Kentucky quarterback Will Levis entered his senior season with the potential to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Although he didn't perform as well as he did in 2021, particularly against top competition, he's still a strong contender to be taken first overall.
"There are several NFL teams that are high on Will Levis, much higher than fans and media folks are," CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson said during an interview with 247Sports. "Fans and media folks end up watching the '22 season, and that raised a ton of question marks.
"What I'm routinely told when I talk to scouts and folks around the league is to please go watch 2021. Understand the offensive line wasn't very good at Kentucky, the wide receivers were freshmen, that [running back] Chris Rodriguez Jr. was out the first four games of the season in the backfield. And of course, we know that Levis was injured most of the season with his toe and shoulder."
Beyond what Wilson mentioned, two other factors play into scouts' fascination with Levis.
First, the 6'3", 232-pound signal-caller brings plus traits to the table. In a world where so many NFL teams would love to have some version of Josh Allen or Justin Herbert on their roster, Levis' value rises even though he's an unpolished prospect with plenty of room for improvement. His size, toughness, cannon for an arm and mobility make him an ideal project to develop.
Secondly, the losses Kentucky endured last offseason extended beyond the departure of Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard, the team's best two offensive linemen, as well as top wide receivers Wan'Dale Robinson and Josh Ali. Offensive coordinator Liam Coen also left to join the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff (and since returned two weeks ago).
For those keeping track, Levis' production and performance took hit after hit this past fall because of:
- a lesser supporting cast.
- a different offensive play-caller.
Somehow, everyone still expected more. But Levis' final campaign wasn't a complete loss.
His completion perception and interception ratio stayed right around the same, with a less-than-a-percentage-point difference in each category. His quarterback rating improved slightly. He showed his toughness and fearlessness in the pocket by accruing the most passing yards against the blitz of any SEC quarterback during the regular season, per Pro Football Focus.
In 2021, Levis was the only SEC quarterback in the PFF era to post 80-plus grades as a passer and runner. He also had the second-most red-zone dropbacks among all quarterbacks without a turnover-worthy play. Finally, he posted the second-best play-action passing grade since 2020.
Levis has impressive physical tools, ability and the right mentality. They just need to be properly harnessed. Therein lies the rub.
Josh Allen might not be Josh Allen today if he landed anywhere other than Buffalo. Or he might be a lesser version of himself. The same applies to the other top quarterbacks around the league. Situation matters, and a legitimately talented quarterback prospect can be ruined just as easily as he is developed into a star, if not more so.
"He just needs to continue to work on his pocket poise, his timing and his accuracy under pressure, but he's one of the more intriguing quarterback prospects in this class," an anonymous personnel director told ESPN's Chris Low in September. "Josh Allen had some inconsistencies with accuracy and timing as well, but we've seen how that has played out."
To be clear, Allen is the ultimate outlier. His relentless dedication to honing his mechanics coupled with the Bills' stability helped him reach his full potential.
Levis will need something similar, even if it isn't necessarily to the same degree.
Bleacher Report's Scouting Department didn't have Levis graded as a first-round prospect coming out of this past season. His inconsistency in multiple areas as a passer, as well as the fact that he'll turn 24 before the start of his rookie campaign, are legitimate concerns.
Alabama's Bryce Young naturally plays the position better than Levis, and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud saved his very best for last against the two-time national champion Georgia Bulldogs. However, Levis' raw physical potential and extreme upside are why he's viewed as a legitimate possibility as the No. 1 overall pick.
Among the teams in this year's top 10, four are the most likely candidates to trade up to the first overall selection and possibly select Levis. The Indianapolis Colts are the most obvious candidate, because Levis would fit with them on multiple levels.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard's philosophy on talent acquisition includes betting on "high-end, high-end traits." Levis' ability to thrive in a heavy play-action passing attack would also benefit the Colts, who will undoubtedly continue to lean on running back Jonathan Taylor no matter whom they hire as their next head coach. Longtime Colts quarterback Peyton Manning also has the ear of team owner Jim Irsay, and the franchise's all-time leading passer already gave Levis his seal of approval.
Indianapolis is the most likely franchise to leap ahead of the Houston Texans for the first overall pick. The Colts own the fourth overall selection, so the Chicago Bears wouldn't drop down the board too far.
Houston will likely stand pat at No. 2 and select between Young and Stroud, who are better fits for their situation as younger options that excel more from the pocket.
The order gets interesting again between the seventh and ninth selections. The Las Vegas Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers should all be jockeying to move up to No. 1 as long as the Bears are willing to move down that far from the top spot.
Derek Carr already said his goodbyes to the Raiders after they benched him ahead of Week 17. The Raiders will likely trade their longtime starter this offseason, which will leave them looking for a new answer under center.
Meanwhile, the Falcons and Panthers are looking to find some stability at the game's most important position. Neither rookie Desmond Ridder nor Sam Darnold showed enough to warrant another season as the starter for their respective squads. An older, more mature prospect like Levis could step in right away without the worry of him being overwhelmed by the process of acclimating to the NFL.
All three of Young, Stroud and Levis are worthy of being considered for the No. 1 overall pick. Of the three, Levis treads the fine line of being the most tantalizing yet worrisome.
The former should outweigh the latter, though.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.