The NFL draft’s age-old question: QBs over 25 haven’t worked out. Could that change this year?
- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
When Chris Weinke talked to teams before the 2001 NFL draft, he didn’t receive many direct questions about his age.
But Weinke, a national championship and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida State, knew that the numbers 28 and 29 — his playing age when he finished college, and his age when the 2001 NFL season kicked off — were generating as much discussion behind the scenes as his record-setting stats. When the draft began, Weinke waited until the fourth round to hear his name called, after four other quarterbacks had been selected.
“It did play a factor,” Weinke said. “I’m going into my first training camp as a 29-year-old. Take a 20-year-old who played in three straight national championships and won a Heisman. In that same situation, with the same training, that kid who’s 20 has an advantage and probably isn’t a fourth-round pick.”
Quarterback age is a subplot of next week’s NFL draft, as two of the more accomplished college signal callers are also among the oldest. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, the Heisman front-runner for much of last season after a brilliant two-year run under coach Josh Heupel, turned 25 in January. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, a Heisman finalist last season who helped the Bulldogs to the past two national titles, will turn 26 in October. Another quarterback draft hopeful, BYU’s Jaren Hall, who started 22 games the past two seasons, turned 25 last month.
Although Bennett and Hall aren’t projected to be among the initial batch of quarterbacks drafted, Hooker is generating more buzz as a potential first-round pick, from ESPN’s Todd McShay, Mike Tannenbaum and others. In modern NFL draft history, only eight quarterbacks aged 25 or older have been selected, with only three — Weinke, Brandon Weeden and John Beck — going before the sixth round, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. Hooker is ESPN’s fifth-rated quarterback prospect, while Hall is eighth and Bennett is 10th. Of the four highest-rated quarterback prospects, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud are 21, Florida’s Anthony Richardson is 20 and Kentucky’s Will Levis is 23.
Levis will turn 24 ahead of Week 1 of the upcoming NFL season, making him only a year younger than Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert and Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — both of whom have been starters in the league since 2020.
With quarterbacks absorbing less contact in the modern game as well as their speed and explosiveness being secondary draft characteristics, age is less of an issue for the position now.
“Any position but quarterback, age matters,” an NFL coordinator said.
The history of older quarterbacks entering the NFL is limited, but not particularly encouraging. Weinke, Weeden and Beck went a combined 8-44 as NFL starters. After Weinke won his debut in 2001, Carolina proceeded to lose its final 15 games, setting an NFL record for consecutive losses in a season.
How Hooker, Bennett and Hall’s age impacts their draft status will soon be revealed. Those who have been in their shoes, and those who evaluate players, say older quarterbacks have both advantages and potential drawbacks entering the NFL. Even at a time when quarterbacks are playing well into their 30s, the pressure to perform immediately will be there. So, too, are the traits needed to succeed right away, which some younger quarterbacks lack.
“You spin it as a positive,” said Weeden, who at 28 became the oldest first-round draft pick in NFL history when the Cleveland Browns selected him at No. 22 overall in 2012. “They played at the highest level. Stetson doing what he did was incredible. Hendon, before he got hurt, was on the fast track to winning the Heisman. They got reps, they got experience. But they’re a couple years older. They’re going to have to hear about it in the media.
“It is what it is.”
BEFORE THE DRAFT, NFL teams are tasked to identify, analyze and scrutinize every detail about prospects. An NFL scout said his organization puts an alert on the profiles of players who enter draft weekend aged 25 or older.
The age alert isn’t a do-not-draft warning, but it requires the team to dig a bit deeper and find context around the age.
“He’s a 25-year-old quarterback. Why? That’s the biggest thing I would ask,” a scout said. “Stetson Bennett’s why is: He wasn’t really recruited, then he went to junior college and came back [to Georgia]. Hooker is a sixth-year [player]. Why wasn’t he good enough to come out after 2021? What [the age] does is stimulate questions. It makes you ask why.”
Another scout added: “It does scare you a little bit. Why does it take you so long to be good?”
Weinke and Weeden were older NFL draft prospects because they first played professional baseball. Both were second-round picks in the Major League Baseball draft. After reporting to Florida State in August 1990, Weinke left campus days later and didn’t return until 1997. Weeden played four pro seasons before enrolling at Oklahoma State in 2007.
Bennett walked on at Georgia in 2017, spent the 2018 season at Jones College in Mississippi, returned in 2019 but saw his first significant action in 2020 only because projected starter J.T. Daniels was out with an injury. Hall served a two-year LDS mission in California before arriving at BYU in 2018 as a 20-year-old freshman. In 2020, he took a medical redshirt to recover from a hip injury, before passing for 5,754 yards and 51 touchdowns the past two seasons.
Hooker started college at Virginia Tech in 2017, started 15 games during the 2019 and 2020 seasons but never broke through. He then transferred to Tennessee and became the starter in Week 3 of the 2021 season, proceeding to tally 6,080 passing yards, more than 1,000 rushing yards and 68 total touchdowns during an incredible 24 games (22 starts). Hooker set Tennessee single-season records for both completion percentage (68) and passing efficiency (181.4) rating in 2021, but elected to return last fall at age 24. He broke his own completion mark (69.6%) and had 3,135 passing yards before suffering a torn ACL Nov. 19 at South Carolina.
“For Hendon, coming back was maximizing his talent and refining his understanding of the game,” Heupel said. “He took a huge jump from the previous year. Although he had experience, he only played in our system for two years, so he was exposed to a lot of different things. That’s going to position him, when he goes to the next level, to soak up an NFL playbook and understand the whys.”
Hooker and Bennett’s most meaningful experience occurred late in their college careers. Bennett’s rise and success coincided with Georgia hiring Todd Monken as offensive coordinator. Speaking at the NFL combine last month, Bennett credited Monken with providing him a “foundation of knowledge” that he can apply to his next offense.
“I know the information [Bennett] was learning and getting better at,” said Weeden, who played his final season at Oklahoma State under Monken, and finished second nationally in passing yards (4,727). “It’s going to prepare him well for the next level. It’s a huge advantage, one more year of college football.”
The career timelines for quarterbacks are also changing both at the NFL and college levels. Tom Brady concluded his incredible 23-year NFL run at age 45, while Drew Brees retired at 42 and Ben Roethlisberger played his final game weeks shy of his 40th birthday. Aaron Rodgers, expected to join the New York Jets after 18 seasons in Green Bay, will turn 40 on Dec. 2.
Rule changes to protect quarterbacks also likely will lengthen careers, along with improvements in nutrition and training.
“Hooker and Bennett, sure, you’re taking a couple years off the front end, but everyone’s extending years on the back end, that’s what’s changed,” said Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl and a longtime NFL scout. “Right now, they’re getting close to their physical peak years. I don’t see age being much of a factor when it comes to their immediate transition.”
Recent changes in college football also could result in more quarterbacks reaching the draft closer to age 25. Quarterbacks who transfer to reboot their careers, like Hooker and Levis, who left Penn State for Kentucky in 2021, are more common. Others are seeing the benefits of lucrative name, image and likeness deals while still in college.
The emergence of quarterbacks like the San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy, a four-year starter at Iowa State who became the final pick of the 2022 draft at age 22, has made some pro evaluators rethink the QB profile.
“I don’t think age matters as much as experience,” an NFL quarterbacks coach said. “You’ve got your superstars, but Purdy, that’s a four-year guy who went in, played a lot and did a good job. The NIL thing may improve quarterback drafts in the future. Some of those NIL deals, if you’re going to be a third- or fourth-round pick who can stay and make $1 million, you might as well stay. That might help college football. Some guys will stay longer, so the quality of play will be better.”
A DAY AFTER the 2007 NFL draft, Beck was “super pumped” to be a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. Then, he received a call from another NFL team, led by a coach known for developing quarterbacks.
The team told Beck why they couldn’t draft him: they expected their current starter to remain for 3-4 years.
“Because of your age, you would not truly be getting an opportunity to be a starter until you’re 29 years old,” Beck recalled being told. “We loved everything about you, except your age did not fit with our plans.”
Reflecting 16 years later, Beck said, “It’s too bad that something like age kept that from happening.”
Beck, who now trains quarterbacks at the 3DQB group in California, thinks age matters more depending on the situation quarterbacks enter in the NFL. If a starting job is available immediately, a quarterback’s age can benefit him. Those pegged to wait a while might be bypassed for younger players.
Prospects like Bennett (32 starts at Georgia) and Hooker (37 career starts, 22 at Tennessee) have more experience and better statistics than Richardson, who made only 13 starts at Florida, which would tie Mitch Trubisky for the fewest by a first-round quarterback since 2002. But Richardson’s physical potential, which he displayed during a record-setting combine workout, and his age, create a longer developmental runway.
“When you’re looking at a guy who’s 25, 26 his [rookie] year, how much more is he going to be able to develop?” a scout said. “With a guy like Stetson, what you see is what you get.”
Hooker and Bennett might not have another physical tier to reach, but they also will enter the NFL with a greater knowledge base, both in football and outside of it. Bennett already held one of the highest-profile positions in college football well into his 20s. He thrived in the spotlight and fed off the lingering skepticism about his abilities, even after Georgia’s first national title. Hooker had to reinvent himself at Tennessee, win over a new team and overcome a significant injury.
Both could be more equipped than younger quarterbacks to assimilate to the demands of the NFL.
“I was able to handle interviews better, I was able to handle the stress and pressure that comes with playing in the National Football League,” Weinke said. “[Being older] was one of the reasons I ended up being able to be a starting quarterback my rookie year. Invariably what happens is, that guy who’s 25 communicates better, probably is more comfortable, than the guy who’s 20. That’s just human nature.”
Bennett’s maturity undoubtedly is a selling point to teams. His pitch became tougher, though, after he was charged with misdemeanor public intoxication in late January in Dallas.
“I understand why that can’t happen,” Bennett said at the combine. “I’ve talked to coaches about it, talked to GMs, apologized to my family. I felt like I let them down, because no matter where I go now, and even without all this, I’ve got an obligation.”
Hooker has faced different questions about his NFL readiness, as some consider the Tennessee offense in which he thrived to be overly simplistic. Heupel instead called the system efficient, and noted that a trickle-down effect from NFL to college has reversed, where the college schemes have “trended upward and are changing the way the NFL is played.”
“We have pure progression routes,” Hooker said at the combine. “It’s not my fault my first read is getting open. We have pre-snap looks, one-high [safety], two-high, which side, double footwork combo. We have pure progressions with an alert with an option. If you really dig into our offense and actually watch the film, then you’d understand it’s elevated to another level.”
WEINKE’S PLAYING CAREER ended after the 2007 season. In 2015, he entered coaching with the St. Louis Rams, overseeing the quarterbacks. As a coach, Weinke and the offensive staff would consider the ages of quarterback prospects but spent more time on their physical and mental skills, and the offenses they operated while in college.
Age could be a tiebreaker of sorts, especially if players received comparable scouting grades or came from similar college systems.
“You would probably lean toward the younger guy, knowing that you could probably have him for a longer time, maybe a little healthier,” said Weinke, now the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Georgia Tech. “But you’re going to lose out on the experience part and the maturity part that you would get with a 25-year-old. It’s so hard. It’s almost become a science, the way they evaluate.”
Weeden is among only five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the modern draft era who entered September of their first NFL season aged 24 or older. Among the others, current Tennessee Titans starter Ryan Tannehill and former Jets and Miami Dolphins starter Chad Pennington had some success, and Tannehill reached the Pro Bowl in 2019. Akili Smith went 3-14 as a starter for the Cincinnati Bengals, while Jim Druckenmiller — drafted by the 49ers — appeared in only six career games (one start).
“I knew the history that I was working against at that time,” Beck said. “Quarterbacks who entered the league at that age, older, there weren’t a lot of them who had success, for whatever reason.”
The Dolphins fired coach Cam Cameron after Beck’s rookie season, leaving him as “a 26-year-old that the new staff didn’t draft,” who had lost the only four games he played. Weeden came to the Browns in the middle of the franchise’s streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons and knew his path to success would be “kind of uphill.” He also arrived with a sense of urgency.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play for 15 years,” Weeden said. “I had to make the most of it. You definitely think about that. You know you’ve got to go out early on and impress and get to that second contract.”
Older players have a ticking clock, but the NFL has become “a sink-or-swim league,” Nagy said, for every quarterback. Zach Wilson, drafted at age 21 by the Jets at No. 2 overall, already has reached “a tipping point” after his second pro season. The immediate success of young quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, who was drafted at 21 and claimed NFL MVP honors weeks after his 23rd birthday, could reduce teams’ patience with projects like Richardson.
Beck said NFL teams place “can” or “can’t” stamps on every quarterback early in their careers — some when they’re rookies, others a bit later.
“Age won’t matter [for quarterbacks] with the ‘can’ stamp,” he said. “It’s all about preparing yourself for whenever that opportunity does come. So just cross your fingers that when it comes, it’s in a good situation with a good organization that’s sustainable.”
As Hooker, Bennett and other older quarterbacks await their NFL destinations and talk with teams, those who have been in their shoes say age should be pushed as a plus.
“The overarching theme should be: ‘Listen, I’m in a better position because of my maturity to come in and make an impact earlier than a younger guy,'” Weinke said. “They’re still going to question that a little bit, but if I’m one of those guys that’s a little bit older, I’m simply saying, ‘This is an advantage, not a disadvantage.'”
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