NFL Draft: Top Offensive Players By Position
Your draft day cheat sheet for the offensive side of the ball
Some news before we get going:
We have some new teammates!
Simon Clancy, Gridiron’s resident draft guru, is joining us throughout the draft process to offer another perspective on this year’s class. Simon has written one of the most popular draft guides over the past half-decade, so it’s great to get his voice on the newsletter. Rather than dumping one draft guide, we’re going to filter Simon’s stuff out alongside my stuff, offering you a chance to see contrasting views where they contrast and to see where there’s overlap (taking us an inch closer to what it’s like within a team’s facility in the run-up to the draft).
You’ll also see more contributors on these pages over the coming weeks. The tone will be slightly different – but necessary. I’m keen to give voice to stories that are in need of extra attention. And rather than focusing on those myself when the audience is so keen to read and hear as much nerdy scheme analysis as possible, I decided it’s best to bring on new, fresh voices who can better engage with those topics (if you have a pitch, by the way, email me!).
Next week, I’ll have some further announcements.
As we head into the second year of The Read Optional in this format, I couldn’t be more excited about where it’s going. New contributors give me the freedom to focus on the things the audience cares about the most and will allow us, as a team, to do all the little things to help grow this as a community, instead of as a direct writer-to-audience, bringing-down-the-scheme-tablets type relationship.
With that, let’s talk about the draft. We begin with an initial cheat sheet, of sorts – something you can refer back to in the run-up to draft week. Simon will be filtering out his ‘top’ lists in the run-up to the draft, but to engage that tingly, team-building, fantasy GM side of all our brains, I thought I’d release my initial rankings in two mega-dumps: Offense then defense. After that, I will shift to deep dives on specific prospects (let me know who you would like to read about) before publishing my final rankings on draft week.
First up, the offense.
1. Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Willis is a tools-y player from a smaller school who has a ways to go in order to operate a multi-layered, full-progression, NFL offense. At Liberty, he worked in a pump-and-dump, RPO-dense offense that relied on his unnatural arm strength and mobility to generate easy yardage.
When sorting through this iffy quarterback class, the first thing to do is to evaluate who has an A-plus skill. Only one quarterback does: Willis. And he’s got two: Arm strength and his ability to create on the fly. Willis generates outrageous velocity from any base or platform: in the pocket; on the run; moving to his right; moving to his left. It doesn’t matter. Willis has no time for the concepts of launch points and platforms. He cares not where his body is supposed to be, whether it’s lined up or pointing in fifteen directions — each limb operating with a mind of its own. He just knows there’s a target over there, and that he has the arm to hit it.
Give me a break. There’s no rhythm or timing to that play. It’s just a football thrower ripping a holeshot between the corner and safety some 20-odd yards downfield.
The velocity comes effortlessly. At times it looks like he’s lollygagging in the pocket, then you see how quickly the ball gets on his receivers:
Yeesh. Willis’ arm talent allowed him to play at his own pace in college, bailing him out of some sloppy lower body mechanic – though that improved over his time in school. In the pros, everything (naturally) needs to be sped up.
There are worrisome inconsistencies. His eyes and feet are a mess, leading to accuracies issues that will be hard to fix as the competition level rises. Indeed, as the competition rose in college, Willis’ style too often devolved into a mess.
Still: Willis is the most exciting prospect in this class, with a hint of the Steve McNair to his story: The small school prospect with next-level skills that if harnessed in the right system could see him develop into one of the most lethal third-down threats in the NFL.
To commit to Willis is to commit to a long-term plan, to a wholescale rebuilding of a roster, to redefining whatever offense is already installed to tailor a new system to the quarterback. That means an uptick in designed quarterback runs, and as many RPOs as the Football Gods will allow – at least in the early days. The long-term ideal would be for Willis to improve on his rhythm and timing, and to enter the Herbert-Mahomes-Burrow vortex, the off-script creators who’re happy to play within the timing of the system but embrace detonating that structure to go make a play all by themselves.
Even in a stacked draft class that’s weak on quarterbacks, Willis has the upside that is worthy of taking on a punt on high in the first round.
2. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Ridder’s game is built on processing and efficiency. He’s a grip-it-and-rip it quarterback, who relies on ready things out correctly at-the-snap and getting the ball out in double time. There’s an awful lot of Marcus Mariota at Oregon to his game: The speed of decision-making; the straight-line speed; the style of offense, blending spread-option principles with west-coast passing concepts. He is comfortably the most nuanced thrower of the group, both in terms of his post-snap processing (reading leverage, getting off poor reads quickly) and how he’s comfortably able to level the ball.
A lack of arm talent will be an (obvious) knock. And while that’s fair, Ridder made plenty of NFL-style bucket throws, that kind that eludes almost all of this class. The rest rely on deep shots and check-downs or making plays out of structure. Ridder is the best level-er of the ball in the class – that has to count for something, right?
Ridder’s inconsistent mechanics and sloppy decision-making put a natural cap on his game; he lacks a true ‘A’ skill. But his efficiency in the pocket and mobility (he’s not a wiggler, but he can be a redzone threat on defined runs, similar to Mariota) put him right on the Andy Dalton shelf: A player who can help guide a top-class roster to the playoffs but lacks the innate skill-set to put a team on his back all by himself.
3. Matt Corrall, Ole Miss
There is a clear separation, in this writer’s mind, from the top two prospects down to Corrall and the rest of this quarterback class. Corrall is an athlete playing quarterback, unlike Willis who is a quarterback with high-level athleticism.
Like Willis, Corrall played in an RPO-based offense with little transferable skills to the pros. Yet unlike Willis, Corral failed to generate offense when pushed off his first read; if the read was not pre-defined prior to the snap, things got squirrely – and things got worse as the competition level around him grew (the initial read more often being closed off).
So much of his production came thanks to Lane Kiffin’s Super Spread offense, with Corrall pushing the ball to the perimeter for an athlete to go make an easy-ish play in space.
Corrall has all the physical tools (albeit on a thin frame): A power arm, a slingshot release, enough mobility to create on the move, and a snappy release. There are flashes that excite you, the rare bucket throw where you start to think hmmm, maybe the offense is hiding a prospect who can do EVERYTHING. Maybe there’s something in there?
The developmental process will be steep. At best, he’s Zach Wilson, a project that a franchise can buy into. At worst, he’s Paxton Lynch. In the age of tools-y quarterbacks, it still wouldn’t be a shock to see a team gamble on Corrall in the latter portion of the first round.
4. Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Picket made a massive one-year leap in 2021, his sixth year in college, pushing him from a fringe pro prospect into the first-round discussion. There is plenty to like: his command of a complex system, his excellence at throwing on the move. But there are plenty of issues. So much of what he does is good, not great. He moves into pressure. He holds onto the ball too long. He’s a see-it-throw-it type of prospect who plays with little anticipation, a major red flag for a player who spent so long in college within the same system – a system that was built around his skills.
Put on the Clemson tape, and you start to wonder whether he even has a shot to get through the preseason — the opening 20 minutes is as poor as you will see from any prospect, at any position, in the country. But there’s enough evidence of his playmaking chops elsewhere to get a team excited about what he could be.
In my mind, there are too many red flags to think of him as a serious first-round prospect – missing blown coverages, not tracking the rotations of safeties. Those things should have been old hat for a player in his sixth year in college. If Pickett was a younger, rawer prospect, I’d get it. But Pickett should have been an advanced quarterback given his system and the time he spent in it, yet his success was still based on ad hoc, on-the-fly decisions.
5. Sam Howell, North Carolina
A year ago, as Howell was unleashing deep shot after deep shot in college football’s most vertical offense, he was in the discussion to be the first overall pick. Comparisons to Baker Mayfield were everywhere: the short-statured quarterback who bobbed and weaved in the pocket and could really push the ball down the field.
That all collapsed in 2021. Howell’s game fell apart; North Carolina’s gimmicky offense too often became stuck in the mud. The freelancing nature that had made him such a delight to watch in 2020 became evidence of a player with little feel or anticipation. As an evaluator, it’s hard to shake the 2020 image of Howell out of your head; there was a touch of Russell Wilson, shades of Mayfield. In a wide-zone-then-boot offense, he has all the characteristics to be a success – predefined reads, limited areas to throw to, but with the tools and arm to really push the ball, something other QBs operating such systems often lack. Where Howell lands will be essential for his pro prospects.
6. Carson Strong, Nevada
If we were deliberating this class in 2005, Strong would be in play to be the first name called. He is a big-armed, big-bodied quarterback who plays in the classic, dropback, Carson Palmer style. He is a beautiful thrower of the ball, with zip to all levels of the field, and is one of the few in this class who can consistently penetrate the second-level, dropping the ball over linebackers and in front of safeties. But it’s hard to look past his sluggishness in the pocket. He’s not just immobile, he’s frozen in ice. He offers little as an off-script creator, and his footwork is such a mess that he’s unable to even dance around the pocket to extend plays. Add to that: Strong sustained a devastating knee injury in high school that required further surgery last February. An immobile quarterback with a sketchy knee will be a no-no for most teams.
Immobile quarterbacks must master the art of the stick-slide-climb throw. You know the kind. It’s the Tom Brady special: A rusher comes flying in, the quarterback hits the top of his drop, sticks his foot in the ground, slips to his left or right, throwing off the pass-rushers coordinates. The rusher goes breezing past as Brady climbs back up through the pocket to deliver a strike. It doesn’t require jarring athleticism, but it requires pocket mobility, agility, and the instincts to move and evade the rush within the pocket — throwing off a pass-rushers radar, buying a beat, rather than having to bail out of the pocket altogether. Strong exhibits none of that. There is an overreliance on his arm to bail him out of any and all problems, routinely throwing from deep behind the line of scrimmage, backing up to avoid the rush.
Strong has potential. And he’s worthy of a mid-round gamble for a team that has an aging quarterback, a team that can grant him the time needed to develop some of the subtleties he will need to survive in the modern NFL. Where he ultimately ends up being drafted will be as much down to his medical report as anything.