Taking stock of the NFL’s young quarterbacks after Week 2 of the preseason
Week 2 of the preseason is usually an opportunity to get a more honest look at both NFL teams and individual players than Week 1. Starters tend to play a bit longer, teams get a little deeper into the playbook. and with roster cuts creeping up and depth charts soon to be set, the urgency to perform well gets a little greater. That provides us a good opportunity to take stock of the league’s young quarterbacks and check in on their progress.
Bryce Young, Carolina
It was a quiet performance for Young on Friday night, as he went 3-6 for 35 yards in a 21-19 loss to the Giants. Young played just two series, the first of which was a three-and-out. His second series was much better, lasting 15 plays, covering 62 yards and consuming more than 10 minutes of game clock. Young extended the drive with a nice third-down completion to Adam Theilin near midfield, and he got some help from the Giants on a roughing the passer penalty after a 3rd-and-9 incompletion that would have produced a punt. But Young faltered in the red zone, taking a sack on a 2nd-and-9 play from the +10-yard-line and following up with a delay of game penalty. That’s most likely how it will go for Young and the Panthers this season. The ups-and-downs may be frustrating, but they’ll be par for the course when starting a rookie QB.
C.J. Stroud, Houston
Young’s classmate from April’s draft was better than last week, when he was picked off on his first NFL possession. The Texans were rocked by Miami, though, 28-3, which is likely to be a common occurrence this season. Stroud’s progress will have to be gauged through that lens, as he has a much weaker roster around him than does Young in Carolina. He played the entire first half on Saturday, finishing 7-12 passing for 60 yards and producing three points on four possessions. On the field goal drive, Stroud completed five straight passes and was able to get the football out of his hand quickly. That’s the type of progress the Texans want to see right now. Is he improving on the ordinary things, like his footwork, his pocket presence and his reads? Ultimately, this is not the measuring stick on which Stroud will be judged. For now, though, it’s progress.
Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis
The other high-profile rookie QB from this year’s draft class, and the newly-named starter in Indianapolis, did not play on Saturday against Chicago. The Colts held joint practices with the Bears earlier in the week, and head coach Shane Steichen must have seen enough from Richardson to decide he’d let Gardnew Minshew and Sam Ehlinger play instead. Richardson remains an enigma given his blend of incredible athleticism, relative inexperience and intriguing fit in Steichen’s offense. Will he be sensational? Will he be overmatched? It feels like any chance to see him play is must-see TV. Unfortunately, fans will have to wait another week to see it.
Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas
Don’t look now, but the best QB from this year’s draft class through two pre-season games has been Vegas’s O’Connell, a fourth-round pick from Purdue who went 11-18 for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-17 win over the Rams. O’Connell has gone 26-36 for 304 yards with three TDs and no interceptions through two games while leading Las Vegas to 38 points in the nine drives he’s played. That’s 4.2 points per drive, or about double the typical league average. O’Connell is making a strong case to supplant veteran Brian Hoyer as Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup. Hoyer led seven drives for Vegas against the Rams, and the only points that were scored came on a pick-six by linebacker Jacob Hummel. Hoyer has experience in head coach Josh McDaniels’ system, but if the decision comes down to play on the field this pre-season, the competition hasn’t been close.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
If O’Connell has been the best of the 2023 quarterback class, Pickett has earned that honor so far among 2022 QBs. The sample size has been small but flawless. Through two games, Pickett has played three drives, all of which have produced touchdowns. He was 3-4 for 43 yards and a touchdown Saturday against Buffalo, and is 9-11 for 113 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions this pre-season. Again, small sample size, but everything looks and feels different about him. Pickett is bigger and stronger, is displaying more confidence, better familiarity with the system and has become the unquestioned leader of the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers have outscored Tampa Bay and Buffalo 38-7 through the first half of their two pre-season games, during the time the starters most typically play. There may be nothing to read into there. Or, with a confident QB and a host of young skill players ready to make a leap, Pittsburgh could be much better this season than anticipated.
Desmond Ridder, Atlanta
Ridder was 7-9 for 80 yards in Atlanta’s 13-13 tie with Cincinnati. It was Ridder’s preseason debut and he looked sharp in his one possession, driving the Falcons from their own 16-yard-line to the Cincinnati 6 before throwing an interception off a deflected pass. Ridder has been praised by coaches and teammates alike this summer for his progress, both on and off the field. Like Pickett, he appears to growing into a leadership role and assuming command of a young and talented Falcons offense. Ridder was up-and-down in four starts last year as a rookie, and Atlanta will need him to be more consistent as a passer to effectively supplement their strong rushing attack. One possession won’t determine that, but the early signs are encouraging.
Malik Willis, Tennessee
After a disastrous rookie campaign in which the former Liberty signal-caller was exposed as being far from NFL-ready, Willis has made progress. He went the entire way for Tennessee at quarterback on Saturday in their 24-16 win over the Vikings. His passing statistics were far from impressive — 10-17 for 85 yards and an interception against a Minnesota lineup that was heavy on backups — but he rushed for 91 of Tennessee’s 281 yards as the Titans dominated up front. Willis still has a long way to go to become a starting quarterback in the league. His reads are slow, his accuracy is shaky and he makes too many bad decisions with the football. But his athleticism makes him a threat on the ground and the fact the Titans could play him bell-to-bell on Saturday and win a football game represents significant improvement from a year ago. It’s baby steps for Willis right now, but at least he’s making them.