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Hot Take Tuesday: Will Levis to be First Pick in 2023 NFL Draft

NFL Draft Bible's Jack Borowsky explains why the Wildcats' quarterback will be the first selection in the 2023 draft.

Since 2000, players at only three positions have been selected first overall in the NFL Draft: quarterback, left tackle and defensive end, with 16 of the 22 being quarterbacks. An NFL team's long-term success is defined by quarterback play, making the position the most valuable in all sports.

Luckily for NFL teams, the 2023 draft appears to have an extremely talented quarterback class, with at least five players thought of as potential first-round picks: Tyler Van Dyke, Will Levis, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Bryce Young have all been mocked as high as first overall.

The draft process is a roller-coaster ride, so there could be an out-of-nowhere riser or surprise first-round pick that people weren’t expecting. Two perfect examples of how much things can change would be the 2018 and 2020 draft classes. The 2018 class featured five first-round picks at quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson.

At no point before draft night was Mayfield considered the first pick and many experts thought the Browns would take either Darnold or Allen. Before the season, Darnold, Rosen and Allen were the top three quarterbacks, with few believing Mayfield or Jackson would end up as first-rounders.

Even after Allen had many struggles in big games during the season, he still was a top-10 pick. Darnold disappointed during his final season at USC, yet still was the third player drafted.

A similar outcome took place with the 2020 class. Going into the season, it was a two-way quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. The eventual first pick, Joe Burrow, was an afterthought in the class, like Mayfield a few years earlier. Both Tagovailoa and Herbert had down seasons that year. Tagovailoa had a significant hip injury and faced durability concerns. Herbert, on the other hand, didn’t take that next step as a passer and wasn’t very consistent. Tagovailoa ended up going fifth and Herbert went sixth.

The two biggest takeaways from both of those classes are that the perception before the season rarely ends up being the consensus on draft night and one game or a stretch of bad games won’t drastically hurt a player's stock. If the player has first-round caliber tools and the character to be taken high, teams won’t hesitate early on.

This class will be no different, with at least three, Levis, Stroud and Young likely ending up as top-15 selections. There are still some questions about whether Van Dyke or Richardson will declare because of their lack of experience. It is currently a three-quarterback race for the first overall pick.

All three players have their teams in the top 10 of the college football rankings, with Levis and Young pulling off big road wins early in the season. One thing is for sure; they will all check the "winner" box teams look for in a starting quarterback.

They all will also have two years of playing time under their belt against some of the best competition in the country. It can sometimes be a struggle for younger quarterbacks who played against weaker teams to transition to the NFL. The same could be said with players who only started one year in college. To be a good quarterback, experience and playing good teams matter.

Only five of the 32 opening-day starters played in the Group of Five or FCS. There were also only five starters who had only one year of starting experience at the collegiate level.

Starting with Stroud’s chances of going No. 1, the NFL hasn’t valued Ohio State quarterbacks in the first round. Both Justin Fields and Dwayne Haskins fell much later than many expected. Fields, who many believed going into his final year of college football would be the second pick in the draft, was the fourth quarterback selected. In a weaker 2019 class. The consensus was that Haskins would be the second quarterback taken and a top-10 pick and he ended up as the third quarterback drafted and the 15th selection.

Based on his tape, Stroud is a better prospect than both Fields and Haskins, but the NFL doesn’t value the ease of the Ohio State offense and how many top-tier weapons their quarterbacks are afforded.

On film, Stroud wins with good accuracy and touch on his throws, but he lacks athleticism and a high-end arm. Accuracy is important, but arm strength and athleticism to make plays outside of structure or with your legs have become critical for success early on. Stroud’s lack of athleticism is worrisome and his arm will be average at the next level, which is why it is hard to see Stroud selected first overall. Could he be a top-10 pick? Absolutely, but first overall looks like a stretch.

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Alabama has had a tremendous amount of draft success, but hasn't produced a No. 1 overall pick in the modern draft era. Young has the best shot of any quarterback in the program's history to reach that mark.

In terms of its recent draft success, Alabama has produced two first-round picks at quarterback, the aforementioned Tagovailoa and Mac Jones. Both were selected exactly where they should have been, if not higher. Tagovailoa’s injury history was extremely concerning, yet he still went fifth. Jones was a one-year starter with limited upside and was selected 15th overall.

With that being said, Young will have to overcome some of the smallest measurables ever for a first-round quarterback. On the field, he is a gamer with a good arm and natural accuracy. Young has come up in big moments for the Tide and carried their offense when his playmakers haven’t stepped up.

The success of Kyler Murray will help Young, but that was a much weaker draft class and Murray came in at 207 pounds. It wouldn’t be shocking if Young came in at under 190. Young looks very small on a college field, which will only be exacerbated when he gets to the next level.

People will look to Murray, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees as a comparison, but they were all bigger and stronger than Young coming out. If there is an outlier, it is Young, but it’s tough to take a player with his measurables first overall. Players drop all the time because of a lack of size; it is hard to see Young being an exception. Still, expect Young to be off the board in the first 10 picks, like Stroud.

My pick for the player taken first overall is Kentucky's Levis. In terms of potential, few quarterbacks in recent memory have his kind of upside. If a quarterback ends up in the same tier as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Justin Herbert in this class, it will be Levis, not Stroud or Young.

The ball flies off his hands with elite velocity. Levis possesses a quick release and the arm strength to make any throw off-platform. The arm talent is there for Levis to take deep shots, but he is a calculated risk taker, playing within the confines of his offense. When he lets it rip, though, he makes several "wow" throws. As a runner, Levis shows off his impressive athleticism and elusiveness. He will be an effective runner at the next level who can get a first down when needed.

In Kentucky’s pro-style offense, Levis runs a lot of play-action with his back to the defense and he looked extremely comfortable doing that, which can be an adjustment for many quarterbacks.

The learning curve won’t be there for Levis in the same way as the other quarterbacks because he will have run pro-style offenses at the collegiate level. His coordinator last season, Liam Coen, is now the coordinator for the Rams and his current coordinator, Rich Scangarello, was with the 49ers last season. Both rave about how quickly he picks up things and how he can handle an NFL offense.

There are a lot of elite traits on Levis’ film, but what stands out the most is his toughness and leadership through his play. This showed up against Georgia last season. Similar to almost every team Georgia faced, Kentucky was outmatched. The Wildcats were on the road against one of the best defenses ever.

Rewatching that film, Levis was the best player on the field. He made NFL throw after NFL throw. He was taking shots left and right, his receivers weren’t getting separation and the running game wasn’t overly effective, yet Levis consistently found a way to make NFL-caliber plays.

Some quarterbacks are elevated by the players around them, but Levis showed against Georgia that he can elevate his teammates. Levis looked like an NFL player that day and did in a number of Kentucky’s biggest games last season. Levis plays with a fighter mentality and it shows on film.

This season, Kentucky lost several offensive linemen and Wan'Dale Robinson to the NFL and Levis hasn’t missed a beat. He has continued to be under duress no matter the opponent, yet has made NFL play after NFL play that might not show up in the stat sheet, but NFL teams will love.

Whoever drafts Levis is getting one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in recent memory, but his intangibles are even better. The most successful quarterbacks as of late have had both the unteachables and intangibles.

Both Stroud and Young could end up as great players, too, but they just don’t have the upside to be the kind of special player Levis could develop into, which is why he is my pick to be selected first overall next April.