As the NFL Draft drew nearer in April and a swath of evaluators were falling in love with the prodigious talent of University of Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, a small undercurrent of reticence continued to tug beneath a rising tide of praise.
For a segment of front office executives who annually harped on the draft intersection of tangible results, sustained growth and a solid track record of quality game film, Richardson’s meteoric rise from offering late first-round upside to cementing himself as a top-five “cornerstone” pick was creating unease. To some, the heat around Richardson represented a case of opposing evaluators dreamcasting him into a “next Josh Allen” category — reaching for parallels between an undeniable combination of immense athletic talent and stratospheric ceilings. But to a dwindling few, it also carried the same wariness that seemed to be more prevalent when Allen was drafted in 2018: Like Allen before him, Richardson is a project rather than a product. And that meant whatever franchise drafted him was going to be saddled with a significant dilemma.
Patience versus possibility.
Richardson might be able to replicate the Allen trajectory, starting out of the gate and taking massive steps in every successive NFL season. He might be an MVP candidate by his third year in the league. And he might be another outlier who succeeds against developmental odds and immediately showcases his ceiling. Or … he might be pushed into action too fast, faltering with the wrong surrounding conditions or his own first-year limitations. For every Josh Allen, there is a Zach Wilson — drafted high and pushed too far, too fast, with regrettable results. This is what fueled those who went into the NFL Draft with trepidation over Richardson’s rise.
As one NFC evaluator framed it: “The hype definitely feels a little rich.”
Followed by an AFC evaluator who zinged it: “The worst thing that could happen is [Richardson] gets taken in the top five. There’s no way he’s not a starter as a rookie at some point if he’s a top-five pick. As a staff you know there’s not much chance of taking your time when you draft a player there — especially at quarterback. He needs some time without those expectations and he’s not going to get it if he gets taken at the top of the draft.”
Well, we know history. Richardson was selected fourth overall by the Indianapolis Colts in April. And since that moment, it’s been the kind of reception that hasn’t exactly tempered first-year expectations. Owner Jim Irsay has been carnival barking about Richardson ever since, declaring the franchise would have likely taken him first overall in the draft and that he would start games in 2023.
Apart from his high draft slot, that’s what makes Richardson so intriguing this month as the Colts — and a handful of other NFL teams — head into their full-squad minicamps with a significant quarterback evaluation on the agenda. As much as training camp sorts out quarterback battles, full-squad minicamps set the table for the starting line in those battles. And make no mistake, the Colts will exit their mandatory minicamp (set for June 13-15) with a good idea who their starter will be.
Right now, it is sounding more and more like that player will be Richardson — which sets up a fascinating stage in the coming months. Unlike the Carolina Panthers’ Bryce Young, Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud or even the Tennessee Titans’ Will Levis, Richardson is the total wild card of this draft class. The early reviews of his talent? They have been predictable. He has an otherworldly blend of attributes that keep him in the historical draft company of players like Allen and Cam Newton. But he, like the others, is also totally untested at the NFL level, which continues to tether him to the potential downside that rarely gets mentioned.
Indeed, you could argue that the last top-five quarterback with similar boom-or-bust potential to Richardson entering the NFL Draft was JaMarcus Russell in 2007 — a prospect with one of the single best pro days in the history of the league’s selection process. While it is largely lost to history, those who witnessed Russell’s athletic package over 15 years ago remember it as an unfortunate footnote of failure in league history. There are plenty of details to rifle through, but the short story is that Russell was ultimately undone by a mixture of his own mental and emotional hurdles, alongside the inability of the then-Oakland Raiders to properly construct a path that would patiently nurture him. He needed years of work behind the scenes. What he got was essentially one, largely because Oakland drafted him No. 1 overall and the pressure to get him into the starting lineup was commensurate with that slot.
Richardson’s situation with the Colts certainly isn’t a perfect 1-for-1 with Russell or anyone else, but given his extremely skimpy one-year résumé of starting with the Gators, there is no denying the risk of what lies ahead. Even if your evaluation was looking at the glass as half full, there were a litany of reasons to question his decision-making and sub-54 percent completion rate in only one season as a starter. None of which takes into account the failure rate of far more developed top-five quarterback picks, which is remarkably high over the last decade. (See: Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, Carson Wentz, James Winston, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles).
When you peruse that list and absorb what was being said about all of those players prior to their drafts, it showcases how entirely unpredictable success is at the NFL level. In that respect, Richardson is right on schedule. He could be the next massively disappointing draft pick, or the remarkably rare top-five quarterback pick (à la Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence) who makes good on his potential at the next level.
A longer timeline will reveal that answer. But part of it starts this month, making the Indianapolis Colts’ minicamp one to watch in the next few weeks.
With that in mind, here are three other franchises to keep an eye on when it comes to their quarterback conundrums …
San Francisco 49ers and a QB carousel
The franchise leaders aren’t going to like to see this in writing, but let’s call this month’s mandatory minicamp the Trey Lance “pump up” session. We’ll hear stories of improved accuracy, mechanics and footwork. But the skinny on the quarterback room in June is this: Head coach Kyle Shanahan has the most trust in second-year (assumed) starter Brock Purdy, who is recovering from elbow surgery but has also shown the ability to rise to the vacillating expectations that are placed upon him.
As for Lance? Right now, the 49ers would be happy with some kind of improved trade path that provides any solid return on the eye-popping investment it took to draft him in 2021. It’s not likely to happen, but that remains the hope at this stage. If Lance somehow turns a corner this month and again in training camp, it will be frosting that is no longer expected. By the 2024 season, the more likely scenario is that Purdy is the starter in San Francisco, with Sam Darnold locked in as a financially viable long-term backup. Anything Lance does from this point on is a bonus. That’s not going to be a popular assessment … but it’s reality. He’s rotting trade bait until he proves otherwise. And this month’s mandatory camp will be the first opportunity.
With all due respect to the assessment of Packers wideout Romeo Doubs in recent days, the Green Bay brass isn’t entirely sure what it has in the fold with new quarterback starter Jordan Love. As the season headed toward a close in 2022, elements of the front office clearly believed that Love was showcasing growth and a readiness to turn the corner when he was given an opportunity to start. The coaching staff? Throughout the 2022 season, it was less convinced — at least as far as the measurement went against then-starter Aaron Rodgers. If anything, the coaching staff viewed (and views) Love as a significant departure from the skill and experience of Rodgers. That put head coach Matt LaFleur into the difficult position of framing the transition between Rodgers and Love. On one hand, he has spent the last few months tiptoeing around a simple fact: There will be a vast chasm between the play of Love and Rodgers. One that Love might be able to traverse with reps and experience, but also one that will take time and some struggles. LaFleur has tried to relay that, in hopes of giving Love some initial cushion in his growth. Time will tell if that actually materializes. But the first measure will be this month’s mandatory camp. Love’s progression as a player will no longer be shielded from the media or focused through the prism of being a backup. The franchise is now in its hands, and he will be judged accordingly. That alone makes him a massive storyline in June.
The front office hangs in the balance here. General manager George Paton — who has had an excellent working relationship with new head coach Sean Payton — remains on the hook for the massive extension signed by the 34-year old Wilson. In this age of protecting and elongating the careers of the league’s best quarterbacks, it’s conceivable that Wilson should be able to make good on his extension to the point of getting through the 2025 season (which would be the next most ideal exit point from his contract). But a large part of that hope falls onto Payton, who will now be charged with dialing Wilson into the player Denver believed it was getting prior to the 2022 season. If he can’t do that — if Wilson is a player in decline who can’t be turned into the right direction — it’s going to have serious implications for the Broncos franchise. A failure of Wilson to get himself locked into his previous Hall of Fame track would jeopardize the future of the general manager and a large portion of the personnel department. That’s how important 2023 is for both the quarterback and the rest of the decision-makers inside the building. And it starts with a mandatory camp that is the first opportunity to showcase that there is improvement on the table. Training camp will be vital for Wilson. But what happens in June will set the table for the remainder of 2023. And perhaps beyond.