Is Bryce Young ready to upend decades of NFL conventional wisdom?
Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom came out of the locker room in Tuscaloosa in November 2021 to get a peek at Bryce Young, Alabama’s undersized wunderkind quarterback, in pregame warmups.
Young’s stirring sophomore season put him atop the Heisman Trophy race and defied football conventions, and Odom couldn’t help wanting to catch a field-level glimpse of the sport’s breakout star. Alabama listed Young at 6-foot, 194 pounds, but everyone knew those numbers meant he was essentially stepping on a phone book and his weight was artificially padded by a few slabs of Tuscaloosa’s famous Dreamland ribs.
In the chill of the early afternoon, Odom quickly understood the scope of his challenge. As so often happened in a decorated high school and college career, Young’s arm talent overshadowed his modest size.
“He’s got this quick release and the ball explodes off his hand,” said Odom, who is now UNLV’s head coach. “He’s making every throw across the field in warmups. I knew at that point it was probably going to be a long night.”
Young majored in delivering opponents long nights in his two seasons as a starter at Alabama, where he went 23-4. That afternoon against Odom’s defense, he delivered five touchdown passes and no interceptions on his way to winning the Heisman.
In 2022, he threw for 32 touchdowns and just five interceptions while playing with a drastically inferior receiving corps. In just two seasons as a starter, he’s the second-leading passer in Alabama history (8,356 yards).
As the NFL draft kicks off Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN app), that caliber of consistent production has made Young the prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick. At 5-foot-10, he’d be just the third quarterback in the common draft era shorter than 6 feet to be picked in the first round, joining Kyler Murray and Johnny Manziel.
Searching NFL combine data back to 1999, Young would also be the lightest quarterback taken in the first round. Young weighed in at 204 at the combine, and the list of quarterbacks weighing less includes a flurry of forgettable names like Aaron Brooks (203), Trace McSorley (202) and Seneca Wallace (196).
That’s the compelling conundrum ultimately facing the Carolina Panthers at No. 1 — can they use a treasured piece of draft real estate on a player whose size makes him an exception? Young looms as an anomaly even among the smaller quarterbacks, as he’s a pure pocket passer. Just 12% of his passes in college came outside of the pocket, per ESPN Stats & Information.
“If you pick him, you are saying that he’s the outlier in the history of the league,” said a veteran NFL executive. “Kyler Murray was that size, but a little sturdier built and ran low 4.4s. [Young is] an awesome player and awesome kid, but you are saying that the guy is the one outlier in the history of the league.”
The NFL draft industry through the years has been built on paradigms — height, weight, speed. Those archetypes have existed for decades, serving as guidelines and guardrails for franchises looking to avoid mistakes.
The case for Young has been made through a trail of flummoxed defensive coordinators and admiring head coaches who watched him thrive across the sideline. And it leaves one of the most fascinating draft questions of the past generation: Can Bryce Young be the exception?
When Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea game-planned for Young in September, he didn’t once consider his size in the equation of how to attempt to stop him.
“It’s the skill set that offsets the size,” Lea said. “When you’re out there on the field with him, you don’t look at him and say, ‘He’s small.’ He plays bigger than that. It’s a compliment to his competitive mindset and stature on the field.
“Size matters if you can take throw lanes away. His skills give him the ability to extend plays and step up and find windows to make throws.”
Young’s 79 touchdowns in two seasons at Alabama rank as the most in the SEC over a two-year period. He missed just one game — against Texas A&M in 2022 with a shoulder injury — and flashed the physical and mental skills that have the NFL intrigued and left a trail of hapless defenders in his wake.
In speaking with a half-dozen coaches last week who faced Young, the two traits that came up the most were his innate feel in the pocket and his ability to diagnose defenses and dissect them accordingly.
The play that perhaps defined his elite instincts came in a comeback win at Texas in September, when Young pulled off a Houdini act that resonated as one of the most impressive of the season. Texas defensive back Ryan Watts streaked into the Alabama backfield unblocked and Young ducked so low at the last possible second to avoid Watts that his facemask nearly scraped the ground.
He then scrambled 20 yards to the 17-yard-line to set up the a game-winning 33-yard field goal three plays later.
“It’s like tag, he’s the fastest thing out there and no one can touch him,” said former Auburn coach Bryan Harsin. “He can make guys miss and move out of the way. That play against Texas was something you see in a movie, like ‘The Matrix,’ then he’s running for it.
“His pocket awareness is maybe one of the best I’ve seen in college. He’ll stand back there. He’ll know nothing is open, he buys some time and someone is going to get open for him.”
Harsin coached Kellen Moore at Boise State — 6-foot and 197 at the NFL combine in 2012 — for four seasons as the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for the Broncos. Moore finished his career at Boise 50-3 as a starter and remains the winningest quarterback in college football history.
Through that historic run, Harsin said he and former Boise coach Chris Petersen realized the proliferation of the shotgun in college football — and more recently in the NFL with 63% of regular-season snaps in the gun in 2022 — has become an equalizer for shorter quarterbacks. That’s why Harsin said he’d have laughed off any notion by a defensive coach at Auburn that they could exploit Young’s size.
Harsin coached against Young only once during his two-year Auburn tenure, but he’s long been a card-carrying member of his admiration society. Harsin took his son, Davis, to the 2019 high school clash between Young’s Mater Dei team and D.J. Uiagalelei’s St. John Bosco club.
Harsin wanted to give his son, now a three-star quarterback recruit, a glimpse of big-time prep football. He couldn’t have imagined that two years later, Young would lead one of his trademark comebacks against Auburn with a 97-yard game-tying drive, enabling Alabama to win in four overtimes.
The next day, when watching the film and removing the emotion, Harsin could only admire what Young pulled off.
“When you pull back, from a pure quarterback standpoint, it was impressive,” Harsin said. “I’m watching it the next day saying, ‘That dude is a Heisman Trophy winner.'”
Young’s final collegiate Houdini act didn’t come with a late drive. He decided to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Kansas State, defying the opt-out trend for top prospects not in the CFP, and fileted Kansas State for five touchdowns and 321 yards.
Wildcats coach Chris Klieman still doesn’t know how star Wildcats corner Julius Brents, a potential first-round pick himself this week, didn’t intercept a ball that Young deftly dropped 32 yards to Ja’Corey Brooks on the back pylon of the end zone.
“Just as far as the football acumen and the accuracy, I didn’t think there was a better quarterback this year,” Klieman said. “That was the best kid we played, by far. How he read defenses, putting the ball in windows and spots.
“He was totally in control of everything.”
Young now enters a phase of his career he can’t control. The variables of success for a quarterback transitioning to the NFL start in the front office, filter down to the coaching staff and are rooted in the system. There’s also franchise patience pitted against fan pressure and the inevitability of enduring a few years with an inferior roster.
What’s certain is that a franchise will need to mold its roster and system to accommodate Young. Scouts and NFL personnel insist that begins with scheme and extends to putting together logical roster pieces.
Drafting Young comes with an acknowledgement that he won’t grow, but his height is less of an issue than his slender frame. There have been comparisons to Russell Wilson, who also weighed 204 pounds at the combine. But Young is simply not as thickly built as Wilson — he will likely play at around 205 pounds in the NFL, while Wilson is listed at 215 in Denver.
“I’ve been this size, respectfully, my whole life,” Young said. “I know who I am. I know what I can do. For me, [the concerns are] fair. Everyone can speculate and ask when the questions are necessary. I’m going to continue to control what I can control.”
One NFL executive told ESPN that whoever drafts Young will need to “build a Great Wall” in front of him. That includes thick interior linemen but not necessarily tall ones. And they’d be flanked by bigger tackles.
“You need to keep the pocket firm and clear,” the executive said. “You don’t want 6-foot-5 guys across the board. That’d be hard for him.”
Bill O’Brien, the former Alabama offensive coordinator who was hired to the same position by the New England Patriots this offseason, was a relentless advocate of Young’s to scouts. The Crimson Tide are one of the most open programs in the country for scouts, and multiple scouts told ESPN O’Brien recommended Young with vigor.
“The size doesn’t matter when you process the game quickly,” one scout said. “The notion of him getting balls batted down, that will only happen if he’s holding the ball and not making quick decisions.”
The case for Young thriving in the NFL comes from Drew Brees, who is two inches taller at 6-foot and weighed nine more pounds at the combine (213).
A scout said Young will likely have to operate almost exclusively from the shotgun, which is in line with how NFL offenses have evolved.
“He’s really Drew Brees,” the scout said. “The size doesn’t matter. He’s a pocket passer with movement skills. You’re not playing under center, you have to change your offense, as it’s going to be harder for him to get back in 3-step, 5-step and 7-step drops and still see over defenses.”
One of the most intriguing parts of this draft is there’s no consensus on the top quarterback. Some scouts are enamored with Anthony Richardson’s traits, others with C.J. Stroud’s production and some love the physical tools of Will Levis.
One veteran scout summed up his Young skepticism by pointing out he may have relied too much on his improvisational ability: “His style is very much a playground dropback that accentuates his instincts. It’s hard to see him translating to a system that relies on quick game. I don’t think he’s elite at anticipating with timing early in the play. He’s more adept running around and then making a play with his arm talent.”
It’s expected the Panthers are going to make a big bet on Young’s size not mattering. There’s a trail of college coaches who became believers after seeing Young’s magic up close. Will he break NFL paradigms and convert more skeptics?
“Over the years I’ve defended a lot of first-round quarterbacks,” Lea said. “Bryce definitely stands out as a player who is elite among those first-rounders. He’ll be scrutinized left and right, but what I witnessed on the field was an ability to dominate the game and play to his strengths, and that maybe limits the weaknesses.”
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