NFL draft's QB conundrum: Could any 2024 passers be better than Caleb Williams?

INDIANAPOLIS – Caleb Williams fully expects to be the first pick of the 2024 NFL draft. Doesn’t mean he’ll be the best pick by a long shot.

“I don’t think I’m not going to be No. 1,” the former USC quarterback and 2022 Heisman Trophy winner said Friday at the league’s annual scouting combine.

“I put in all the hard work. All of the time, effort, energy into being that. I don’t think of a Plan B. That’s kind of how I do things in my life. I don’t think of a Plan B. Stay on Plan A and then when things don’t work out find a way to make Plan A work.”

And, in all likelihood, Plan A is going to pan out just fine for Williams, whether the Chicago Bears or some other team to be determined select him as the initial pick when the draft commences in Detroit on April 25.

Yet his mindset is not a luxury afforded to the league’s quarterback-needy teams, which must always be in contingency-planning mode. And it must be acknowledged that alternate routes often bear sweeter fruit. One doesn’t even have to go back a year, when the Houston Texans were picking second overall in 2023 – many of their fans angered by the fact that former coach Lovie Smith pulled out a win in the 2022 season’s regular-season finale, a victory that cost the franchise the No. 1 pick. So instead of taking Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, the Texans were, uh, stuck with Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud … who merely led them to a stunning AFC South title in 2023 while earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors following a campaign in which he thoroughly outperformed Young and every other freshman passer.

And be forewarned, Bears – or whoever goes on the clock first – but, in terms of the past dozen drafts, the first quarterback picked translating into the best quarterback picked has become the exception to the rule. And even when it’s worked out – Kyler Murray (No. 1 pick in 2019) and Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 pick in 2021) – it hasn’t necessarily panned out as the franchise-altering move that might have been anticipated. The Arizona Cardinals’ Murray is a two-time Pro Bowler who’s outshined the likes of Daniel Jones yet has certainly had reliability issues on and off the field while hoping to recapture his pre-injury physical form in 2024. The Jacksonville Jagaurs’ Lawrence has landed in the fairway, unlike his peers in what’s now largely been rendered a highly disappointing 2021 quarterback class. But he’s hardly been the generational prospect who was compared to John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck before he even left Clemson.

And when one considers Stroud, or Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson (both taken after Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold in 2018), or Patrick Mahomes (taken after Mitch Trubisky in 2017) or late-rounders like Brock Purdy (2022) and Dak Prescott (2016)?

None of this is intended to shade Williams, long presumed to be the 2024 draft’s top pick. He’s unfairly compared to Mahomes, but that does tell you something about his skill set and how he’s regarded. Asked about his size Friday, Williams was quick to note himself that he’s built like four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers.

But as someone who fancies himself a bit of a league historian, I’m already thoroughly comfortable taking the 2024 quarterback field over Williams. Heck, I might even be forced to consider a new prop bet in the coming weeks given how 2023 Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels of LSU seems to be closing the perception gap on Williams.

Former NFL general manager Mike Tannenbaum agrees.

“This really reminds me of 2004, when you’ve got three really good quarterbacks – that was Eli (Manning), (Philip) Rivers and (Ben) Roethlisberger,” Tannenbaum told USA TODAY Sports.

“I like Caleb Williams a lot. Think he’s dynamic. I don’t like the fact that he leaves the pocket going backwards. He’s been sacked, what, 83 times? Thirty-two fumbles. That’s a concern.”

Tannenbaum also touted the virtues of Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye and even believes Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy will “wind up going in the top six or seven. Somebody will move up for him.”

NFL Network chief draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah ranks Williams as his top prospect this year, yet also concedes the former Trojans and Oklahoma Sooners star may not exactly be plug and play.

“There aren't perfect players. Caleb is not a perfect player,” said Jeremiah. “Caleb is going to require some patience and assembly there. But the ability is off the charts, and what he can be is something that's extremely exciting.”

Definitely, definitely could be. Yet the same could be said for perhaps another half-dozen other quarterback prospects, to say nothing of the fact a Purdy type could emerge almost out of nowhere. So maybe if you’re Chicago general manager Ryan Poles, you move off that No. 1 pick again. And maybe if you’re a betting man (or Poles), you take the field – or Justin Fields? – over Williams.

Here’s a quick look at several of the quarterback alternatives available in the 2024 draft and how they're being perceived:

Jayden Daniels, LSU

LSU Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) celebrates a touchdown against the Army Black Knights during the first half at Tiger Stadium.
LSU Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) celebrates a touchdown against the Army Black Knights during the first half at Tiger Stadium.

He can sling it. He can run it. While Williams draws the Mahomes comp, Daniels is being saddled with the Lamar Jackson label. Again, unfair … yet also worth floating that Daniels is a far more advanced passer than Jackson was at this stage – highly accurate, quickly cycles through his reads and rarely makes a mistake. However he does need to subject himself to fewer hits in and outside of the pocket. Still, I’d guess Daniels goes no lower than second overall.

What they’re saying: "Chicago has to take a quarterback, and Jayden should be (number) one." – ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky

Drake Maye, North Carolina

Big (6-4, 225), mobile and with a strong arm that allows him to deliver the ball from a variety of slots. And while talking to reporters Friday about his various team meetings, Maye gave a glimpse into his instant recall while describing most of them – a drill that’s often a chore for most players navigating the combine fog. However, like Williams, Maye will have to answer questions about a 2023 season that wasn’t as good as his 2022 campaign.

What they’re saying: “I really like Drake Maye a lot. I think Drake Maye provides a little bit of Justin Herbert. And love his size and arm strength.” – Tannenbaum

J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

As with pitchers, you better dig deeper than a player’s record. Yet McCarthy’s 27-1 mark with the Wolverines, last season’s national champions, is unequivocally eye-popping. Yes, the copious talent around him rendered him something of a game manager – though none other than Purdy reminds us that’s a good trait. McCarthy is accurate, efficient, athletic, tough, tends to play his best in big moments – and seems to have plenty of upward potential he simply didn’t need to tap into at Michigan, where he averaged fewer than 23 throws per game over the past two seasons.

What they’re saying: “People haven't seen much, so obviously they're gonna think the worst. Because that's how we do it nowadays.” – McCarthy (with a smile) on Friday

Bo Nix, Oregon

He’s not going to get picked nearly as late as Purdy, “Mr. Irrelevant” in 2022. But there are similarities. Nix’s 61 starts between Auburn and the Ducks are an FBS record for quarterbacks. He completed nearly 75% of his passes during two years in Eugene, throwing for 74 TDs (against 10 INTs) and was also an effective runner, especially in the red zone. Big-time field general even if he doesn’t have the biggest arm in the world.

What they’re saying: “I really think that Bo Nix is going to be a starter pretty early on. … People can talk about the ceiling upside. I think his arm is a little bit liver than maybe you give him credit for. He just executed the offense as it was designed (at Oregon).” – Jeremiah

Michael Penix, Washington

The Heisman runner-up to Daniels last season, the talent has been on full display the past two years for the Huskies after Penix transferred from Indiana. His performance against Texas in the College Football Playoff (430 yards, 2 TDs passing) was an all-timer, the southpaw lasering the ball over the field. The big questions will be the multiple ACL and shoulder injuries he sustained in college, and it didn’t help that he played poorly against Michigan a week after dissecting the Longhorns. Penix will also be 24 at the start of his rookie season, but the adversity he’s weathered and his experience have burnished his leadership.

What they’re saying: “He is unique because he's a little high cut, and he has a three-quarter arm slot delivery. So not only is he left-handed, but it looks a little bit different. … But it's really, really snappy and whippy, and the ball jumps out of his hand.” – Jeremiah


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft's QB conundrum: Could other passers outshine Caleb Williams?