DynastyFootball

Geno Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, and The Importance of Rookie Passing Numbers

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

Recently I ran across an intriguing article by J.J. Zachariason (aka Late Round QB) over on Number Fire. It persuasively argued that quarterbacks show their true colors almost immediately at the NFL level. Organizations waste a lot of time in the blind hope that busts will turn it around when they almost certainly won’t. His article was based on rookie performance and a Number Fire metric called Net Expected Points.

As readers of last year’s NFL Draft columns know, I’m a believer in college stats when it comes to signal callers. So my first thought was to wonder if a combination of final year college stats and first year NFL stats might paint an even clearer picture of quarterback value going forward. My favorite QB stat is adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), so that’s what I’ll use in my breakdown.

Zachariason used all quarterbacks drafted since the year 2000 who attempted 200 passes as a rookie. I’m going to lower the limit to 150 passes because it brings in a couple more important players. I’m also going to throw out Marc Bulger and Carson Palmer. Pro Football Reference somewhat inaccurately includes them in the “rookie” filter, but they were actually second year players. Finally, I’m tossing Chris Weinke and Brandon Weeden since 29-year-olds having basically nothing to do with the question we’re trying to answer.

In perusing the data, a couple of things quickly jumped out. 9.0 AY/A seems to be something of a threshold for differentiating between elite college play and more pedestrian final seasons. (Heading into the 2013 season, the average collegiate AY/A for current professional starters was 8.7.) Similarly, 6.0 AY/A acts as soft barrier between strong rookie seasons and weaker ones. I’m going to use those numbers as benchmarks for grouping the members of our sample.

Creating groups can be helpful for conceptualizing which players are similar. However, because we don’t have hundreds of players in our sample, it’s easy to still end up comparing relatively unlike players. To help balance this, I’ve also included a Combined Weighted AY/A (cwAYA). This is an average between the two numbers where I’ve double weighted the more important rookie year numbers. This final number should allow us to create potentially more accurate comparisons across groups.

Group A: The Elite. Meet both thresholds.

Quarterback Age College AY/A Rookie AY/A Comb Weighted AY/A
Robert Griffin III 22 11.8 8.59 9.66
Russell Wilson 24 11.8 8.11 9.34
Ben Roethlisberger 22 9.6 8.36 8.77
Cam Newton 22 11.2 7.17 8.51
Andy Dalton 24 9.9 6.23 7.45
Andrew Luck 23 9.4 6.42 7.41

 

You would be hard-pressed to argue against anyone in this group. Although many point to the evolution of the spread as an inflating factor in college numbers, this cohort was able to turn ridiculous college production into immediate professional results.

Notes:

  • Fully half of the members were 22 as rookies, again showing the value of drafting prospects who emerged as college stars against mostly older players.
  • Andy Dalton is widely criticized as lacking “it,” but his numbers say otherwise. Two years after these numbers were accumulated, Dalton finished as QB3. He’s not getting much credit for it. Nor is he even receiving much praise from the “QB is about winning games” contingent, despite leading the Bungles to three straight playoff appearances in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions. Only Peyton Manning and Dan Marino have thrown for more yards in their first three NFL seasons. At this point, the anti-Dalton position is essentially reality-denying.

Group B: Mixed. Elite college, weak rookie.

Quarterback Age College AY/A Rookie AY/A Comb Weighted AY/A
Jason Campbell 25 10.3 5.93 7.39
Sam Bradford 23 11.1 5.42 7.31
Matt Leinart 23 9.3 5.91 7.04
Byron Leftwich 23 9 5.69 6.79
Vince Young 23 9.6 5.19 6.66
Geno Smith 23 9.2 5.28 6.59
David Carr 23 10 4.72 6.48
Mark Sanchez 23 9.4 4.90 6.40
Matthew Stafford 21 9.2 4.32 5.95
Jimmy Clausen 23 9.7 4.06 5.94
Kyle Orton 23 9 3.98 5.65
Alex Smith 21 10.8 2.42 5.21

 

This is the type of eclectic hodgepodge you expect from this particular statistical profile. When a quarterback is a star in college and started immediately as a rookie, you can safely assume he was an early draft pick. We have four No. 1 overall picks – David Carr, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, and Alex Smith – and seven other first round picks. Not surprisingly, many of these players received plenty of rope, so we’re able to draw some (possibly narrative-infused) conclusions about how they develop.

Notes:

  • None of the non-No. 1 picks have developed into stars. Campbell, Leftwich, and Orton ended up as solid backups. Sanchez and Young had brief flashes before flaming out.
  • The only two players who had no value whatsoever were Matt Leinart and Jimmy Clausen.
  • Age appears to matter. Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith played very poorly as 21-year-olds and then emerged. I’ll have more on Smith in an upcoming column.
  • You can see why the Rams still believe in Sam Bradford, and you can see why many believe he’s already proven himself a bust. If you take a slightly longer view of Bradford, his closest comps are Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, Eli Manning, and Alex Smith. Again, very murky. I’ll have more on Bradford in the near future as well.

Group C: Mixed. Pedestrian College, Strong Rookie.

Quarterback Age College AY/A Rookie AY/A Comb Weighted AY/A
Matt Ryan 23 6.5 7.52 7.18
Matt McGloin 24 7.9 6.38 6.89
Nick Foles 23 7.6 6.02 6.55
Mike Glennon 24 6.9 6.21 6.44
Ryan Tannehill 24 6.9 6.09 6.36

 

The lack of members in Group C helps underline why banking on a pedestrian college passer to be your Quarterback of the Future is a bad bet. After a statistically undistinguished collegiate career at Boston College, Matt Ryan was selected No. 4 overall by the Atlanta Falcons and had one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. Ryan’s success despite underwhelming college production led to the selections of Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder a couple of years later.

I don’t really know what to make of Mike Glennon, but, if you like him as the future of the Bucs, you should probably be just as comfortable with Matt McGloin in Oakland. The already advanced ages of McGloin, Glennon, and Ryan Tannehill act as big red flags in trying to determine the ultimate upside these players might possess.

 

Group D: Busts. Poor College, Poor Rookie.

Quarterback Age College AY/A Rookie AY/A Comb Weighted AY/A
E.J. Manuel 23 8.8 5.84 6.83
Colt McCoy 23 7.5 5.82 6.38
Patrick Ramsey 23 6.2 5.99 6.06
Charlie Fry 24 7.6 5.23 6.02
Christian Ponder 23 7 5.25 5.83
Ken Dorsey 23 8.6 4.19 5.66
Joey Harrington 24 8.3 4.23 5.59
Josh Freeman 21 7.8 4.29 5.46
Bruce Gradkowski 23 7.6 4.38 5.45
Andrew Walter 24 7.9 4.17 5.41
Eli Manning 23 8.5 3.85 5.40
Trent Edwards 24 5.6 5.24 5.36
Blaine Gabbert 22 6.5 4.74 5.33
Kyle Boller 22 6.9 4.44 5.26
Quincy Carter 24 5 4.87 4.91
Ryan Lindley 23 7.3 2.56 4.14

 

One of my foundational beliefs in terms of fantasy and reality football is this: You want people to occasionally defy the statistical profiles. If you know that weight is a huge and frequently undervalued component in determining fantasy value for wide receivers, you want DeSean Jackson and T.Y. Hilton to have good seasons so that the masses don’t catch on. If you know that Zero RB is the dominant strategy in PPR leagues, you want Jamaal Charles to go off during the fantasy playoffs. His Week 15 game essentially guarantees another year of running backs filling the first round.

Analytics have more value in football than baseball because they’re less clearly predictive.

Anyway, that’s a prelude to looking at our final group of busts. And Eli Manning. The two-time Super Bowl champion did not meet either of our thresholds for success. He then followed his atrocious rookie year with three more far below average NFL seasons. At the end of his fourth straight poor season, the Giants won the Super Bowl as Eli made an unexpected and inexplicable jump during that postseason. He then reeled off four straight very solid seasons from age 27 to age 30.

Eli Manning’s slow development is a clear aberration, but it fits with our human desire to be proven right. No GM wants to go out on a limb for a quarterback prospect and then quickly throw in the towel when he initially struggles. Knowing what we know about human psychology, that would be absurd. As a result, the Eli Template is one many other organizations try to follow every year and with fairly predictable results.

Notes:

  • Christian Ponder failed to distinguish himself in college or as a rookie, but the Vikings let him throw 700 more passes in 2011 and 2012, essentially throwing away the last of Adrian Peterson’s prime and costing Leslie Frazier his job.
  • Blaine Gabbert made no sense as the No. 10 pick in the 2011 Draft, but even a new regime let him start a third season after two years of flagrant failure.
  • The Bills went into 2008 with Trent Edwards as their starter despite the fact that he was an old rookie and had struggled both as a rookie and as a senior in college.
  • Ozzie Newsome was named GM of the Baltimore Ravens in November of 2002. Newsome is considered one of the very best general managers in football – perhaps the best – but his first big move was to select Kyle Boller with the No. 19 pick of the 2003 Draft. Boller threw 200 or more passes in four of the next five seasons and went 20-22 for an organization that otherwise experiences very little failure.
  • Joey Harrington was solid in college, but he was also old. He struggled as a rookie, regressed further as a second-year player, and never should have gotten at least 300 attempts for the next four seasons.
  • Josh Freeman is perhaps the most unusual player in this group in that he was only 21 years old as a rookie and did make strides after a poor initial campaign. He was solid at age 22 and again at age 24 before flaming out.

One of the most interesting things about this final group is the way narratives are used to explain their failures. Consider Blaine Gabbert and Josh Freeman. A poor work ethic after their rookie years is the most commonly cited explanation for their failures. But that probably was completely beside the point. By the time their rookie seasons were over, it was already incredibly unlikely that either of them had a future in the league.

What Does This Mean for Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel?

The outlook isn’t particularly promising for either player. Smith is probably most similar to Vince Young and Mark Sanchez. Manuel misses both of our thresholds but only by a small margin each time. He’s the top-rated player in Group D by a mile. His closest comps are probably Group B members Matt Leinart and Byron Leftwich.

Of the four comps – and Smith and Manuel are pretty similar to each other, so the comps really work for both – our 2013 rookies are more athletic than all but Young. That’s probably the good news. The bad news is that the Jets and Bills have done a horrible job of building around their new franchise players. For much of the season the Jets had the worst receiving corps in the NFL. The Bills wasted second and third round picks on luxury receivers instead of targeting someone who could impact the game in the red zone. With Buffalo having invested so much draft capital in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, it’s unlikely they do what it takes to land a true No. 1.

While neither player should be wearing sunglasses at night this offseason, it’s certainly not impossible that either emerges as a capable starter. They both sport a cwAY/A above that of Mike Glennon and above that of players like Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning.

What Does This Mean for the 2014 QB Class?

Prospect Rookie Age AYA
Teddy Bridgewater 22.1 10.3
Johnny Manziel 22.1 10.0
Zach Mettenberger 23.5 10.7
Blake Bortles 23.0 9.6
Tajh Boyd 24.3 9.8
A.J. McCarron 24.3 9.8
Aaron Murray 24.1 9.2
Derek Carr 23.8 8.7

 

I’ve heard rumors that some GMs are comparing this class to the 2011 version but without a Cam Newton like talent at the top. That smacks of smokescreen. Although different in stature and in the exact means they use to generate rushing yards, Newton and Johnny Manziel are very similar in possessing elite dual threat ability. In the run-up to the 2011 draft, Newton had to deal with questions about his passing ability despite averaging 11.2 AY/A. Manziel’s critics seem to get lost in the rhetoric about whether his rushing prowess will translate to the NFL and miss the fact that he may be the best deep thrower in the draft. Moreover, questions surrounding Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater usually ignore their actual on-field performances. Perhaps just as importantly, the criticism misses the fact that their performances occurred at an early age. While I’m often surprised at the direction taken by teams in the draft, it would be shocking if the Texans do not select Manziel or Bridgewater followed by the Jags, Browns, or Vikings trading into the No. 2 spot with the intention of selecting the other.

After the success of Dalton, Wilson, and Kaepernick, it’s become trendy to float the idea of passing at the top of the draft and plucking your QBOTF in the early second round. Zach Mettenberger seems an obvious target with that strategy. Although a one-year wonder, it’s impressive that the former LSU quarterback threw for a 1.1 AYA more than Blake Bortles. Mettenberger got to play with two receivers who may go in the first round but also faced SEC secondaries.

Derek Carr seems like a prime candidate to be overdrafted, while A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray, and Tajh Boyd all hurt their prospects by returning to school for the 2013 season. They all crested the 9.0 barrier, but McCarron and Murray regressed after strong junior seasons. Boyd is probably slightly underrated, but he didn’t make the jump necessary to validate the decision to bypass last year’s draft.  Their ages now count as significant red flags.

When it comes to our 2014 Draft quarterback coverage this is just a very quick appetizer. The main course is coming later this spring.

 

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Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

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