How Quarterbacks Made the NFL More Athletic Than Ever Before

How Quarterbacks Made the NFL More Athletic Than Ever Before

Julian Edelman (#11) of the New England Patriots attempts a catch against Ronald Darby (#28) of the Buffalo Bills on defense.

SourceTom Szczerbowski/Getty

Why you should care

Because Big State’s undersized hero might finally thrive in the Show.  

Julian Edelman spent most of his life hearing he wasn’t good enough. “A 5-foot-10-inch quarterback with no arm can never make the NFL,” the critics said. Even when he broke Kent State University’s record for total offense and was drafted by the New England Patriots, all he heard was, “Seventh-round picks always get cut.” Eight years, 27 touchdowns and a Super Bowl ring later, Edelman cheerfully acknowledges that the critics were partially right: Edelman the quarterback never made it. Luckily for Patriots fans, Edelman the receiver turned out just fine.

There was a time when transitioning from quarterback to another position was unheard of. Excluding Carolina’s Cam Newton, the best quarterback prospects typically don’t exhibit the world-class speed and athleticism necessary to play other high-impact positions. Today, former QBs dot depth charts of teams all over the NFL. Edelman currently is the most successful convert. Then there’s Terrelle Pryor, a dominant quarterback at Ohio State before switching to receiver with the Cleveland Browns; he currently ranks eighth in the league in receiving yards. Another electrifying former Buckeye quarterback, Braxton Miller, preemptively changed positions his senior year in college; he was drafted by Houston as a receiver in the third round and is one of the most versatile young talents in the league. The list goes on: Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb (Kentucky), Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon (Georgia Southern), Jacksonville cornerback Nick Marshall (Auburn), San Francisco tight end Blake Bell (Oklahoma) — all college quarterbacks.

If you’ve played quarterback, you can learn the other positions easily.

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network analyst

So, what gives? Some experts cite the rise of the spread offense, which has changed the way football is played at every level. As the pace of offensive play increased and rules aimed at injury prevention were instituted, smaller, faster players who were previously overlooked began appearing all over the field. The NFL still favors big, pro-style prospects at quarterback, but amateur leagues are rife with dual-threat passers who are as proficient running the ball as they are throwing it, meaning that an increasing number of college quarterbacks actually have the tools to switch positions. Quarterback egos also assist in the transition. If playing time is an issue, and a player has the physical tools, he’ll “find a way onto the field,” says legendary Texas coach Mack Brown. “In the NFL, it becomes clear if a guy is a QB or not. The best athletes will adapt.”

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Wide receiver Randall Cobb (#18) of the Green Bay Packers catches against cornerback Justin Bethel (#28) of the Arizona Cardinals.

Source Christian Petersen/Getty

Another explanation: brains. One look at an eight-inch-thick NFL playbook confirms that lining up behind the center is no place for dummies. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of plays and an entire roster’s responsibilities to digest. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah tells OZY that “the mental barriers” keep young players on the sidelines more than anything else. Well-studied QBs who have the intellectual ability to master daunting gridiron mind games, however, adjust faster to new roles than other players, because “they already know how to learn pro schemes,” Jeremiah says. “If you’ve played quarterback, you can learn the other positions easily.”

The godfather of converted quarterbacks may well be Antwaan Randle El, the author of a celebrated reverse touchdown pass during Super Bowl XL in 2006. The early-aughts Pittsburgh Steelers regularly employed the shifty wide receiver on end-arounds — a play used to reverse directions on the defense. Only this time, the legendary Indiana University quarterback rolled to his right and fired a 43-yard touchdown dart to Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward. The play defined Randle El’s career and highlighted the fact that a valuable new commodity had arrived in the NFL: the ex-quarterback.

Surely, there is a caveat here. The number of position players who move all over the field is too long to list — see Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers or the Arizona Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu as examples of guys who fill four different lines of a box score. And there is nothing new about coaches finding ways to maximize the output of their most talented athletes. What is new, however, is the plethora of opportunities to use these athletes on offense and the quantity of top-tier athletes playing quarterback in college, the vast majority of whom will never get a shot at one of the 96 roster spots allotted to quarterbacks in the NFL. To make their dreams come true, players like Edelman need to change it.

While pro coaches might bar these players from regularly throwing the ball, the trend has been embraced. Having numerous players with a quarterback’s vault of knowledge on the field can only help an offense run more smoothly. And while ceding the star role may be humbling, most players will do anything to stay in the NFL. Others, like Tim Tebow, can go try to hit a curveball.

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