Posted by Jonah Gardner on April 21, 2016
The range of outcomes when taking a QB with the first or second pick in the NFL Draft is enormous. This year's Super Bowl, a matchup of 2 QBs drafted with the 1st overall pick in their respective Drafts, showed just how high the ceiling can be for teams who draft a QB early. And, on the other hand, the Rams drafted a QB with the #1 pick just six years ago; now they've traded six picks, including two in the First Round, for the chance to do so again.
With the LA Rams and Philadelphia Eagles trading a lot for the right to pick first and second, it's exceedingly likely the first two players off the board will both be QBs. If either franchise nails the pick, they could be on the same path that took the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl this year. If they miss, we'll probably be seeing them back here in a few years.
The problem is that projecting a franchise QB is perhaps the most challenging task facing NFL front offices. Is there a way to figure out who will hit and who will bust? To answer that question, I thought that, instead of looking at this year's crop of QBs, it might be more useful to look at the past.
According to Pro-Football-Reference's Draft Finder, there have been 13 QBs taken first or second overall since 2000. First, I'll determine whether they were a success or a bust, using a stat called Approximate Value. AV is a method of assigning a numerical value to any player's season, at any position, based on a team's success and the player's involvement in it. The highest single-season AV was LaDanian Tomlinson's 27 in 2006, the highest career AV is Peyton Manning's 271, and 2015's highest AV was J.J. Watt, with 21, followed by Cam Newton and Aaron Donald with 20.
For this post, I'll be using a weighted career AV, calculated by adding 100% of a player's best season, 95% of his second best, 90% of his third best, and so on. I'm also counting a player's total career AV, not just his AV with the team that picked him, since the idea is to look for players who succeeded, rather than picks that worked out for their team. If a player is below the average weighted AV of players drafted in his spot since 1970 (63 for #1 and 55 for #2), we'll call him a bust, with a few exceptions for younger players.
I also want to include their college stats and their team's college stats. Maybe by looking at this, we can find a pattern among the successes, or identify some warning signs for busts.
|*1999||Virginia Tech||Big East||QB||12||105||182||57.7||2065||11.3||11.5||13||5||171.1|
|2000||Virginia Tech||Big East||QB||10||87||161||54.0||1234||7.7||7.0||8||6||127.4|
Despite missing two seasons because of his arrest, Michael Vick's career AV was still above average for a first overall pick. Vick's NFL success puts the lie to the notion that running QBs can't hack it in the NFL, however, a couple of things jump out about his college passing numbers.
First, it's still pretty astonishing to see how few passes a #1 pick could get away with throwing in 2001. Carson Wentz threw more passes (358) his junior year than Vick threw in his entire college career. In 2015, 118 QBs had more pass attempts than Vick's single-season high of 182.
Second, you can't necessarily write off a player who takes a step back in his final year. Though he missed time to injury in 2000, Vick's per attempt stats and passer rating also went down in his last year at Virginia Tech. His yards per rushing attempt, however, were slightly up.
But more to the point, his level of opposition was much tougher. In 1999, VT's strength of schedule was 0.99; in 2000, it was 4.00, jumping from the 58th toughest in '99 to the 29th in 2000. So even though Vick's numbers went down, he was holding his own against tougher competition.
From one perspective, David Carr's college record looked a lot more reliable than Vick's. While his yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt were lower, he also threw a lot more, completed more passes, and had way more TDs with a lower INT rate (2.4% for Carr vs 5.8% for Vick).
More to the point, Carr showed the kind of linear progress we expect to see. He got a cup of coffee in 1997, saw a little more action in 1998, took the reins in 1999, and in 2000 put it all together. Each year, he got more efficient, more accurate, and proved capable of handling more responsibility.
But, like Vick, it's important to pay attention to the level of opponent Carr was facing. Fresno State's 2001 schedule was the 75th toughest in the nation. Their average opponent was 2.02 points worse than the average D-1A team that year. The competition level should have been a red flag that Carr might not be able to hang with NFL-level opponents.
Palmer may not be considered a top QB among players of his generation, but by AV, his career has been much better than the average #1 pick.
His college record also shows the value of simply accruing reps. His 1,569 college pass attempts are the most of any player on this list and there's marked improvement from year to year, particularly when it comes to his decision-making. Early in his career, Palmer was much more turnover prone, which explains why there's such a stark gap between his AY/A, which penalizes QBs for INTs and rewards them for TDs, and his Y/A, which doesn't.
In 2002, his 5th year, Palmer improved his decision-making to the point that he threw fewer INTs even while increasing his workload. All this is also true of David Carr's last year, but the difference is that Palmer's extensive experience (and his tougher, Pac-10 competition) left him far better prepared for the NFL.
Eli's college record shows the difficulty of projecting college stats into the NFL. Manning was twice in the Top 2 in the SEC in completion percentage and, for his career, ranked well ahead of Palmer by that measure. Yet in the NFL, the younger Manning only spent one year in the Top 10 for completion percentage, and his career mark of 59.3% is below Palmer's 62.7%.
Instead, he completely changed his game, going from game manager to gunslinger. In college, Eli averaged 31.7 passes per game in college. In the NFL, that number went up to 34.0. Manning's career shows how a skilled QB can evolve to fit his team's needs, while still producing at a high level.
It was touch and go, but Alex Smith's 16 AV in 2015 were enough to crack the 63 mark for a #1 pick. He also provides a nice contrast with Manning. While Eli changed his game to fit in the NFL, Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid finally figured out how to build an offense around Alex Smith.
In his college career, Alex Smith was an accurate, conservative passer, completing 66.3% of his passes and throwing just 8 interceptions at a rate of 1.4%. However, from 2005-2010, Smith's NFL numbers were far worse: just a 57.1% completion rate and a 3.5% INT rate.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh took over as coach in San Francisco and installed an offense that was more suited to Smith's skills as a passer. In an offense that emphasized Smith's accuracy and turnover prevention, his numbers fell more in line with his college ones (a 63.8 Cmp% and 1.4 Int% since 2011).
The lesson, then, is to be realistic about who you're drafting and build a team around his strengths. By trying to turn him into a high-usage, downfield QB, because that's the expectation for a #1 overall pick, Alex Smith's coaches nearly tanked his career.
Man, what happened here? In 2006, JaMarcus Russell faced one of the 20 toughest schedules in the league and still led the 4th best passing offense in the league. His efficiency as a QB was historic, to the extent that he's still in the SEC's top 10 in career Y/A and AY/A (since 1956).
Is it possible that SEC QBs are somewhat overrated, given the reputation of the conference? Leaving the Mannings aside, the SEC QB with the best career AV, since 1970, is Jay Cutler. Just 7 non-Manning SEC QBs have played 10 or more games and have a record over .500, and that list includes luminaries like Tim Tebow and Quincy Carter.
At the same time, Russell's impressive per attempt stats in 2006 were only 4th best in the country and his completion percentage was 6th. In other words, JaMarcus had one season where he was among the top QBs in the country. Perhaps his 2006, rather than being an example of a player who took the leap to greatness, was actually just an outlier year. It's too easy to expect development to be linear, and assume that year-to-year improvement will stick or be built on. But Russell shows the danger of that line of thinking.
Stafford is another QB who broke the AV barrier this year. On paper, his record is very similar to Russell's, with two solid seasons followed up by an excellent one. In fact, by almost every measure, JaMarcus was better. His per attempt numbers were higher, he threw more TDs and fewer INTs, and, while he completed 3 fewer passes, he also didn't attempt as many.
So what gives? The only thing that really jumps out is the fact that Stafford threw nearly 200 more passes in college, but that doesn't make for a satisfying explanation. It's also worth noting that Stafford benefitted from Oakland's decision to draft Russell by getting the opportunity to play with the guy who Detroit drafted second in 2007: Calvin Johnson.
Bradford, like Vick, shows why it makes sense to pay attention to college injury history. While Vick was still productive, his history did indicate that he may rack up injuries in the NFL, as he went on to do. In a more extreme case, Bradford lost almost all of 2009 to injury. The incredible talent he showed in his first two seasons may have justified the risk, but Bradford's career trajectory should serve as a reminder of the downside of taking a risk like that.
Cam Newton is the exception to nearly every theory advanced in this column so far. He threw just 292 passes, by far the fewest of any QB on this list. He only spent one year as a starter and had very little experience when the Panthers drafted him first overall. He's easily the most talented non-Manning SEC QB to reach the NFL.
However, Newton's Tigers did face the 9th toughest schedule in 2010. What's more, perhaps more so than any other player on this list, Newton is totally unique, on both a physical level and a performance level. Indeed, the passing stats only tell part of the story, because Cam LED the SEC in rushing yards in 2010.
Remember that stuff I said about risk in the Bradford section? Cam is why you should throw all that out. There's lots of risk in the draft, but the potential for transcendence means that, sometimes, you just have to take your shot.
Why was Andrew Luck regarded as such a can't miss prospect? It might have something to do with the fact that he completed over 67% of his passes, at a rate of nearly 9 yards per pass. Luck embodies the importance of accumulating reps and experience. His 3 years and 38 games at college left him well-prepared for the next level. Unlike other players, Luck demonstrated excellent consistency from year-to-year, posting an AY/A over 9 in all 3 years and a completion percentage over 70 in 2 of the 3.
Unlike JaMarcus, there's no final year spike fooling us into thinking a player made the leap. You can nitpick Luck's competition level (the Cardinal's SOS was ranked 27, 13, and 30 in these 3 years), but it was much higher than what Carr faced.
While injuries derailed this season for Luck, he's still well on his way to crossing the 63 AV threshold. One more excellent year, or two more average ones, and he'll live up to his mantle as a can't miss prospect.
You can point to RG3's spiking numbers in 2011 as evidence that Griffin was a one-year wonder. It is true that he made a major leap in 2011, leading the nation in Y/A and AY/A, finishing 2nd in passer efficiency rating, and doing it all facing the 10th toughest schedule. But Griffin maintained that level of production in 2012.
More to the point, what derailed RG3's career was something at once forseeable and unexpected: injuries. RG3's frame, smaller than Cam or Luck, raised questions about whether he'd be able to withstand the punishment that comes with being an NFL QB, let alone a running NFL QB.
It's easy to second-guess Washington, but it's much harder to find workable lessons to take away from RG3's case when it comes to drafting. Perhaps the main takeaway is that, when taking a big risk in the draft, be realistic about the potential downside and make sure your organization is strong enough to weather the challenges that an unconventional player might pose.
Winston is a good example of the fallacy of expecting linear development from QB prospects. In 2014, Winston took a step back in just about every statistical category. He did it while facing tougher competition (the 19th toughest schedule in 2014 vs the 59th toughest in 2013), but it isn't a good sign for the NFL that he struggled against most advanced competition. Indeed, going into the draft, a convincing case could be made that Marcus Mariota was the better QB prospect.
And yet, by AV, Winston had the far better rookie year. So good, in fact, that the question of whether or not Winston will bust is essentially already answered. Here's every QB to post an AV of 13 or better as a rookie:
The first four QBs to do it are all regarded as franchise players. The 5th was on his way before a career-altering injury. So, barring catastrophe, Winston appears to be a successful pick for the Bucs.
However, based on what we've seen so far, there's no reason to expect Mariota to bust. Unlike Bradford, he doesn't have a history of injuries in his past. Unlike Russell, Mariota has a lengthy record of success, lasting through 3 great years in college and an excellent rookie season. And, unlike Carr, it all came against top competition. So I'm optimistic.
Applying these criteria to this year's draft, the case for both Carson Wentz and Jared Goff looks somewhat mixed.
|2012||North Dakota State||MVC||FR||QB||8||12||16||75.0||144||9.0||11.5||2||0||191.9|
|2013||North Dakota State||MVC||SO||QB||11||22||30||73.3||209||7.0||7.6||1||0||142.9|
|2014||North Dakota State||MVC||JR||QB||16||228||358||63.7||3111||8.7||8.8||25||10||154.1|
|2015||North Dakota State||MVC||SR||QB||7||130||208||62.5||1651||7.9||8.7||17||4||152.3|
|Career||North Dakota State||392||612||64.1||5115||8.4||8.8||45||14||153.9|
For Wentz, pretty much every red flag we've seen so far goes up. He only has one year of producing at a high level. His 2014 was excellent, but his 2015 numbers, even before accounting for the time he missed, seemed to be slipping, as his Y/A, AY/A, and completion percentages all declined. As an FCS player, Wentz likely faced a schedule that was even easier than Carr's, and he missed significant time due to injury, something that certainly looks like a red flag after seeing what happened to Bradford.
Goff, too, gives us cause for concern. He doesn't have a single year as impressive as Winston's 2013 or RG3's 2012, nor does he have the consistent greatness showed by Mariota or Luck. This is doubly concerning considering that Goff plays in an Air Raid offense that should produce eye-popping offensive numbers and has an iffy history of generating top-level QBs. What looks like linear progression to our eyes could be a single-season spike that will recede, as we saw with Russell.
However, Goff has a ton of experience. His 1,568 pass attempts are more than any QB we looked at except for Palmer. But, there's a big caveat here. Palmer accumulated his passes over 5 years and 53 games, while Goff has just 3 years and 37 games on his resume. If, by experience, you're looking for simple reps in a game situation, Goff's resume looks very similar to Palmer's. On the other hand, if what you're looking for is the experience of playing in games, he comes up somewhat lacking.
Of course, Cal's been in the Top 15 in SOS for all 3 years Goff was in the league. They even faced the 2nd toughest schedule in the nation in 2013, making Goff's first year seem somewhat less lackluster than it looks at first glance.
In the end, neither player looks, to my eye, like the kind of QB worth risking as much future draft capital as the Rams and Eagles have. However, the record on QBs going first or second is quite good. Since 2000, there's only 3 out of 13 that I'm willing to definitively declare busts, since even RG3 could hit 55 AV with a couple resurgent seasons in Cleveland.
However, if we count RG3 as as bust, a 9/13 success rate on QBs taken in the first round means there's less than a 50% chance that both Goff and Wentz will work out. Hopefully, their trajectories can give us deeper insight into what makes QBs stick in the pros.