NFL quarterbacks Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson are Week 1 starters but still rookies
Akili Smith, the No. 3 pick in the 1999 NFL draft, hopes ‘they’re not putting too much on them right from the start’
Now that the next wave of Black quarterbacks who possess superstar potential has reached the NFL, it’s time to see what they’ve got.
After being selected among the top four picks in the 2023 NFL draft, former college stars Bryce Young (Carolina Panthers), C.J. Stroud (Houston Texans) and Anthony Richardson (Indianapolis Colts) will start for their teams in Week 1. Young, Stroud and Richardson are members of a rapidly growing fraternity of young Black men whom NFL franchise owners have entrusted to lead their teams recently, which marks a major departure from the preferred practice for most of the league’s history.
The high-profile rookies will attempt to prove they’re ready to succeed at the game’s highest level and, hopefully for them and their teams, eventually rise among the league’s best. Former NFL quarterback Akili Smith plans to watch their development closely.
For years, Smith, the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft, has analyzed Young, Stroud and Richardson. Although Smith is high on them, he says it’s important for fans of the Panthers, Texans and Colts to remember they’re only getting started.
“There’s no doubt that the talent is there for all of them. That’s clear,” Smith told Andscape in a phone interview recently. “But I just hope they [Carolina, Houston and Indianapolis] have conservative game plans for them. I just hope they’re not putting too much on them right from the start.
“What you don’t want is for them to have to be the ones who have to continue making plays week after week for their teams. If they have to be the ones who need to make [big] plays week after week for their teams to win games, that’s really a lot to put on them right now.”
Smith knows of what he speaks.
Picked by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1999 draft, Smith, a onetime standout at the University of Oregon, struggled as a rookie and never got his footing in the NFL. Out of the league by 2002, Smith finished his career with a record of 3-14. Since his playing days ended, Smith has coached at the high school and college levels.
Before the most recent draft, Smith figured Young would be the first overall pick and he was proved correct: The Carolina Panthers chose Young, making him the sixth African American signal-caller to ascend to the top position in a draft.
After the Panthers’ opening day of training camp in late July, coach Frank Reich announced that Young, the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2021 while directing the University of Alabama, would be the team’s opening-week starter. Smith gets it.
Smith just hopes the Panthers have provided enough help on offense for Young, who during the preseason completed 58.3% of his passes (14 for 24) for 129 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
“I’ve got some concerns with Bryce because I don’t know how many playmakers he has around him,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of pressure on him because he is the first pick of the draft. That’s always the way it is.”
Then there’s Stroud, which Houston chose with the draft’s second pick.
The Texans selected Stroud, who shone at Ohio State, to be the foundation of their rebuild. Led by Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans appeared set at the position well into the future. A series of events, including a trade request from Watson and a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage sessions, resulted in Watson being traded to the Cleveland Browns and, well, Stroud is the Texans’ new guy.
In three preseason games, Stroud completed 55% of his passes (11 for 20) for 89 yards. He had one touchdown pass and one interception.
Inevitably, Stroud will draw comparisons with Watson, but “you’d like to think fans will give him [Stroud] a little bit of a pass because it’s his rookie year,” Smith said. “Now, they’ve been used to seeing some really good quarterback play down there in Houston, that’s just a fact.
“One year, Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing [yards, 4,823 in 2020]. So people in Houston were kind of spoiled with him. You’re not gonna get much better quarterback play than that. They’re gonna have to protect C.J. They’re gonna have to give him some time. Then, let’s see if he can have some success down there.”
Of the trio, Richardson is the most intriguing.
At the NFL scouting combine, the former University of Florida starter was clocked at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That time marked the fourth fastest by a quarterback since 2000, and the feat is more impressive considering Richardson’s size: he’s 6-foot-4, 244 pounds.
The Colts chose Richardson with the fourth pick in the draft despite concerns of some NFL player-personnel people about his accuracy. Last season, the only one in which Richardson started for the Gators, he completed 53.8% of his passes.
Before the draft, Smith said that Richardson would benefit from being a backup as a rookie. In mid-August, Richardson was named as the Colts’ No. 1 quarterback.
“Well, it looks like this was the plan all along,” Smith said. “We’ll see if they do some RPO [run-pass option] stuff with him. We’ll see if they use him like [the Baltimore Ravens] use Lamar Jackson, because he’s gonna be one of the best athletes on the field.
“So with all of them, Young, Stroud and Richardson, there’s so much to like. You see the potential. But again, I just hope that they [Carolina, Houston and Indianapolis] don’t depend on these youngsters every single week for 17 weeks to try to win a football game.”
Clearly, Young, Stroud and Richardson have a lot to prove. Their opportunity to do it has arrived.