Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He recently launched RotoAcademy - a fantasy football training school.
Quarterbacks need to be tall. They need to be tall to see over the offensive and defensive lines. If you aren’t tall, you’re not going to have much of an opportunity to be a championship-caliber quarterback.
That’s the popular opinion around the NFL, and I don’t buy it. Sure, extra height might help a quarterback in certain situations, up to a point. Given the choice between a 6’5” quarterback and a 6’0” quarterback with all other things being equal or unknown, I’ll take the taller one.
But I don’t think height matters all that much, and certainly not to the extent that people believe, even though I’ve done studies showing taller quarterbacks have more NFL productivity and efficiency than shorter ones.
How can that be? Well, I believe height is very strongly correlated with a trait that matters quite a bit for NFL quarterbacks—hand size. Tall quarterbacks typically have larger hands than shorter ones; if hand size were really important for passers, we’d expect the tallest ones to perform the best even if height doesn’t matter at all.
To test this idea, I charted as many quarterback hand sizes and career NFL stats as I could. I found hand measurements for every quarterback who was drafted since 2008, but before that, it’s a crapshoot. Hand sizes weren’t recorded well before that time and there’s really no reliable source to find that data. Some pre-2008 quarterback hand sizes have been made public in various places, however, so I collected as much information as possible.
To start, I considered only quarterbacks who were drafted from 2008 to 2012 and had their hands measured at the combine to be sure everything was standardized. Then, I charted both their approximate value (AV) per season (a good measure of their overall productivity) and their completion percentage.
The latter stat is important because I believe larger hands allow quarterbacks to control the football and throw it accurately. If my hypothesis is correct, we should see passers with larger hands have a higher completion percentage.
Comparing hand size with height, here’s the difference in the r-value (correlation coefficient—the strength of the relationship between x and y) for hand size/height and both AV/season and completion percentage. Basically, I just subtracted the r-value for the hand size correlation from that for the height correlation. If hand size is more strongly correlated with NFL quarterback success and accuracy than height, we’d expect the values to be positive.
Both values are positive, and it’s not even that close. There’s a much stronger correlation between hand size and both approximate value and completion rate than there is between height and those stats.
Short Quarterbacks Who Thrive
If hand size really matters more than height for quarterbacks, we’d expect two things to be true: over the long run, 1) tall quarterbacks with abnormally small hands will struggle and 2) short quarterbacks with abnormally large hands will thrive.
Again, that’s going to be difficult to prove conclusively because there’s not a huge sample of hand measurements pre-2008, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that this is the case. Looking back on the short quarterbacks who have excelled in the NFL, many of them have really big hands for their height.
Consider that the NFL average for quarterback hand size is currently 9.6 inches. Well, some of the top “short” quarterbacks (6’2” or shorter) of the past decade have ridiculously large hands—Drew Brees (10.25 inches), Russell Wilson (10.25 inches), Brett Favre (10.38 inches). There are also countless tall quarterbacks with small hands who were drafted highly and failed to live up to expectations.
Small-Handed Quarterbacks Who Excel
There are some quarterbacks with small hands who have bucked the trend to play well in the NFL, too. But as I studied those quarterbacks, it became clear that the majority have one thing in common—mobility. Some of the top small-handed quarterbacks to play in the past decade include Michael Vick (historically small 8.5-inch hands), Colin Kaepernick (9.13 inches), Robert Griffin III (9.5 inches), Daunte Culpepper (9.5 inches), Aaron Rodgers (9.38 inches), and Tony Romo (8.86 inches).
All of those passers are either runners or have well above-average mobility in the pocket. Romo is the least athletic by far, but even he has been able to work wizardry in the pocket at times to buy time for receivers.
Thus, I think what we’re seeing here is that quarterbacks either need to have above-average hand size or above-average mobility to ultimately do what passers need to do to win—deliver the football with accuracy. If you aren’t going to be able to stand in the pocket and consistently throw the ball accurately like Peyton Manning, you better be able to move around, buying time to make those throws easier.
When quarterbacks have both traits—like Russell Wilson, for example—it’s perhaps a really strong sign that they’re going to perform above expectations in the NFL.
Acquiring Value in the Draft
If you talk to NFL quarterbacks, I think most would tell you that they throw through lanes, not over the top of the line. Tall quarterbacks have played well not because they can see over players who are often taller than them, but because height is obviously strongly correlated with hand size. Big height, big hands, big accuracy.
You ever throw a small football and notice how much more accuracy and power you can generate? If I could throw with one of those tiny NERF footballs with the tail at the end, I’m pretty sure I’d be an NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Just ridiculously deadly. Quarterbacks with huge hands like Brees and Wilson are playing with the equivalent of a NERF ball.
Both of those quarterbacks are really interesting cases because they fell in the NFL draft—Brees to the second round and Wilson incredibly to the third—because they’re short. Brees is 6’0” and Wilson is 5’11”.
Somewhat ironically, I think NFL teams (and us fantasy owners) can acquire value by actually targeting quarterbacks who are short but have large hands. They fall too far because teams are emphasizing the wrong trait.
So why not just draft a tall quarterback with large hands? Aren’t all 10.25-inch hands the same?
No. Remember, NFL teams are “paying” for height in quarterbacks, so tall quarterbacks with big hands are going to get drafted highly anyway. It’s for the wrong reason, but the big hands will still be priced into their draft slot, meaning there’s no discount available.
Meanwhile, short quarterbacks with large hands typically offer value because they’re being downgraded for a characteristic (height) that probably isn’t nearly as important as teams think.
And you know the fantasy owners in your league are drafting rookies based on how they were drafted in the NFL draft, so you too can acquire that same value on short quarterbacks with big hands. If you don’t believe me, just compare Wilson’s rookie fantasy draft position with Andrew Luck’s (or even Ryan Tannehill’s).
I actually created a really simple formula to determine how much value a quarterback will likely offer in the draft: HS/H*100 (hand size divided by height multiplied by 100). The higher the result, the more likely the quarterback will be to offer value.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, for example, Tannehill checked in at 76 inches tall with nine-inch hands. His “Jonathan Bales Hand Size and Height Comparison for Quarterbacks Who Can’t Pass Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other QB Stuff Good Too” value was 9 divided by 76 (0.1184) * 100, or 11.84.
Compare that to Wilson, who was only 71 inches tall with 10.25-inch hands (10.25/71*100 = 14.44). That’s just an unbelievable difference, suggesting Wilson was bound to offer far, far more value than Tannehill.
There are more things that go into being a quarterback than hand size, obviously, but when two prospects get drafted near one another, use the formula to see which one was more likely to drop too far, and thus offer value.
Typically, we want quarterbacks who have hands of at least 9.5 inches, but preferably closer to 10 inches. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but the majority of those passers can also beat defenses with their legs. The more mobility a quarterback possesses, the more you can forgive a lack of elite hand size. If a quarterback is a statue in the pocket, he better have some big hands and a history of production in college.