Will Levis Is A Risk Worth the Reward For Minnesota

Photo Credit: Scott Utterback via USA TODAY Sports

All it took was a couple of mock drafts for the Will Levis hype to turn into a full-blown tidal wave for the Minnesota Vikings. The much-maligned former Kentucky quarterback has been at the forefront of Vikings NFL draft mania over the past week — and the noise got even louder following the latest report about Kirk Cousins. According to the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling and Andrew Krammer on a recent episode of the Access Vikings podcast, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the new regime appear ready to kickstart the succession planning at quarterback.

But is trading up in the first round for Levis the right way of going about this? What if the Vikings stand pat at 23 and hope he falls? Unless you’re named Trevor Lawrence or Andrew Luck, no quarterback goes through the draft process without the football world poking holes in their respective case to be a legitimate quarterback in the league. And Levis is no different. Granted, his nay-sayers are a little louder and more recurring than the other three quarterbacks that are expected go near the top of next month’s draft.

So let’s start with the bad on Levis. He’ll turn 24 years old in June, and with redshirt year in 2023, it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about turning the franchise over to a first-year signal caller in 2024 when he’s 25. However, former No. 1-overall pick Joe Burrow was also 24 when he entered the league with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020. And like Burrow, Levis was also forced to transfer out the of the Big Ten and into the SEC when he couldn’t crack the QB1 role with Penn State.

While in playing in former San Francisco 49ers’ QBs coach Rich Scangarello’s scheme this past season in Lexington, Levis regressed. Badly. Not only was Levis pressured on 37.8% of his dropbacks (which was second-most amongst 2023 draft eligible quarterbacks), but he made matters worse by getting sacked on 26.8% of said dropbacks with pressure. That sack rate was third-highest amongst 2023 draft eligible quarterbacks. With what he put on film this past season, there are valid concerns about his ability (or inability) to navigate a chaotic pocket at the next level.

When he wasn’t taking sacks, Levis had a propensity for turning the ball over. His 10 interceptions in 2022 were the sixth-most out of 2023 draft-eligible quarterbacks. And he threw 13 more in 2021. Too many times throughout his time at Kentucky, Levis got caught staring down receivers and trying to get away with hero ball.

And despite possessing unique arm strength, he didn’t consistently drive the ball downfield this past season. His 39 attempts of 20-plus yards in 2022 ranked 33rd out 2023 draft eligible quarterbacks. Trailing Bryce Young‘s 43 attempts, C.J. Stroud‘s 54 attempts, and Anthony Richardson‘s 64 attempts. Despite the limited volume, Levis’s 41.0 completion percentage on such throws was right in line with the other three marquee quarterbacks in this class. On his 39 attempts of 20-plus yards, Levis’ average depth of target was 32.6 yards, trumping the other three quarterbacks he’s most often compared to.

If you instead want to be encouraged about Levis’ potential, it’s best to look to 2021. Surrounded by NFL-caliber players such as running-back-turned-wide-receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, center Luke Fortner, and tackle Darian Kinnard, Levis shined in former Los Angeles Rams assistant QBs coach Liam Coen’s scheme — the same former Rams staffer that worked under Kevin O’Connell in 2020. Levis was better driving the ball downfield, completing 43.1% of his 51 attempts of 20-plus yards. This Two-Man beater on third-and- 26 against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl showcases the ease in which the ball shoots out of his hand.

Levis was also much more willing and dynamic as a runner while playing in Coen’s scheme. He totaled 494 yards on the ground with nine touchdowns to boot — earning every bit of the Josh Allen comparisons after plays like these.

Levis didn’t experience much (if any) of a dropoff in his effectiveness as a passer against the blitz from 2021 was 2022. He recorded 113.6 and 108.3 passer ratings while being blitzed on 33.4% and 42.3% of his dropbacks the past two seasons. For context, Anthony Richardson recorded an 80.1 passer rating on his 35.4% of dropbacks against the blitz in 2022.

Are there flaws that need correcting in Levis’ game? No question. With Kevin O’Connell’s guidance, Levis would need to experience substantial improvements with his mechanics, pocket presence, and turnovers. But ultimately, Levis possesses traits that simply can’t be coached. And none greater than the sheer velocity of the ball coming out of his hand.

Whether it’s right or wrong, NFL offensive mastermind head coaches have a certain arrogance when it comes to quarterbacks like Levis. Give him to me, and I’ll make it work is typically the thought process that goes into taking a shot on a quarterback with a rocket arm like Levis. It’s not too different than the process Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs had following the 2016 season when they deemed a quarterback upgrade necessary over Alex Smith. Or following the 2020 season when Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan wanted to improve on Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo for quarterbacks who could simply do more at the position.

Even the most devout Kirk Cousins enthusiasts have a hard time pushing back on him being lumped in the same class of quarterback as Smith, Goff, and Garoppolo. A quintessential game-manager who can make all the throws when he’s surrounded by the right offensive ecosystem.

And while the jury is still out on Trey Lance, Reid and McVay’s upgrades at quarterback helped push their organizations over the top with a combined three Lombardi trophies over the past four years. Before we get ahead of ourselves, I’m obviously not comparing Levis to Patrick Mahomes. The point is that fortune has recently favored the bold when offensive head coaches like O’Connell take their shot at landing “their” guy at quarterback. Let’s not forget, McVay inherited Goff when he took the Rams job in 2017. Just like how O’Connell inherited Cousins.

Speaking of recent trends. It was long believed in NFL circles that accuracy simply couldn’t be fixed. Either you had it, or you didn’t. However, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts put a serious dent into that line of thinking after both quarterbacks suddenly became much more accurate passers with the arrival of All-Pro caliber receivers in Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown. Luckily for Levis, he would have the luxury of throwing to The Best Receiver on the Planet in Justin Jefferson and a Pro Bowl tight end in T.J. Hockenson. And he’d do it while being protected by one of the best tandems of pass-blocking tackles throughout the league in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill.

The long and short of it is that Levis gives you more at the quarterback position with his unique skillset than the Vikings currently have with Cousins. And his familiarity with O’Connell’s offense after having played in Coen’s scheme in 2021 can’t be dismissed here. Does that mean Levis would be ready to supplant Cousins as the Vikings’ starting quarterback in 2023? Of course not. It will take time for him work out the kinks. Just like Mahomes was forced to do under Alex Smith in 2017.

The time has come for the Vikings to be aggressive with their succession planning at quarterback. But just how bold are Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell willing to go — if at all — for Levis as the heir apparent?

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