Setting the Edge has been working on a massive project where we opponent-adjust every post-merger pass in NFL history. We know that the value of a passing touchdown is roughly equal to 20 yards. The guesstimation of an interception being roughly equal to -45 yards is “supported by current data.” By adjusting a passer’s efficiency for the defense’s average, we can create a system that gauges a quarterback’s statistical value relative to the defense faced.
Adjusted Yards Per Attempt (AY/A) is how we’re going to measure passing efficiency, as single-game sacks weren’t measured all the way back to the merger. If they were, we would use Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A), which is AY/A with the perspective of sacks and sack yards included. ANY/A is the passing efficiency number most correlated to wins. AY/A is the next best thing.
Adjust Yards Per Attempt (AY/A): (Passing Yards + (Passing Touchdowns * 20) – (Interceptions * 45))/Pass Attempts
Defense-Adjusted Yards Per Attempt Value (DAY/AV): ((Quarterback AY/A) – (Defense AY/A)) * Pass Attempts
With DAY/AV, we can say exactly how much a quarterback was worth, in yards, in specific games against specific opponents. For example, the most valuable game for a quarterback last year was Philip Rivers’ effort (33 passes, 434 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, 14.97 AY/A) against the Dallas Cowboys (6.90 AY/A.) His passes were worth 266.36 yards above the average passer in that game, edging out Tom Brady’s +265.96 against the New Orleans Saints. Both were significantly higher than the third-highest result, Jared Goff’s +224.18 game against the New York Giants.
In contrast, Kevin Hogan’s game (37 passes, 140 passing yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, 0.68 AY/A) against the Houston Texans (8.19 AY/A) was the least-valuable effort in 2017. His passes cost the Cleveland Browns -278.09 yards relative to the Texans’ 2017 averages. Nathan Peterman’s game (14 passes, 66 passing yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions, -11.36 AY/A) against the Los Angeles Chargers (5.62 AY/A) ranked 556th out of 559 games in 2017, despite him only throwing the ball 14 times.
Since we have this data through 1970, I decided to look at the rookie seasons of every first-round quarterback since the merger. By combining their game totals (only counting games in which they threw at least two passes), we can figure out how valuable they were in Year 1 of their careers. First-round rookie quarterbacks have never been more valuable. Eight of the last 11 first-round quarterbacks were acquired through picks that had been traded, with the exceptions being first overall pick Jameis Winston, second overall pick Marcus Mariota and third overall pick Blake Bortles.
Winston (#1 pick, QB1)
Mariota (#2 pick, QB2)
Bortles (#3 pick, QB1)
Sitting back and taking a quarterback is dead
— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) March 10, 2018
The New York Jets already have swapped their sixth overall pick and three second-round picks for the third overall pick. They may end up with their third-ranked quarterback in the class. With teams violently trading up for rookie passers, we should at least know what to expect from them, right?
When I went season-by-season through the data, it was clear that the chances of turning around a passing game in just one season are slim to none. Here are all of the first-round rookie quarterback seasons since the merger from most valuable to most costly:
|Quarterback||Rookie Season DAY/AV|
The top five passing seasons by rookie first-rounders were Ben Roethlisberger (+672.56), Robert Griffin (+594.81), Dan Marino (+521.07), Matt Ryan (+474.26) and Deshaun Watson (+365.71.) Despite Watson starting and finishing just five games last season, he was nearly twice as valuable as a rookie as the sixth-most valuable rookie first-round quarterback, Jim Plunkett (+188.65.)
That Plunkett season would have ranked between 15th (Jimmy Garoppolo, +297.40) and 16th (Sam Bradford, +168.26) among 2017 passers. That means that out of the 102 first-round rookie quarterback taken since the merger, only five of them (4.9 percent) would be considered above-average starters immediately. When you map out what rookie seasons look like, there’s a very visible dropoff from the Watsons to the Plunketts and there’s also a very clear negative lean to rookie seasons.
In the end, the 102 rookie seasons composed of five seasons worth more than 2017’s QB15 (above average starter), 18 seasons that were positive graded but did not finish above 2017’s QB15, eight seasons when a passer didn’t throw two or more passes in a single game and 71 seasons when a passer was below average.
If you need a quarterback to “hit” as a rookie, you’re already playing a losing game. Very few quarterbacks are actually impactful as rookie passers. If you look at the worst seasons by first-round rookie passers, they include some future stars: Matthew Stafford (-906.09, 101st), Terry Bradshaw (-786.25, 97th), Carson Wentz (-734.61, 96th), Troy Aikman (-730.26, 95th), Jared Goff (-582.3, 91st) and John Elway (-499.97, 84th). There are plenty of examples of first-round quarterbacks who turned around from bad starts, but almost none have quick starts.