clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Ohio State at Georgia

Filed under:

Why C.J. Stroud is the best quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft

Previous Ohio State quarterbacks have poisoned analysis of the man who should go first overall in the 2023 draft.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2005, Aaron Rodgers fell in the draft for a number of reasons, one of which was the existence of California Golden Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. Tedford was famous for getting the most out of his college quarterbacks and became just as famous for the failure of those quarterbacks at the next level. That latter group included the quarterback that Rodgers replaced in Berkeley: Kyle Boller.

It is, in retrospect, hilarious to think that anyone would hold the existence of Kyle Boller against Aaron Rodgers. Boller was an insanely gifted athlete who put up a 9.92 RAS and famously threw a football from the 50 between the uprights while on one knee. However, he was also one of the least accurate throwers in college football history, completing just 53.4% of his passes as a senior and just 47.8% for his college career.

It was a different game back then, and only 80 FBS quarterbacks attempted more than 250 passes in 2002, but Boller’s rank of 58th in completion percentage should have raised red flags for NFL teams. The class was lead by Virginia’s Matt Schaub (68.9%), Marshall’s Byron Leftwich (67.4%), Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury (67.3%), Miami (OH)’s Ben Roethlisberger (63.3%), USC’s Carson Palmer (63.2%), and NC State’s Philip Rivers, who all finished in the top 10.

Prior to Rodgers, Tedford’s reputation was based less on anything Tedford did, and more on the fact that his quarterbacks tended towards being less-accurate, big-play bombers. Akili Smith completed just 56.6% of his passes in college. For Joey Harrington it was 55.2%. For AJ Feeley it was 52.8%. Billy Volek landed at 60.4% back in his Fresno State days. Indeed, the only truly accurate quarterback Tedford had was Trent Dilfer, who served as Fresno State’s quarterback in Tedford’s first season as offensive coordinator, completing 64.1% of his passes. It’s also worth noting that while he wasn’t a star by any stretch, Dilfer also wasn’t a terrible pro.

But back to Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers couldn’t have been more different from Boller. Rodgers was a good athlete, but not on Boller’s level. Rodgers would also undergo a major mechanical revamp upon joining the Packers, which had a drastic impact on his release time and his arm strength. Still, despite his flaws, Rodgers was 8th in college football in completion percentage in 2004 (66.1%), just a hair behind draft mate Alex Smith (67.5%). Working off of that base, the Packers helped him become one of the greatest and most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history.

The point is that anyone who scouted Rodgers with Tedford’s previous quarterbacks in mind was making an enormous, frankly inexcusable mistake. Rodgers isn’t even remotely similar to Akili Smith or Kyle Boller, and the very idea that there was some nebulous Tedford funk that would ruin Rodgers as a pro never made sense. I wonder to this day: had Kyle Boller not thrown that ball from his knees, would Rodgers have gone higher in the 2005 draft?

Now comes C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, a great football school that, for a variety of reasons, has never produced a truly great NFL quarterback and now has a Tedford-esque reputation attached to any prospect who happens to play there. That same preconceived notion is as asinine as the Tedford slander was to Rodgers, and anyone bringing any notions about Ohio State quarterbacks to their evaluation of Stroud is being either lazy, or stupid.

The Buckeye Industrial Complex

Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State from Luke Fickell in 2012, running the show until 2018 when he was replaced by current head coach Ryan Day. In that time period, spanning a decade, the Buckeyes have had six starting quarterbacks:

After taking over as the starter as a freshman in 2011 during Luke Fickell’s year as interim head coach, Braxton Miller started for Meyer’s teams in 2012 and 2013. He was a run-first quarterback who posted over 1,000 yards rushing in each of his seasons, but he wasn’t particularly accurate, completing under 60% of his attempts for his career. In his best season in 2013, he ranked just 38th in completion percentage (63.5%).

After injuring his shoulder in 2014’s summer camp, Miller was supplanted by JT Barrett, who started for three and a half of the next four years through 2017, though he gave way to Cardale Jones late that season and for the first several games of 2015. Barrett was another run-first quarterback, accounting for 3,263 rushing yards over the course of his college career as the Big Ten’s top operator of the read-option. Barrett wasn’t a bad passer at all, hitting 63.5% of his career passes and peaking at 64.7% (16th in FBS) as a senior, but he was conservative, averaging only 12.7 yards per completion (38th). For comparison, Drew Lock and Baker Mayfield led the FBS with 16.4 and 16.2 yards per completions, respectively. Barrett was much closer to last-place Luke Falk (10.1) than to the leaders. Additionally, Barrett was also relatively short at just 6’1” and he posted a 5.72 RAS.

Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to the first CFP title after the 2014 season and took the majority of snaps in 2015, just barely, but only completed 62.3% of his passes while throwing 5 picks against just 8 TDs. Jones was a phenomenal raw athlete, but remained an unpolished passer.

2018 would be Urban Meyer’s last season, as Ryan Day would take over late in the year. THat year brought an entirely new type of quarterback to Columbus in the late Dwayne Haskins. Haskins was positively a statue in the pocket, but he was one of the most accurate passers in the history of the school, finishing 4th overall in completion percentage (70.0) in his one season as starter. While Haskins was great at hitting his guys, he was also reserved in attacking downfield, relatively speaking, ranking 28th in yards per completion at 13. Kyler Murray led the league with 16.8, followed by Tua Tagovailoa with 16.1. Someone named Artur Sitkowski was last with an almost unbelievable 8.6.

Yards per completion isn’t as reliable a projector of NFL success as completion percentage, but it’s still worth looking at for upper tier quarterbacks because they often have outstanding receivers to work with. Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin led Ohio State in touchdowns that season with K.J. Hill and Johnnie Dixon chipping in solid campaigns as well, and it’s fair to say that while Haskins rarely made mistakes, he may not have gotten the most out of his NFL-caliber pass catchers. He was also a terrible athlete, with a 3.47 RAS. Finally, Haskins, while accurate, also wasn’t as adept at getting through his progressions in a timely manner, which hurt him at the next level, where the OSU talent advantage evaporated.

Last but not least we have Justin Fields, currently of the Chicago Bears. The book is still to be written on Fields as a pro, as he landed in just about the worst situation possible in Chicago. Fields is an outstanding athlete and a good runner, but he was also an outstanding passer in college, completing 68.4% of his passes and eclipsing the 70% mark in 2020, good for 4th in the COVID-shortened year. In addition to uncanny accuracy, Fields also hit plenty of big plays, finishing 17th in 2020 with a 13.3 yards per completion. The problem with Fields, both in college and so far in his professional tenure, is sacks. Sacks are mostly a quarterback statistic, and Fields took a lot of them. One of the more consistent stats from college to NFL football is the percentage of pressures that quarterbacks allow to turn into sacks. For Fields, that number was 24%, compared to just 14.1% for Stroud, 12.6% for Bryce Young, and 9.2% for Anthony Richardson.

Fields can do some nice work when the pocket is kept clean and when his receivers get open, but those sacks are indicative of his processing speed. Fields has issues pulling the trigger, and unless he speeds up his internal clock and starts making more efficient use of his athletic gifts to produce big passing plays, he’s going to continue to struggle.

In the Meyer/Day era, Ohio State has used two run-first quarterbacks of middling accuracy, a pocket-passing statue, and an outstanding athlete/accurate passer who continually runs himself into sacks.

So, is C.J. Stroud like any of these guys?

No, C.J. Stroud isn’t like these guys

First let’s set our baseline. Just on raw stats, Stroud is MUCH better than any of the previous Ohio State quarterbacks of the past decade, and with two full years of sample size. In 2021 he finished 2nd in completion percentage (71.9%) and 15th in yards per completion (14.0). The only pro prospects to post better Y/C numbers that season were Stetson Bennett (15.5), Hendon Hooker (14.3) and Sam Howell (14.1), but they weren’t even close to as accurate, posting completion percentages of 64.5, 68, and 62.5 respectively. No one combined Stroud’s uncanny accuracy with his big play ability.

In 2022, Stroud wasn’t quite as accurate, finishing 20th with a still-impressive 66.3, but he made up for it by soaring to 5th in yards per completion with 14.3. If you ignore Ohio State’s insane game at Northwestern, which took place in ridiculous gale force winds (seriously, go watch it), he improves to 68.3% and 14.6 yards per completion, which would have ranked 11th and 4th, respectively. The average completion percentage of those quarterbacks ahead of him (which includes Anthony Richardson) was 58.3.

We can do better still. In order to improve my QBOPS statistic, I’ve started to incorporate the quality of opposing defenses faced via the advanced metric SP+. I’ve managed to put together the SP+ defensive ranking for every defense every quarterback faced and I took an average to produce a Strength of Defense number. When discussing Stroud it’s common to bring up his outstanding game against Georgia, but that was hardly his only great performance against a great defense this season. Stroud actually faced the fourth-toughest defensive slate of any quarterback, bested only by Payton Thorne of Michigan State, Aidan O’Connell of Purdue, and Robby Ashford of Auburn. A quick look at Stroud’s game logs shows several impressive performances, and as good as that Georgia game was, his game against Iowa’s defense may be even better. This is also hardly the first time Stroud has excelled against an impressive defensive slate, as he faced the 19th toughest schedule in 2021. (Bryce Young faced the toughest schedule in 2021.)

One of the big knocks on Stroud is his work under pressure. He received a comically low PFF grade while under pressure, and there have been concerns about his playmaking ability when the pocket breaks down, as Ohio State generally provides outstanding, pro-quality lines. A quick look at Stroud’s tape reveals these criticisms to be accurate, but perhaps misguided.

Stroud was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, and he does possess good mobility. The difference between Stroud and several of his contemporaries, including Bryce Young, is that Stroud primarily uses his athletic gifts inside the pocket to buy more time, step up, and deliver accurate throws. His mobility is outstanding, as is his feel for the rush as demonstrated by his pressure-to-sack rate (14.1%), but he plays more like Aaron Rodgers, while Bryce Young is more like Mahomes, as he is happy to leave the pocket and create huge plays on the move.

There are two additional mitigating factors for Stroud. The first is that Ohio State’s line was so good that many of the pressures he did face were blown protections, where no quarterback would have had a shot. When OSU blockers were where they were supposed to be, they generally didn’t allow pressure. These mistakes happened several times against Iowa, and after the first few series, Stroud adjusted and started buying more time outside the pocket. As a percentage of the pressures he faced, there was a higher number of those “interior line pressures” versus your normal outside pressure. He deals with the latter fine, while no one deals well with the former.

The second is that his “lack of playmaking outside the pocket” was clearly a choice, not a limitation. The Georgia game should put almost all of these concerns to bed, but even that ridiculous Northwestern game proved that while Stroud prefers to hang in the pocket and pass, he’s more than capable of scrambling and running when forced to do so. You could clearly see Stroud’s decision-making in action on those rare occasions when conventional passing wasn’t working; he was capable of completely changing his game. Stroud seemed to realize, on the biggest stage, that he had to introduce outside mobility as a weapon, and he did.

Most of Stroud’s reputation for wilting under pressure is based on the same flawed old-school thinking that blames Aaron Rodgers for the faults of Dom Capers. Generally speaking, he’s been quite good in big games, and he had the misfortune of playing at a time when Michigan actually managed to become a competent program again.

I mentioned before that Stroud’s accuracy numbers were slightly down from last season, but it’s worth noting that Ohio State doesn’t generate a lot of cheap, easy completions. Stroud’s ADOT (average depth of target) of 10.7 trails only Anthony Richardson and Hendon Hooker among those in the 2023 NFL Draft class, and he’s only accumulated 224 yards on screens. (Anthony Richardson benefitted from the fewest Screen Yards among this year’s prospects with 154, while Houston’s Clayton Tune led the class with 691.)

While Stroud has a ton of positives working for him, there is one big concern that shows up in the numbers. In addition to quantifying strength of defense faced, I’ve also started trying to account for the quality of a quarterbacks’ receivers using PFF season wide receiver grades, and calculating the average grade targeted per completion for each quarterback over the course of a season. You can read more about this metric, Wide Receiver Grade per Completion (WRGPC), and QwOBA+ here.

PFF’s college grades aren’t the most rigorously kept statistics, but over the course of a season they do a decent enough job at separating receiver value from quarterback value. It’s no surprise of course, that Ohio State frequently runs out elite receivers, but it is striking just how elite they are on a year to year basis. Marvin Harrison, JR., and Emeka Egbuka were among the true elites in college football, and it would be foolish to argue that they don’t make Stroud’s life easier. The average Stroud reception went to a pass-catcher with a near elite 75.99 PFF grade. Compare that with Bryce Young’s WRGPC of just 66.61, almost exactly FBS-average, and you can see that the difference is quite significant.

Here, it’s worth remembering that while Stroud had elite receivers this year, he had even more elite receivers last season, with a 77.55 WRGPC, and more importantly, he went from three elite targets to two. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the best statistical receiver in college football in 2021, and he got to play alongside Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, two of the most impressive NFL rookies this season, both of whom had good cases to be rookie of the year. Harrison and Egbuka may end up being their equals, but even if they are, Smith-Njigba barely played in 2022. Tight End Cade Stover was the Buckeye’s third leading receiver, yet Stroud lost almost no efficiency from 2021 to 2022, he merely reshaped his game to fit new personnel. In 2021 he put up a QwOBA+ of 121, and followed it up in 2022 with a 118.

So, Stroud has faced a brutal group of defenses, remained incredibly accurate, pushed the ball down the field, and made tough plays. He rarely throws interceptions and plays from the pocket like a seasoned NFL professional. His play under pressure may be a question, but he put out an emphatic answer against Georgia and it’s pretty clear at this point that he can move when he needs to move. He’s a better thrower than Braxton Miller and JT Barrett, he’s a better and more mobile gunslinger than Dwayne Haskins, and he doesn’t get himself killed like Justin Fields. He’s a good athlete with an elite arm, and has consistently put on shows with his throws at the combine and at his pro day.

The last thing I’ll mention, which sold me far more than anything else here, is that he’s clearly a lightning quick processor on the field. If you watch Stroud’s tape, watch his head first. He races through his progressions, and nearly always chooses the correct read. Processing speed, and having the game slow down for you at the next level, is the single most important trait a player can have, and is among the most difficult to scout. So many college offenses (and a few NFL offenses) simply limit things to just a few reads, which can work in a limited context, but does a disservice to quarterback development. Stroud is disciplined in going through his reads, and any comparison’s to Joe Burrow on that front are completely warranted.

Stroud is easily my favorite quarterback prospect in this draft, and those poking holes in his game are looking too hard. He is the surest bet to help a team immediately, and well worth a top-5 pick, if not #1.

Cheese Curds: Daily Green Bay Packers News And Links

Cheese Curds, 12/4: We can safely say it now — Jordan Love is the guy

Green Bay Packers Analysis

Week 13 Packers Winners and Losers vs. the Chiefs

Green Bay Packers scores & results

Packers upset Chiefs 27-19 behind another big game from Jordan Love