Hickey: CJ Stroud will end up wherever he's meant to be in the NFL Draft
Let’s oversimplify things for the NFL teams who are overthinking whether to draft Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud.
Wherever Stroud goes is where he’s meant to be, and he’ll likely find a way to succeed when he gets there.
For most of the pre-draft process, the presumption was that Houston will be that destination.
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But the Texans have a funny way of doing things, which is how they usually find themselves in this position. Houston has a top-3 pick for the 2nd straight season and got there in part because it traded away first round picks in 3 of the 4 drafts prior to that.
In the past week or so, stories have leaked indicating that Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, formerly of Penn State, might be who the Texans are actually after.
If it were any team but the Texans, you might be able to dismiss those rumors.
But since it is, you can’t.
The leak that Stroud reportedly scored an 18 on the S2 Cognition Test compared to Levis’ 93 was obviously done with intent. It gives a team insulation from the blowback for what would otherwise be an unpopular pick.
For Big Ten fans in particular, Levis’ rise up the draft boards is a peculiar phenomenon.
The strange ascent of Will Levis
Levis spent 2 seasons as Sean Clifford’s backup at Penn State. He was unable to unseat Clifford in 2020 when Clifford’s grip on the starting job looked to be slipping.
Levis was 14-of-31 for 219 yards when he came off the bench to replace Clifford in a 30-23 loss at Nebraska. The following week, Levis made his lone start for the Nittany Lions. He was 13-of-16 for 106 yards before getting yanked for Clifford in a 41-21 loss to Iowa.
It was after that benching that Levis realized his career would need to continue elsewhere.
These things happen. They’ve even happened at Ohio State a few times now.
Joe Burrow is a bona fide NFL superstar now, but he wasn’t quite ready to beat out Dwayne Haskins in 2018. Quinn Ewers could turn out to be a Heisman candidate at Texas this year, but he wasn’t close to jumping Stroud or Kyle McCord on Ohio State’s depth chart a year ago.
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Thus, “he couldn’t even beat out Sean Clifford” isn’t the strongest argument against drafting Levis over Stroud. It’s hard to beat out an established starter who has had an additional year in the program — even though there was ample opportunity in a season where Penn State started 0-5.
But when you compare how Levis and Stroud performed against a mutual opponent, you again wonder what the debate is.
Will Levis vs. Georgia
- 2021: 32-of-42 (76.2%), 178 passing yards (4.2 Yards Per Attempt), 2 TDs, 0 INTs; 10 carries for 12 yards.
- 2022: 20-of-31 (64.5%), 206 passing yards (6.6 Yards Per Attempt), 1 TD, 1 INT; 5 carries for 26 yards.
Considering how strong Georgia’s defense has been each of the past 2 years, these numbers are actually quite good. Especially considering how overmatched Kentucky’s offense was against that defense. It’s not as if Levis is a stiff.
This guy is worth drafting if you want a quarterback with more upside than proven polish. Teams are enamored that he has the same toolbox as Bills quarterback Josh Allen, even if he hasn’t quite figured out how to use those tools yet.
But does that make him a better pick than Stroud?
CJ Stroud vs. Georgia
- 2022 CFP: 23-of-34 (67.6%), 348 passing yards (10.2 Yards Per Attempt), 4 TDs, 0 INTs; 12 carries for 34 yards.
Numbers make imperfect comparisons.
Stroud had far better targets and protection than Levis, so his stats should be better.
But the numbers aren’t just a little bit better. And not just compared to Levis.
No quarterback can match what Stroud did against the Bulldogs in Georgia’s back-to-back championship run. He’s the only guy to average more than 10 yards an attempt with no interceptions against Georgia since 2017.
And it’s not a matter of the numbers being empty calories because of Ohio State’s scheme. As they say, watch the tape.
So, what gives?
A quote from the story that revealed Stroud’s low cognition test score probably holds the answer.
Scouts skeptical of Buckeyes
The S2 scores were leaked to long-time Packers reporter Bob McGinn.
One premise of his piece is that though high scores do not guarantee success, a low score is seen as a harbinger of certain failure.
But in Stroud’s case, some NFL scouts and general managers clearly hold a preconceived bias against him for being an Ohio State quarterback.
“Stroud scored 18,” a league executive told McGinn. “That is like red alert, red alert, you can’t take a guy like that. That is why I have Stroud as a bust. That in conjunction with the fact, name 1 Ohio State quarterback that’s ever done it in the league.”
Based on that logic, that executive probably passed on Patrick Mahomes due to the fact no prior Texas Tech quarterbacks were able to make the jump. And it’s also ignoring the fact Justin Fields could be on the precipice of a major breakthrough now that the Bears can surround him with actual NFL-caliber talent.
From all of this, we can see it’s clear that there are teams out there looking for reasons to avoid Stroud. On Thursday night, we’ll learn whether the Texans or Colts are among them.
If Stroud isn’t selected by either team, his destination becomes a true mystery.
If that happens, so be it.
In 2005, Aaron Rodgers was the clear No. 2 quarterback behind Alex Smith. It seemed to most that he should go 2nd or 3rd overall.
The Dolphins decided to rock with veteran Gus Frerotte at quarterback and drafted Auburn running back Ronnie Brown. (Ironically, Brown would eventually become one of Miami’s better passers working from the Wildcat.)
The Browns said to themselves, “Hey, man, we’ve got Trent Frickin’ Dilfer. All we need is some weapons!”
Cleveland took Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards 3rd overall.
Rodgers tumbled all the way down to the 24th pick. It was painful at the time, but Green Bay was the place where he would eventually be able to thrive.
Stroud’s not going to fall that far. These days, teams are more willing to bomb on a quarterback pick than be 1 of the 23 who passed on the next Aaron Rodgers.
But if it’s not Houston or Indianapolis, perhaps it will be a better overall situation for Stroud. He’s going to land on his feet.
Some team just needs to be smart enough to lay down the welcome mat.