13 min read

Why Bryce Young Can Transcend Size Concerns, Be Top QB in 2023 NFL Draft

Bryce Young

At 5-foot-10 (and some change) and 200-ish pounds, Bryce Young (scouting report) is built more like an NFL cornerback than an NFL quarterback. 

Over the next six weeks of pre-draft evaluation, his size will be something teams can get comfortable with or a problem they can't get past. Either way, it is the biggest sticking point for the possible QB1 of the 2023 NFL Draft

While all 32 teams will be studying the size equation, a handful of teams will be majoring in it until the first night of the draft on April 27. Without any firsthand knowledge of how each team will be spending their time, I imagine the Indianapolis Colts at No. 4, and the Houston Texans at No. 2 are devoting large portions of their days to it. They likely are preparing themselves for Young possibly being on the board when they pick. 

However, that all comes down to the Carolina Panthers, who traded a boatload of draft picks and wide receiver D.J. Moore for the first overall selection last week. The Panthers hold all the quarterback cards, and they're holding them close to their vest. 

It would be a good home for Panthers head coach Frank Reich's history with big quarterbacks: Jim Kelly, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan

While they can't remove the size element of Young's evaluation, what if we pushed it to the side for a bit and just watched him play quarterback? Are there enough positives to make his height and frame just a part of who he is as a quarterback, not what defines him? 

Well, he started 27 games in the last two seasons at the most visible program in the country: the evidence was hiding in plain sight. So I dove into his evaluation over the last couple of days, admittedly with a glass-half-full attitude, to see if all the pluses could outweigh that little minus, the one that doesn't quite clear 6 feet. 

I found so many I had to tier them. So let's start with the noteworthy and work our way up from there.

Evaluating Bryce Young

Young's Subtle Qualities

Young's ball-handling — specifically in the RPO game — is excellent. He's one of those guys who, in one movement, can take the shotgun snap, avoid the rush and deliver a strike on a quick slant or immediate out-breaking route. And make it look simple. This doesn't happen without lower-body balance and real command of the ball. That 9 ¾-inch hand measurement at the combine? This is where it shows up. I know coaches who value that for a quarterback more than the 40-yard time because of what it can indicate about how a quarterback can locate the ball, and Young's execution of the short, quick-release, play-action passing game is a good example. 

When asked about Young in Indy, Reich pointed out that Young was a "fast processor," one of the highest compliments a coach can pay a quarterback. From how you take meeting-room implementation and apply it to the practice field, to the type of in-depth conversations a coach can have with him on game day, to how quickly the ball comes out of his hand during games, it's praise that could take on many forms of value. 

So I watched Young's video with Reich's "fast processor" observation in mind and immediately attached it to his progressions — specifically his reaction when the first receiving option is covered. In the instances where coverage dictated that his first read wasn't the best option, his knowledge of where to look next — and the immediacy with which he got the ball there — was spot on. Knowing where your checkdown is is one thing, but getting the ball there the second it becomes the best option, is another. And it's next level when it's also delivered in a place where the pass catcher can do something with it. It gives the checkdown a chance to go for 8 yards instead of 2, and a handful of those per game can affect the outcome.

Reich also called Young "poised," a word that rang true when Alabama's protection afforded him extra time in the pocket. In these moments, the internal clock in a quarterback's head can work against him; there's nothing open, he's already held the ball for nearly three seconds, and then he has a reaction to "ghost" trouble — anticipated and perceived pressure that isn't there. It's a keen sense to react the opposite way when it's OK to bounce, gather, and give receivers a chance to uncover. Young handles these moments well, as his balance and calm don't unravel, and he usually finds a safe place to go with the ball. 

It reminded me of watching Brock Purdy play for the San Francisco 49ers last year. He had zero sense of panic in the pocket until the rush dictated. Then, his steady calm remained in those rare but crucial times when the pocket kept him clean for a couple of counts longer than expected, and he often took advantage, as did Young repeatedly when I watched him. 

I also recognized his pocket escapability immediately, but I admired that he leaves the pocket with a pass-first mentality. Think Russell Wilson in his heyday in Seattle, with the patented step-up in the pocket before escaping out the side door, with eyes downfield to locate a receiver. Young makes a habit of this move.

Wired to Succeed

He may not be built for life in the pocket, but man is he wired to succeed in it. It starts with his body position, which seemingly exists in a throw-ready state. His lower and upper bodies are instantly in sync when he hits the top of his drop. There's no major or even slight transition into the "ready now" position. You know how a baseball hitter looks in the box when the pitch is delivered, with his entire body coiled and ready to pounce if the pitch is in the right place? Young is there, easily and calmly, the moment he sets up. If the throw is made "in rhythm," great, but he can maintain the ready stance even when the coverage or rush alters the timing. Not as easy as it sounds.

Three attributes are displayed here: His balance is excellent the moment he receives the snap, and nothing about his dropback throws it off. Two, his feet don't come together at the top of his drop. His right foot plants and his left foot stays put, meaning no elongated re-gather or step forward is required. He bounces and shifts more than he steps and strides, and his balance is better off because of it. And three, he has a quick, consistent stroke up top, which aligns well with the fact that his lower body is nearly always sturdy and balanced.

All of that creates this reality: He doesn't need much time or space to make a throw. You've seen an NFL pocket at the moment of release — it's usually messy and often chaotic. There's not a lot of room. The quieter a quarterback's lower body is, i.e. the less he requires a big step into a throw, the better his chance for success. Young often will not take a traditional step at all at the moment of release, instead just going with a slight toe point and an upper-body rotation, a quick but powerful shifting of his weight. 

Because his mechanics don't require much time or space to make a throw, he can hang onto the ball until the last possible second if the play involves that level of patience. So it's not uncommon to see a defender get dangerously close to Young before he delivers a pass and unloads on him at the moment of release. His dimensions make you wonder if his body could withstand too much of this on Sundays, and that's fair. But his mechanics allow him to win in that inevitable situation where a big hit is coming a split second after the ball is gone, and his courage is also on point. 

Think about how often an NFL quarterback can't step into a throw and then doesn't get to see where the ball goes. Half a dozen times a game? Whatever the number, you can watch Alabama play and see that Young is comfortable in this part of the pocket game. He's pretty damn good at it. 

Alabama QB Bryce Young

Best-in-Class Qualities

You already may have noticed a common theme from those who believe in Bryce Young. They often say he "manipulates the pocket" well. That's high praise but is broad-based and open to interpretation as to what it means. Here's my take.

Most importantly, he's adept at finding the little pockets of open space in the pocket, whether a foot to the right, a yard to the left or 10 yards outside the pocket. He knows where it lives on any play, and he shuffles, slides, or even runs to it innately. 

One of the best examples is an extreme one, and it showed up at one of the defining moments of Alabama's season. Late in the game at Texas last September, the Tide trailed, 16-10, and found itself on the Longhorns 7-yard line. With the pocket collapsing and a split second from being engulfed by the rush, Young bounced forward, jump-stopped, then ran back at a 45-degree angle to his left and sprinted to a point outside the tackle box. He planted, rotated his shoulders and fired a dart to the end zone for a touchdown in one move. He wasn't running backward to run around the left side eventually, he was in search of a piece of real estate that would allow him to set up and throw, and he found it in a non-traditional, highly athletic way. 

I also noticed that the first rusher into the backfield, often the unblocked blitzer or the lineman who just beat his man, rarely gets Young to the ground. This is such a valuable commodity for an offensive coordinator. Defenses are intelligent, too, and sometimes they can outnumber your protection. Or a rush end just plain beats the tackle off the ball. To survive these occasions that pop up multiple times in each game, you need a quarterback who can sometimes make a play on his own. If you have one who can routinely do so, you've got offensive gold. 

Back to the Texas game, with Alabama down, 19-17, Texas blitzed the cornerback to the right of Young, and the back to his side just let him through. The corner had Young dead to rights, exactly as planned by the defense. Young squatted, absorbed the contact and escaped his grasp, sprinted around the right side for a first down that set up the eventual game-winning field goal. The game's biggest play was delivered by Young's ability to make an unblocked blitzer miss. 

Finally, the middle infielder in Young stands out. Picture your favorite shortstop and the number of ways he can get the ball to first base on time. While running forward after charging a slow dribbler, or running full speed toward right field after stabbing a hard grounder behind second base, or turning and flinging from short left field as a result of sprinting to the hole with his back turned to first base. Or the half-dozen other versions of a 6-3 putout you can imagine. Young can distribute the ball from any position and is ready to pull out whichever fits the situation. 

We often hear of a quarterback's ability to change his arm angle, anywhere from over the top to sidearm, depending on the rush in front of him. Young's version has more to do with body movement and lean; he can deliver the ball during numerous forms of movement, regardless of what his lower body is doing or what direction he is running. 

At Auburn in 2021, trailing 10-3 with 1:27 left and facing third-and-10 from his 3-yard line, Young pulled a rabbit out of this kind of hat. Seven yards deep in his own end zone, he pump faked to the left as he started to move forward in the pocket. Still moving up, he pump-faked again over the middle. Then, without breaking his stride while moving forward with shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, he fired a dart over the middle, on the money 20 yards downfield just as he crossed the goal line, to keep the eventual game-tying drive alive. The difficulty and the significance of the moment made that a signature play of his Heisman Trophy-winning season. 

I found way more to like about Bryce Young than to doubt. His combination of intelligence and calm were on display throughout his 27 collegiate starts at Alabama, and the way his game marries athleticism with in-pocket nuance to form a unique brand of quarterback playmaking is just terrific. 

Will the Carolina Panthers' belief in Bryce Young's play outweigh their concerns about his size?

Would it be safer to lean into the fluidity and production and prototypical size of C.J. Stroud (scouting report)?

It would be understandable, if not eventually regrettable, to buy into the massive upside of Anthony Richardson (scouting report). 

It will take courage to see past Young's 5-foot-10 height and 200-pound frame, and we'll see if the Panthers have the stomach to line up each Sunday with the smallest quarterback in the league. Those considerations must be part of their conversations, but they don't have to be the deciding factor. I believe if the Panthers do turn in a card on April 27 with Bryce Young's name on it, they will be rewarded for their conviction. 

Paul Burmeister, a former starting quarterback at Iowa, is a studio host with NBC Sports and the radio voice of Notre Dame Football. For a decade he worked as a studio host at NFL Network. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWBurmeister

Tags: Bryce Young