Kyler Murray was not the best NFL prospect in college football last season. Neither was Nick Bosa, nor Quinnen Williams, nor any of the offensive linemen, edge rushers, or wide receivers who will hear their names called in the first round of this year’s draft. The best prospects in college football last season were two guys who will not be selected on April 25 in Nashville: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Both quarterbacks won national championships as true freshmen, and both remain ineligible to join the NFL.
I watched Alabama closely last season and felt that Tagovailoa was the best quarterback prospect I’d ever seen. The consensus disagrees with that assessment, ranking Lawrence ahead of Tagovailoa. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. stated that Lawrence would be the “clear-cut number one” pick in this year’s draft, with the potential to be considered “in the stratosphere” of all-time QB prospects. But unlike in other major U.S. sports, there is no direct path for high school football players to become professionals. The NFL doesn’t allow players to enter its ranks until they’re at least three years removed from high school. And so Tagovailoa, who was a sophomore in the 2018 season, can’t be picked until 2020. Lawrence can’t play in the NFL until 2021 at the earliest. The Wall Street Journal advised Lawrence to take the 2019 and 2020 seasons off to prevent risking a cataclysmic injury. Meanwhile, longtime Cowboys executive Gil Brandt advised teams to start stockpiling 2021 first-round picks in hopes of eventually landing Lawrence.
The mandated three-year gap between a prospect’s high school tenure and NFL debut is meant to benefit professional teams, from both a player-development and a scouting perspective. The logic is that high schoolers are not physically or mentally prepared for pro football, and that having years of college game tape helps teams make smarter draft investments. And while recent reports suggest that the NBA is coming around on years of calls to end to its one-and-done rule preventing high schoolers from immediately turning pro, there’s no real pushback against the current NFL system.
Lawrence and Tagovailoa could be the ones to spark a change. The reasoning behind making everyone else wait three years simply doesn’t apply to them. As quarterbacks, they don’t need the additional years of weight training many linemen require to avoid being demolished by NFL linemen. And as passers, these guys are ready. The league doesn’t need more time to scout them. It’s obvious they’re legit right now.
But NFL teams are perfectly happy with the status quo, even if it means they’ll have to wait two full years to have a chance to get their hands on the best player in college football. Nobody seems particularly bothered by the fact that this draft lacks the sport’s best prospects.
There’s a funny age dichotomy at the most important position in football.
On the one hand, the NFL remains under the ever-steady watch of its oldest quarterbacks, ageless wonders like Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Brady is one of a handful of players in the history of the sport to remain competent at 41; he’s more than just competent—he won the damn Super Bowl two months ago. Brees just led the league in passer rating (115.7) at 39 years old, and that’s selling his season short—he recorded the sixth-highest passer rating of all time. In 2018, players older than 36 took three of the top five spots in Pro Football Focus’s QB grades (Brees, Brady, and Aaron Rodgers) and six of the top 10 spots in adjusted net yards per attempt (Brees, Brady, Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and, somewhat hilariously, Ryan Fitzpatrick). Old quarterbacks aren’t just managing to stay in the league. They’re dominating it.
On the other hand, college football is experiencing a stunning rise in the success of true freshman quarterbacks. Historically, QBs months removed from high school have taken a redshirt season—a year when they ride the bench, learn the ropes, and preserve all four seasons of their NCAA eligibility so long as they don’t take the field. The schools that have played true freshman quarterbacks have typically been desperate, scrambling after failing to turn any sophomores, juniors, or seniors into serviceable starters. But now, programs with national title hopes are turning with increasing regularity to absurdly talented freshmen. And those absurdly talented freshmen have proved capable of winning big-time games.
In the 2016 season, Alabama made the national championship game with true freshman Jalen Hurts at quarterback, losing to Clemson on a last-second touchdown pass by Deshaun Watson. In the 2017 season, Georgia made the national championship behind true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who supplanted Jacob Eason—the Bulldogs’ true freshman starter a year earlier. Fromm would have won that title, but at halftime Alabama coach Nick Saban decided to bench Hurts for Tagovailoa, another true freshman. Tagovailoa threw a game-winning touchdown pass of his own. Then last August college football revamped its redshirt rule, allowing players to qualify for redshirt seasons if they played in up to four games instead of just one. That convinced Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to take a shot on Lawrence, a player considered one of the best high school prospects of all time. Swinney knew the Tigers could retain the extra season of Lawrence’s eligibility if the QB wasn’t ready. He was. Lawrence’s Clemson team beat Tagovailoa’s Alabama team in January’s national title game. Before 2016, no true freshman QB had won a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1986; now, we’re a Watson buzzer-beater away from having had three in a row.
College football’s revised redshirt rule will convince other coaches to take chances on talented freshmen quarterbacks. At this point, it seems like each season brings a changing of the guard, as 17- and 18-year-olds arrive on campus and push established starters out of roles that would have been secure in years past. Young quarterbacks aren’t just managing to get playing time in college football. They’re dominating it.
Both the success of the NFL’s ageless wonders and the success of college football’s game-ready newbies raise similar questions. Are these oldies and newbies excelling because they happen to be preternaturally talented superstars? Or was there some fundamental flaw in the way quarterbacks were coached during the interim decade, when so many crops of QBs turned to dust? Are we watching flukes or trends?
As long as the league’s veteran legends keep playing, NFL teams must find a way to beat them. So far, the response has been economic: Most franchises can’t can’t bring in better quarterbacks than these guys, but they can bring in cheaper ones, thereby giving them more cap space to fill out their rosters. Since the modern CBA went into effect in 2011, the blueprint for NFL success has been for teams to select a quarterback with a first-round draft pick and spend big at other position groups in the hopes of succeeding while that quarterback’s salary is kept artificially low by the league’s rookie contract scale. Seven of the 12 teams in last year’s playoffs featured QBs on rookie deals. (Three of the remaining five QBs: Brady, Brees, and Rivers.) Nobody thinks Jared Goff or Mitchell Trubisky is as good as Brees or Rodgers, but while the Saints and Packers pay $25 million and $33 million to their superstars, respectively, the Rams and Bears pay about $7 million each. This allowed the Rams to build an all-world offense and the Bears to build an all-world defense.
The rookie quarterback contract presents teams with a great opportunity, but it also comes with an expiration date. Rookie deals last for four years and include a team option for a significantly more expensive fifth season. Despite this limited window, conventional NFL wisdom suggests that the first year of a quarterback’s career should be written off for developmental purposes. Some would argue this practice is essential—look at how Patrick Mahomes II sat out most of his rookie season and then was named NFL MVP in Year 2. And look at how Goff utterly failed as a rookie, only to prove competent in the seasons after that. Some teams, though, seem to follow this path by rote rather than logic. Last year five teams used first-round picks on quarterbacks; four had their rookies ride the pine in Week 1, even though Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen were clearly better than the players starting ahead of them. The Ravens figured it out and inserted Jackson in time to make the playoffs. The Browns didn’t, rolling with Tyrod Taylor over Mayfield for too long.
The NFL, then, should be glad to see this sudden surge of quarterbacks capable of winning big-time college games just a few weeks after orientation. If this is a trend and not a fluke—and I believe that it is—the league should get a wave of young, coveted quarterbacks ready to succeed from the moment they set foot on pro turf. Teams can start on the road to championship contention from the minute they draft their chosen franchise quarterback.
But that ticking clock is also why NFL teams are in no rush to overhaul the current system. Yes, Lawrence and Tagovailoa look great now, but it stands to reason they’ll be even better by the time Roger Goodell calls their names in a year or two. If NFL teams have only four years to maximize their rosters with a quarterback on a rookie contract, they’ll want players like Lawrence and Tagovailoa to be as developed as possible on draft day.
Lawrence and Tagovailoa (and any future exciting QB prospects like them) should be signs of optimism that the long night dominated by the NFL’s unkillable elders may one day end. They have looked great since high school and instantly proved their greatness in college. But the league still largely views them through the context of how to best take down the olds.
NFL teams don’t want to get their hands on Lawrence and Tagovailoa as soon as possible. They’d prefer to sit idly by while someone else does the work, hoping that extra years of unpaid college ball make potential superstars more polished rather than more injured. If both QBs were in the 2019 draft class, they’d almost certainly go no. 1 and no. 2. It is a bummer that the world must wait to see what Lawrence and Tagovailoa can do on an NFL stage; it is even more of a bummer that this is the system the teams with the most to gain from their talents would prefer.