Caleb Williams was the top quarterback in the potential 2024 NFL Draft class heading into the season. Anonymous scouts and general managers tried labeling him as a generational prospect, arguing that he was the best since Andrew Luck and maybe even Peyton Manning. But Drake Maye kept plugging along, becoming the leader in the clubhouse as the season progressed.
We likely won’t hear any “generational” talk regarding Maye. While we certainly shouldn’t, he’s the best QB prospect since Trevor Lawrence and is easily deserving of the first-overall pick.
That doesn’t mean that Williams has fallen off some cliff. He always had flaws. Evaluators just chose — either consciously or subconsciously — to ignore them. Williams still deserves consideration, but it’s nearly impossible to argue that he’s the cleaner prospect of the two.
And when we look into their ceilings, what exactly makes Williams so much higher in the eyes of those anonymous speakers?
Drake Maye’s Ceiling Can’t Be Ignored
Maye had a big day against Duke that started in just about the worst way possible. Throwing an interception on the first offensive play of the game is less than ideal.
From thereon out, he was magical. When North Carolina needed him to make plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, Maye’s clutch gene proved evident. He made several big throws in rhythm, but it was his creation capacity that elevated the Tar Heels over the Blue Devils.
Maye’s fourth-down completion in the third quarter was a page ripped out of the Ben Roethlisberger book. As he was being twisted to the ground by a defender, his 6’4″, 230-pound frame allowed him to slide away, forcing the tackler to his ankles. That gave him just enough time to deliver an accurate pass to his receiver.
The two-point conversion attempt in the second overtime was a page ripped out of the Luka Doncic handbook. But while Brett Kollmann went biomechanical with his comparison, this one is different.
Maye showed the clutch gene. But the more apt comparison comes from the innate ability to create around chaos. With everything collapsing in the pocket, Maye shuffled left and pressed toward the line. But while many QBs would put their head down and do anything to find the end zone, even with a defender in their face ready to make a tackle, Maye kept his eyes up and found his receiver in the end zone.
We have consistently seen his ability to create in 2023. Maye is a potent rushing threat, and he can throw on the run in either direction. He doesn’t have the same creativity that Williams provides, but does that make the USC quarterback’s ceiling so much higher than Maye’s?
Maye certainly isn’t perfect. Like Josh Allen, there are moments when the young quarterback loses his mind and makes an impossibly bad decision. But that’s something all young quarterbacks must work through and something even the NFL’s best struggle with intermittently.
Maye Excels in the Mundane
Unlike Williams, Maye has worked on a timeline much closer to the one he’ll be on at the next level. UNC’s offensive line doesn’t give him a fortnight to throw the ball. He’s forced to make quick decisions consistently.
That’s led to some of the boneheaded decisions we’ve seen that have largely been absent from Williams’ tape. But when forced to speed up the clock — like Williams was against Notre Dame — the same mistakes have manifested.
Things like picking apart zone defenses in a five-yard window and manipulating a safety to open the seam are not “sexy” to the Layman. But it’s a commonality at the next level, whereas creating after 3.5 seconds of scrambling to find a downfield receiver is a novelty.
As he’s played more snaps, Maye has improved upon some negative tendencies he showed as a young passer a season ago. He’s much more comfortable navigating the pocket against pressure.
Caleb Williams Still Holds Advantages
Interceptions are too often seen as the be-all, end-all for quarterbacks. The average analysis of quarterback play, even on network television, conveniently ignores fumbles.
Dak Prescott threw 15 interceptions in 12 games a season ago, and it remained a topic for the entire offseason. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Allen led the NFL in turnovers thanks to his combination of interceptions and fumbles — and there were crickets.
Williams has played in 35 career college games and has fumbled 32 times. So when we look at turnovers, we have to look at all turnovers. And we must also look at turnover-worthy plays.
In 2022, PFF graded 10 turnover-worthy plays against Maye and eight against Williams. Maye’s 1.8% rate was slightly higher than Williams’ 1.6% rate.
But 2023 has been an entirely different story. Williams has 16 to Maye’s six, and while the latter has lowered his TWP rate, it’s more than doubled for Williams.
However, there are areas where Williams still holds an advantage. While smaller and maybe even slightly slower, Williams is the more natural runner. He makes defenders miss at an incredibly high rate, and like Patrick Mahomes, he seems to be just fast enough to not get caught more often than not.
Another underrated aspect of Williams’ game is his ball handling. It’s something that isn’t normally discussed with quarterback play on a surface level, but it’s incredibly important. The USC QB is a wizard in RPO situations, and he hides the ball insanely well in run-action situations.
He’s like Jason Williams. He’s so smooth in the backfield, and it makes things like trick plays and end-arounds all the more dangerous. And in a more traditional sense, it will force linebackers to the line of scrimmage on traditional play-action attempts from under center at the next level.
But even with the creativity advantage on top of the above, Maye is the cleaner prospect and has proven worthy of the first-overall pick.
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