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Here’s what makes Caleb Williams a special NFL Draft prospect, and why he compares to a legendary QB

February 23rd, 2024

Caleb Williams is a known commodity for any general football fan. A former Heisman Trophy winner with experience at two of the deepest blue blood programs, Oklahoma and USC, Williams has produced both statistics and highlights with the best of them.

That on-field success and off-field notoriety has carried over for Williams as a prospect, with his name sitting firmly at or near the top of team and media big boards since the 2023 draft process wrapped up. Even with a year from hell for the USC program and with a few individual rough moments during the season, Williams still sits as the overwhelmingly likely No. 1 selection, per BetMGM as we enter the week of the NFL scouting combine. Yahoo Sports projects him to go second overall in its latest mock draft.

Why? Well, I took a look at more than a half-dozen of Williams’ games on all-22 film and came away with some detailed answers on what makes him an elite prospect.

Williams’ incredible ability to ad-lib and extend plays, creating positive and explosive gains for the offense when a negative outcome looks likely, is what draws the eyeballs and accolades. And deservedly so! Williams is simply excellent when throwing on the move, and he can attack any area of the football field and punish any defender who’s a step slow or an inch out of place:

This creativity is also the aspect of Williams’ game that leads people to overlook his other attributes and the overall soundness of his game. The thing with Williams, and really the lesson that people have been missing with any lofty comparison to Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers, is that Williams is a strong operator from within the structure of the offense. When Williams is comfortable with the concept and actually given time to be a quarterback, you get to see his arm creativity, polished footwork and the consistent rhythm in which he operates.

Williams has a clean, quick and, most importantly, repeatable throwing motion and footwork on his dropbacks. When simply getting to do straight timing dropbacks from the pocket, or even when throwing quick game or underneath throws like swings and flats, you get to see the accuracy and ball placement that Williams is able to achieve because of these clean mechanics.

This is what is so important to see when watching quarterback prospects; are they able to earn first downs with singles and doubles on quick and precise underneath throws over and over and create those efficient plays and move the chains? Constantly making these right decisions, without the help of play-action or run-pass options, is what raises the floor for a quarterback and leads to sustainability and a healthy offensive ecosystem in general. Williams, when he has a decently clean pocket to operate from, is able to do that. He is able to pepper outside wide receivers on isolated routes and give them opportunities on the ball, even when tightly guarded.

Williams has very good arm strength and is able to drive the ball to the outside or down the field, even within the tight confines of a pocket in the USC offense (more on the woeful Trojan offensive line in a moment). Williams loves to challenge defenses over the top, either right after a hitch in the pocket or while on the move on a broken play. This deep ball aggression makes defenses honor what can happen behind them and helps create space for the run game and throws underneath, which is wildly important in a modern NFL offense.

His ability to alter the velocity and trajectory of the football shows up with how he is able to layer throws to the intermediate areas or against man coverage, where reading and attacking leverage matters so much for where quarterbacks decide to locate the football. For Williams, this applies to all three levels.

That arm strength gives Williams (and any quarterback) the room for error if he does end up late on throws, but Williams has the ability to make throws all around the field with anticipation. This allows him to open up opportunities for his pass catchers and create room for them to operate with the football, whether it’s on a quick screen or an out-breaker toward the sideline.

Another polished aspect of Williams’ game is his movement in the pocket to get throws off and to keep working through progressions. When his offensive line is staying (mostly) upright, Williams does a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield with two hands on the football and using subtle and exaggerated movements away from possible pressures and eking out that extra half-second for a route to come open.

Mitigating sacks and creating, at the very least, net-neutral plays is what the best quarterbacks in the NFL do. Williams will at times get in trouble when looking to make a play when pressured, but he also shows a real knack for navigating instant pressure and keeping the offense afloat, or even helping the offense thrive in those situations.

Williams’ creation stuff is real. And it’s fantastic. But all too often it was needed in USC’s offense.

On essentially every single drive you watch of USC’s offense, there was Williams having to break glass in case of emergency. I first thought I would start studying Williams and think that he had the bad habit of calling his own number too early instead of letting the offense work. Instead, it’s the opposite. I actually came away more impressed with how many times Williams had to save broken play designs or shoddy execution from his teammates.

USC’s pass protection was constantly woeful once they entered conference play, with different presenters taking turns on turning around to tell Williams to “look out.” All too often Williams was unable to even get set in the pocket to try and launch down the field (Williams was pressured on 33.6% of his dropbacks in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus, 16th-highest among 71 qualifying FBS quarterbacks), especially on deeper and longer-developing play-action concepts. This led to USC’s offense have long stretches of feeling “tight” and inconsistent as those explosive-seeking pass concepts went askew and the offense had to rely on more quick-hitting concepts.

Willliams’ worst plays seem to come up consistently in these types of situations, at least against better opponents. When the pocket got muddy or he got knocked off his launch point, that was when Williams would instantly switch into creation mode and sometimes make a bad play worse. Creation mode for Williams has the highest of highs you could hope to see out of any quarterback, but also some real lows when pass rushers were able to corral Williams in the pocket or he started to press and try to create a big play, leading to sacks, ill-advised throws and turnovers.

Williams showed plenty of times the ability to escape the pressure and scramble or find a late-leaking check down or launch something down the field. But over time, if the pressure was constant in a game like against Washington or California, then Williams’ eyes started to drift down and at the pass rush as he looked to sift his way through the bodies, instead of trying to sort out what’s happening in the coverage. Since his eyes aren’t looking downfield, this is when the offense started to stall, essentially succeeding or failing at the whims of a guard or tackle’s ability to block or if Williams could get an answer in under two seconds (or over five). The negative plays would start to creep in and the explosive ones would dry up, leading to constant extra long passing down situations for Williams to try and manage. USC simply had to hope that Williams was able to break contain once again or else it was another frustrating three-and-out.

The woes of USC’s offense applies to their pass catchers and some of the general design as well. Drops were frequent and, all too often, receivers were completely covered or multiple players would be next to each other with their route distribution, killing the spacing on concepts and forcing Williams to throw the ball away or try and find an answer somewhere else on a given play. Other times, when there wasn’t another route working into Williams’ vision, his progression essentially turned into a one-and-done checklist.

That lack of faith in the design and execution of the plays led to Williams turning down open throws, particularly ones over the middle, to instead opt to extend the play into something off script.

This isn’t a completely damning problem, but it does crop up for Williams. He generally does a good job of choosing when to scramble or extend a play, but he sometimes sacrifices pulling the trigger on an easier answer that was presented on the concept for a mystery box answer. And when Williams starts to guess as to where his next answer could be, then his footwork started to unravel and throws became more and more inaccurate.

This showed up the most in USC’s 48-20 loss to Notre Dame this past season. Notre Dame constantly changed the picture on Williams and forced him off of his initial read or generated pressure and moved him off of his launch point, leading to three interceptions and less than 200 yards of total offense for Williams.

This feel for when to harness that dynamism is something all quarterbacks have to learn to do at all levels, especially the professional one; when to dink and dunk and play the structure of the music or when to clear everyone else out and start your own jazz solo. Like a point guard in basketball figuring out when to feed his teammates with a simple bounce pass, when to throw something behind-the-back or when to take the ball to the rack, the equation for each quarterback is different depending on their own ability and their teammates’ talent level. Williams shows plenty of plays where he’s able to operate in the “two seconds or less” world of the NFL, but there will be a learning curve for him at the next level, one that isn’t entirely his fault because he wasn’t able to develop this consistently in his last year at USC. He will have to learn his exact formula for when to use his legs, when to pizzazz-up the throw and when to simply be the metronome of the offense and take the simple answers. He shows the ability to do so, but like with essentially every prospect in any sport, it’s just a matter of consistency and feeling the need to chase and press so early in games.

(The lack of detail in the USC offense and Williams’ stunted development also makes me a tad worried if he ends up back with his college offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who is now with the Washington Commanders in the same role and whose team holds the second overall selection).

Williams’ height (he was listed 6-foot-1 in college) will bring natural concerns for how well he can manage working over the middle of the field as a thrower, but it’s not a huge concern for me when watching him. There were plenty of instances of Williams working to that portion of the field while in structure.

Quarterbacks under 210 pounds do give me concern with how I project them to the next level because of durability and ability to escape defenders’ grasps in the pocket, but Williams has a sturdy frame and was listed above that threshold (215 pounds). His frame and strength actually allows Williams to be a strong runner with excellent balance running through contact, with his acceleration allowing him to get to the edge on designed runs or when attempting to race out of the pocket.

I also think Williams’ toughness and strength as a runner have gone underrated in this process. There were several instances when Williams lowered his shoulder into larger defenders to get an extra yard or across the goal line, resulting in huge plays and elation from his teammates.

That toughness, agility, acceleration and balance reminds me more of a world-class dribbling soccer player than anything I can think of football-wise. Weaving through defenders, trying to hack at the ball before flicking a pass over or around them. So much so that I had to throw out comparison to former Brazilian legend Garrincha:

For an American football comparison, the player that came to mind to me was Drew Brees when he was coming out of Purdue as a prospect (yes, really.)

Brees’ height and frame (6-1, 213 pounds) at the NFL combine over 20 years ago was nearly identical to what Williams was listed at in college. Both were accurate and had very good arms (this was pre-shoulder surgery Brees) and the ability to operate quickly from structure or create outside of it, with some real scrambling ability to boot (Brees rushed for more yards as a senior in collegew than Williams did in his final two seasons combined at USC).

Comparisons are more for fun, so don’t take this exactly as a one-to-one example or that I’m saying Williams is literally going to become Brees and is guaranteed for Canton (Drew Brees wasn’t even Drew Brees in the NFL until his fourth season in San Diego, and the Chargers drafted Philip Rivers for a reason). But there are more similarities with a young Brees and Williams as prospects than you’d initially think, especially that excellent accuracy and zip from on-and-off-platform throw locations.

Overall, Williams is a prospect that looks like the prize that many have anointed him as. He looks like a true franchise quarterback that your team wins because of on a weekly basis. He is not without his blemishes (and I still slightly prefer Drake Maye as my QB1 in this process, but it truly is a 1A/1B), but there is already a lot to like with Williams. There might be an adjustment process during a portion of his rookie campaign as he learns what he can and cannot get away with as a playmaker, but there are other aspects of Williams’ game that can help ease that transition period. His arm talent, creativity, athleticism, and willingness to try for explosive plays, and ability to achieve them, while also mitigating the damage of his surroundings, are the trains that lift the ceiling of an offense and are so coveted by NFL teams. And Williams has that chance to be the needle-mover, whether it’s with his arms, legs or anything in-between.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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