Zach Mettenberger: A Poor Team's Quarterback
by Scott Kacsmar
Rumblings from Nashville via The Tennessean's David Climer say that the Titans brass think second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger is a "poor team's Tom Brady," and he will be the starting quarterback in 2015. This comes just weeks before a draft where the Titans hold the No. 2 pick and should get Tampa Bay's leftover choice of Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. The consensus is that either one is a respectable solution to a position that has long been a problem for arguably the NFL's blandest franchise.
Since the team moved to Tennessee in 1997, no Titans quarterback has thrown for 3,600 yards or 25 touchdowns in a season. (Even Steve McNair never did.) The Titans haven't even been led in passing by the same quarterback in consecutive seasons since Vince Young in 2006-07. With Jake Locker retiring after a disappointing four-year career, either Ken Whisenhunt and the Titans are blowing some draft smoke, or they really like what they have in Mettenberger.
However, outside of being pocket passers and sixth-round picks, the similarities between Mettenberger and Brady are limited. The only area in which Mettenberger excelled was that he averaged a very high passing yards per attempt (YPA), which has long been a good indicator of steady quarterback play with high correlation to winning and individual success. Mettenberger's 7.89 YPA is the ninth-highest season by a true rookie quarterback (no prior pro experience) in NFL history. He is one of only 15 rookies to average at least 7.5 YPA (minimum 150 attempts). The "LgYPA" in the following table is the league's average YPA for that particular season. While 2014 had the league's highest YPA (7.21) since 1965, Mettenberger was still impressively above average in a key stat.
|Highest Passing Yards per Attempt, True Rookie (Minimum 150 Attempts)|
Clearly this does not always lead to a long, successful career like those Johnny Unitas and Ben Roethlisberger (another Whisenhunt quarterback) went on to enjoy. Injuries (Greg Cook and Robert Griffin) can derail things. Some of these players, like Clyde LeForce and Mickey Slaughter, only played a few years. The fact remains, though, that bad quarterbacks rarely do well in this statistic. Joey Harrington and Blaine Gabbert never hit 6.5 YPA in any season in their career, let alone maintain the mark Mettenberger had last season.
Even in the preseason, Mettenberger averaged 9.69 YPA on 68 passes, though we have learned not to trust those August results. Fellow AFC South rookie Blake Bortles averaged 10.20 YPA in the preseason, but ranked next to last in the real games at 6.12 YPA. Then again, Mettenberger is known for having a big arm and ranked third in the NCAA in 2013 with 10.41 YPA. Maybe he is efficient at gaining yards for his offense.
There lies the rub. Outside of the YPA average, advanced stats paint a very inefficient picture for Mettenberger's rookie season. Among 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 plays, Mettenberger ranked 40th in DVOA (-28.7%) and 41st in ESPN's QBR (30.1). That's very unusual for someone with such a high YPA.
Since 2006, 92 quarterbacks have averaged at least 7.5 YPA on at least 150 passes. Mettenberger's 2014 season ranks 90th in passing DVOA and 91st in QBR among those seasons. This table looks at the ten lowest seasons in DVOA among these 92 seasons.
|Lowest Passing DVOA for Season with 7.5+ YPA, 2006-2014 (Min. 150 Passes)|
The only season Mettenberger beats out in both stats is the time J.T. O'Sullivan walked the streets of San Francisco with Mike Martz's minimal protection in 2008. He was a sixth-round pick too. Let's review some specific areas in Mettenberger's performance that negate his strong YPA last season.
Touchdowns and Interceptions
Mettenberger had a subpar ratio of eight touchdowns to seven interceptions. His touchdown percentage (4.47) was average and his interception percentage (3.91) was way too high in a season that had the lowest rate of picks ever (2.52 percent). Mettenberger was intercepted once in all seven of his appearances. We also charted Houston safety Kendrick Lewis with two dropped interceptions on Mettenberger passes. Like many rookies, Mettenberger struggled to read linebackers dropping into coverage and was late on his timing on sideline throws.
You can also pick on half of his eight touchdowns. The first of his career was to a wide-open Delanie Walker out of the flat against Houston. Another was a 3-yard shovel pass against the Ravens. The fluke happened in Philadelphia: Malcolm Jenkins undercut and tipped a pass to Justin Hunter for a 40-yard touchdown.
Mettenberger's longest completion of the season was an 80-yard touchdown to Nate Washington with 32 seconds left in the first half against Pittsburgh. That's only the fifth touchdown of 80-plus yards since 1998 in the final 60 seconds of the second quarter -- a situation known for conservative calls. It's only the second inside of 55 seconds, and it's the only time a team scored on first down. This just does not happen in the NFL (though Brandon Lloyd caught the Rams napping -- also on Monday night last year -- in similar circumstances). How did it happen to Pittsburgh? William Gay bit hard on a double-move and Mettenberger had a ton of room to drop this one in the bucket for the rare score. The second-longest gain on first down in the final minute on 308 pass plays since 1998 was 47 yards by the Bengals in 2003.
This one play is the difference between Mettenberger's YPA sitting at 7.48 instead of 7.89 for the season. Even if you only took away 40 yards for the Philadelphia fluke, the YPA drops down to 7.66. That's the problem with only 179 passes in your sample size. Mettenberger basically had four games where he finished with a solid YPA, and they were all against defenses with suspect secondary play like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Houston (twice). This alone solves the "YPA great, everything else pretty bad" conundrum that made me start this study, so I did not have much work to do here. However, when you hear the "steal of the draft" talk, and a respected analyst like Greg Cosell says he'd take Mettenberger over Winston, then it's worth looking into more.
It was surprising to see just how often Mettenberger stayed in the pocket. He tore his ACL late in 2013, though I will not speculate if that played a factor in his lack of mobility in 2014. On 198 dropbacks, Mettenberger only scrambled one time (an 8-yard gain on third down against Houston) and he only threw five passes outside the pocket (including two throwaways). That 3.0 percent out-of-pocket rate would be the second-lowest for any quarterback in the 2012-13 seasons (full 2014 rankings to come), standing right between 2013 Tom Brady (2.6 percent) and 2013 Peyton Manning (3.3 percent), though clearly Mettenberger does not have their overall skills in running an offense.
The Titans get virtually no rushing value with Mettenberger, and moving the pocket was not something the offense tried with him. He's a very traditional pocket passer, but he won't break out of sacks like a Cam Newton or Andrew Luck. In fact, our charting shows zero broken tackles from Mettenberger, though I seem to recall him doing it once on a play that was negated by penalty.
This is a quarterback who will rely heavily on his offensive line to keep him upright, because there was very little improvisational skill that an undrafted gem like Tony Romo displayed so quickly in 2006. Mettenberger took some bad sacks, and you can see his high rate (9.1 percent) in that department. He was playing behind an offensive line that lost multiple starters (including multiple left tackles) to injury, so better health there should help him. Then again, sacks were at times a problem in college. In his 2012 season at LSU, Mettenberger lost 25.1 expected points added (EPA) on sacks according to ESPN's data.
For all the talk of Mettenberger's big arm, I was not that impressed with his downfield throws last year. The ball would often hang, allowing the defensive back to make a play or immediately tackle the receiver. The velocity just wasn't great, though again, that first season after an ACL injury can be difficult. He seemed to just loft the ball instead of driving it into his receiver too often.
Perhaps due to the combination of Mettenberger's slow decision making and his battered offensive line, he also struggled with six batted balls at the line of scrimmage. That rate of batted passes (3.35 percent) was second worst in the league last year. Granted, teammate Charlie Whitehurst (3.24 percent) was right ahead of him, though that does not explain Jake Locker ranking fourth in the league (0.68 percent).
While standing tall in the pocket in the face of pressure will help Mettenberger earn lots of the "Warrior EPA" Steve McNair once garnered, that's not valuable when the passes are inaccurate or he's leaving games injured. After finishing the last two seasons with injuries, there have to be concerns that Mettenberger's protection-dependent playing style will limit his durability.
Poor on Money Downs
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We touched on this in our look at 2014's failed completions, but Mettenberger failed to sustain offense. Only 31.3 percent of his passes gained a first down, ranked 34th out of 38 quarterbacks with at least 150 passes. Mettenberger especially failed to deliver on money downs. On 55 third-down plays, he only converted 12 times for a paltry conversion rate of 21.8 percent. That's about half of what you expect from a good quarterback.
Mettenberger had five failed completions that gained at least 12 yards on third or fourth down with at least 13 yards needed for a conversion. That helps the YPA more than it does your offense. One thing I noticed was the quick, short passes over the middle that had little hope of converting. That may be Whisenhunt's influence and an attempt to protect the young quarterback, but that's no way to try converting for a first.
I created a third-down stat that looks at the average differential between how far the quarterback threw the ball (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. Name subject to change, I called it Air Minus Need Differential (AMND) and looked at 2011-14. If a quarterback throws a 10-yard pass on third-and-2, then that would be +8 AMND. If he follows it up with a 1-yard pass on third-and-10, then his AMND drops to -0.5 over those two plays.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) April 15, 2015
You can almost think of this as the groundwork for a "QB Aggressiveness Index" if we start breaking things down by distances. We will certainly look deeper into this metric in the coming weeks, but let's focus on the 2014 results.
Out of 40 quarterbacks with at least 40 third-down passes, Mettenberger ranked 39th in AMND at -1.47. So on average, he threw 1.47 yards short of the first-down marker on third down. Only Alex Smith (-2.34) ranked lower, with Aaron Rodgers (+3.96) the league's high man. The average was 1.32. Mettenberger threw short of the marker on 48.9 percent of his third-down throws, which ranked 32nd. The average was 41.1 percent. This obviously excludes sacks, so Mettenberger's conversion rate was 23.1 percent, ranking him dead last with the other 39 quarterbacks all above 31.0 percent.
Again, this could very well be a Whisenhunt thing. In 2012, three of the four quarterbacks with the worst AMND averages -- John Skelton (-1.63), Kevin Kolb (-1.67) and Ryan Lindley (-3.48) -- played for Whisenhunt in Arizona. Kolb (-2.86) was dead last in 2011. Then again, Philip Rivers was +2.38 (ranked third) in 2013 with Whisenhunt in San Diego. Locker was +2.27 last year in this Tennessee offense.
Either way, you have to trust your quarterback to make the big throws. If Mettenberger starts in 2015 and still has a negative AMND, the Titans will likely continue struggling to keep the offense on the field.
Conclusion: You Don't Just Find Starting QBs at the Thrift Store
Can the Titans really sell fans on the idea of bypassing a quarterback and taking defensive tackle Leonard Williams with the No. 2 pick? We saw what it looked like when they touted Jurrell Casey as their best player: they were a long Josh Scobee field goal away from 15 straight losses. How do you expect to outscore Andrew Luck or score points against J.J. Watt in the AFC South? If the Jaguars can move on from their 2011 quarterback mistake and take Bortles last year, then the Titans can go after Locker's replacement. Keep trying until you find the right guy to turn the franchise around.
I will only believe the Titans are going to start Mettenberger in 2015 after the draft is over if they did not take a quarterback with a high pick or trade for Philip Rivers. There is no real investment in Mettenberger, because he only cost a sixth-round pick last year.
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Take a look around the league. Of the 32 teams, 29 have as their main quarterback asset a player drafted in the first three rounds. Two of the teams without one have Tom Brady and Tony Romo. The Titans have Mettenberger and Clipboard Jesus. There is no comparison. From last year's quarterback draft study, sixth-round quarterbacks have been a joke since the Brady miracle of 2000. Undrafted quarterbacks have done very little since the great Romo discovery of 2003. Those finds were a long time ago. Brady and Romo are extreme outliers. They're like hitting a big lottery jackpot. Which part of Mettenberger's game screams future stud? Even through six starts and 200 plays we saw more out of both Romo and Brady than we have with Mettenberger.
In the last three years, Mettenberger's one exceptional season was in 2013 at LSU. He played in an offense with Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. All those players did last year was lead all NFL rookies in rushing and receiving, and Landry finished second to Beckham in receptions. That kind of talent is not there in Tennessee to elevate Mettenberger.
However, the Titans have been building up their offense for a young quarterback with five premium draft picks in recent years: offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, running back Bishop Sankey, right guard Chance Warmack, wide receiver Justin Hunter, and wide receiverKendall Wright. Andy Levitre and Delanie Walker were big free-agent signings in 2013. Whether it's Rivers, Mariota, or Winston, I would let those players grow together with an upgrade at quarterback.
Mettenberger is not a poor man's Tom Brady. He's the cheap option for a poor team trying to strike it rich without a franchise quarterback.