Early Career Quarterback Numbers: Is Ryan Tannehill in Trouble?

Is it possible that we already know whether or not Ryan Tannehill will be a success?

Back in January, I rambled on and on about judging a quarterback based on his rookie season. While coaches and owners want to give their quarterbacks a few years to develop, my thought was that, if they weren’t good from the start, they probably weren’t going to be very good period. And the results, while not totally scientific, showed just that.

Today I plan to do something similar, but with a focus on the first two real seasons of a quarterback’s career. Instead of trying to explain this in theory, I’ll just give you an example: Aaron Rodgers.

Alright, maybe I should be a little more detailed. Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three years before getting his chance as a starter in the league. And when he did, he performed really well. We pretty much knew from the start that he was going to be a special NFL quarterback.

On the other end, JaMarcus Russell - the anti-Aaron Rodgers - mostly sat out his first season (66 pass attempts), and as soon as he started playing consistently for the Raiders, anyone with a pair of eyes knew that he wasn’t a good passer.

Those are the two extremes in this study, but they provide a good example of what I've set to figure out: Are we able to quickly judge a quarterback’s potential – or how good a quarterback is – based on his first two seasons in the league?

To figure this out, I first looked at quarterbacks since the year 2000 that saw significant snaps during their first two seasons as a starter. For Aaron Rodgers, that happened in 2008 and 2009, despite 2005 being his rookie campaign. For someone like Matt Ryan, that occurred during his first two years in the league, as he started as a rookie and continued into his sophomore campaign.

”Significant” can simply be defined as 150 or more drop backs – to make this study, the quarterback had to see 150 or more drop backs during his first two seasons as a starter in the league. If he was hurt or benched the year after he began seeing the field, he unfortunately wasn’t included.

After this filter – and keep in mind, this is since the year 2000 – 71 quarterbacks remained. Some of the quarterbacks were drafted to be franchise players, while others were selected late as backups. That doesn’t really matter though, because all I really want to know is whether or not we can accurately assess a quarterback after seeing him for two straight seasons as a starter in the NFL.

The Results

In the rookie quarterback study, I looked only at Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) when evaluating how well a passer performed (If you’re unsure what NEP is, click here to learn more about it). After doing some thinking, I decided to look at Total NEP for this one, as it includes rushing and some quarterbacks have made a living with their mobility.

To give every quarterback a figure of comparison, I added the two seasons’ Total NEP together to get one, formal number. In essence, this number represents the amount of points the player added (or lost) for his team during his first two years as a significant starter. And because it’s Total NEP, it includes rushing statistics.

Remember, I’m trying to see if we can accurately judge how good a quarterback is going to perform throughout his career based on his first two legitimate seasons in the NFL. I think a lot of people assume that the position needs time, when my intuition says a bad quarterback is usually – not always – a bad quarterback from the start.

Let's get at it. Of the 71 quarterbacks since 2000 analyzed, the below 10 scored highest through the first two seasons as starters in the league.

RankPlayerTotal NEP
1Aaron Rodgers253.30
2Tony Romo235.64
3Cam Newton222.31
4Russell Wilson209.67
5Jay Cutler176.57
6Daunte Culpepper175.17
7Robert Griffin III161.39
8Ben Roethlisberger153.38
9Matt Ryan150.89
10Andrew Luck150.16

Is anyone surprised? I sure hope not. Perhaps you didn’t expect to see Jay Cutler listed in fifth, but if you recall, the dude was a stud over his first two seasons as starter in Denver. And if not for injuries throughout his career, maybe we wouldn't still talk about him as a fringe franchise quarterback. And as much as people hate Tony Romo, it’s time to get over it – he’s a good quarterback. In fact, if you were to divide the Total NEP scores by the number of passes and rushes each player had in this study, Tony Romo’s rate of adding points for his team is higher than any other player. Take that, haters.

On the opposite side of things, here are the bottom 10 passers.

RankPlayerTotal NEP
62Rex Grossman-87.76
63Charlie Frye-91.31
64Tim Couch-92.71
65Alex Smith-114.89
66Kyle Boller-115.87
67Sam Bradford-117.75
68Blaine Gabbert-127.32
69Joey Harrington-138.93
70David Carr-140.34
71JaMarcus Russell-140.95

I know people want Sam Bradford to be good, but the fact is, regardless of the weapons he’s had, Bradford hasn’t exactly produced at the pro level. Especially during his first two seasons in the league. I explain why I’m not a huge fan of Bradford here, if you're interested.

The only player on this list that really has done anything worthwhile in the NFL at an individual level is Alex Smith, and plenty of things had to go in his favor to get to where he's at today. Though Rex Grossman got to a Super Bowl, let’s not kid ourselves – he’s a much better New Year’s Eve partier than NFL quarterback.

Good so far? Well, like the rookie quarterback study, it’s a pretty consistent reveal. Here are the next 25 on the upper end of the list.

RankPlayerTotal NEP
11Colin Kaepernick145.71
12Chad Pennington129.08
13Philip Rivers127.37
14Nick Foles102.62
15Carson Palmer90.50
16Marc Bulger75.69
17Jake Delhomme65.40
18Jay Fiedler64.25
19Josh Freeman56.90
20Sage Rosenfels56.54
21Matt Cassel54.45
22Joe Flacco51.04
23Matt Schaub46.87
24Andy Dalton42.76
25Matt Hasselbeck40.82
26Tom Brady36.00
27Michael Vick35.25
28Jason Campbell34.11
29Derek Anderson32.25
30David Garrard32.12
31Shaun Hill31.34
32Aaron Brooks27.15
33Chad Henne16.48
34Eli Manning15.11
35Jake Locker11.69

You’ll naturally find a few shockers (I had forgotten Jay Fiedler was a person before I started this research), but in general, the list – when you add it to the top 10 one above – includes nearly (I emphasize nearly because one key player is missing) every good quarterback we’ve seen over the last decade and a half. Chad Henne, Sage Rosenfels, Jason Campbell, Derek Anderson and Shaun Hill may not make a whole lot of sense, but when you compare this list to the next one, you’ll see that it’s not so bad.

Below is a list of the remaining players, ranked 36 through 61.

RankPlayerTotal NEP
36Tarvaris Jackson6.46
37Christian Ponder2.38
38Dan Orlovsky1.03
39Damon Huard-1.81
40Byron Leftwich-2.82
41Tommy Maddox-4.11
42Trent Edwards-7.59
43Vince Young-8.71
44Colt McCoy-10.16
45Ryan Tannehill-10.65
46Bruce Gradkowski-14.91
47Kevin Kolb-16.63
48Brandon Weeden-34.57
49Anthony Wright-38.42
50Mark Sanchez-39.81
51Matt Moore-43.68
52Matthew Stafford-43.78
53Quincy Carter-44.12
54Patrick Ramsey-47.17
55Rob Johnson-52.11
56Josh McCown-54.08
57Drew Brees-54.16
58Jim Miller-54.37
59J.P. Losman-67.08
60Ryan Fitzpatrick-73.28
61John Skelton-81.85

You may have been wondering where Drew Brees is, and there’s your answer. He is, quite simply, the biggest outlier within this entire study. During his first two seasons as a starter in the league (remember, it was with San Diego), Brees totaled a putrid -54.16 Total NEP. That’s right – one of the greatest quarterbacks of the era was completely dreadful to start his career. He was Rob Johnson. He was Patrick Ramsey.

I don’t think that’s reason to believe the numbers above are complete nonsense. The only other passer in this entire group that will more than likely sustain a starting role until his age deteriorates is Matthew Stafford. Plenty of people have questioned his ability too, given he plays and relies on a historic receiver each and every week.

The jury is still out on Ryan Tannehill, but like the rookie study, things may not be looking up for the Dolphins’ passer. He’s certainly far behind the rest of his draft class progress-wise, and his inconsistent play has left a lot to be desired. Blame it on the offensive line, blame it on the receivers - there's a chance he's just not going to make it.

The Takeaway

Per usual, I’m not setting guidelines and saying that this is the end-all to early career quarterback evaluation. But like the findings in my last study that was similar to this, we can’t ignore what the numbers dictate.

Especially at the extremes. When you look at the top players on this list, you find perennial Pro Bowlers, Super Bowl champions and 4,500-yard passers. When analyzing the bottom, you find players no longer in the league, career backups and a lot of ex-Browns.

The middle, like we normally see, is a little more muddled. But even as you browse those specific lists, you’ll find a difference between players who are talked about as potential starters versus the ones who are always playing behind other passers.

The key takeaway: Don’t fall in love with quarterbacks who underperform over the first two significant years of their career. Chances are, they’re probably just not meant to be starters in the NFL.