NFL Draft Analyst
There was a time when winning the Heisman Trophy did not necessarily mean that a player was highly regarded by the NFL. That era is over, however, with four of the past six winners not only becoming first-round picks, but going No. 1 overall.
The only exceptions?
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who was selected 10th overall by Philadelphia in 2020 and, of course, last year’s winner — USC quarterback Caleb Williams — who is hoping to join former Ohio State great Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners in Heisman history.
If the NFL follows my personal Big Board, Williams will be the No. 1 overall selection this spring, now that he is draft-eligible.
So, with college football’s 2023 regular season officially reaching the midway point this week, we thought it was time to handicap the Heisman race, while also evaluating their chances at maintaining super-stardom in the NFL.
Players are listed in order of their current odds of winning the Heisman, as set here.
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Michael Penix Jr., Washington, 6-3, 218, senior (Odds +210)
The Heisman has become almost exclusively an award for quarterbacks, with 17 of the past 20 winners playing the position. Each of the 10 players currently listed as favorites are quarterbacks, too. Given that fact, it is hard to overlook the consistency and production as a passer that Penix has shown in 2023, completing at least 72.5% of his passes in every game so far while guiding the undefeated Huskies to No. 6 in the latest coaches poll. What makes Penix’s completion rate so impressive is that thus far he’s attempting longer, more complicated throws than anyone else on this list, averaging an eye-popping 11.2 yards per attempt. Penix leads the country in passing yards per game, averaging 399.8 yards per contest; more than 60 yards ahead of the next quarterback (Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders). He has thrown 16 touchdowns with only two interceptions during that time.
Scouting report: There is no denying that Penix is a gifted pocket passer who can make every throw, blending precision, velocity and touch. Furthermore, he has good size and is a composed, confident leader. That said, scouts have concerns about how his production at Washington (and previously at Indiana) translate to the NFL, just as they did a year ago with then-University of Tennessee star Hendon Hooker. Huskies’ head coach Kalen DeBoer and Tennessee’s Josh Heupel have created quarterback-friendly spread offenses that simplify the reads their quarterbacks are making while delivering the ball to them out of the shotgun on virtually every snap. The passers will quite literally be making twice as many reads in half the time (when under center) in the NFL. Penix could ease these concerns by participating (and performing well) in a postseason all-star game, such as the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Bowl. The fact that Penix is an older prospect (he turns 24 in May) on a surgically repaired knee also may complicate his final draft standing, perhaps pushing him into Day 2.
Caleb Williams, USC, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, junior (Odds +230)
Despite being held to a season-low 219 passing yards (and 56% completion rate) in this past Saturday’s overtime win at home to Arizona, Williams remains one of the top favorites in the 2023 Heisman race, leading the undefeated Trojans to a dramatic come-from-behind victory with a career-high three rushing touchdowns. Williams owns a sparkling 28-2 touchdown-to-turnover ratio and has the stage to sweep the “supporting actors” off it with high-profile matchups against top-20 teams like Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Oregon over the next month.
Scouting report: Should he opt to enter the 2024 NFL draft, the junior is widely expected to contend for No. 1 overall honors. While a few inches shorter than preferred, Williams has a compact, well-muscled frame, good mobility in and out of the pocket, and exceptional accuracy to all levels of the field, including when on the move. Williams’ greatest attribute is his ability to improvise as the play breaks down. His creativity and composure in these moments are highly prized in quarterbacks, and examples of the traits that cannot be coached.
Should Caleb Williams return to USC if Bears land No. 1 pick?
Bo Nix, Oregon, 6-2, 217, senior (Odds +600)
Nix may rank a distant third on this list for now, but if he is able to outduel the aforementioned Penix in Saturday’s showdown in Seattle, he and the undefeated Ducks will be flying high in both the Heisman campaign and coaches poll. Despite generating 8,251 total yards and 47 touchdowns (against 23 turnovers) in three years as a starter at Auburn, Nix left amid plenty of criticism. In Eugene, however, he’s emerged as one of the best dual-threats in the game, leading all FBS quarterbacks with 14 rushing touchdowns in 2022 while also completing a school-record 71.9% of his passes, which was good for second in the country. Nix only has one rushing touchdown thus far in 2023, but he’s currently leading the nation with a staggering 80.4% completion rate with 15 touchdowns thrown against just one interception.
Scouting report: Nix is as physically gifted as any player on this list, boasting a rocket for an arm, top-notch athleticism and a compact, well-developed frame. There are some warts in his technique, however. Nix throws the ball with a whipping motion, making himself effectively shorter with a ¾-release that could lead to passes being batted down more frequently in the NFL. Like a lot of passers with this kind of release, he’s better on passes requiring zip than touch. Most importantly, Nix has not consistently shown the ideal “clutch” factor expected of a star quarterback. Dating back to his time at Auburn, some of his biggest mistakes have come at the most inopportune times, including last year in a home loss to the Huskies and in the “Civil War” loss to Oregon State, two of the Ducks’ most hated rivals. Nix countered this perception to conclude last season, however, delivering a dramatic Holiday Bowl win over North Carolina by tossing the game-winner (with pressure in his face) with just 24 seconds remaining. Regardless of the Heisman race, taming the Dawgs this weekend in Seattle could make Nix the betting favorite to be the first senior quarterback selected in the 2024 NFL draft.
Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma, 5-11, 204, senior (Odds +1200)
If calm in the face of pressure were to become the critical factor in determining the Heisman Trophy winner, Gabriel might just top this list, especially following his clutch touchdown toss with just 15 seconds remaining to upset then-No. 3 Texas in the Red River Rivalry. The game-winner was Gabriel’s only touchdown toss of the day, but he connected on 23 of his 38 passes for 285 yards and ran for another 113 yards and a score in the dramatic victory. The win not only pushed Oklahoma to 6-0 but gave Gabriel the biggest “quality win” of any of the Heisman contenders. Gabriel, who previously starred at Central Florida, is completing a career-high 72.3% of his passes for 1,878 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air with another 208 yards and five scores on the ground. He has thrown just two interceptions and fumbled once this season, owning a career 131-29 touchdown-to-turnover rate.
Scouting report: The left-handed Gabriel is a cerebral and gutty quarterback who is sure to be a favorite of coaches because of his natural playmaking ability and mettle under pressure. He will not be as highly regarded by scouts, however, who will see his below-average height and tendency to throw off his back foot as real detriments. Gabriel is a talented passer, deftly lofting deep balls downfield where the speedy Sooners wideouts can run underneath them. He struggles to see over the behemoths at the line of scrimmage on shorter and intermediate routes, however, and therefore throws the ball into coverage, at times. At this point, he is a middle-to-late-round prospect, though one who I believe has the moxie to ultimately out-perform his draft selection.
Jordan Travis, Florida State, 6-1, 212, senior (Odds +1600)
It has been 10 years since Jameis Winston and the Seminoles won the national championship, helping the freshman quarterback win the Heisman Trophy. History could be repeating itself in Tallahassee with Travis, whose gutty play led FSU to a key interconference victory over LSU to kick off the season, as well as subsequent victories over ACC rivals Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech the past three weeks. That is an impressive list of wins to start the season and, frankly, a stark contrast to some of the opponents faced by others on this list. Travis’ statistics may lack the fantasy football element of some of his peers, but he’s been deadly efficient, tossing 12 touchdowns against just one interception thus far this season, with another two scores on the ground.
Scouting report: Travis is going to be a fascinating evaluation for NFL scouts. There is almost a frenetic speed to his game that can make him nearly impossible to defend, but which also causes him to put the ball in harm’s way more often than one might think, given his statistics. Travis does a nice job of looking one way and throwing another — a testament to his pre-snap recognition — but at times he throws the ball into coverage as a result, trusting his own accuracy and his teammates to make plays. Travis is very quick in both his decision-making and release, and he flashes terrific accuracy to all levels of the field, but he does not possess the stature or arm strength scouts would prefer. Travis lacks elite traits, but he is among the top senior quarterback prospects and a legitimate Day 2 candidate with the savvy, accuracy and leadership characteristics to project as a potential future NFL starter.
Drake Maye, North Carolina, 6-4, 230, redshirt sophomore (Odds +1800)
While there is no denying that his personal statistics pale in comparison to some of the other star quarterbacks on this list, with key wins over quality teams from the SEC (South Carolina), Big Ten (Minnesota) and ACC (Pitt, Syracuse) to start the season, Maye and North Carolina are quietly becoming one of the key stories of this season. In this era of video game-like numbers from quarterbacks, Maye’s relatively ho-hum 8-4 touchdown to interception ratio over five games may not excite the analytics crowd, but if he continues to win, it will be clear that his impact goes far beyond statistics.
Scouting report: NFL scouts certainly recognize Maye’s talent. Maye checked in No. 2 overall on my personal Big Board, and I can assure you that other pro scouts feel similarly about the cerebral and prototypically-built passer. While it is his anticipation and accuracy from the pocket that has talent evaluators most excited about his future, Maye is no slouch from an athletic perspective. He has 11 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons (four so far this year) and isn’t blessed with the virtual all-star team around him that some of his peers boast, absorbing 11 sacks over his first five games this season and repeatedly throwing his receivers open.
J.J. McCarthy, Michigan, 6-3, 202, junior (Odds +2200)
If you’re looking to make a wager on this year’s Heisman Trophy, McCarthy might be the perfect dark horse candidate. It seems silly to characterize the undefeated and currently No. 2 ranked team’s star quarterback as a “sleeper,” for this award, but given the latest odds and the fact that the meat of the Wolverines’ conference schedule lies ahead of them — including this week against Indiana — McCarthy is a legitimate threat to steal the hardware with a late push. Following Saturday’s game against the Hoosiers, the Wolverines face in-state rival Michigan State, plus have key November clashes against Penn State and Ohio State, both legitimate title contenders themselves. The talented junior is completing a career-high 77.3% of his passes for 1,290 yards and 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions and has run for three more scores. McCarthy’s biggest hurdle for a Heisman run may, in fact, be that his teammate, Blake Corum, is a contender himself. The star running back currently leads the country with 10 rushing touchdowns through the first six games of the season.
Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy joins Joel Klatt on ‘Breaking The Huddle’
Scouting report: Michigan’s heavy reliance on the running game might lose McCarthy some votes with the analytics crowd, but it certainly will not with NFL scouts. McCarthy is easily the best NFL QB prospect Jim Harbaugh has had since taking over at Michigan nearly a decade ago (2015). He possesses a rocket for a right arm, driving the ball to the opposite hash on the deep and intermediate pro-style passes that are a staple of Harbaugh’s scheme. Though he’s just 20, McCarthy already looks heavier than his listed size, showing good overall musculature with the frame to support at least another 10-15 pounds. He’s also a creative, nimble runner that defenses must account for. Scouts traveling through Ann Arbor rave about his composure and leadership, as well. To be clear, there are still some wrinkles in his game to work through. McCarthy currently throws with better velocity than touch, and he will stare down his primary option, at times. Further, he needs to play better against lesser competition. All three of his interceptions this season came against Bowling Green, for example. But McCarthy possesses the rare tools that could one day make him a first-round pick — something Michigan has not seen since Harbaugh himself was selected 26th overall by the Chicago Bears back in 1987.
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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