NFL Draft: Does Age Matter for Quarterback Prospects?
The 2018 NFL draft quarterback class is a duel between two different tiers of players.
In one corner, you've got the guys just brimming with collegiate experience. They've been around the bend, and they've got a long track record of success against quality competition.
In the other, you've got the young pups. Three of the top six quarterbacks in the class just finished up their age-20 seasons in college, meaning they're about as young as you can be while entering the NFL draft. They're a different breed than the wily vets.
We know that quarterbacks tend to be more successful in the NFL when they've got a hefty amount of playing time in college. But we've also seen that identifying talented, young players at other positions can be the key to finding true gems. It would make sense that this would be true at quarterback, as well.
Because there are so many potential top-end quarterbacks in this draft, we need every ounce of knowledge we can possibly scrape. If quarterbacks of a certain age truly do hold an advantage, that could be the tie-breaking factor in selecting the top passer in the class. So, let's try to answer that question today.
In order to do so, we'll look back at each quarterback who has been selected in the first round from 2000 through 2017. This gives us a sample of 48 quarterbacks to look at. If players of a certain age tend to be more successful in the NFL than others, then it's possible we may have found a key in our evaluation of the 2018 crop of passers.
With that said, let's dive in. Does age matter when evaluating quarterback prospects for the NFL draft?
A Breakdown of the Data
Before we actually get to breaking this all down, we should go through these 48 quarterbacks to see how often guys of each age are drafted in the first round. This lets us know both what is common and how large our sample sizes are.
Here's the breakdown of the ages for each first-round quarterback from 2000 on. The age in the table represents the player's age during his final season in college, and this is also the benchmark we will be using throughout the piece.
You get five guesses to pick which player is Brandon Weeden. Good luck.
This table shows us two things. First, this year's crop of passers is insanely young relative to what is normal. There have been five quarterbacks coming off their age-20 seasons to go in the first round over the past 18 drafts. Three of the top six in this year's class (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson) fall into that category. That's worth remembering as we go forward.
Second, the two elder statesmen in this class -- Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph -- aren't old. They're both coming off of their age-22 seasons, putting them right at the median age for former first-round picks. They're older than the other three, but they're not outliers in a negative sense (nor is Josh Allen, who is coming off of his age-21 season).
This data should grab our attention with the three younger guys. But should it actually change the way that we view them?
Does Age Matter?
To evaluate this, we're going to lean on numberFire's Total Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Total NEP shows us the expected points a quarterback adds throughout the course of the season while deducting expected points for negative events such as sacks, incompletions, and interceptions. Total NEP also adds in expected points as a rusher. Basically, it tells us which quarterbacks are most effective at helping their teams score points.
To decide whether or not a quarterback has had a successful season, we're going to see how often he ranks highly in Total NEP. We'll be narrowing the list exclusively to seasons in which the quarterback had at least 200 drop backs so as to not penalize them for early-season injuries or other factors. This will undersell the busts because they may naturally have fewer qualified seasons, so keep that in mind along the way.
Specifically, we're going to look at how often quarterbacks in each age bracket finish the season in the top 5, 10, or 15 among quarterbacks in Total NEP. A top-15 season indicates that this guy wasn't hurting you. A top-five season shows he was among the best of the best.
One way we can determine the bust rate is simply by seeing which quarterbacks were never able to log a single top-15 finish. In our sample of 48, a whopping 19 of them have never accomplished this. Three of them -- Paxton Lynch, Patrick Mahomes, and Mitchell Trubisky -- have been in the league for fewer than three years, so we will omit them from our calculations. This leaves us with 45 quarterbacks to peep and from which we can draw conclusions.
So, with our revampted list of 45, let's try to see how often players from each age group are able to log at least one top-15 finish in their career. Again, note that there are only five players from the age-20 bracket and six in the age-23 range, but this is certainly intriguing.
|Age||Percentage With a Top-15 Finish|
Yes, the Weeden data point will be in all of these tables because schadenfreude is real. Just embrace it.
This table shows that all five of our previous age-20 quarterbacks was able to log at least one top-15 finish in his NFL career. That doesn't tell us much about the high-end quality in those seasons, but it is reassuring for our young guns.
The age-21 and age-22 brackets are our largest samples, and there isn't much of a split between the two. However, the data does favor the younger passers, another mark in favor of Darnold, Rosen, Jackson, and Allen. Mayfield and Rudolph get a boost with the age-23 quarterbacks (guys older than them) being pretty solid, but this table seems to make it look like we should be preferring younger passers.
Another way to look at this is to examine how often guys are in the top 15 during their qualified seasons. Getting there once is obviously nice, but that also means we're counting guys like Jason Campbell and David Carr (who both had one such season) as success stories on an equal level to Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. That's just not accurate.
So, instead of seeing how many quarterbacks from each group logged at least one top-15 finish, let's see how often each age range as a whole is able to finish in the top 15. This is simply the number of top-15 finishes by players who were that age coming out of college divided by the total qualified seasons by players in that group. And once again, the youth comes out smelling pretty.
|Age||Percentage of Seasons in Top 15|
If we combine those upper two brackets into one group, 54.55% of the NFL seasons by quarterbacks who were drafted after their age-20 or age-21 seasons result in a top-15 finish in Total NEP. That's only 38.30% for those drafted after their age-22 seasons or later. We can't ignore that gap.
A top-15 season isn't a high bar for a quarterback. You're just asking him to be better than the league average. But quarterbacks taken in their age-22 or age-23 seasons often struggle to get there consistently, and it should be a mark against Mayfield and Rudolph.
When you look at the data, things seem pretty bright and shiny for the youngsters in this draft. The five guys coming off their age-20 seasons to go in the first round have all had at least one successful season in the NFL. That's a positive. But it's also a bit misleading when you look at the actual names on the list.
Below is a look at the careers (through 2017) of these five age-20 passers who have gone in the first round since 2000. The table shows how often they've finished as a top-5, top-10, or top-15 passer, according to Total NEP, along with their total seasons with at least 200 drop backs. This isn't quite as glowing.
|Age-20 Quarterbacks||Top-5 Season||Top-10 Seasons||Top-15 Seasons||Qualified Seasons|
These five players have combined to generate just two top-five Total NEP seasons, and one of those came in Alex Smith's age-33 season, his 12th in the NFL. Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston certainly aren't bad, but neither has achieved superstardom yet.
The question then becomes whether or not the older draftees are more capable of hitting that next level. So, here's the breakdown of how often quarterbacks from each age grouping have recorded top-5 and top-10 seasons in the NFL.
|Age||Percentage of Seasons in Top 5||Percentage of Seasons in Top 10|
The sweet spot here -- by a significant margin -- is the quarterbacks who were drafted after their age-21 seasons. This group includes the aforementioned Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cam Newton, all of whom have at least four top-10 finishes. For the other ages, things were pretty equal.
Based on this, it certainly seems as if the younger quarterbacks are still our preferred poison. However, this goes contrary to what we discussed in the opening: players with more collegiate experience tend to be more successful in the NFL. These two sets of data would seem to be contradictory.
It's entirely possible that they're not. To determine whether that's the case, it's important that we add in the context of the number of games each player played in college when examining the bust rates at each age. For this discussion, any game in which the quarterback attempted at least 10 passes in college will count as a "game played." Because Mayfield and Rudolph are at the higher end of the spectrum with 48 and 41 games played, respectively, this could be their saving grace.
By having that much experience, Mayfield and Rudolph are very much on the top end among other players at their age. The same is true for Jackson and Rosen. This visual shows the age and games played for each quarterback to go in the first round since 2000, omitting Weeden because he throws the whole graph into a tizzy.
Mayfield is tied for second in games played among those coming off their age-22 season, and Rudolph is fifth. We'll circle back to how this affects our evaluations of them in a second.
But first, we have to gush about Jackson. Among age-20 quarterbacks, he enters with the second-most games played in college, trailing only Stafford's 37. Jackson played extensively as a true freshman and stayed healthier than Rosen, allowing him to separate from the pack. On top of that, his stats were spicy, meaning this guy could be a huge value if he slides beyond the end of the first round.
Additionally, this does draw some concern for Allen. Even though he gets a boost by coming off his age-21 season, he is low on the experience totem pole. Only one quarterback of Allen's age has played 25 or fewer games and gone in the first round since 2000. That was Johnny Manziel. There were older players with less experience (which we'll tackle in a jiffy), but Allen's lack of collegiate track record does need to be viewed as a negative.
As for Rosen, he's sitting right in the middle. He had 30 games played in college, and the only other guy at that number -- Mahomes -- is yet to record a 200-attempt season in the NFL. We don't really know what to expect from someone in his range. So, let's try to get a look at that.
Let's set the cut line right at Rosen's experience level and divvy age-20 and age-21 quarterbacks into two buckets: those with 30 games played in college and those with fewer than that. If we see a split between the two groups, it will help us in evaluating all four of the incoming quarterbacks in this younger group.
Here's a look at how often players drafted at those two ages have recorded top-5, top-10, and top-15 seasons in the NFL based on their collegiate experience. It appears we have some actionable data.
|Age 21 or Younger||Top-5 Seasons||Top-10 Seasons||Top-15 Seasons|
|30-Plus Collegiate Games||19.30%||40.35%||57.89%|
|Fewer than 30 Collegiate Games||6.45%||22.58%||48.39%|
That top-five number is meaty for quarterbacks with at least 30 games of experience. That group includes Roethlisberger, Stafford, Rodgers, and Jared Goff from previous years along with Jackson and Rosen from this year. This is a major plus for those two guys, and we should be giving them a boost in our minds as a result.
Things are a bit different for Allen and Darnold at 25 and 24 games played, respectively. Sure, there were some top-10 seasons, but more than half of those (four of seven) came from Newton alone. He has also accounted for half of the top-five seasons with Smith producing the other. This is not a great range to live in.
Because Darnold and Allen are both young, they get a bigger pass for their lack of experience than they would if they were the same age as Mayfield and Rudolph. But they're still inexperienced for their respective ages, and the track record of success down there is slim. We need to be wary with these two players, especially when they're viewed in comparison to Jackson and Rosen.
Now, with the younger players covered, let's circle back to the older crowd. In our sample of 45 first-round quarterbacks (again omitting those without a top-15 finish within their first two seasons), the average number of games played among those who had logged at least one top-15 finish was just above 35. That's actually a good chunk below the experience levels of both Mayfield and Rudolph, so let's use that for our benchmark in judging the elder crop.
When we split it this way, we are left with 13 quarterbacks aged 22 or older who had at least 35 games played in college. There are 14 with fewer than that, giving us a pretty even split. Can we feel better about older prospects if they're coming in with a boatload of experience?
|Age 22 or Older||Top-5 Seasons||Top-10 Seasons||Top-15 Seasons|
|35-Plus Collegiate Games||15.48%||35.71%||53.57%|
|Fewer Than 35 Collegiate Games||1.79%||1.79%||16.07%|
Hot diggity dog. The more experienced guys in this grouping aren't quite as spicy as the experienced younger quarterbacks, but they're pretty dang close. This is huge for Mayfield and Rudolph.
As long as a quarterback has roughly three years of starting experience, it seems as if it's okay for him to be coming off his age-22 or age-23 season. That's the area where we find guys like Rivers, Andrew Luck, and Matt Ryan, all of whom have been top-10 quarterbacks in at least 60% of their seasons. We shouldn't view Mayfield and Rudolph as positively as we view Jackson and Rosen from an age perspective, but their age is clearly not a red flag, either.
There aren't any inexperienced age-22 or older quarterbacks in this class, but it's worth mentioning how wretched that grouping is. They have produced just one top-10 finish out of 56 qualified seasons, and that top-10 came from Carson Wentz this year. It provides a grim outlook for Mitchell Trubisky, a 2017 draftee who entered after his age-22 season with just 18 collegiate games played. We should also have heavy skepticism about anybody in this group in future drafts.
We started this off with the question of "Does age matter for college quarterback prospects?" We wound up about 15 derivations from there, so there's plenty to go through. But it does seem like we have some actionable takeaways.
First, age does matter. The data seems to indicate that players coming off of their age-20 and age-21 seasons tend to be more successful in the NFL. This is especially true when they have roughly 30 games of experience in college before leaving, a positive sign for Jackson and Rosen.
Second, even the younger players do need to have some track record of experience, which knocks Darnold and Allen down a peg. Although they're both younger than Mayfield and Rudolph, they've also got at least 16 fewer games of experience entering the NFL. Players with their track records can succeed, but the odds are lower than for those coming off of longer careers.
Third, older prospects can be successful as long as they've started for roughly three years in college. Mayfield and Rudolph both had that and more. While we shouldn't view them as positively (strictly from an age perspective) as someone like Jackson, their age should not be used as a reason to dismiss them as prospects.
Finally, for future reference, older, inexperienced quarterbacks should be a hard pass for future NFL teams. You do have one shining exception in Wentz, and it's possible Trubisky becomes another, but the longer string of data here is brutal. Experience is huge for quarterback prospects, and if a player doesn't bring either that or youth, his odds of being a stud seem slim.