Sizing up quarterback options for Commanders at No. 2

Who is the better draft prospect, Jayden Daniels or Drake Maye? (1:25)

Harry Douglas and Jordan Reid discuss the strengths of Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye, debating who is the better pick in the NFL draft. (1:25)

The Washington Commanders have a big decision to make in the 2024 NFL draft.

With the Chicago Bears expected to select USC signal-caller Caleb Williams first overall, Washington, which has long been searching for a franchise quarterback, will have three candidates to choose from with the No. 2 pick: LSU's Jayden Daniels, North Carolina's Drake Maye and Michigan's J.J. McCarthy.

Each offers something different. Daniels provides electric running ability and has shown improvement as a pocket passer. Maye possesses a big frame, a strong arm and a high ceiling. And McCarthy, who led the Wolverines to a national title last season, has intangibles teams covet.

Not that anyone knows which player Washington will pick.

"Honestly, we have no clue," New England Patriots coach Jerod Mayo, whose team holds the No. 3 pick, said about the Commanders' plans at the league meeting in March. "I don't think anyone in here really knows exactly what Washington is going to do."

At that point, neither did Washington.

"We're far from our answer," Commanders general manager Adam Peters said last month.

At the time of Peters' comments, he and his staff had yet to attend Maye and Daniels' pro days (they now have) and had not hosted any of the quarterbacks on a visit (they meet with all three next week). The evaluation process will continue up until the draft April 25, and with each day, the intrigue surrounding Washington's choice is likely to grow.

ESPN spoke with more than a dozen executives, coaches, scouts and analysts about Daniels, Maye and McCarthy. Here's what they said.

Jayden Daniels

Daniels, who played five seasons of college football at Arizona State and LSU, has gone from an intriguing talent to a Heisman Trophy winner and potential second overall choice. In the last of his two seasons at LSU he threw for 3,812 yards and 40 touchdowns and ran for another 1,134 yards and 10 scores.

The case for Daniels: When asked why Daniels should be taken at No. 2, one NFL head coach highlighted his running ability and accuracy down the field.

An NFC offensive coach called Daniels "a home run."

"The only knock on him is when [he] throws outside [the] numbers, he doesn't drive it," the coach said. "It's not a fastball. But he goes through his progressions so well that it doesn't matter and when [the play] breaks down he can run. ... Jayden is a passer who can run fast."

Daniels did not get timed in the 40-yard dash this offseason, but he ran the ball 617 times during his college career, providing teams with more than enough chances to gauge his speed. Last season, he ran 135 times and averaged 8.4 yards.

"When he runs it's not for 5 yards, it will be for 20 yards, 30 yards," said Herm Edwards, who coached Daniels at Arizona State. "[Drafting] Jayden Daniels alone has helped their offensive line, has helped their run game if they take him."

Edwards also lauded Daniels' maturity.

"His growth in the classroom, his ability to learn how to study film, to process information," Edwards said. "His talent is his talent; it jumps off the tape. But there's still a learning curve and I've watched him mature the last couple years and just being more patient in the pocket."

"What's cool about Jayden is he's got game-changing athletic ability but he can also play quarterback," another head coach said.

Daniels' deep passing also was mentioned often. He led all college passers with a 100 QBR on throws of 20 air yards or more, with an NCAA-best 66.7% completion rate and 22 touchdowns and no picks on such throws. Washington coach Dan Quinn has said more than once that the Commanders want someone who can throw deep.

The case against Daniels: Daniels will be 24 by the end of his rookie season. Could he be closer to his ceiling than Maye and McCarthy?

Also, Daniels weighed in at 210 pounds at the scouting combine and has a slender frame.

"The only issue with Jayden is his stature," said former Washington coach Jay Gruden, who analyzes draft prospects.

Lighter quarterbacks have had successful NFL careers. Kirk Cousins, who is 1 inch shorter than Daniels, has played at around 200 to 205 pounds since his final season as Commanders QB in 2017. But Daniels runs more than Cousins, which has some evaluators and coaches concerned about injury risk.

Drake Maye

Maye started for two seasons at North Carolina, throwing for a combined 8,018 yards and 63 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. He ran for 1,209 yards and 16 scores. He was the ACC Player of the Year in 2022 but threw 14 fewer touchdown passes last season.

The case for Maye: At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds Maye has size, a big arm and running ability. Multiple coaches compared him to Justin Herbert.

"His toughness, his physical style, is what you're looking for," Gruden said. "He's more of the prototypical size, strength, athletic quarterback that you want and we've just got to fix some of his accuracy issues, but he'll make up for it with his ability to run and break some tackles on third and 8 and get you the first down."

Mayo, whose Patriots are expected to draft a quarterback in the slot behind the Commanders, said Maye "brings a lot of energy."

"You can tell he has that leadership ability," Mayo said. "The exciting part about a guy like Drake Maye is the ceiling. There is really no ceiling with a guy like that. He has a lot of room to grow."

While almost all of the coaches interviewed said they would take Daniels over Maye, some analysts did not. One pointed to Maye playing in an Air Raid system at UNC in 2022. Kliff Kingsbury, Washington's offensive coordinator, runs a version of the offense.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah also favors Maye.

"There's risk involved," Jeremiah said. "He is not a perfect player, but you can fill in the gaps when you have somebody who has size, who has a live arm, who is a good athlete, who is by all accounts an incredibly bright, great leader. You just have to have faith that it's going to come together."

The case against Maye: The reasons some were reluctant to rate Maye over Daniels were many and varied. They pointed to "missed layups" -- passes that should have been easy completions. They said his footwork needed fixing. Some said the simplicity of defenses in the ACC hindered evaluations of his ability to adjust post-snap, especially compared to Daniels, who played in the SEC. Another didn't like the change in offensive systems UNC underwent from 2022 to 2023, saying it did not provide enough evidence of how Maye's ability to read his progressions would translate to the NFL.

Multiple NFL head coaches said Maye would have to sit for a while before being ready to start.

"He's worth developing because he's big and tough and works at it," one NFL offensive coach said. "But when you pick him, everyone's on the hook for his development and everyone will get fired if it doesn't work."

Comparing Maye to Herbert, that same coach said: "He has a lesser arm and lesser speed. He can't save plays like Herbert."

J.J. McCarthy

McCarthy started 28 games over the past two seasons, leading Michigan to a 27-1 record. Last season, he threw for 2,991 yards and 22 touchdowns with four interceptions while playing in a run-heavy scheme. McCarthy was the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year and MVP of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama.

The case for McCarthy: He is a bit of a mystery. He wasn't asked to do a lot in college, which has led teams to extrapolate what he might accomplish in the NFL.

One of his biggest fans is his former coach at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh, who is now at the same position with the Los Angeles Chargers.

"He plays quarterback the best of any quarterback in the draft," Harbaugh told reporters at the league meeting. "He's incredible."

One league source predicted in January that once teams got around McCarthy in person they would like him even more. Harbaugh said he witnessed that at McCarthy's pro day.

"That was the best throwing day I've ever seen," Harbaugh said. "I was hearing the stories about how he is on the [white] board, how he is on the field, the little things, the intangibles. I mean, it was absolutely no surprise whatsoever. But yeah, there was raving."

Some analysts have highlighted McCarthy's situational play. He had an NCAA-best QBR of 97.5 on third-and-7 or greater last season, converting 27 of his 49 pass attempts into first downs.

"When you watch on third downs there's a lot to like," Jeremiah said. "He has a really, really quick mind. He has a quick release. Just everything he does is real smooth. I wrote in my notes that he never gets bored with completions. Some other guys in his class get in trouble big-play hunting. He can rev it up and drive the ball in the seams. He can extend plays, keep his eyes up. There's some elements of Alex Smith coming out of college ... similar build, played the game from the shoulders up really well, and was pretty athletic to get out and make some plays."

The case against McCarthy: One coach questioned whether McCarthy belongs in the top group of QBs this draft (with Williams, Daniels and Maye) or at the top of the next tier, which includes Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon's Bo Nix. Another NFL offensive coach thought McCarthy would get "way over-drafted" just because he's a quarterback. This coach said McCarthy must improve on certain fundamentals -- shortening his stride and learning to throw with more touch, for example.

Gruden said Michigan's "simplistic" offense also did McCarthy no favors.

"They really didn't ask him to do a whole lot. He obviously could handle it when he was asked to spread it out a little bit. ... You've just got to see more from him."

Whether Washington ultimately decides to take Daniels, Maye or McCarthy later this month, one NFL offensive coach said the Commanders are in an enviable spot.

"They're in a good position because they have a lot of options."