On April 26 the first round of the NFL Draft will begin, and it’s truly a remarkable incoming class. It’s been a long time since we saw this much depth entering the league on the offensive and defensive lines, with there also being numerous standout wide receivers and defensive backs set to hit the league as well. The notable weakness of this draft class is at quarterback, where things are really murky.
There’s so much that goes into making the decision to select a QB this year if you’re a team in need of a passer. Everyone requires a leap of faith. There is no sure-thing prospect in the bunch — and that makes this so difficult to be all-in on a quarterback this year. To complicate matters, we have a 2023 class rich with QB talent, making it perhaps wiser to wait a year and dive in next spring.
The first round of the NFL Draft, at its heart, is about marrying two relatively simple concepts: Ceiling and safety. The first is a measure of how much better you think a player can be than they are right now, the second being a baseline of what you get if that promise isn’t realized.
Take Joe Burrow for example. When it came to quarterbacks he was an easy No. 1 pick. Burrow won the Heisman, he was tested by SEC opponents week in, week out. The safety he offered was extremely good, while the upside he offered to grow in the NFL was also above average. The same can’t be said for 2022, so let’s dive into this class, rank the QBs, and discuss how I’ve scored them on these two factors out of 10.
No. 1 Malik Willis — Liberty
I’ve been high on Willis from very early in this process, and not much has changed since then. No quarterback in this class offers the kind of upside Willis does, which, if realized, could legitimately make him an MVP-caliber player.
It’s impossible to really put Willis in a box because of the rare traits he possesses. While he’s a running threat to be sure, he’s not on the same level as a Lamar Jackson. We will not see him rush for 100+ a game, but he’s easily mobile enough to have that 40-50 yard impact we tend to see from someone like Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts, where he has to be respected to take off a pick up a first down.
What makes Willis such a rare commodity is his short-yardage rushing ability, paired with one of the best arms I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not just that Willis possesses power, it’s his touch on deep passes that sets him apart from everyone else in this class. He seems to just have an innate feeling for how to target defensive backs deep, and routinely places the ball where only his receiver can get it.
Take a look at this first throw here, which is a play he’d need to make on Sundays.
The offensive line give Willis almost no protection and his pocket is crushed. Instead of scrambling or looking for an outlet pass he keeps his eyes locked downfield, steps up into the pocket, and even off an unstable base throws the ball to hit his receiver in stride for the touchdown.
Of course there’s a big tradeoff for this arm talent, and that’s the risk associated with the pick. A team selecting Willis will need to understand that he has not had time in a pro style offense, and there are a lot of clips of him holding onto the ball far too long while trying to make a play, instead of understanding when to give it up.
Willis’ elusiveness and athleticism allowed this to create big plays in college, but he won’t be able to make NFL defenders whiff on him like they did at Liberty, and dancing too much will get him rocked. The risk here is that he won’t develop that trait, and could be a liability at the next level and bust.
Still, I have faith based on his demeanor and work ethic that Willis could be special, and is truly worthy of a Top 5 pick, regardless of the weakness at quarterback in this draft.
No. 2 Kenny Pickett — Pitt
There’s been so much angst and hang-wringing over Kenny Pickett lately, and a lot of it is unfair. This whole discussion about his hand size didn’t even need to happen, because on film I’m just not seeing much special about him as a quarterback. At least not special enough to believe he’ll be a high-level NFL starter.
Player comparisons tend to sell Pickett as a Derek Carr-type, but I’m not sure I quite see that either. Carr had better zip on his passes, especially in shorter routes, which translated better to the NFL. As it stands I think Pickett is a middling QB prospect, who would probably be a second rounder in any other draft.
The big issue I have is that Pickett doesn’t seem to make many anticipatory throws, especially on deep routes. Too often he’s sitting and waiting for the receiver to get a step on the break, rather than starting his throw while the receiver is about to cut. This made for eye-popping numbers while at Pitt, and the illusion of mistake-free football, but he won’t get those windows nearly as often in the NFL.
Look at this clip, for example.
First off, it’s a back-foot throw when it doesn’t need to be. That’s less than ideal. Also notice how the point of release doesn’t come until the receiver is already clearly open. From there Pickett doesn’t lead the receiver enough, causing him to have to pull up and wait for the ball, rather than catching in stride.
These kind of throws plague Pickett’s film, and that really worries me for his prospects as a franchise QB at the next level. It’s not a dissimilar problem to Baker Mayfield in that regard.
Still, I can see some of the appeal. Pickett is a smart QB who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes or take too many bad risks. His floor is fairly high for this reason, and with a team that’s not asking him to take over games I could see him carving out a perfectly decent career like a Jimmy Garoppolo.
No. 3 Desmond Ridder — Cincinnati
If you’re not sold on Malik Willis and want a value pickup far later in the first round, here’s my pick hands-down. Ridder scores equally to Kenny Pickett overall, but his ceiling is much, much higher at the next level.
There’s a lot I really like about his game. Firstly, unlike Willis and Pickett, Ridder has athleticism to pick up yards on the ground, but he’s always looking to move laterally in the pocket to find a better angle, rather than tuck the ball and take off. Here’s a player who understands that his arm is where plays happen, and his legs are used on designed plays, or a last resort.
Ridder shows good velocity on his passes and anticipation to hit receivers in stride, but I dislike his throwing mechanics. There’s a tendency to wind up his throws and telegraph when he’s going deep. This is a quick motion, so it was largely fine in college, but an NFL quarterback coach will want to see if he can generate the same velocity on a pro-style mechanic, rather than this bad habit he’s developed. Against NFL pass rushers this kind of throw could easily result in a strip sack with him bringing the ball back before launching.
Here’s one throw that gets me excited about his potential, however.
There’s a lot of zip on this ball of an unsteady platform and Ridder hits his receiver on a slant in a small window. This is a very difficult throw to make, and it shows hints of what he could become in the NFL.
Ridder is a risk, there’s a lot that needs to be worked on, but the building blocks are there to turn him into a very good NFL quarterback with time and tutelage.
No. 4 Matt Corral — Ole Miss
We are out of the first and early second rounds now, and getting deeper into the mid-late second. I’ve got to say, I’m really not a fan of Matt Corral in watching film.
What makes him difficult to scout is that his offensive line was almost too good. When you watch Corral play he has days to throw the ball and scan the field, rarely (if ever) needed to move or adjust in the pocket, and was almost always able to throw off a stable, unimpeded platform. That’s a luxury nobody has in the NFL.
The question is: was this lack of movement due to inability, or because he didn’t have to? That’s the question that has to be answered at the next level, and it’s what scares me about investing an early pick in him.
Okay, so that sounds like dumping on him as a player a whole lot, but there are some really nice traits here too. Corral is excellent at going through his progression making the correct read, and has exceptionally quick decision making on Smoke Routes, which have become bread-and-butter NFL plays.
I could absolutely see Corral having success in the NFL with the skills he has, where he honestly reminds me in some ways of Mac Jones, but imagine if Jones needed a perfectly clean pocket. That’s kind of where I’m at, and it’s worrisome. Buyer beware here.
No. 5 Sam Howell — North Carolina
Go back a year and Howell was pencilled in as the first QB off the board, and almost a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick. A lot changed in 2021. Howell regressed in some significant ways for the Tar Heels, and rather than building off his solid sophomore campaign, looked far more like his freshman self. That’s a very bad thing.
I’ve seen it suggested that Howell is a second round gem, a poor man’s Drew Brees. The only way I see him being like Brees is if you ordered the NFL MVP off Wish.com. Brees routinely played bigger than his frame, showing a willingness to stand in the pocket and get obliterated while throwing the ball downfield. Howell not only lacks that toughness in the pocket, but the trajectory of his deep passes are on the flatter side.
That’s a concern when you are a smaller QB. Guys like Brees and Russell Wilson are able to overcome their stature because of high launch points, putting their deep passes on a trajectory where it’s very difficult to be batted down at the line of scrimmage. At the NFL level Howell doesn’t possess that ability.
There are some bright spots to his game, including a really great knack for improvising when plays break down — but there’s not enough here for me to believe he’ll be any more than a high-level backup, or at best a low-tier starter.
No. 6 Carson Strong — Nevada
I’ll admit, I’m kind of a sucker for Carson Strong because I am old. Strong is so much of a throwback QB that he gives me real Drew Bledsoe vibes, but I’m not sure that works in the NFL anymore.
Strong was never an exceptionally mobile QB, and then he had knee surgery that removed what little he had left. At this point he’s basically a statue in the pocket, who is draftable purely because of his absolutely ludicrous arm talent.
When it comes to pure ability to throw the ball, where Strong rivals Malik Willis in this class. The Nevada QB has poise in the pocket, and when he decides to go deep there might as well be a cannon strapped to his arm. That said, he tends to be extremely one-dimensional, even in his one good dimension — locking onto his primary receiver and hurling the ball, rather than going through full field reads.
There’s a reason I have him graded so high on ceiling and so low on safety. There are major injury concerns about his twice-repaired knee, as well as whether he can ever read a full field and develop.
If he can, and if those injury concerns are unwarranted, and IF a team can select him knowing he’s going to need good protection — then there’s actually some really high-level potential here. The arm talent is so good that with support I could see him pick apart teams on Sunday, but the leap of faith is so real that I’m not sure it’s worth the risk in the end.