Each spring, NFL prospects rocket up mock draft boards for both obvious and inscrutable reasons. Sometimes it’s due to a player’s performance at the NFL combine or pro day where they flash unexpected athleticism (think receiver Denzel Mims’s 4.38 second 40-yard dash at the combine in 2020 or linebacker Jamin Davis and his 4.37 pro-day 40 time in 2021). In other cases, rumors of a particular team’s enthusiasm drives the ascent (think Mac Jones and the talk of San Francisco’s interest in 2021).
This year’s most notable pre-draft riser is Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson — and like Mims and Davis before him, it’s his athleticism and physical traits that have driven his climb. Richardson’s ascent is best illustrated by comparing him with the rock-steady draft stock of 2021 Heisman Trophy winner and consensus No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young of Alabama. Using data collected by Ben Robinson on Grinding the Mocks, we can see that Young’s projected pick number remained remarkably flat throughout the college season and through the draft process.1 Meanwhile, Richardson’s draft stock has jumped from the final third of the first round in December all the way to a possible top-five selection.
It’s also interesting that Richardson’s rise began in earnest after the 2022 college football season ended, but prior to any athletic measurements at the combine. That’s notable because Richardson’s combine performance revealed him to be one of, if not the most athletic quarterbacks ever tested.
Richardson’s athletic ability was obvious on the field all season, so maybe teams just needed time to come to grips with his underwhelming production. Starting for just one year at Florida, Richardson finished the season with a Total QBR of 71.2, good for 24th out of 64 qualified Power Five quarterbacks,2 while throwing 17 touchdowns against nine interceptions with 7.7 yards per dropback. Richardson also added nine TDs and over 600 yards on the ground. And if his overall production was middling at best, Richardson’s pure accuracy was very poor, ranking eighth-worst among qualified Power Five QBs in catchable pass attempt rate (69.9 percent).
To be fair, Richardson threw deep balls at a healthy clip, averaging 9.9 air yards per pass attempt — fifth-highest among Power Five QBS — which can sometimes depress measures of accuracy. But while lots of deep-ball pass attempts might be a mitigating factor for most QB prospects, it turns out the Florida signal-caller actually struggled mightily with his accuracy on shorter passes. Richardson posted the third-worst QBR (33.1) when targeting receivers running shallow routes, and his struggles are probably why he mostly just avoided throwing short altogether: Richardson attempted shallow passes on only 8 percent of his dropbacks, the third-lowest share in the Power Five in 2022.
A lack of accuracy used to be a massive red flag for a quarterback prospect. But with the success in recent years of players like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts, it’s clear that some teams are placing an emphasis on athleticism and physical traits even when there are questions about passing. Those teams appear willing to take the gamble that Richardson, who is still just 20 years old, can grow into an elite NFL talent. And as a result, his draft stock has soared.
Or at least, the public perception of it has. It’s worth noting that pre-draft risers are mostly a media-driven phenomenon — we’re the ones generating the rankings, after all — and not necessarily a reflection of a change in opinion among NFL teams. Perhaps changes in mock drafts simply reveal what front offices have known all along.
Some scouts even claim that there’s no such thing as a draft riser. Others take pains to remind us that mock drafts are entirely ignored by teams because teams have more information than public rankers. Both of these claims should be viewed with skepticism, however.
Public rankings have been shown to be fairly good proxies for non-QB value, so whatever extra information a particular team has access to that the public doesn’t typically isn’t enough to overcome the aggregated opinions of the masses. Moreover, in speaking and working with NFL front offices, there are absolutely teams that pay attention to public mocks, if only so they can better estimate what other teams drafting ahead and behind them might end up doing. So whether or not a pre-draft riser reflects the real-time evolution of NFL teams’ evaluation of a player, or if it’s just the public catching up to what teams already knew, by the time the draft rolls around the two sets of player opinions are roughly equivalent.
And if NFL teams and the public are on similar footing when it comes to players that aren’t QBs, it’s likely true for quarterbacks as well. After all, nobody knows anything about projecting quarterbacks. Extrapolating from the recent successes of “toolsy” prospects who’ve turned teams into Super Bowl contenders ignores a long history of failed prospects that fit the same billing. Likewise, the Brock Purdys of the world help to underline that there’s no skeleton key to winning the QB lottery.
No hard-and-fast rules for finding talent exist — except that you’ll almost certainly lose if you refuse to gamble your premium picks on the position. For upside-heavy QBs like Richardson in particular, it’s like a bizarro world version of “WarGames“: The only winning move is to play.