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The Warning Label On This Top 2024 NFL Draft Prospect

It’s never too early to speculate about the NFL. While it’s true that the 2023 draft hasn’t happened yet, the active offseason that the transfer portal has created has already gotten people thinking about the next draft. Particularly, the buzz around Mr. Heisman, Caleb Williams, the protege of supposed savant Lincoln Riley, has skyrocketed. Here’s why that buzz needs to be tempered a bit heading into the next NFL draft.

Why The NFL Likes Caleb

Caleb, of course, is heralded this way for a reason. He had over 4200 yards passing last season with a whopping 42 TDs to just 5 interceptions. He added 10 touchdowns on the ground, and overall, put up a Heisman-caliber stat line. He led his team to wins, and USC finished with an impressive 11-3 record.

As a quarterback, he has amazing raw talent. His arm is explosive and the mechanics behind it are sound. He knows how to exploit defensive weaknesses for big plays, and how to find the open receivers. His biggest strength is his dynamicism. Not only is he fast, but he’s also agile and elusive, and for the slower Pac-12 defenses he faced, catching him was nearly impossible, so when pressure was able to build, he was usually able to get out of it.

Watching his dominance and ability to take over games so early in his career unsurprisingly has led to a lot of hype as far as Caleb’s potential NFL career is concerned.

Hazard: What Happens When Talented NFL Defenses Come To The Forefront?

In the Big 12 at OU, and especially in the Pac 12 at USC, Caleb faced a series of hapless defenses. He seldomly felt pass rush, and when he did, the rushers didn’t have the speed, agility, or football sense to keep up with him. More often that not, he had an open receiver to throw to, as the all-star lineup of transfers that Lincoln Riley assembled easily outran their matchups in a “defense doesn’t matter” version of the Pac 12.

He rarely had to be in hostile road environments (this season when he has to play Oregon and Washington will be a test of that), and when he did (at Baylor, at Kansas, at Oregon State, at Oklahoma State), he lost more often than not. When tight coverage comes into play, he often overplays and tries to play hero ball, and ends up throwing uncharacteristic interceptions. While this could be a problem of the past, no defense that could test that came to play against USC. The NFL could be a sobering reality for him in that sense.

Hazard: Lincoln Riley Quarterbacks

On paper, one may think “what is this guy talking about? Look at the Heisman winners and top draft picks Lincoln has produced! What about Jalen Hurts?”. The onion needs to be peeled more, though. Mayfield was a transfer, Murray was a transfer, but it is true that those two experienced a majority of their development under Riley.

Hurts was already a top-caliber quarterback under Saban and won a national championship with Alabama before coming to OU, and it was his mentorship and that of Nick Siriani that have carried him to this level, not that of Riley. When we actually look at the two primarily Riley products in the NFL, Mayfield is of course extremely talented, but left his highest level very early and hasn’t been able to replicate it. Murray has had issues with his maturity and work ethic, and has struggled as a Cardinal immensely in the last year, and disappointed the year before after a blistering 7-0 start.

His first ever “from scratch” product, Rattler, produced his highest level in his freshman year before being benched after struggling his sophomore year, and then having an up-and-down season at South Carolina, where his improvement only really hit when the influence of Shane Beamer laid in. High talent, quick burnout, and short stints with their teams has been the pattern for Riley’s proteges, and NFL scouts need to keep this in mind when evaluating Caleb.

The character issues that Caleb has shown, the poor response to losses, the explicit fingernail painting, the treatment of OU fans by his family after his transfer, can likely be traced to Riley as well. After all, he has had issues with other proteges, Baker’s sideline demeanor against Kansas and the disorderly conduct incident coming to mind, and handled his departure from OU as badly as possible. Will these issues translate to the NFL? This could depend a lot on who ends up mentoring Caleb when he enters the league.

The Bottom Line

There’s no question that Caleb Williams’ raw talent, competitiveness, and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect for the NFL. However, before christening him as the no-brainer top pick and a guaranteed star, much more needs to be seen from him. And in the Pac 12, I don’t know if scouts will be able to gauge everything they need to gauge.

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