Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Bryce Young of Alabama may be the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but Ohio State’s CJ Stroud is clearly the top college football quarterback for the 2023 NFL draft.
History has shown that collegiate hardware does not automatically equate to future success. It’s happened more often than not lately, but the likes of Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Baker Mayfield (until now) didn’t translate to the professional game and served as warnings.
This is not to say that Young is not a quality candidate. But he can’t automatically be pushed above every other quarterback on draft boards based on what he’s done as part of the country’s most successful football program.
The mere fact that Stroud and Young are in talks as top picks early on is a wonderful change of pace after this year’s group of Signal Callers can kindly be described as the worst of this century.
“It was a very, very weak class,” an AFC staff member told Heavy’s Matt Lombardo. “Everyone knew all along, but everyone was trying to sell those guys to each other.”
As a result, some franchises in dire need of an infusion of talent under the center are targeting the position with a view to April next year. This can benefit the whole class. Will Levis of Kentucky, Tyler Van Dyke of Miami, Anthony Richardson of Florida and Tanner McKee of Stanford should all be in the first round as well.
But Stroud should lead the way as the true premium talent with No. 1 overall potential.
Ultimately, the conversation will hinge on Young vs. Stroud, because they are the two most talked-about prospects playing for illustrious pipeline programs. They finished first and fourth respectively in Heisman’s voting last year. Their situations have turned a bit now, with Stroud coming in this season as the betting favorite for the prize.
Stroud’s physical tools, skills, production and growth potential put him at the top of this year’s crop.
Stroud and Young’s physical statures are night and day and will probably prove to be the biggest difference in their evaluations. The former is 6’3″ and 218 pounds, while the latter is 6’0″ and 194 pounds.
The 2021 Heisman Trophy Finalists – Left to Right: Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, and Alabama’s Bryce Young. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Young’s height is less of an issue than it once was. After all, violations are regularly excluded and shorter options have been successful in the competition lately.
However, Young’s light frame will be a major concern when it comes to taking an NFL pound. Jim McMahon (6’1″, 195 lbs) in 1982 is the last first-round quarterback for the past 40 years to weigh less than 200 lbs. Guys like Mayfield (6’1″, 215 lbs), Kyler Murray (5 ‘ 10″, 207 lbs) and Russell Wilson (5’11”, 215 lbs) are shorter quarterbacks, but they are built thick. They can create significant torque in their lower body and hips because of their squat frames.
Prototypical NFL sizing standards aside, Stroud layers shed on all three levels. The 20-year-old passer is especially adept driving the ball across the field. His sheer arm strength may not reach the level of Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, but he should be considered one of the following.
Deep fitting is also a byproduct of timing and touch. According to Pro Football FocusStroud was college football’s most accurate deep passer going into the bowl season. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year then threw 573 yards and six touchdowns in a Rose Bowl victory over the Utah Utes.
It is important to make the distinction between those two points to ensure that the number was not skewed because of that historic achievement.
“I say with CJ, he really drops the ball there. The best way to say it is like Russell Wilson,” former teammate and first-round wide receiver Garrett Wilson told the Big Ten Network (h/t) last year. The Lantern‘s Jacob Benge).
PFF also rated Stroud as the best Big Ten strategist last season with a score of 67.6 percent accurate success rate.
NFL judges will start salivating over a quarterback who navigates through the bag, keeps his eyes on the field and consistently delivers the football with a smooth, compact delivery.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Young isn’t slow either. He has a great sense of the game with an excellent touch within the scheme and creativity outside the structure. But his stature will remain a sticking point.
Levis, meanwhile, brings the best combination of size (6’3″, 232 lbs) and raw arm talent, as well as two years of learning under current or former NFL offensive coordinators in Kentucky at Liam Coen and Rich Scangarello in the second half of last season. He must repeat that feat over a full campaign Richardson is a raucous mound of elite athleticism Finally McKee is a six-foot professional quarterback who hails from Stanford, and he must help the program emerge from the slump of the past three seasons.
To take the next step, Stroud just needs to build on what he’s already done. Last season, the Ohio State starter became the only FBS-level quarterback to finish top-five in percentage completion (71.9), passing yardage (4,435), passing touchdowns (44), yards per attempt (10. ) and quarterback rating (186.6) ).
Anything close to or greater than those numbers will cement Stroud’s status as not only the top quarterback prospect, but also the leading candidate for first overall pick (yes, even above Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. due to positional where the).
The third-year signal-caller knows he needs to improve in certain areas, most notably in leading the charge and becoming a louder voice in the locker room.
“He’s speaking out. He’s more mature. He wants to win,” wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba told reporters. “You know, we’re all excited. He’s a competitor, and nobody wants to win more than him, and he wants to bring that to the whole team and spread it.”
Head coach Ryan Day added: “I think CJ has really grown in his leadership this year, and just has a much more, you know, broad perspective on everything that’s going on, not just his job. He almost sees it as a coach right now. I know his number 1 thing is he wants to win, and everything else is secondary. And he’s practiced that way.”
A better understanding of and more comfort within the offense should speed up Stroud’s process. Like most young quarterbacks, the one-year starter could get off his first reading quicker and work his way through his progression to the point where it becomes much more natural in how he sees the field.
The Buckeyes’ current setup presents an important task, requiring Stroud to grow mentally within the schedule and take on more responsibility with a reworked supporting cast. He is now the center of the crime. Everything flows through him and how he distributes the ball.
Ohio wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba with a touchdown reception during Buckeyes’ 48-45 Rose Bowl win over the Utah Utes. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Ohio State remains exceptionally talented as a receiver with Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka. But the group isn’t nearly as experienced as it was last year when two first rounders – Wilson and Chris Olave – flanked the formation. Essentially, the tables had turned, and Stroud was ready to turn his targets into top prospects.
Stroud fits the prototype of a professional quarterback. His character traits as a passer-by are clear. He plays at the highest possible level and produces against top competition. He has ample opportunity to build an already impressive resume. Perhaps Stroud will even win his own Heisman Trophy.
Either way, this season should serve as Stroud’s coronation as the nation’s top quarterback and top option in 2023, even if he doesn’t walk away with 45 pounds of Ed Smith-shaped bronze cast.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.