2018 NFL Draft: Quarterback Passing Efficiency vs Quality Opponents and Sam Darnold

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2018 NFL Draft: Quarterback Passing Efficiency vs Quality Opponents and Sam Darnold

Last week, my good friend Jackson Safon, a student at USC, asked me for my take on Trojan redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. I told him that one of the most interesting things about his evaluation is the fact that during last regular season, he only started three games against Power Five bowl teams. Against Power Five bowl teams last regular season, he threw just five touchdowns and four interceptions.

For the most part, Darnold was beating up non-bowl teams before his five-touchdown Rose Bowl game against Penn State that elevated his draft stock to the point where the USC quarterback has to answer questions about the New York Jets possibly tanking to land him. To be fair, I didn’t know what those numbers meant. I just thought the split of 21 touchdowns and four interceptions against non-bowl opponents last regular season compared to 5 touchdowns and four interceptions against bowl opponents was interesting.

The Pac 12 had a notably down year last season, sending just 6 of their 12 teams to bowl games. To put that into perspective, the SEC sent 12 of 14, the ACC sent 11 of 14 and the Big 10 sent 10 of 14.

There was only one way to see if Darnold’s hype was inflated by that split: Making a model and testing to see the bowl opponent splits for major college football.

Goal: Figure out how college football quarterbacks stacked up relatively against Power Five bowl opponents.


  1. I found the AY/A of every starting quarterback in Power Five football for the 2017 season. This list from Athlon is what I considered to be the deciding factor on if a passer is or isn’t a projected starter. As a big believer in ANY/A, I would have used ANY/A if possible. The problem is that finding sack yardage in college football in individual games is incredibly time-consuming.
  2. Once I got those numbers, I figured out what the expected AY/A of a starting quarterback in major college football was against bowl opponents. From there, I compared “expected” to real life production numbers. That gave us a sense of if Darnold, and the other 65 starting quarterbacks in the Power Five, was significantly above or below average.
  3. I didn’t just compare efficiency. I compared efficiency through the lens of volume. I didn’t want some passer who threw one pass for 40 yards to be the top quarterback on this list. To fight that, I multiplied “expected” AY/A by the number of attempts a passer threw and subtracted that from their AY/A total points (AY/A multiplied by the number of attempts.) That gave me the number of how many yards above “expected” a quarterback was worth against Power Five opponents for the entire season.

Here are the results:

NameAttemptsYardsTouchdownsInterceptionsAY/ASchoolVs Expected
Baker Mayfield152160315511.04Oklahoma655.09
Trace McSorley22420501449.6Penn State642.55
Mason Rudolph22419421139.05Oklahoma State519.55
Lamar Jackson16615231268.99Louisville375.87
Deondre Francois24219631048.19Florida State354.41
Jake Browning13010651138.85Washington275.14
Sam Darnold111972548.04USC145
Shane Buechele2011533957.4Texas135.33
Austin Allen20616341077.37Arkansas132.68
Jalen Hurts18815001287.34Alabama114.82
Danny Etling120895317.58LSU102.44
J.T. Barrett24216061337.15Ohio State102.41
Blake Barnett61001020Arizona State79.62
Justin Herbert1451009837.13Oregon58.19
Wilton Speight1821321747.04Michigan56.19
Daniel Jones32921811136.89Duke51.93
Kenny Hill1991436956.99TCU51.79
Josh Rosen113898447.06UCLA37.54
Shea Patterson84560417.08Mississippi29.71
Matthew Jordan9111119.56Georgia Tech25.43
Nic Shimonek6401010Texas Tech19.62
Chayce Crouch1130013Illinois6.27
Jacob Park1501094546.76Iowa State4.54
Conor Rhoda1582106.8Minnesota1.05
Brian Lewerke57381216.6Michigan State-7.59
Jacob Eason2191452846.54Georgia-41.8
Eric Dungey1761204756.36Syracuse-65.43
Darius Wade72401-3Boston College-68.11
Zach Smith92646655.88Baylor-78.13
Brandon Harris21131122.9North Carolina-80.32
Keller Chryst1557010.8Stanford-88.95
Jake Bentley70421225.3South Carolina-100.08
Clayton Thorson24915071036.31Northwestern-103.7
Drew Lock321226611106.34Missouri-124.23
Luke Falk144951865.84Washington State-128.08
Max Browne57292014.33Pittsburgh-136.59
Brandon Dawkins90634355.21Arizona -136.67
Giovanni Rescigno129729425.57Rutgers-149.13
Ryan Finley2511739886.13North Carolina State-150.15
Richard Lagow26018818106.12Indiana-158.72
Steven Montez59257113.93Colorado-165.05
Troy Williams128787655.33Utah-179.4
Jesse Ertz142864235.42Kansas State-186.62
Kyle Shurmur1901191445.74Vanderbilt-187.64
Drew Barker101003-12.5Kentucky-192.3
Alex Hornibrook115691354.57Wisconsin-247.92
Nick Fitzgerald24114561085.38Mississippi State-325.86
David Blough353218619125.74Purdue-349.58
Kurt Benkert2071097854.99Virginia-361.05
Kelly Bryant00000ClemsonNA
Josh Jackson00000Virginia TechNA
Malik Rosier00000MiamiNA
Kendall Hinton00000Wake ForestNA
Jake Luton00000Oregon StateNA
Chase Forrest00000CaliforniaNA
Will Grier00000West VirginiaNA
Peyton Bender00000KansasNA
Tanner Lee00000NebraskaNA
Nathan Stanley00000IowaNA
Caleb Henderson00000MarylandNA
Jarrett Stidham00000AuburnNA
Jarrett Guarantano00000TennesseeNA
Feleipe Franks00000FloridaNA
Kellen Mond00000Texas A&MNA
Brandon Wimbush00000Notre DameNA
Tanner Mangum00000BYUNA

It turned out that despite Darnold’s touchdown-interception ratio, he was still a very efficient passer in his limited reps against Power Five bowl opponents. He finished seventh out of 66 quarterbacks (including Notre Dame and BYU) in yards above “expected” quarterback play in this data set.

What then became interesting to me was that so many shorter quarterbacks, by NFL standards at least, were so high on the list. Right now, there are only three starting quarterbacks under 6’2″-flat in the league. Those quarterbacks are Russell Wilson, who held the FBS’ passing efficiency record until Baker Mayfield broke it last season, Drew Brees, who broke virtually every Big Ten passing record after having to leave Texas to play major college football, and Tyrod Taylor, who had to wait until Year 5 of his NFL career to battle (and win) in his first legitimate quarterback competition. Wilson was a third-round pick. Brees was a second-round pick. Taylor was a sixth-round pick.

The NFL doesn’t like small guys. If you look at efficiency numbers in college football year-to-year, the 6’2″ or taller quarterbacks, who are efficient, usually end up getting drafted in the first five rounds of the draft. The efficient quarterbacks under 6’2″ end up going late on Day 2 of the draft at the earliest.

If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we should probably acknowledge the NFL’s bias against short quarterbacks if we’re trying to project what NFL organizations will do next April. With that in mind, let’s cut loose the players who are under 6’2″ on NFL Draft Scout. As much as I like Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t going to be talked about by anonymous scouts in the same way that Darnold already is.

Let’s also cut loose players who finished with an AY/A worse than 6.73, the “expected” number for a Power Five quarterback against a Power Five bowl team.

Here are the results:

NameAttemptsYardsTouchdownsInterceptionsAY/ASchoolVs Expected
Mason Rudolph22419421139.05Oklahoma State519.55
Sam Darnold111972548.04USC145
Justin Herbert1451009837.13Oregon58.19
Wilton Speight1821321747.04Michigan56.19
Daniel Jones32921811136.89Duke51.93
Josh Rosen113898447.06UCLA37.54
Jacob Park1501094546.76Iowa State4.54

It turns out that if you filter quarterbacks by 1) big school, 2) height and 3) performance against other big schools, you get a list of quarterbacks that the media will argue about in August. Of the six quarterbacks who check off those three boxes and are worth more than a handful of yards above expectation against quality opponents, three are four of the highest-valued college quarterback prospects at the moment, and the other three were molded by highly-regarded coaches.

Mason Rudolph, Darnold and Josh Rosen are three of the four highest-mocked quarterbacks heading into the 2017 regular season. The fourth, Josh Allen, plays Group of Five football for Wyoming. Justin Herbert played under Mark Helfrich, who was Heisman Trophy winner and second overall pick Marcus Mariota’s positional coach, coordinator and head coach at Oregon. Wilton Speight is playing under Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback and a head coach who molded the likes of Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith. Daniel Jones is playing under David Cutcliffe, who turned Peyton Manning into a first overall pick during his stint at Tennessee as his positional coach and coordinator and also made Eli Manning into a first overall pick during his stint at Mississippi as his head coach.

Conclusion: If you’re looking for a tall quarterback from a big school who did well against big school competition, Sam Darnold isn’t a player who is inflated by a small sample size and his overlooked propensity to turn the ball over. The only quarterback who comes close to him is senior Mason Rudolph, who blew him out of the water. What is clear is that by setting the parameters that the NFL seems to set, you get a small pool of quarterbacks to choose from with a lot of common names in the group.

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