Thursday, May 1, 2014
Inside Slant: Digging deeper on QB class
By Kevin Seifert
By now, the public narrative largely has been set for the quarterback class of 2014.
Johnny Manziel is special when on the run but must learn how to be a pocket passer. Teddy Bridgewater was highly productive in college but has size and accuracy issues. AJ McCarron can't match his short-range accuracy when he throws deep. Zach Mettenberger is a pure downfield pocket passer. Derek Carr melts under pressure. The list goes on.
Most everyone has made up their mind at this point, a mere seven days before the 2014 NFL draft gets underway. Before it's too late, however, I thought it was worth browsing through the extensive set of next-level analysis available through ESPN Stats & Information to corroborate, challenge and/or amplify the existing narratives.
Thanks to some help from ESPN college stats guru Sharon Katz, I looked at 10 of the top quarterback prospects -- sorry, Jimmy Garoppolo fans, your guy's numbers weren't available -- and culled some of the most illuminating data. It's important to remember that competition levels and quality of teammates varied significantly in some cases, but I think we can still make some important observations as the interminable draft countdown continues.
Statistics below reflect 2013 performances unless otherwise noted:
Matches narrative: Manziel threw 10 touchdown passes on 82 pass attempts outside the pocket. Compare that with 27 touchdowns on his other 347 attempts. Passes outside the pocket averaged 13.1 air yards per attempt, about 40 percent more than his others. His performance against the blitz was relatively poor: Seven interceptions and a 59.6 completion percentage, the worst and second-worst among the group, respectively.
Counters narrative: His completion percentage inside the pocket (73.5 on those 347 attempts) was best among this group. It dropped to 54.9 when outside, the fourth-worst.
Analysis: Manziel's completion percentage outside the pocket is mitigated somewhat by the longer average length of the throws, but it's doubtful that many people realize how accurate he was as a pocket passer. As for the blitz, no conference has speedier defenses than the SEC. But it makes sense that a player who looks to extend plays as often as Manziel does might be prone to more mistakes and diminished decision-making in those scenarios.
Matches narrative: Built like a classic pocket passer at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, Bortles proved to be an accurate deep passer. He completed 52.9 percent of passes thrown at least 25 yards in the air, the second-best among all college quarterbacks last season.
Counters narrative: Despite his build, Bortles was one of the best scramblers in this group. When you separate designed runs from scrambles, you find that Bortles averaged 9.0 yards every time he ran on a called passing play -- the second-highest total in this group.
Analysis: What jumps out the most about Bortles' season is that there are no obvious dips when comparing his play inside and outside the pocket or when he faced pressure. In fact, his completion percentage of 50.7 when under pressure was the fourth-best among all college quarterbacks last season.
Matches narrative: The structure of Louisville's offense pushed Bridgewater closer to an NFL paradigm than most. He took 67.7 percent of his snaps from shotgun, which is actually the third-lowest among this group, and he wasn't much of a factor in the designed run game. He gained 190 yards on scrambles and netted minus-112 yards on all other runs.
Counters narrative: Despite a shaky pro day that raised concerns about accuracy, Bridgewater led all qualified quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 71. He did so with a relatively high degree of difficulty; his average pass traveled 9.5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Analysis: The numbers paint Bridgewater as perhaps the most exceptional player in college football in pressure situations. Against the blitz, he completed 71 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and one interception, and his 53.5 completion percentage when under pressure was better than all players except UCLA's Brett Hundley. Bridgewater also threw 17 touchdowns without an interception in the red zone and converted 52.3 percent of his third-down passes for first downs, higher than all but Mettenberger.
Matches narrative: Known for his accuracy, McCarron was judged through video analysis to have thrown 15.2 percent of his passes "off target." The rest were deemed catchable, the highest percentage among this group of quarterbacks.
Counters narrative: Since the start of the 2012 season, McCarron has completed 54.7 percent of passes thrown 25 yards or longer, the highest mark of any qualified quarterback. Of his 53 total passes in this category, he threw 17 touchdowns without an interception.
Analysis: For someone whose arm is said to be average at best, McCarron found a way to be exceptionally efficient on his deep passes. In the NFL, however, arm strength can be more important in terms of driving midrange throws with velocity than simply having the capacity to reach a deep receiver.
Matches narrative: Carr did not react well when under pressure, completing just 30.9 percent of his passes in those situations, the lowest among all 10 quarterbacks in this group. He also had this group's worst completion percentage (43.9) when outside the pocket.
Counters narrative: ESPN analyst Jon Gruden thinks Carr might have the best pure arm action in the draft, and his skills surfaced most notably on the type of quick throws teams use in the red zone. He completed 62.3 percent of those passes for 31 touchdowns and two interceptions, good for a 90.0 QBR.
Analysis: Carr might have a great NFL arm, but teams would be justified in asking questions about his ability to handle pressure and the pass rush.
Matches narrative: Mettenberger played in a downfield passing offense. His average throw traveled 11.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, the highest among this group. He threw only 25 of 296 attempts from outside the pocket and totaled 19 yards as a scrambler. Of his total completions, 67.7 percent went for at least 10 yards. The next closest in that category was Bridgewater at 57.7.
Counters narrative: Mettenberger didn't have as much touch in the red zone, completing 45.5 percent of those passes (second-worst in this group).
Analysis: As a passer, Mettenberger performed especially well in areas NFL teams care about. Most notably, he had the best QBR on third down in this group, thanks to a 65.2 completion percentage and a 53.7 conversion percentage. Everyone knows you're getting a pocket passer with Mettenberger, but at least he was a good one.
Matches narrative: Murray threw only 38 passes outside the pocket, fewer than all in this group but Mettenberger. When he did get outside, however, he tried to make big plays and often did so. His average pass in those situations traveled 12.5 yards in the air. He completed 60.5 percent of them, a better rate than all but Bridgewater.
Counters narrative: Murray is said to be a comfortable pocket passer, but he completed only 35.3 percent of his passes when under pressure. That performance included four interceptions on 51 attempts.
Analysis: Murray's projection is hindered by his ongoing recovery from a torn ACL, but at 6-foot-1, he'll need to at least be mobile within the pocket. His reaction to pressure must improve.
Matches narrative: Savage's year at Pittsburgh seemed marred by larger pass-protection issues. He took 43 sacks, completed 59.3 percent of his passes against the blitz, and managed just one touchdown pass when under pressure. All were the low marks in this group. He did demonstrate an accurate arm on passes of at least 20 yards downfield, completing 46.2 percent, including seven touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Counters narrative: Savage's adjusted overall accuracy was well below the standard set by this group. He was judged to be off target on 24.7 percent of his passes, worse than all the other QBs in this group.
Analysis: Savage might be the ultimate case of projection over production. For the most part, his next-level statistics should exclude him from a group of top prospects.
Matches narrative: Thomas rushed for 344 yards, third-most among this group, but for the most part his passing performance was below average for this group: He had the lowest completion percentage (57.3) and yards per attempt (7.5) on passes thrown from the pocket, and his percentage of off-target passes overall (22.5) wasn't much better than Savage. Thomas also produced the lowest QBR in the red zone and on third down.
Counters narrative: Thomas did churn up some yards in the passing game. Nearly 54 percent of his passes went for at least 10 yards, the fourth-best mark in this group.
Analysis: Despite those numbers, Thomas' superior athleticism will earn him a chance to develop into an NFL-level quarterback.
Matches narrative: Throwing to receivers like Sammy Watkins, Boyd had the best completion percentage in this group on passes of at least 15 yards (53.7) and of at least 20 yards (54.7). He was also active in the run game, netting a total of 400 yards, including 242 on scrambles.
Counters narrative: Boyd's receivers did a lot of the work at Clemson. His average throw traveled 7.1 yards in the air, fewer than any in this group except Carr.
Analysis: Boyd has a strong arm and can run, but the general assessment that he is a product of the Clemson system seems to have merit.