Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ranking the NFL’s second-year QBs by the likelihood of their play taking a leap in 2024: Will Levis headlines

In today’s NFL, Year 2 is often when an eventual star quarterback comes into his own, finds his groove and parlays previous flashes into consistent high-level play. 

There was Carson Wentz in 2017, Patrick Mahomes in 2018 and Lamar Jackson in 2019. Josh Allen took a mammoth third-year leap, although in his second season, the rookie-year mishaps melted away into signs of the imminent MVP-vote-getting season ahead. 

In 2021, Joe Burrow built on a strong rookie season cut short due to injury, leading the NFL in completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average en route to leading the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance. In 2022, Trevor Lawrence went from colossal disappointment as a rookie to impressive sophomore campaign en route to an AFC South title and epic road playoff win.

The 2023 season didn’t yield a breakout star at quarterback, which was probably more about the down 2022 draft class of quarterbacks than anything else. Then again, Will Levis did flash when healthy — how about that bonkers comeback against the Dolphins in Miami in prime time? — and Sam Howell did throw for nearly 4,000 yards in Washington. 

Of course, past results from other quarterbacks don’t guarantee the second (or third) year eruption will continue. But let’s rank the passers from the 2023 draft class by likelihood of elevating their game to franchise-altering status. 

Not going to happen

5. Aidan O’Connell, Raiders

I hate placing O’Connell here, because he was darn good relative to his draft position as a rookie. By Week 9, he was the full-time starter, primed for a long first-year audition during a tumultuous season in Las Vegas with many moving parts. When all was said and done, the fourth-rounder threw 12 touchdowns to just seven picks with a respectable 83.9 rating on a team with Davante Adams and not much else at receiver. 

But we aren’t even sure he’ll beat out Gardner Minshew in camp or the preseason this summer. 

While it would take an impressive showing to do so, even if that happens, O’Connell doesn’t have the mobility nor the arm talent to emerge as a bright young star at the quarterback spot. Can he be serviceable? Absolutely. But that isn’t what we’re looking for in this article.

Probably not, but crazier things have happened

4. Bryce Young, Panthers

I just don’t feel it with Young. And what do I mean by that? Well, firstly, I didn’t see any flashes from Young as a rookie. You know, a few games– maybe not even consecutively — where he looked confident and poised and that combination led to quality results. 

There was the 300-plus-yard effort late in the season against Green Bay that stood out. But even if that game was encouraging, it was thoroughly outweighed by disastrous performances. In my weekly grading project of the first- and second-year quarterbacks in 2023, Young had one “A” grade and two grades in the “B” range. All of his other starts ranged from a “C+” to an “F.”

Yes, that Packers game was impressive; it’s just too difficult for me to see him repeating that type of performance on a regular basis because of his lack of physical tools. He doesn’t have a strong arm by NFL standards. It’s not brutal, but it’s not doing him favors frequently. He’s a good athlete but not nearly dynamic enough to repeatedly make defenders miss or scamper away from oncoming defenders often. His accuracy and processing are his two strengths, but neither are so spectacular they negate his hard-to-improve weaknesses.

The Panthers did make somewhat of a concerted effort to build around him, trading for underneath separator Diontae Johnson in March before moving up in the draft to select South Carolina’s Xavier Legette. I still think Carolina’s receiver group will struggle to collectively get open, but the offensive line should be sturdier with free-agent adds Robert Hunt at right guard and Damien Lewis at left guard. 

I don’t have enough belief in Young’s tools, nor the roster in Carolina, to predict Young making a leap in Year 2. 

How much better can he get?

3. C.J. Stroud, Texans

Stroud had a dazzling rookie season. Couldn’t have gotten much better, really. Runaway NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award that was justified. Playoff win. He led three game-winning drives in the regular season, had six 300-plus yard performances, and finished the regular season with a 100.8 rating. 

His pocket passing was surgical, but I mostly admired how vertical-based Houston’s pass game was. This was not a season in which a rookie posted a high completion rate because he got to his checkdown faster than anyone. Counting the playoffs, Stroud had an average depth of target of 9.3 yards, the second-highest among all qualifying quarterbacks in football. 

Nico Collins enters a contract year. Tank Dell returns from a broken leg. Oh, and Stefon Diggs is a Texan now. My word. Houston has pushed its chips to the center of the table in 2024. Can’t forget Danielle Hunter on defense, either. 

It’ll be a major challenge for Stroud to keep his interceptions at what was a league-leading rate of just 1.0% in 2023. I do see him staying well above 8.0 yards per attempt in Bobby Slowik’s branch-off-the-Shanahan-tree system with the weapons he has and one of the sturdiest offensive lines in Texans history. 

The question will be — can Strould elevate enough to be widely considered an elite quarterback in 2024? The talent and situation are there for it to be a distinct possibility.

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The most likely

2. Anthony Richardson, Colts

Richardson teased us in September of 2023. He provided a handful of plays reserved only for those quarterbacks with supreme athletic and physical gifts. Sure, his accuracy was scattershot at times, and he didn’t always throw to the “right” receiver based on the coverage the defense showed him. 

But Richardson is exactly the type of quarterback who’s thriving in this day and age in the NFL. Big, legitimately fast and a monster arm. 

And while I don’t absolutely adore his skill-position group, the Colts have a nice basketball team around him at the tight end and receiver spots. Michael Pittman is essentially part receiver-part tight end, capable of 1,000-yard seasons with low yards-per-catch averages. Josh Downs proved his worth as a lightning-bug slot receiver who can also move the chains from a tighter-to-the-line pre-snap alignment. And second-round pick Adonai Mitchell has the goods to be a towering vertical threat with the route-running fluidity to get open at the intermediate level. Alec Pierce is that type, too, and fifth-round pick Anthony Gould has track-star speed. 

Beyond Richardson’s ridiculous gifts, I’m most trusting in his head coach Shane Steichen, who’s done nothing but marvelous work fostering an extremely QB-friendly environments wherever he’s been in the NFL. If Richardson can stay healthy, I envision him becoming one of the scariest dual-threat quarterbacks in football this season. 

1. Will Levis, Titans

Levis has that glimmer. It appeared on multiple occasions during his rookie campaign in Tennessee, one in which we weren’t even sure if he’d see the field given the stable, veteran presence of Ryan Tannehill and, heck, 2022 third-round pick Malik Willis in the same quarterback room. 

Take for example, his first NFL start. Four touchdowns, no interceptions. Not all four of those touchdown tosses were of the ultra-challenging variety, but a four-score, zero-pick NFL debut is undeniably noteworthy. After some bumpy starts that followed, Levis went 13 of 17 at 9.29 yards per attempt with two more touchdown passes without an interception in a blowout loss to the Jaguars. Then, that Dolphins comeback. Levis went full super saiyan, particularly in a torrid second half and fourth quarter, when the Titans erased a 27-13 deficit in the final 4:33 of that game. 

Levis finished with 327 yards at 8.61 yards per attempt in that dramatic 28-27 win. But it was more than those few games. Levis was himself as a rookie. Not timidly slow-playing it as a first-year pro. Levis kept the foot on the gas as a thrower and, vitally, as a runner. Leaps over defenders to get first downs. Now, not every pass or hurdle attempt was successful, but Levis playing almost identically the way he did at Kentucky is a tremendous sign for his breakout potential in 2024 and beyond. Plus, he has serious athletic and arm-talent traits. 

And while Levis’ actual abilities are, of course, critical, those three paragraphs haven’t touched on the ever-important support cast Titans GM Ran Carthon has built around him. There’s DeAndre Hopkins, who proved he still has “it” with the first 70-plus catch, 1,000-plus yard season since 2020; free-agent add Calvin Ridley; and the hyper-reliable slot Tyler Boyd, who has a long history with new head coach Brian Callahan. Tennessee also signed big-ticket center Lloyd Cushenberry in free agency and drafted colossal left tackle JC Latham from Alabama inside the top 10. 

Levis is ready for liftoff in 2024.

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