Why C.J. Stroud Is 2023 NFL Draft's Top QB Prospect Entering College Season

Brent SobleskiSeptember 3, 2022

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alabama's Bryce Young may be the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but Ohio State's C.J. Stroud is clearly college football's best quarterback prospect for the 2023 NFL draft.

History has showed that collegiate hardware doesn't automatically equate to future success. It's happened more often than not as of late, but the likes of Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Baker Mayfield (so far) didn't translate to the professional game and serve as warnings.

This isn't to say that Young isn't a quality prospect. But he can't automatically be pushed above every other quarterback on draft boards based on what he's done as part of the nation's most successful football program.

Just the fact that Stroud and Young are even in the early conversation as top draft selections is a wonderful change of pace after this year's group of signal-callers can be kindly described as the worst of this century.

"It was a really, really weak class," an AFC personnel executive told Heavy's Matt Lombardo. "Everyone knew it all along, but everyone tried to sell those guys to each other."

As a result, some franchises in desperate need of an infusion of talent under center punted on the position with an eye toward next April. This could benefit the entire class. Kentucky's Will Levis, Miami's Tyler Van Dyke, Florida's Anthony Richardson and Stanford's Tanner McKee should all be in the first-round mix as well.

But Stroud should lead the way as the true premium talent with No. 1 overall potential.

Ultimately, the conversation will hinge on Young vs. Stroud because they're the two most high-profile prospects playing for illustrious pipeline programs. They finished first and fourth, respectively, in Heisman voting last year. Their situations are now flipped slightly, with Stroud entering this season as the betting favorite for the award.

Stroud's physical tools, skill set, production and growth potential place him atop this year's crop.

Stroud's and Young's physical statures are night and day and will likely prove to be the biggest difference in their evaluations. The former is 6'3" and 218 pounds, while the latter is 6'0" and 194 pounds.

The 2021 Heisman Trophy finalists—from left to right: Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Young's height is less of an issue that it once was. After all, offenses operate out of the shotgun on a regular basis, and shorter options have succeeded in the league as of late.

However, Young's slight frame will be a major concern when it comes to taking an NFL pounding. Jim McMahon (6'1", 195 lbs) in 1982 is the last first-round quarterback over the last 40 years to weigh fewer than 200 pounds. Guys like Mayfield (6'1", 215 lbs), Kyler Murray (5'10", 207 lbs) and Russell Wilson (5'11", 215 lbs) are shorter quarterbacks, but they're thickly built. They can create significant torque in their lower bodies and hips because of their squatty frames.

Prototypical NFL size standards aside, Stroud layers throws to all three levels. The 20-year-old passer is particularly adept when he drives the ball down the field. His pure arm strength may not reach Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes levels, but he should be considered among the next tier.

Deep passing is also a byproduct of timing and touch. According to Pro Football Focus, Stroud was college football's most accurate deep passer going into bowl season. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year then dumped 573 yards and six touchdowns in a victory over the Utah Utes in the Rose Bowl.

It's important to make the distinction between those two points to ensure the number wasn't skewed because of that historic performance.

"I say with C.J., he really drops the ball in there. The best way to put it is like Russell Wilson," former teammate and first-round wide receiver Garrett Wilson told the Big Ten Network last year (h/t The Lantern's Jacob Benge).

PFF also graded Stroud as the best Big Ten quarterback last season with a 67.6 percent accurate pass rate.

NFL evaluators will start to salivate over a quarterback who navigates the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield and consistently delivers the football with a smooth, compact delivery.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Young isn't a slouch either. He has a great feel for the game with excellent touch within the scheme and creativity outside of structure. But his stature will remain a sticking point.

Levis, meanwhile, brings the best combination of size (6'3", 232 lbs) and raw arm talent, as well as two years of learning under current or former NFL offensive coordinators at Kentucky in Liam Coen and Rich Scangarello. Van Dyke lit up the second half of last season. He must repeat that performance over a full campaign. Richardson is a raw mound of elite athletic traits. Finally, McKee is a 6'6" pro-style quarterback coming out of Stanford, and he must help the program rise from the malaise of the last three seasons.

To take the next step, Stroud simply needs to build on what he's already done. Last season, the Ohio State starter became the only quarterback at the FBS level to finish top-five in completion percentage (71.9), passing yardage (4,435), passing touchdowns (44), yards per attempt (10.1) and quarterback rating (186.6).

Anything close to or exceeding those numbers will cement Stroud's status as not only the top quarterback prospect but also the leading candidate for the first overall pick (yes, even over Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. because of positional value).

The third-year signal-caller knows he must improve in certain areas, particularly in leading the offense and becoming a louder voice in the locker room.

"He's speaking up. He's more mature. He wants to win," wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba told reporters. "You know, we're all fired up. He's a competitor, and no one wants to win more than him, and he wants to bring that to the whole team and spread it out."

Head coach Ryan Day added: "I think that C.J. has really grown in terms of his leadership this year, and just has a much more, you know, wide perspective on everything that’s going on, not just his job. He sees it almost as a coach right now. I know his No. 1 thing is he wants to win, and everything else is secondary. And he’s practiced that way."

A better understanding of and an increased comfortability within the offense should speed up Stroud's process. Like most young quarterbacks, the one-year starter could be quicker to get off his first read and work his way through his progression to the point where it becomes far more natural in how he sees the field.

The Buckeyes' current setup provides a significant task, with Stroud needing to grow mentally within the scheme while taking on more responsibility with a reworked supporting cast. He is now the focal point of the offense. Everything flows through him and how he distributes the ball.

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba with a touchdown reception during the Buckeyes' 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over the Utah Utes. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Ohio State remains extremely talented at receiver with Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka. But the group isn't nearly as experienced as the one from last year, when two first rounders—Wilson and Chris Olave—flanked the formation. Essentially, the roles reversed, with Stroud set to make his targets into top-end prospects.

Stroud fits the prototype of a professional quarterback. His traits as a passer are evident. He's playing at the highest level possible and producing against top competition. He has ample opportunity to build an already impressive resume. Maybe Stroud will even capture his own Heisman Trophy.

Either way, this season should serve as the coronation of Stroud as the nation's best quarterback and top option in 2023 even if he doesn't walk away with 45 pounds of Ed Smith-shaped cast bronze.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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