Is Matthew Stafford a Top-10 Quarterback in the NFL?
First things first. I like Matthew Stafford.
I imagine that he's a cool dude, and as a member of Team Flat Brim, I can respect that he wears his hats backwards and irks Mike Ditka in the process.
Plus, he has equal parts talent, evidenced by some impressive yardage totals over the years, and DGAF, evidenced by his interceptions and side-armed tosses. In a league where the Russell Wilsons and Peyton Mannings usually have the most success, he's a nice change of pace.
But at the helm of the 10-4 Detroit Lions, a team that has the pieces to be competitive for the near future, what really matters is whether or not Stafford really stacks up with the best of the best in the league. His raw numbers suggest he does -- particularly his yardage -- but what about our advanced metrics?
Let's find out what Stafford has done in the league and what that might mean for his, and therefore Detroit's, future.
Stafford, since 2011 (which excludes his rookie season and an injury-shortened 2010), has been one of the most voluminous and prolific quarterbacks in the league.
Here are his numbers and ranks for some of the most central stats pertaining to quarterbacks.
|2014||3,797 (8)||7.27 (15)||19 (14)||10 (T-16)|
|2013||4,650 (3)||7.33 (11)||29 (6)||19 (6)|
|2012||4,967 (2)||6.83 (21)||20 (T-19)||17 (T-5)|
|2011||5,038 (3)||7.60 (13)||41 (3)||16 (T-7)|
Based on total yards, Stafford has been great, finishing the past three years in the top three in the league. But the rest of his numbers aren't quite on par. Per attempt, his yardage hasn't been as elite as his total yardage, and his interceptions have been among the worst in the league. With top-six ranks in touchdowns, Stafford's interceptions can be overlooked -- if you interpret them that way. This year, his interceptions are down, but so is his yardage.
The good and the bad can be argued for and against Stafford, but what do our metrics have to say?
Undoubtedly, Stafford's best season came in 2011, and the metrics support that. Our football analysis at numberFire centers on Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP gauges how high above or below expectation a player is playing. For Stafford's sake, plays like picking up a third down to keep the drive going will improve his Passing NEP because the extending of the drive makes points more likely. Throwing a pick will reduce his Passing NEP -- and throwing a red zone pick will reduce it significantly more based on the context. NEP deflates garbage production, like compiling yardage without picking up first downs, something that Stafford has been known to due while the Lions have been down big in games over the years.
Stafford's 5,000-yard season included his best Passing NEP to date, and he hasn't come close to hitting that total since. Here are his relevant metrics and ranks among passers with at least 300 drop backs in the given season.
|Stafford||Passing NEP||Pass NEP/Drop Back||Success Rate|
|2014||69.83 (11)||0.13 (11)||48.03% (13)|
|2013||60.18 (11)||0.09 (11)||46.66% (12)|
|2012||40.24 (14)||0.05 (16)||48.15% (12)|
|2011||112.26 (5)||0.16 (8)||51.65% (5)|
Stafford hasn't been inside the top 10 in Passing NEP, Passing NEP per drop back, or Success Rate, which measures the percentage of drop backs that improve a team's chance of scoring.
Stafford isn't too far off his 2011 pace, based on per-drop back Passing NEP. But based on these metrics, it's safe to think of Stafford as a top-12-or-so option in the league. Relative to the rest of the league, that's pretty stellar. Stafford hasn't had a bad season in his last four, but he isn't a top-five player based on the metrics even though his yards and touchdowns sometime suggest he might be.
How Far Away?
I don't think anybody -- outside of Lions' fandom maybe -- argues that Stafford is a top-five passer in the league, and I'm not feeling like I need to prove that he isn't. But when dealing with a franchise quarterback, it's worthwhile to see just how far Stafford is from the best of the best at the position.
Here are his Passing NEP marks compared to the top-five finishers in Passing NEP over the past three years and the leaders through Week 14 of the 2014 season. I also included the median mark, which works out simply to be the third-best Passing NEP that year.
|Top 5 Pass NEP||2011||2012||2013||2014|
Stafford is a far cry from getting back to top-five type numbers -- by over 100 expected points in 2012 and 2013. As for 2014, things are a bit narrower even though he ranks 11th just like he did in 2013.
So, if he's about the 11th- or 12th-best quarterback in the league, he's not in that top tier. That's fair to say. Is he in the second tier at least? Or is he maybe (un)comfortably outside the top 10?
Here are the same tallies but for quarterbacks ranked sixth through 10th in Passing NEP.
|6-10 Pass NEP||2011||2012||2013||2014|
In 2011, a very, very pass-friendly season, Stafford was obviously better than that second tier of quarterbacks, and in 2013, he wasn't far off. But in 2012, Stafford was about 45 points below the second tier of quarterbacks, and despite his best Passing NEP since 2011, Stafford is clearly behind the second-tier quarterbacks in 2014.
This season, top-10 Passing NEP numbers are up from recent years, and Stafford's increase is incremental considering that.
So What Does This Mean?
That's the right question to ask, and the truth is that all of this doesn't mean that Stafford isn't good enough. Quarterback play alone doesn't mean success or failure for a team: the past two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks haven't had stellar Passing NEP scores, so it's not as if the Lions, who entered Week 15 ranked sixth in our power rankings, can't win with a quarterback like Stafford.
But despite some of the most impressive yardage and touchdown totals in the past four years, Stafford, according to the analytics, isn't as efficient or as successful as the league's best. And when it comes to the second tier of passers, he may not even be justified for that conversation either.
This year, Stafford has two top-12 receivers in terms of Reception NEP. Golden Tate ranks 10th among receivers with a Reception NEP of 91.93. Calvin Johnson is 12th, boasting a 86.27 Reception NEP total, and has been one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL in the past three years. Still, Stafford finds himself a notch below the top 10 in the league.
Having Stafford at quarterback is still a great situation for Detroit. He has been consistently above-average and has shown an enormously high ceiling, but his numbers are a bit inflated, and if you trust our metrics, Stafford really isn't a top-10 quarterback in the league.