Detroit Lions 2023 NFL draft watch: 12 college QBs to keep an eye on this fall

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions are entering Year 2 of their Jared Goff error … er, era, which means Detroit Lions fans are in Year 2 of wishing for almost anyone else at quarterback.

At some point, the franchise will have to dip its toe back into the icy waters of the rookie QB deal; although Goff had his moments last season — including wins in three of his final six starts, clearing a somewhat low bar of “not a nightmare” — sooner or later, the “QB of the future” will arrive at Ford Field.

For this year’s draft, the combination of money committed to Goff, an ideal defensive pick at No. 2 and the consensus lack of a franchise QB in the draft — Pitt’s Kenny Pickett was the first QB taken, going to the Steelers at No. 20 — left the Lions to kick that can down the road to … next year! But Goff’s contract is one year closer to expiring, and the 2023 QBs appear much, much better, meaning next April might be the time Lions fans still sporting Matthew Stafford jerseys finally have to update their gear.

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Once again, the Lions have a pair of first-round picks — theirs, which figures to land in the top 10, and the LA Rams’, which figures to land in the bottom 10 — which allows for some flexibility, whether it’s trading up, trading down or just waiting to grab a QB if the top tier is already drafted.

So who might the Lions end up with? Here’s a look at a few college QBs already gathering some draft buzz:

The cream of the crop

Last season’s Heisman Trophy winner and the fourth-place finisher enter the season as Nos. 1 and 1A in the quarterback prospect hierarchy.

Bryce Young, Alabama

The buzz: The Heisman winner rewrote the passing record book in Tuscaloosa (though he got 15 games to do so), completing 66.9% of his attempts for 4,872 yards, 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Though Alabama’s roster might be a bit generous in listing him at 6 feet and 194 pounds, the California native was probably NFL-ready after last season, considering he went 61-for-101 (60.4%) for 790 yards, four TDs and two interceptions in two games against Georgia, which then sent eight defenders to the NFL in April’s draft.

When to watch: The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide’s schedule has more than a few patsies — Utah State in Week 1, Louisiana Monroe in Week 3 and Austin Peay in late November — to fill the SEC Network schedule (and that’s not even counting SEC foe Vanderbilt on Sept. 24), but there’s also a nonconference Power Five test: a trip to Austin to face Texas on Fox at noon Sept. 10.

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

The buzz: Stroud took some time to find his form last season, despite arguably the best WR group in the Big Ten (sorry, Spartans), but he finished the season on a heater over his final four games — 134-for-168 (79.8%) for 1,760 yards, 19 TDs and one interception (in the Rose Bowl against Utah). That included a dissection of Michigan State (sorry again, Spartans) in which the 6-3, 218-pounder had twice as many TD passes (six) as incompletions (three).

When to watch: No need to wait for the rematch against Michigan State (on Oct. 8) or the annual matchup against Michigan (on Nov. 26) — the No. 2 Buckeyes get an early test in Week 1 as No. 5 Notre Dame visits under the lights of The Horseshoe on ABC at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3. (OSU’s second night game of the season on ABC, at 7 p.m. Sept. 17, brings a slightly weaker opponent: Toledo.)

Size matters?

This duo comprises the second tier of QBs more on reputation than actual success on the field; barring a truly gruesome injury or a truly gruesome season, they should still be in the mix going into bowl season.

Will Levis, Kentucky

The buzz: Every discussion of Levin starts with his “protypical size,” and when the 6-3, 230-pounder finally got tired of sitting at Penn State, he transferred to Lexington and showcased some prototypical “Wildcat ability,” which is to say, he passed for 2,826 yards and 24 TDs, and rushed for 376 yards and nine TDs. He also had 13 interceptions, with at least one in 10 games and THREE against Mississippi State, which managed just one more pick over its final five games.

When to watch: Levis’ toughest test will probably come on Nov. 19 when Georgia visits the Bluegrass State (and yes, we did just use “test” and “Georgia” in the same sentence), but the No. 21 Wildcats’ visit to Gainesville, Florida, to face the Gators on ESPN at 7 p.m. Sept. 10 should tell us something about his first-round potential.

Jaren Hall, BYU

The buzz: Despite injuries keeping him out of three games in his first season as a starter, Hall started seven games against Power Five schools in 2021, completing 63.4% (130-for-205) for 1,671 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Still just a junior, Hall is also a multisport athlete, with time on the Cougars’ baseball squad in 2019-20, and served a full Mormon mission after committing in BYU’s 2016 recruiting class. (We’re not saying he’s old, but some other notable QBs in that class nationally: Shea Patterson, Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert.)

When to watch: The Cougars only have five Power Five squads on the schedule, but they’re doozies. Start with a visit from No. 10 Baylor on ESPN at 10:15 p.m. Sept. 10, followed by a trip to No. 12 Oregon on Fox at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 17, a neutral-site game against No. 5 Notre Dame on NBC at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, a visit from No. 23 Arkansas on Oct. 15 and a season-ending road game at Stanford on Nov. 26.

Promise, but not production (yet)

This trio of arms had some pretty moments last season, but they need to prove they can do it for an entire season.

Tyler Van Dyke, Miami

The buzz: So much went wrong for the Hurricanes as they opened 2021 by going 1-4 against FBS-level squads, but they turned it around with Van Dyke as the starter after D’Eriq King’s injury. The 6-4 Connecticut native completed 66% (157-for-238) of his passes for 2,194 yards, 20 touchdowns and three interceptions over the final six games of the season, in which Miami went 5-1.

When to watch: The No. 17 Canes — still in the ACC, last we checked — have an SEC-lite nonconference schedule with Bethune-Cookman, Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee State visiting Miami Gardens. But their September road trip is SEC-heavy: a visit to No. 7 Texas A&M on ESPN at 9 p.m. Sept. 17.

Anthony Richardson, Florida

The buzz: Richardson, who was in the news this summer for abandoning his “AR-15” nickname, certainly has the highest career interception-to-attempt ratio on this list — the third-year sophomore has six picks in 66 attempts, and only seven career TD passes. But he also rushed for 401 yards and three touchdowns on just 51 carries; if the 6-4, 232-pounder can stay healthy, his 4.4-second time in the 40 will have lots of teams envisioning a dual-threat offense like the Baltimore Ravens’.

When to watch: That’s a big IF, so it’s a good thing the Gators have two statement games scheduled early, both in The Swamp and both on ESPN. First up, it’s No. 8 Utah at 7 p.m. Sept. 3, followed by that visit from No. 21 Kentucky (and Will Levis) at 7 p.m. Sept. 10.

Tanner McKee, Stanford

The buzz: The Cardinal offense isn’t built to showcase QBs under coach David Shaw in the BEST of years, and last year, in which Shaw’s squad topped 14 points just once in its final seven games (all losses), was definitely not good. But McKee has size (at 6-6 and 228 pounds), the wisdom of age (he, too, served a two-year Mormon mission before arriving in Palo Alto) and game film in which he got the most out of a severely undertalented set of skill position players en route to completing 65.4% of his passes for 2,327 yards, 15 TDs and seven interceptions.

When to watch: Don’t bet on Stanford to get a lot of major-network coverage, but they do kick off No. 15 USC’s two-year “So long, Pac-Whatever!” tour with a visit from the Trojans on ABC at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10. The Cardinal will also visit No. 5 Notre Dame on Oct. 15; that’ll be on some NBC channel, though which one, we don’t know.

Midwest might

We’re required by law, or at least by the rules of SEO, to include a couple Big Ten quarterbacks to watch. We wouldn’t bet on them as Round 1 picks, but they could be donning NFL team caps by the end of Day 2 if everything goes right this fall.

Aidan O’Connell, Purdue

The buzz: The All-Big Ten second-team QB last season, O’Connell has three seasons in Jeff Brohm’s offense, so we know what we’re gonna get. He’s gonna throw a lot, and most of the time — as in upsets of Iowa and Michigan State (really sorry, Spartans) and a rout by Ohio State — it’s gonna be fun. O’Connell completed 75.3% of his attempts in those games, for 1,301 yards, nine TDs and no interceptions. And then there’s the Boilermakers’ Music City Bowl win over Tennessee, in which he had 534 yards and five TDs on just 26 completions, but with three picks.

When to watch: Sleep easy, Spartans and Wolverines fans, Purdue isn’t on the crossover schedule this year. Instead, the Boilermakers draw Penn State to open the whole shebang, with an 8 p.m. Thursday start on Fox in West Lafayette.

Payton Thorne, Michigan State

The buzz: Thorne’s first year as the starter in East Lansing was practically perfect, including 3,232 passing yards and a school-record 27 passing touchdowns. But will things go as smoothly without running back Kenneth Walker III to draw defenses’ attention (and deliver the perfect setup for all those flea-flickers the MSU offense seemed to rely on at times)?

When to watch: The Spartans get a pair of national games, opening against Western Michigan (featuring Thorne’s dad Jeff as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator) on ESPN at 7 p.m. Friday, and then, two weeks later, visiting Washington (and former Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.) at 7:30 p.m. on ABC.

Coast-to-coast sleepers

This trio might not go in the first two rounds — or even the first two days — of the draft, but they should be fun to watch if you can find the time.

Devin Leary, N.C. State

The buzz: The preseason ACC Player of the Year is only 6-1, but he’s entering his fourth season starting for the Wolfpack and has a big fan in Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who told ESPN that Leary has “Josh Allen arm talent,” referencing the Buffalo Bills’ star QB. (Though we prefer N.C. State quality control coach Kriss Proctor’s term for Leary’s throws: “Piss missiles.”) After Leary passed for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 12 games last season, it’s tough to argue with either description.

When to watch: The Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule — East Carolina, Charleston Southern, Texas Tech and UConn — looks a bit, uh, flea-bitten. But the ECU game at noon Sept. 3 (ESPN) is on the road and should provide a good test, as should N.C. State’s visit to Clemson on Oct. 1 (time/TV TBD).

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

The buzz: The Chanticleers’ strength-of-schedule over the past two seasons is iffy with just two Power Five opponents — and both of them KANSAS — but it’s tough to argue with McCall’s results: a 20-2 record (including back-to-back wins over the Jayhawks) while completing 70.9% of his attempts for 5,361 yards, 53 touchdowns and six interceptions. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but is expected to be healthy in time for the season’s start.

When to watch: ESPN+ is your friend if you want to watch McCall’s early season games, though Coastal gets a Thursday night (7:30 p.m. Sept. 22) on ESPNU all to itself for a visit to Georgia State. The Chanticleers have one Power Five game scheduled — and it’s NOT Kansas! Instead, Coastal visits Virginia on Nov. 19 (time/TV TBD).

Cameron Ward, Washington State

The buzz: Mike Leach is long gone, but the Cougars still run the Air Raid offense under new offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who brought Ward with him from Incarnate Word in Texas. All Ward did there last season is complete 65.1% of his passes for 4.648 yards, 47 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 13 games en route to finishing as a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS-level version of the Heisman).

When to watch: The Cougs’ early schedule has a pair of Pac-12 Network games (Idaho, Colorado State) sandwiched around a big visit to Big Ten country — Wazzu takes on Wisconsin on Fox at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 10. (And if you need some late-Thursday action in October, the Cougs host No. 8 Utah on FS1 at 10 p.m. Oct. 27.)

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