College Quarterbacks Through the Prism of Statistics
Guest column by David Lewin
At the top of the NFL draft, every general manager dreams of finding the next Peyton Manning or John Elway, but fears he will end up with the next Joey Harrington or Akili Smith. With that balance of high risk and high reward in mind, there has been plenty of debate about which of this year's big three quarterback prospects will make the best pro. Conventional wisdom says that Matt Leinart is the most accomplished of the three. In the aftermath of the Rose Bowl, Vince Young was all the rage. Some scouts believe that dark horse Jay Cutler will end up better than both of them.
Everyone knows that in football, statistical analysis is no substitute for scouting, but it can be useful as an addition to scouting. And since scouting has been particularly iffy when dealing with first round quarterbacks -- how's Ryan Leaf these days? -- there is a need for a system that could use college statistics to identify players who are more or less likely to become quality NFL starters.
Analysis of college numbers has been a goal of Football Outsiders since its inception, and in the upcoming book Pro Football Prospectus 2006 it will become a reality for the first time. PFP 2006 will introduce a rookie quarterback projection system which uses regression analysis to determine which college statistics indicate that a quarterback will be successful in the NFL, with success measured by Football Outsiders' DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement) statistics (explained here).
College statistics are accumulated in widely different offensive systems against a wide variety of competition, but they are not meaningless when it comes to predicting NFL success. Based on my research, the two most predictive college statistics are completion percentage and games started. Some people have previously looked at college completion percentages, but adding games started to the analysis improves the results significantly. Without games started, for example, statistical analysis would not identify Brett Favre and Dan Marino as top prospects. (There are other factors that help predict quarterback success, of course, like the quality of the NFL team drafting each player.)
This projection system has been very accurate for quarterbacks drafted over the past ten years. As of now, the projection system only considers quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds. Quarterbacks taken later in the draft are much less likely to have the talent needed to succeed as an NFL starter, and they are much less likely to get an opportunity to prove themselves. For all the NCAA records that Kliff Kingsbury set at Texas Tech, he has completed just one NFL pass. His numbers were inflated by Texas Tech's system, and he lacks the talent to be an NFL starter. That is why he was drafted in the sixth round, and that is why we have scouts.
With these limitations in mind, here's a preview of this research with a look at the big three quarterback prospects in this year's draft, where they might end up, and how they might do once they get there.
Cutler is the most mysterious of this year's top three quarterback prospects. For a while only SEC fans and draft addicts had heard of him, and then suddenly with no warning, Mel Kiper was calling him a potential top-ten pick and comparing him to Brett Favre.
Look at Cutler's resume, and the first thing that stands out is that he was a four-year starter. Some recent four-year starters coming out of college include Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer. That's pretty good company.
The second thing that stands out is that Cutler spent his whole career playing for a physically overmatched Vanderbilt team. This ought to be excellent preparation for the trials that usually await highly-drafted quarterbacks. During his career at Vanderbilt he showed himself to be a strong-armed, if only moderately accurate passer.
Cutler has also been quite consistent over his four years. Kyle Boller was a four-year starter too, after all, and so far he's been a bust. Like Cutler, Boller skyrocketed up draft boards due to a solid senior season and spectacular workouts. But Boller only completed 45 percent of passes prior to his senior year, and despite completing 53 percent as a senior finished his career under 50 percent. That's not quite as bad as scoring a six on the Wonderlic, but it should still be a red flag for NFL general managers. Cutler, on the other hand, was a 56 percent passer heading into his senior year and completed 59 percent as a senior.
Some critics still question Cutler's accuracy, arguing that 59 percent as a senior is not really that impressive. The problem with this argument is that it does not consider the context of the numbers. Tim Couch completed 67 percent of his passes in college. At the time, scouts did not realize that Couch was playing for a certified offensive genius, Mike Leach, who now routinely produces 65+ percent passers at Texas Tech. In the decade before Cutler arrived, Vanderbilt's starting quarterbacks completed 47.6 percent of their passes. For comparision, the quarterbacks before Leinart completed 59.6 percent of their passes, and those prior to Young completed 57.7 percent. This partially indicates that the quarterbacks who preceded Young and Leinart (Major Applewhite, Chris Simms, Carson Palmer, Rob Johnson) were more talented than those who preceded Cutler. But it also reflects the better talent and coaching surrounding quarterbacks at Texas and USC.
It is obviously extremely difficult to be the quarterback of an overmatched team in the SEC. If Vanderbilt played in the MAC, for example, I suspect Cutler's completion percentage would have been much higher, because Vanderbilt would have been playing teams of comparable quality. Given the system and situation at Vanderbilt, Cutler was actually quite accurate. He's also quite athletic, with 1,256 college rushing yards. (Remember, sacks count as negative rushing yards in college, making this total even more impressive.)
Cutler will end up being a top ten pick, but the question of where hinges on the Saints. Given the structure of Brees' contract -- which includes a $12 million option bonus due before the 2007 season -- the Saints may still be in the market for a quarterback. With Brees on board, they can afford to take someone who is not ready to play right away. It follows that there is a good chance the Saints will swap spots with the Jets and take whatever quarterback makes it to them. The Jets will take their pick of Cutler and Leinart, with the other going to the Titans. The Saints could then draft Vince Young fourth and sit him for a year behind Brees.
My projection system suggests that Cutler will perform somewhere along the lines of Drew Brees or Byron Leftwich (an average of about 2.5 points above replacement per game over the course of his career), and this does not even take into account his running ability. This would make him a solid top-5 choice. The quarterbacks who had the most similar college careers to Cutler in the past ten years are Shaun King and Jake Plummer. Looking a little farther back, Brett Favre and Dan Marino also had very similar college careers to Cutler. The Favre comparision is particularly interesting as he was overlooked because he did not come from a traditional football powerhouse.
The Wonderlic controversy notwithstanding, Vince Young was due for a slide down draft boards. Young was riding high thanks to an absolutely spectacular performance in the Rose Bowl. In the immediate aftermath of this game scouts were enthralled with his potential and were willing to overlook his many flaws. Now that the dust has settled, these question marks are beginning to resurface.
The first thing that anyone sees when watching film of Vince Young is his throwing motion. It should be obvious that as long as he can make all the throws it shouldn't matter how he does it. The problem is that he can't make all the throws.
Young throws the ball with great touch, and Michael Vick could definitely learn a thing or two from him. In college, however, he rarely threw the ball very hard. At the NFL level, a quarterback has to throw intermediate passes with velocity or risk severe injury to his receivers and a whole lot of interceptions. During his workouts, Young will have to prove he can do this. If he shows adequate arm strength, he could be right back in the mix for the number two overall pick.
There are other reasons why a 6'5", 230-pound quarterback with superior athleticism was considered a late first-round pick at the start of the season. One of them is evidenced by that six he scored on the Wonderlic (or 16 if you prefer, or 15, or whatever; like Daunte Culpepper's Love Boat alibi, Young's Wonderlic score seems to change every day yet is never impressive). An NFL quarterback must have two kinds of intelligence. First, he must be able to make quick decisions in the heat of the moment, which I think Young has proven that he can do. Second, he must be able to memorize large amounts of information, including the playbook, opponents' tendencies, and audibles. Then he has to recall and use this information at the line of scrimmage. This is the type of intelligence that the Wonderlic tests and where the questions about Young reside.
At Texas the offense was constructed in such a way that Vince had to make one or two reads, and if they were not open then he could take off and run. I think that this could be an effective offense in the NFL with a little improvement -- maybe being able to make three reads instead of two -- but most coaches disagree.
When it comes to adjusting your system to your players, the NFL is nowhere near as flexible as college football. This is because in the NFL players are much more expendable. A key example of this would be a man to whom many misguided people compare Young, Michael Vick. Vick has two things that he is absolutely outstanding at, running and throwing the ball far. His major weaknesses are reading the field and accuracy. Yet for some reason he has been made to play in an offense geared to short accurate passing and quick reads, so go figure.
Young is far more accurate than Vick and a much different type of runner. Vick's runs in college displayed his incredible speed and ridiculous agility, but Young's runs were a little different. When Young ran he ran by everyone but it never looked like he was running hard. He made people miss but rarely had to do more than sidestep. Most of Vick's runs ended in a crushing hit or a touchdown. When Young didn't find the end zone, on the other hand, it was rare for an opposing player to make solid contact. Don't be fooled by Vince's 4.58 in the forty, I have never seen him run down from behind in a game, and he never will be. Young also ran for almost twice as many yards per season than Vick did at Virginia Tech. This coupled with Young's significant weight advantage (He's 230 pounds, Vick just 210) gives me every reason to think that Young will be a better and less injury-prone runner than Vick at the NFL level.
My projection system projects Young to have Donovan McNabb-type success passing the ball in the NFL, roughly 2.0 points above replacement per game. If that sounds low, remember that McNabb's numbers were unimpressive until his fourth season, then only slightly above-average until the arrival of Terrell Owens. No recent college player was particularly similar to Vince Young in terms of career statistics, but Young's first three years of college are fairly similar to McNabb's. (Unlike Young, McNabb opted to stay for his senior season.) Digging back a little farther, Young's college passing stats are somewhat similar to Todd Collins, Jim Harbaugh and Kordell Stewart. Those quarterbacks don't have much in common, so it is hard to tell what that says about Young's future.
If Young is put into the right type of situation and given time to develop, he should be able to be a decent passer at the next level. But in the near future, he might need to rely on his running ability more than any quarterback we have ever seen, including Vick. The best possible outcomes for Young are to go to the Titans with the third pick, or to go to the Saints if they trade down to the number four pick currently held by the Jets. If the Saints decide they are not going to draft a quarterback, and do not trade down with a quarterback-hungry team, draft day could get ugly for Young.
Leinart is the safe bet in this year's quarterback crapshoot. He went 37-2 at USC, orchestrating one of the most dominant college offenses in history. He was extremely accurate and made very few mistakes -- although it is worth noting that having Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett to throw to would make a lot of people look good.
Leinart has prototypical size and decent athleticism for a quarterback. His arm strength has been questioned, but he spent the past year working on it and he showed that he can put zip on the ball when necessary many times over this past season.
It is a common misconception that Leinart would have been the number one overall pick if he had come out last year. At the time he was suffering from rotator cuff tendonitis and would not have been able to throw until late in the spring. Instead he passed on the draft and had surgery on the shoulder. Additionally he enjoyed another year of being the big man on campus at USC and dating B-List actresses.
During this past year Leinart was given a tremendous amount of freedom in the offense and proved that he can handle NFL quarterback type responsibility. He is nothing if not NFL ready, and if he goes to the Titans and reunites with former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow he would barely have to learn a new offense.
The projection system projects Leinart to fall somewhere between Carson Palmer and the pre-2005 Daunte Culpepper, roughly 4.5 points above replacement per game. The most statistically similar recent college quarterbacks are Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, both of whom played in the MAC. Leinart had better talent around him, of course, but he also had to face much more difficult competition. Dip a little further into the past, and we find that Leinart's college statistics are remarkably similar to those of another Pac-10 quarterback: John Elway. Leinart lacks the cannon arm that scouts love to see, but his experience and excellent college coaching make him the best quarterback prospect in the draft. He should not make it past the Titans and the third overall selection.
When I started developing the quarterback projection system, I was almost hoping that it would indicate that one of the three top prospects was going to be a bust, just so I could say that I called it. But the system projects all three to be good pros. Based on the numbers Leinart should go first of the three, and then Cutler or Young depending on whether the team is going to utilize Young's unique talents properly. This is exactly how it looks like things are going to go. The situation each quarterback is drafted into will probably end up being the deciding factor on which one has the most NFL success, although I expect Matt Leinart to do well no matter where he ends up.
For controversial predictions, you need to go to the second and third rounds. The system projects that Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst will be a good pro, Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs a solid starter, and Alabama's Brodie Croyle a bust. But the most interesting projection is for a player who isn't even in this year's draft. According to this projection system, Philip Rivers will emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the league over the next couple of years. It turns out that letting Drew Brees go to New Orleans may not have been a mistake after all.
David Lewin is a freshman student and quarterback at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has yet to accumulate enough starts or complete a high enough percentage of his passes to be considered worthy of a first day pick, although he did toss a 70-yard touchdown against St. Olaf. For a look at how the system projects quarterbacks of the past as well as recent picks like Alex Smith and Jason Campbell, check out Pro Football Prospectus 2006, hitting bookstores in mid-July.