The rise of young Heisman contenders 

May, 20, 2011

Here is this week's mailbag:

From Alex in Fort Lauderdale: Are the days when the Heisman was won mostly by seniors long gone? All of the major contenders seem to be underclassmen -- even Andrew Luck is a junior because of redshirting.

I don't think so. It's always going to be mostly a QB award, and unlike running backs, who don't have the wear-down/shelf-life factor, quarterbacks mature and blossom later. There's also been a lot of NFL evidence suggesting it behooves a QB to continue to develop at the college level before making the move to the NFL (see Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer compared to Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Heath Shuler and Tommy Maddox).

Now that perception can change if guys like Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford really blossom. Bradford and Freeman, especially, have gotten off to strong starts to their NFL careers. If Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert also flourish in the pros, then that anecdotal evidence will only convince more touted juniors to make the jump.

The other reason I'm skeptical about this question is that the NFL is still a prototype league. The personnel men covet measurables and certain attributes, and incredibly productive but less prototypical quarterbacks like Kellen Moore, Case Keenum or Denard Robinson aren't going to be seen as likely first-rounders when they're underclassmen. So if they stay and put up even bigger years as seniors, perhaps they can become a Drew Brees type -- and contend seriously for the Heisman.