Predicting the Career Success of the Young NFL QB
Last May I wrote an article that put some projections together for Mark Sanchez and outlined some of the parameters to look for to
determine the future success of the young QB. The full article can be read here if you feel like doing so, but I will be taking a look at the three big rookies from the 2009 draft now as well as a brief look at the qualifying rookies from the 2010 season.
A little background on the subject. This is something I started tinkering with back in 2007 when the Jets made the switch to Kellen Clemens and fans, mainly those sick of former starter Chad Pennington, were clinging to hope for Clemens. I thought Clemens looked so bad that I could not imagine him ever being a competent pro in the NFL. I ended up charting the performance of every “second year rookie” for about a 25 year period utilizing the infamous QB rating as a barometer for performance. There was a clear pattern in the stats with basically every single player under a certain rating proving to be a flop.
After doing that I decided to go much further and track every single QB that had his first start since 1980 and categorize them by what year in their career they began. The reason for 1980 being the cutoff is that was the decade where there was a noticeable shift in the treatment of the young QB in terms of when they began playing in the league. There were some clear traits. Those that saw their first significant playing time in their 3rd year or later usually were far better than their first and 2nd year counterparts, most likely because they had multiple offseasons to prepare themselves both mentally and physically for the NFL grind. Those who began as true rookies often had tougher times their second years than a comparable career player who got to sit his first season. I attributed this to the fact that teams get significant footage of a rookie and have a year to make adjustments and gameplan for that QB, something they do not have for the 2nd year starter with basically no work as a rookie.
In digging through the numbers the best indicator of success for a player who began in his true rookie season is seeing the actual improvement from his baseline season. The ideal level of improvement is a 17% gain in his QB rating from year 1 to year 2. That jump identified 8 of the 12 multi-time pro bowlers, with the misses being two players who flopped so bad early on that there was no way to project success for them and it took multiple teams before they became decent, and Dan Marino who was so good as a rookie that there was no way for him to grow significantly. In essence the big miss was Drew Bledsoe. It hits all the Hall of Famers except Marino. Really that is the main kink I would like to work out. There are a handful of rookie QB's that do post a strong QB rating early on. I think its easy to say that the post 90 rating guys (Marino and Ben Roethlisberger) are so good as rookies that it's a guarantee they will be good just off their rookie year. The bigger issue is the 80+ rookies such as Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco and how to treat them. There is such a small pool of those players that I don't think you can say one way or the other right now. But that's a story for another day since it does not concern us with the current crop of players.
For the career projection the players in question are Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, Mark Sanchez of our New York Jets, and Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lets look at how things shook out and what the future looks to hold.
Stafford was the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft and almost immediately a red flag went up when he seemed to constantly be getting injured his rookie year. He ended up being shut down two times during the year. About the only positive from the injuries was that he escaped the scrutiny that befell Sanchez for the high interception totals. Stafford was throwing them at about the same rate as Sanchez and threw much more frequently meaning he would have destroyed Sanchez' total by the end of the season. Stafford's rookie grouping would have seen an improvement slightly above 15% in QB rating between year 1 and year 2.
Stafford is a bit harder to project than the other players simply because no other rookie has ever thrown the ball as much as he did in his rookie year. Based on normal growth in attempts he would have projected to throw the ball over 45 times a game in 2010, which is clearly unrealistic. Only Drew Bledsoe of the big rookie throwers came close to that in year 2. Peyton Manning who threw nearly 36 times a game went down to about 33. Between the high interception total and the fact that the Lions would likely be better his attempts, like Manning's, should have gone down. So based on 34 attempts a game his projection would be something like:
57.5 %, 225 YPG 17 TD 17 Int 70 QBR.
If he was to track in the high end of the category his yards per game should be in the high 230's with more Td's, somewhere around 22. The QBR would be around a 78
How did things work out for Stafford? Not too good. He was injured again and only played in 3 games. He had less than 100 passing attempts on the year and statistically it is just not a large enough sample to say much about. As expected his passes per game dropped and it was down into the low 30's. What was unexpected though was how much the Lions changed the offense around him. Though the sample size is small his yardage dropped from around 225 a game to under 180. Of his comparables the only players to have any drop were Rick Mirer, Steve Walsh, and Rodney Peete, not exactly a who's who of Quarterbacks. The only QB to have any accolades thrown his way that played as a rookie and saw such a drop in games between year 1 and year 2 was Chris Chandler, who was essentially a journeyman who put together a good year here and there. On the plus side for Stafford the change in approach did limit his mistakes and his rating did skyrocket. Because of the limited sample it is hard to really make a solid projection, but with the drop in play and the injuries it is probably very unlikely that he will prove to be a high end QB. Most likely he will be a player with a chance to string together a good year or two here or there, but he may have to bounce around a bit to do it.
We went in depth on Mark in the original projection and here were the expectations:
58% 210 YPG 18 Tds 19 INTs 71-73 QBR
If he was to track with the best QB's it would be:
60% 235 YPG 21 Tds 18 Ints 80-82 QBR
All in all Mark basically hit the average expectation for a rookie QB that started out where he did. He didn't throw a pass in his final game so his YPG was actually 219.4, a number he reached by sacrificing the completion percentage from a 58% expectation to just under 55%. He threw 17 Td's in 15 games with a pass so the 18 TD projection was basically accurate. The one area where he did far better than expected was interceptions where his numbers dropped to 13. So the bottom line is that for all the complaining about Sanchez during the last quarter or so of the year he did exactly what should have been expected of him in the season.
Now the question becomes what is his ceiling. He did fall short of the high end projections, primarily because he continued to battle accuracy problems all season long. Had he hit even the 58% mark he probably would have tracked with the best. His QB rating jump from 63 to 75.3 represented a 19.5% jump which is excellent. That is above the 17% threshold and puts him on track with the multi time pro bowlers who started as true rookies in the NFL.
Before we all get too excited it should be noted that the 19.5% improvement is in the low end, where there are a handful of guys who ended up busting. The 19.5% improvement puts Sanchez in the middle of the Trent Edwards, Bernie Kosar, Troy Aikman, Rodney Peete, Billie Joe Tolliver grouping. Of those names you have one Hall of Famer, one solid starter and three busts. The next leap would have been in the plus 27% category which really limit's the amount of busts.
One area that sets Sanchez apart from some of the poor players is the fact that his YPG spiked by so much. Tolliver and Peete both regressed because the staffs took responsibility away to make the game safer with them in. His YPG increase is also higher than the other three names on the list. His decrease in interceptions per attempt was better than anyone else in the list and his yardage per game increase was right in the middle. The reasons he fell way short in the QBR is because of the lack of touchdowns and poor growth in completion percentage. The only QB to see such a poor completion percentage improvement was Rodney Peete, who fell from 52.8 to 52.3%. The next closest to Sanchez' 1.8% growth was Neil Lomax at 5.5% and Troy Aikman at 7.1%. There was no QB who fell harder in touchdown passes per attempt. While the TD is somewhat of a fluky stat, Sanchez' numbers fell a dramatic 22% over his rookie year. The next closest would be Aikman who fell around 10%. Kosar and Donovan McNabb were the only other players who were worse in this category in year two, but both were less than 1% worse.
I think two years into it, it is safe to say that Sanchez is going to have an excellent chance at being a solid starter in this league. I would say at this stage now he has reduced his bust chance to about 10% and at the very least will suit up for 1 Pro Bowl as a Jet. The ceiling is probably not as high on others on the list. Based on where he places and looking at his categories of improvement there is probably a 35 to 40% chance that he will be an elite level player for any consistent period if time. Most likely he is going to be an above average starter that can start in the NFL for at least a decade.
Based on his numbers you would like to say that the best case scenario for him is probably to build a team around him the way the Dallas Cowboys did Troy Aikman in the early 1990's. They surrounded Aikman with a great offensive line, a high end receiver, a bailout tight end, a very good running back, and a tremendous defense. Aikman ended up in the Hall of Fame, which he probably would not have done if he was asked to put the team on his back the way a Peyton Manning or John Elway was asked to do. There is nothing wrong with that and that is the approach the Jets should be taking from this point forward with Sanchez to give him the best chance of success.
Freeman did not grade nearly as high as Stafford or Sanchez coming out of college and was somewhat of an unknown as to how he could play in the NFL. Just like Sanchez and Stafford he struggled as a rookie. His passes were all over the field and at times he looked totally unready for the jump. Of the three he probably had the worst rookie season and did not have the playoffs to fall back on like Sanchez or the 400 yard game that Stafford had. Freeman was a turnover machine, throwing picks on 6.2% of his pass attempts, about 13% worse than Sanchez and 17% worse than Stafford. Because he was so bad in that regard we would not project much of an increase in attempts per game for him from his 29 per game as a rookie. Freeman's average growth projection would have been:
60% 221 YPG 20 Tds 24 Ints 68-70 QBR
When you throw him in the high end category his numbers should rise to
60.5% 230 YPG 23 Tds 21 Ints 76-78 QBR
Clearly Freeman excelled in 2010. With the exception of yards per game, which were at 216, he shattered all expectations. His completion percentage rose to 61.4%. Td's were at 25 and interceptions at a super low 6. When you consider that the team did not increase his throws as much as expected it was all positives. At 29.6 APG Freeman would have been expected to throw for 212 YPG and 21 Tds, so really the yards were right there as well when you consider how the offense was run in Tampa Bay.
It truly was an incredible year. His interception rate dropped by nearly 80%. The next closest QB's would be Kerry Collins and Peyton Manning whose numbers dropped by about 43%. His 53% increase in Td's per attempt was above average as was his increase in yards per attempt. It was stellar.
When you add it all up you end up with a 60% jump in his QB rating from his rookie to his second year. No other QB has even come close to that number. Previously the high was Boomer Esiason who jumped 48%. John Elway jumped about 40% and Peyton Manning was at 27%. It is a ridiculous increase.
So what is Freeman's ceiling? The sky is the limit based on how he performed. His odds at busting at this point are basically zero. Of those top names the closest to a bust would be Kerry Collins. Collins went on to two Pro Bowls, started a Super Bowl, started for 10 years, and played in the league for 17 years. That would be the low end projection at this point for Freeman. When you look at the higher range of Qb's on the stud rookie list, which would be both Manning's, Collins, McNabb, Vick, Elway and Esiason, only Vick has never played in a Super Bowl. Only Eli Manning has yet to hit the two Pro Bowl number. Three of them will likely be in the Hall of Fame.
It is an elite grouping of players that Freeman is tracking with. At this point you have to assume Freeman will represent his team at least once in a Super Bowl. There is going to be close to a 80% chance that he is a superstar QB and a 90% chance that he ends up voted to play in multiple Pro Bowls. Tampa Bay clearly looks to have gotten the steal of the 2009 NFL draft. Freeman is far cheaper than Stafford or Sanchez and has begun his career in historic fashion. As long as he continues to work had there is no reason for him to not be a very respected player within the next two years.
A look at the 2010 Rookie Class
The qualifying rookies for this season were the Rams Sam Bradford, Carolina's Jimmy Clausen, the Browns Colt McCoy and the Cardinals' John Skelton. I'll just look at the high end projection list for the players to keep things simple.
Bradford had a very good rookie season, far better than anyone from last season or this season. Like Stafford, Bradford threw the ball a great deal as a rookie, but with such low interceptions we can expect him to at least hold steady next year. For him we would be looking for
66% 255 YPG 21 Tds 9 Ints 89-91 QBR
Clausen had nowhere near the start of Bradford and was finding himself in and out of games because of poor play. Clausen was so ineffective that not much should be expected if he starts next year and the team runs a similar offense. He is going to need a monster jump from last year to keep his job. An excellent year would be:
58% 180 YPG 6 Tds 9 Ints 70-72 QBR
Though statistically that is a huge jump thee is no way a team is going to allow the QB to flounder with that type of TD total.
McCoy had a nice start to his career before battling some injuries and then being a part of a team that just looked like it gave up on the coach. McCoy did show a lot in his half season of work. He completed a high percentage of passes and did a good job of gaining big yards on his attempts. With the style of offense they want to run he could put up big numbers as he looks like a perfect fit for it. His high end track is:
67% 250 YPG 17 Tds 13 Ints 89-91 QBR
John Skelton was an out of nowhere name that got an opportunity in Arizona. It was an awful team and he did not do much to change that. He just passes the minimum threshold with 126 attempts on the season. If he gets a chance and runs with it you can expect:
53% 170 YPG 10 Tds 5 Ints 71-73 QBR