2024 NFL Draft Preview: The Search for Franchise Quarterbacks

By Scott Kacsmar

Franchise quarterbacks are the top prize in any NFL draft, but not every draft has one. The 2024 NFL draft is just the latest search for franchise quarterbacks who can hopefully compete with Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and help their teams win a Super Bowl. Thankfully, the 2024 NFL draft expects to have four signal callers go high in the first round, led by Caleb Williams, and a couple more could go in the top 40 picks.

Is there a generational talent at quarterback in this draft? Maybe not, but the top prospects lack glaring red flags like being a one-year wonder in college or posting shoddy statistics (low completion percentage or yards per attempt) against weak competition. If you go through the draft busts in the first round in the last decade, one or both of those red flags were usually present.

We have an interesting class here, and while you can all but guarantee at least one of these players will prove to be a bust, right now it is “hope springs eternal” at the game’s most important position. Quite a few teams need a long-term answer at quarterback too, so we might see some bombshell trade before draft night as well, or at least a team maybe trading up into the first round on draft night to get their quarterback.

Using the prospect rankings from NFL Mock Draft Database, we are going to look at the top six quarterbacks this year, how their skills might translate to the NFL, and which team would be the best landing spot for them.

Not included is Spencer Rattler, the South Carolina quarterback who could surprise some people if he lands with the right team in the third round or so. If anyone has the potential to be a Russell Wilson (2012 third-round pick) or Dak Prescott (2016 fourth-round pick) in this class, it’s Rattler.

1. Caleb Williams (USC) – No. 1 Overall Prospect

We can congratulate Caleb Williams for going into a college football season as the expected No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft and making it out with that status all but locked up. Many sportsbooks have Williams with roughly -4000 odds (97.6% implied chance) to go No. 1 in the draft.

It doesn’t always work this way. Just ask Matt Barkley, the USC quarterback who entered his 2012 season as the favorite to go first in the 2013 NFL draft. Instead, his interception count more than doubled to 15 in a disappointing final collegiate season, and he fell to the 98th pick in the fourth round to the Eagles before going on to have a forgettable NFL career.

But Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, is a different cat. Some might say too different as the 21-year-old quarterback has been a target on social media for months for things like crying in his mom’s arms after a loss, painting his fingernails, and his most recent perceived sin is for having a pink cellphone case.

But do you know what is missing here? Where is the criticism of his on-field play? None of this stuff matters when it is game day and he has to perform on the field. While Williams only threw 211 passes as a freshman with Oklahoma in 2021, the similarities in his passing efficiency numbers at Oklahoma and USC are fascinating:

  • Oklahoma (211 passes, 2021): 9.1 yards per pass attempt, 169.6 passing efficiency rating, 21 touchdowns, 4 interceptions
  • USC (888 passes, 2022-23): 9.2 yards per pass attempt, 169.2 passing efficiency rating, 72 touchdowns, 10 interceptions

Hard to argue with elite consistency like that. Williams threw for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2022 when he won the Heisman. He played two fewer games in 2023, but he still finished with 3,633 yards and 30 touchdowns while averaging a career-high 9.4 yards per pass attempt. Quarterbacks who put up efficiency and volume at this level in multiple seasons in college usually have gone on to NFL success in the last decade. In fact, that’s one of the best predictors for NFL success right now among first-round picks. Williams was not a one-year wonder by any means.

He’s 6’1”, so he isn’t too short (a la Bryce Young) or too tall (Paxton Lynch) for the position. He showed great playmaking ability and also rushed for 27 touchdowns in college. But he can also play from in the pocket as well.

One thing we are not going to get into the habit of doing is comparing every top college prospect to Patrick Mahomes. But something Williams can relate to with Mahomes is that his record in college would have been better if his defense wasn’t so poor. USC ranked 94th in points allowed per game in 2022 and got even worse at 121st (out of 133 teams) in 2023.

Williams lost the 2022 Cotton Bowl against Tulane in a game where he had a 45-30 lead with just over 4:00 left before his defense blew the lead with 9 seconds left in a 46-45 loss. Williams passed for 462 yards and 5 touchdowns in that game.

Last season, Williams put up 42 points on Washington but lost because the Trojans allowed 52 points. He also ran for a go-ahead touchdown against Utah, but the defense allowed the game-winning field goal in a 34-32 loss.

USC allowed at least 28 points in each of Williams’ final 9 starts, including 5 games of 41-plus points. Meanwhile, someone like J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) saw his team allow 28 points once in the last 29 games since 2022.

Give Williams the support of a real defense and he’ll take care of his business on the offensive side. Again, not saying he’ll be Mahomes in the NFL, but it’s easier to relax the “hero ball” gene out of a quarterback and have him play within the structure more if he doesn’t feel like he has to score 45 points to win the game every week.

Best Fit – No. 1 Chicago Bears

No debate here. The Chicago Bears should take Caleb Williams with the No. 1 pick in the draft. They passed on Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud last year to keep Justin Fields for another year. It didn’t work out, and they traded Fields for peanuts to Pittsburgh, signifying the end of that era.

The Bears can take Williams, and we’ll look into this more when it officially happens, but he could be walking into one of the best situations any No. 1 overall pick has. The Bears have two legitimate No. 1 wideouts in D.J. Moore and Keenan Allen thanks to trades the last two offseasons. They added D’Andre Swift to the backfield, they got a breakout year out of tight end Cole Kmet last season, and they have some interesting pieces up front on the offensive line. The defense could be on the way up, and they also have the No. 9 pick in this draft to build around Williams.

But this pick should be a lock, and we’ll see if the Bears can finally have a franchise quarterback worth watching in Williams. They’ve only been trying to fill this spot since Sid Luckman retired in 1950.

2. Drake Maye (North Carolina) – No. 2 Overall Prospect

Since when did North Carolina become a quarterback factory? Freshman Drake Maye sat behind starter Sam Howell in 2021, watching Howell have another solid season that led to him getting drafted in the fifth round by Washington in 2022.

But it was Maye’s turn in 2022 to start, and he had a season as good as any of Howell’s with 4,321 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns. He also ran for 698 yards and 7 scores, showing decent mobility.

But Maye lost his top two receivers in 2023, including Josh Downs (Colts), and his numbers decreased for it. He had 3,608 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, but he still averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, a good number.

Scouts often love a 6’5” quarterback like Maye, and he certainly projects to be a better pro prospect than Howell was. But he also is one of the more polarizing figures in this draft class as some question his accuracy and consistency, two key traits to excel at the position.

Regardless of what you think, Maye is almost certain to go in the first couple of picks this year. The big question is what Washington does with that No. 2 pick.

Best Fit – No. 3 New England Patriots

Do the Commanders really want to replace Sam Howell with the same quarterback who replaced him at North Carolina? Even if they are different players and Maye projects to be better, Washington may want to hedge its bet and try someone from a different offensive system this time. Remember, there is a new coaching staff in Washington with head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. A fresh start.

That’s why Maye figures to slide to No. 3 to the Patriots, who desperately need another quarterback after trading Mac Jones to the Jaguars. They seemed to have the right plan in place for Jones in his 2021 rookie season, but some bad hires by Bill Belichick as his new offensive assistant to replace Josh McDaniels proved fatal, and failing to put better weapons around Jones also led to him regressing and getting worse each year.

Belichick is gone now too, so it falls on rookie coach Jerod Mayo to get things right at the most crucial position. Maye has shown the ability to thrive with an NFL-caliber receiving talent like Downs, and he still did well enough last year with less around him. In New England, he’s not going to have much around him this year either, so that could be another reason to think he’s the pick here as the team tries to find their true Tom Brady replacement.

3. Jayden Daniels (LSU) – No. 3 Overall Prospect

One of the most exciting players in the entire draft is LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. A 5-year starter at Arizona State and LSU, Daniels was by far at his best in 2023 when he completed 72.2% of his passes, threw for 3,812 yards, averaged a jaw-dropping 11.7 yards per pass, 40 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, and rushed for 1,134 yards and 10 more touchdowns.

How do you even deal with a quarterback who averaged 11.7 yards per pass and 8.4 yards per run in the same season? Naturally, LSU led the nation with 45.5 points per game. Daniels’ 95.7 QBR in the 2023 season is the second-highest QBR in ESPN’s database going back to 2004. He even beat out Joe Burrow’s 94.9 QBR in the 2019 season at LSU.

People didn’t crucify Burrow, who was the No. 1 pick in 2020, for throwing to Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase that season. They shouldn’t do the same with Daniels playing with Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., a pair of wide receivers expected to go in the first round this year.

But for Daniels, there are some concerns about his game translating to the NFL. For one, 2023 was so far and away better than his previous four seasons that it looks suspicious. He never had a passing efficiency rating higher than 149.2 in his first four seasons, then last year he shot up to 208.0. Even at LSU in 2022, he only averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt before that skyrocketed to 11.7 last year. He’s always been fairly good at avoiding interceptions, but the 40 touchdown passes were more than his previous highest seasons (17 twice) combined. Even his rushing average ballooned from 4.8 in 2022 to 8.4 last year.

Maybe he’s just peaking at the right time, but there are some concerns about this being an outlier year that won’t translate to pro success. His size is also an issue as he looks wide receiver skinny and has some humorous video compilations on the hits he’s taken in college:

But you don’t post the numbers Daniels did in 2023 without being able to throw on time and from the pocket too:

Michael Vick wasn’t the biggest quarterback either, and Daniels could approach prime Vick from a rushing standpoint if he’s given the chance. Just don’t expect him to run at the volume and power of Cam Newton or Lamar Jackson at the next level.

Either way, it looks like he’ll be a lot of fun to watch. How much of that fun turns to frustration is a different story.

Best Fit – No. 2 Washington Commanders

If any franchise needs a boost of energy, it is the Washington one, which has gone through more name changes in the last few years than playoff wins in the salary cap era. In fact, Washington is the only team since the cap was installed in 1994 to not win 11 games in any season.

We already explained above why the Commanders’ new regime may not want anything to do with another North Carolina quarterback like Drake Maye. That is why the pick at No. 2 could be Jayden Daniels, and having Marcus Mariota there as a mentor would be a good thing for him too.

Think of it like another attempt with Robert Griffin III, the promising No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft that the team mismanaged with a serious knee injury in the playoff game of his rookie year. Daniels is going to have to be managed closely too with his unique dual-threat style, but if he can put it together as a passer at the next level, he could be a dangerous player for years to come.

The AFC has a monopoly on top quarterbacks right now, so the NFC needs picks like Williams (Bears) and presumably Daniels in Washington to deliver and pump some new blood into that conference.

4. J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) – No. 9 Overall Prospect

It is possible to typecast a quarterback as you would an actor in Hollywood. For someone like Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, the reputation is going to be “game manager” used as a pejorative term. He just manages the game, he rode his defense to championship success last year, and he’s 27-1 as a starter (third-best record in college football history) because of the team around him more than anything he did.

Most of the time, there will be truth to that too. Plenty of college quarterbacks were carried by their teammates and schemes and never did anything in the NFL. But when you start digging into McCarthy, there are things to like from both a tape and statistical perspective.

He’s not going to heavily rely on improv and creating on the fly like Williams or Daniels in this class, but he is mobile enough to make those plays at times. He never had huge numbers in college as he never passed for 3,000 yards or 25 touchdowns in either of his two seasons as Michigan’s starter. But they also didn’t throw the ball as much since they often led big, and he was efficient when he did throw (67.6% completions and 8.7 yards per attempt).

McCarthy also saved a lot of his best throws for third down where he was prolific last year:

McCarthy may never be a franchise savior at quarterback, but when we are living in a world where Brock Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant, is posting the numbers he is in San Francisco, having someone coachable like McCarthy in the right situation could be very valuable to the right time.

It is understandable why he continues to rise up the draft boards with so many teams in dire need of a franchise quarterback.

Best Fit – No. 12 Denver Broncos

We already have the draft starting with three straight quarterback picks. Four would be unprecedented, and it would likely take a trade to do that as Arizona does not look likely to draft McCarthy with Kyler Murray still there.

There should be a run on No. 1 wide receivers (Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers, Rome Odunze), linemen, and tight end Brock Bowers is also out there.

The Vikings hold the No. 11 pick and could absolutely be one of the teams all in on McCarthy after letting Kirk Cousins go to Atlanta. But the team that makes the most sense is Denver after letting Russell Wilson go. You have no chance of a successful season in a division with Patrick Mahomes if your quarterback is Jarrett Stidham.

This would give head coach Sean Payton a chance to finally mold a quarterback from the beginning if he traded up to get McCarthy. In New Orleans, he came with Drew Brees, who already had his breakout year in San Diego. After Brees, Payton tried to make it work with veterans like Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson. He can shape McCarthy into the quarterback he wants from the beginning.

For a coach who wouldn’t give up on trying to make Taysom Hill a quarterback in this league, giving Payton a young talent like McCarthy would add another interesting dynamic to the AFC West with McCarthy’s college coach, Jim Harbaugh, now coaching the Chargers.

And everyone is still chasing Mahomes and the Chiefs.

5. Bo Nix (Oregon) – No. 33 Overall Prospect

Now we are moving into the next tier of quarterbacks who could go late in the first round or early in the second round. Still a shot to be a starter soon in the NFL.

First up is Bo Nix, a 5-year starter from Auburn and Oregon with 15,352 passing yards and 113 touchdown passes. No quarterback in the history of college football started more games (61) than Nix did. That also means he is experienced with multiple systems, and he did his best work at Oregon last year when he completed 77.4% of his passes, another NCAA record for a season. He also threw 45 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions last season.

Clearly, the shift from Auburn to the Pac-12 and Oregon had a huge boost on Nix’s numbers, playing in a more wide-open system. But it would be hard for any system quarterback to replicate the absurd numbers he had last year. That experience was paying off too.

Best Fit – No. 23 Minnesota Vikings

So far, we’ve identified the quarterback-needy teams at the top of the draft in the Bears, Commanders, and Patriots. We know the Broncos also need a new quarterback. The Vikings are another team on that list after losing Kirk Cousins.

Minnesota coach Kevin O’Connell comes from that Sean McVay coaching tree, so you know he’s going to use play-action passes, he has Justin Jefferson to throw to, and he’s going to want a tough quarterback to hang in there and deliver the ball on time. Nix can do all of those things for him.

Hell, we saw Nick Mullens putting up big numbers in Minnesota last year. His problem is he throws interceptions at a terrible rate. Bo Nix was called “Bo Picks” at Auburn, but what if he’s legitimately improved on that part of his game in Oregon?

The Vikings have a few first-round picks at No. 11 and No. 23. Maybe they pull the trigger on Nix in the first round, enabling them to get the fifth-year option on his contract.

6. Michael Penix Jr. (Washington) – No. 38 Overall Prospect

Our last top quarterback prospect in this class is Michael Penix Jr. from Washington. You talk about another player with a long college career, Penix Jr. was at Indiana in 2018. He played six college seasons, so he will be 24 years old as a rookie. But given the right situation, he could thrive.

Penix saw his career take off when he went to Washington in 2022. He threw for over 4,600 yards in each of the last two seasons with 67 touchdown passes. He was also 25-3 as Washington’s starter, though he may have cost himself some money with an underwhelming performance against Michigan’s top-ranked defense in the national championship game.

But Penix’s experience shows he has a good understanding of how offenses work, and he’s not afraid to give his receivers chances on 50/50 balls or find them deep. When he’s on a roll with his accuracy, he’s a fun one to watch.

Best Fit – No. 44 Las Vegas Raiders

A team not to discount from taking a chance on a quarterback is Arizona. Despite having Kyler Murray, we know what happened the last time the Cardinals tweeted “Josh Rosen is QB1.” They drafted Kyler Murray weeks later. Arizona also holds picks 27 and 35, so that can be a spot for a quarterback like Penix (or Bo Nix).

Having said that, the Raiders are the team that should not pass up Penix if given the chance, especially if he is still there when the Raiders have the No. 44 pick in the second round.

The Raiders have Aidan O’Connell, a fourth-round rookie from last year who showed very little, and they added veteran Gardner Minshew in free agency. You can start Minshew in Week 1 and give Penix Jr. some time, if necessary, but what the Raiders have right now isn’t good enough for the long term. Penix Jr. is worth the shot for that team in that difficult division to win when everyone is looking up to Mahomes and the Chiefs.

You have to have a franchise quarterback to consistently compete in this league. Several teams are going to hope these six guys can fill that void for them. We’ll see who is right and who misses out.

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