While we’ve been focusing on the 2023 draft (and for good reason), it’s never too early to start looking ahead to next year. Teams think about future prospects because it informs them about whether they should address certain positions this year or wait for superior prospects. Nowhere is that more true than at the QB position. If a team isn’t in range to draft their preferred signal caller next week, they might consider waiting. I thought it would be fun to take a little break and look at the top QBs to watch for the 2024 NFL Draft. Don’t worry; we’ll get back to the 2023 draft on Wednesday with my final mock of the season.
Caleb Williams, USC
We may as well start with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the presumptive #1 overall pick of next year’s draft. Williams was sensational in his first year at USC (he followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma). He threw for 4537 yards and 42 TDs with just 5 INTs, and he added 382 yards and 10 TDs on the ground. His heroics almost carried USC to the CFP in spite of an awful defense. In my opinion, he should’ve succeeded. Williams plays bigger than 6’1″, and he looks like a future NFL star. Peyton Manning is on the record saying that this guy is the real deal, and I won’t dispute that.
With a rocket arm, sublime pocket presence, mobility, and the ability to launch throws from any platform, Williams has it all. He holds the ball a long time because he is like Houdini in the pocket. Given time, he finds his playmakers consistently, and he evades pressure like few others. He’s likely to start as a repeat favorite for the Heisman this season. His only challenge will be the same one faced by all Riley QBs: can he play in a pro-style offense? My money says that he can.
Drake Maye, North Carolina
Maye is the other elite prospect that scouts are talking about at this time. Some thought he might transfer to a school like Alabama, but Maye committed to UNC for another year that will likely be his last. Maye has prototypical size at 6’5″, and he lit up the stat sheet in his first year as a starter. He completed 66.2% of his passes for 4321 yards, 38 TDs, and 7 INTs. Maye also seemed to learn from his predecessor Sam Howell, as he ran for 698 yards and 7 TDs. Though the Tar Heels fizzled out to end the 2022 season, that’s more of the defense’s fault.
Team sources consider Maye and Caleb Williams the two premier prospects in this class, perhaps eclipsing the 2023 prospects you’ll see drafted this week. They like his dual-threat ability, strong arm, and durability. Scouts are also high on the coaching he has received under Mack Brown. He’s currently projected to be a Heisman contender and a first-round pick next April. UNC would do well to improve Maye’s supporting cast to paint him in the best light possible.
Michael Penix Jr, Washington
Many might not have expected it, but Penix led the FBS in passing yards last season after transferring from Indiana. Washington’s air raid offense contributed to that, but Penix threw all the passes. He tossed for 4641 yards, 31 TDs, and 8 INTs. Penix also has good mobility, but he isn’t a runner. He normally moves while keeping his eyes downfield, which is a pro-level trait. Penix looked good in his final year with the Hoosiers as well, and he currently had a day-2 grade from evaluators.
The main reason he isn’t considered even better is his injury history. Penix has gone through injuries every year except 2022, which was the first season in which he played more than 6 games. His extensive list of injuries includes TWO torn ACLs. He was wise to go back to school because if he can put two consecutive healthy years on his resume, his stock will rise quite a bit. I think he’s got a good natural passing ability, and his throwing mechanics appear advanced for a college player.
Spencer Rattler, South Carolina
Another transfer who saw his stock rise, Rattler rebounded at the end of 2022. Originally a star at Oklahoma, he fell out of favor there due to poor decision making. That lack of ball security seemed to follow him to SC, but something clicked late in the year. The Gamecocks were on their way to upsetting #1 Tennessee before Hendon Hooker tore his ACL, and they took out #8 Clemson the following week to end their regular season. Rattler’s stats (3026 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) weren’t all that impressive, but it’s the way he closed out the season that I find encouraging.
In those final 2 weeks, Rattler had 798 yards passing, 8 TDs, and 2 INTs. He looked more confident than he has since 2020. Scouts consider him a high-upside prospect because his arm talent is very good, and he has shown flashes of what he can be. Boneheaded decisions and turnovers are his weaknesses. If those poor reads can be coached out of him, he’ll become a better QB than you think. Coming back to school was an excellent decision, as he can do wonders for his draft stock with a big season.
Tyler Van Dyke, Miami
If you asked me before the start of the 2022 season which QB I liked best, you might have been shocked to hear my praise for Van Dyke. I thought Van Dyke was a major breakout candidate, but his second season as the starter was a disaster. New coach Mario Cristobal did him no favors, and he never seemed to be comfortable last season. Replacing an ineffective and injured D’Eriq King in 2021, Van Dyke threw for 2931 yards, 25 TDs, and 5 INTs. That production plummeted to 1835 yards, 10 TDs, and 5 INTs over just 1 fewer game in 2022. A shoulder injury contributed to that, but the scheme looked awful.
I’m tentatively deferring to his 2021 tape unless I see another poor year under new OC Shannon Dawson. During that season, Van Dyke showed a live arm that could hit passes at all levels of the field. He’s not a running threat, but he has functional mobility in the pocket to go with his prototypical size. Working with a mediocre supporting cast, he looked good at elevating his surrounding talent before Cristobal came along. Van Dyke would’ve been in this draft had the season gone differently, but his stock can return to its former level if 2023 Van Dyke looks like the 2021 version.
A theme on this list seems to be transfers. All but 3 QBs discussed here started at another school. Daniels toiled during the doomed Herm Edwards era at Arizona State before joining Brian Kelly at LSU. He was very good as a freshman before posting two consecutive down years. In 2022, his stats mirrored his 2019 numbers, with 2913 passing yards, 17 TDs, and just 3 INTs. Daniels also produced at a career-best level on the ground, running for 885 yards and 11 scores. A true dual-threat QB, Daniels has sufficient height at 6’3″, but I worry about his slight frame (183 lbs as listed) at the next level.
Daniels is able to put touch on the ball, but he needs to work on his accuracy on routine throws to become more consistent. His play was very streaky, and he has never been a volume passer like some of the other layers on this list. If he were to be drafted today, he’d probably go somewhere between rounds 2 and 4 based on his talent. There is upside with him, and he’s in a much better system to reach his potential. If he can increase his ceiling as a passer, he’ll be selected within the first couple of rounds in 2024, because he’s a proven commodity as a runner.
Bo Nix, Oregon
Sometimes a chance of scenery can make a big difference. Nix appeared to hit his ceiling at Auburn before finding another level last year at Oregon. He blew away his career numbers in every category, throwing for 3593 yards, 29 TDs, and 7 INTs while chipping in 510 yards and a ridiculous 14 TDs rushing. His mobility was underrated at Auburn, but Oregon let him show his speed and agility. Nix went from a very streaky passer to one the team could rely on regularly. He has been a clear upgrade over Anthony Brown for the Ducks.
The one game I have to criticize was his first in the season opener versus Georgia. Dan Lanning’s team was overwhelmed as a whole, so it’s not all on Nix, but he did not look comfortable in that game. Part of me wants to chalk it up to that contest being his first game with a new team, new coaches, and a new scheme. I just wish we could see him against another strong defense to make sure. Oregon plays no such team in 2023. I’ll tentatively give him a pass for that one clunker. However, he needs another season of good production to rise above the middle rounds of the draft.
Devin Leary, Kentucky
We talked about Leary during the very first week of the 2022 college football season, and things didn’t get much better from there. His disappointing season ended with an injury, and he wisely chose to start anew at a new school, transferring to Kentucky. His 2021 season seemingly came out of nowhere. He threw for 3433 yards, 35 TDs, and 5 INTs in a sensational campaign. Leary lasted just 6 games in 2022, throwing for 1265 yards, 11 TDs, and 4 INTs. 2023 will be massively important for him as scouts try to determine which of these two previous seasons is the outlier.
Last year’s version wasn’t very encouraging. He completed just 61.1% of his passes, a 4.6% drop from 2021. Leary also isn’t mobile, which means he has to be an effective pocket passer to play. Some team sources are hoping that Mark Stoops’ pro-style offense at Kentucky can help polish him and make him play like he did in 2021. I currently have him graded as a late-round prospect that can compete for a backup spot at the next level. He appears a bit limited to me at the moment.
KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
I’ve been very pleased with Jefferson’s development as a passer. His stats have been remarkably consistent in his 2 years as the starter (2021: 2676 passing yards, 21 TDs, 4 INTs, 664 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs; 2022: 2648 passing yards, 24 TDs, 5 INTs, 640 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs), and he posted completion percentages exceeding 67 both years. Those stats don’t tell the whole story though. While the numbers have remained almost the same, he has quietly improved at doing the little things. Most of all, I like how he’s putting more air under the ball and not firing all zingers.
We know how dangerous he is as a runner. At 6’3″ and 245 lbs, he plays a lot like Cam Newton. I wish he’d slide a bit more, but he avoids some hits with elusiveness. That ground production has enabled his passing. Teams stack the box against him, and he has shown the patience to take the simple passes. At this time, I have a 3rd-round grade on him with plenty of room to go up. His floor is pretty high, and he projects to be a high-end backup at worst. With time, he could become much more dangerous.
Quinn Ewers, Texas
So much for Arch Manning taking over. Ewers was expected to take a trip to the bench in favor of the freshman phenom, but coach Steve Sarkisian said last week that he’ll be the starting QB. That bodes very well for the former 5-star recruit’s future. The former Buckeye (who never played a snap there) got off to a hot start for Texas in 2022. He was well on his way to beating Alabama until he got knocked out of the game with an injury. Ewers never looked quite the same again but was decent at times. He finished the year with 2177 yards, 15 TDs, and 6 INTs (10 games). His 58.1 completion percentage was concerning.
Surprisingly, he’ll get another year under center. I don’t know how long his leash is, but the opportunity is there for him to ball out and then turn pro if he can. To do so, he must work on his accuracy. He says he is more focused than ever, which is good because his footwork needs practice. Manning will take over sooner than later if Ewers misfires at the same pace as last year. Should Ewers clean up his mechanics, his physical tools are excellent, and he’ll be on scouts’ radars.
Sam Hartman, Notre Dame
I only include Hartman here because he’s likely to put up prolific passing numbers this season. He set school and ACC records at Wake Forest before transferring to ND this offseason. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have great NFL prospects. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, and it’s a bit scattershot. Although Hartman had 77 TDs and 7929 yards over the past two seasons, he also threw 26 picks over the same span while completing just over 60% of his passes. He’s also prone to the occasional clunker, most notably his 4-INT performance against Pitt in the ACC title game of 2021.
Hartman plays with a lot of moxie, and his teammates seem to love him. I just don’t believe that his skillset lends itself to starting in the NFL. He’s mechanically sound, which makes his accuracy issues even more concerning. Footwork and throwing motion fixes aren’t available to improve his precision. His competitive fire and strong production in the ACC will likely allow him to find an NFL home. Just expect that landing spot to be a developmental backup role, not a starting job.