clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NFL Draft 2023: Anthony Richardson, the unscoutable quarterback

For a project quarterback, only two factors really matter, and both are virtually impossible to determine.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson is probably the most polarizing prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft class. Some might argue that this title should instead go to Kentucky’s Will Levis, who deserves and will get his own post, but I think Levis is a pretty simple scout. Richardson is different because projecting Richardson is functionally impossible.

I typically use statistics of my own creation, QBOPS and QwOBA, to identify good quarterback prospects and eliminate poor ones, but with Richardson that’s a frivolous exercise. You don’t need any fancy advanced stats of ay kind to parse out the statistical case against Richardson. The simple fact is that 114 quarterbacks threw enough passes to qualify for statistical leaderboards last season, and of those 114 , Richardson finished 107th in completion percentage. In fact, over the last 10 college football seasons, there are only 53 total quarterbacks to throw over 250 passes and complete 53.8% or fewer, and to the extent any of those players made the NFL, they are universally terrible.

Christian Hackenberg, who was almost identical to Richardson as a junior, is probably his closest comparable in terms of performance on the field. Still, feel free to take your pick of sophomore P.J. Walker, senior Trace McSorley, or freshmen Nick Mullens or Drew Lock. It’s not a great list! Richardson also threw far too many interceptions in 2022, ranking 26th in INT% (though it should be said, he was better than Will Levis, who ranked 8th).

In Richardson’s defense, he got a lot of bang for his buck on the passes he did complete, ranking 4th in yards per completion behind Parker McNeil of Louisiana Tech, Austin Aune of North Texas, and Todd Centeio of James Madison. Everyone ahead of Richardson plays at a smaller school with an offense built on hitting big plays down the field and letting their receivers make plays on the ball. Hitting big plays is certainly not a bad thing, but it’s also generally not indicative of any translatable skill, mostly because it is very difficult to separate the contribution of the quarterback from the receiver and the quality of the pass defense faced, especially on deeper passes.

Here’s the thing. With Richardson, none of this matters, even a bit. Almost all discourse on Twitter and in the media has consisted of an analyst pointing to Richardson’s physical tools, then another statistically minded analyst like myself pointing to his horrific completion percentage. Both parties are correct, but in this instance, we should side with the scouts, because with Richardson, there’s no secret here. Everyone understands he wasn’t a great college passer. Sure, some will cite his big-time throws and his highlights, but no one thinks he was productive in a way that directly translates to NFL success.

The case for Richardson is entirely based on projection, and on that side, there is quite a bit to be optimistic about. Richardson is relatively young (this will be his age 22 season, as is also the case for CJ Stroud and Bryce Young), a superior athlete (if his is not a 9.9+ RAS I will be absolutely shocked), and possesses an 80-level arm (on the baseball 20-80 scale). The obvious comparison for Richardson is Josh Allen (only a 9.67 RAS due to a poor shuttle), who is a giant, fast person with a huge arm and a low college completion percentage. At Wyoming, Allen ranked 87th out of 114 qualifiers, which is slightly better than Richardson, but it’s worth noting he faced far easier defenses. While Allen may be a bit of a unicorn, there are lessons we should learn from his success, the biggest of which is that when engaging in a project, completion percentage probably doesn’t matter.

Most of the quarterbacks we scout are accomplished, multi-year starters in good college systems. Bryce Young has two years as a starter at Alabama, CJ Stroud has two years as a starter at Ohio State, and Will Levis has two years as a starter at Kentucky. Their statistics absolutely have something to say about how they will perform at the next level. NFL teams occasionally get themselves into trouble with one-year starters like Richardson, but in those cases, like Mitch Trubisky’s 2016 season at North Carolina, the stats really are lying.

Relying too much on stats without sample size is always dangerous, and I like to contrast Kedon Slovis, who transferred from USC to Pitt for the 2022 season, with Trubisky. Slovis had a phenomenal rookie season for the Trojans in 2019, completing 71.9% of his passes (behind only Joe Burrow and Tyler Huntley). He wasn’t as much of a big play threat as Burrow or Huntley (or Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagavailoa that season), but for a freshman, it was a sensational season. It also didn’t hold up, as Slovis declined in each subsequent season and finished as a senior with one of the worst seasons in college football. There were injuries and extenuating circumstances, but the sum total of Slovis’ career told us much more than his phenomenal first season. In the right situation, a lot of quarterbacks are capable of one superficially good season.

Richardson isn’t in this situation. Stats are telling us exactly what he is, which is a quarterback in need of additional development, and a lot of it. I don’t blame Richardson for going pro either, as he’s projected to go very highly and make a lot of money. There have been issues with Florida’s NIL process as well, which probably made the decision easier.

Projection v. Accomplishment

And so “Anthony Richardson is a poor college player” is a pointless thing to say. It’s something I absolutely would have said myself just a few years ago, but Josh Allen changed what is possible and NFL offenses have evolved. Richardson is still a longer shot than some of the more polished prospects, but the upside is much higher, and given how comfortable offenses are with running quarterbacks now, the floor for Richardson is also higher than it once was.

Allen, who was also an age-22 rookie, completed 52.8% of his passes in his first season and improved to a still bad 58.8% in his second season before exploding to 69.2% in 2020. He has settled in at 63.3% in 2021 and 2022, which I believe is close to his true talent level. Importantly, Allen alleviated some of those growing pains by rushing for 1141 yards and 17 touchdowns in total in his first two seasons. Over the last two seasons, he is averaging 123 carries for 763 yards and 7 TDs per season. Allen’s rushing has actually improved along with his passing.

The Bills also make phenomenal use of that incredible arm, drawing up plays that involve the entire field — and I mean the entire field. Having Stefon Diggs is a great help, but Allen’s rushing and passing work together in concert, stressing defenses like nobody else in the league. While most teams require additional blockers and bigger, less agile backs to effectively run power, for the Bills it’s a simple matter of instructing their 240-pound monster to look for a matchup and punish the poor DB who steps up to take him on.

Richardson can do all of this. He is as large as Allen, and his arm is the equal of Allen’s. You may see Richardson compared to other high-RAS quarterbacks with strong throwing arms, but here, I think it’s worth noting just how much that extra size matters. Richardson is something like 6’4 and 234 pounds, and has the frame to carry it. Josh Allen measured just shy of 6’5 and 237 pounds at the combine, and Richardson is likely to be essentially identical. The previously mentioned Christian Hackenberg was 6-4, but just 223 pounds. The strong-armed and inaccurate Jake Locker was a tad shorter at 6-2 and 231 pounds. Kyle Boller, famous for throwing the ball through the goal posts from 60 yards away from his knees, was 234 pounds, but just 6 feet tall.

To go back to the stats for just a moment, Richardson’s outstanding yards per completion numbers are useful in showing his willingness and ability to put that strong arm to good use in hitting every layer of the field. The other big positive for Richardson is his advanced ability to make functional use of his mobility.

This is a very positive sign if you’re looking towards the Allen timeline of development.

Defensive Adjustments

Finally, I’ve been working on a few tweaks to QBOPS to adjust for the strength of schedule each quarterback faced, as well as for the quality of the receiver group each relies upon. Here, I can say I believe that playing at Florida worked against Richardson, as he faced very tough defenses but had only average surrounding talent. Using SP+ defensive metrics, Richardson faced the 19th most difficult schedule of any quarterback in 2022. For reference, CJ Stroud faced the 4th most difficult, Hendon Hooker the 7th, Will Levis the 25th, and Bryce Young the 37th. Richardson was right there with the big boys in quality of schedule.

I also took every completion that every quarterback in college football had this year, sorted for the receiver, and tied it back to that receiver’s PFF grade. While PFF grades (and especially college PFF grades) are hardly perfect, they do a decent job of capturing a receiver’s value, absent the play of his quarterback, over the course of an entire season. Here, sample size is our friend, taking some of the noise out of those PFF grades.

Taking the number of completions to player X, multiplying that by the player’s PFF grade, adding all of the completions for an individual team back together, and dividing by total completions, I created an average I’ll call “Wide Receiver Grade per Target,” or WRGPT. In 2022, the quarterback with the highest WRGPT was CJ Stroud, with an average PFF grade targeted of 75.99. This isn’t surprising — he spent the year throwing to Marvin Harrison, Jr.

The worst supporting cast came from Colorado where poor JT Shrout’s average WRGPT came in at just 57.44. Average was roughly 66, which just so happens to be where Anthony Richardson landed, in 58th place. (It’s also just about where Bryce Young landed.) While Richardson faced defenses on par with his draft prospect contemporaries, he was helped less by his receiving corps than all of the other top quarterback prospects except for Young. (Levis was 38th in WRGPT, and no one benefitted like Stroud.)

What Actually Matters

Richardson was in his first year starting, played against generally good defenses, and had only average talent surrounding him. Yes, he needs work on his accuracy, but the results aren’t exactly surprising, and at the very least, he generated big plays commensurate with his ability. Whether he succeeds or not will depend entirely on unpredictable factors that we have know way of knowing. The always squishy “makeup” factor will play a huge role, and outside of obvious off-the-field issues, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to get a good idea about how a player will respond to the NFL, the player’s work ethic, and his coachability. Richardson may be fantastic and he may be terrible, and if anyone tells you they know which he will be, don’t believe them.

The other huge factor though, is the team he lands on. Patrick Mahomes probably isn’t as good if he doesn’t land with Andy Reid. Buffalo, by all accounts, did wonders for Allen, and we saw some similar development (or, at least, production) from Daniel Jones of the Giants this season under former Bills coach Brian Daboll. If Richardson lands on an unsophisticated team, where he’s forced to run old-timey NFL offense out of the pocket from day one, he’ll probably be terrible.

As those are the two biggest factors, far overshadowing any college statistical noise, projecting Richardson is foolhardy. I like my quarterback prospects to show some college accuracy, but I understand taking a larger risk for the ceiling that a player like Richardson offers. All perspectives and parties understand the risks and rewards in this situation. If you see any analysis criticizing Richardson for his inaccuracy framed as some brilliant revelation, you can safely ignore it. You’re betting on something like a 5% shot at greatness here. But because quarterbacks are so very valuable, it’s probably a bet worth making.