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NFL Quarterbacks: Is The Talent Pool Drying Up?

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The best quarterbacks in the league are becoming, more and more, the oldest ones, as fewer players coming out of college are even playing to the average level of the NFL.

Does it sometimes seem like the best QBs in the NFL are all getting, well, old?
Does it sometimes seem like the best QBs in the NFL are all getting, well, old?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The most significant player for any NFL team is the starting quarterback. More than any other individual, the quarterback influences the success or lack thereof of his franchise. Teams with a strong play-caller are contenders. Those who lack one are stuck in the lower reaches of the standings. The Dallas Cowboys were an object lesson in this in 2014 and 2015. After getting to the brink of the conference championship with a healthy Tony Romo, they fell almost to the bottom of the league standings when he was injured the next year.  And some teams have a quarterback who is just good enough to keep them in what is called "quarterback purgatory", with the team hovering around .500 where it is hard to manage to draft a better one. Most seasons, the best quarterbacks from the draft class are taken very near the top, as happened this year. Both the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles engaged in blockbuster trades to get Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively, and the Denver Broncos also made a significant though less potentially ruinous trade to move up for Paxton Lynch. Now those teams have to hope that their shiny new passers work out. But recent history reveals a troubling trend: There simply do not appear to be enough truly capable NFL quarterbacks arriving each year.

There has always been a shortage, at least since professional football grew to much more than 20 teams, but now things appear to be getting worse. A high percentage of the most successful quarterbacks are those who have been around for about ten years or more, and very few of the real franchise passers have arrived since then.

To illustrate this, here's an overview of the likely starting QBs this year for each team (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Likely Staring QBs by Team, 2016
Team Starting Quarterback Age Career Passer Rating
Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer 36 88.1
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan 30 90.9
Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco 31 84.8
Buffalo Bills Tyrod Taylor 26 95.9
Carolina Panthers Cam Newton 27 88.3
Chicago Bears Jay Cutler 33 86
Cincinnati Bengals Andy Dalton 28 88.4
Cleveland Browns Robert Griffin III 26 91
Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo 36 97.1
Denver Broncos Mark Sanchez (1) 29 74.3
Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford 28 85.8
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers 32 104.1
Houston Texans Brock Osweiler 25 86
Indianapolis Colts Andrew Luck 26 85
Jacksonville Jaguars Blake Bortles 24 80
Kansas City Chiefs Alex Smith 32 84.5
Los Angeles Rams Jared Goff (2) 21 (rookie)
Miami Dolphins Ryan Tannehill 27 85.2
Minnesota Vikings Teddy Bridgewater 23 87
New England Patriots Tom Brady 38 96.4
New Orleans Saints Drew Brees 37 95.8
New York Giants Eli Manning 35 83.5
New York Jets Geno Smith (3) 25 72.3
Oakland Raiders Derek Carr 25 83.7
Philadelphia Eagles Sam Bradford (4) 28 81
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 34 94
San Diego Chargers Philip Rivers 34 95.5
San Francisco 49ers Blaine Gabbert (5) 26 71.9
Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson 27 101.8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jameis Winston 22 84.2
Tennesee Titans Marcus Mariota 22 91.5
Washington Redskins Kirk Cousins 27 91.3
NFL Average 2015 28.8 88.4

NOTES:

  • 1. Assuming Paxton Lynch does not win starting job.
  • 2. Assuming Goff is deemed ready to start.
  • 3. Assuming Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty do not win starting job.
  • 4. Assuming Carson Wentz does not win the starting job.
  • 5. Who really knows? Colin Kaepernick looks to be out of the picture for now, and could wind up with a starting job or a backup position elsewhere, but he could also become the starter in San Francisco. He is 28 and his QBR is 88.4, or the NFL average.
  • Additionally, Ryan Fitzpatrick remains a free agent but could also become a starter. He is 33 and has a rating of 80.8

Of this list, 12 of the starting quarterbacks are already 30 or older. Although quarterbacks often have longer careers than most other positions, partly because the league has put several rules in place to reduce injury, that is still getting up there in football years. Five of them are already 35, which is very old for an NFL player. But this over 30 group contains a disproportionately large number of the very best in the league. A quarterback rating of 90 is often used as a dividing line between "elite" passers and the rest. That also happens to be the line dividing those above and below the league average QBR. There are only 12 total quarterbacks who currently land above that league average - and seven of them are over 30. Of the 20 projected starters who are still in their 20's, only five are above average, leaving 15 below the line. And among the over-30 quarterbacks who are also below the league average are Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, who have led Super Bowl champions, and Carson Palmer and Alex Smith, who have had playoff success.

There are many other factors that enter into the success of a team than just the quarterback, of course. Last season, the Denver Broncos won it all despite Peyton Manning being very ineffective in the Super Bowl, because they also had a monster defense. But situations like that are more the exception. In general, a team needs an above average quarterback to make a serious playoff run. And lately they are not coming with anything near the frequency needed to even keep the level up. All those over 30 types are not going to be around forever.

Given the numbers, it increasingly looks like the NFL is doomed (at least in the near term) to see more teams forced to get through the season with mediocre or worse quarterbacks. In the three drafts prior to this year's, there has only been one QB taken that has an above average rating, Marcus Mariota - and that is based on only one year. There are certainly others who still have time to grow and develop, but the more years they play, the harder it is to move the needle on their rating. Some do make a breakthrough and become a top-level passer after a few seasons, but that is not something that can be relied on. There is a belief that the current style of no-huddle, spread offense favored by so many teams does not prepare quarterbacks adequately for the NFL game, and this is chart supports that idea. Even the best college quarterbacks, like Jameis Winston, are having to learn on the job. Some believe that the pros will have to adapt their offenses to something more like what is played in the NCAA, but so far it has not gone well. Robert Griffin III was beaten up trying to play the way he did in college (although admittedly his coaches did him no favors once he was hurt, making things worse), and Chip Kelly's attempt to apply his towering genius to the Philadelphia Eagles rapidly spiraled downwards. He is trying again in San Francisco, but now, like in Philly, he is trying to do so without a really good QB.

However, there is something else that is also seen when you go back through the draft the past few years. The belief is that you have to take a quarterback in the first to get a future starter, but that is not necessarily so. Of the 32 projected starters for this fall, 10 were taken in the second round or later, including UDFA Tony Romo. Not all of the projected starters are seen as top talents, of course, but it is worth noting that almost a third of the starters, including Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson, were finds in later rounds.

There are of course some factors that may also enter into this, such as how a really good quarterback does tend to have a prolonged career, which may skew the data a bit. But the numbers still seem to support the overall point that there is a dearth of "elite" talent coming out of college, and the fact that teams frequently have to mine later rounds to find even a serviceable starter is evidence of that. And the pressure to immediately start a top five draft pick is not helpful for players that have to learn a very different game from what they played in college. Throwing new QBs directly into the fire may do more harm to their development than anything. With the way things are trending, the outlook is for many teams to continue to have lackluster play at quarterback, and it increasingly looks like it will get worse until something changes.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB