clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Era of the Once-in-a-Generation QB Prospect Is Here. How Will NFL Teams React?

Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence are perhaps the two most sought-after college QBs since Andrew Luck. They’re about to force NFL teams to decide if they’re truly transcendent talents worth tanking for—or just the faces of a larger trend.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2019 NFL season is still a few weeks away, but the Dolphins’ tank job may have already begun. Normally teams wait until things go awry before they consider throwing in the towel, but Miami started stripping its roster of talent early this offseason, getting rid of Ryan Tannehill, Robert Quinn, Cameron Wake, Danny Amendola, Frank Gore, Ja’wuan James, and Josh Sitton, among other potential starters. And while many rebuilds come with the introduction of a highly drafted quarterback, the Dolphins chose to pass over Dwayne Haskins in April’s first round, going with defensive lineman Christian Wilkins instead. Miami is now in the midst of a quarterback battle between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen. It is basically the only team in the NFL with a legitimate QB battle, and whoever wins could end up being the worst starting quarterback in football.

The Dolphins’ decisions may seem strange on the surface, but perhaps they make sense considering that a preposterously talented quarterback is on the league’s horizon: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawaiian lefty who transformed the Crimson Tide from a team that suffocated opponents with strong defense and conservative offense into one that blows their doors off with a lightning-fast RPO-heavy attack, is eligible to be drafted next year. Tagovailoa announced his presence to the world during the 2018 College Football Playoff national title game, when he came off the bench with the Tide trailing 13-0 and sparked a dramatic comeback victory capped by a 41-yard walk-off touchdown pass. And Tagovailoa accomplished that as a true freshman—two years before NFL teams were allowed to draft him. In 2020, Tua can go pro if he so chooses.

However, tanking for Tua might not even be the wisest way for NFL teams to suck. It’s possible that the future of quarterbacking is not Tagovailoa but another player who captured the college football national championship as a true freshman: Trevor Lawrence, the QB who led Clemson to a stunning 44-16 rout of the Tide in January, the 6-foot-6 prodigy who was born to play quarterback or star in Pantene commercials, or possibly both.

Before 2018, only one true freshman QB had ever won a Division I college football national championship. Jamelle Holieway ascended to Oklahoma’s starting job in 1985 after Troy Aikman broke his leg and led the Sooners to eight straight wins, including an Orange Bowl triumph over Penn State. Now, two true freshman passers have done it over the past two years. Tua proved that his title-winning half was no fluke by setting the single-season record for passing efficiency rating last fall. (His 11.2 yards per pass attempt would have been second all time if he’d recorded it two years ago; instead, he’s ranked fourth behind Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and Michael Vick, three no. 1 NFL draft picks.) Lawrence hasn’t yet had a chance to follow his remarkable national championship performance, but he was considered a legendary prospect long before that title game.

Tagovailoa is in my pantheon of all-time favorite quarterbacks, a dynamic stunner who combines the seemingly diametrically opposed qualities of unpredictability and consistency. I have no idea what he’s going to do at any given moment, and QBs like that tend to make tons of mistakes. Not Tagovailoa, who routinely delivers clean strikes to players I didn’t even know he could see. This touchdown makes no sense:

This touchdown makes negative sense:

Tagovailoa is not the consensus no. 1 draft pick in 2020—some mocks have Oregon’s Justin Herbert ahead of him. Tua is better at virtually every aspect of playing quarterback, but Herbert is taller, so I understand the debate. I think Tua is the obvious no. 1, and it isn’t particularly close. I also would’ve taken Tagovailoa no. 1 over Kyler Murray in April, and I love Kyler Murray.

And yet the hype over Tagovailoa pales in comparison to the hyperbolic praise received by Lawrence. national recruiting director Mike Farrell once called him “the most special quarterback prospect I’ve seen,” elaborating that he is “Peyton Manning, except he’s more athletic with a better arm.” Pro Football Focus lead draft analyst Mike Renner wrote that Lawrence is “unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the college football level” and “a robot put on this earth to play quarterback.” Lawrence threw for 21 touchdowns and two interceptions after taking over as Clemson’s starter last October, directly ahead of his 19th birthday. Usually, this is where I’d pinpoint one quality that stands out about a given player, but that’s tough to do with Lawrence, because he simply does everything well. His style is perfection; his strength a complete lack of weaknesses.

It wasn’t long ago that the NFL was gripped with a Children of Men–esque fear that every great quarterback had already been born. As Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and others drafted in the first decade of this century continued their runs of quarterbacking excellence longer than anybody could have expected, new crops of QBs generally faltered. (What’s your favorite group of quarterbacks taken in the first round of the same 21st-century draft: Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow; JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn; Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater; or Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder?) There were concerns that young quarterbacks weren’t being properly trained.

That fear has dissipated over the past few years, with players like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield proving that the kids are all right. Perhaps the most robust rebuttal stems from Tagovailoa and Lawrence, though, two phenoms who showed up at college already immaculate.

This fall, the eyes of college football fans will be locked on Alabama and Clemson, two teams that have split the last four national championships as part of a dominant duopoly. The eyes of pro fans will be zeroed in on their QBs. On the one hand, the rise of Tua and Trevor feels like part of a trend in which young passers are growing increasingly competent; on the other, they may be in a class of their own, the rare quarterbacks so special that they’re worth tanking an entire NFL season to draft.

The NFL has long had the most restrictive draft entry rules of any major American sports league. Both MLB and the NHL draft players straight out of high school. The NBA controversially increased its age of entry from 18 to 19 in 2006—the so-called “one-and-done” rule, since it causes so many star players to spend a single year in college before turning pro. It’s unpopular enough that many experts believe the league will reverse its ruling by 2022.

The NFL, however, requires players to be at least three seasons removed from graduating high school before they can enter the draft. Until 1990, the league was even more restrictive, only accepting players who had exhausted their eligibility or graduated college. Occasional exceptions were made for guys who had been ruled ineligible (like Cris Carter), graduated school early (like Bernie Kosar), or played for teams that were on probation (like Barry Sanders). Fearing legal battles and worried about the rule’s inconsistency, the league implemented the three-seasons stipulation, regardless of eligibility or graduation status.

And there hasn’t been much pushback on that. Maurice Clarett sued the NFL over its entry policy in 2004; he lost the case, and there’s been little discussion of it since. That’s partly because conventional wisdom suggests that prospects need their college years to develop into NFL-ready players. Pro football players are men; high schoolers are boys. There’s not a high school offensive lineman on the planet who could avoid getting physically wrecked by an edge rusher on an NFL practice squad. And while QBs may not need to put on 50 pounds of muscle before moving from high school to the pros, it’s long been understood that players at football’s most important position need the time to develop mentally. There is truth to that idea: As I wrote last week, every study on QB play by age comes to the conclusion that quarterbacks peak around the age of 29. So teams have historically shied away from drafting the youngest passers in a given class.

From 2002 to 2008, there were 21 quarterbacks picked in the first round of the NFL draft. Eleven of those spent five seasons between graduating high school and getting drafted, including no. 1 picks David Carr, Eli Manning, and Carson Palmer. Eight of those (including Manning, Matt Ryan, and Jay Cutler) took the most typical route—redshirting as freshmen while more experienced players took the field, and then using all four years of their NCAA eligibility. (Palmer and Byron Leftwich used medical redshirt years due to injury; Joe Flacco sat out for a season as a transfer.) These were old rookies, 23 or 24 years old by the time of their respective NFL debuts.

Eight of the 21 quarterbacks in that time frame spent four years in college. Some, like Philip Rivers and Brady Quinn, started for their programs as true freshmen and spent four full years in that role. Others, such as Ben Roethlisberger and JaMarcus Russell, redshirted as freshmen and then left for the draft after their junior years. Only two QBs in that set—Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers—spent the minimum of three years in college, and both were unusual cases. Smith had earned a ton of college credits in high school and graduated after just two years at Utah, while Rodgers played a year in junior college before spending two seasons at Cal. Neither was immediately ready for the pros: Rodgers wouldn’t start for the Packers until his fourth year in the NFL, while Smith’s rookie campaign remains one of the worst in league history, as he threw one touchdown against 11 interceptions.

From 2015 through this year, 16 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Just one, Baker Mayfield, spent five years in college. And Mayfield didn’t take the redshirt-and-play-four-years route that was so common in the prior decade. He played as a true freshman at Texas Tech before sitting out a season upon transferring to Oklahoma. Six players in this set spent four years in college, but none exhausted their eligibility. Four had redshirt seasons, Kyler Murray transferred, and Josh Allen played at a juco school. Meanwhile, eight spent the minimum of three seasons in college. Of those, three (Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold, and Dwayne Haskins) redshirted before playing just two years in college. Five (Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson) played as true freshmen and left after their junior years. These very young quarterbacks were clearly ready for the NFL: Mahomes recently became the second-youngest MVP in league history at age 23; Jackson led the 2018 Ravens to the playoffs at 21.

There’s been a massive shift in the proficiency of young quarterbacks over the last decade. While the NFL probably isn’t about to change its draft entry rules, it at the very least should be on the table, considering that 14 of the last 15 first-round quarterbacks left school without exhausting their NCAA eligibility. These players think that they’re ready for the NFL. The NFL apparently thinks so too.

Young quarterbacks are ready for the NFL earlier than ever because they’re ready for college earlier than ever. It used to be that the top QB prospects showed up to campus as blank slates. They were capable of dominating high school competition based largely on their sheer athletic ability, but they often needed a redshirt year to really learn the ins and outs of the position. Now, top prospects treat quarterbacking like a 12-month-a-year job beginning in middle school. They get coached by private quarterback tutors, spend their summers playing 7-on-7 and attending elite QB camps, and graduate from high school early so they can participate in spring camp with their respective college team.

It wasn’t long ago that a college team starting a true freshman quarterback was seen as a sign that something was seriously wrong—how could a program go four years without developing an upperclassman capable of playing? (This 2013 post examines a sample of 27 then-recent true freshman QBs who received significant playing time. The vast majority performed poorly, and six of the 27 played for either Rutgers or Kentucky. The Scarlet Knights actually started true freshmen in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Rutgers was ahead of the curve!) Now, the best programs in Division I routinely turn to true freshman QBs. Last year ESPN wrote a story with the headline “The rise of the true freshman quarterback.” And that was before Lawrence had even played a game at Clemson.

When Tagovailoa entered the national championship game in January 2018, he replaced Jalen Hurts, who had led Bama to the previous season’s national title game as a true freshman. Tua took the field against Georgia, which also featured a true freshman QB (Jake Fromm) who had supplanted a player who had started the year before as a true freshman (Jacob Eason). While Lawrence didn’t directly unseat a former true freshman breakout star at Clemson, he was always pegged as the heir apparent to Deshaun Watson, who played exceptionally for the Tigers as a true freshman before tearing his ACL in 2014. USC, UCLA, and Nebraska all started true freshman QBs in 2018. Arizona State and North Carolina have already announced that they will start incoming four-star quarterback recruits; Auburn seems likely to follow suit with five-star Bo Nix.

And so, Tagovailoa and Lawrence are representatives of a generation that is prepared to succeed at top levels at younger ages than any other in football history. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Tua and Trevor don’t stand alone. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed watching a quarterback more than I enjoy watching Tagovailoa; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarterback prospect with more all-around skills than Lawrence. The expedited development of young passers does not portend a future version of the NFL with 32 equally talented children at quarterback. It just means the timeline for determining who the best QBs are has changed. We’ll be able to recognize the great ones earlier than ever before, and we’ll be able to watch them succeed in college as freshmen and in the pros as rookies. If the Dolphins are tanking, it isn’t for a trend—it’s because they don’t have to wait to find out if Tua is great.