Best and worst-case scenarios for first-round QBs: Why Caleb Williams could bust, JJ McCarthy could star in 2024 NFL Draft

Everyone believes the quarterback they select a first-round pick is destined for stardom. Just take the 2021 NFL Draft for example.

Trevor Lawrence was a lock to challenge the best quarterbacks in the NFL right away. Zach Wilson was finally going to turn around the long-term QB woes of the Jets. Trey Lance was going to provide an element of explosiveness for the 49ers. Justin Fields appeared to be a franchise quarterback in Chicago. Mac Jones appeared to be Tom Brady’s heir in New England.

Fast-forward only three years later. Lawrence has had his ups and downs. The others are all backups, with only Wilson remaining with the team that drafted him … though maybe not for long

But then take a look at the 2020 NFL Draft. Joe Burrow has led the Bengals to the Super Bowl and is the highest-paid player in NFL history. Tua Tagovailoa has been among the sport’s most accurate passers and has powered a top offense. Justin Herbert has shown elite skills despite a less-than-stellar supporting cast. Jordan Love waited his turn behind Aaron Rodgers and led the Packers to a playoff win in his first season as Green Bay’s starter.

MORE: QB-only mock draft

No one actually knows what will happen with their first-round quarterbacks. Even with all the advances in scouting and analysis, quarterbacks still have among the most variability of any position in the first round of the draft. So much of the success or failure of quarterbacks can come down to supporting cast in the NFL. There are also times where a lone weakness for a quarterback winds up being what ultimately dooms his chances as a pro.

Then there are other times where a quarterback winds up being exactly what many expected, or even better. The situation works out as a perfect pairing, the development goes along perfectly and the quarterback winds up becoming a reliable starter or a star in the league.

What are the range of outcomes for these quarterbacks? Sporting News takes a look at each quarterback that could land in the first round.

Best-case and worst-case scenarios for first-round QBs

Caleb Williams

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Caleb Williams

Best case: Patrick Mahomes with wheels

You’ve all heard the comps before. Williams’ improvisational skills remind many of the ability of the star Chiefs quarterback. Most impressive for Williams is that he does not panic when the play breaks down and immediately try to scramble. Instead, he will attempt to find space on the field as he scans for an open receiver.

Williams does more than just improvise. He has a rocket arm with impressive accuracy, and he can make throws from different arm angles, which also remind many of Mahomes.

When Williams does need to move, he can jet. Mahomes has been an effective scrambler by picking his spots to run, but Williams will actually be capable of scorching defenses when he gets out into the open field. It’s not Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields speed, but he’s quicker than Mahomes.

The sky is the limit for Williams, who has it in him to one day be considered among the best in the NFL.

Worst case: Slower Justin Fields

Those improvisational skills sure are fun. What isn’t fun? Hanging onto the ball for too long. USC did not provide Williams with much help at offensive line or receiver, but there were plenty of sacks Williams absorbed during the season where he kept waiting for something to open up and wound up losing massive yardage.

The raw tools are still explosive. Who else has raw tools? Fields. He has a rocket arm who was able to fit passes into tight windows at Ohio State, but as with many young quarterbacks, he struggled early with his accuracy and precision and it never bounced back. Williams might have a better arm more likely to stay accurate, but he also isn’t as fast and won’t be able to rack up 100-yard rushing games the way Fields did.

As the great Kenny Rogers said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Williams knows when to run and when to hold ’em, but he doesn’t know when to fold ’em. He’ll need to get better at that, or he’ll be walking away too many times after drive-killing sacks.

MORE: Williams responds to Greg McElroy criticism on Twitter

Jayden Daniels

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Jayden Daniels

Best case: 2019 and 2023 Lamar Jackson

Like Williams, the best-case scenario for Daniels is an MVP-level quarterback. The comparison for Daniels is obviously Jackson. Both are slim quarterbacks who combine elite speed with a powerful arm that can make throws at all levels of the field.

If positioned correctly, Daniels has the potential to be among the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL, the kind an entire offense can flow through even if the supporting cast is a bit lackluster. He can singlehandedly make plays happen with his legs, which could help open up the passing game if defenses are expecting an option or a QB run.

There are certain attributes that can’t be taught. Speed and arm strength are two of them. There is some polishing still left in Daniels’ game, but the team that drafts him will get a player capable of doing things only Jackson can do on the field.

Worst case: 2021 Lamar Jackson

That speed isn’t going anywhere when he arrives in the NFL. But you can’t run if you can’t stay on the field. Daniels’ slender frame has concerned many evaluators that he might battle injuries in the NFL since he won’t always be able to out-run tackles the way he did at LSU.

Like Jackson, his shiftiness can be his best friend and his worst enemy. He’s reticent to slide, and it leads to bigger hits. Though Jackson’s injuries have not come from his mobility, he also dealt with injuries in 2021 and 2022, and has been elite the other seasons.

Why 2021 Jackson? That’s also the season Jackson struggled the most with turnovers. Daniels could improve in reading the field and making sure he doesn’t lock onto his first target or give up on a play too early. If that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to see him becoming more turnover-prone as he progresses in his career.

MORE: Tracking all the Jayden Daniels draft rumors

Drake Maye

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Drake Maye

Best case: Mobile Carson Palmer

No one is going to confuse Maye for Williams or Daniels in the mobility department, but he might have the best pure arm traits of any quarterback in the class. He’s drawn comparisons to Justin Herbert, but we’re going back a little bit more to look at him compared to Palmer.

The former Bengals and Cardinals quarterback also had a strong arm capable of pushing the offense down the field. Only an inch taller than the 6-4 Maye, Palmer was also a physical presence who could fight through defenders and scramble as needed, but more than anything was best at shifting when sensing pressure and getting a throw away. Maye has a bit more speed, however, and should have a chance to at least put the threat of running in the minds of defenders.

Palmer was prone to some interceptions, and Maye is likely going to have that issue as well. But the best-case scenario is a quarterback where you can live with the turnovers because there are more highlights than low-lights.

Worst case: Rookie Josh Allen

Does that last sentence sound familiar? It’s basically how Bills’ fans describe modern-day Allen. But what if Allen never took that next step? That’s the worst-case for Maye.

Allen threw 12 picks to only 10 touchdowns as a rookie with a completion percentage of 52.8 percent. There was clear upside in the raw traits, but the decision-making left a lot to be desired and he often trusted his arm too much to make impossible throws, which, in fact, were actually impossible.

There are concerns about Maye being loose with the ball and making poor decisions. Those issues are going to be at their most prominent as a rookie. If he can improve as Allen has, Maye has similar upside. But there’s also a world where he doesn’t progress beyond Allen rookie season level.

MORE: Latest draft rumors surrounding Drake Maye

J.J. McCarthy

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J.J. McCarthy

Best case: What optimists thought Zach Wilson would be

There are going to be some who read that and wonder why in the world Wilson is in the “best-case scenario” section. Remember, this is what optimists thought he could be. There’s a reason Wilson was taken second overall. And there’s a reason McCarthy could go high.

Both are largely viewed as project QBs — Wilson due to his lack of experience against top teams, McCarthy due to being limited in what was asked of him at Michigan. When McCarthy is at his best, he shows off an accurate arm capable of fitting passes into tight windows all while offering the mobility to hurt defenses who allow him to escape the pocket.

Wilson had differences as a prospect compared to McCarthy. Wilson had a stronger arm and was more prone to trying to hit the big shot than settle for the easy throws. But if everything had worked out right for him, many saw a quarterback who could burn teams with his legs while offering the precision to make throws anywhere on the field. McCarthy has the accuracy part and could have some hidden arm strength if he’s asked to put it more on display.

Worst case: What pessimists thought Jalen Hurts would be

On the flip side, it’s hard to see Hurts as anyone’s “worst-case scenario.” But remember when he was benched for Tagovailoa at Alabama? And remember his first two years in Philadelphia? He has proven many people wrong, but there were plenty who doubted his potential.

Hurts played at Alabama where every teammate protecting him or catching passes from him was more talented than their opposite number. He then played at Oklahoma in a quarterback-friendly system that maximized QB production. There were many who thought his future as a starter would include impressive runs and decent accuracy numbers but struggles with accuracy.

If McCarthy in fact can’t take the next step, it probably looks like a quarterback who provides a high-enough floor as a mobile game manager, but perhaps never offers a ceiling high enough that he looks like a guy capable of leading anyone short than a 49ers-level team to a Super Bowl.

MORE: Tracking latest J.J. McCarthy NFL draft rumors

Michael Penix Jr.

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Michael Penix Jr.

Best case: Left-handed C.J. Stroud

The lazy comparison is Tagovailoa. How many times do you see left-handed QBs starting in the NFL? Not often. But last year’s Rookie of the Year might be the better comparison.

Stroud has a strong arm who thrived in the deep passing game. Though he had mobility in college, he often didn’t need to show it because his NFL-caliber receivers would make most contested catches or simply be open, and his offensive line gave him plenty of protection.

Penix had NFL-caliber receivers and perhaps the best offensive line in college football in 2023, and he cooked defenses routinely. Penix has a rocket arm capable of accurate, deep throws, which sets him apart from other players simply capable of throwing it far. His mobility could wind up surprising some as he showed in offseason workouts. Even though he was surrounded by overwhelming talent in college — and had his woes against Michigan — Penix has the potential to be a standout passer in the NFL.

Worst case: Left-handed Mac Jones

There was another quarterback surrounded by star talent in college who could fling a nice deep ball. That would be Jones, who didn’t win the Heisman Trophy in part because his teammate, wide receiver DeVonta Smith, was so good that he took home the award. The Crimson Tide also shredded opponents en route to a national championship and Jones was never really tested.

Penix battled injuries for much of his career when he wasn’t surrounded by stars, but since arriving at Washington, he’s been loaded with a stout supporting cast, which meant he has largely been asked to throw the ball up and assume someone will make a play. Like Jones, he’s an accurate passer, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right read, something Jones struggled with in the NFL.

The worst case for Penix is that he struggles with turnovers, putting too much trust in receivers to make plays, particularly when he’s rushed into making a quick decision behind what could be a less-than-stellar offensive line.

MORE: How 2024 could set NFL record for top 10 QBs selected

Bo Nix Oregon

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Bo Nix

Best case: Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers’ Version)

Do you want a quarterback who does just about everything well even if none of it is great? That’s Garoppolo Nix. The Oregon quarterback was asked to throw a lot, even if he was never asked to do much when throwing it. He was not a prolific deep passer and he did not race past defenders, but he was consistent in completing passes and running when he needed to.

Nix certainly has more mobility than Garoppolo, who has never been a major burner, but there are plenty of similarities to their physical stature and their passing abilities. They both stand 6-2 and aren’t far off in weight (Nix at 214, Garoppolo at 225). Garoppolo was an accurate passer throughout his San Francisco tenure, completing 67.6 percent of his passes, even if he was not often asked to heave it downfield.

Look, the term “game manager” tends to take on a negative connotation. But as Brock Purdy and Garoppolo have both shown, you can get to the Super Bowl as a game manager. Nix has the potential to be the perfect point guard for an offense as someone who will hit open receivers, reads coverage well and move if it is asked of him.

Worst case: Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders’ Version)

What happens when a game manager ends up in the wrong situation? You get 2023 Garoppolo, where he led the league in interceptions before battling injuries and was ultimately benched.

Nix has not thrown many interceptions in his long collegiate football career, but he also was throwing quick, short passes at Oregon behind a stellar offensive line and letting his receivers do plenty of the damage. Going to the NFL, it will be a different and likely more challenging situation where the talent gap between his guys and the other guys is not as wide. Sound familiar?

There’s the chance that if placed in the wrong situation, Nix will have too much asked of him, where he tries to do too much and makes mistakes. If that’s the case, there’s real risk that he goes from someone who had only three interceptions in his final year at Oregon to a guy with plenty of picks as he struggles with the reality of the NFL game.

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