2020 NFL Draft: How Quarterbacks Performed Versus Top Defenses
A quarterback having a three-game stretch where they throw 16 touchdowns and no picks is impressive. Regardless of the context, you can go out on a limb and say that person might be decent at the sport we call football.
When they do it in the SEC Championship game and a pair of college football playoff contests? Build lil buddy a statue.
That's what Joe Burrow did this past season in taking down Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson. He averaged 10.4 yards per attempt in the process, leading LSU to the national championship and locking Burrow in as the presumptive first pick in this year's NFL draft.
If Burrow had done that in non-conference play, he'd get the NFL's attention. But once you add in the actual context, the drool will start to flow.
Quarterbacks in college face a wide variety of opponents. Schedules definitely matter when evaluating quarterbacks in the NFL, but the gap between the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins is just a wee bit smaller than that between Auburn and Montana. If we're looking at stats and not accounting for those gaps, we're not getting the full picture.
When doing our overall look at the incoming quarterback draft class, we did reference the schedule a bit, and it helped solidify the rankings for some players. But let's do a deeper dive here today to see what we can glean by diving into each player's level of competition.
As with the original piece, we'll be looking at only the six quarterbacks with a grade of 75 or higher, according to Scouts, Inc., limiting our list to Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jake Fromm, Jordan Love, and Jacob Eason. And it'll be a helpful exercise because the competition gap between those six passers is cavernous.
For this, all defensive rankings will be based on Bill Connelly's SP+, which accounts for schedule, pace, and other factors to give us a true measure of how good they were.
Measuring the Schedules
There are a couple of ways to measure the difficulty of a player's schedule. You can look at the average ranking of the defenses they faced, and you can look at how often they were squaring off with tough opponents. Let's do both here.
All of our six quarterbacks except for Tagovailoa had one game against an FCS team, and they're not going to factor into this analysis. But because it was almost all of them, we shouldn't need to account for that too much.
Tossing out the FCS teams, here's the average defensive ranking each quarterback faced along with the percentage of their attempts that came versus top-50 defenses.
|Quarterbacks vs. Top-50 Defenses||Games||Percentage of Attempts||Average Rank|
Burrow got all the love because of what he did on the biggest stage. We're going to talk about him later when we touch on how each player performed versus these opponents. But it's also noteworthy how brutal of a schedule Fromm faced.
In the three years we've been doing this exercise, Fromm is the first quarterback prospect with more than 70% of his pass attempts against top-50 defenses. He was all the way up at 77.92%, meaning less than one-fourth of his attempts came against cupcakes. Good luck feasting against that.
What further dented Fromm's expected efficiency is that Georgia throttled all of those lesser teams, limiting him to 21.3 pass attempts per game in them. This was true for other teams, as well, but having almost all of your volume come against upper-level competition is setting a quarterback up for statistical failure.
Fromm's surface-level stats this year were underwhelming for sure, and as we'll see, he didn't exactly light it up against the tougher teams. But any discussion around Fromm from a numbers perspective should at least make note of this road.
Even though both Herbert and Eason played in the same conference, Herbert's non-conference do-si-dos with Auburn and Wisconsin made his schedule a decent chunk more difficult. Herbert also had better stats straight up than Eason and has the ideal combination of age and experience, helping him separate from Eason when jockeying for positioning behind Burrow and Tagovailoa.
How Quarterbacks Performed Against Solid Defenses
Once we have an idea of the schedules, it can also help to look at how quarterbacks did in those matchups. By looking at what they did against top-50 teams, we're basically filtering out the cupcake matchups and getting a better idea of what their more parallel output looked like.
We'll do that by looking at each player's adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) in those matchups. AY/A factors touchdowns and interceptions into a yards-per-attempt-esque metric, which gives us a quick-and-dirty glance at how efficient a quarterback was. As we saw earlier, quarterbacks with a good AY/A in college are more likely to pan out as NFL prospects than those with lesser marks.
Once we filter out the softer opponents, here's how each quarterback performed against top-50 defenses this past season.
|Quarterbacks vs. Top-50 Pass Ds||Percentage of Attempts||AY/A|
Burrow's second on this list, but even that number is selling him short.
One-third of Burrow's 15 games this year came against defenses ranked seventh or better in SP+. Seventh. As such, looking at what each player did against top-50 defenses isn't going to capture the high-end nature of Burrow's opponents.
In those five games against top-seven defenses, Burrow had 16 touchdowns to 1 interception, giving him a 10.9 AY/A in that sample. Fromm was the only other player who had even two matchups against top-10 defenses this year. Burrow's a weird prospect due to his limited experience and older breakout age, but even with that, he proved in his Heisman run that he's worthy of the first overall pick.
Tagovailoa had a higher AY/A against top-50 defenses and a higher percentage of his pass attempts versus them, but it's still not as impressive as Burrow when you dig in. Tagovailoa didn't face any defenses ranked higher than 19th this year, so his overall AY/A is misleading.
With that said, when Tagovailoa was tested, he lit it up. Even against LSU, when his team was down big (in part due to earlier mistakes by Tagovailoa), he was ripping off some monster throws that would make your jaw drop.
Alabama's elite pass-catchers got behind the defense all three times, but Tagovailoa hit them in stride to set up huge scores (or huge drops) when Alabama was in a hole. We can't write off his success as merely being a product of his environment.
If we want a better comparison between Tagovailoa and Burrow, we should look back at Tagovailoa's sophomore season. There, like Burrow, he faced Georgia in the SEC Championship and Clemson in the national championship game. Tagovailoa also had five games versus top-10 defenses that year. Tagovailoa's marks in that season weren't as good as Burrow's this year, but they were still pretty spicy.
|Versus Top-50 Defenses||AY/A|
|Joe Burrow in 2019||11.9|
|Tua Tagovailoa in 2018||11.0|
Tagovailoa's numbers were from his age-20 season whereas Burrow's were in his age-23 season, which is noteworthy. As such, we should just acknowledge that both these guys are special and move on.
The two players with the worst efficiency marks against top-50 defenses this year -- Fromm and Love -- both had a lot of turnover around them entering the year. Both lost their top five pass-catchers from the previous season, and Love had changeover in his coaching staff, as well. Putting a rough supporting cast up against upper-level competition is a tall task.
As with Tagovailoa, then, it may be beneficial to see what Love and Fromm did against tougher defenses in 2018 when there was more talent and continuity around them. Both players performed better in those situations, but Love's numbers were still really disappointing.
|Quarterbacks vs. Top-50 Defenses||Percentage of Attempts||Average Rank||AY/A|
|Jake Fromm in 2018||69.38%||44.62||8.5|
|Jordan Love in 2018||35.25%||79.50||5.9|
Fromm's number here is still a far cry from Burrow and Tagovailoa, and we need to make abundantly clear that they are better prospects. But his mark against top-50 defenses last year is better than what Herbert put up this year, and that matters.
In the games against tough teams -- both last year and this year -- Fromm showed a propensity for putting the ball in a perfect spot. That wasn't always rewarded with a reception, but the accuracy was on point.
Fromm's numbers this year were bland, and his upside is capped due to a lack of arm strength. That's why you absolutely must rank Burrow and Tagovailoa ahead of him, and it can be a justification for sliding Herbert up, too. But you can understand why Fromm's numbers lagged thanks to the schedule he faced and the lack of help from his receivers, and ball placement can get you a long way in the NFL. Especially if Fromm winds up sliding in the draft, it could be wise for a team to take a shot and see if they can exploit the strengths he possesses.
Love is a bit of a harder sell. His 9.4 AY/A overall in 2018 was impressive, but it seems to have been inflated by what he did against lower-level opponents.
Of Love's 13 games in 2018, eight were against either an FCS team or a defense ranked outside the top 90 in SP+. Those eight games accounted for 21 of his touchdowns, and he had an 11.8 AY/A. His AY/A was just 5.9 with 7 touchdowns to 4 picks against top-50 teams.
Even in that year, it's not as if Love had an amazing group of skill-position players around him, and they left some production on the table when he made great throws.
It's possible Love just didn't have enough support around him to post great numbers, so we can't say definitively that he won't pan out. However, there's tons of risk here, and all expectations of excellence are projections based on the traits he possesses. Teams must be sure they're properly weighing that risk before they take a dive on Love early on.