In the final hours leading up to the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, there were multiple rumors suggesting Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis would either be the first or second overall pick. When Thursday night concluded, Levis was stranded in the green room.
It’s a bigger draft-day slide than we saw in 2022 with Malik Willis. While the Tennessee Titans selected Willis in the third round, a majority of people around the league thought it was unlikely Willis was a first-round pick. In Levis’s case, a majority of NFL mock drafts protected him as a top-10 pick. Instead, he’s one of the best players available on Day 2.
- Will Levis stats (2022): 65.4% completion rate, 19-10 TD-INT, 151.9 passer rating, 8.5 ypa, 2,406 passing yards in 11 games
Related: Will Levis scouting report
Levis checks off a lot of boxes on scouting reports that NFL teams have historically prioritized when evaluating quarterbacks. After all, there’s a reason mock drafts viewed him as a likely top-five selection and some evaluators rated him as the best quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft.
However, a deeper look at the pre-draft process and what happened this past season at Kentucky can help explain why Levis is still available on Day 2.
Concerns with Will Levis tied to on-field results, pre-draft process
Levis achieved a productive career at Kentucky, overcoming a variety of issues that hurt his production and effectiveness. While NFL teams care far more about physical traits and intangibles than the box score, Levis did fall short in several areas.
Related: NFL coach ‘not sold’ on Will Levis
One small criticism of Levis is what happened earlier in his collegiate career. He arrived at Penn State as a 247 Sports’ three-star recruit, but could never beat out Sean Clifford for the starting job. While there have been similar stories like this (Joe Burrow at Ohio State and Justin Fields at Georgia), it was a notable hurdle early in college.
Levis transferred to Kentucky and found immediate success. Working with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Liam Cohen, Levis posted a 148.3 passer rating in his first full season as a starter. The Wildcats’ offense averaged 31.8 points per game, with Wan’Dale Robinson leading the team in receiving (1,334 yards) and Levis emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC.
- Will Levis stats (2021): 24-13 TD-INT, 2,826 passing yards, 66% completion rate, 148.3 QB rating, 7.7 ay/a, 376 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns
Kentucky Wildcats’ offensive decline
Everything changed in the months following that breakout campaign. Cohen took over as the Rams’ offensive coordinator and Robinson was selected 43rd overall by the New York Giants. Even worse for Kentucky, its offensive line regressed.
Levis lost an NFL-caliber offensive coordinator and his most trusted weapon, but the declining pass protection might’ve taken an even greater toll on him. A year after the Wildcats’ offensive line ranked 28th in the FBS in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Blocking Efficiency, it plummeted to 223rd this past season.
- Kentucky Wildcats offensive line stats 2021 (PFF): 91.2 Pass Blocking Efficiency, 63 pressures allowed, 36 hurries, 6 sacks in 390 pass-block snaps
- Kentucky Wildcats offensive line stats 2022 (PFF): 83.5 Pass Blocking Efficiency, 95 pressures allowed, 50 hurries, 28 sacks in 373 pass-block snaps
Playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football had a disastrous influence on the Wildcats’ offense. Kentucky averaged just 20.4 points per game and its leading receiver had 628 receiving yards.
All of that helps explain why Levis didn’t play well last season, but there are a lot of reasons why he fell out of the first round.
Issues vs SEC opponents, bad decision-making
During his best moments, Levis looks like he can be an All-Pro quarterback and the face of an NFL franchise. However, you’ll also see instances from both the 2021 and ’22 campaigns that raise questions about his viability as a starter.
- Will Levis vs MAC teams (2022): 191.4 QB rating, 7-1 TD-INT, 67.2% completion, 10.4 ypa
- Will Levis vs SEC teams (2022): 131.1 QB rating, 8-7 TD-INT, 63.2% completion, 7.2 ypa
When Levis faced the Tennessee Volunteers – 128th in passing ypg allowed (287.3) – he threw three interceptions with four sacks taken in a 44-6 loss. Against the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators, Levis combined for a 2-2 TD-INT line with 408 combined passing yards on 55 attempts.
Kentucky’s lack of talent compared to its SEC opponents could be blamed for some of that. However, Levis had a 13-8 TD-INT line against SEC opponents in 2021 with an 11-5 ratio against every other conference.
NFL teams questioned his decision-making on the field, especially because nearly a quarter of his pass attempts last season were behind the line of scrimmage. When SEC defenses took his first read away, playing tight coverage underneath, things often ended poorly for Levis.
While the NFL’s evaluation process for quarterbacks has changed in recent years, some of the old Bill Parcels rules are still factored in. Levis fell short of checking off several boxes. He finished with a career TD-INT ratio under 2-1, didn’t start 30 games and didn’t win 23 total games in college.
The pre-draft process raised new concerns with Will Levis
The pre-draft process should’ve been an opportunity for Levis to shine. Because he played in an offense with pro-style concepts, mirroring some of the things we see in the NFL with Shanahan-like passing schemes, he should’ve made a strong impression on teams in meetings. Furthermore, Levis’s above-average athleticism and elite arm strength are perfect for showcases like a Pro Day and the NFL Scouting Combine.
Instead, his stock dropped and NFL teams seemingly became more concerned after meeting him. Multiple reports this spring, including on the morning of the 2023 NFL Draft, stated that multiple clubs who met with Levis came away with some issues with his personality.
Levis took pride in his physique during the pre-draft process, posting pictures to social media of his muscular 6-foot-4 frame that seemed to be maxed out for strength at 229 pounds. While some NFL teams saw that as a slight issue, considering there are no notable examples of muscled-up starting quarterbacks, Levis brushed off the criticism.
NFL teams also conduct extensive medical reviews on prospects during the pre-draft process. According to Chris Mortensen, one team described Levis’s toe injury he suffered last season as ‘problematic’ months later and another club believed he might need surgery after his rookie year.
Finally, there are the other knocks you’d find on any scouting report for Levis. While he is an above-average athlete for his position and offers a Josh Allen-like size, Levis seeks out contact when he carries the football and that reckless style leads to a higher risk of injuries. Add in his poor field vision, inconsistent timing, mechanical issues and his penchant for his anticipation and confidence being rattled, he’s a bigger project than Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud and offers less upside than Anthony Richardson.
There are plenty of examples around the NFL of quarterbacks who were drafted in the second round and became successful players, including Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith and Derek Carr. Levis could become the next quarterback on that list, but he faces an uphill battle and Thursday night proved the NFL isn’t as high on him as everyone thought.