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The Evolution of Quarterbacks

Get your roll on 'Pepp

Get your roll on 'Pepp.

With the NFL draft approaching, you’ll hear a lot of statements about how the quarterback position is changing. Mobile quarterbacks are now “in”, which is a good thing for Johnny Manziel. A 6’4 frame is no longer required, which is a good thing for… well, Manziel, and negates some of the value of a player like Blake Bortles or Tom Savage. And, heck, do you even need to get a quarterback in the first round? If Teddy Bridgewater falls to the second round, how much of an outlier does that make him? What about say, Aaron Murray, who is both short and expected to be a late round pick?

I can’t tell you how any of the prospects in this year’s draft will turn out, but I can walk you through how the quarterback position has changed over the course of NFL history.


For all three variables, I will be using the same methodology to measure “league average” in each season.  Each player in each year gets credit for his percentage of league-wide pass attempts in the season multiplied by his value in each variable.  For example, when calculating the 2013 league average, Peyton Manning’s [rushing numbers, height, draft position] was worth 3.6% of the league average, while in 1958, Johnny Unitas’s [rushing, height, draft position] was worth 6.7% of the league average. This gives us a weighted average for each variable, weighted by the number of pass attempts by that quarterback.


Are quarterbacks running more frequently these days? That depends on what you mean by the words, ‘these days.’  From 2003 to 2009, the average quarterback rushed for just 100 yards.  Meanwhile, in 2013, the league-average quarterback rushed for 159 yards, so yes, running quarterbacks do seem to be a bit more ‘in’ right now. Last year, Cam Newton, Terrelle Pryor, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick cleared 500 rushing yards, while Robert Griffin III and Alex Smith ran for over 400 yards. Add in Andrew Luck and Geno Smith, and a quarter of the league had quarterbacks rush for over 350 yards, including five of the 12 teams in the NFL playoffs.

So yes, running quarterbacks are more prominent now.  But the more accurate statement is probably “running quarterbacks are now more prominent again.”  The graph below shows the league average rushing yards from passers since 1950.1

In 2000, Donovan McNabb rushed for over 600 yards, while Rich Gannon and Daunte Culpepper combined for 999 yards on the ground. That was the environment that led to Michael Vick becoming the first overall pick the following April. In addition, Kordell Stewart, Jeff Garcia, Steve McNair, and Shaun King each rushed for over 350 yards in 2000. And over 60 years ago, Tobin Rote, Charlie Trippi, and Bobby Layne helped make the 12-team 1951 NFL the most running-QB friendly of any year since 1950.


This one needs little explanation other than the Y-Axis is measuring inches:

Evolution in sports can be amazing to witness.  Jesse Owens ran the 100 meters in 10.3 seconds at the Olympics in 1936, while Usain Bolt did it in 9.63 seconds two years ago.   Jim Ringo and Mick Tingelhoff were All-Pro centers in the 230-240 round range  in the late ’50s and ’60s.  The last two AP All-Pro centers are Ryan Kalil and Max Unger, both of whom check in at 299 pounds.

Quarterback height has underdone a similar transformation.  As offensive and defensive linemen get taller — and you can be sure that that is happening, too — it makes sense that quarterbacks are likewise getting taller.  Even 11 years ago, the “average” height of passers was 0.7 inches shorter. Drew Brees (6’0) and Peyton Manning (6’5) were in the top 11 in attempts in both ’02 and ’13, but in 2002, Brett Favre, Jake Plummer, and Jeff Garcia all checked in at 74 inches or shorter.  Meanwhile, in addition to Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer all check in at 6’5 or taller, and players like Brees and Wilson remain the exception.

Draft Status

Using the draft values from my draft value chart, here is the average draft capital spent on the ‘league-average’ quarterback:

As expected, there is much more volatility here than in height.2 Excluding 1987, which involved replacement players, the low mark in recent times was 2001. That year, 13 quarterbacks threw 500 pass attempts, and over half of them were undrafted or selected outside of the top 215 picks: Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson, Kurt Warner, Trent Green, Doug Flutie, and Jeff Garcia. Also meeting those criteria and throwing over 400 passes: Elvis Grbac, Jay Fiedler, and yes, Tom Brady.

But in 1972, the NFL was much more reliant on early picks. Of the top 13 leaders in pass attempts, consider: four were first overall picks (Jim Plunkett, Joe Namath, Roman Gabriel, and Terry Bradshaw), two more were second overall picks (Archie Manning, Norm Snead), two more were third overall selections (Mike Phipps, Dan Pastorini), and two more were selected with the fifth overall pick (Len Dawson, Craig Morton). John Hadl was selected 10th overall, which leaves just Fran Tarkenton and Ken Anderson as the only member of the groups not selected with a first round pick.

Two years ago, the league was also dominated by high picks, with Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Russell Wilson being the notable exceptions. Last year, Nick Foles and Mike Glennon added to that mix. But overall, the modern era seems more slanted to highly-drafted quarterbacks than most of the rest of the post-merger era. That makes sense, in light of the amount of draft capital spent on the position.

  1. Note that all non-16 game seasons have been pro-rated to 16 games. []
  2. For those curious about how I handled supplemental draft picks, I decided to just exclude them entirely (and, of course, that means excluding them from calculating percentage of league pass attempts, too).  Other than Steve Young, Bernie Kosar, and a few others, so few supplemental picks are quarterbacks that I thought this simple solution was best. []