for the second week of the season and never looked back. McKee finished the year by completing 64.7% of his passes for 1,722 yards and 14 touchdowns, against just three interceptions.
Plays like this one will have NFL scouts paying attention next fall:
This completion against Oregon highlights two of his strengths: Aggression and accuracy. McKee is not afraid of challenging small throwing windows, and has no fear throwing over the middle. Couple that with his accuracy, and you have a very solid foundation for the collegiate game…and the NFL.
Another member of this list who has taken an interesting path to the 2022 season is Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell. He started just one year in high school, throwing 26 touchdowns for Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. As such the scholarship offers were not exactly piling up, and he enrolled at Purdue in 2017 as a walk-on.
He did not see the field until 2019, making three starts that year including his first-ever start against Northwestern, where he threw a pair of touchdowns. He was the starter for the Boilermakers when the 2020 campaign began, but suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
O’Connell began last year as the backup, but took over early in the season. He finished the 2021 campaign having completed 71.6% of his passes for 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns.
His accuracy stands out on film. Plays like this one against Tennessee from the Music City Bowl are a prime example as he hits this throwback post route:
What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, the two names atop not just quarterback watch lists, but the “way too early mock drafts,” were Sam Howell and Spencer Rattler. For most, those two quarterbacks were the top two options at the position, and regardless of how you ranked them, they were the guys to watch when the games began in late August.
Unfortunately, the draft community moved on pretty quickly once those games kicked off. Howell struggled in a season-opening loss to Virginia Tech, and slid to the fifth round of the 2022 NFL draft. While the Washington offense might be the best fit for him, it was not the kind of draft season many expected from Howell.
As for Rattler? He is still in the college ranks, but having lost his job to Caleb Williams he transferred to South Carolina. His athleticism and ability to create outside the pocket were strengths of his prior to the last season, but he’ll need to be much more consistent if he is going to live up to the hype of last summer.
As soon as the 2022 NFL draft drew to a close, draft media both big and small moved on to discussing the 2023 NFL draft, and the potential for a much better quarterback class.
Todd McShay, who covers the NFL draft for ESPN, released a “way too early” mock draft shortly after the conclusion of the 2022 cycle, and his third quarterback off the board — sixth-overall to the Carolina Panthers — was Anthony Richardson from Florida.
The excitement is somewhat surprising, given that Richardson appeared in just seven games last season, and his only start came against Georgia. Given what the Bulldogs had on the defensive side of the field last year, Richardson struggled in that game. But he showed flashes of what he could do for the Gators during his game against LSU in throwing three touchdowns — which earned him the nod the next game against Georgia — and enters the 2022 season as the clear starter with Emory Jones transferring to Arizona State.
Richardson has enjoyed a strong spring camp according to reporting, and performed well in Florida’s spring game. If the hype turns into production on the field, he could live up to some of those way too early mock drafts come next spring.
When it comes time for his eventual NFL draft evaluation, one thing Mississippi State passer Will Rogers will have going for him is production. Playing for Mike Leach in his Air Raid system, Rogers put up big numbers in 2021, and can be expected to do the same in 2022.
Rodgers split time with K.J. Costello during the 2020 season, and ended the year completing 69.1% of his passes for 1,976 yards and 11 touchdowns, against 7 interceptions.
He began the 2021 season as the starter and did not look back, finishing the year having completed 473 of 630 passes for 4,449 yards and 35 touchdowns, against just eight interceptions. Two of those came in the first week of the season and each went for a Pick-Six, but Rogers and the Bulldogs were able to overcome an early deficit and emerge victorious against Louisiana Tech in that game.
Accuracy and anticipation are strengths of his, particularly in the intermediate areas of the field. Take this completion against Auburn, as he throws a receiver towards space in the middle of the field:
If Rogers puts up big numbers in 2022, he could ride them all the way into the first round.
Tyler Shough was a four-star recruit coming out of Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona. During his time in high school, Shough led the school to a 15-9 record as the team’s starting quarterback. A number of schools offered him scholarships, including California, Georgia, Michigan, Florida State and Alabama, but he enrolled at Oregon.
Shough redshirted as a freshman in 2018, and was the backup behind Justin Herbert in 2019. He took over as the starting quarterback for the 2020 season, and helped the Ducks reach the PAC-12 Championship Game. However, he was benched early in that game in favor of Anthony Brown, and eventually entered the transfer portal.
Shough transferred to Texas Tech early in 2021, and was named the team’s starting quarterback last August. He appeared in four games for the Red Raiders, throwing for six touchdowns, before suffering a broken collarbone.
It is expected that Shough will retain the starting job for the 2022 campaign, but Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire has yet to name a starter. Shough is locked in a preseason battle with Donovan Smith, who went 2-2 as a starter after Shough’s injury, and Behren Morton, a highly-regarded recruit a season ago. If Shough does win the job, he is worth monitoring in the fall.
If you back at some “way too early” mock drafts from last spring, you might find then-USC quarterback Kedon Slovis mentioned.
Including one I wrote.
Instead of riding a final year for the Trojans to the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, Slovis instead has a new home for the 2022 season. With Lincoln Riley now the head coach for USC — and along with him former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams — Slovis transferred to Pittsburgh and is expected to step into the starting role vacated by Kenny Pickett.
Slovis stepped into the starting role for the Trojans as a true freshman when J.T. Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first week of the 2019 season. Two solid seasons of play led people like me to assume the 2021 campaign would vault him into the first-round discussion. Instead, Slovis struggled last season, completing 65.0% of his passes for 2,153 yards and 11 touchdowns against 8 interceptions.
He will look to turn things around in Pittsburgh. He is an accurate passer but is working on his mechanics with Tom House and Jordan Palmer this off-season. Still, his pocket management on plays like this make him worthy of watching in the year ahead:
With the caveat that it is, well, “way too early” to be planting flags just yet, if forced to plant a flag in this quarterback class, I am placing it on C.J. Stroud Hill.
Stroud stepped into the starting role after the departure of Justin Fields to the NFL, and after a shaky opening half against Minnesota in the season-opener, settled in rather nicely in the Ohio State offense. He put up huge numbers for the Buckeyes, completing 71.9% of his passes for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns, throwing just six interceptions over the course of the season. He had five games last year with five or more touchdown passes, and during a two-week stretch against Purdue and Michigan State, Stroud completed 63 of 73 passes for 793 yards and 11 touchdowns, without an interception.
Stroud is accurate, aggressive, willing to attack the middle of the field, and reads the field extremely well as a passer. Take this touchdown against Utah in the Rose Bowl:
Pre-snap, the Utes show single-high coverage in the secondary. But the post-snap reality does not match the pre-snap expectations, as Utah spins into a two-deep coverage. Stroud, after opening to the left side of the field, reads the rotation and comes to the post route from Jaxon Smith-Njigba (perhaps the next great Ohio State receiver) and hits him in stride for the big play.
So, while I might not have a Stroud flag planted yet, I at least have one ready to go…
After starting his career at Alabama where he backed up his brother Tua, Taulia Tagovailoa transferred to Maryland before the 2020 campaign. He made four starts during the COVID-shortened season, leading Maryland to wins over Minnesota and Penn State. He was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention for his efforts.
Last year, Maryland secured their first winning season since 2014 and their first bowl berth since the 2016 campaign, and Tagovailoa was a big reason why. He started all 13 games for the Terrapins, completing 69.2% of his passes for 3,860 yards and 26 touchdowns, against 11 interceptions. He was near-perfect in that bowl game, as he completed 20 of 24 passes for 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns as he led Maryland to a win over Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He displays good touch on downfield throws, and this touchdown against the Hokies is a good example:
Listed at just 5’11”, he might face some questions about his size. But the production and downfield passing skills are certainly positive aspects to his evaluation. If he continues his positive trend of development, he can put himself into the early rounds of the 2023 draft.
Payton Thorne was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year after his senior campaign at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, having thrown for over 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Thorne originally committed to Western Michigan, which might have seen him targeting Skyy Moore in the passing game, but switches his commitment to Michigan State.
He redshirted for the 2019 campaign, and served as the backup during the 2020 season. He made one start that year, throwing for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a loss against Penn State. Thorne was named the starter for the 2021 season, and finished the year completing 59.7% of his passes for 3,814 yards and 30 touchdowns, along with 13 interceptions. The Spartans lost just two games last year, to Ohio State and Michigan.
Thorne is an accurate passer to all levels of the field, but particularly in the short area where he does the bulk of his work. Still, throws like this one against Pittsburgh in the Chick-fil-A Bowl will have many scouts paying attention in the season ahead:
There was a time when it appeared D.J. Uiagalelei would follow right in Trevor Lawrence’s footsteps. Not only would he step into the starting lineup and lead Clemson to success on the field, but he would also follow his predecessor to the top of a future NFL draft.
He may still fulfill that prophecy, but first…he’ll need to keep his job.
As a true freshman in 2020 he started two games when Lawrence was out with COVID. Uiagalelei and the Tigers won the first against Boston College when the freshman completed 31 of 40 passes for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While they lost the second to Notre Dame in overtime, he fared well, completing 29 of 44 passes for 439 yards and two more scores.
Uiagalelei entered 2021 as the starter, but the season got off to a rocky start in a 10-3 loss to Georgia. Ultimately, the story from that game was the Bulldogs defense, but it was a harbinger of the season ahead for the young quarterback. He finished the year completing just 54.7% of his passes for nine touchdowns and ten interceptions, and is now locked in a camp battle with freshman Cade Klubnik for the starting job. Following a spring game in which both passers struggled, Dabo Swinney maintained that Uiagalelei was the starter.
If he indeed keeps the job, he is certainly a player to watch in 2022.
Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke is another passer in the college ranks that is generating a great amount of buzz as the summer scouting season unfolds. A four-star recruit out of Suffield Academy in Connecticut, Van Dyke appeared in two games during the 2020 season behind starting quarterback D’Eriq King.
He began the 2021 campaign as the backup behind King, but after the starter went down with an injury, Van Dyke stepped into the lineup and did not look back. He started the final nine games of the season and finished the year having completed 62.3% of his passes for 2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns, throwing just six interceptions. He was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts.
Van Dyke also outdueled Kenny Pickett in Miami’s late-October victory over Pittsburgh, completing 32 of 42 passes for 426 yards and three touchdowns, along with an interception. This touchdown early in that contest is a good example of how well he sees the field and throws with anticipation. He hits the post route for a touchdown on a switch concept, letting the ball fly as the receiver gets into his break:
There is excitement in the area around the Hurricanes this season, thanks in part to new head coach Mario Cristobal. But Van Dyke’s play last season is another big reason for that excitement.
Cameron Ward began his college football journey at Incarnate Word during the 2020 season, and during the spring season the FCS put together due to COVID, he completed 60.4% of his passes for 2,260 yards and 24 touchdowns in just six games. He was named the recipient of the Jerry Rice Award, given to the most outstanding freshman player at the FCS level.
Ward built on that impressive debut last season for Incarnate Word, completing 65.1% of his passes for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns, and he was named the Southland Conference Player of the Year.
He entered the transfer portal and decided to follow Eric Morris, his head coach at Incarnate Word, to Washington State. Morris is now the new offensive coordinator for the Cougars, and Ward is viewed as the “engine” that will drive the Washington State offense.
Completions like this deep corner route against Texas State last season highlight what that engine looks like in the pocket:
If Ward can duplicate his FCS production at the FBS level, he could emerge as the quarterback riser everyone is trying to identify this summer scouting season.
Oddly enough, the final quarterback on the list — again due to alphabetical order — is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Bryce Young stepped into the starting job vacated by current New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and thrived in his first year as the starter. Young completed 66.9% of his throws last year for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns, against just seven interceptions.
He led the Crimson Tide to a win in the SEC Championship game, becoming the only quarterback to beat the vaunted Georgia defense last season. In that game Young hit on 26 of 44 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns. While the Crimson Tide ended up losing in the title game in the rematch against Georgia, Young showed throughout the season that he could play the position at a very high level. During Alabama’s other loss of the season, against Texas A&M, it was plays like this that left me believing he would one day come off the board in the first round:
Here, you see Young active in the pre-snap phase of the play. Texas A&M shows an overload pressure on the left side, so in response Young and the offense call for a four-man slide to the left, with the right guard and center sliding in the direction of the left guard and left tackle.
That gives Young a solid pocket, and he throws a rope on an in-breaking route to move the chains in a critical third-down situation.
Perhaps the biggest question Young will face this fall — and beyond — is his size. Young is built more like an NFL slot receiver than an NFL quarterback, as he is listed at 6’0″ and 194 pounds. Still, the production, along with how he plays the position, should make him a fun evaluation.