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Bryce Young and the QB Size Dilemma

The Alabama passer is one of the smallest QB prospects to be pegged as a first-round pick. To succeed in the NFL, he’ll need to be an outlier among outliers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s the 2021 Iron Bowl. With less than two minutes left in the game, Alabama—the no. 3 team in the country—is down by seven to unranked Auburn. Their high-powered offense has scored only three points all game. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, starting in his first Iron Bowl, has been battered all game—he’s been sacked seven times and thrown a pick.

With 1:32 remaining on the clock, Young and the Alabama offense get one final drive—a drive that starts on the Alabama 3-yard line. After two incompletions, here’s third-and-10. Young drops back in his own end zone, an Auburn blitz putting immediate pressure in his lap. He climbs the pocket, pumps, dithers behind the line of scrimmage, and throws on the run. 22-yard gain. First down.

Alabama gets down to the Auburn 28 after a fourth-and-7 conversion from Young to tight end Jahleel Billingsley. On another third-and-10—this one with only 24 seconds remaining—Young hits his back foot and releases a high, arcing throw that lands just over Ja’Corey Brooks’s shoulders, in a spot that Brooks and Brooks alone could get it. Touchdown.

That touchdown put the game into overtime. It would eventually go into a fourth overtime, with Alabama emerging victorious, 24-22.

This was a defining game in what would eventually be Bryce Young’s Heisman season—his first year starting for the Tide. They lost to Georgia in the national championship that year, but not before Young accumulated over 4,800 passing yards and 47 passing touchdowns with plays like those above; in 2022, as a junior, he’d add another 3,300 and 32 in just 12 games before declaring for the NFL draft.

For some NFL teams this year, Young will be undraftable. For all of his production, incredible film, winning pedigree, and football character, the elephant in the room is both a big elephant and a small one: Young might just be too small for the league.

It is important to characterize just how small Young is, relative to league standards. While Young has not yet officially measured in at the NFL combine—his height and weight will be recorded and reported sometime Saturday morning—we know that Young was listed at 6-foot and 194 pounds by Alabama.

We also know that those numbers are almost certainly a lie. College teams often inflate measurements even for players who don’t need the extra juice—that’s why standardized measurements are taken at the combine. Weight is easy to manipulate—Young, who won’t work out during any of the athletic testing or throwing drills, has likely spent the past few weeks eating like he’s never eaten before, and will carry extra water weight onto the scale in the effort to tack on an additional few pounds. But you can’t fudge height—and Young is not 6-foot. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay reported that a scout has Young at 195 pounds and around 5-foot-10 and a half.

If all of this sounds utterly ridiculous, don’t worry, it is. Ridiculous—but not useless. While it may feel like there’s no functional difference between being 6-foot and 5-foot-10-and-a-half, that’s just the dating-app-fueled insecurity talking. For football, Young’s height matters quite a bit.

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, 172 quarterbacks have started at least 50 games—only 11 of them were 6-foot or shorter. Among those players are Kyler Murray, Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees. That’s not bad company to be in, but remember—these are the quarterbacks who hit, as they accumulated 50 or more starts over the course of their careers. If we instead look at just quarterbacks drafted since 1970, just 30 of the 522 quarterbacks selected (5.7 percent) have been 6 feet tall or shorter.

If we look at just picks in the first three rounds? Seven of 241 quarterbacks. And if we look just at Round 1? Three of 127: Vick, Murray, and Johnny Manziel.

Height is only half of the equation for Young. Here’s all of those first-round quarterbacks, graphed by height (in inches) and weight.

That dot way on the left is Murray, who measured in at just over 5-foot-10—but critically, Murray also weighed in at 207 pounds, well above his expected weight based on that trendline. If we assume that Young will come in at McShay’s expected measurements—195 pounds at 5-foot-10 ½—here’s where he’d land on this chart of first-round quarterbacks.

Now, that’s pretty lonely territory, but it doesn’t look too bad. But many of the other sub-200-pounders on this chart were drafted a long time ago. If we look just at first-round quarterbacks in the 2000s, we see that Young will likely be the only quarterback selected in the first round who weighs less than 200 pounds.

While the group of short quarterbacks certainly has its respectable players, the group of short and slight quarterbacks doesn’t—mostly because it doesn’t have any players at all. Since 1970, only eight quarterbacks (out of 302) have been drafted at 200 pounds or under. Last year, South Dakota State QB Chris Oladokun became the eighth; before him, the most recent was Pat White, a second-round selection in 2009 by the Miami Dolphins. White is also the only one of the eight to go before the sixth round. Looking back at our first-round quarterbacks, we see only one below 210 pounds—that’s Murray. At 210 pounds are Manziel, Vick, Cade McNown, Joey Harrington, and Rick Mirer. Not exactly elite company.

Young isn’t just small—he is as small a quarterback prospect as we have ever seen, and certainly the smallest quarterback prospect to ever have been considered at the top of the first round. For as talented as Young is, to select him with a first-round pick is to make him, from Day 1, an outlier flying in the face of expected builds for NFL players.

Just because a player has to be an outlier in order to be successful doesn’t mean he won’t be just that. That’s the thing about outliers: they exist. We can look at some of those successful outliers—Brees, Wilson, Murray, Vick—to generate narratives for Young’s positive outcomes. We can see what it might look like, and in doing so, maybe talk ourselves into Young overcoming the odds.

Immediately, we find some common connections. Three of the four—Wilson, Murray, and Vick—were highly mobile quarterbacks. Wilson, perhaps the least dangerous runner of the three, had at least 90 carries in five of his first six seasons as a pro. His 4,966 rushing yards is third among quarterbacks in league history (Vick is first). By rushing yards per game, Vick is fourth, Murray is eighth, and Wilson is all the way down at 23rd.

Young is a quick athlete with good escapability, but a high-quality runner, he is not. While Young’s mobility will help him in the NFL, it is challenging to see Young becoming such an effective runner that he can follow the path blazed by a Vick or a Murray. His weight makes this possibility doubly unlikely: Because Young doesn’t have much body armor by way of mass or bulk, NFL teams will consider Young more liable to be injured when hit. It makes sense: Bigger guys hurt smaller guys when they hit them.

So Young won’t go the way of a running quarterback—that leaves the way of Brees. We run into another issue here, and that issue is that Drew Brees is … well, he’s Drew Brees. Even among the short quarterbacks who have been successful, Brees is an outlier; he is an outlier among outliers. Other short quarterbacks struggle to throw to the middle of the field, as they either can’t see over the big offensive linemen in front of them, or can’t successfully deliver the ball up and over all of those bodies—this was never the case with Brees, who remains one of the most accurate quarterbacks the league has ever seen (second all time in career completion percentage).

Brees’s accuracy was long attributed to the grip afforded by his weirdly huge hands (10.25 inches, a number that Young almost certainly will not match), as well as his obsession with consistent mechanics. That robotic approach is not the style to which Young adheres—and rightfully so. With his mobility and playmaking instincts, as well as a quarterbacking landscaping that is moving rapidly in the direction of off-platform throws and adjusted arm angles, Young shouldn’t play with the mechanical obsession and perfection of Brees.

The issue is apparent. All of the short quarterbacks who were successful are some of the most astounding and unbelievable stories that we have at quarterback. We didn’t even touch on the absurd accuracy of Wilson’s deep moon shots, long the calling card of his passing game; or the truly singular electricity of Vick’s rushing ability; or the fact that, while Murray has started more than 50 games and signed a huge second contract, it may be a bridge too far to call him a success story for short quarterbacks as the top overall pick.

For Young to be successful, he has to compensate for his smaller and slighter frame with truly superlative skills in other areas. And there is an argument for that. Go back to the 2021 Iron Bowl—or to any of Young’s film from the past two seasons—and you’ll see one of the most poised playmaking quarterbacks that college football has offered. Behind an Alabama line that underachieved in pass protection—and, in 2022, throwing to a receiving corps far below the Tide’s standard—Young regularly erased pressures with feel and quickness; and created explosive plays with vision, accuracy, and arm talent.

On plays like these, Young looks exactly like a modern NFL quarterback. Free and relaxed in the pocket; comfortable outside of it, as well. Enough of an athlete to make pressure miss, then embarrass a defensive lineman in space. A sudden thrower with a whip of a release and tons of velocity and accuracy from adjusted platforms.

But on Saturday, Young won’t look anything like a modern NFL quarterback—he won’t look like an NFL quarterback at all. He’ll look like a regular guy who snuck his way into the NFL combine, threw on the players’ gear, and is just trying to not get noticed. He will officially register as a uniquely small player—one that will force one NFL team to take one of the greatest risks, one of the biggest plunges, that we’ve seen in any draft cycle. And he’ll start his journey to become one of the league’s greatest outliers.