Sports

This Year’s NFL Draft Will Force Some Teams to Make an Impossible Choice

Who the heck even knows with this class of quarterbacks?

Pickett on the field post-throw, the football released from his hands
Kenny Pickett of Pitt against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 11, 2021 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

To pick a quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft is to make a franchise-altering investment. First-round picks are some of the league’s most valuable assets in any case, and entrusting one to a quarterback means hitching a wagon to that player, at the sport’s most important position, for at least four years. At least, you hope. Anything less than that is a strong sign that none of this worked out. Trading up to draft a QB makes the acquiring team even more pot-committed. In 2021, Trey Lance and Justin Fields (the Nos. 3 and 11 picks) cost the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears a combined five first-round picks, plus some additional mid-rounders. Sometimes that works out (Josh Allen!). Other times it doesn’t (Josh Rosen, in the same 2018 draft). Either way, nothing is the same after a team tries it.

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The 2022 draft, which is next week, feels designed to put a lot of teams at an uncomfortable crossroad. The class lacks something most drafts have nowadays: a consensus No. 1 quarterback who is destined to be the No. 1 overall pick, and often a No. 2 QB guaranteed to go not long after. Last year, the top three picks were all QBs, plus two more in the top 15. This year, the first overall pick is probably going to be an offensive tackle or an edge rusher, as none of the QBs is anything close to a surefire franchise cornerstone. But the class isn’t exactly QB-barren. It might have even more passers than usual who allow a fan of a QB-poor team to squint and see promise. The downside, however, is the downside: It is significant for every QB in the group, even by the always-a-crapshoot standards of trying to pick the league’s next great signal-callers.

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The draft also arrives at a moment that feels a little bit incongruous. Often—usually, even—the worst teams in the league are also the ones in the most dire need of a QB. That is not true of a lot of the league’s worst teams right now. The Jacksonville Jaguars, with the No. 1 pick, got Trevor Lawrence with that same pick a year ago. The teams picking second and third, the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans, could certainly use QBs but have so many holes all over their rosters that they might be prompted to take surefire stars at other premium positions. The league’s two New York franchises have recent top-10 picks at QB (the Jets’ Zach Wilson and Giants’ Daniel Jones) whom they’ll probably keep riding for now. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, and Pittsburgh Steelers have been three of the league’s most successful teams for a decade or more and were nonhorrendous last year but find themselves requiring new blood under center. The only teams that currently fit the criteria of “having been hopelessly shitty for several years and being clearly in the market for a young QB” are the Carolina Panthers (saddled with Sam Darnold) and maybe the Atlanta Falcons (just traded Matt Ryan, but draft campfire talk is that they won’t necessarily take a QB now).

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It adds up to make the 2022 draft an extra volatile roulette spin. Several QB-needy teams aren’t far from staying competitive for a while but could blow it all with a bad pick of the wrong passer. If they pick one, they’ll have to put up with a huge degree of risk. It’s much more likely that any of this class’s top QBs doesn’t work out than it was last year, with Lawrence in particular.

The entire conceit of the draft—the reason it is a yearlong news event unto itself—is that it promises hope in a league that is often cruel. But it also brings danger, and it’s never more dangerous than when the team you care about picks a QB with a lot of warts on his resume. In that spirit, all of the highest-ranked QBs in 2022 present wide ranges of potential outcomes. And, again, that is true even relative to the context of an event that never guarantees a thing, in any year.

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The closest thing to a consensus about this year’s QB class is that the top two players are Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis. But neither grades out much higher than a mid–first-round pick on most big boards, and it is not hard to find credible draft analysts who see them as low–first-round talents in a normal year. One of those analysts, the Athletic’s Dane Brugler, ranks Pickett as the 30th-best player in the class and Willis as the 32nd.

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There are reasons to be thrilled about either one. In Pickett’s case, he is coming off a premier season at a high level of college football. He averaged nearly 9 yards per throw and threw 42 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and he led Pitt to a totally unexpected ACC championship while finishing third in Heisman Trophy balloting. Pickett made a bunch of excellent throws and earned the best Pro Football Focus grade of any QB in the country. He also made one of the iconic individual plays of the year, when he pulled off a seamless fake slide en route to a 58-yard touchdown run in the conference title game:

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It was an awesome maneuver, and Pickett will be the last QB to do it on such a big stage, seeing as the NCAA banned it immediately afterward. It also demonstrated something about Pickett’s game that was endearing in college but may be something different in the NFL: He was very much a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” type of QB, who regularly broke structure, took forever to throw the ball, and often conjured magic in the nick of time. As Derrik Klassen argued in Football Outsiders, it’s an awfully bold bet that Pickett’s way of doing business in 2021 will work in 2022. It also raises eyebrows that Pickett spent three seasons as an average starter before a one-year supernova breakout. Also: Pickett’s hands are only 8.5 inches across. But that’s not exact. Or maybe it is. It might cost him millions of dollars!

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For his part, Willis is the most exciting prospect of the bunch. He has a huge arm and fast feet, and his great plays are as captivating as anything a QB prospect can put on tape:

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But he played at Liberty, a school whose politics and general oddity kept it out of a conference during Willis’ two years as the starter after transferring from Auburn. The result was competition mostly made up of bad teams from the Group of Five and Football Championship Subdivision, with only a few appearances against good (not great) to bad Power Five teams. He didn’t have his best stuff in those games, and evaluators who spend time rehashing game film often flag his decision-making as something that will need development in the NFL. Every draft pick involves projection, and that can go just fine—Allen, after all, generated mediocre production at similarly situated Wyoming—but he is another audacious bet in a class full of them. That would be especially true in the top 10, where the Seahawks are sometimes rumored to like Willis.

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There is a chance the next QB picked after Pickett and Willis will be Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, who shows up in some projections as a first-rounder. Ridder was a dependably good four-year starter for the Bearcats, who last year became the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. In his last two years, he turned in solid performances against some of the best defenses in the country (Georgia one season, Notre Dame the next). He can really burn, having posted a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the league’s scouting combine. That was the best figure of any QB who ran there, though Willis might have challenged it had he run. Plus, the next person who says something about Ridder’s leadership that amounts to anything less than effusive praise of the QB will be the first I’ve heard.

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I don’t know, though. Ridder looked overwhelmed in a Playoff semifinal against Alabama on a day when Cincinnati probably had no chance anyway, but he really didn’t do anything to give the Bearcats one. Most of the time at Cincinnati, he played from ahead, buoyed by an elite defense in a conference of opponents who could not keep up. I will root hard for Ridder. I would not be all that jazzed to spend a first-round pick on him.

Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and North Carolina’s Sam Howell are the other QBs who sometimes come up in first-round projections. Both were good college QBs—Corral was a great one, it should be said—who made a lot of noise as ball-carriers as well as passers.

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They also played in offensive systems that had a lot in common, in that they leaned heavily on run-pass options where the QB decides just before or just after the snap whether it’ll be a run or a pass play. (At different points, both Corral and Howell played under the same offensive coordinator, the tempo- and RPO-adoring Phil Longo.) The RPO is a great tool in college, where the rules around offensive linemen blocking downfield afford QBs more time to make a run-or-pass decision than they do in the NFL. RPOs have grown rapidly over the past decade, and there are numerous cases of QBs who thrived in RPO-heavy college systems having a hard time adjusting to the more conventional drop-back passing that the NFL still demands. The most notable is the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, who was one of the best college QBs ever in an Alabama RPO offense and who hasn’t quite cracked everything else in two NFL seasons.

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Corral or Howell could turn out to have all the tools necessary to start in the NFL. But believing their talents will translate requires a lot of guesswork. Perhaps your team’s coaching staff can unlock the answer.

There are more QBs in the draft. The sixth one taken will probably be Nevada’s Carson Strong. He is a little bit like Allen, in that he is a Mountain West QB with a big frame and a strong right arm and a nonspectacular statistical track record. He is not a lot like Allen, because nobody is. Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe set all sorts of FBS passing records in his one season at WKU after a transfer from FCS Houston Baptist. I hope he plays for 15 years, but what worked in Conference USA has a limited track record of working for NFL QBs.

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At least one of these players, and maybe two or three, will have a good NFL career. It usually works out that way, if you go year-by-year through the NFL’s first-round QB draft history.

The fun will be in watching teams stake so much of their futures on trying to figure out who will do that—something that several teams are absolutely going to do. The NFL is a quarterback league, and everyone who signs checks knows it. The issue for a handful of teams in this year’s draft is that, as hard as it might be to dive headfirst into the pool given all of the potential problems with all of the top quarterbacks, staying out might feel even less palatable. Happy drafting.

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