This year, for the first time since 2018, there’s legitimate intrigue about which quarterback will go No. 1 overall. It’s a massive decision for the Carolina Panthers, who traded up for the pick. This is a loaded group of passers, with four likely to go in the top 10 and one more who could make his way into Round 1. Last year? We had just one signal-caller of the board in the first two rounds.
Let’s focus on the best traits for each of these top 2023 quarterbacks. Whose skill set best translates to the NFL? And whose ceiling is the highest? From high-level pocket poise and movement to third-level accuracy and elite arm strength, each of these passers has the tools to be starters at the next level. For each guy, we’ll show you videos that highlight these throwing traits.
We’ll order this using my ESPN draft colleagues’ consensus rankings, breaking down what each player does best. Let’s start with a Heisman Trophy winner who put together two seasons of top-tier production in the SEC:
Jump to a QB:
Hooker | Levis
Richardson Stroud | Young
Height: 5-foot-10 | Weight: 204 pounds
Consensus ranking: No. 1
NFL comparison: Drew Brees
Young’s best trait: Pocket poise
Young’s ability to maneuver the pocket and create throwing lanes also reminds me of Joe Burrow’s LSU tape from 2019. The eye level never drops, which allows Young to climb, slide and work the edges when forced to reset his throwing window. An easy, calculated mover in tight quarters, Young can create space for himself when the walls start to close around him.
Here’s an example of Young’s mobility on a high-level play. With LSU sending a pressure stunt, Young has to climb and move to keep this play alive. He then finishes outside the structure with an off-platform throw for the score. That’s big time.
Bryce Young keeps the play alive for 41-yard Alabama TD
Bryce Young does a great job to elude the pressure and connect downfield with Ja’Corey Brooks for the 41-yard Alabama touchdown.
Yes, Young’s narrow frame already is a major discussion in NFL front office, but his tape is the best of this class, and I’m not sure it’s close. In addition to high-level pocket presence, Young has excellent pre- and post-snap field vision. He picks up everything up within a college system filled with NFL concepts. And he can make every throw required, even if he’s not 6-foot-6.
While Young’s footwork can be tightened up and some third-level throws tend to lose some steam, he’s an aggressive, accurate passer, which will transition to the next level in a rhythm-based passing game.
Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 214
Consensus ranking: No. 2
NFL comparison: Matt Ryan
Stroud’s best trait: Third-level accuracy and touch
Stroud is the most natural and accurate thrower in this class. He completed 69.3% of his passes over 25 college starts. His ability to throw the ball down the field with location and touch pops on tape. We’re talking pocket throws on seams, over routes, posts and fades up the boundary. Stroud can drive throws to attack tight windows, or he can vary speeds to deliver pinpoint accuracy on shorter throws, which creates yardage after the catch. Wide receivers will love playing with him.
Let’s look at an example from Ohio State’s win over Michigan State from 2022. With play-action holding the split-field safety, the Buckeyes can isolate the outside corner on the post route. And this is where we see Stroud’s accuracy down the field, as he puts the ball on the upfield shoulder of the wideout, resulting in a catch-and-run for a score.
C.J. Stroud slings 3rd TD vs. Michigan State
C.J. Stroud finds Julian Fleming for a 55-yard TD to extend Ohio State’s lead.
Stroud showed the field vision to make all the throws in Ohio State’s defined route tree, reading the defense from the pocket and attacking the edges on boot concepts. Plus, his tape against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal should be graded at a higher level. Stroud was forced to throw from muddy pockets, play off schedule and use his legs on second-reaction scrambles against the eventual national champions, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdown passes against the nation’s best defense.
Stroud must continue to develop his upper- and lower-body mechanics while working on his pocket management. With his frame and throwing traits, though, he has the makeup to go ahead of Young.
Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 229
Consensus ranking: No. 3
NFL comparison: Jay Cutler
Levis’ best trait: Throws with velocity
Levis has excellent arm strength, with the ability to attack all three levels of the route tree. And the ball comes out quickly from multiple arm slots due to Levis’ easy, compact release. His best trait as a thrower, however, shows up when he drives the ball and peppers intermediate windows with seams, digs, crossers/overs. Those are second-level lasers that translate well to the NFL.
We can see it here against Ole Miss. In a third-down, red zone situation Levis held the weakside hook defender with his eyes, then put some heat on this throw to attack the zone void.
Levis ties game with TD pass to Dingle
Will Levis throws a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Dingle to tie the game at 19.
In addition to arm strength, Levis can create as a second-reaction thrower, with the ability to make off-platform plays. He ran a pro route system at Kentucky. And with his strong frame and toughness as a ball carrier, Levis can be schemed as a runner, though he shouldn’t be used like Josh Allen.
I see Levis as a reactionary thrower at times, with loose footwork that needs to be cleaned up. He has a hazy pocket feel versus pressure, and his 2022 tape was sometimes a tough watch because of the blitzes he faced. But with his traits, mobility, frame and arm strength, Levis is a top-10 prospect who can produce in a play-action system with vertical elements.
Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 244
Consensus ranking: No. 4
NFL comparison: Josh Allen
Richardson’s best trait: Arm strength
With top-tier tools and dual-threat ability, Richardson is a highly talented prospect with a powerful frame. The ball explodes out of his hands, showing his big-time arm strength. That allows him to throw vertical concepts, attack boundary windows versus Cover 2 or target middle-of-the-field voids. He can sling it — though it’s not always on target.
Here’s an example against LSU from last season. He executed a schemed shot play, just like we see in the NFL, and set it up with play-action and max protection. This is a rocket ball from Richardson, thrown down the field to hit the post.
Justin Shorter makes an amazing over-the-shoulder snag a Florida TD
Justin Shorter hauls in the absolute dime from Anthony Richardson on the second play of the game to put the Gators on the board first.
Richardson will bring a playmaking element to the NFL, as he can be schemed as a runner on designed carries. He has the physical element to execute designed runs in short-yardage situations. His 4.43-second 40-yard dash speed and secondary-reaction ability make him a big-play running threat, too, as he logged four touchdown runs of 40-plus yards last season. That will be a factor in the offense he runs at the next level.
Richardson’s footwork needs refinement to boost his passing accuracy, and he needs to develop a stronger sense of vision from the pocket. These are coachable skills, though. Due to rare traits at the position, I believe Richardson’s best football is ahead of him.
Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 217
Consensus ranking: No. 5
NFL comparison: Geno Smith
Hooker’s best trait: Rhythm throws with detailed footwork
Hooker suffered a torn left ACL in November, but the numbers and tape against SEC competition point to a refined pocket thrower with dual-threat ability who plays within rhythm. With a clean, over-the-top release, Hooker stands tall in the pocket and delivers the ball on time. And his footwork is efficient and detailed.
Here’s a vertical throw to Jalin Hyatt against LSU from 2022. Hooker starts with a quick, flash fake on play-action, calmly sets the throwing window, eyes up the safety and takes the boundary one-on-one. Smooth and in rhythm.
Hendon Hooker airs it out 45 yards for a Vols TD
Hendon Hooker throws 45 yards to Jalin Hyatt to put Tennessee up 20-0 over LSU.
Hooker was extremely productive in 11 starts for the Volunteers last season, throwing 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in Tennessee’s Air Raid system, including the 385 yards and five touchdown passes he dropped on Alabama’s defense. He averaged a 11.2 air yards per attempt, which ranked fifth in the FBS.
There will be a transition for Hooker as he makes the jump to an NFL-style offense, and he can improve his deep-ball location and second-level accuracy on in-breakers. He is an easy fit in a pro offense that requires timing throws from the pocket, though, and he also has the ability to stress defenses with his legs. While the knee injury and his age (25) will create discussion in draft rooms, Hooker has the traits to be a quality starter.