Editor’s note: Before joining The 33rd Team, T.J. McCreight spent 30 years in the NFL as a regional and national scout, director of pro personnel and personnel executive for four different organizations.
I just finished doing the bulk of my in-season evaluations for the quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft. When I put my pen down, closed my notebook, and put my notes to rest, I settled on the idea that if I were a team in the NFL that needed a quarterback, the player I would pick would be Kentucky’s, Will Levis.
I soon discovered I wasn’t alone in that opinion.
I did an impromptu poll with four NFL scouts I trust, and three of them told me he was the best quarterback in the draft. One NFC scout told me, “This [season] is an audition for him to go to a poor NFL team. He proved he can take a beating and keep getting up.” Added another NFC scout: “It is a miracle that he keeps playing every week after all of the hits he takes. He is more banged up than people think — much more.”
When I am evaluating a quarterback like Levis, Ben Roethlisberger often comes to my mind. I remember Big Ben at Miami of Ohio and I watched him overcome so many problems with his own offense. His linemen missed blocks and his receivers struggled to get open. Going through that prepared him to play quarterback in the NFL, and that experience was better training than anything else he did in college.
Levis has all of the tools NFL teams look for. He has the arm, size, toughness, intelligence and enough athletic ability. He runs an NFL offense at Kentucky and can manage a huddle, which many people discount. When studying Levis, there are some ugly games; that has been the history of Kentucky football. As an evaluator, you have to look at what surrounds the quarterback and who they are playing week in and week out.
Almost every time Levis steps on the field his teammates are inferior to the ones on the other team, which is a big deal. If you are the quarterback at Alabama you are protected by future NFL offensive linemen, you are throwing to future first-round draft picks and you are handing off to NFL-type running backs.
In the NFL, quarterbacks will have dysfunction and things will not always go well. You will have defenders in your face and the pockets are not always clean. People underestimate how valuable the experience of playing on a team like Kentucky is for Levis to feel the stress. He has to overcome and carry the offense as he gets hit by players from Alabama, LSU and Georgia. His receivers are not as fast as the corners they’re facing and his offensive linemen are not as good as the fronts they are facing.
I have been in NFL draft rooms where the discussion around a quarterback from a top-5 school is seen as a negative because they never get hit and never feel stress. An NFL game is all stress and conflict. Levis will be more prepared for the NFL than if he played for Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson.
However, be prepared for some poor statistical performances from Levis. Be ready to watch Kentucky get tossed around by Georgia on Saturday. However, you will have to put your scouting hat on and look past it. Watch how he delivers the football and watch how he reads a defense. Compare that to the Georgia offense. Watch how often Stetson Bennett is on his feet with a clean jersey. He doesn’t have to be dead-on accurate because his wideouts and tight ends can make up for any type of inaccuracy.
Levis is big and strong. A sturdy lower body is essential for a quarterback. There are always exceptions, but in the NFL you are going to get hit, you are going to have people roll up on your legs and you are going to take shots.
That is what worries me about Bryce Young, who is listed at 6-feet, 194 pounds. I question if he can take the pounding he will see in the NFL. Playing at Alabama, almost everything goes right in a game for him. He is protected and his skill players are excellent. Levis, on the other hand, has to overcome all of the elements and every play is conflict. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud experiences very little conflict as well.
Accordingly, you must take everything into consideration when evaluating a quarterback. The quarterback position is the most important decision a team will make, especially when it comes to drafting one. Decision-makers in the NFL will also go back to previous years in their evaluations. In 2021, Levis faced LSU and threw for three touchdowns, ran for two more, and only had three total incompletions on the day as Kentucky won, 42-21.
Less than a month later, he led an offense that scored 42 points against Tennessee, leading the way with three touchdown passes and two touchdown runs. Last year, Kentucky won 10 games and went to a New Years Day bowl.
Ten wins at Kentucky? That will be talked about in draft rooms for sure.