For QBs, 5’10” is the New Normal

Does height matter anymore? For generations of NFL and college football scouts and analysts, the “ideal” quarterback had been often described as 6’4” and 225 pounds — with above 6 feet being seen as essential for any success. The size of some of the all-time greats — such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino — seemed to bear out this conventional wisdom. After all, the experts seemed to ask, “How could a quarterback see over the heads of his offense and the opposing team defense, and not get his passes swatted down, if he isn’t taller than the other players?” This unquestioned belief led to many great high school and college QBs having to change position if they wanted any future in the game; these players include former Michigan star Denard Robinson, Terrelle Pryor, Jerick McKinnon and three-time Super Bowl Champion Julian Edelman.

The game, however, has been changing, and so have many sacred beliefs about QB size. The first sign of change came when  6-foot-tall Drew Brees not only demonstrated sustained success at the position, but started to attack nearly every NFL passing and scoring record, one by one. Many experts claimed Brees was an anomaly — the “superman” exception that proves the rule. Then along came Seahawks Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson — listed at 5’11” but probably 5’10” — and the so-called experts started re-thinking what it took to be a successful quarterback.

Kyler Murray was the selected first overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2019 Draft, even though he measured in at 5’10” at the 2019 NFL combine in Indianapolis, making him tiny compared to his teammates. And yet his height likely will not prevent him from reaching success in the NFL.

Last year’s first overall pick was QB Baker Mayfield, who is listed at a generous 6-foot-1. Even at this height, people wondered if his game would be able to transfer to the NFL level. Though he won the Heisman trophy while at the University of Oklahoma and is seventh on the all-time college passing list, many analysts scoffed when the Cleveland Browns chose Mayfield over several other “can’t miss” quarterbacks who would undoubtedly outshine him when they all got to the pro game–Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson. Instead, Mayfield not only played better than all of the others in his rookie class, he ended up breaking the record for most touchdown passes by a rookie quarterback even after serving as the backup for the first three games of the season. He is now seen as the star who can take the formerly hapless Browns to their first playoff game in decades. Years ago, Mayfield may not have even gotten a chance due to his height.

Why the change in this age-old bias? Is it just that scouts are becoming more aware of their inherent height bias? There’s more at play here, as the game itself has been changing.  Mobility is seen more as a vital aspect of the game. New rules protect the quarterback and thus allow smaller players to survive the pass rush. And the smaller players have learned to adapt by copying Drew Brees’s approach to quickly scan the field sideways between players, rather than just glance over the players’ heads. There’s no question that height is still an important component of  evaluating quarterbacks; teams see height as an advantage and believe that the smaller and lighter players have a higher risk of getting injured.

But times are changing. Entering its 100th season, the NFL is reevaluating the notion that the ideal quarterback stands tall in the pocket at six-foot-three. Enlightened scouts notice that Kyler Murray had only five balls batted down at the line of scrimmage in college — pretty impressive considering how big defensive linemen are. He can avoid pass rushers, as he is extremely athletic, and can complete throws while on the run and with different arm angles. In terms of injury, the experts may look at the film and see that Murray does a remarkable job of protecting himself. When he is getting rid of the ball, he starts to fall away from the play and curl up to protect himself from a big hit while still consistently able to complete a high level of his passes when under pressure. He also has plenty of arm strength and is accurate throwing anywhere on the field.

Despite his gifts, Murray’s real chance for earning millions of dollars as a high draft pick did not happen overnight. He and other size-challenged NFL QBs are standing on the (low) shoulders of trailblazers like Brees, Wilson and Mayfield.

With Arizona trading their 2018 first round pick, Josh Rosen, to Miami, Murray will begin the 2019 season under center for the Cardinals.

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