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Russell Wilson and Short Quarterbacks: How Much Does Height Matter at QB?

Dan Pompei ran some interesting numbers in a column this weekend about passes batted down at the line of scrimmage for this year’s rookie quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Seattle’s third round pick, had only two balls batted down at the line of scrimmage despite his 5’10” height. The four first round quarterbacks? Andrew Luck with 2, Robert Griffin with 9, Brandon Weeden with 8, and Ryan Tannehill with 19.

Russell Wilson has officially intrigued me for a variety of reasons, none of them to do with his wife. He has been at the center of much debate because of his height, while many swear by his other tools and skills as being top ten caliber, based on his athleticism, strong arm, and ability to throw receivers open.

Then, there were Pete Carroll’s statements last week after rookie camp, in regard to Wilson. “He showed us enough. He’s in the competition.” That would be the competition for the starting job in Seattle, where they already signed former Packers backup Matt Flynn this offseason and have Tarvaris Jackson. There can be a lot of coach speak this time of year, but for Carroll to come out and say that this early doesn’t discourage those who view Wilson as a legitimate NFL starter sooner rather than later.

So, what about his height? Here’s what I believe. Height is an important factor for a quarterback. It’s also an overvalued factor by teams selecting players. I went through the 1988 to 2007 draft and found all quarterbacks listed 6’1 or shorter. I couldn’t find heights for some players who never played in the NFL, and I excluded some that I was pretty sure were drafted as “athletes” to play other positions, as nobody was drafting a triple option QB like Gerry Gdowski of Nebraska to make him a pocket quarterback.

I found 18 players, from Michael Vick to Joe Hamilton. Most were at 6’1″, the shortest being Hamilton of Georgia Tech listed at 5’10”. I then used their draft position and compared the number of games started by the “short quarterbacks” to the average games started of the five players (plus ties) drafted most closely to their draft spot.

The “short quarterbacks” averaged 38.5 games started in the NFL, compared to 22.9 games started for the similarly drafted quarterbacks 6’2″ or taller (average draft pick = pick #134). The games started, of course, tended to decline as draft position increased for both groups, with fluctuation. More often than not, the short quarterback started more games than those drafted in a similar range. This doesn’t include the patron saint of the elite quarterback who was just too short, Doug Flutie, drafted in the 11th round in 1985.

Michael Vick, through his ups and downs, will finish near average in games started as a first overall pick. Cade McNown was a bust, while Drew Brees was a boom. Marques Tuiasasopo didn’t do anything, while Kordell Stewart ended up starting a lot of games relative to late 2nd round picks. After that, Mark Brunell, Rodney Peete, and Jeff Blake all started way more games than an average pick that late, while guys like Seneca Wallace, Bruce Gradkowski, and Ty Detmer, even if they were never full-time starters, played more frequently than their draft position would predict. Stewart, Brunell, Peete and Blake all started more than 80 games in the NFL, and only 15 total quarterbacks drafted between pick 50 and 250 during that twenty year period did that.

Wilson is shorter than that group, even, but was also viewed favorably enough because of his other skills to go earlier than all but 5 of them. The average quarterback drafted between picks 65 and 85 (Wilson went 75th) averaged 21.4 starts in the NFL. If we try to set an estimate on Wilson, assuming he also slipped due to a height bias, we might project an over/under of 37 starts in the NFL. That may not sound like much, but such a projection would put him in line with players drafted a round earlier, in the early to mid-second round.

Given what I’ve read about Wilson and seen, I’m actually hopeful that he can exceed that and be another height outlier. I like when sports are unpredictable, it’s why I’m drawn to it even though I search for truth through numbers, and I think the NFL would be a better, more diverse game if a player with the skill set of Russell Wilson overcame the one obvious negative and succeeded. I’ll take the over on Russell Wilson.

[photo via US Presswire]

 

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