Drinking Water from a Fire Hose: Making Sense of the Quarterback Prospect Landscape

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April 12, 2018
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October 11, 2018

Drinking Water from a Fire Hose: Making Sense of the Quarterback Prospect Landscape

Rule changes dating back to 2004 have opened up the passing game for NFL offenses. It’s why there was a bigger jump in passing efficiency from 2003 to 2004 than from 1978 to 2003, and why it has continued to rise ever since. The NFL’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which included new restrictions on practice time, has both elongated the primes of veteran quarterbacks while also hindering the development of young passers, all while the passing game increases in importance. Because these veteran quarterbacks are often the keys to winning games, teams are quick to extend franchise passers. You can make the case that teams’ lack of access to quality NFL quarterbacks in free agency has actually suppressed the quarterback market, despite the fact that it’s the highest-paid position in the sport, which is why Kirk Cousins, who the Washington Redskins let walk, signing a deal with $84 million guaranteed was so important to reset the market.

Still, we are not at the point where we can point to any quarterback in the league and say that his contract is bad because of the number that he’s playing at, not the talent level that he’s playing at. Joe Flacco is playing on a bad contract because he’s a bad quarterback, not because he costs too much. The same could be said of Brock Osweiler’s Houston Texans run. Those are fundamentally different conversations than the one revolving around the release of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who finished second among interior defensive linemen in tackles at or behind the line last season before becoming a cap casualty because of the weight his 2018 cap hit placed on the Miami Dolphins. The NFL’s lack of access to quarterbacks via free agency has led to a few things:

  1. The only thing that matters for the quarterback position is talent, which is fundamentally different than the “talent versus cost” debate had at every other position.
  2. Quarterbacks are generally underpaid because teams elect to lock up passers who they know are hard to replace. Because of this, top-20 quarterbacks never really get to test the open market and see what they’re truly worth. Quarterbacks take these deals because they play a game where a knee to the helmet can change everything. At an individual level, it makes sense to take the money as soon as the check can clear. As a market, quarterbacks (and teams and the media) don’t really know what they’re worth.
  3. The importance of the NFL draft for the quarterback position has never been more important, as it’s really the only way that teams have access to perennial top-20 quarterback talent.

The importance of the passing game and the lack of access to veteran quarterbacks is why we’ve seen teams mortgage their future in the NFL draft in recent years. It’s why Robert Griffin III, Jared Goff and Sam Darnold collectively cost the Redskins, Rams and Jets five first-round picks and seven second-round picks alone. It’s why 12 of the last 16 quarterbacks drafted in the first round have come from trade ups. It’s why the exceptions (Baker Mayfield, Jamies Winston, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles) were all drafted in the first three picks of their respective drafts. It’s why the Chicago Bears, while slated to pick in the top three, traded a third- and fourth-round pick just to slide up a slot for Mitch Trubisky.

The objective for NFL teams under this CBA and a hard cap is clear: Find a quarterback. If you don’t have a quarterback, you have to win a bidding war on draft day for one. The alternative is every member of your coaching staff and front office relocating in the next three years.

Image result for fire hose

Just because the message is clear doesn’t mean that it’s easy, though. Considering the fact that even just the FBS level of college football featured 48,626 passes last season, executing that task still must feel like drinking water out of a fire hose. It’s impossible for one decision-maker (or even a few decision-makers) to consume that much football and accurately reflect on what the complete current landscape of quarterback talent is in college football. Obviously, they have the benefit of only having to grade senior prospects and underclassmen who declare for the draft, but how could a team or the media possibly measure what a future quarterback class looks like when almost 50,000 passes need to be watched? Could teams, or the collective media for that matter, really have any handle on what the 2019 draft class will look like without underclassman declarations, all-star game invites and combine invites shaping and shaving off lists?

Here’s the question I wanted to answer: With the NFL revolving around quarterback acquisition through the draft, what if we could narrow those snaps down and make a relevant quarterback watch list in June?

If we could compare college quarterbacks to what relevant draft picks (first four rounds) looked like in college, we could achieve this goal. “What do future NFL quarterbacks look like?” isn’t exactly an easy question, though. The first way to measure quarterback play (not passing performance) that came to mind was explosive plays. While some NFL and college coaches will dismiss the value of statistics (because they don’t believe they accurately tell the story of the game), coaches at all levels acknowledge the value of tracking “explosive plays.” A number like rushing yards per carry could need an incredible amount of nuance to put into context. A third and eight draw play in the first quarter for seven yards is very different from a two-yard iso play on third and one against a loaded box to move the sticks for kneel downs. For the most part, “explosive plays” don’t need many contexts. If there is a 10+ yard run or a 15+ yard pass, it was good for the offense and bad for the defense.

The Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

If we are trying to accurately project who the NFL is actually going to spend high draft assets on, we need to accept their worldview of certain factors. Explosive plays are very much a part of the worldview of the modern football coach. In 2016, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter mentioned his definition of explosive plays along with his goals to hit those marks. Quietly, the Buccaneers were second in explosive passes, under Koetter’s definition, last season. Alabama head coach Nick Saban basically echoed Koetter’s same definition of explosive plays and his goals to hit the year before. In the 2018 version of the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic Manual, one coach went as far as to say that the only statistics his team tracks is explosive plays (with the exact definition Koetter used) and turnovers, claiming them to be the only contextless statistics.

If the goal is to project college quarterbacks in terms of likelihood of making it into the NFL, we should at least look at quarterback statistics through the perspective that coaches tell us they look from.

CFBStats.com has a feature where you can track every rush of 10+ yards and every pass of 15+ yards for every FBS player going back through 2008. Using that, I put together an explosive play percentage for the final season of every quarterback drafted in the first four rounds in the last decade. Because college stats count sacks and sack yards as rushing stats and because explosive runs matter, I think that using an overall explosive play percentage is a more accurate reflection of a quarterback’s explosive play ability than if you just divided explosive passes by pass attempts.

QuarterbackExplosive Play %HeightAVYearsAV/YearAV vs Expectation
Baker Mayfield0.2595600500
Marcus Mariota0.2552603634311.320.2
Russell Wilson0.25265106100616.772.4
Johnny Manziel0.24085116541.3-13.4
Lamar Jackson0.2356602200
Ryan Mallett0.23086066641.5-12.4
Sam Darnold0.2162603300
Robert Griffin0.2134602336668.4
Cam Newton0.21146050109715.676.8
Mason Rudolph0.2091604500
Josh Dobbs0.20916032010-4.6
Blake Bortles0.209605042410.523.6
Mark Sanchez0.208160213894.2-3.4
Matthew Stafford0.20786022100911.158.6
Garrett Grayson0.20556024030-13.8
Connor Cook0.20436040020-9.2
Jared Goff0.203460401326.53.8
E.J Manuel0.20260451152.2-12
Jameis Winston0.2004603635311.721.2
Matt Barkley0.1996024250.4-21
Colin Kaepernick0.19856045497716.8
Josen Rosen0.1972604000
Mitch Trubisky0.196360217172.4
DeShone Kizer0.191860415150.4
Cardale Jones0.19176050020-9.2
Deshaun Watson0.189560217172.4
Paxton Lynch0.18836065221-7.2
Tyler Wilson0.18786021050-23
Tim Tebow0.186460261281.5-24.8
Teddy Bridgewater0.184660212245.53.6
Brandon Weeden0.184260341562.5-12.6
Andy Dalton0.1841602083711.950.8
Andrew Luck0.184604064610.736.4
Derek Carr0.181760234041021.6
Ryan Nassib0.18046021050-23
Josh Freeman0.1860564194.6-0.4
Patrick Mahomes0.17736021111-3.6
Brock Osweiler0.17760671262-15.6
Christian Ponder0.170960202373.3-9.2
Sam Bradford0.16446042488611.2
Cody Kessler0.16376012321.5-6.2
Dak Prescott0.163360223021520.8
Ryan Tannehill0.161660375569.227.4
Jimmy Clausen0.16126025380.4-33.8
Logan Thomas0.16116061140.3-17.4
Josh Allen0.1602604700
Landry Jones0.15826041450.8-19
Pat White0.1576002190.1-40.4
Geno Smith0.154660231653.2-7
Bryce Petty0.15436027422-5.2
Nick Foles0.149360502664.3-1.6
Kirk Cousins0.149160254367.215.4
Jake Locker0.14860241672.3-16.2
Christian Hackenberg0.13886043020-9.2
Davis Webb0.13786045010-4.6
Mike Glennon0.137160711352.6-10
Colt McCoy0.136960111381.6-23.8
Jacoby Brissett0.136760361326.53.8
Blaine Gabbert0.127860431572.1-17.2
Mike Kafka0.12776031070-32.2
C.J. Beathard0.12766021414-0.6
Sean Mannion0.12576055313-1.6
Stephen McGee0.0986027280.3-34.8

Of the 63 FBS quarterbacks taken in the first four rounds in the last decade, their mean explosive play percentage was 18.1 percent with the median (Andy Dalton) hitting 18.4 percent. Quarterbacks ranged from 26 percent (Baker Mayfield) to 9.8 percent (Stephen McGee) in the stat. Just looking through the data, it’s clear that there is a significant split between quarterbacks who hit a certain explosive play mark in college and those who don’t. Not only that, but the line is drawn nearly in the middle of the data.

Of the 57 non-rookie passers in the data set, 29 of them were able to hit an 18.17 percent mark (which we’ll call the Derek Carr Line), while 28 of them fell short. Pro Football Reference has a number called Approximate Value, a point-system that attempts to paint a picture of how valuable an individual is in a single season. The 57 non-rookie passers average 4.6 points per season. With that context, we can see which passers have underperformed and which passers have overperformed relative to expectations. At the end of the day, I’m not hanging my hat on Approximate Value, I think you could use any stat to show the significant split between those above and below the Derek Carr Line, but it’s just simple and easy.

Of the 29 quarterbacks at or above the Derek Carr Line, 16 of them (55 percent) did better than the expected 4.6 points per season and were positively graded. Of the 28 quarterbacks below the Derek Carr Line, only five of them (18 percent) were positively graded. This isn’t a small phenomenon. In a simple measure of NFL success, quarterbacks ripping off explosive plays at a certain level are three times more likely to grade out positively than their peers in a data set of relevant draft picks. There is a clear relationship between college explosive play percentage and beating Approximate Value expectations in the NFL.

Our data not only tells us what future NFL quarterbacks look like but also what successful future NFL quarterbacks look like, which is really what we want to know anyway. Yes, picking a quarterback above the Derek Carr Line is closer to the coin flip than a sure thing, but selecting a quarterback below the Derek Carr Line is the equivalent of calling the right number on a roll of a six-sided dice. There is a risk in either set, but the risk is not equal. With the near-mandatory policy of picking first-round quarterbacks in the top-three and/or packaging picks to move up to select one, minimizing risk should be viewed as paramount in today’s landscape.

That is why we only took time to single out college quarterbacks who hit or surpassed the Derek Carr Line (18.17 percent of touches resulting in explosive plays) rather than the minimum (9.80 percent) for our watch list. Of the 166 FBS passers who posted at least 100 passes last season, only 22 returning quarterbacks scored above the Derek Carr Line. This shaves off nearly 87 percent of college football passers in one fell swoop, saving everyone a ton of time.

As when collecting the draft data, I also noticed a trend in the college football data: The majority of these passers were under 6’2″. According to NFL Draft Scout, only six of the 63 passers (Cody Kessler, Colt McCoy, Baker Mayfield, Pat White, Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson) drafted in the first four rounds in the last decade were under 6’2″-flat. That 9.5 percent mark doesn’t come close to matching the 14 of 22 returning college quarterbacks who passed the Derek Carr Line (63.6 percent) and are listed at under 6’2″-flat on NFL Draft Scout.

QuarterbackSchoolGradeExplosive Play %Height
Drew AndersonBuffaloSR0.2656041
McKenzie MiltonUCFJR0.24555112
Khalil TateArizonaJR0.2416010
Jake FrommGeorgiaSO0.22836015
Nathan RourkeOhioJR0.22386010
Drew LockMissouriSR0.21816025
Jalen HurtsAlabamaJR0.21816010
Alex HornibrookWisconsinJR0.21046031
Justin HerbertOregonJR0.2086051
Jordan Ta'amuMissSR0.26015
Armani RogersUNLVSO0.1976036
Brett RypienBoise StSR0.19486016
Trace McSorleyPenn StateSR0.19445116
D'Eriq KingHoustonJR0.19435112
Jarrett StidhamAuburnJR0.19246016
Brandon WimbushNotre DameSR0.18996005
Kyle ShurmurVanderbiltSR0.18846032
Caleb EvansLa-MonroeJR0.18716010
Andrew FordU MassSR0.18646016
Ben HicksSMUJR0.18636002
Justice HansenArk StSR0.18396031
Manny WilkinsAriz StSR0.18256021

The Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

If we are to assume that the NFL sticks with their height standards, right or wrong, then the list widdles down to eight quarterbacks:

  • Drew Anderson (senior, Murray State via Buffalo): 26.5 percent
  • Drew Lock (senior, Missouri): 21.8 percent
  • Kyle Shurmur (senior, Vanderbilt): 18.8 percent
  • Justice Hansen (senior, Arkansas State): 18.4 percent
  • Manny Wilkins (senior, Arizona State): 18.3 percent
  • Alex Hornibrook (junior, Wisconsin): 21.0 percent
  • Justin Herbert (junior, Oregon): 20.8 percent
  • Armani Rogers (sophomore, UNLV): 19.7 percent

This excludes some of the biggest names at the quarterback position in college football like UCF’s McKenzie Milton, Arizona’s Khalil Tate, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, who all pass the Derek Carr Line but are listed short of 6’2″ on NFL Draft Scout. If those players measure at under 6’2″ at the combine and are drafted in the first four rounds of the draft, they will match the number of all sub-6’2″ passers drafted in that range over the last decade. The NFL is in a position where they’re either going to have to soon change their height requirements for the quarterback position or college success and NFL draft status are going to be even more independent.

If we move on assuming the latter, we’ve officially shaved 48,626 passes to 2,512 on what is now an eight-man watchlist of five seniors and three underclassmen who meet not only what the NFL looks for but what tends to translate from college success to the NFL success.

Drew Anderson, Murray State: To say the absolute least, Anderson has not played much major college football. The junior college transfer played just two years at Buffalo, earning starting playing time in 2017 after the Bulls’ starter went down. In his second start, Anderson threw for 597 yards and seven touchdowns in a six-overtime game against Western Michigan before going down himself with a season-ending shoulder injury the next week. With Tyree Jackson, Buffalo’s initial 2017 starter who has an extra year of eligibility on Anderson, winning the starting job for the Bulls, Anderson announced in May that he will be playing his final year at Murray State, an FCS school. As far as I can tell, the last graduate transfer to jump down to the FCS and still be drafted in the first four rounds was Josh McCown in 2002.

Drew Lock, Missouri: Over the last two years, Lock had developed under offensive coordinator Josh Huepel, probably best known prior as Oklahoma’s former co-offensive coordinator. One of Huepel’s staples is the outside choice play, made popular during Baylor’s run. With Huepel now named Scott Frost’s replacement as UCF’s head coach, it will be interesting to see how Lock takes on to Derek Dooley, formerly the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receivers coach. Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley had this to say about their new receivers coach: “It feels like the first time we’re actually being taught how to run routes instead of just naturally doing.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the man who just got handed the keys to the nation’s top senior quarterback.

Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt: Son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, there will be plenty of profiles on Shurmur moving forward. He’s going to have around 1,200 passes under his belt at an SEC school with a coach’s last name on his jersey. No one is going to struggle to find him, even at Vanderbilt.

Justice Hansen, Arkansas State: Hansen was 247’s fourth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 high school class when he signed on with the Oklahoma Sooners. After losing out in a quarterback battle that including Trevor Knight coming off of a Sugar Bowl win against Alabama and Baker Mayfield transferring in from Texas Tech, Hansen transferred to Butler Community College, the same school which produced the likes of Bruce Irvin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Damarious Randall and Zach Mettenberger. He’s third in the FBS in returning passing yards and has a 145.2 passer rating to show for his two years in the Sun Belt.

Manny Wilkins, Arizona State: As a sophomore, Wilkins posted just 12 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions, creating an inviting environment for Blake Barnett, who lost the starting job to Jalen Hurts at Alabama, to transfer into. With Barnett in Tempe, Wilkins ramped up his production to 27 total touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Barnett, the former second-ranked pro-style quarterback behind Josh Rosen, has since been forced to transfer yet again, this time to USF. Wilkins’ 2017 offensive coordinator Billy Napier, who like Barnett came via Alabama where he was a receivers coach, is now the head coach at ULL. Rob Likens, formerly the Sun Devils receivers coach, is now the full-time offensive coordinator.

Alex Hornibook, Wisconsin: It’s not always going to be pretty with Hornibrook, a left-handed passer who at times can get out of rhythm. Wisconsin fans will be the first ones to tell you that. Still, he has moments of flashes where you can see it all click together. The question is if this is just the 2018 version of Wilton Speight or if Hornibrook is going to be the Big Ten quarterback with an NFL frame to develop. How much of his numbers are a product of playing behind an All-American offensive line and handing off to a future pro back?

Justin Herbert, Oregon: I think Herbert is everyone’s favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, be it number one overall or behind a few defensive tackles and defensive ends. Herbert was virtually unrecruited by FBS teams other than Oregon, who plucked the Eugene native up despite the fact that he missed most of his junior season with a broken leg. As a true freshman, Herbert beat out graduate transfer Dakota Prukop, an FCS All-American and current CFL passer, for the starting job. Last year, Hebert missed time with a collarbone injury while averaging 9.6 yards per attempt.

Armani Rogers, UNLV: Technically eligible because he’s a redshirt sophomore, Rogers posted 780 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground as a freshman along with average at best passing numbers. If not for his 32 rushes of 10+ yards, he would not be on this list. In Tony Sanchez’s three recruiting classes at UNLV, no one has come in with higher expectations than Rogers. After opening off the season with a historical loss to Howard, quarterbacked by Cam Newton’s brother, UNLV finished the year 5-6 and 4-4 in the Mountain West with the help of Rogers. Rogers is probably the biggest project on this list, but he’s also the greenest player on this list and the team is no doubt going to build around him for the next three years.

These numbers aren’t going to tell you anything about player backgrounds or traits, but they do cut through the fat. These eight passers are probably the quarterbacks we need to be focusing on until the 2018 breakouts actually, you know, breakout.