2020 NFL Draft: Can Jalen Hurts Be a Successful NFL Quarterback?
When we did our first look at the 2020 NFL draft quarterback class, the only quarterbacks included were those with a Scout grade of 75 or higher.
The reasoning here was simple: NFL talent evaluators are pretty good at what they do. The hit rate of first-round quarterbacks declines the further they slip, and that's among only first-rounders. The hit rate of guys who go later than that is truly cringe-worthy.
With those guidelines, Jalen Hurts was omitted. His Scout grade was just 66, making him the 125th overall player on their board and the ninth quarterback. In order to succeed in the NFL, he'd need to be an outlier if that's how the draft were to play out.
Things have looked different of late, though. Hurts started getting praise during the combine for his throwing sessions.
"I don't see him getting out of the 2nd round."@MoveTheSticks likes what he sees from @JalenHurts
: 2020 #NFLCombine on NFL Network pic.twitter.com/VOhYxoDohX
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) February 28, 2020
The week after the combine, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had Hurts going in the second round to the Chicago Bears, ahead of Jake Fromm, who was included in our initial look thanks to an 85 Scout grade, fifth among all quarterbacks.
Working out in shorts won't erase some of the biggest concerns around Hurts as a prospect, but if it's going to increase his draft stock, it's at least worth asking the question: could Hurts succeed as a quarterback at the next level?
Let's try to answer that with the help of data. There is some good and some bad, to be sure, but when it's all said and done, there seems to be enough here to justify some optimism, at least relative to others in this class.
We're going into this assuming that Hurts will wind up being drafted outside the first round. As mentioned, talent evaluators are broadly good at what they do, and this by itself puts Hurts in a hole.
It also means that we can't focus too much on his stats. Successful non-first-rounders in the past have featured statistical profiles all across the map (more on that later) whereas we can generally turn to efficiency in evaluating top-end selections.
Still, the stats are pretty damn good.
Hurts finished 2019 ranked second in the nation in adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) at 12.2, trailing only that Joe Burrow guy (12.5). Hyper-successful first-round quarterbacks since 2000 have posted an average AY/A of 9.4 their final seasons in college compared to a mark of 8.6 for the less successful picks. Again, we can't compare Hurts to them straight up because he's unlikely to go in the first round. This, though, is why we'll lean on AY/A throughout this piece, and it's certainly not a bad thing that Hurts balled out in this department.
Although ESPN's QBR didn't show as big of a split between the boons and the busts, it accounts for value added via rushing, which is a key component for Hurts. He ranked fourth in QBR this past season, trailing Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Fields. Burrow and Tagovailoa are top-notch prospects, and Hurts was sandwiched between Fields and Trevor Lawrence, a pair of guys who figure to go high in next year's draft.
Although Hurts' passing was key there, the rushing certainly helped, too, and will be an asset for him in the NFL. His 40.3 expects points added as a rusher ranked third among all quarterbacks, and one of the quarterbacks he trailed -- Malcolm Perry of Navy -- was in a triple-option offense. Hurts ran for 1,298 yards even when you include the yardage lost on sacks, scoring 20 touchdowns, often in an authoritative fashion.
Quarterback rushing plays give the offense a numbers advantage and an extra blocker, so we should always view it as a plus when the guy slinging the pigskin can also do that.
One of the stereotypes of an offense like Lincoln Riley's in Oklahoma is that quarterbacks beef up stats thanks to short passes that allow the skill guys to rack up yards after the catch. CeeDee Lamb was basically a running back in his tackle-breaking abilities, and Hurts' stats definitely benefited from having Lamb do psycho stuff on a regular basis. This was far from a dumpoff-centric offense, though.
Pro Football Focus' draft guide shows how often each quarterback threw passes to various areas of the field. Based on their data, Hurts actually had a higher percentage of his throws travel at least 10 yards than any of the top six quarterbacks in this year's class.
|Player||Throws 10+ Yards||Throws 20+ Yards|
Hurts was actually a good chunk ahead of the field in that department, and he trailed only Fromm in the percentage of throws that traveled at least 20 yards. Hurts was able to connect on some of those deep heaves, too.
Some of Hurts' stats are inflated because of the offense in which he played, and Lamb aided him on that throw, as well. We can't, however, write all of Hurts' stats off as being a product of the system.
With that being said, again, stats matter a bit less for a quarterback going outside the first round. If a quarterback with gaudy numbers slips, there's likely a reason for it, and with Hurts, we can pinpoint those reasons with ease.
Hurts does, though, have overlap with past successful non-first-rounders, thanks to all the experience he has coming out.
Since 2000, there have been nine quarterbacks who have gone outside the first round (or not been drafted at all) who have been in the top 10 in numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) in multiple seasons. NEP is the expected-points model we use here, and Total NEP accounts for expected points added both as a passer and a rusher.
That there are just nine quarterbacks who have done this is another reason we need to keep expectations for Hurts in check, assuming he slips out of the first this year. But here's the statistical resume of those nine quarterbacks coming out of college with the "games played" column being the number of times they had at least 10 pass attempts in a game and "age" being how old they were on December 31st of their final collegiate season.
|Multiple Top-10 Seasons||Age||Games||AY/A||Pass. Eff. Rat.|
As you can see, Russell Wilson was the only guy in the group with massive efficiency marks. But a lot of them came out with a ton of in-game experience.
Between his time at Alabama and Oklahoma, Hurts had at least 10 pass attempts in 42 games. Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Drew Brees all had 39 or more games in that department, and Tom Brady was the only success story with fewer than 33.
The experience angle gets even better for Hurts when you realize that Hurts doesn't turn 22 years old until August of this year. Young and experienced quarterbacks hit at a higher rate than those in any other bucket among first-rounders, and Hurts is firmly in that category.
It's worth noting that this would also be a plus for Fromm if he were to slip outside of the first round. He's coming off his age-21 season with 41 games under his belt. Like Hurts, Fromm's perception was that he was a checkdown artist, but the throw depth data above goes a bit counter to that. Both of these guys have some elements in their resumes that hint they could be successes even if the NFL doesn't necessarily fall in love and take them early.
When you combine the efficiency with the rushing, experience, and age, it's easy to talk yourself into rolling the dice on Hurts. There's a lot to like there. It's not all sunshine and daisies, though, and the flip side is also worth investigating.
Hurts' stats are a major strength of his if you're trying to bill him as a top-notch prospect. And as we discussed above, elements of them are legit and help his case.
There is some context missing, though, and that context should lower our enthusiasm around these numbers a bit.
The first element not included in the numbers (outside of QBR) is the schedule that Hurts faced. The Big 12's reputation for poor defenses is outdated with teams like Baylor, Iowa State, and TCU all boasting respectable units there, but Hurts' schedule was easier than that of several peers.
Earlier in this process, we looked at both how often quarterbacks faced quality defenses and how they performed in those scenarios. Let's toss Hurts into that discussion.
The table below shows the average opposing defense ranking for each quarterback, based on Bill Connelly's SP+ numbers at ESPN. It also shows what percentage of each quarterback's throws came against top-50 defenses by SP+. The ranking portion does not include games versus FCS teams, though each quarterback except Tagovailoa had exactly one such game.
|Quarterbacks vs. Top-50 Defenses||Games||Percentage of Attempts||Average Rank|
You can view this data one of two ways.
The first is that Hurts' schedule was significantly easier than that of Fromm, Tagovailoa, and Burrow. Hurts had zero games against defenses ranked better than 18th by SP+; Burrow had five against the top seven teams. That'll help Hurts' stats relative to them.
The other way is that Hurts' schedule was actually tougher than that of Justin Herbert, Jacob Eason, and Jordan Love. His percentage of throws versus top-50 defenses was 20 percentage points higher than Love's, and Love seems likely to be a first-round pick. If we're going to hold the schedule against Hurts, we should do the same with the other three on that list.
Basically, the schedule helps solidify that Hurts is behind Burrow and Tagovailoa, but we already knew that. His performance within that split does something similar and deepens the questions about why he's held in lower regard than guys like Eason and Love.
Here's a look at the AY/A for our top six quarterbacks plus Hurts when facing top-50 defenses. Once again, there's a gap between Tagovailoa and Burrow and the rest. But Hurts is also easily clear of the rest.
|Quarterbacks vs. Top-50 Defenses||Percentage of Attempts||AY/A|
Although Hurts' schedule wasn't overly difficult, he still maintained solid levels of efficiency when he faced tougher tasks. That should lower at least some of the concerns around the schedule.
Another bit of context that the raw stats fail to capture is sacks. This is going to be a bigger concern for Hurts than the schedule.
Last August, Dr. Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus used data to conclude that quarterbacks are responsible for their sack and pressure rates, even moreso than the offensive line in front of them. This would likely mean that if a quarterback invited sacks often in college, he'd be inclined to do the same in the NFL.
|Player||Attempts||Sacks||Sack Rate||O-Line Rank||Time to Throw|
Hurts' sack rate was the highest in the group, and his time to throw was an outlier, ranking 97th in the country among qualified quarterbacks. He was often able to wiggle his way out of pressure, but the pocket awareness didn't seem to be a strength.
It's certainly true that Oklahoma's offensive line lost a boatload of talent after 2018, and that's reflected in PFF's offensive-line rankings above. We could also point to Burrow's numbers and say that sacks will be a concern for him at the next level. That concern just gets amped up when the other assets you provide aren't as tantalizing as Burrow's, which is what can sour us on Hurts.
The final thing of note on Hurts is that he had a lot of throws this past season that really made you scratch your head. He'd put together quality drives, and then out of nowhere, he'd make a decision that didn't make much sense.
Take his game against Iowa State as an example. The two throws below were consecutive near-picks, one ending a drive and the other beginning the next.
PFF had Hurts down for 14 turnover-worthy plays across the year, which certainly isn't a huge number, but it's more than all the top names in this class except Herbert (15) and Love (26). Even with just eight picks to his name, it does seem like Hurts' decision-making is worth questioning.
Once you mix everything together in the section above, you can see why Hurts isn't regarded as being a first-round pick. There are enough red flags to justify pushing him down the board. It's his ranking relative to some of the other names in this class that is tougher to grasp.
The biggest concerns around Hurts are his schedule, his sacks, and his decision-making. But both Eason and Love had much easier schedules than what Hurts faced, and Love bathed in turnovers. Neither pushed the ball deep as often as Hurts, either, and Hurts' experience levels tower over Eason's.
Taking players like Eason and Love is a risk when you look at their statistical resumes. They're basically being pushed up draft boards because they have the physical skills to develop into a quality quarterback. But if you're going to take a risk at the position, it seems more prudent to do so later in the draft, potentially with someone like Hurts, who may not come with as lofty of a price tag.
If Hurts can work on getting rid of the ball sooner and avoiding the occasional head-scratching mistakes, he could wind up being a valuable player at the sport's most valuable position. Love and Eason seem to have a much longer road to get to that point. So although Hurts is rightfully behind the top tier of this year's quarterback class, that doesn't mean we should completely write him off, especially with other questionable prospects likely to go higher in the draft.