Is Russell Wilson the Greatest Young Quarterback Ever?
What’s not debatable is the fact that Gary Coleman was the best young actor ever. What may spark a dispute is whether or not Russell Wilson fits the mold as the best young quarterback to ever play in the NFL.
It’s easy to have this discussion after the guy won a Super Bowl, becoming the third youngest quarterback to lift the Lombardi. But I can promise you that this subject has been in my Evernote – the place where I keep interesting content ideas that float to my mind during the least opportune times – for over a month now.
"Greatest ever?" You can’t throw that around lightly. Not just because you’ll hear from Internet trolls, but because you have to respect the game of football.
But I ask: Is Russell Wilson the greatest young quarterback ever?
I'm not trying to spark controversy, or hear more hate from Seattle fans like I did when I wrote about Russell Wilson not being the NFL's most valuable player. I'm being completely honest. Is Russell Wilson the greatest young quarterback...ever?
When the thought initially crossed my mind, I began jotting down names who I figured were better. Dan Marino. Matt Ryan. Ben Roethlisberger. Those were young gunslingers who made real impacts on the game.
Russell Wilson? Is he even the best young quarterback of his draft class?
I needed to find an answer. So, naturally, I dug into the numbers.
Defining a Young Quarterback
We need to first set some parameters before we dive head first into this study. The phrase “young quarterback” can be looked at from a lot of different perspectives, so I figured it’d be helpful for us to define what I mean by the expression.
I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to omit players here who didn’t play their rookie seasons. However, if they rode the bench for a few years – even two – prior to starting in the NFL, I do think they should be ousted. Reason being, by the time a guy is in his third or fourth year without any actual starting experience, he’s already has an edge over a player thrown under center from the start, both because of experience and age.
So no, Aaron Rodgers, who got his first real opportunity with the Packers during his fourth season, is not included in this study. Though he was just 25 when he first took over Green Bay's offense, he had three years of learning while watching one of the greatest to play the game.
In order to capture players who didn’t take a back seat to a passer to begin their careers, I looked only at quarterbacks who started at least 30 games over their first three seasons. That way all sophomore signal-callers are analyzed, even if they didn’t play their rookie seasons. However, if a guy sat out his first two seasons, he got the boot.
I understand there are clear problems with these guidelines. What if a player started 29 games? What if a quarterback was hurt? Isn’t this going to favor the players who sat our their rookie seasons, as first-year campaigns are often filled with struggles?
Sure. All are valid questions. But that’s why I’m not just throwing statistics at you and asking you to analyze them. I’ll do the digging, and I’ll weed out things that don’t really matter. And I’ll mention any great passers that somehow fall out of the aforementioned criteria.
Really, it doesn’t matter. As you’ll see, Russell Wilson should only be talked about with some of the great young passers this league has seen. Defining the term is to just be as detailed as I possibly can, to help Aaron Rodgers lovers understand why he’s not in the study.
Using these parameters, according to Pro Football Reference, we’re left with 87 quarterbacks. In other words, 87 quarterbacks in NFL history have started at least 30 games over their first three seasons in the NFL.
As a side note, some weird things sometimes happen when you run these queries in Pro Football Reference. Someone like Carson Palmer, who didn’t play a snap during his rookie season, is basically a rookie to the site during his second year. I tried to take those instances out in the following analysis.
Dissecting each of these data points would be long, stupid and irresponsible. So to make things easy on your eyes and mind, I’ve split up this Russell Wilson vs. every other young quarterback ever into three distinct sections: Russell Wilson vs. Current Young Quarterbacks, Russell Wilson vs. Modern Era Young Quarterbacks and Russell Wilson vs. Historical Young Quarterbacks.
Let’s get at it.
Russell Wilson vs. Current Young Quarterbacks
If Russell Wilson isn’t even the best young quarterback of his class (or draft classes around him), how would we expect him to be the best young quarterback ever? Well, we wouldn’t. But starting there will certainly help.
For this section, I’ve analyzed the players who fit the definition of a young quarterback, and ones who were also drafted in 2010 or later.
In total, this equates to seven quarterbacks. And if you’d like me to count Robert Griffin III, who's played 28 games, I will. So that’s eight.
Two of them, Sam Bradford and Christian Ponder, are about as effective on the field as I am at hitting long-range jumpers, so we’ll casually get rid of them. Another, Ryan Tannehill, embodies the word mediocre. Peace out.
That leaves us with Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. I’m only involving RGIII because, as I mentioned before, there are going to be exceptions to these rules. And it’s just another instance where I get to say Russell Wilson is better than the Redskins’ passer.
Colin Kaepernick, however, is not part of this study due to games started (though his metrics are not as good as Wilson's).
I’ve written about how quarterback wins don’t matter, so I’m not going to reference playoff victories or regular season team records throughout this article. Not only would that be hypocritical, but it would take away the key lesson: Russell Wilson, despite playing on a team with a solid defense, has been really, really good.
Instead, I’ll be looking at our trusty Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. More specifically, I’ll be analyzing NEP on a total, passing and per pass basis. If you’ve never been to numberFire.com before, you may have no idea what NEP is. Instead of explaining it here, I’ll kindly point you to our glossary.
Below is a chart depicting the Passing NEP per season for each of these current young quarterbacks, as well as their points added on each drop back (NEP/P) and their average Total NEP per season, which factors in rushing metrics.
|Quarterback||Passing NEP per Season||Passing NEP/P||Total NEP per Season|
|Robert Griffin III||47.25||0.10||80.69|
As you can see, Russell Wilson owns the group in every category. Owns them. The most alarming number comes in the form of his per drop back NEP, where he’s been nearly twice as efficient as Cam Newton, and three times as effective as Andrew Luck.
One thing to keep in mind here: Wilson isn’t always asked to win games with his arm. The number of drop backs that he’s seen compared to these other young passers is lower, which allows for (potentially) higher efficiency.
While I do believe this to be true, one important thing to note is that Passing NEP (not Passing NEP/P) is a cumulative statistic. In other words, even if a higher-volume passer was just a little bit less efficient than Wilson with each drop back, that passer would still see a higher Passing and Total NEP.
Not in this case. Despite a lower volume of throws (especially compared to Andrew Luck), Russell Wilson has had far better Passing NEP totals than any of these quarterbacks. In fact, his rookie season saw a better Passing NEP, 84.01, than any single season from any of these listed quarterbacks.
You could argue that he’s had more support, and I think that’s a valid discussion to have. However, to me, his numbers are so far superior compared to anyone else’s that I’m not sure it even matters. And it’s not as though he’s had Reggie Wayne or AJ Green, either.
Russell Wilson is the best young quarterback we’ve seen since 2010. Almost easily.
Russell Wilson vs. Modern Era Young Quarterbacks
I’m fully aware that “Modern Era” is a dumb way to phrase this, but with this section, I’ll be talking through quarterbacks from 2000 through 2009.
Who’s contained in this group? Oh, you know, just a few Super Bowl champion gunslingers, including one of the best quarterbacks to ever live. No big deal.
The “Modern Era Young Quarterbacks” (it’s still dumb, I know) include names like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Marc Bulger and this guy who plays for the Patriots.
Because we’re analyzing more years here (2000 through 2009), the sample size is larger. And with a larger sample size, Russell Wilson’s got tougher competition.
Before we get started, can we just throw Alex Smith out of this discussion? Thanks.
Unlike the current young passers, the quarterbacks in this group have clearly played more than three seasons, the limitations I set when defining a young quarterback. But once you played three years, you’re no longer an inexperienced passer. Therefore, there’s no reason for me to analyze Tom Brady’s 2007 season – I’m only going to look at 2000 to 2002, Tom Brady’s first three seasons in the league.
Just like the table above, below are the numbers for each quarterback involved in this group.
|Quarterback||Passing NEP per Season||Passing NEP/P||Total NEP per Season|
Note: Carson Palmer sat out his first season, so only his first two seasons with a drop back were analyzed. In addition, Marc Bulger’s career took twists and turns, but I still looked at his first three seasons.
Before I go in depth with this chart, I want to first point out what some may consider a flaw with looking at Passing NEP per season. Because we’re viewing this from the perspective of just two or three seasons, one bad year can skew the average quite a bit. For instance, Ben Roethlisberger slumped after winning the Super Bowl, accumulating a Passing NEP of under four expected points in his third year. That alone took his average from 66.50 to 45.61.
However, I don’t think this distortion is necessarily a bad thing. It at least show us who was consistent, no?
The one thing I do want to note though is that I didn't average or take into consideration seasons with a considerably low volume of passes. Tom Brady’s rookie season of three attempts, as an example, is not part of his Passing NEP average.
Oh, and for the record, Russell Wilson’s first two seasons were better than Ben Roethlisberger’s. Let’s get that out of the way.
You know who else Russell Wilson was better than? Everyone. Only Matt Ryan had a Passing NEP per drop back that was close to Wilson’s, while the majority of the passers were more along the lines of Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III’s Passing NEP per drop back.
One thing to remember is that the NFL is not just more pass-heavy these days, but it’s also a league that favors the quarterback position more than it did when Tom Brady was a youngster. But again, it’s not as though these quarterbacks are all that close to Russell Wilson production-wise. The Seahawks signal-caller bests each one outside of Ryan in Passing NEP per season, is the most efficient on a per drop back basis, and when you factor in rushing (Total NEP), no one comes close.
In addition, some of these quarterbacks, like Ryan, had the luxury of seeing three seasons in this study, potentially benefiting them. Ryan, for instance, had a Passing NEP of 113.30 in this third year, a number Russell Wilson still has an opportunity to hit.
Though Wilson’s averages are best, I should note that Ryan’s rookie and third seasons were better than Wilson’s first two years from purely a Passing NEP standpoint. And Jay Cutler had a monster 2008 season, helping his totals. But other than that, Wilson’s two seasons as an NFL passer were better than any of the quarterbacks in this group, even when ignoring the fact that he didn’t see as much volume or opportunity.
Again, we revert back to the “but the pressure wasn’t all on him” argument. While I get that with a guy like Wilson – his defense has been the best in the NFL, and the Seahawks running game is nothing to laugh at – I think his numbers are far more impressive to really make that a true argument. Someone like Matt Ryan, who’s really the closest thing to Wilson analyzed so far, has consistently had playmakers around him. That’s something Russell Wilson hasn’t necessarily had.
In the end, I’m all for dubbing Russell Wilson the best young passer we’ve seen since 2000. While that may be surprising, the numbers don’t lie.
Russell Wilson vs. Historical Young Quarterbacks
So the Super Bowl-winning Russell Wilson is the best young quarterback since 2000. Surprised? Oh, it gets better.
In this section, I’ll be looking at every other quarterback that was part of the original 87 (should I capitalize “original”, like it’s a thing?). But unlike the previous sections, I won't be really looking at specific quarterbacks - unfortunately, our Net Expected Points data doesn’t go back to 1925. Instead, I'll look at some traditional metrics, and show you where Wilson's ranked in relation to history.
Before we begin, I think this is a good opportunity to explain one of the main reasons we use Net Expected Points to judge how good or bad a player performs. It's because it captures more of the story. If Quarterback A throws for 200 yards, and Quarterback B throws for 250, should we assume Quarterback B had a better game? What if Quarterback B threw two more interceptions than Quarterback A? What if those interceptions happened in the red zone? What happens if all 250 of those yards came on first and second down, and Quarterback B completed just one of eight passes on third down?
Net Expected Points summarizes each of those individual instances into one nice, clear understandable number. That's why it's so awesome.
Without NEP, truthfully, we’re not as accurate. But there are some things we can still take away from traditional numbers that help prove that Russell Wilson is, indeed, the best young quarterback ever.
Of the 87 passers listed, Russell Wilson’s completion percentage is third best (better than any young quarterback prior to 2000). Wilson's quarterback rating (eww) is the absolute best, even better than Dan Marino’s first three NFL seasons. His touchdown to interception ratio? For Wilson, that's been greater than 2.7 over the first two years of his career. No other young quarterback’s was over 2.25.
How about one of the most widely accepted football statistics, average yards per attempt? Yup, you guessed it – Russell Wilson ranks higher than everyone on the list aside from Otto Graham and Ben Roethlisberger. And when that number is adjusted, he jumps ahead of Big Ben.
With almost any sort of efficiency metric, Russell Wilson is the best.
But just like a lot of what I’ve written about here, a main argument against Wilson is the fact that he plays in an NFL where quarterback passing is more efficient, and that it is easier to be better. Perhaps that’s where Dan Marino’s name pops up as the best youngster to ever toss the pigskin. After all, it's difficult to argue against a sophomore quarterback who threw for over 5,000 yards in an NFL that wasn't so accepting of long balls and pass-first mentalities.
I'm cool with that. If you want Dan Marino to be better, that's fine. At the very least though, I think it’s time we recognize Russell Wilson not just as a game manager, or someone who was in the right place at the right time. We have to look at Wilson as opportunistic – a quarterback who does what he’s asked to do when called upon. Really, are we sure his numbers would suffer if he were to see more opportunity? Are we certain that Russell Wilson is just a product of good coaching, a good defense and smart play calling? Of course that all plays a role, but let's not make it seem as though Wilson's done little.
Wilson's done everything right.
The Greatest Young Quarterback of All Time
I’m a believer. I believe we’re watching the best young quarterback in NFL history.
That’s not to say he’ll end up as the best passer to ever play the game, or that other players – like an Andrew Luck – won’t outperform him from here on out. This is just to say that, even if we throw quarterback wins (a stupid statistic) out the window, Russell Wilson still wins.
And perhaps the best part is that, unlike Gary Coleman, Russell Wilson will only be getting better with age.