Has Blake Bortles Improved This Season?
Heading into Week 11, the Jaguars own the league’s fourth-best point differential, lead the league in points allowed per game (14.9) and rank ninth in points scored per game (25.1).
The defensive component here is not all that surprising, considering that Jacksonville was strong on that side of the ball in 2016. But what about the offense?
While the team’s point total is a bit skewed by its 4 defensive touchdowns (the offense itself is just 16th in points per drive, per Football Outsiders), the Jaguars are still 10th in yards per drive and 13th in yards per play (5.5).
In terms of our opponent-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play rankings, they are ranked seventh. (NEP measures each play’s impact on the scoreline and you can read more about it in our glossary). On the ground, only two teams have been better and through the air, they are eighth...which brings us to the elephant in the room:
Before the season, it was fair to expect Bortles to hold the team back, regardless of the strides the defense took. Of the 25 quarterbacks to throw at least 1,000 passes between 2014 (his rookie season) and last season, here is how he ranked:
|Net Yards / Pass||24|
Yikes. Coming into the season, we had a 1,700-pass sample that suggested Bortles was among the worst quarterbacks in the league. But while he still may not inspire a ton of confidence, he has hardly impeded Jacksonville's rise to the league's upper echelons.
So what has been different this year?
Getting More Out of His Completions
What is remarkable about Bortles’ improved production is how similar much of his stat line is to last year, when he tied for 29th in NEP per drop back.
The sack rate, which was already tied for 11th last season, has improved to the point where he now ranks eighth. He deserves some credit here, as Jacksonville is 27th in pressure rate, according to Sports Info Solutions charting data at Football Outsiders.
In terms of the terrible completion percentage and subpar touchdown and interception rates, we’ve seen the same old Bortles. His success rate (the percentage of drop backs that yield positive NEP) has only risen moderately, from 44.0% in 2016 (27th among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs) to 20th (45.2%).
The improvements have mostly come via better results on Bortles’ comparatively rare completions.
Over his first three seasons, he averaged 11.2 yards per completion and just 10.6 last season, which ranked 26th. This season, he is up to 11.6, which is tied for 17th. He's not exactly the second coming of Daryle Lamonica, but it has helped Jacksonville field a competent passing attack.
There is also more to the story here than yardage.
Bortles is averaging 0.98 NEP per completion with a 19.2% failed completion rate, ranking eighth and fifth, respectively, among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 50 completions. (The league averages are 0.90 and 23%.) Last season, he only posted marks of 0.85 and 20.0%.
The disconnect between his improved but still middling yards per completion and NEP per completion averages can largely be explained by first downs. Bortles may not complete a high rate of passes, but when he does complete them, they have often been for first downs.
62.3% of Jacksonville’s completions have moved the chains, the fourth-highest rate in the league. On all drop backs, they have gained a first down 34.4% of the time to rank 10th in the league after finishing 22nd last year.
They have been especially successful on third and fourth downs. Yardage on such plays count the same as that on the other two downs, but it is actually more valuable for its ability to extend drives. NEP reflects this.
The Jaguars are ninth in the league in aerial third/fourth down conversion rate, moving the sticks 38.4% of the time. This is a somewhat higher rate than we might expect given their average distance to go (7.7 yards), which is 13th-shortest.
It is also a sharp contrast with last year when Jacksonville's passing game was 26th (34.3%) despite the fifth-shortest average distance needed (7.0).
So let’s review: Bortles is again completing a low rate of his passes but getting a first down on a high percentage of them. His overall success rate is below average, but his failed completion rate has been one of the league’s best.
Given this profile, you might surmise that Jacksonville has become a vertical offense and is throwing deep with great frequency.
You would be wrong.
Among the 37 qualifying quarterbacks, Bortles is tied for 31st in air yards per completion and 26th in air yards per throw, according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Jacksonville is 16th in percentage of passes thrown at least 15 yards and on these throws, Bortles has not done much. He is completing 31.3% of them, ranking 28th out of the 35 quarterbacks with at least 20 such passes.
And for all the first downs he has gained through the air, Bortles’ average pass has actually been behind the sticks. His average throw has traveled 0.8 yards shorter than the yardage needed for a first down, which is tied for 25th, per NextGen Stats.
Jacksonville owes much of its production in the passing game to its receivers doing damage after the catch. The Jaguars rank seventh in yards after catch per reception (6.1) and 54.8% of their passing yards have come after the catch (the eighth-highest rate), according to STATS.com.
Marqise Lee has led the way here and is 12th among wide receivers in total yards after the catch (YAC) with 221, per AirYards.com. Lee has also upped his YAC average from 5.4 to 5.8. The NFL average is 5.2 this season.
On a per catch basis, Jacksonville’s leaders have been running backs Chris Ivory (9.2) and Leonard Fournette (8.5), and tight end Marcedes Lewis (8.1). Ivory was productive in this regard last year, but Lee and Lewis (5.3) were less effective after the catch in 2016.
Bortles probably deserves a share of the credit here, as there is something to be said for a quarterback leading receivers into space so they can accumulate YAC.
Then again, previous research suggests quarterbacks don’t have a ton of impact on YAC. Considering this and the fact that most of Bortles’ other stats remain mediocre, we should probably continue to wait before declaring him an above-average passer.