Should Age Matter In the Minnesota Vikings' Search For A Quarterback?

Photo Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

With free agency in the books and just over a month until the draft, it seems like a great time for Minnesota Vikings fans to stop and smell the roses. But when Daniel Jeremiah dropped his latest mock, it might as well have been a pipe bomb that sent the temperature of this great state into the 40s.

Jeremiah didn’t follow the lead of bloggers by selecting a cornerback. Nor did he get cute by selecting a wide receiver or defensive tackle. Instead, he gave the Vikings Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker.

More bombs followed as Alec Lewis traded up for Kentucky quarterback Will Levis in The Athletic’s beat-writer mock draft. Charles Davis had the Vikings selecting Levis straight up with the 23rd-overall pick in his mock draft.

At first glance, you can see why the Vikings would want to select Hooker or Levis. With strong arms and the mobility that their current quarterback doesn’t have, they are both players who could be considered a quarterback of the future. However, a quick Google search reveals that Hooker is 25 and Levis will turn 24 in May.

That adds another wrinkle in Minnesota’s search for a franchise quarterback. Does age really matter? Or do Hooker and Levis have enough upside that it doesn’t matter?

The NCAA decided to give its athletes an extra year of eligibility following the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing this debate to the forefront. Their decision not only allowed athletes to recoup an extra year on the field, but it threw a wrench into the NFL’s evaluation process.

Between 2013 and 2021, an average of 20.8 players age 24 or older were selected in the NFL Draft. Last year, that number exploded to 45. According to Establish The Run’s prospect database, there are 39 players age 24 or older that could be selected in this year’s draft.

The age conversation becomes more interesting when you look at first-round picks. The three first-round picks age 24 or older selected in last year’s draft were the most since three such players were selected in 2013.

Since the NFL went to a seven-round format in 1997, 41 players age 24 or older have been selected in the first round. Old friend Terence Newman (fifth overall by the Cowboys Dallas at age 25 in 2003) is one of the success stories on that list. But there are also situations like Garrett Bradbury, who went 18th overall in the 2019 draft at age 24.

But how do we measure success for a first-round pick? Common sense is whether a player has established themselves as a starter for five or more professional seasons. In this scenario, a team would be inclined to pick up that player’s fifth-year option and label him as one of its key contributors.

Out of this group of 41 players, 18 established themselves as a starter for five or more seasons. The clip of 43% is just below the NFL average of 44% for first-round picks during this time frame.

If we expand the list to the full draft, we’ll see other success stories such as Cooper Kupp (drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Rams at age 24 in 2017) and Matthew Judon (drafted in the fifth round by the New England Patriots at age 24 in 2016).

This seems to indicate that the odds of finding a late-round gem would stay the same regardless of age, but the debate takes another turn when we talk about the quarterback position.

Since 1997, 49 quarterbacks age 24 or older have been selected in the NFL Draft. David Garrard (2002), Ryan Tannehill (2012), and Kirk Cousins (2012) are the only quarterbacks from that group to make a Pro Bowl. Chad Pennington (2000) is the only other quarterback to hold a starting job for five or more seasons.

These numbers make Levis an outlier, but they create an entirely new bracket for Hooker.

At age 25, Hooker would be the oldest quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since the Cleveland Browns took Brandon Weeden at age 29 with the 22nd-overall pick in 2012. Hooker would be the third-oldest quarterback in NFL history behind Weeden and Ernie Case, who was selected with the sixth-overall pick by the Green Bay Packers in the 1947 draft at age 27.

Hooker would also beat out Travis Tidwell, who was one month younger than Hooker when he was selected by the New York Football Giants (you had to specify “football” in this era) with the seventh-overall pick in the 1950 draft.

Historical facts aside, the question remains. Will it matter if the Vikings want to take either of these players in the draft?

In the case of Levis, it would be a blend of athletic traits and connections to the current coaching staff. Levis has one of the strongest arms in the draft, launching a 65-yard bomb with ease on his pro day.

He also has experience in a pro-style offense and worked under Liam Cohen, the Los Angeles Rams’ assistant quarterbacks coach under O’Connell in 2020 before becoming Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 2021.

With one phone call, O’Connell will know as much about Levis as anyone in the draft, but there are other red flags that should have his attention. Levis couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford in two seasons at Penn State before transferring to Kentucky. In Lexington, he threw for 5,232 yards, 43 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions while completing 65.7% of his passes.

The transfer aspect is something that has become more commonplace in college football. One year after leading the most prolific offense in NCAA history at LSU, some people thought Joe Burrow was old at age 23. But Levis’ decision-making and accuracy issues could mean he won’t make his first start until age 25.

The same debate rages on for Hooker. After three seasons at Virginia Tech, Hooker transferred to Tennessee and put up video game numbers throwing for 58 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 68% completion percentage over 24 games.

With two seasons (2020, 2021) of over 600 yards rushing, Hooker has a lot of the tools to be a franchise quarterback. The problem is that he’s still considered a raw prospect who is also rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury. That means Hooker is unlikely to make his first start until age 26.

At that point, the Vikings will have created their vaunted rookie quarterback window, but they also will have done so with a quarterback who may not have room to grow. That could put the Vikings back into the same position they are now, paying a quarterback who may not be one of the game’s best.

You may think that an advanced age would create a discount for the Vikings, but after Daniel Jones turned two games against Ed Donatell into $40 million per season, that probably isn’t the case.

Would you rather give a four-year, $160 million contract to a 29-year-old Hooker or a 28-year-old Levis? Or would you rather give that same contract (and potentially a little more) for a 25-year-old with more upside such as Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud, or Bryce Young?

It’s painfully evident when looking across the NFL. Lamar Jackson is only one year older than Hooker and has an MVP to his name. Meanwhile, Jalen Hurts is over a full year younger than Levis, and the Philadelphia Eagles are ready to bring in the Brinks truck for his next contract.

While all quarterbacks carry risk, Hooker and Levis carry an increased risk that some teams may not be willing to take. Fans may trust the Vikings’ brain trust to do the right thing, but it’s something they need to consider when finding their quarterback of the future.

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