Why NFL QBs are getting younger and younger

Illustration by Michael Brandon Myers

This is part of a seven-story package assessing the state of the young NFL quarterback. Look for more on Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and others in ESPN The Magazine's How to Raise a QB Issue, on newsstands Nov. 13. Subscribe today!


In The Crucible, Arthur Miller's classic play, the townsfolk of Salem, Massachusetts, accuse a man named Giles Corey of witchcraft, and to extract a plea from him, the authorities lay Corey in an open pit and pile heavy stones on his body, one boulder at a time. Yet Corey's only reply -- to his death -- is a command to bring it on: "More weight!"

In the crucible of today's NFL, traditional practices are crumbling away, and the weight of carrying teams is increasingly falling on younger and younger quarterbacks. But instead of succumbing to pressure -- or the doomsaying prophecies of old-timers -- the new generation is thriving.

On the Sunday before Halloween, 22-year-old Teddy Bridgewater threw for 316 yards in a Vikings win over the Lions. Blake Bortles, 23, launched a 31-yard touchdown with 2:16 left to lead his Jaguars over the Bills. Derek Carr, 24, amassed 289 yards with three TDs and no picks to lead the Raiders past the Chargers. Ryan Tannehill, drafted in 2012 by the Dolphins, pasted the Texans for four touchdowns and 44 points. Kirk Cousins, also drafted in '12, passed for three TDs and rushed for a fourth as the Redskins overcame a 24-point deficit to clip the Buccaneers -- despite the efforts of 21-year-old Jameis Winston, who threw for 297 yards and two TDs. Young guns have been firing all season -- and earning the trust of their organizations. Nearly half the league's teams are starting quarterbacks who were drafted in the past five years.

The average age of starting QBs across the league doesn't change much: It's 29.3 this season, compared with 29.2 in 2010, 29.1 in 2005 and, for that matter, 29.5 in 1975. Any given year will witness a familiar mix: a few superstars who are closer to AARP membership than college, a batch of stable veterans and a handful of bad clubs experimenting at quarterback with recent draft picks. The average performance of 35-year-olds will always be better than that of 25-year-olds because of something financial analysts call survivorship bias -- only the best players last in the NFL for a dozen or more years. But here's what has changed: Clubs are drafting quarterbacks at earlier ages and entrusting them with more responsibility, and on the whole, they are delivering. Since 2011, nine QBs age 23 or younger have started every game in a season 10 times -- a historically huge number.

One source for this youthquake is the NFL's labor deal. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement capped rookie contracts for first-round picks at four years (with a team-option fifth), which limits club expenses but compels organizations to figure out whether young players deserve extensions within their first few seasons. Franchises no longer have the latitude to let a top pick ride the bench for three years, as Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers. Long before first contracts are up, teams must throw potential starters into the fray, watch them sink or swim and judge their future value.

Just as important, the new rookie wage scale pays young players a lot less while asking them to do just as much work. Carolina signed Cam Newton for $22 million with the No. 1 pick just a year after the Rams spent $78 million to land Sam Bradford. Now, consider how you would treat a $22,000 car compared with a $78,000 car. Less like a family heirloom and more like a rental, right? Under the current labor pact, clubs have every incentive to play young quarterbacks and play them heavily. In the five years before the CBA, rookie QBs as a group averaged 6,986 passing yards in their first seasons, with 32.2 touchdowns and 43 interceptions. In the five years since, they have averaged 12,198 yards collectively, with a TD/INT ratio of 65.8-to-53.6.

But that's not just because of changing demand. Even deeper rumbles are disrupting -- and accelerating -- the entire supply chain for youthful quarterbacks. Under relentless, spiraling pressure to chase the staggering revenues that come with winning, colleges are recruiting and playing QBs regardless of their age. And further down the line, prep schools and even middle schools are too. Seriously: When Zadock Dinkelmann, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound quarterback from Somerset, Texas, accepted a scholarship offer from LSU last year, he did so verbally because he couldn't make a written commitment until 2018, seeing as how he was in eighth grade.

Across the decades, the age curve for top college QBs has lurched backward even as workloads have increased. In 1961, his first year at Alabama, Joe Namath didn't play for Bear Bryant; at that time, NCAA rules restricted freshmen to their own squads. In 1979, John Elway had just 96 passing attempts as a freshman at Stanford. In 2000, Philip Rivers started 12 games and threw for 3,364 yards as an NC State freshman. In 2013, Winston had 384 attempts -- nearly as many as Namath had in his entire college career -- passed for 4,057 yards and won the Heisman Trophy as a teenager. Winston left Florida State after his sophomore season but by then had more than 800 passing attempts and nearly 8,000 yards under his belt. Which is just one example of how youth no longer equates to inexperience.

Moreover, young quarterbacks are increasingly gaining useful snaps, not just playing time, in the NCAA, because the pro game looks more and more like college. It's no secret that NFL offenses have opened up in recent years, but the extent to which teams have adopted what used to be called "college-style" formations might surprise you. Ten seasons ago, NFL quarterbacks worked out of shotgun or pistol formations on just 19.1 percent of snaps; that number has jumped to 61.6 percent. Meanwhile, teams use three or more wide receivers on 59.8 percent of plays, up from 46.7 percent 10 years ago, and deploy two running backs on just 15.3 percent of snaps, down from 34.6 percent. "Three yards and a cloud of dust" doesn't really exist anymore in the NFL, unless you're talking about quarterback sneaks by Tom Brady. A revolution has taken place in plain sight, overthrowing ground and pound for the passing game in general and spread formations in particular -- and scoring is at record levels. All of which makes it much easier for clubs to pluck QBs from college and drop them straight onto pro fields.

Now, there are many ways for a quarterback to burn up or burn out in the crucible of his initial seasons in the NFL. He can have off-field issues, like Johnny Manziel. He can suffer injuries, or land in a system that fails to maximize his strengths, or play for an organization that puts him behind an inferior offensive line, all of which have befallen Robert Griffin III. He can get dragged down by coaching and personnel changes, like Colin Kaepernick or Andrew Luck. He can simply turn out to be not as good as his team had hoped, like Geno Smith. But turning any quarterback into an All-Pro has always required prospects to navigate a Byzantine and mine-strewn path. What today's era shows is that age matters less than ever in walking that road: Top-tier QBs who stay upright until their teams figure out how to surround them with talent can deliver massive production from day one. Luck, current struggles aside, threw for more yards (12,957) in his first three seasons than any other quarterback in NFL history, and Andy Dalton and Newton are fourth and fifth on the all-time list (behind Peyton Manning and Dan Marino).

So suppose you ran the Vikings a year and a half ago and had the chance to snag Bridgewater with the final pick in the first round of the draft. Your running back is capable of rushing for 2,000 yards in a season, but he's pushing 30. Your recent experiments at quarterback included the 41-year-old Brett Favre and the 35-year-old Donovan McNabb. Looking at Bridgewater, you see a quarterback who is, yes, only 21, but who started all but two games in his three seasons at a BCS school, led his Louisville Cardinals to a 30 -- 9 record and threw for nearly 10,000 yards with a 3-1 TD/INT ratio. You just watched 25-year-old Russell Wilson win a Super Bowl in his second season with the Seahawks, and if you sign Bridgewater, he will make about $1.2 million as a rookie -- less than you are paying long-snapper Cullen Loeffler. Why on earth wouldn't you draft him and then play him? To see if Matt Cassel, also on your roster, will suddenly be a lot better in his 30s than he was in his 20s?

To be sure, bad organizations find ways to answer that question. For many traditionalists, it's just an article of faith that quarterbacks need time to develop at the NFL level and that young QBs are rushed into action too quickly. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley recently said it's so hard to develop quarterbacks that NFL teams shouldn't even want a top-five draft pick.

Think about that. The QBs taken in the first five selections over the past five seasons are Winston, Marcus Mariota, Bortles, Luck, Griffin and Newton. That's not a group of surefire Hall of Famers; when you're looking at quarterbacks in their early 20s, there is no such group. It is, however, a collection of superior athletes offering you a better-than-even shot at a cornerstone player. When you wonder why some franchises are so resistant to change, year after year, consider that there are well-respected coaches in the NFL who would rather pass up the chance to draft a quarterback like that than take on the opportunity to build around him.

But there aren't as many traditionalists as there used to be. Half a dozen or so NFL teams are led by veteran QBs who are likely Hall of Famers. Everyone else has to choose between youth and experience. And look around: These days, it's young quarterbacks in a landslide.