By Diante Lee Turn on a college football game any given Saturday and take note of how often you hear “run-pass option” — or “RPO” — mentioned by the broadcasting team. It’s hard not to notice how deeply RPOs have been woven into the sport, so much so that announcers sometimes are quick to (incorrectly) reference them for little reason beyond a quarterback’s lining up in the shotgun. In college football, because the hashes are so wide and offensive linemen are given latitude to block downfield on passes, RPOs can provide a significant tactical advantage. They’re also a great way to mask whether a QB is actually good enough to succeed at the next level. So, when analyzing RPO-era quarterbacks with an NFL Draft lens, how can you control for scheme trends, talent disparities and the functional differences between college football and the pros to sort out who has a chance? That’s the question we’re tackling here, as we start to analyze the 2024 draft’s quarterback prospects. The method What’s the best way to find that context for the ’24 class? The answer begins with culling, because — counterintuitive as this sounds — it’s extremely difficult to get a clear picture of a passer’s profile by looking at the entire volume of their throws. If we consider RPOs, throws behind the line of scrimmage or those in the “checkdown zone” to be noisy, low-value attempts from a scouting perspective, we’ll have a better idea of which quarterbacks carry the strongest indicators of future success. We’re looking for those who can make the downfield throws NFL offenses need to survive. (Note: For the sake of this exercise, “downfield throws” are those that travel at least 5 air yards.) Brugler: Revisiting my initial 2023 NFL Draft board from last summer Filtering out throws with typically high completion rates makes traditional metrics like completion percentage and yards per attempt less valuable. It’s also worthwhile to account for throws that traveled 5 or more yards but still fell short of the sticks, especially on third or fourth down. For that reason, we’ll use success rate to measure efficiency and expected points added (EPA) to track explosiveness. None of this is to say that RPOs are worthless. Tua Tagovailoa threw slants in Miami; Aaron Rodgers threw bubbles in Green Bay; every coach under the Andy Reid tree runs them often. The more offenses adopt shotgun running games, the more we will see other traditionalists embrace the advent. But we need to be sure our metrics reflect the most useful elements of the game at its highest level. We’re building a baseline, using 19 prominent quarterbacks who will be eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft. In total, those players threw more than 2,900 passes of 5-plus yards last season without the use of an RPO or play-action fake. (Note: Tennessee QB Joe Milton, another 2024 draft prospect, didn’t have enough dropbacks under the set parameters to make this particular sample.) Their numbers will be measured below against the averages of the 19-player sample. What can we learn about these prospects? The numbers We can start looking for potential trouble spots among next year’s prospects by finding those who fell below the averages on true downfield throws. Drake Maye North Carolina 218 0.68 62.4% 15.6% KJ Jefferson Arkansas 117 0.66 53.0% 13.7% Caleb Williams USC 158 0.57 51.3% 17.7% Jayden Daniels LSU 186 0.53 61.8% 12.9% Sam Hartman Notre Dame 217 0.52 60.8% 15.2% Riley Leonard Duke 173 0.51 55.5% 21.4% Michael Pratt Tulane 115 0.50 53.0% 16.5% Jordan Travis Florida State 158 0.49 54.4% 15.2% Michael Penix Jr. Washington 227 0.48 59.0% 17.6% Bo Nix Oregon 136 0.47 61.8% 16.2% Averages 154 0.41 54.5% 18.1% DJ Uiagalelei Oregon State 145 0.41 55.9% 20.7% Will Rogers Mississippi State 254 0.38 55.9% 16.1% Dillon Gabriel Oklahoma 105 0.36 52.4% 21.9% Grayson McCall Coastal Carolina 119 0.31 54.6% 14.3% Spencer Rattler South Carolina 113 0.26 47.8% 20.4% Devin Leary Kentucky 76 0.25 51.3% 18.4% Cameron Ward Washington State 171 0.22 49.1% 23.4% J.J. McCarthy Michigan 136 0.18 50.7% 19.1% Quinn Ewers Texas 112 0.10 44.6% 27.7% The tape reveals a common issue for those QBs: poor accuracy. Texas’ Quinn Ewers, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel acutely struggled in this manner last season. Strip away the deep shots off of play action — which negatively affect the stability of a passing attack — and it reveals their issues throwing with touch in intermediate areas, especially over the middle of the field. Passes often sailed or landed behind receivers, telltale signs that a QB is late on his progression, off-balance and trying to heave the ball before the defense can close the window. There are some ways to work around anticipatory issues in a quarterback, but not when they’re coupled with poor ball placement. Next, let’s look at how the 2024 QB prospects fared against four-man pass rushes — a key to keeping offense on or ahead of schedule in the modern NFL. 2024 QBs versus four-man rush Michael Pratt Tulane 153 0.79 55.7% 14.8% 9.3% 3.4 Dillon Gabriel Oklahoma 136 0.73 56.9% 18.5% 5.9% 7.31 Drake Maye North Carolina 224 0.69 66.1% 13.9% 7.0% 7.79 Jayden Daniels LSU 216 0.63 63.4% 13.8% 8.6% 12.63 Caleb Williams USC 180 0.63 55.1% 14.6% 5.8% 16.06 Spencer Rattler South Carolina 202 0.59 56.9% 21.5% 5.7% 9.54 KJ Jefferson Arkansas 145 0.52 48.0% 13.3% 7.4% 11.27 Bo Nix Oregon 204 0.51 63.0% 19.0% 1.0% 6.55 Devin Leary Kentucky 108 0.5 52.8% 15.1% 5.0% -1.23 Jordan Travis Florida State 138 0.5 51.9% 19.0% 5.8% 10.03 DJ Uiagalelei Oregon State 173 0.49 62.0% 20.3% 3.8% 2.97 Averages 179 0.44 55.6% 18.1% 5.9% 6.31 Riley Leonard Duke 228 0.42 55.8% 21.2% 1.5% 13.01 Michael Penix Jr. Washington 261 0.35 58.0% 19.6% 0.8% -1.1 Sam Hartman Notre Dame 127 0.34 58.9% 17.9% 9.9% -3.25 Will Rogers Mississippi State 245 0.25 54.3% 16.2% 6.6% -0.83 Cameron Ward Washington State 269 0.24 49.1% 21.3% 11.6% 9.9 Grayson McCall Coastal Carolina 132 0.22 55.4% 18.9% 7.5% 10.41 J.J. McCarthy Michigan 157 0.14 50.0% 17.9% 4.4% 4.95 Quinn Ewers Texas 100 -0.07 42.4% 27.1% 4.3% 0.43 USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye are college football’s most punishing forces in the dropback game (which is why they sit atop the 2024 draft-eligible QB hierarchy), but the differences in their play styles are apparent. Maye is the definition of polished as a dropback passer. If you’re looking for stylistic/athletic comparisons, I’d say he lands somewhere in the cluster of Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. The velocity on his throws is more “good” than “great,” and he’s more of a sneaky/slippery athlete than a twitchy one. His balance and poise in the pocket are elite, though, and that body control is why he’s so consistently accurate and ready to deliver the ball at all three levels. Drake Maye did it all in his HUGE Heels debut! 29-37, 294 yards, 5 TDs | 4 carries, 55 yards@UNCFootball | @DrakeMaye2 pic.twitter.com/vaYX0svMGY — ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) August 28, 2022 If there’s any nitpicking to be done at this point, it’s with how long Maye hangs in the pocket — but it rarely lands him in trouble. Williams exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. Some of his fundamentals are raw, but his arm talent and athletic ability are eye-popping. Williams is a chaos agent, often painting himself into a corner by locking on one receiver or part of the progression too long. But there’s no dissolving pocket Williams can’t squeak out of, and he can bring defensive coordinators to their knees when he breaks contain. 😳 @CALEBcsw went with the NO LOOK flip for the TD @uscfb pic.twitter.com/Jo3aygU7vZ — FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 12, 2022 Even if coverage is tight or his throwing platform is awkward, Williams can generate velocity and accuracy from any launch angle, and he’s already built a significant highlight reel of long gains on scrambles. The issue with Williams is how often he misses guys breaking open on the backside of progressions, because of an over-reliance on his legs to get him out of trouble. And there’s no way for a quarterback to fully avoid trouble. Pictures change rapidly before and after the snap at the next level. How an offense performs in those moments is an important gauge of whether a scheme has answers — and how consistently the quarterback can access them. 2024 QBs versus blitzes (five-man rush) Bo Nix Oregon 64 0.98 68.4% 5.3% 0.0% 7.44 Caleb Williams USC 84 0.68 45.0% 22.5% 11.1% 1.29 Jordan Travis Florida State 89 0.62 53.8% 7.7% 5.4% 1.52 Jayden Daniels LSU 115 0.6 57.9% 8.8% 13.0% 10.74 KJ Jefferson Arkansas 52 0.6 55.6% 14.8% 12.5% 2.27 DJ Uiagalelei Oregon State 82 0.6 46.8% 21.3% 7.7% 0.73 Drake Maye North Carolina 135 0.54 51.6% 23.4% 14.5% 2.75 Sam Hartman Notre Dame 127 0.48 60.0% 13.8% 9.6% -1.94 Grayson McCall Coastal Carolina 41 0.47 50.0% 4.2% 8.7% 1.34 Michael Penix Jr. Washington 74 0.46 51.1% 15.6% 0.0% NA Riley Leonard Duke 81 0.44 53.5% 23.3% 10.2% 2.52 Averages 77 0.35 51.5% 16.8% 9.0% 2.17 Michael Pratt Tulane 74 0.3 54.1% 18.9% 7.1% 4.41 Devin Leary Kentucky 25 0.18 69.2% 7.7% 5.3% 0.0 Dillon Gabriel Oklahoma 37 0.16 42.9% 19.0% 14.3% 0.0 Will Rogers Mississippi State 91 0.13 51.0% 22.4% 6.5% 0.0 J.J. McCarthy Michigan 83 0.09 51.3% 23.1% 1.9% 4.39 Spencer Rattler South Carolina 93 -0.03 36.4% 12.1% 14.3% -0.91 Quinn Ewers Texas 38 -0.13 28.6% 38.1% 6.7% 0.0 Cameron Ward Washington State 77 -0.54 28.6% 35.7% 21.7% 2.59 It’s in these circumstances that we see confirmation of Williams’ and Maye’s strengths and weaknesses. Maye can maintain success because of his control from the pocket and sharp execution of the progression, although he can get into trouble at times by holding the ball too long. Williams, meanwhile, still can create explosive offense, but his down-to-down effectiveness takes a big dip when he’s blitzed. On tape, that extends to when coverage shells change. Williams struggled in the first half of last season when teams gave him different looks or dropped eight into coverage — he ranked 10th of these 19 QBs sampled in EPA per downfield throw against three-man rushes. Maye could benefit from borrowing Williams’ willingness to run, and Williams from Maye’s confidence in working through the progression. Beyond the top two, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix stood out against blitzing defenses. Those two are true veterans of the college game, so it’s not surprising they’d perform well against defenses they’ve probably seen hundreds of times. It’s still no less stark to see them with matching zero-percent sack rates here. Nix has quietly improved year over year, and he’s beginning to make the connection between his physical gifts and his football IQ in terms of navigating the rush and cutting up defenses with his arm and legs. BO NIX 80 YARDS TO THE HOUSE 🏠 He now has a career-high 141 rush yards for @oregonfootball pic.twitter.com/29fwlcDC2b — FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 2, 2022 Penix is a different case, after tears in both ACLs sapped some of the agility he had during his time at Indiana. At Washington, he’s become more of a pure pocket passer, which makes his combination of zero sacks taken and zero scrambles attempted against five-man rushes an anomaly. Penix is a capable passer who throws with touch and can diagnose defenses pre-snap to find favorable matchups. He was driving a Ferrari last season, though, with two legitimate No. 1 options at receiver and an excellent offensive line. Beyond Penix’s supporting cast, even the biggest Washington fans would have to acknowledge that regression to the mean is more likely than a repeat of his 2022 season. That line of thinking applies to Nix at Oregon, too. Still, whether dealing with a four-man rush, a blitz or a spy, what separates good and great QBs is how they handle pressure. Though almost every quarterback sees a production dip when rushers are closing in, finding a potential star means identifying players who don’t wilt so suddenly. In that light, again, Maye and Williams have separated from the pack. 2024 QBs when pressured Caleb Williams USC 109 0.79 51.1% 12.8% 26.0% 16.86 Jordan Travis Florida State 82 0.7 51.4% 13.5% 25.0% 17.34 Grayson McCall Coastal Carolina 69 0.6 48.3% 20.7% 26.7% -4.56 KJ Jefferson Arkansas 85 0.58 44.4% 22.2% 31.5% 5.76 Drake Maye North Carolina 160 0.52 49.2% 20.6% 28.0% 23.22 Bo Nix Oregon 67 0.51 60.0% 24.0% 7.1% 11.7 Michael Penix Jr. Washington 82 0.39 43.9% 24.1% 2.7% 0.92 J.J. McCarthy Michigan 75 0.36 42.3% 23.1% 20.0% 2.07 Jayden Daniels LSU 117 0.29 40.7% 25.9% 61.1% 15.27 Riley Leonard Duke 101 0.28 42.9% 21.4% 14.1% 6.69 Averages 90 0.15 41.1% 25.8% 28.0% 5.9 Michael Pratt Tulane 71 0.14 40.0% 33.3% 50.0% 4.03 Sam Hartman Notre Dame 103 0.13 54.0% 24.0% 35.3% -3.5 DJ Uiagalelei Oregon State 71 0.06 38.7% 29.0% 31.3% 0.07 Devin Leary Kentucky 33 -0.11 30.8% 23.1% 28.0% -0.08 Spencer Rattler South Carolina 110 -0.25 30.0% 30.0% 21.3% 4.13 Will Rogers Mississippi State 125 -0.32 42.4% 30.3% 23.5% -3.08 Cameron Ward Washington State 163 -0.36 25.5% 36.2% 42.9% 11.6 Dillon Gabriel Oklahoma 47 -0.57 25.0% 30.0% 36.7% 2.94 Quinn Ewers Texas 46 -0.86 20.8% 45.8% 20.0% 0.71 Not only did Williams register an EPA of just under .8 per downfield throw when pressured — an incredible number, by the way — but also his off-target rate (12.8 percent) was lower than against the standard four-man rush (14.6 percent). It can be bothersome to watch Williams create his own pressure at times, but there’s no denying what he can do out of structure. For Maye, I’m most impressed with how effective he is as a scrambler after being pressured. It comes back to stability and consistency across the board for him. There are so few instances in which you feel concerned about how he approaches the game mentally, nor are there any physical deficiencies to be exploited. Two more fascinating QB prospects who haven’t come up yet: LSU’s Jayden Daniels, and Duke’s Riley Leonard. Leonard is the dark horse of this QB class, although that’s mostly because not enough people watched Duke play last year. In terms of physical gifts and pocket navigation, Leonard has all the necessary abilities to thrive at the next level. He’s efficient in working through his progressions, places the ball well (especially in contested situations) and can escape pockets to create offense on his own. 😮‍💨 @rileyleonard13_ pic.twitter.com/bZe7ohd8kI — Duke Football (@DukeFOOTBALL) November 4, 2022 Across the board, his production and play style didn’t change no matter what defenses threw at him in 2022. The only thing he needs to clean up is his misses in the intermediate area, which seem to happen when he’s trying to generate more velocity than is necessary. Daniels’ passing production has fallen off a cliff when he’s been pressured, but he was exceptional as a passer by all other metrics. Under pressure, he breaks down in ways most QBs do: dropping his eyes and abandoning the progression downfield. However, because of his elite burst and long speed, Daniels isn’t a lost cause. 2024 QB tiers (and final notes) There is plenty of time between now and the 2024 draft for evaluations to shift, but here’s how I’d split the top QB prospects headed into the summer: Tier 1 (high Day 1 picks): Drake Maye, Caleb Williams Both prospects should have a legitimate case as the top pick in next year’s draft. The teams with more rigid schemes reminiscent of past eras will lean toward Maye — I’m thinking of Tennessee, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Minnesota, the Rams, Las Vegas and Detroit. Those offenses still closely adhere to the original philosophies and structures of the West Coast offense. Those that are more open to the spread, to using their QBs as runners, and to embracing more volatility in a hunt for explosive offense will probably prefer Williams — think Washington, the Giants, Arizona, and Atlanta. go-deeper 2024 NFL Mock Draft: Caleb Williams, Marvin Harrison Jr. lead next year's class In the right fits, Maye can be the next super-computer QB, like Justin Herbert or Lawrence. Williams has drawn some obvious Patrick Mahomes comparisons (and I think Josh Allen is a possibility, too), but I’d caution against using the current version of Mahomes as a reference. If we see anything like 2018 and 2019 Mahomes from Williams, though, that’d be more than enough. Tier 2 (late Day 1/early Day 2 picks): Jayden Daniels, Riley Leonard, Bo Nix If Daniels runs at next year’s combine, I expect him to land in the 4.48-to-4.52-second range. He has grown enough as a passer and has the athletic ability needed to stay around the top five of his position. Tier 3 (late Day 2 picks): Michael Penix Jr., Michael Pratt, J.J. McCarthy Pratt will be a fascinating test case for what the NFL thinks about the classic pocket-passer type. The Tulane QB has legitimate arm talent, rarely puts the ball in harm’s way and has a clear understanding of how to read through his progressions. His problem is that he’s not a creative athlete or passer, and that’s why his numbers drop when he’s blitzed and crater when he’s pressured. Tier 4 (early Day 3 picks): Jordan Travis, Sam Hartman, Devin Leary, Grayson McCall No matter how wide you cast the net, statistical data can’t be a catch-all for the quality of a player’s performance. Hartman, Travis and Jefferson are prime examples in this upcoming class, as each player has produced metrics that belie what you see on tape. Tier 5 (late Day 3 picks/potential UDFAs): KJ Jefferson, Quinn Ewers, Spencer Rattler, Dillon Gabriel, Cameron Ward, Will Rogers, DJ Uiagalelei Jefferson is just not accurate enough outside the hashes to seriously consider as a top-end QB, no matter what the numbers say. Hartman lacks some necessary arm talent, and he manages the pocket poorly — Wake Forest’s unique scheme isn’t to blame for the latter. Travis is an excellent athlete and has a high football IQ, but he doesn’t have a strong enough arm to threaten defenses vertically. Those three are examples of good college football players who lack the required elite abilities to make the leap to the next level. In all of this, removing those “gimme” throws — like those we sometimes see off RPOs — not only gives us a clearer picture of which prospects are in the top tier as dropback passers, but also it provides definitive evidence of QBs who were disproportionately propped up by scheme. Similarly, removing all play-action fakes wipes out a large chunk of the max-protection, deep-shot offense that doesn’t translate to how a professional game is played. By studying the tape to confirm the data, we can identify the dynamic athletes, the strong arms and the quick processors just as well as we identified those with accuracy issues or those who struggle when their first read is taken away. Solving the problem of finding a franchise quarterback can’t be done in a spreadsheet alone, but the right data and context can inch us another step closer

Latest Player Notes

How Wisconsin athletes are benefiting from a unique NIL deal with Madison's Exact Sciences

Feb 17, 2024MJ Hammill entered what can be a scary time of an athlete’s life in mid-December.She went into the volleyball ...

Mike Griffith: Texas is Georgia's primary focus this offseason

February 16, 2024The Georgia Bulldogs face three SEC contenders on the road next season in Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss. According ...

Navigating a season that could see Texas play Georgia more than once

February 17, 2024The Texas Longhorns and Georgia Bulldogs will play in Austin on Oct. 19. It may not be the only time they ...

After some key departures from the team, Dykes got busy in the portal this offseason.

5:11 PM on Feb 16, 2024Biggest unanswered question: Who will emerge as the clear WR1?Before last season, Williams was the ...

How Louisville football coach Jeff Brohm balances transfer portal, high school recruiting

Louisville Courier JournalCollege football used to buzz on the first Wednesday in February, but Louisville football's office ...

Bob Asmussen | Illinois defense counting on linebackers to plug the gaps

College Football Reporter/ColumnistCHAMPAIGN — A new linebacker coach is in place at Illinois, and Archie McDaniel said he ...

Where Alabama’s quarterback group stands before spring practice

Alabama football’s offense is going to look different this season. Kalen DeBoer has replaced the retired Nick Saban as head ...

Why did AJ McCarron return to the St. Louis Battlehawks?

When AJ McCarron joined the resurrected XFL last year, the former Alabama All-American hadn’t played since suffering a knee ...

Colorado football self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations from Deion Sanders’ first year with Buffs

1/26/2024The Colorado football program has self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations since the hiring of head coach Deion Sanders ...

What Steve Young said about today’s NFL quarterbacks

By Jackson Payne Steve Young may have enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling just ...
See More Player Notes