Caleb Williams received the most shocking draft comp yet, but it actually tracks

USC quarterback Caleb Williams has been compared to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes leading up to the 2024 NFL Draft, but another legendary quarterback may be a better comparison.

UCLA v USC
UCLA v USC / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages
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Each year, former Oregon Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead used to give his signal-callers a quarterback handbook that stated, "You willingly choose to play the most scrutinized position in all of organized athletics."

Quarterbacks are locked in a pressure cooker.

Nowhere in football is greatness valued or debated more. No position is more scrutinized, more impactful or more misunderstood than the quarterback. In an otherwise perfectly balanced team sport, the quarterback has a disproportionately higher impact on a game than any other player. Almost every offensive snap begins with the quarterback touching the ball, whether he passes it, hands it off, or scampers with it himself. The amount of work and detail required to be successful is far higher than what's visible on game day, and few signal-callers possess the necessary tools to lead their men to victory. The complexity of the quarterback position makes it difficult to play, and even harder to evaluate.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh often said, "Very few people can coach the quarterback, and even fewer can evaluate them."

How tall is he? How far can he throw? How fast can he run? Is he accurate? These questions don't even scratch the surface of great quarterbacking. The tangibles — metrics, statistics, ratings, bowl games, championships — are critical to evaluation, but they're not enough. Most positions in football are evaluated from the snap of the ball to the echo of the whistle. What matters most in those evaluations is what the prospects do between the lines, while the ball is live. For quarterbacks, the work begins before the offense gets in the huddle, and even before the team steps onto the field. Their responsibilities extend far beyond taking the snap and passing the football.

It's rare to find a quarterback prospect who is seemingly a once-in-a-generation talent, but that's exactly why Caleb Williams has captivated every scout in the nation. During his two seasons at USC, Williams showed the ability to throw from anywhere on the field, at any time, using an array of arm slots — sidearm flicks, underhand shovels, and overhead spirals. Plotted together, the locations of his throws in the course of a game can look like an unfinished paint-by-numbers, scattered from sideline to sideline. Entering the 2024 NFL Draft, the dynamic USC quarterback has drawn comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs' star Patrick Mahomes.

Another comparison, however, may be more fitting.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams has shown similarities to Drew Brees

Could legendary quarterback Drew Brees be the better comparison for USC's Caleb Williams?

"I think there is a more apt player comparison for Caleb Williams that people have missed [by the way]," Yahoo! Sports' Nate Tice said. "Strictly as prospects, there are quite some similarities in terms of frame, arm strength and even creation ability between Caleb Williams and Drew Brees when he was coming out of Purdue."

From a physical standpoint, Brees' frame was nearly identical to Williams' build when he was drafted in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Brees measured in at 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds at the 2001 NFL Scouting Combine. In college, Williams was listed as 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. Both quarterbacks displayed similar strengths — a gun for an arm and the ability to operate from structure or from chaos. As Tice points out, Brees had more rushing yards in his senior year at Purdue than Williams had in his last two collegiate seasons combined.

Let's dive into Drew Brees' 2001 NFL Draft profile.

    Positives:

  • Touch passer with the ability to read and diagnose defensive coverages
  • Very tough and mobile moving around in the pocket
  • Has a quick setup and is very effective throwing on the move
  • Throws across his body with great consistency
  • Hits receivers in stride and improvises his throws in order to make a completion
  • Puts good zip behind the short and mid-range passes
  • Shows good judgement and keen field vision
  • Has a take-charge attitude and is very cool under pressure
  • Hits receivers in motion with impressive velocity
  • Has superb pocket presence and uses all of his offensive weapons in order to move the chains
  • Has solid body mechanics and quickness moving away from center
  • Elusive scrambler with the body control to avoid the rush

    Negatives:

  • Plays in the spread offense, taking the bulk of his snaps from the shotgun
  • Tends to side-arm his passes going deep
  • Lacks accuracy and touch on his long throws, more comfortable in short/intermediate passing
  • Does not possess the ideal height you look for in a pro passer, though his ability to scan the field helps him compensate in this area
  • Will improvise and run when the passing lanes are clogged, but tends to run through defenders rather than trying to avoid them to prevent unnecessary punishment

Nobody remembers Brees as a mobile quarterback, and he wasn't known for his arm strength. After the shoulder surgery that almost derailed his career, Brees adapted his game to become a better professional quarterback. He learned a lesson that Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young learned long ago: The quarterback's job is to execute the play design from within the pocket.

Arm Strength and Accuracy

In football, elite arm strength is often overvalued. At most, a quarterback will throw a ball 20-plus yards downfield only a handful of times per game. Arm strength does matter, however, for velocity. At the professional level, quarterbacks need to be able to zip the ball into tight windows.

While Brees was not known for his elite arm strength, his precision and accuracy were unrivaled. Brees excelled in timing and anticipation, often throwing receivers open with near-perfect ball placement. Williams has the raw arm strength to generate impressive velocity from a multitude of arm angles and platforms, but he needs to refine his accuracy and timing to match Brees' surgical precision.

Mobility and Footwork

Brees didn't possess the mobility that is expected from most current-day quarterbacks, but he rarely needed it. Brees avoided disaster with an uncanny ability to sense pressure and manipulate the pocket.

Williams, on the other hand, has shown an elite level of artistry behind the line of scrimmage, but his creative prowess and size have created a tendency to drop back square to the offensive line. By doing so, Williams has disrupted the timing on specific routes that need to be thrown after the first hitch. Instead, Williams needs to take an extra step to gather himself. The footwork is not fatal flaw by any means, but he needs to be more confident in the process and prioritize the play design over the broken play theatrics.

Williams made the routine plays from within the pocket when a play design worked as intended. When it didn't, he rescued it from the jaws of certain disaster. The USC star can consistently make pass rushers miss while keeping his eyes locked downfield.

Decision-making

Brees was renowned for his cerebral approach to the game, making rapid reads and rarely making poor decisions. Williams has shown promise in this area, but he will need to develop his game further to compete against the chess masters at the professional level. He is a quality processor, but he has been plagued by inconsistencies and ball securities issues while attempting to maneuver through traffic behind the line of scrimmage. Those inconsistencies will only be magnified in the NFL.

Williams took a lot of sacks during his final collegiate season, but it's hard to tell how much of that was because of USC's subpar pass protection. Williams was pressured on 33.6 percent of his dropbacks in 2023, 16th-highest among 71 qualifying quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. As a result, USC's offense had to rely on the quick passing game and often was unable to get in rhythm.

But make no mistake about it: Sacks are a quarterback statistic and Williams has surely struggled with creating many of his own pressures. Williams have been so productive under chaos that he has developed a habit of not throwing the ball away when the only possible outcome is disaster. He has to learn how to harness his creativity. The inability to do so at the professional level has unraveled many quarterback prospects of his ilk. Patrick Mahomes was fortunate to have the guidance of Chiefs coach Andy Reid, but even the three-time Super Bowl champion still reverts back to sloppy habits when he gets flustered. Mahomes has generated many of his own pressures during the early stage of his career, and Williams will likely do the same.

Leadership

Both Williams and Brees share strong leadership qualities. Brees' leadership was instrumental in rebuilding the hopes of a city and turning the downtrodden New Orleans Saints into perennial contenders.

Williams showed a similar ability by reviving USC's football program.

The USC Trojans were far removed from their glory days before Williams joined the team. Ever since the end of the Pete Carroll era, the Trojans have been riddled with mediocrity and stuck in a constant cycle of complete overhauls and rebuilds. Following a 4-8 year in 2021, the school recruited lured Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams to their program. In a stunning resuscitation, the Trojans posted an 11-3 record in 2022. In his sophomore season, Williams won the Heisman Trophy after leading the nation with 42 passing touchdowns and just five interceptions. He added 10 more rushing touchdowns. During an interview with GQ, Williams discussed how he sparked USC's turnaround.

“I come in with a certain energy, vibe, and will to win,” Williams told GQ. “I got good players on my team! I mean, USC was four-and-eight, and we got a lot of the same players that were on that team. It was just a certain energy and vibe that needed to be lit and rekindled in those players.”

Is he Drew Brees or Patrick Mahomes?

Whether the comparison is Patrick Mahomes or Drew Brees, it's easy to see why the USC quarterback has become the golden prospect of the 2024 NFL Draft.

To win at the professional level, Vince Lombardi once said, a team needs a quarterback who can be a coach on the field, someone who is intelligent, rational, unflappable and occasionally daring, as well as a gifted passer.

Williams seems to be oozing with all of those traits. His skill set shows are reflective of modern dual-threat quarterbacks combined with the traditional pocket presence of yesteryear. While there are areas for improvement, particularly in refining his anticipation and decision-making under pressure, his potential is undeniable.

It'll be difficult for Williams to reach the heights that Brees did in the NFL. Ultimately, it will depend on Williams, the team that drafts him, the coaching he receives and how hard he works. After all, Brees wasn't an elite quarterback in his early years either.

Most teams are deprived of adequate quarterback play, which makes the position the highlight of every NFL Draft. Each year, highly touted college quarterbacks are analyzed, critiqued, defied and doubted. Those who survive the scrutiny are drafted early, but in the end, their draft positions are meaningless. Some of the most heralded prospects become unwanted journeymen, serving as little more than a stopgap between a retired star and a future prospect. In the end, only time will tell which side of history Williams ends up on.

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