Whether the Los Angeles Rams will be picking in the top-three or shocking the world with a post-roster teardown playoff appearance, there is no doubt that the regime in charge of the 2024 team will have to consider drafting a quarterback with their first pick. A pick that by all accounts will be in the first round for the first time since 2016.
Then, the pick was a quarterback.
Now, the pick could be a quarterback again.
It shouldn’t matter if that quarterback is first overall, second overall, a trade-up like it was for Jared Goff, or 20th overall, the Rams must be in the draft market for a quarterback.
Matthew Stafford is entering his age-35 season, meaning that he will be 37 at the end of the 2024 season, which would give Les Snead a lot of lead-up time to develop his replacement. That’s if the Rams even get lead-up time; Stafford has now missed half of the games in two of the last four years, his ability to play into his late-30s is often questioned, and after a guaranteed $31 million base salary in 2024, his contract becomes amenable to a release or trade in 2025.
Tom Brady has skewed our perception of what is possible and expected in terms of quarterback longevity, but still nobody else is like him. Matt Ryan was 37 last year and not fit for the league anymore. He probably wasn’t fit for it at 36 either. Stafford is now the oldest starting quarterback in the NFC, beating out Kirk Cousins by about six months but then he’s at least three years over everyone else.
The L.A. Rams can’t ignore the 2024 quarterback class, they’ve likely been preparing for this majority of this group since at least 2021, if not dating back to high school. But what’s interesting is that this group is extremely muddled after the top-two and you won’t find anything close to a consensus on who comes after Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. If the Rams don’t pick one of those two, what options will they be left with? And could any of them be better than Williams and Maye?
Caleb Williams’ stock will not fall
We all know the familiar cautionary tale to not get overhyped on NFL Draft prospects too soon. The case that is often brought up as an example would be former USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who many fans and untrained analysts expected to be the number one pick in the 2013 draft, only to end up going in the fourth round after a senior season that was disappointing in spite of 36 touchdown passes.
But the Barkley fall wasn’t surprising to everyone, especially not football scouts, as NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said he had a fourth round grade on Barkley long before the draft because of weak arm strength and poor footwork.
A year ago, it wasn’t hard to find 2023 first round mock drafts that projected names like Noah Sewell, Kayshon Boutte, and Eli Ricks as early first round picks, only to eventually see them fall way out of that range. But we have to keep in mind that in most of these cases, it is the mock drafts that got it wrong, overvaluing the wrong characteristics and misjudging how significant the flaws by often overrating statistics on a college field and underestimating athletic shortcomings.
In the case of Barkley: Too short, too weak, and too slow.
These are not phrases you have ever heard or likely will ever hear with regards to Caleb Williams.
Here’s just under 10 minutes of USC QB Caleb Williams Heisman season highlights.— JWP Sports / CFBAlerts (@JWPSports) July 7, 2023
• 4,447 total yards (school record)
• 47 total touchdowns (school record)
Back to back Heismans incoming? pic.twitter.com/dgkHIgb6KR
A USC quarterback who has come one decade after Barkley, many would speculate that had he been eligible for the draft this year, that Williams would have been the number one pick over Bryce Young, re-setting the entire order that would follow. That would not have been the case for Matt Barkley had he entered the 2012 draft, as he may at best have been a first round pick and certainly would not have gone ahead of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
So yes, poor analysis sometimes leads to writers overrating prospects well ahead of time.
And yes, sometimes prospects completely do tank their draft status with bad final seasons. That also happens all the time. It’s not going to happen to Caleb Williams.
When you look at the case of Sam Bradford, he missed almost his entire final season at Oklahoma because of injury and was still the runaway number one pick for the St. Louis Rams in 2010. Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud were better as sophomores than they were as juniors, but both still went 1-2 in the 2023 NFL Draft. Williams could sit out the entire 2023 season—and there’s a reasonable argument to be made that he should—and be the number one pick in 2024.
It’s that easy.
Right now, nothing about who comes after Caleb Williams seems to be that easy.
Is Drake Maye a runaway top-2 pick?
Drake Maye is overrated right now because of his incredible stats at such a young age and not necessarily at a program expected to dominate. Though North Carolina has produced quarterback prospects like Mitchell Trubisky and Sam Howell recently, it’s not as though UNC has produced much offensive talent at the NFL level at the skill and offensive line positions.
Despite that, Maye had 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 2022, also rushing for 698 yards and seven touchdowns. He ranked fifth in the nation in touchdowns (tied with Sam Hartman of Wake Forest) and was the only player in the top-10 to also rush for over 600 yards (Clayton Tune had 544), and he was 21st in completion percentage, 16th in adjusted yards per attempt, and fourth in passing yards over 14 games as a sophomore.
There are some who say that Maye is at least as good of a prospect as Williams, if not better, but I’m highly skeptical that the race is close. Perhaps Maye shows up in the 2023 college season as an even better version of what he was in 2022, but unless that happens, I don’t think that Williams is in danger of losing the top spot. Similar to C.J. Stroud though, Maye could end up as a solid number two simply because there aren’t any challengers who don’t have significant flaws as was the case this year with Anthony Richardson’s lack of proven experience.
In a recent breakdown of Maye for his YouTube channel, of which there are several on the UNC quarterback already, former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan notes that there are too many wide “misses” on film to make him match the extraordinary hype as a top-three pick:
“The way that he misses, it’s hard to decipher. Is that scheme flexibility? Is that how he plays? Is that his default or it is what they allow him to get away with for the loosey-air raid things? He needs to tighten up, but there are also elements of sometimes he bails early, sometimes it’s hard to understand why he’s passing up on certain throws. When he doesn’t have to force a throw, he’s a good enough athlete to get a first down or make a play...Overall, going to watch more, there’s a lot to like.”
And I want to emphasize that last part: There’s a lot to like. O’Sullivan doesn’t dislike Maye by any means and I think most analysts in the world see him as a clearcut number two in the 2024 draft class right now. That’s a lot of praise! But I like that O’Sullivan is the most fair of any quarterback analyst that I know of, plus he shows you his work.
I say that Maye is overrated, but only because he’s being rated by many as a quarterback who might be as good as Williams. Under those conditions, Williams is also being overrated because of how often he’s compared to Patrick Mahomes.
We could say that almost all prospects are “overrated” at this point in the process. However, I do think that Williams is as good of a “lock” for number one as anyone could be at this point, whereas Maye is not a lock at number two. If he doesn’t show improvement of his weaknesses, a junior season slump could coincide with a breakout season for one of the MANY quarterbacks ranked just behind him.
There’s no consensus number three
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler posted his 2024 QB rankings on Monday and he had Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy ranked behind Williams and Maye. Two years ago, McCarthy entered college as one of the best recruits in Michigan’s history, a four-star prospect out of the famous IMG Academy in Florida, but he’s yet to do more than show flashes of that hype over his first two seasons. Said Brugler:
McCarthy is far from a polished product, but his tools have scouts excited for his future. A fleet-of-foot athlete, he uses his quick acceleration to outpace pursuit when on the move. His arm strength is above-average and allows him to rip throws down the seam or into the void up the sideline. McCarthy is a tad lean, but the frame is there for him to continue filling out and adding functional bulk. Aside from the physical traits, his coaches also rave about his smarts and competitiveness — two non-negotiable qualities for the next level.
JJ McCarthy cooked against Indiana last year— Josh Augdahl 〽️ (@UMFanAugdahl) July 5, 2023
82.5 QBR pic.twitter.com/KygBoKIFeB
Blame who you want to blame, McCarthy’s completion percentage over Michigan’s final six games was atrocious (53%) and his stats will probably never jump off the page in Jim Harbaugh’s rush-first offensive attack. McCarthy may win a national championship at Michigan, but never a Heisman, and he’ll need to blow scouts away during the pre-draft process (similar to Anthony Richardson, but he won’t be near as good of an athlete) to solidify himself as a top-three option at the position. That’s if he even declares.
With or without McCarthy in the conversation for 2024, there is all sorts of debate for who actually belongs in the three spot. Names you will see mentioned the most often include Quinn Ewers of Texas, Bo Nix of Oregon, and Michael Penix of Washington, all three of whom have already transferred in their college careers.
In fact, Penix had a four-year career at Indiana without much, if any NFL draft hype, largely due to the inordinate number of games missed due to injury. Then he transferred and went off for Washington, as the lefty had 4,641 passing yards and 31 touchdowns in 13 games, by far his best season through FIVE years. Will teams be put off by his age and injury history, or merely the fact that Tua Tagovailoa is still the only left-handed QB in the NFL?
Updated #HeismanTrophy odds (as per @DKSportsbook)— College Football Network (@CFN365) July 3, 2023
Caleb Williams, USC +600
Jayden Daniels, LSU +1200
Quinn Ewers, Texas +1200
Jordan Travis, FSU +1200
Cade Klubnik, Clemson +1400
Drake Maye, UNC +1500
Michael Penix Jr, Washington +1500
Bo Nix, Oregon +1600
Quinn Ewers, the number one prospect in the 2021 class, hasn’t been that good. Period. People want Ewers to happen because of the hype he had coming out of high school, first declaring at Ohio State to get an early jumpstart on his NIL paid sponsorships, then soon transferring to Texas. But he was very inconsistent in 2022 and suffered a midseason injury.
In order for Ewers to even be the Longhorns starting quarterback, he will need to show improvement, and that’s without all-everything running back Bijan Robinson behind him.
Nix was essentially the Ewers of the 2019 class, the top-ranked QB in the entire country, but he was flat out boring and unwatchable through three years at Auburn. He took his talents to Eugene and finally had a breakout campaign, completing 72% of his throws for 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions, also rushing for 14 scores and 510 yards.
Yet you could still go through all those names—McCarthy, Nix, Penix, Ewers—and still find people who have someone else as their third-ranked QB in the 2024 class. The name that is shooting up boards most recently is Duke’s Riley Leonard, a three-star prospect in the 2021 recruiting class who emerged last year with decent passing stats (64%, 20 TD, 6 INT) to go along with 700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
If Daniel Jones can come out of Duke to eventually get a long-term contract, why not Leonard?
Brugler ranked him fourth, after McCarthy at three, and says his best trait is delivering a catchable ball and that many of his weaknesses could be attributed to a lack of experience.
Leonard might not have the same name recognition as the other quarterbacks on this list, but the tape says he belongs. I first noticed him when studying ACC defensive prospects last year, and I was even more impressed after studying the quarterback’s own film this summer. Though he might not have truly elite physical traits, he is a good-sized athlete who can be effective on the ground and has a strong-enough arm to win through the air. Most importantly, he is an accurate, efficient passer and plays with an instinctive feel for the position.
So let’s say that the Rams are picking sixth, for argument’s sake, and they could have their choice of any quarterback in the draft other than Williams and Maye. Well, they will have at least these five options, but it doesn’t end there.
There are even more sleepers than that
Oftentimes, the best or second-best QB in the draft is someone who goes outside of the top-four or top-five at the position. The best QB in the 2022 draft that we know of so far is Brock Purdy, the final pick of the class. There are many more examples, like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Dak Prescott, of course. But even inside of the top-15, we know that Justin Herbert was the third QB, as were Josh Allen and Deshaun Watson.
Washington State’s Cam Ward could emerge as a top-10 pick with a breakout season given his size, athleticism, and lack of experience giving him room to grow.
There’s plenty of good storylines in this year’s QB class but none better than Washington State’s Cam Ward, who went from having zero FBS offers out of HS to having record-setting career at FCS Incarnate Word to being an ascending NFL draft prospect heading into his final season.… pic.twitter.com/pZffG8cAcz— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) July 7, 2023
We could also mention Florida State’s Jordan Travis, Tennessee’s Joe Milton, Ohio State’s Kyle McCord (who basically has no experience), and my personal favorite, Grayson McCall of Coastal Carolina, who lacks arm strength and has been stuck in one triple-option system since high school but has virtually everything else you’d want in a quarterback.
The list hardly stops there, from the types who haven’t played yet, to transfers, to guys who could be the next “Bo Nix” like D.J. Uiagalelei, the former five-star Clemson product now at Oregon State or Spencer Rattler, the former Sooner now at Oklahoma State for a second year. Cam Rising, Devin Leary, Sam Hartman, K.J. Jefferson, Tyler Van Dyke, Shedeur Sanders, Jayden Daniels, Jalen Milroe, Dillon Gabriel...the list does go on and on.
It could land on the Rams...but it doesn’t have to
Rams do not have to draft a QB
I’ll end this with the bow that you wanted but may not have expected: The Rams do not have to draft a quarterback. They will almost certainly be tied to the position because of their obvious need to fortify the future of the game’s most important position, but L.A. has needs all over the field.
All. Over. The. Field.
What if they can get receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr., tackle Joe Alt, edge Jared Verse, tight end Brock Bowers, or cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry? Snead shouldn’t “settle” for a quarterback ahead of “stealing” a potentially elite player at literally any vital position.
So no, the Rams do not have to pick any of these players.
Except for Caleb Williams.
If the Rams are picking first, they’re taking Caleb Williams. Anything else, the decision could stay a mystery until draft night.