There is no doubt that the AFC is the better of the NFL’s two conferences when it comes to quarterback play at this time.
Sure, the NFC has 2022 MVP candidate Jalen Hurts, upstart rookie Brock Purdy and the greatest quarterback to ever play, Tom Brady, on its side, but the AFC is loaded with talented passers. Between Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, the AFC has, arguably, the three best quarterbacks in football right now.
That doesn’t figure to change any time soon. In fact, the disparity between the two conferences may only grow.
Why? Because the AFC’s top quarterbacks are young.
The average age of the seven primary starting quarterbacks in the AFC is unfathomably low at just 25; and it only would have been 25.1 had Tua Tagovailoa and Lamar Jackson been able to play, so either way, the quarterback rooms in the AFC are young.
And incredibly, the oldest projected starting quarterback on the AFC side of the bracket is Mahomes, who turned 27 in December.
Mahomes is still a young quarterback and is thought to just be entering his prime. It just so happens that the rest of the AFC is filled with high-quality, young producers at the position as well, and that has allowed their teams to make playoff pushes.
In a way, the AFC playoff field represents the changing of the guard that the NFL is enduring at the quarterback position. Gone are the players like Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, who routinely made playoff runs in the AFC. Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan were supposed to be the new, stable veterans who helped get their teams over the hump and into the postseason.
Instead, those guys have been displaced by the talented young crop of quarterbacks that have entered the league over the last five-plus years.
But just how good is this young, AFC playoff field and what is it like in a historical context? Here’s what to know about the seven primary AFC starters as the 2023 NFL playoffs begin.
How old is Patrick Mahomes?
Mahomes turned 27 just after the NFL season began. He will be the oldest starting quarterback of the AFC’s seven teams provided that Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t start in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa.
Mahomes was the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has been a Pro Bowler in all five of his seasons as a starter and won the MVP for the 2018 NFL season. He has led the Chiefs to two Super Bowl appearances, beating the 49ers in Super Bowl 54 before losing to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55.
How old is Josh Allen?
Allen is 26 years old. He was drafted by the Bills a year later than Mahomes during the 2018 NFL Draft with the No. 7 overall pick and has since blossomed into the best quarterback from that class.
Allen improved dramatically in his first three seasons after being selected out of Wyoming. He has won at least 10 starts in four of his five seasons and finished second in the MVP voting during the 2020 campaign. He hasn’t yet reached a Super Bowl but has generated 1,718 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and just one interception in six career playoff games entering the 2023 postseason.
How old is Joe Burrow?
Burrow is the same age as Allen, 26. He came into the NFL later than his counterpart after spending five combined years at Ohio State and LSU. He broke out with the Tigers in 2019, throwing for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns en route to a national title.
Burrow was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and has catalyzed the Bengals’ rebuild. He got the team to the Super Bowl in his second season before they lost to the Rams. He currently has the highest completion percentage in NFL history among qualified quarterbacks (68.2 percent) and led the league in that category during the 2021 season with a mark of 70.4.
Burrow was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2021 after leading the Bengals to a Super Bowl berth; he had torn his ACL midway through the 2020 season but put forth an excellent season.
How old is Trevor Lawrence?
Lawrence is the youngest starting quarterback in the AFC playoffs at 23 years old. Like Burrow, he was the No. 1 pick in his draft class (2021) and has quickly found solid footing at the NFL level.
Lawrence made significant strides in his second season in Jacksonville. Working with Doug Pederson instead of Urban Meyer allowed him to improve in nearly every statistical area and lead the Jaguars to a playoff berth.
|Stat||2021 with Meyer||2022 with Pederson|
|Yards per attempt||6.0||7.0|
Lawrence has yet to earn any major awards and accolades at the NFL level, but that should change as his career continues.
How old is Justin Herbert?
Herbert is making his first playoff appearance at the age of 24. The Oregon product was selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and was the third quarterback off the board. He has been a strong starter for the Chargers and was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 after completing 66.6 percent of his passes for for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Herbert eclipsed 5,000 yards passing in 2021 and completed a career-best 68.2 percent of his passes in 2022. He struggled through a rib injury for part of that season as well, but he clearly is continuing to make strides as he gets more NFL experience under his belt.
How old is Tyler Huntley?
Huntley is 24 years old and is making his ninth career NFL start. He is filling in for Lamar Jackson during the 2023 NFL playoffs as the veteran deals with a knee injury.
Jackson is just a couple of years older than Huntley, as he turned 26 less than a week before the 2023 postseason began. Jackson’s age was actually joked about frequently during the College Football Playoff, as he is just slightly older than Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. However, Jackson has played five NFL seasons to date while Bennett is just getting ready to go to the draft.
How old is Skylar Thompson?
Thompson is a 25-year-old rookie who will make his third career start against the Bills. He is expected to start in place of Tua Tagovailoa, who is out with a concussion, and Teddy Bridgewater, who is dealing with a dislocated pinkie in his throwing hand.
Ironically, Thompson is actually a year older than Tagovailoa. So, if the Dolphins had their primary starter in, the average age of this group may dip below 25 years old.
That said, in the event that Bridgewater is healthy enough to start, the 30-year-old would easily become the oldest starter on this side of the bracket. Mike McDaniel, however, said the plan was to prepare Thompson as the team’s No. 1 quarterback.
Could this be the best group of AFC quarterbacks ever?
It’s hard to say that it will be with any sort of certainty. Certainly, all of these players are talented and they should be jockeying for positioning in the AFC for the next decade.
Still, there have been plenty of other quality groups of AFC quarterbacks over the years. During the height of the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning days, they often faced off with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers joining the mix. That group contains within it at least three Hall of Famers — and potentially four, depending on how you view Rivers.
A group containing John Elway, Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon also made the postseason during the 1989-90 season. Had Dan Marino played in the postseason that year, that may have put it over the top; but either way, there were still numerous Hall of Famers in action.
We could certainly look back at the 2023 NFL playoffs and say the same. Mahomes and Jackson have already been MVPs while Allen and Burrow may be next in line for the award.
Still, because of their youth, this quarterback group still has a lot to prove. Mahomes is the only member of the group with a Super Bowl title, so at least one of the rest will need to reach that milestone before we discuss this as the greatest group of AFC quarterbacks ever.
And let’s be honest — the group will lose a little juice if both Tagovailoa and Jackson are unable to play.
Is this the youngest group of playoff QBs ever?
This is one of the youngest groups of playoff QBs of all time, but it isn’t the youngest, at least in terms of average age. The average age of the five quarterbacks on the AFC side of the bracket in the 1985-86 NFL playoffs was also an even 25, just like it is in the 2023 NFL playoff field.
The 1985-86 AFC quarterbacks were as follows:
Still, it has been nearly 40 years since a similarly-aged group to the septet in the 2023 AFC playoffs competed for a Super Bowl title. It will be exciting to see if they continue to dominate the NFL landscape or whether more young quarterbacks emerge.
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Why NFL playoff QBs are skewing younger
Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of young quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs, especially on the AFC side of the bracket. Why? It’s all about the value of rookie contracts in the NFL.
The quarterback market continues to skyrocket with no signs of stopping. Players at the position are becoming expensive to keep, as the top players at the position are generating $50 million per season. That means teams have to leave enormous portions of their salary cap available to keep veteran quarterbacks.
However, the NFL implemented a rookie wage scale ahead of the 2011 NFL Draft. That means that rookie contracts are cost-controlled and come with pre-determined, fully guaranteed values that allow teams to acquire high-level talents at bargain-level prices.
This is especially true at quarterback. Some of the elite, young players that come into the league — like Burrow and Lawrence — are paid like top-tier backup quarterbacks. As such, it is easy for them to vastly outplay their rookie-scale contracts.
What does this mean? Well, teams have more resources to spend at other positions and build around the rookie quarterback. That, in turn, makes the team better and improves the performance of the player during his rookie contract.
Perhaps if there was a true middle class for quarterbacks existed, this advantage wouldn’t be as pronounced. But with players basically getting all-or-nothing at quarterback, having the right quarterback on a rookie deal can serve as a major catalyst for teams.