In the past few years, we’ve seen remarkable ascensions at the quarterback position by lesser-known players in college football. Joe Burrow, Zach Wilson, and Kenny Pickett were all projected as late-rounders heading into their last season of college football before breaking out and earning a first-round selection. These rises have opened the eyes of the NFL Draft community and have spurned interest in who may be the next breakout quarterback who no one expects to vault himself into the first-round conversation. It’s also important to note that this masks the fact that in many draft classes, there are multiple quarterbacks who were projected as first-rounders a year before their draft and who did indeed live up to that billing. Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields in the 2021 NFL Draft come to mind. This summer, many way-too-early 2023 NFL mock drafts feature C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young at the top. Both have only one year of starting experience in college under their belt, but they performed so impressively at Ohio State and Alabama, respectively, in 2021 that they are already the most heralded quarterback prospects for 2023. Young even won the Heisman Trophy in 2021. That brings us to a wildly interesting question: Between Stroud and Young, who is in the lead to become the first quarterback selected in 2023? Who is the better prospect heading into the 2022 season? Let’s break down each of their game tapes before making a call.
Like many Alabama quarterbacks, Bryce Young is an excellent distributor of the football. Throwing to the short and intermediate portions of the field, Young is really accurate and shows good anticipation and ball placement. He processes the field at a high level as well. Young has good arm strength and delivers the ball with a lot of zip on drive throws, in addition to fitting these passes into tight windows very consistently. Young does have limitations to his profile as a quarterback prospect that unfortunately will remain relevant in the NFL Draft process. His frame appears to be quite small on tape, and he is listed at just 6’0″ 194 lbs. I anticipate that his weight will be a significant talking point in the 2023 NFL Draft process just like Kenny Pickett’s hand size was this past draft cycle. While we’ve seen a handful of shorter quarterbacks thrive in the NFL, such as Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, or Kyler Murray, they all had thicker builds than Bryce Young. As a result, Young’s durability is a question and he is not a quarterback you want running the ball often. If he indeed is advised to avoid putting his body at risk by rarely running the ball in the NFL, his margin for error as a passer will be reduced. That’s why I’d like to see him improve on a few areas as a passer. Young needs to quicken his internal clock, as he holds the ball too long. He also has a tendency of throwing off his back foot at times that needs to be corrected. Overall, Young has the potential to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL because of how accurate he is, but his lack of size is a serious deterring factor that makes it very important that he improves on his few weaknesses as a passer next season.
Let’s dive into C.J. Stroud’s game now. What makes Stroud such an impressive quarterback prospect is how refined he is despite being relatively young and inexperienced. He is already excellent at reading the field, going through progressions, sensing pressure, climbing the pocket, and getting the ball out quickly. These are traits that many quarterbacks prospects don’t have developed yet going into the league even with multiple seasons of starting experience under their belt, and it often leads to rocky starts to NFL careers at the position. That is why it is so impressive and valuable that Stroud already has these finer aspects of the position down. He is impressive from a physical-traits standpoint as well, possessing solid size, arm strength, and athleticism. Stroud excels in distributing the football from within the pocket and also thrives when the play breaks down, as he is able to navigate a muddied pocket, maintain his poise, and find an open target late in the play. His accuracy is decent, but he occasionally misses a throw when his mechanics are sloppy. Like his mechanics, his touch downfield is still developing as well. Stroud is a good athlete, but he rarely runs the football and does not pose a serious threat to a defense with his legs. Despite this, Stroud possesses clear potential to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL because of his skills as a passer and his impressive refinement.
As you may have gathered by now, C.J. Stroud is a quarterback prospect I have fewer questions about than Bryce Young at this point in their young careers, and he currently has the edge in the 2023 NFL Draft top quarterback race in my mind. Young is slightly more accurate than Stroud but Stroud possesses the better size and has a much better internal clock. While Young holds the ball too long at times, Stroud is already adept at getting the ball delivered to his receivers at the efficient pace that is required to succeed in the NFL. I must add that other quarterback prospects may burst onto the scene and give Stroud and Young a run for their money in the next draft cycle, but currently, I would pin Stroud ahead of Young as being the most likely quarterback to be selected first at the position in 2023. It will surely be fun to watch their development over the course of the 2023 season and re-assess the 2023 QB1 race next spring!