When Aidan O’Connell was drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the collective response was something akin to a shrug. First, there was the look and the mustache (not exactly the most compelling combination) — but even the on-field performance was underwhelming at best.
NFL.com’s scouting report had him graded out as an “average backup or special teaser”. Other notes from the report: he struggles on deep balls, has “slow, plodding feet” and has average arm strength.
Other than that, though?
Heck, this was a guy who didn’t even start on his high school team until he was a senior — and college? He committed to play Division-III football at Wheaton before deciding to walk-on at Purdue (good choice). In his first three years at Purdue, he played in just nine games before breaking out as a starter in 2021 and 2022.
And maybe that story is why we should have been more excited about a guy who had everything working against him at the professional level?
To be clear, nobody here is projecting O’Connell to be the long-term answer at quarterback (despite some penciling him in as the 2023 Brock Purdy) — but after seeing the first two preseason games, I’m willing to go on record with my next bold prediction:
Aidan O’Connell is starting four games for the Raiders in 2023.
Admittedly, when you unpack this a bit, it’s not the craziest thing you’ve heard (and maybe not all that “bold”), but hang with me here.
The first thing this would require is for Jimmy Garoppolo to miss four games at some point this season because I’m not predicting O’Connell passes him at any point. But, let’s be honest, most folks reading this are probably thinking: “he’s only going to miss four games?”
But the second thing required, and the one that felt far more unlikely prior to live game action in the preseason, is that O’Connell would pass Brian Hoyer on the depth chart. Yes, Hoyer is nearly 38 and has completed just 65 passes in the past five seasons, but he’s a McDaniels guy, and I doubt he was brought in just to hang out.
The problem for Hoyer is how badly O’Connell has outplayed him all preseason.
In the first preseason game Hoyer didn’t play, but O’Connell was incredibly impressive — showing pinpoint accuracy on his passes and seeming completely unfazed by the speed and pressure of the game. He finished 15/18 with 141 yards and a touchdown (and two of the three incompletions were drops).
With that in the rearview, all eyes were on the second preseason game when both Hoyer and O’Connell were expected to play. Result: more of the same.
Hoyer started and finished 12/22 for 141 yards, no touchdowns, and a horrific pick-six:
Sean McVay really loves football.
He was Mic’d Up during a Brian Hoyer pick-6 by LB Jake Hummel.
McVay will probably do good on TV as a broadcaster if he goes that route.pic.twitter.com/EHG7pDcqzV
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) August 20, 2023
When Hoyer was done, it was O’Connell’s turn, and he picked up right where he had left off the week before. His final line: 11/18 with 163 yards and two touchdowns.
Now look, I know this is all pretend football, okay? It’s backups against backups — so the grain of salt we are taking all of this with is rather large. And yet… it’s what we’ve got, and I refuse to believe it’s all meaningless.
What I’m looking for in the preseason from a guy like O’Connell isn’t huge numbers — it’s poise, it’s accuracy, it’s confidence and it’s command of the offense.
Check, check, check, check.
Again: nobody here is saying he’s the next franchise Raiders quarterback, but we’re also not saying he isn’t. The odds are against him, but from what I’ve seen I’ve come to believe two things:
1) O’Connell is going to be the team’s backup quarterback when the season starts, and that’s a pretty important position given the health history of the guy in front of him
2) O’Connell has a real chance to be an NFL starting-level quarterback
He doesn’t have the elite athleticism or arm strength, so the ceiling here is definitely limited — but what he does have as far as mental makeup and accuracy tells me the floor might be higher than most. Like, is there a 20% chance that we finish this season thinking O’Connell could find himself in the Mac Jones / Brock Purdy tier of NFL quarterbacks? I think there is — and while that group isn’t carrying you to a Super Bowl, there’s still real value there, and I think that’s what the Raiders have found in O’Connell.