Which Quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft Class Is Statistically Superior?
For the past few months, all we've heard is how underwhelming the 2022 NFL draft quarterback class is. Even in a year when a healthy number of teams picking near the top of the draft have needs at quarterback, we could still see these guys slide.
I'd love to come here and bust out a Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend!" We all love being contrarian every now and then.
I just can't do it here. The data backs up the narrative.
From top to bottom, every guy in this crop of signal-callers has red flags. Whether it's age, experience, or production, a key component is missing from each option. They've got bright spots, to be sure, but the overall picture ain't great.
And, yes, the data does matter, and so do the scouting sentiments. Although scouts make mistakes, a quarterback taken first overall is still much more likely to be a success than one taken 15th, much less 150th. And as we'll show later, successful quarterbacks tend to have good resumes coming out of college.
The resumes of this crop aren't terrible, to be clear. But they're also not on par with what we've seen recently, and it's not the type of resume you typically get from a future superstar.
Today, we're going to dig into what, exactly, we're looking for in those collegiate resumes and why it matters. Then, we'll translate that to this year's class and rank them based on solely their resumes entering April's draft.
Why the Resumes Matter
Throughout this, you'll notice that I'm using the word "resume" rather than "stats." The stats are definitely a component. But so are the player's ages and experience levels. Unfortunately for this year's class, that's where many of them fall short.
To illustrate this, let's look at past first-round quarterbacks. We'll focus on just the first-rounders here because draft capital does matter so much for a quarterback's trajectory.
Since 2010, 39 quarterbacks have gone inside the first round. Of those 39, 11 have finished inside the top 10 of numberFire's Total Net Expected Points (NEP) in at least one-third of their qualified seasons (a minimum of 200 drop backs). NEP is numberFire's expected-points model, and Total NEP accounts for the expected points added both as a rusher and a passer while including deductions for expected points lost on sacks, incompletions, and interceptions.
Of the remaining 28 passers, 6 were taken within the past 2 draft classes. We'll omit them for now until they've had at least three cracks at the leaderboard.
This leaves us with 11 success stories and 22 others. The group of 22 does include guys like Carson Wentz and Ryan Tannehill, who have been in the top 10 in Total NEP, but neither is with the team that originally drafted them. If we're shooting for upside in today's NFL, it does seem fair to keep them in the "other" bucket and aim for just the guys like Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert.
Here's the average statistical resume of each group. Here, the player's age is how old they were at the time they were drafted. "Games" is the number of collegiate games in which they had 10-plus pass attempts. QBR is ESPN's Total QBR, which is an efficiency metric that also bakes in rushing production and sacks while adjusting for opponent. AY/A and Passing Efficiency Rating purely look at a player's passing production. All of the efficiency metrics are from the player's final year in college.
|Bucket||Age||Pick||Games||QBR||Pass. Eff. Rat.||AY/A|
The successful first-rounders are younger, more experienced, and more efficient than their less successful counterparts. And in some areas, the gap is pretty large.
As mentioned, this does include Allen, whose resume coming out was underwhelming. He had just 25 games played and had a 60.1 Total QBR in his final season. This shows that players with poor resumes can still excel, but it also shows that the typical success story grades out well in these areas even when you include Allen's lackluster marks.
We'll talk plenty about the efficiency metrics later, but I want to focus quickly on the age and experience discussion, as that will be hyper-pertinent for this year's class. A healthy number of the players who wound up being successes were both young and experienced coming out.
In our group of 33, 12 players had played at least 30 games in college and were 22.5 or younger at the time of the draft. There were still some busts, but that's the bucket where you find Mahomes, Herbert, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson, guys who have won MVPs and who have the upside to win you a Super Bowl. If we open things up to first-rounders since 2000, we'd add Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Ben Roethlisberger in this bucket, as well.
This makes sense anecdotally. These players were good enough to earn the starting gig right away, and then they were talented enough to declare for the draft before they were too old. Both of those are key indicators of talent, and we should account for that in our process.
Conversely, this also means that older, less experienced quarterbacks present red flags. You do get success stories like Burrow from that group, but Tannehill, Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Brandon Weeden, E.J. Manuel, and Christian Ponder all had fewer than 35 games played and were 22.5 or older at the time of the draft. The bust rate there is high.
That's why we will factor in a player's age and experience level pretty heavily throughout these discussions. They matter, as do the efficiency marks.
In order to blend all of these factors together, I created a model that grades quarterbacks solely on their statistical resumes coming out of college. I have a separate model that accounts for draft capital, and that's one we'll circle back to after April's draft takes place. As mentioned, scouts are good at what they do, so that model will look a lot different than this one.
However, even with not knowing where players go, we do see a split between the successful quarterbacks and the less successful ones from our previous group of 33. Here's the average percentile rank of the quarterbacks in each bucket among all quarterbacks invited to the combine since 2010.
|Bucket||Pre-Draft Model Percentile|
In other words, our average "successful" quarterback was in the 82nd percentile of the pre-draft model. The "unsuccessful" ones were in the 62nd percentile. There will be big exceptions (like Allen), but for the most part, the numbers tell a fair story.
That's what we're looking for in this class: we want young, experienced, and efficient passers if we can find them. The problem here is that tricky "if."
When I plug this year's class into the model, only one quarterback ranks higher than the 80th percentile. That's Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe, who is in the 87th percentile. However, Zappe grades out as a day three pick, according to ESPN's Todd McShay, and what scouts say does matter. If Zappe were to go unexpectedly high in the draft, that'd change the equation. Until then, though, we'll focus on just the six quarterbacks with a grade of 75 or higher on McShay's board. And none of them rank higher than the 79th percentile in the model.
Let's get into the model's ranking of the remaining six players after accounting for their age, experience, and efficiency. For each player, I'll list out their statistical resumes along with a top statistical comp. The style of play will likely differ from the player's top comp, but this at least gives you an idea of guys with similar resumes coming out.
So that you have a reference on what the stats and resumes mean, here's the average marks in each department for quarterbacks drafted since 2010 based on where they went in the draft.
|Category||Round 1||Rounds 2 to 3||Rounds 4 to 7||Undrafted|
Some of the quarterbacks in this year's class have first-round marks in several categories. But finding someone who checks every box is tough.
Who grades out best once we consider all the factors? Let's get to what you've all been waiting for.
1. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
Age: 23.9 | Games Played: 51 | Total QBR: 81.2 | AY/A: 9.7 | Model Percentile: 79.4% | Top Statistical Comp: Andy Dalton
The key pros for Pickett are his combination of experience and efficiency. Although he is old (he's in the 11th percentile there among quarterbacks invited to the combine since 2010), he offsets it with 51 games of 10-plus pass attempts. That ranks in the 95th percentile, which makes his age effectively a wash.
The bigger plus for Pickett here, though, is the efficiency. His QBR leads this group of signal-callers and ranked ninth in the nation last year. Matt Corral ranked 10th and was the only other guy in our list of six who was ranked inside the top 20. Pickett also led this group in AY/A and Passing Efficiency Rating.
That's enough to put Pickett at the top of this list. But if we broaden the scope beyond just this year, Pickett's flaws show up.
If you take Pickett's model ranking and plop it into last year's draft class, Pickett would have ranked seventh. He would have trailed all five of the actual first-rounders and Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger went 218th overall, so the scouting sentiment tosses him out of consideration, but Pickett was four percentage points behind Trey Lance, who was an 83rd-percentile prospect before accounting for draft capital. Again, the data around this class backs up the narrative that it's a big step down.
One other concern with Pickett is his level of competition. Even though Pitt went to the ACC Championship Game, Pickett faced an amazingly soft schedule. Only 15.1% of his pass attempts came against defenses ranked inside the top 50 by Bill Connelly's SP+. That will be the eighth-lowest mark among all quarterbacks drafted since 2010 once Pickett is drafted. No other quarterback in this class had less than 28% of their attempts against top-50 defenses. Pickett fared decently well in that time with an 8.9 AY/A, and his QBR does account for schedule, but the raw numbers Pickett put up this year are at least somewhat tainted.
This is why the skepticism around making Pickett a top-10 pick is fully justified. With that said, he did perform well, and he has gobs of experience after earning a couple of starts even in his age-19 season. Success is within his range of outcomes, and enough so where he deserves to be a first-rounder consideration.
2. Sam Howell, North Carolina
Age: 21.6 | Games Played: 37 | Total QBR: 76.1 | AY/A: 9.0 | Model Percentile: 78.0% | Top Statistical Comp: Paxton Lynch
Earlier on, we talked about the "young and experienced" bucket of quarterbacks who earned playing time immediately and were able to declare for the draft early. The only top guy in this year's draft who fits in that bucket is Sam Howell.
Howell earned UNC's starting job from day one as a freshman and held it all three years. It allowed him to rack up 37 starts through his age-21 season, the exact same marks that Trevor Lawrence had coming out of Clemson. It's a good range to be in, and it's one that has produced high-upside first-rounders.
That group has produced superstars even when they haven't been swimming in efficiency. Mahomes' AY/A was only a smidge higher than Howell's (9.2), and Herbert's QBR (74.6) was actually lower than Howell's. This gives Howell an interesting ceiling statistically that you don't find with others.
The problem is that the floor is also super low. As you can see, Howell's top statistical comp is Paxton Lynch. Josh Rosen and Jordan Love came from the young and experienced bucket, too, and none of those three have done enough to earn a starting job in the NFL. We're not talking about bad starters here; we're talking about complete flops.
Basically, quarterbacks in Howell's young and experienced bucket have a wide range of outcomes. In a league where you want to shoot for the stars to get someone like Mahomes, Allen, or Herbert, that's not a bad thing. Howell has access to that ceiling. The problem is that his odds of reaching that ceiling decrease once you dig deeper into his numbers.
Specifically, Howell takes a ton of sacks.
Last year, it was a major talking point how Justin Fields took sacks due to an inability to process and his hunting for big plays. Fields' sack rate in 2020 was 8.3%, the second-highest mark for a first-rounder since 2010 (Jackson was tops at 8.5%). Both Howell and Malik Willis blow that number out of the gosh-darn water.
They are outliers in an area where you'd rather not be. If we're going to question Fields' ability to process, we absolutely have to do the same with these two.
You can assign some blame here to an offensive line that -- despite returning all five starters -- struggled massively. Plus, Howell did deal with a ton of turnover among his skill guys. But even his 2020 sack rate of 8.7% would be higher than that of Fields and Jackson, so some of this does have to go on Howell's shoulders.
That sack number is likely why Howell's Total QBR lagged behind that of Pickett, and that lower QBR is why he's behind Pickett in the model. It furthers the idea that Howell has a low floor despite the superstars who have come out of a similar mold to his.
In other words, how you rank Pickett and Howell depends on what you want. If you want the guy with better odds of being serviceable, that's likely Pickett due to the effectiveness he showed this year.
The superstar upside seems higher in Howell, though. Quarterbacks in the younger and experienced bucket have been viewed as flawed before, which is why Herbert, Mahomes, Watson, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, and Jackson all slipped outside the top five in their drafts. Howell has a big arm and is more than willing to chuck it downfield, and he proved this year that he can run when necessary. He has some of the tools to be great, which may be enough to take a chance on him even if his floor is non-existent.
3. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Age: 22.7 | Games Played: 49 | Total QBR: 71.9 | AY/A: 9.2 | Model Percentile: 74.7% | Top Statistical Comp: Jimmy Garoppolo
If you took Pickett and Howell and put them in a blender, the product you'd get would likely resemble Desmond Ridder.
In Ridder, you get the experience of Pickett at a full year younger. Ridder is in the 92nd percentile of games played among quarterbacks at the combine since 2010 while being in the 66th percentile for age. He's one of just five quarterbacks in the 90/60 club for those categories, though none of the other four were taken higher than 185th in the draft. Still, it's definitely not a bad thing.
Ridder's efficiency across his final year was also at least acceptable. He's second behind Pickett in AY/A among the top six guys in this class and in the 69th percentile among those invited to the combine since 2010. It won't blow you away, but it's certainly not bad.
Ridder's QBR does fall behind that of Howell and Corral, likely because those two played tougher schedules than Ridder. Just 32.8% of his pass attempts came against top-50 defenses by SP+ whereas both of them were above 40%.
That's not to be confused with playing poorly against tougher competition. Because Ridder struggled against Alabama in the semifinal, there's a perception that he sunk when the competition got tougher. That's disputed by the data. In fact, Ridder had a higher AY/A against top-50 defenses than anybody else in this group of six.
|Quarterback||AY/A vs. Top-50 Ds|
The Alabama game may not have been a high point, but it's important to weigh strong showings against Notre Dame and Houston -- two massively important games -- just as heavily.
Put it all together, and you get a guy who -- statistically -- is in the same tier as Pickett and Howell. There's a lot to like here, and it's why Ridder has a path to a ceiling.
The red flags on him -- outside of the QBR -- come from his numbers when opposing teams knew a pass was coming. We can get a read on this by looking at each quarterback's AY/A on 3rd and 6 or longer, an obvious passing situation. Ridder and Corral really struggled in these situations.
|On 3rd and 6+||Percentage of Attempts||AY/A|
For Ridder, this is a sample of 53 pass attempts, so we want to be careful not to punish him too much. It does, though, grab your attention when it's such an outlier.
All in all, the good seems to outweigh the bad with Ridder. He's experienced without being too old, he broadly played well when he faced stiff competition, and the overall numbers aren't bad. Ridder seems similar to Howell in that he does have a path to being a quality quarterback even if the floor leaves something to be desired.
4. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Age: 23.2 | Games Played: 31 | Total QBR: 80.5 | AY/A: 9.2 | Model Percentile: 66.8% | Top Statistical Comp: E.J. Manuel
Within the model, this is where the falloff occurs. For Corral, it's more about his experience profile than his efficiency metrics.
Corral's coming off his age-22 season but has just 31 games with 10-plus pass attempts. That puts him in the "older, less experienced" bucket. This bucket is as concerning as the "young, experienced" bucket is exciting.
In order to expand the samples, let's open this discussion to all 65 first-round quarterbacks since 2000. We're going to put them into four buckets: young and experienced, young and inexperienced, old and experienced, and old and inexperienced. The cutoff for the young buckets will be those coming off their age-20 or age-21 season. To fit in the "experienced" bucket, we'll make the cutoff 30 games with 10-plus pass attempts.
For the older prospects, it'll be 35 games with 10-plus pass attempts to fit in the "experienced" bucket as they've had more time in college to log said games. Corral -- with 31 games played -- would be in the older, inexperienced bucket.
Here's how often players in each of those buckets have finished inside the top 5, 10, and 15 in Total NEP across their qualified seasons with 200-plus drop backs.
|Bucket||Top 5||Top 10||Top 15||Qualified Seasons|
If you're older but experienced, things can play out well. That group produced Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, and Eli Manning, all of whom were quality starters. The less experienced group, though, is dependent on outliers.
The only quarterbacks to have a top-10 season in Total NEP from the older, inexperienced bucket are Burrow, Tannehill, and Wentz. Burrow is a star and a clear win as a draft pick. The others? Not so much, especially given that Tannehill's top-10 season came with his second team.
If Corral goes in the first round, it's a bet that he follows the outlier track of Burrow versus the 12 other first-rounders in this grim bucket. It could happen if scouts believe in him, but Corral's experience level at his age is a red flag.
The stats for Corral certainly aren't bad. His QBR is second in this top six behind Pickett, and his AY/A tied with Ridder for second. He did this while facing the toughest schedule with 59.6% of his pass attempts coming against top-50 defenses by SP+.
Plus, Corral does have tools with a live arm and athleticism. There's a reason he's viewed favorably by some, and like other quarterbacks here, you can talk yourself into a ceiling.
It's worth going back to the table used for Ridder, though. Corral's AY/A fell to 3.1 on 3rd and 6 or longer, spots where Ole Miss was forced to deviate from its RPO-heavy offense. Does that mean Corral is doomed to fail? Absolutely not. But it's a reason to view his raw statistics with a bit of skepticism, and those are the key cog in pushing him up this list.
Overall, Corral's stats are decent, and scouts do seem to view him more favorably than both Howell and Ridder. That matters. He's just a bet against history with his age and experience level, casting questions around what his true range of outcomes actually looks like.
5. Carson Strong, Nevada
Age: 22.6 | Games Played: 31 | Total QBR: 64.5 | AY/A: 8.7 | Model Percentile: 40.1% | Top Statistical Comp: Davis Webb
Carson Strong's last name is very appropriate: buddy can chuck it. And if we were grading things based on just that, he'd be pretty interesting!
Unfortunately, Strong has a rough history with knee injuries, and it has really put a lid on what he can do on the field.
Strong's AY/A -- which looks at him as just a passer -- is fine. It's in the 58th percentile among combine-invitees, and it puts him in the same realm as guys who typically go in the third or fourth round.
His QBR, though, includes what he does as a rusher. That's where the mobility concerns show up as Strong finished this past year with -208 yards rushing once you deduct for sacks. All the other quarterbacks in this group were at 241 or higher. Strong moves similar to 2021 Ben Roethlisberger on tape, and it's a massive bummer because the explanation for this is likely something out of his control.
Strong's experience profile is similar to Corral's, though he is about a half year younger. Additionally, Strong may have gotten to 35 games played had the Mountain West not pushed its start back last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So although it isn't a positive for Strong, the context makes it a bit less concerning than it was for Corral.
Strong had knee surgery last February and then another cleanup over the summer. If you could confidently state that his knee would be healthier going forward -- and, thus, the mobility less of a concern -- then sentiment on him would certainly shift up. That just doesn't seem to be the case. It leaves Strong's statistical profile underwhelming and makes his odds of hitting lower, even if his arm is legitimately impressive.
6. Malik Willis, Liberty
Age: 22.9 | Games Played: 23 | Total QBR: 70.0 | AY/A: 8.4 | Model Percentile: 36.9% | Top Statistical Comp: Carson Wentz
Malik Willis will be a good test of how much the NFL is now willing to bet on traits. Willis has those, and it gives him an obvious and high ceiling. The statistical profile, though, leaves plenty to be desired.
Let's start with that aspect of it and then outline what it means for Willis' evaluation. First, Willis is older and less experienced, having logged 10-plus pass attempts in just 23 games. He's a bit younger than Corral (22.9 versus 23.2), but with 8 fewer games played, he carries that downside.
Second, the efficiency numbers lagged. This includes his QBR, which accounts for the value Willis added as a rusher. He's in the 42nd percentile there and in the 50th for his AY/A.
Third and finally, Willis struggled against tougher competition. As you saw in the chart above with Ridder, his AY/A versus top-50 defenses by SP+ was a full two points lower than the other guys in this group. He lit up UAB (which ranked 31st in defensive SP+) but struggled mightily against Ole Miss and Louisiana.
Those are the downsides, and they make Willis risky. But as we have seen the past two years with Allen, mobile quarterbacks with strong arms can develop in the NFL, and Willis emphatically checks both of those boxes.
So, how often do players with poor grades in the model pan out? Is Allen the outlier, or is there something to just betting on traits?
Willis ranks in the 36th percentile of my model. If he's taken in the first round, he'll be the eighth guy to rank lower than the 47th percentile to go that high. Here are the previous seven and how often they've fallen in various categories of Total NEP.
|Quarterback||Model Percentile||Top 5||Top 10||Top 15||Qualified Seasons|
In that group, you have one superstar, two others who have had flashes of quality play, and four flat-out busts.
Statistically, Willis compares favorably here, holding a better QBR than all but Tannehill while tying Wentz for the best AY/A. Wentz and Tannehill also belonged in the older, inexperienced bucket, though the same was true for Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert, as well.
This grouping reflects the general sentiment on Willis: he has a path to a ceiling, but the floor is lava. This means the evaluation of him will depend almost entirely on the mindset of the team.
If you're trying to avoid a bust, Willis isn't your guy. Some of the biggest flops in recent first-round history had similar profiles, and it would not be a shock at all if Willis wound up being next on the list.
If you're trying to uncover the next unstoppable weapon, then Willis could fit that mindset. The two easiest paths to superstardom are a big arm and athleticism, and Willis has those. You'd rather take that swipe at someone who paired those traits with a good collegiate resume (like Mahomes, Herbert, Jackson, or Watson), but Allen has shown players in this tier are capable of breaking out.
Effectively, you're making the bet that you can mold Willis into the next Allen. That might happen, and that could well make him worth the gamble, especially in a league that's so driven by these cyborg quarterbacks. You just have to keep in mind the flip side of the coin and be comfortable with that potential outcome, as well.