2019 NFL Draft: How Quarterbacks Fared Against Top Pass Defenses
During my senior year of college, I was not looking to expend gobs of mental energy on schoolwork. I was desperately scrambling against the clock to avoid unemployment, and weighing the pros and cons of nuclear proliferation in the post-Cold War era wasn't going to help me get closer to that goal.
Instead, I opted to take a class on the solar system. It included a question about whether the sun was larger than the Milky Way galaxy, and unless you're a flat-Earth truther, you're probably not going to mess that one up. Let's pray Kyrie Irving opted for something else in his time at Duke.
If I were to -- fingers crossed -- get an A in this class, it would count as a mark of 4.0 on my GPA. Because I went to a school where all classes were weighted the same, this would be no different than if I had written a term paper outlining a path to peace between Jose Canseco's Twitter account and proper punctuation, a task even the greatest minds have yet to conquer. A layup was equivalent to a fadeaway two with a hand in your face.
Because of this, if a prospective employer wanted to evaluate me based on my GPA, they'd see only one number. There would be no context behind this number, and two students with the exact same GPA may have taken wildly different paths to get there. Without that context, the number is close to meaningless.
This is also one of the risks of evaluating college quarterbacks based on their stats. A 400-yard, 4-touchdown day against Illinois is the same as dropping that silliness against Clemson. Illinois is my introduction to the solar system class, and Clemson is organic chemistry.
This hasn't stopped college stats from telling us which first-round picks are more likely to succeed, as we saw in our ranking of this year's draft class based on their numbers. Among first-round picks since 2000 who have been top-10 passers based on numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) in one third of their qualified NFL seasons, the average adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) during their final year of college is 9.5. For all other first-round picks, their average final-year AY/A is 8.5. College stats do matter when evaluating quarterbacks.
But as with GPAs, it can't hurt to have a little extra context. Today, we're going to try to get that context on the incoming crop of rookies.
Specifically, we're going to look at what they did against top-50 pass defenses, based on Football Outsiders' S&P+ metric. There are 130 teams total in the Football Bowl Subdivision, so while this doesn't necessarily mean we're looking at the most elite competition, we're at least chopping off the cupcakes.
There are two separate discussions to be had here. First, we simply want to see how often a quarterback was forced to face these types of defenses. Doing so more often would likely drag down their full-season stats relative to the other quarterbacks in the class. Second, we want to see how they performed in this split to make sure their stats weren't fully propped up by lower-level competition.
Here, we'll be focusing on the same seven quarterbacks as we did in our statistical ranking piece: Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Will Grier, Ryan Finley, Daniel Jones, and Jarrett Stidham. What can we learn by looking at what they did in tougher settings? Let's check it out.
Varying Levels of Difficulty
Before we dig into how these quarterbacks performed against solid defenses, we first want to see who had the toughest road. The range here is pretty wide.
Among the seven quarterbacks we're looking at are two from the Big 12 and two from the SEC. The Big 12 had some legit defenses in it this year (TCU and Iowa State were both top 25 against the pass), so the stereotype is a bit overblown, but this did create a wide gap in strength of schedules.
This table shows how many games each quarterback played against a top-50 pass defense, the average pass-defense ranking of their opponents, and what percentage of his total attempts for the season came against those defenses. Grier, Lock, Finley, and Stidham all had one game against an FCS school, and those rankings won't be included in the averages. But Lock still had the toughest path of them all.
|Versus Top-50 Pass Ds||Games||Avg. Ranking||Percentage of Attempts|
Of Lock's 437 pass attempts in his senior year, 247 came against top-50 pass defenses. This ratio was 12 percentage points higher than that of any other quarterback in the class.
Because of this, we do need to be a bit less strict about Lock's passing efficiency metrics than we might be with some of the others. Having so much volume against tough defenses will naturally drag down your efficiency, so Lock should get a slight boost in our minds. We'll talk more about him in the section on how these players performed against these defenses.
Grier, on the other hand, will get no such love here. He finished the season with a 10.7 AY/A overall -- better than everybody except Murray -- but he did so largely by smashing poor competition. He sat out the team's bowl game due to an ankle injury, which is a big missed opportunity. West Virginia faced Syracuse -- the 48th-ranked pass defense -- in that game, which would have given us additional data on Grier against tougher foes. Instead, we're forced to view his overall numbers with a healthy degree of skepticism.
Murray's the other Big 12 quarterback in the class, and luckily for him, Oklahoma's stellar season got him extra reps against tough opponents. One of his games against a top-50 foe was in the Big 12 championship game and another was in the playoff against Alabama. This got his sample up to five games and 39.79% of his pass attempts against these defenses. It's still the second-lowest mark in the group, but it's at least far beyond Grier.
In theory, you could use this as a mark against Murray, and some likely will. But that argument gets a bit tougher once you dig into what he did against those teams.
How They Fared Against Tougher Opponents
In 2018, Murray broke the NCAA FBS record for AY/A in a single season, sitting up at 13.0. As mentioned, a "good" mark in that category for a first-round pick is 9.5. So Murray's levels of efficiency were on another planet.
This remained true when he faced tough competition.
Here's a breakdown of how the quarterbacks fared against top-50 pass defenses. In order to keep the sample sizes in mind, their percentage of pass attempts against tough defenses is included once again.
|Versus Top-50 Pass Ds||Percentage of Attempts||AY/A|
Yep. He good.
If Murray's 12.2 AY/A had been his full-season mark, it still would have been the third-best mark of all time, trailing only two seasons of Baker Mayfield and one of Tua Tugavailoa. So although Murray didn't have the largest sample against these defenses, he shredded them when he got the chance.
Because both Murray and Mayfield are Heisman winners from the same school, there will naturally be comparisons between the two as April approaches. From a raw statistical perspective, the two were quite close, so this comparison makes sense. But there are a few key differences that are worth discussing here.
The first was one we touched on in the original piece: experience. Coming out of school, Mayfield had 48 games with at least 10 pass attempts through his age-22 season. Murray has 19 through his age-21 season. Experience is key for college quarterback prospects, and Mayfield towers above Murray here.
The second actually does revolve around the schedules they faced. Yes, Murray shredded these top-50 pass defenses, but he still couldn't quite measure up to Mayfield in terms of either volume or efficiency in the split.
|Versus Top-50 Pass Ds||Games||Percentage of Pass Attempts||AY/A|
|Mayfield in 2017||7||49.50%||13.5|
|Murray in 2018||5||39.79%||12.2|
Mayfield's 13.5 AY/A against these defenses was actually better than his full-season mark of 12.9, and he did this over a much larger sample than Murray did.
This means that Mayfield entered the NFL with more experience, more volume against quality foes, and higher efficiency against those tough defenses than Murray will have. Murray's athleticism clearly soars beyond that of Mayfield's, and Murray's head and shoulders beyond every other quarterback in this class from a statistical perspective. Mayfield was also arguably the best statistical prospect of all time entering the draft, so any comparisons to him are unfair to be sure. It's just good context to keep in mind whenever you see Murray's and Mayfield's numbers paired together.
The other player who comes out smelling pretty rosy in this analysis is Haskins. He was in the middle of the pack in terms of volume against top-50 defenses, but his efficiency there (9.9 AY/A) was almost equal to what he did in his full sample (10.3 AY/A).
Haskins seemed to cement himself as a top-end pick in "The Game" against Ohio State's rival, Michigan, in the regular season finale. Michigan finished the season ranked 21st against the pass, but Haskins dropped the hammer on them to the tune of 396 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no picks. He followed that up with 499 yards and 5 touchdowns in the Big 10 Championship Game against Northwestern (though they were ranked 78th against the pass), earning the Heisman hype he gained down the stretch.
Haskins wasn't quite as efficient as Murray, he doesn't have the same athleticism, and he shares the concerns around a lack of experience. But from just an efficiency perspective, there are no holes to poke in what Haskins did this past season.
Let's circle back to Grier here. On that chart above, he doesn't look too bad with an AY/A of 8.74, third among these seven quarterbacks. That was despite one complete dude against Iowa State.
|Grier vs. Top-50 Pass Ds||Comp||Att||Yards||TDs||INTs|
The Cyclones also sacked Grier seven times in that game. The other games went well, and TCU was an even better pass defense than Iowa State, but it's hard to get a great read on Grier. There were already red flags around his age and experience levels, but this just adds a bit extra juice to the skepticism.
You'll note on that table above that Lock struggled when he faced top-50 pass defenses, finishing with a 6.2 AY/A. That could very easily be an issue for him, dulling down the boost he got from facing such a tough schedule. But there's also a potential explanation for the lackluster results.
Mizzou's top receiver, Emanuel Hall -- who averaged 22.4 yards per reception this year -- missed five games during the regular season. That's going to make things tough on Lock to begin with. To make matters even worse, four of the five games Hall missed were against top-50 pass defenses.
This means that not only did Lock face a tough schedule, but in four of those seven more difficult games, he was playing without his top target. Once you break down Lock's splits with and without Hall against these defenses, you can start to see how impactful Hall's injury was.
|Lock vs. Top-50 Pass Ds||Attempts||TDs||INTs||AY/A|
|With Emanuel Hall||110||9||2||9.0|
|Without Emanuel Hall||137||1||5||3.9|
Lock's three games with Hall against top-50 pass defenses were better than his full-season AY/A of 8.5. A lot of that was likely dragged down by what happened when Hall was out, which leaves us with a bit of a conundrum in terms of evaluating Lock.
On the one hand, we could use Lock's performance without Hall as a negative, saying that Hall propped up Lock and made the signal caller look better than he would have otherwise. That would be a legit concern.
On the other hand, you could say that Lock was unlucky with regards to the timing of when Hall got hurt. The injury occurred right before the most brutal stretch of the season for Lock, making an already difficult task that much tougher.
If we want to decide where we should sit on this debate, it might be helpful to look at Mizzou's game against Memphis. That was the only game that Lock played against a non-top-end defense while Hall was out (Memphis ranked 99th against the pass), meaning we're seeing him without his best weapon in a less gruesome environment. And Lock balled out.
He finished that game with 350 passing yards and 4 touchdowns on just 29 attempts, good for a 226.2 passing efficiency rating. That was his best mark of the entire year, and again, he did this without Hall. That seems to toss some cold water on the argument that Hall propped up Lock.
Once you combine all of this together, Lock does seem to be somebody worthy of being a first-round selection. He's got gobs of experience, he had a 10.2 AY/A in 2017, and he performed well against tough defenses this year when there was talent around him. There's more to this guy than just a big arm and a large frame.
The final person worth mentioning here is Jones. The schedule argument does not work in his favor. Not only did Jones rank fifth in the percentage of pass attempts against top-50 pass defenses, but he easily ranked last in AY/A (5.3) when facing those teams. That's a sub-ideal combination.
When you look at Jones' four games against the top-50 pass defenses, it looks even a bit worse. His struggles against Clemson, Virginia, and Miami are understandable -- all were 22nd or better against the pass -- but his only bright spot was in the Independence Bowl.
There, Duke was facing Temple, the seventh-ranked pass defense. And Jones torched them with 423 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 2 picks on 41 attempts. Even with the two picks, it was arguably his best game of the season.
But Temple's head coach, Geoff Collins, had left the team prior to their bowl game to take a job at Georgia Tech. They also didn't have stud corner Rock Ya-Sin as he prepared for the NFL Draft. This doesn't completely throw out how good Jones was in that game, and there was definitely still talent on Temple's defense, but it at least takes away some of the shine.
Jones was already facing an uphill battle due to his 6.9 AY/A in his final season, a mark not generally tied to successful first-round picks. An analysis of his schedule doesn't help matters.
When we're focusing on the top end of this year's class, none of them are overly harmed by looking at what they did against respectable defenses. The biggest loser in this analysis is easily Grier, and he's not generally regarded as being in that top tier, anyway.
For Murray, although he wasn't as good as Mayfield last year, he still had unreal numbers. This was true even to an extent against Alabama after falling down 21-0 in the first quarter, a spot where most mortals would have crumbled. Murray continues to look like the top option in this class.
Haskins' schedule was middling, but he performed well within it. This was especially true in crunch time as he had a 12.7 AY/A over his final three games, two of which were against top-50 pass defenses. The questions about him continue to be around his lack of experience rather than what he did on the field.
With Lock, it's a bit of a mixed bag. He struggled overall against top-50 defenses, but he had the toughest schedule in the group, and he did well against all teams when Hall, his top wideout, was healthy. When you consider the full package, there's plenty to like with Lock, and some of the hype around him seems to be justified.
In college, not all 50-yard touchdown bombs are created equal, which does make viewing quarterbacks through the lens of statistics a bit tougher. But at least with this group, the stats largely did seem to tell a fairly accurate tale. The additional context helps us paint a more well-rounded picture of each passer, telling us where the true trouble spots may lie. April's draft will tell us whether teams are comfortable with what they saw after taking that deeper dive.