INDIANAPOLIS – The debate and scrutiny intensified as the NFL draft approached.
Who was your flavor at quarterback? Bryce Young? C.J. Stroud? Anthony Richardson? Will Levis?
Nothing was determined in rounds 1-2, other than to assign each prospect’s entry into the NFL. Young went No. 1 to the Carolina Panthers, followed by Stroud, No. 2 to the Houston Texans; Richardson, No. 4 to the Indianapolis Colts; and Levis to the Tennessee Titans with the second pick of round 2 (No. 33 overall) after a surprising tumble down the board.
Young’s growth will occur in the NFC South and under the guidance of former Colts coach Frank Reich. Indy fans will have an opportunity to gauge his early development when the Colts visit Carolina this season.
The other three?
Just hang around the AFC South. Sit back and enjoy the show.
No division experienced such a seismic shift at such a consequential position.
“Oh, yeah. It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’’ general manager Chris Ballard said Saturday evening. “I think it’s really cool. We’re going to really get to watch all three of these guys.’’
The Colts hitched their future to Richardson, the 20-year-old wunderkind from Florida, but only after the Panthers did likewise with Young, the Texans followed with Stroud at No. 2 and Houston pulled an early surprise by trading up from No. 12 to No. 3 with Arizona and selecting edge rusher Will Anderson Jr.
Ballard and owner Jim Irsay admitted there were some anxious moments while the Colts were waiting to get their intended target, which had been Richardson for about a month.
“You always worry about somebody jumping up and getting him,’’ Ballard said. “You always wonder if somebody’s laying in the weeds, and good for us, they weren’t.’’
Irsay said the Colts likely would have taken Levis at No. 4 if a quarterback-needy team that coveted Richardson had swung the trade with Arizona.
“We liked him,’’ he said.
But they liked Richardson more. Just as the Panthers favored Young and the Texans believed Stroud was the one to stabilize a quarterbacks room upended by the Deshaun Watson situation.
“Look, we spent a lot of time with each one of them, and they’re all unique in their own ways,’’ Ballard said. “They all have strengths in their own ways. They’re all really good dudes. Liked visiting with them. Really liked building relationships with them.
“That’s a cool thing. That’s going to be fun. That’s going to be fun for all of us to watch.’’
Richardson, Stroud and Levis join a division that already featured one of the NFL’s intriguing young guns. Jacksonville selected Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall in 2021. He struggled as a rookie under Urban Meyer, but emerged last season after the Jaguars fired Meyer and replaced him with Doug Pederson.
Jacksonville finished the season with a five-game winning streak, captured the AFC South and slipped past the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30 in a wild-card playoff game before falling 27-20 at Kansas City in an AFC Divisional game.
The only question is when the new kids on the block will be allowed to reaffirm why they were considered capable of leading their franchises into the future.
Everyone within the Colts’ organization believes Richardson needs as many reps as possible. Remember, he started 13 games and attempted 393 passes at Florida.
“Practice reps, game reps. That’s how you develop,’’ said first-year coach Shane Steichen.
Added Irsay: “You get better by playing. Practice and preseason games and watching in the quarterback room is great, but man, I tell ya, you get better by playing.
“His development adds so much to this franchise’s future. Everyone knows that him developing into an outstanding, great player in this league is going to determine where we go and how far we go and how long we go with excellence.’’
The decision of how soon Richardson starts will be Steichen’s to make, as it should be. But Irsay made it clear sooner is better than later.
“That’s the primary reason why you’re starting him opening game is because he gets better by playing,’’ he said. “That’s the biggest benefit from it.
“At the same time, I have to say our fans have to have patience because it’s hard being the rookie quarterback, it really is.’’
If Steichen believes Richardson isn’t ready for the September opener, he’ll turn to veteran Gardner Minshew II.
The Texans are in a similar position. Stroud is their future, and most draft analysts considered him more NFL-ready than Richardson.
No one should be surprised if Stroud is Houston’s opening-day starter. The top two QBs on the Texans’ pre-draft depth chart were Davis Mills and Case Keenum.
Levis, though, likely faces a redshirt season with the Titans. Despite an offseason of massive change under first-year general manager Ran Carthon, Ryan Tannehill remains their starter, but is heading into the final year of his contract. He has voidable years in ’24 and ’25 for salary-cap purposes.
It was an absolute necessity for the Colts, Texans and Titans to find their quarterbacks of the future in a draft that featured multiple legitimate prospects.
From the Colts’ perspective, they could no longer rely on a revolving-veterans approach at their most important position. From Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan. That had to stop.
While Irsay and Ballard kept searching for that guy, they were losing ground in the AFC’s arm race: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Lawrence, and now Aaron Rodgers.
“Yeah, the AFC is pretty loaded at quarterback,’’ Ballard said.
It’s imperative to surround any quarterback with a solid supporting cast, but everything must start with getting a special player under center.
“We know that you have to have that quarterback,’’ Irsay said. “The thing you never want to play against is great head coaches and great quarterbacks.
“That rules the day. I know whenever we don’t have to play Mahomes or Jalen Hurts . . . Josh Allen . . . it’s a big relief.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.