2024 NFL draft watch: How QB Drake Maye is elevating North Carolina’s profile while boosting his own stock

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Drake Maye didn’t slowly materialize as a prospect for the 2024 NFL draft last fall at North Carolina. He burst upon teams’ radar as a redshirt freshman with a blazing start that featured 16 touchdown passes and only one interception through the first four games.

“I had three scouts call me last year when they were leaving North Carolina, and they were all like, ‘Holy (crap)! This kid at UNC is the real deal,’” one senior personnel evaluator said. “I know he’s got a ton of physical talent. When we get down to nitpicking time, which is inevitable, I don’t know what it’s going to be for Drake.”

The uphill battle for Maye — who has led the 10th-ranked Tar Heels to a 6-0 record this season with an average margin of 16.3 points — is closing the gap between himself and USC quarterback Caleb Williams as the potential No. 1 draft pick in April.

The consensus among the 11 evaluators the Tribune spoke to for this story and an accompanying piece on Williams is that Williams will be the first pick, which the Chicago Bears would own if the order were based on current standings.

“I think they go 1-2,” an NFC general manager said of Williams and Maye. “That’s unless (Ohio State wide receiver) Marvin Harrison Jr. sticks his head in there.”

On a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon two weeks ago at Kenan Memorial Stadium, Maye piled up video-game numbers in a 40-7 thrashing of Syracuse: 33-of-47 passing for 442 yards and three touchdowns — completing passes to 11 targets — plus 14 rushes for another 55 yards and a fourth score. Bears assistant director of college scouting Breck Ackley was present.

It was a good test against an Orange defense that employs multiple coverages and aggressive pressures, one national scout noted, and a needed big game after Maye had only five touchdown passes and four interceptions through the first four games.

In a six-minute span in the second quarter, Maye made plays that will pop when NFL teams dive into the tape.

Facing a six-man pressure, he dropped a perfect ball on a slot fade to tight end Bryson Nesbit for a 23-yard touchdown. He threw a bullet along the left sideline to wide receiver J.J. Jones for a 15-yard gain. Off a play fake, he drove a ball to Nate McCollum for a 48-yard gain, showing well-above-average arm strength. Displaying his athletic ability at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Maye scrambled to his left for 12 yards.

Maye followed that up with a four-touchdown effort last week in a 41-31 win over Miami, taking a ton of hits while propelling the Tar Heels to their best start since 1997. One evaluator said that’s key when considering a quarterback who doesn’t come from a blue-blood program: Does he raise the team to a level it hasn’t reached in a long time?

Maye checks that box, certainly more than former Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky did at North Carolina. Trubisky couldn’t beat out Marquise Williams, who never made an NFL roster, so he was the starter for only the 2016 season. Maye, 21, immediately followed Sam Howell, who set 27 school records and now starts for the Washington Commanders.

“Mechanically sound, accurate, very good ball placement, good anticipation, just enough athletic ability to be a run threat,” said one national scout who has been to Chapel Hill this fall. “And he’s not surrounded by a lot. Makes a lot with a little. If he was at Alabama (where Maye originally committed), they would be in the national championship hunt.”
“Size, athleticism, like the arm, deep and intermediate accuracy, he’s really good in the pocket,” an AFC general manager said. “Very good athlete. Elite wiring. Very good at the second and third levels. He will guide the ball a little bit and you can clean up his feet. Really good player.”
“Has all the tools,” a national scout said. “Can he develop? He will need to right away with where he will be drafted.”
“He’s good, but I still think he’s got a ways to go,” said another national scout who was in Chapel Hill recently. “I am probably in the minority in that, but I gave him a really good grade. He’s got a really high ceiling. Some of his decision making at times is not what you want. He can be a future face of the franchise. He does things the right way.

“Maybe it was because I had heard so much about him that I was expecting more. He’s a good athlete. He tricks the defense at times with his athletic ability and speed to get first downs. He rolls pretty good. Big athlete. Good arm.”

Former Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman, who was the Bears director of pro personnel from 1997-99, has watched extensive tape of Maye and Williams in work he’s doing for The 33rd Team website, his CBS Sports podcast “With the First Pick” and SiriusXM.

“He had no help until (wide receiver) Tez Walker started playing,” said Spielman, noting the NCAA approved Walker’s eligibility earlier this month. “He’s got a poor offensive line. He doesn’t have the same weapons he had when he had Josh Downs (Indianapolis Colts) and Antoine Green (Detroit Lions) last year.

“When he has time, he’s great. He’s getting his ass beat almost every other snap as they are struggling up front, and Miami got after him. His toughness to get up after some of the hits he takes, boy. He has a strong arm. He is athletic and can get outside of the pocket and do things. He is an accurate thrower on the move and he has more than enough deep strength and accuracy.

“He’ll force it, just like most of these guys will do, trying to do too much at times, but are you ready for this one? He is a poor man’s Trevor Lawrence. That’s what I saw in him.”

NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah made a parallel to Carson Palmer when describing Maye. Others have compared him to Justin Herbert, noting they have similarly long deliveries. That’s not necessarily a hindrance and quarterbacks can overcome it with anticipation and arm strength.

One national scout said Maye’s accuracy seems a tad off at times. That’s getting into detailed observations, as he’s completing 68.9% of his passes this season. He completed 66.2% last season, when he set a Tar Heels record with 4,321 passing yards — while also leading the team in rushing with 698 yards — and tied the school mark with 38 touchdown passes.

But the scout was referring to ball-placement accuracy — delivering passes where the target can gain more yardage. Facing a Syracuse blitz in the third quarter, Maye saw the pressure and identified his target, wide receiver Kobe Paysour, on an option route from the right side of the formation. The ball was behind Paysour, who reached back to tip it to himself with his left hand before racing 77 yards to the end zone.

In the NFL, that’s probably not a touchdown. It might be an interception.

That’s an example of the fine lens used in evaluating all players, especially quarterbacks.

“He’s kind of like the guy who does a lot of things well,” an assistant GM from an AFC team said. “I don’t know if he does anything elite. He’s really tough. Really is like a poor man’s Justin Herbert. Herbert’s arm is a little more lively. He’s competitive.”

One thing college programs with elite quarterbacks have done is find NFL-experienced and quarterback-savvy mentors to sign on as “analysts,” a vague role that means they can’t do on-field coaching but otherwise serve as coaches in meetings. Adding one can help persuade a quarterback to stay put and not seek the vast NIL (name, image, likeness) money other programs might dangle.

At USC, former Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who guided Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, is an analyst for Williams. Texas — whose quarterback, Quinn Ewers, is another top 2024 draft prospect — has former Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst on staff as an analyst. Chryst was a tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers and was Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator when Russell Wilson played there.

In Chapel Hill, coach Mack Brown has Clyde Christensen in the role. Christensen was the Colts offensive coordinator for Peyton Manning and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterbacks coach for Tom Brady. The Tar Heels also count as analysts former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens and former Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino.

Christensen can zero in on Maye’s footwork and progressions and provide the detailed coaching he will receive in the NFL, a luxury few programs have.

“Coach Christensen has done an unbelievable job,” Maye said. “One of the biggest things, from two years ago and last year with (former offensive coordinator Phil) Longo, are individual drills. It’s one of our most intense periods of practice every day. I feel like I’m winded more in our individual, going through drills, than I am at any other point in practice.

“He works us. We’ll go back and watch individual. We’re watching Tom Brady and Peyton Manning do the same drills. It’s a blessing to have him in the room just bouncing off ideas. Got a lot of good things going.”

Maye is from Huntersville, N.C., near Charlotte. He flipped his commitment from Alabama to North Carolina after Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide wooed Bryce Young away from USC.

He’s continuing a family tradition in Chapel Hill. His father, Mark, was a highly recruited quarterback who picked UNC in 1983 over Alabama and Florida State, among other schools. His mother, Aimee, worked in the football recruiting office during Brown’s first stint as Tar Heels coach (1988-97), when Mark was a graduate assistant.

Maye has three older brothers. Luke was a standout for the UNC basketball team, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 2017 with a game-winning shot against Kentucky. He plays professionally in Turkey. Cole was a pitcher on Florida’s 2017 College World Series championship team. Beau was a walk-on for the Tar Heels basketball team.

It’s a tight-knit family with bigger brothers — Drake is both the youngest and shortest — that makes scouts search for glowing adjectives to describe Maye’s character.

“There’s just tons of competitive juices in that family,” said David Morris, a quarterbacks coach based in Mobile, Ala., who has trained Maye. “Anytime you’re a younger brother, you’re used to a couple things. You’re used to playing up so you become less intimidated. Then there is a toughness thing — you’re getting pushed around and beat up by the brothers — and all that stuff helps mold a competitive kid that is eager to get in an environment where he feels all that stuff.”

“Incredible makeup,” the AFC general manager said.

Maye is fueled less by the prospect of the draft right now than by what might lie ahead for the Tar Heels: a shot at the ACC championship game — and possibly the College Football Playoff. After a 9-1 start last year, UNC lost its final four games.

“Obviously the way we ended last year, lost a lot of close games,” Maye said at the ACC Kickoff in July. “Anytime you end the season like that, I use it as motivation. That’s all we talk about.”

After hosting Virginia on Saturday, the Tar Heels play No. 16 Duke and defending ACC champion Clemson in consecutive weeks in November. The games against the better opponents are the ones NFL teams will keenly watch. If Maye can continue to raise the profile of the program, he also would boost his own stock.

“Does all the right things,” a scouting director said. “All the stuff you want. He’s got a bright future.”


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