• Who else but Caleb Williams? The USC quarterback recorded a 91.7 overall grade last season, posting an impressive 90.1 passing grade and 82.8 rushing grade. But as fantastic as he was overall, his play under pressure makes him special.
• Drake Maye comes in at No. 2: Maye recorded a 96.1 passing grade on passes of 10 yards or more, racking up an absurd 45 big-time throws and a 20.5% big-time throw rate, both of which were the best of this group.
• Keep an eye on Quinn Ewers: Ewers was actually rated higher than Caleb Williams in the 2021 recruiting class. And though Williams has ascended to stardom quicker than Ewers, that arm talent is still very much there for the Texas Longhorn.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The 2024 NFL Draft presents an exciting quarterback class full of notable names. It is led by USC’s Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner and dynamic dual-threat quarterback. He is followed closely by North Carolina’s Drake Maye, who has performed well in the difficult areas of the game. Other potential risers in the class include Oregon’s Bo Nix, Texas’ Quinn Ewers and LSU’s Jayden Daniels.
Here is a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in PFF’s early 2024 NFL Draft rankings.
1. CALEB WILLIAMS, USC
The 2022 Heisman winner surely would have been drafted last April had he been eligible, but the true sophomore will just have to wow us with another season before we actually see that happen.
Williams recorded a 91.7 overall grade last season, posting an impressive 90.1 passing grade and 82.8 rushing grade. But as fantastic as he was overall, his play under pressure makes him special. His 78.9 passing grade on pressured dropbacks was the best mark in the FBS last season, as was his 116.0 passer rating.
His big-time throw rate went from 4.6% from a clean pocket to 9.5% when he was put under pressure — he thrives when tough situations come his way and has all the talent to be a special NFL quarterback.
Read more: “I want to destroy you”: Caleb Williams is coming for much more than a second Heisman Trophy
2. DRAKE MAYE, UNC
I initially had Oregon’s Bo Nix as my No. 2 when we evaluated this quarterback class on the NFL Stock Exchange podcast. But after continuing to watch the tape and contextualize the data, I now have them flipped, with Maye now at No. 2 and Nix at No. 3.
The reason is that Maye has had so much more success in the high-difficulty areas, even if he did put more errant throws on tape. His 91.7 passing grade on true dropbacks — plays without a run-pass option or play action —was the best among this group of draft-eligible quarterbacks. His 7.6% big-time throw percentage on those same plays was second to only FSU’s Jordan Travis.
It gets even more impressive when you look at just throws deep down the field. Maye recorded a 96.1 passing grade on 10-plus-yard throws, racking up an absurd 45 big-time throws and a 20.5% big-time throw rate, both of which were without question the best of this group.
Ultimately, Maye’s volume of big-time plays is too high not to have him as No. 2 heading into the season.
Read more: “Carolina blue means a lot to me”: QB Drake Maye is all in on leading UNC to greater heights
3. BO NIX, OREGON
Words I thought I’d never say: Nix’s 2022 tape was impressive, and he deserves a spot in this preseason top three.
I had all but given up on the Oregon signal-caller after his three seasons at Auburn turned out to be unworthy of the hype. But in his fourth season of college ball — this time at Oregon — the light really came on.
Nix earned a 70.8 passing grade under pressure, a number comparable to Bryce Young’s in 2022 (67.5). Even more impressive was his ability to take care of the ball when plays broke down, as he didn’t record a single turnover-worthy play under pressure.
Oregon’s offense had him throwing short quite a bit — 221 of his 408 passing attempts were thrown less than five yards downfield — but he still executed beyond that. On passes thrown 10 or more yards down the field, he posted an elite 91.9 passing grade to go with a 61.7% adjusted completion percentage, the highest mark among this group.
4. MICHAEL PENIX JR., WASHINGTON
It will be quite the special story if Penix makes it to the NFL, as the former Indiana Hoosier and current Washington Husky has an injury history that would spell an early retirement for many players.
Penix tore an ACL in 2018 and 2020. He suffered a sternoclavicular joint —which connects the clavicle to the sternum — injury in 2019. He dealt with an AC joint shoulder issue in 2021. This past season was the first time in his career that he played double-digit games in a single season, and it was his best season to date. He earned an 80.8 passing grade on true dropbacks, and that grade jumps to 88.1 if you include those RPO and play-action looks.
Entering his sixth season of eligibility, all that time studying the game at the college level has paid off. His 70.7 passing grade under pressure on those true dropbacks was third in this group, behind only Williams and Maye, and he does a good job manipulating defenses with his eyes post-snap. He also has a cannon of an arm when he loads up and recorded just a 1.3% turnover-worthy play rate that ranked top-five among FBS quarterbacks last year.
Another healthy season and another year of improvement could see his stock at an all-time high.
Michael Penix Jr.: PFF grades and rank since 2018
Season Dropbacks PFF grade Rank 2022 576 87.9 18th of 155 2021 174 69.7 100th of 146 2020 231 82.9 25th of 146 2019 165 84.0 21st of 147 2018 36 72.9 N/A
5. RILEY LEONARD, DUKE
Leonard was reportedly torn between playing basketball and football back in high school. Football fans should be thankful he chose the latter.
The Duke quarterback feels like an under-the-radar prospect in this class, but that shouldn’t be for long. There are flashes of ball placement that are truly special, and there are signs he could someday be an NFL starter.
Admittedly, the overall accuracy and play under pressure need to improve. He recorded just a 69.2% adjusted completion percentage on true dropbacks a season ago, while his 49.1 passing grade under pressure ranked 66th among 144 qualifying FBS passers.
However, his overall turnover-worthy play percentage of 1.7% tied with Bo Nix as the second-best mark behind Penix among this group of quarterbacks. He’s also a good threat to pick up yards with his legs, as he produced 441 yards on designed runs and a further 335 yards on scrambles a season ago.
His consistency is a work in progress, but there is a lot to like about him.
6. JORDAN TRAVIS, FLORIDA STATE
Travis doesn’t crack the top five right now, but I feel people will be clamoring for it after the season Florida State is about to have.
The Florida State quarterback recorded an elite 90.4 passing grade on true dropbacks in 2022 and a group-leading 8.5% big-time throw percentage on those same plays. He also finished with a 1.9% turnover-worthy play percentage on the year, 12th among 155 qualifying FBS quarterbacks.
He doesn’t pass the “eye test” for a quarterback, as he measures in at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, 14th and 19th percentile for the position, respectively. But there’s a fearlessness and natural talent in him that overcomes those size issues.
Still, the overall ball placement and accuracy need to be better, as his 70.7% adjusted completion percentage on true dropbacks ranked seventh among this group of signal-callers last year.
He’s such a fun playmaker to watch. We’ll see how much higher he can carry his stock in 2023.
Read more: “Unfinished business”: Jordan Travis and Florida State have national championship aspirations for 2023
7. QUINN EWERS, TEXAS
Ewers was actually rated higher than Caleb Williams in the 2021 recruiting class. And though Williams has ascended to stardom quicker than Ewers, that arm talent is still very much there for the Texas Longhorn.
Ewers started his career at Ohio State, redshirting and then transferring to start at Texas after just one season in Columbus. In his first season as a starter, the side-armed gunslinger showed flashes of top-tier arm talent but was rather inconsistent. On true dropbacks, he earned just a 73.5 passing grade and generated a 66.2% adjusted completion percentage that ranked dead last among this group. His 38.4 passing grade under pressure was also the worst mark among this group.
He missed some time due to injury last season, and some of his 19 big-time throws were as pretty as they come. He has pro-level arm talent but needs more reps and more consistency in 2023.
8. JAYDEN DANIELS, LSU
Daniels’ improvement as a passer was on Bo Nix’s level last season. Across 505 dropbacks and 390 total pass attempts, Daniels recorded just three turnover-worthy plays, good for a 0.6% turnover-worthy pay rate that ranked first among the 155 qualifying quarterbacks last year.
He showed a good feel for pressure and kept his eyes downfield more correctly and consistently than you might expect for a player who is a very viable weapon as a rusher. In 2022, he gained 1,079 yards on the ground with 11 rushing touchdowns, good for an 88.6 rushing grade.
This next season will be about improving his efficiency and accuracy deeper down the field. He posted a 56.7% adjusted completion percentage on throws of 10-plus yards on his true dropbacks last season — not terrible, but it could be better. He also put up just 12 big-time throws over the year, with his 2.9% big-time throw rate ranking 119th among 155 qualifying signal-callers.
Now that he’s raised his floor as a passer, it’s time to raise the ceiling.
9. K.J. JEFFERSON, ARKANSAS
Jefferson is a very imposing quarterback when he lines up in the backfield. At 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, he’s in the 54th percentile in height and 94th percentile in weight.
Given his size and rushing ability, his offense heavily leans on the RPO game. Only Caleb Williams (91) attempted more RPO passes than Jefferson’s 67 last year.
However, Jefferson still posted an 86.7 passing grade on true dropbacks and a 91.7 passing grade on throws of 10 yards or more. His 2.1% turnover-worthy play rate over the year was a top-20 mark at his position.
Ball placement can sometimes escape him — when he misses, he often misses high. Still, he’s an alluring player with a ton of physical traits.
10. J.J. McCarthy, MICHIGAN
McCarthy, a former five-star quarterback, is someone I am very excited to see in 2023. Last season was his first year as a starter, and honestly, it looked like it — and that’s okay. He played poorly under pressure, earning a 44.0 passing grade, but you could tell the internal clock just hadn’t experienced enough snaps to really be calm in those situations.
Even on true dropbacks, his 62.2 passing grade was the lowest mark among this group of players. He didn’t have a ton of turnover-worthy plays but didn’t have many big-time throws, either. All in all, he’s still just learning the quarterback position.
Another year in Michigan’s system, and we could see a big jump from him.
OTHER NOTABLE QBs WATCHED: DEVIN LEARY (KENTUCKY), CAM WARD (WASHINGTON STATE), JOE MILTON (TENNESSEE), SPENCER RATTLER (SOUTH CAROLINA), TYLER VAN DYKE (MIAMI), SAM HARTMAN (NOTRE DAME)