Is Nick Foles an Upgrade at Quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars?
As expected, the Jacksonville Jaguars have signed Nick Foles, presumably to be their starting quarterback. They gave him a four-year deal worth $88 million, which is the 10th-highest total value for any current quarterback contract, per Spotrac. That includes the 13th-most guaranteed money at the position.
After benching Blake Bortles last year, it looked clear that the Jags were going to look somewhere else to address the position in the future. Owning a top-10 draft pick, a rookie was one possibility, but believing they're still in a 'win-now' mode, the team went with the top veteran on the market.
This year's free agent class was thin on quarterback options, as the Jags paid big to land the top player available. But after being mired in mediocrity at the position for years, have the Jags found someone that can elevate them to new heights?
How Good Is Nick Foles?
The first thing to look into is just how good Foles is. This year's free agent class doesn't have much to offer at the quarterback position, and combining that with the "Super Bowl MVP" reputation Foles was a hot commodity this year. But a deeper look at the numbers shows teams may have been wise to take a more conservative approach in negotiations with the journeyman.
The two efficiency metrics I'm going to lean on most here are Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A), which weighs touchdowns, interceptions and sacks in a quarterbacks' numbers, and numberFire's own Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, which measures how many points a player contributes to his team's expected total on any given play.
Looking at passers with at least 100 drop backs in each season, Foles has only ranked better than 15th in the NFL in one of the six seasons in which he has qualified -- his outstanding sophomore campaign in 2013, in which he ranked fourth while also coming in with a league-best 9.18 ANY/A.
Outside of that season, though, his best finish in Passing NEP per drop back is 15th, followed by finishes of 24th, 26th, 30th and 42nd.
He hasn't had enough attempts to qualify for Pro Football Reference's ANY/A leaderboards since 2015, but his finishes in his first four NFL seasons were 27th, 1st, 20th and 34th. If he had qualified in 2017 and 2018, he would have finished 28th and 17th, respectively.
Now, it's not always fair to just look at how efficient a player has been and write them off. Football is, more than maybe any other sport, a team game. Playing in a bad offense can really hamstring someone's efficiency in a given season, so it makes sense to compare players to their teammates at the same position.
Foles has had a teammate drop back at least 100 times in each of his NFL seasons, so we get a pretty solid sample to compare him against. Here's how his Passing NEP per drop back stacks up compared to the teammate with the most drop backs in each of his NFL seasons:
With the exception of that 2013 campaign, which really seems to be what is buoying his value, Foles' teams have generally been better off with somebody else under center. Those teammates aren't exactly stiff competition either, and the fact that he has failed to out-perform Mark Sanchez and Case Keenum more recently than he has turned in a top season should be a massive red flag.
How Bad Was Blake Bortles?
The butt of his fair share of quarterback jokes through most of his career, Blake Bortles has a reputation as one of the worst consistent starting quarterbacks in the league, so let's look at just how much of that is backed up by the numbers.
Obviously those rookie numbers are egregious, so it's easy to see where the reputation originated. But ultimately, the rest of his seasons have seen him generate some fairly Foles-tier numbers, ranking 35th, 16th, 30th and 27th in Passing NEP per drop back over the last four years.
For Bortles we don't have the opportunity to compare him to his teammates as much as we do with Foles, as 2018 is the first time he's had a teammate drop back at least 100 times in a season. Cody Kessler stacked up even worse than Bortles in 2018 though, posting -0.17 Passing NEP per drop back, which ranked 41st among 43 qualifying quarterbacks. Even if we assume Cody Kessler is worse than Mark Sanchez or Case Keenum, that's a decent indication that the environment around Bortles held him back in 2018 in a way that we haven't really seen for Foles.
And even still, Bortles and Foles' numbers come out pretty darn similar if we look at the last five seasons. In total, Bortles has a 5.37 ANY/A and averages 0.00 Passing NEP per drop back. Foles has a slightly better 5.58 ANY/A, but comes in with -0.01 Passing NEP per drop back.
Yes, Foles has shown way more upside than Bortles ever has with that elite 2013 season and a few very strong showings in the postseason. But one season six years ago doesn't hold much weight when we have over 1000 drop backs from Foles to analyze since then, and no matter how big the stage, a small sample of a few games should not override much longer-holding trends. Bortles is coming off a bad year, yes, but to assume Foles is a definitive upgrade looks to be mired in recency bias.
Once the 2018 Super Bowl wrapped up, odds quickly came out for the 2019 season. Over at FanDuel Sportsbook, the Jags opened with +4500 odds to win the 2019 Super Bowl on February 5, while also getting +2700 odds to win the AFC on February 19. Their Super Bowl odds improved to +4000 on March 9, after rumors of the Foles' signing had begun.
Both of those lines moved well in the Jags' favor after the signing, and they now sit at +3300 to win the Super Bowl and +1700 to win the AFC.This implies that adding Foles increased their chances of winning the AFC Championship by about 2.0% and of winning the Super Bowl by 0.7%.
Now we obviously can't ascribe that difference entirely to the switch from Bortles to Foles, because the early lines would have already been factoring in the likelihood that Bortles would not be coming back, and it's unclear how much weight was being given to the chance they sign Foles compared to the chance they grab a rookie quarterback. But ultimately, with Foles representing a minimal upgrade, at best, from Blake Bortles, the movement in the betting lines has removed any potential value a bet on the Jags' futures would have offered.
There's no reason to be any higher on the Jacksonville offense with Foles at the helm than we have been about them in recent seasons, and with a hefty contract on the books, this deal could be trouble for the Jaguars for the foreseeable future.