Commentary

Youth movement under way at QB

Several factors contributing to the falling average age of NFL quarterbacks

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Blaine Gabbert/Jake LockerAP Photo/Icon SMIBlaine Gabbert and Jake Locker could be in line to start as rookies in 2011.
Jake Locker flew to Nashville, Tenn., this week to work with a dozen of his new Tennessee Titans teammates. At the same time, Christian Ponder worked with some of his new Minnesota Vikings teammates in Bradenton, Fla.

None of this is happening under the guidance of NFL coaches, though, and it will be interesting to see if Locker, Ponder and other rookie quarterbacks will end up having enough real practice time to start this season.

If they do, there is a chance the NFL could have one of its youngest groups of starting quarterbacks in NFL history. As many as 13 quarterbacks age 26 or younger have a chance to be full-time starters this season. That's rare.

The average age of starting quarterbacks has been falling the past two years thanks to good, young passers such as Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman and others. In 2009 and 2010, the average age of starters was 28.3, down from 29.1 in 2008.

If Ponder, Locker, Andy Dalton of the Bengals and Tim Tebow of the Broncos get starting jobs, the average age could drop into the low 27s in 2011.

Normally, the average age of starters is in the high 28s or low 29s. In 1998, Peyton Manning's first season, the average age of starters was a ridiculously high 30.1 years, but the NFL was in a bit of a quarterback drought back then. College teams were running the ball more and fewer draftable quarterbacks could come out of those running offenses and start immediately in the NFL.

The last QBs of the great quarterback class of 1983 -- John Elway and Dan Marino -- were 38 and 37, respectively, that year. Steve Young was 37. Warren Moon was 42.

Older quarterbacks had longer careers back then because there weren't as many prospects ready to take their jobs. Teams were sending quarterbacks to the World League and having them come back as starters.

The year that offers perhaps the best challenge to the current youth movement is 2002, an expansion year in which David Carr started as a rookie for the Houston Texans. Three other rookies also ended up as starters: Patrick Ramsey of the Washington Redskins, Chad Hutchinson of the Dallas Cowboys and Joey Harrington of the Detroit Lions.

Michael Vick was 22 and running the Atlanta Falcons. Drew Brees was a 23-year-old starter for the San Diego Chargers. The average age of starters across the league was 28.2.

Thirteen starters were 26 or younger in during that 2002 season. As expected, the rookies took their lumps. The four teams with rookie starters had a combined record of 17-47, and none of the four proved to be the long-term answer for his franchise.

The Lions gave Harrington four years and 55 starts before giving up on him. Carr lasted five years and 75 starts in Houston. The game was also slightly different in 2002, more reliant on running the ball than the current pass-crazy NFL. Playoff teams ran the ball 44.3 percent of the time, while current quarterbacks are lining up in passing formations 59 percent of the time.

The abundance of youth in this year's quarterback talent pool may mean that some teams lean more heavily on the running game. Consider that a team that runs the ball 32 times a game needs only about 16 completions per game from a young quarterback to be decent.

The Vikings, for example, are already planning to use more two-tight end sets if they let Ponder start as a rookie. Thanks to Adrian Peterson in Minnesota and Chris Johnson in Tennessee, both teams have the kind of running attack that can prop up rookie quarterbacks.

News that Kerry Collins might retire could put the Titans in an interesting spot. Do they pay more than $7 million per year to bring in a veteran quarterback such as Matt Hasselbeck to buy a year or two for Locker to develop? If not Hasselbeck, what other veteran might they bring in? Or do they simply let Locker learn on the job?

The Carolina Panthers have no choice but to go young. They have Jimmy Clausen, who's 23, or Cam Newton, who just turned 22. Youth will definitely be served in Carolina.

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has a tough choice, too. Del Rio likely must make the playoffs to keep his job, and he has 33-year-old David Garrard as the starter.

However, there could be internal pressure to start rookie Blaine Gabbert because even though GM Gene Smith has brought in good, young talent, Jacksonville's roster simply does not stack up against Indianapolis. Going young at quarterback could be a thought for the Jags' front office.

In the end, coaches are already making playbooks easier for veterans and rookies to digest because of practice time lost to the lockout, and that works in favor of Locker, Ponder and others. Regardless of what teams do with their rookie quarterbacks, though, starting quarterbacks are getting younger.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer