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NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Kansas State at Alabama

2023 NFL Draft QB Evaluations: Bryce Young, the Artist

Most agree that Bryce Young has that “It Factor” but what exactly is an “It Factor”?

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

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This is the third in a series of articles looking at many of the quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft class. You can find past installments here on Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker.

I’m going to spend a lot of time in this post comparing Bryce Young to Patrick Mahomes, so let’s acknowledge off the bat that this is grossly unfair. Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in football and he has a good shot to be the greatest quarterback to ever play football. But even though this will be unfair, it’s useful because, stylistically, Young plays football like Mahomes plays football. C.J. Stroud is the technician of this draft. He races through his progressions, and delivers surgical strikes from a generally clean pocket. Young is an artist, who sees the field differently than everyone else, who excels with the same “functional movement” as Mahomes by using his legs to create big plays with his arm, and who is able to salvage seemingly dead plays with regularity.

I liked Stroud immediately and his style of play gels with how I approach football, but it took me a while to warm up to Young for a few reasons — the most important being his comparative lack of accuracy. Completion percentage is simply not one of Young’s strengths, and while he was pretty good in 2021, ranking 19th overall, he plummeted to 35th in 2022, just behind Utah’s Cameron Rising. Given the importance of completion percentage for projecting quarterbacks, this was alarming.

There are some caveats for Young, however, as this was hardly the juggernaut Alabama team we’re used to seeing. While Stroud’s receivers averaged a 75.99 PFF Grade per Completion, Young’s were a league-average 66.61. (Note: For more on these statistics, please refer to the QBOPS Glossary.) That’s an enormous difference in surrounding talent, which doesn’t even begin to describe the differences in their offensive lines. Stroud did face tougher defenses on average, as Alabama’s schedule was shockingly close to FBS-average, but the talent disparity between the two more than makes up for the schedule disparity. Everything that worked on offense for Alabama this year worked due to Young’s brilliance, which is something that no other quarterback prospect in this class can claim.

QBOPS loves accuracy, and while that’s a generally smart thing for a system to love, it does have weak spots, one of which was Patrick Mahomes. Back in 2016, his .388/.638/.1.026 splits were certainly good, but failing to get that .400/.600 split had me skeptical at the time. I try to learn from my mistakes, which led to the development of QwOBA+ and its various adjustments; they painted a much rosier picture of Mahomes (15% above average in his final year, 10% above average the previous year as a sophomore). Young had a similar .395/.652/1.047 slash line in 2021, but with those new adjustments he skyrockets, finishing 6th overall in QwOBA+ at 118. In 2022, he was still a respectable 11th at 113.

I still think this likely understates Young though, and so let’s bring this back to Mahomes. When I discuss quarterbacks with various other draftniks, scouts, and the like, they’ll often cite Young as having an “It Factor,” and I think Mahomes undeniably had the same thing. I’m a guy who makes spreadsheets and I hate dealing with things like “it factors” or “makeup” or “pedigree” or “leadership qualities,” but just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not real. Given Mahomes’ incredible success, it would be foolish to ignore certain soft factors that elevate players like Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers from good to “all-time great.”

So let’s try to define it. In a piece I wrote earlier about Stroud, I called him the best processor in the class, and while I still believe that is correct, I also think it’s imprecise. Stroud knows the exact detail of every play call and the order of his progressions. He gets through those progressions, keeps his eyes downfield, and is the best in the class at moving defensive backs with his eyes. But Young is a great processor too, just in a different way.

Young isn’t bad at standard operating procedure at all, but where he excels, and where his and Mahomes’ genius lies, is in their ability to see and process the entire field throughout the duration of the play, even when away running full speed from dangerous people. Both quarterbacks also have the ability to reset and deliver the ball to all parts of the field, taking advantage of their unique athletic traits.

Taking in all of that information has been difficult to quantify or even explain, but we may be getting closer to it. In February, The Athletic published a piece by Matt Barrows on the S-2 Cognition Test. If you’re skeptical of the efficacy of a test to determine whether someone is good at football, that is understandable. For years, players have been subject to the glorified IQ test that is the Wonderlic, which proves nothing about football acumen and subjects a certain number of players to ridicule for the sin of not being as conventionally smart as sports-talk radio fans might like. The Wonderlic is pure trash from a football perspective, but this may not be. The S-2 makes sense to me.

The S-2 isn’t a logic/reasoning test like the Wonderlic. It is, instead, a test of how quickly someone can see and interpret information as it appears on screen:

In one section of the exam, a series of diamonds flash on the screen for 16 milliseconds each. Every diamond is missing a point, and the test taker must determine — using left, right, up or down keys — which part is missing.

In another, the test seeks to find out how many objects an athlete can keep track of at the same time. In another, there are 22 figures on the screen and the athlete must locate a specific one as quickly as possible. The object might be a red triangle embedded in other shapes that are also red.

It’s easy to see how such a test could potentially identify those players with superior field vision and processing. While we don’t have public information on the results, according to the providers, it is predictive of success from skillsets as diverse as Drew Brees to Josh Allen. And Patrick Mahomes was also, reportedly, a high scorer. I’d recommend reading the entire piece, but it concludes with the following:

“We’ve been doing the NFL draft for seven years,” [Brandon] Ally said. “From an S2 Cognitive perspective, last year was the worst year we’ve ever had score-wise. And this year is by far and away the best we’ve ever had, score-wise, at the quarterback position.”

He hinted that the quarterback whom many believe will be the first player drafted had an impressive score.

I do have a feeling that a quarterback from Alabama that we have tested every year since he was in 10th grade may end up sharing his results publicly because he actually owns those results and the NFL does not,” Ally said.

Whether you believe in this test or not, this seems to be consistent with scouting reports on Young, and more importantly, provides some insight into that “It Factor” that people like to talk about. Young’s highlights are often more impressive than Stroud’s because he leaves you wondering how in the world he saw a certain receiver come open while he was about to be blown up by an opposing defender. This kind of vision and this kind of field perception, combined with his athletic tools, work in concert to create those amazing plays and give him an edge over his contemporaries, including Stroud.

What is a Lesser Mahomes Worth?

And so, I understand why scouts and NFL teams seem to love Young. Anyone who can look this much like Patrick Mahomes is worth considering, because if you draft and hit on that guy, you’re set for a decade-plus. But now that we’ve managed to put some categorical borders around Young, Mahomes, and that “It Factor,” we should discuss the very important differences.

Aside from being a visual football genius, Mahomes is also an outstanding physical phenom, at 6’2 and 225 pounds with an elite arm. Mahomes is more than happy to run, but more often he uses his mobility to buy time and power out of pressure. He’s faster than most front seven players, and he’s very difficult to bring down. Which brings us to the big concern with Bryce Young.

Young’s small stature is not a secret, but it’s discussed far too often as a sort of general negative instead of focusing on the ways it may impact his game. His height was not actually a big problem at Alabama, and he rarely had passes batted down. We’ve seen shorter quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Doug Flutie succeed in the NFL, and I’m confident that Young has the tools to work around his height. There are two much bigger problems that Young faces.

The first is his size, not to be confused with his height. He managed to bulk up to 204 pounds for the 2023 combine, and then told on himself by not participating in any drills. Most scouts believe his playing weight to be closer to 190, and that might require that he be soaking wet. His frame doesn’t project to get any bigger, and what you see is probably all you’re getting.

That lack of bulk is likely to create several issues, but the biggest is simply durability. A receiver can get by with being a bit smaller just because receivers primarily take their shots from comparatively small corners and safeties. Quarterbacks, on the other hand, routinely have 300+ pounders fall on them and get mauled by full-speed Rashan Gary-level athletic freaks of nature. This might not be as big of a problem if Young were more of a traditional pocket passer, but he is a true dual threat and his legs often lead to hits.

The second big issue, which is compounded by the first, is a lack of arm strength. While Mahomes is something like a 70 on baseball’s 20-80 scale in terms of arm strength, Young is more of a 40-50, especially when he’s not set. Young is at his best in terms of arm strength when firing accurate bombs at the top of his drop, but once he’s on the move, while he’s great at finding the open man, his deep shots often run out of steam. Even his greatest highlights often feature his receivers coming back to get an underthrown ball before circling back upfield. At the college level, Young had enough to make this work. With NFL safeties roaming the secondary, I’m not sure he can be as effective targeting all layers of the field, and those limitations can start to compound on each other.

I’m also not entirely sure that Young is an elite runner. His pocket presence is great and he’s exceptional at buying time, but I do wonder how outside runs will looks against upper-level defenses. Young was probably wise not to run at the combine as he is the current favorite to go first overall, but for my own purposes, I really wish he would have shown off his speed.

Fewer available targets can quickly turn into more hits. Not being able to power out of the grasp of an edge leads to more hits. Many of Young’s limitations are likely to lead to more hits. And every hit drastically increases the odds that Young is knocked out of a game altogether.

The question for me on Young is just how much something like 75% of a “Mahomes” is worth, and given the specific risks inherent in his profile, I think most teams may find themselves disappointed. Maybe you can tweak his mechanics and get a few more clicks out of that arm, but I think it’s a significant limiting factor for his style of play. Potential injuries can derail a career pretty quickly, but more than anything, I don’t think what made Young special in college will be entirely available to him at the next level — at least not without a creative offense to go with it. I’d love to see him in a Shanahan-style system, and I don’t think it’s impossible that he succeeds by any stretch. Heck, if I were running a draft and Stroud was gone, I would almost certainly take him, with an understanding of the limitations I see.

I understand why everyone loves his game. It’s almost impossible not to once you watch it. And, like Mahomes, I suspect he really is a football genius. I’m just not sure the tools are going to back it up.

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