In economics, the time value of money (TVM) is the basic concept that a sum of money is worth more in the present than the same sum in the future due to its earning potential in the interim. There’s a similar belief structure underlying how NFL teams think about quarterbacks, the players whose performances are most closely correlated with wins: A good one this year is more valuable than a good one next year. At some point, especially when tortured fan bases and impatient owners get involved, a good one this year becomes more valuable than a better one next year when a coach or a general manager feels they or their roster don’t have a year to wait.
I bring this up because on Thursday, in the first round of the 2022 draft, the NFL will likely break a four-year streak of quarterbacks being selected with the no. 1 pick. This—and I won’t sugarcoat it—is due mostly to the fact that this year’s quarterback class is not considered to be very good. If this draft had a Trevor Lawrence or a Joe Burrow, some team would have traded a ransom of picks to the Jaguars to move up to no. 1 for the opportunity to select him. But Liberty’s Malik Willis is raw, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder is streaky, and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral might rely too much on RPOs, leaving quarterback-needy teams to evaluate which flaws they think they could live with or fix from this year’s class and which ones are concerning enough that it might just be better to wait for next year.
One of the quarterbacks expected to be taken in the draft is Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, largely due to reported interest from the Panthers, who need a quarterback and have the no. 6 pick. Like the rest of this year’s QB class, Pickett comes with his own set of concerns with which Carolina or any interested team would need to make peace before taking him. His draft stock rose dramatically in 2021 with a 42-touchdown season, his most productive by far. But Pickett will be 24 years old when the NFL season begins.
Also, as you may have heard, he has tiny hands.
Pickett’s hands are 8 ½ inches wide, according to his measurements from the NFL combine this March, or 8 ⅝ inches wide, according to those taken at his pro day a few weeks later. In either case, they’re small enough that he’s a real outlier among NFL quarterback prospects. According to ESPN, the average hand size of the 39 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft from 2008 to 2020 is 9.7 inches. Even using the larger measurement, Pickett’s hands are smaller than those of any NFL starter or notable backup. The quarterback who currently has the smallest hands in the league is New Orleans’s Taysom Hill, whose hands are 8 ¾ inches wide. Most teams consider 9 inches to be the baseline threshold.
Whether hand size should be a determining factor in evaluating quarterbacks is up for debate. Analyses from ESPN and others have shown that there’s no correlation between hand size and quarterback play. Burrow is a recent example of a quarterback whose hands were considered small, and his 9-inch paws made it to the Super Bowl last season.
Considering retirement after I was informed the football will be slipping out of my tiny hands. Please keep me in your thoughts.— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) February 24, 2020
Pickett is also double-jointed in his thumb, which he claims makes it hard to get an accurate measurement of his hands.
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett didn’t have his hands measured here in Mobile, but he has a good reason: He’s double jointed, so his thumb naturally points an odd direction, and he’s doing extra exercises to get an accurate measurement at the combine in March. pic.twitter.com/KLMdraG9AC— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 31, 2022
But here’s the thing: Even if we accept that hand size is in some way meaningful, the NFL may not be getting the right measurements for any prospects.
I was at the combine in March when a personnel executive proposed an idea to me. Pickett’s measurements had come out that day, and there was some buzz about whether his hand size would impact his draft slot, because that’s the kind of thing that creates buzz at the combine. The personnel executive mentioned that he felt quarterback hands should be measured from the base of the palm to the tip of the middle finger, not from thumb to pinky as is currently done. That sparked a long, animated conversation with lots of hand gesturing and pantomiming. Not only would it solve Pickett’s issue with double-jointedness, it would also be more meaningful, the executive said, because it would measure a part of the hand that has more to do with gripping a football.
I thought it was funny that there could be all this fuss about a measurement that might not matter at all. Meanwhile, the measurement itself isn’t even being taken in the right way. So I asked around for additional opinions. Sure enough, I found universal support for a palm-to-middle-fingertip measuring system.
“Finger length, not hand width, dictates spin rate and can help protect the ball,” said one personnel executive.
“I think both should be done,” said another. “But we crush guys for hand size. You can not have a wide hand but can have a long hand and it’ll never be measured.”
I then turned to the scientific community for further confirmation. Tim Gay is a professor of atomic, molecular, optical, and plasma physics and nuclear physics at the University of Nebraska, and the author of the book The Physics of Football. Gay told me (or, more accurately, gently and repeatdedly explained to me) that, indeed, the distance from the base of a quarterback’s palm to the tip of his middle finger would probably be more meaningful than the distance from his thumb to his pinky when it comes to gripping and throwing a football.
There are two major reasons a quarterback’s grip on the football matters: The first is that a tight grip helps a quarterback control the ball and not fumble. (For what it’s worth, Pickett’s 38 career fumbles aren’t an outlier for a quarterback with his snap count.) The second is that it allows him to throw a tight spiral with velocity.
When it comes to fumbles, the NFL’s current way of measuring—from thumb to pinky—may be the right one relative to measuring palm to middle fingertip, though it may not be all that meaningful, Gay said. Grip matters, but the type of control necessary to hang onto a football in bad weather or while getting hit by a defender isn’t achievable with hand strength alone. (What really helps ball control is tucking it between the hand, bicep, and ribcage, because the three separate points of contact protect it from force in multiple directions.)
“If the whole goal is to just not let somebody hit the ball out of your hand, then the thumb-to-pinky measurement is probably the most relevant because you kind of want to be gripping it in the middle and the things that are pinching onto the ball to keep it in your hand are your thumb and your pinky finger, or the finger next to it, your ring finger,” Gay said. “But I think it is rare that a professional quarterback is going to have that ball in their hand and he’s kind of waving it around and that the only thing keeping it in the possession of the quarterback is his hand. Usually he’s got it tucked carefully under his arm.”
But when it comes to throwing a tight spiral, the length of the hand from palm to fingertip becomes more important. According to Gay, a tight spiral comes from two forces working simultaneously. The first is the direct force of arm strength pushing the ball forward. The second is the transverse force downward created by putting spin on the ball. The longer the distance from palm to middle fingertip, the more of that transverse downward force that can be put on the ball with every throw.
“You want to put a good, tight spin on the ball of about 600 revolutions per minute,” Gay said. “And to do that, you have to kind of maintain contact with the ball and sort of roll it off your hand. The ball would start at the base of your palm and then roll to the tip of your middle finger. Typically speaking, that allows you to maintain contact with the ball as long as possible to put the maximum amount of torque over time on the ball to give it the biggest spin.”
I’m telling you all of this for a few reasons: The first is that science is so, so cool. The second is that when you dive down a random rabbit hole of wondering if the way the NFL takes a measurement that might be altogether meaningless may actually be extra meaningless because it’s not being taken in an optimal way, then ask around and call a physicist about it—it would be weird to keep it to yourself. The third may be somewhat relevant for those teams and their fans that may not be able to wait a year and find themselves wading into the murky waters of the 2022 draft class, which is that it’s a helpful reminder that quarterback evaluations are far from an exact science.
If Pickett becomes the first passer taken, at no. 6, he’ll have waited longer than any first quarterback off the board since EJ Manuel was taken by the Bills at no. 16 in 2013. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Blake Bortles will have had shorter waits in their drafts. There are some franchise quarterbacks on that list, but there are also some clear misses. It’s far too easy to use that as evidence that no one knows anything about drafting quarterbacks, and that it’s useless to compare—no team consistently “beats” the draft, but higher picks, on average, are more successful than lower ones—but it’s probably a reasonable indicator that somewhere in this class there’s more than currently meets the eye. Or the tape measure.