Which Quarterbacks Faced the Toughest and Easiest Schedules in 2019?

Baker Mayfield struggled in 2019 in part thanks to a tough string of opposing pass defenses. What else can we learn from looking at quarterbacks' schedules, and what does it mean for 2020?

We should have seen Baker Mayfield's 2019 disaster coming.

Not because of Freddie Kitchens; not because of Mayfield's talent; not because of the potential for dysfunction in the lockerroom.

But if we had paid attention to the teams Mayfield had faced in 2018 when he made his massive stretch run, we may have realized that a sophomore slump was fully in the range of outcomes.

The split that sucked us all into Mayfield was from Week 9 on, after Hue Jackson got the boot. It was an eight-game stretch, and it made sense to look at this sample because it was when Kitchens started calling plays.

But five of those eight games came against teams ranked 20th or worse against the pass, based on numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. He got to face the Atlanta Falcons' pit of despair, a banged-up Houston Texans defense, and the going-through-the-motions Cincinnati Bengals twice. Most quarterbacks would put up good stats if they got to face that level of competition.

The NFL is a sport of small samples. We can't change that because we get -- at most -- only 16 games for each team, but it does make evaluation tough. Those small samples make it even more likely that a team will catch a beneficial schedule (or a tough one), altering the glimmer of their statistical outputs.

Going into 2020, we want to avoid repeating the Mayfield incident. As such, let's dive into the schedule each quarterback faced during 2019 to see who may have benefited from their schedule or gotten knocked down unfairly because of it. This should help us pinpoint players due for regression next year.

All schedule strength analysis will revolve around numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the expected points added or subtracted throughout the course of the year. The team-level stats are then adjusted for strength of schedule. For individual quarterbacks, we'll use Passing NEP per drop back, which shows the average expected points added per drop back, including deductions for negative events such as sacks, incompletions, and interceptions.

Which players were at the extremes from a scheduling perspective this year, and what can we expect going forward once we account for that? Let's check it out, starting with those in the Baker zone.

Easy Schedules

The main way we'll be quantifying this is looking at the pass-defense ranking a quarterback was facing on an average drop back. In other words, did your average drop back come against the 14th-ranked pass defense or the 16th? That would matter quite a bit. We'll be using weighted averages here so that if you had two drop backs against the second-ranked pass defense it doesn't count the same as someone who had 40.

For the purposes of this, we'll be looking at only quarterbacks who had at least 300 drop backs. However, it is worth noting that among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, Drew Lock had the easiest schedule with his average drop back coming against the 20.2-ranked pass defense.

Lock's only game against a top-20 pass defense was the snow game against the Kansas City Chiefs, where he had -9.74 Passing NEP. The Chiefs finished the regular season ranked fifth against the pass, so it's a tough test, but it was clearly Lock's worst outing.

This doesn't mean we should write off what Lock did. His 0.14 Passing NEP per drop back ranked 14th out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, and he did that with a thin pass-catching corps after Courtland Sutton. The Denver Broncos are right to move forward and give Lock a chance next year. We should just keep the schedule in mind when looking at what Lock did down the stretch.

After we toss out Lock and others who didn't meet the threshold, here were the 10 quarterbacks who had the easiest schedules this year.

Rank Quarterback Average Pass Defense Rank
1 Sam Darnold 19.5
2 Carson Wentz 19.3
3 Matthew Stafford 18.9
4 Gardner Minshew 18.7
5 Jameis Winston 18.4
6 Tom Brady 18.4
7 Patrick Mahomes 17.8
8 Jacoby Brissett 17.6
9 Dak Prescott 17.6
10 Drew Brees 17.5

It's probably fine to ignore the bottom end of this table. Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Drew Brees all shredded the tough defenses they faced, so the easy schedule shouldn't influence the way we view them. The top of the chart, though, is different.

If seeing Sam Darnold's name on there didn't set off some blaring red lights for you, it should have. We all remember the "seeing ghosts" game, but Darnold also had a stretch of six consecutive games where he faced pass defenses ranked 27th or worse. Despite that, he finished the year ranked 29th in Passing NEP per drop back.

Under new general manager Joe Douglas, the New York Jets are a lock to tidy up their offensive line this offseason, which will help Darnold a bunch. And they should be able to snag some high-quality receivers in the draft. But if they let Robby Anderson walk and face a tougher stretch of defenses next year, Darnold and Adam Gase could be in for a rough 2020.

The general sentiment around Carson Wentz this year has been to give him a pass because the team had a complete and utter lack of pass-catchers. That's probably the right way to view things. But Wentz was aided by a lenient schedule.

Based solely on the schedule Wentz faced, his expected Passing NEP per drop back would have been 0.16. Instead, he was down at 0.10, ranking 18th among qualified quarterbacks. It's hard to pin all of that on the receivers, especially when he was operating behind a top-notch offensive line most of the year.

Wentz's pass-catchers will get better this offseason, and we absolutely must consider context for all quarterbacks when we evaluate them. You can count on one hand the number of quarterbacks who are not dependent on the talent around them. Because of this, we should enter 2020 assuming that Wentz will take a step forward from where he was this past year. We just have to keep in mind that the rough marks from Wentz this past year came against a firmly lackluster string of opponents.

Potentially even more so than Lock, the schedule should give us pause when it comes to evaluating Gardner Minshew. Of Minshew's 503 drop backs, only 55 (10.93%) came against top-10 pass defenses, the second-lowest mark, trailing only Jameis Winston.

Minshew underperformed his expected Passing NEP per drop back by 0.09, the second-worst mark among rookies, besting only Daniel Jones. Lock was only 0.02 worse than expected based on his schedule. The Jacksonville Jaguars have a big decision on their hands with Minshew and Nick Foles, and it would be wise of them to factor the teams Minshew faced into their analysis.

Toughest Schedules

It's possible the intro of this piece may have lowered your long-term outlook on Mayfield. He really struggled this year, so that should be a possible takeaway from this season.

That doesn't mean Mayfield's fate is sealed. He was on the other end of the schedule spectrum this year.

Rank Quarterback Average Pass Defense Rank
1 Russell Wilson 13.3
2 Baker Mayfield 14.0
3 Matt Ryan 14.2
4 Kyler Murray 14.3
5 Jared Goff 14.5
6 Andy Dalton 15.0
7 Deshaun Watson 15.1
8 Philip Rivers 15.5
9 Ryan Fitzpatrick 15.5
10 Derek Carr 15.6

Only 23.87% of Mayfield's attempts came against defenses ranked outside the top 20, the lowest mark in the league. Jared Goff was the only other player under 25% in that department. Mayfield didn't get many lay-up matchups.

In the tough matchups he faced, Mayfield performed pretty well. He amassed -0.03 Passing NEP per drop back against top-10 pass defenses, better than the league average of -0.05. He was below average against other defenses, but he didn't completely flop when the Cleveland Browns were in tight spots.

That's valuable as Kevin Stefanski takes over this team. The Browns' schedule is also primed to open up next year as they face some sub-par pass defenses in the NFC East. If they can get Odell Beckham healthy and shore up the offensive line, it's easy to envision a rebound for Mayfield in year three. Don't give up on him yet.

Goff, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray all make this list while playing in the NFC West, meaning they all got to face the San Francisco 49ers twice and will do so again next year. But they won't face the AFC North next year, shedding the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, instead going up against the AFC East. While that means they'll have to deal with the New England Patriots, it also gives them juicy matchups with the Jets and Miami Dolphins.

If you look at the average pass defense rank teams will face in 2020, the NFC West schedules should be more middle-of-the-road than they were this past year. The Seattle Seahawks have the eighth-easiest schedule, the Los Angeles Rams are 15th, and the Arizona Cardinals are 17th. None of them will be licking their chops, but it's a massive improvement over last year.

That sort of analysis is flawed because defensive metrics aren't very sticky year-over-year, and each team's personnel will change before then. But just broadly getting rid of the AFC North should benefit the NFC West teams, meaning we can likely expect some steps forward in 2020 for all of Wilson, Goff, and Murray.