2022 NFL Draft: How Quarterbacks Performed Versus Top Defenses

Desmond Ridder struggled against Alabama but was otherwise stout when facing stiff defenses in 2021. How did the rest of the 2022 NFL draft quarterback class fare when the difficulty was turned up?

If you want to identify the top quarterback in this year's draft class, you're gonna have to dig.

When we dug into each player's overarching resume earlier in the week, we saw that nobody separated from the pack. They were all bunched together, lacking the starpower we saw in last year's class.

The next step for us will be delving into each player's schedule. In college football, the competition gap from one player to the next is much larger than it is in the NFL. Thus, the raw stats can potentially be a bit misleading.

The primary efficiency number in the model I discussed earlier in the week -- Total QBR -- does adjust for the strength of the opposing defense. So, in a sense, we have gotten some accounting here. But if we still haven't found a consensus top arm, a deeper investigation here seems prudent.

That's what we'll do today. We're going to look at the type of schedule each quarterback faced and how they fared when they weren't facing cupcakes. It may not get us the definitive top arm we seek, but it is a key piece of the puzzle to consider.

The Opposing Schedules

Throughout this piece, we'll be leaning on Bill Connelly's defensive SP+ at ESPN. This has each defense ranked from 1 to 130 at the FBS level and can tell us who faced the stiffest road.

The quarterbacks we'll be looking at are the same six from earlier in the week, those with a grade of 75 or higher at Scouts Inc.: Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder, and Carson Strong. Draft capital matters a lot at quarterback, so comparing top prospects to likely day three picks is an apples to oranges comparison.

The table below shows the schedule those six quarterbacks faced. The average rank column shows the average defensive SP+ rank of the opponents the quarterbacks faced (with FCS opponents being marked as 131st). The "Percentage of Throws vs. Top 50" simply shows what percentage of that quarterback's attempts came versus defenses ranked inside the top 50 by SP+. For some context here, among all FBS quarterbacks drafted since 2010, the average defensive SP+ rank is 60.0, and the average percentage of attempts to come versus the top 50 is 48.0%.

Quarterback Average Rank Percentage of Throws vs. Top 50
Matt Corral 50.6 59.6%
Sam Howell 60.7 40.9%
Carson Strong 63.6 44.0%
Desmond Ridder 68.4 32.8%
Malik Willis 76.2 36.6%
Kenny Pickett 81.9 15.1%

If you were hoping to stir up optimism for this class via this exercise, I got bad news for ya, partner. Corral was the only one to face a tougher-than-average schedule. This group, once again, finds a way to let us down.

For Corral, it was a difficult road. Eight of his 13 games were against top-50 defenses, including one stretch in which six of seven games were versus stout opponents. This was also when Corral's injuries started to pile up, which may not be a coincidence.

Corral does get credit for this schedule via his QBR. He ranks second in this class there behind just Pickett and is in the 77th percentile among quarterbacks invited to the combine since 2010. It's the best category for him among those in my model, and it happens to be the category that is given the most weight, as well.

The problem is the rest of Corral's profile. He's older and doesn't have a ton of experience under his belt, a combination that typically doesn't pan out in the NFL. But at least when Corral was on the field, we know his success was not a result of the defenses he faced.

Easily the biggest red flag in the schedule analysis comes from Pickett. He's got one of the easier schedules of any quarterback prospect in the past decade-plus.

Once he's drafted, Pickett's 15.1% of attempts against top-50 defenses will be the eighth-lowest mark for any FBS quarterback drafted since 2010. His average defense rank of 81.9 will rank 11th of that group.

That's far from being an issue in a vacuum. Derek Carr and Josh Allen also faced easy schedules in college, and they both had worse raw numbers than Pickett's.

It becomes an issue, though, when you add this context to Pickett's resume. Pickett is experienced and had good numbers this year, but he also didn't post quality college efficiency numbers until his age-23 season and did so against lackluster competition. The major pro of Pickett is his performance this past year, but the shine comes off that real quick when you look at the teams he faced.

How They Fared

One way to redeem yourself for facing a soft schedule would be feasting when the difficulty was turned up.

Pickett did do decent here, but he wasn't tops in the class. The table below shows each player's AY/A in the games where they faced top-50 defenses by SP+.

QuarterbackAY/A vs. Top 50
Desmond Ridder9.1
Kenny Pickett8.9
Sam Howell8.1
Carson Strong7.9
Matt Corral7.9
Malik Willis5.9

Ridder's leading this list may be a surprise. He has gotten dinged for his performance against Alabama in the semifinal, and it's fair criticism; Ridder didn't play well there. But he showed up in other spots.

The two big ones were against Notre Dame and Houston, two massive games in Cincinnati's run to the playoffs. In those, Ridder turned 49 attempts into 487 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 0 picks. If he doesn't light it up there, he likely doesn't even get the chance to disappoint against Alabama because Cincinnati wouldn't have made it that far. It's fine to lower Ridder for the Alabama game, but we shouldn't forget about the plus showings, too.

For Willis, his 5.9 AY/A against top-50 defenses is concerning. It would be the fifth-lowest mark for a first-rounder since 2010 if he goes that high, and two of the guys worse than him -- Jordan Love and Paxton Lynch -- are not models you want to follow. You can pin it on the supporting cast if you want, but other quarterbacks have dealt with similar woes and had better efficiency marks than Willis'.

But as discussed in the original piece, none of this means Willis can't succeed. It just impacts the odds he does so.

One of the players with a worse AY/A against top-50 defenses than Willis is Allen, a player with plenty of skill overlap with Willis. Allen's AY/A was 1.8, the third-worst mark for a drafted FBS quarterback since 2010. The other player other than Allen, Love, and Lynch with a worse AY/A against top-50 defenses than Willis is Ryan Tannehill, who has shown flashes of upside, as well.

Allen was a worse prospect than Willis coming out and has turned into one of the game's brightest stars. The traits that led him there are traits that Willis also possesses. This is why it's hard to blame a team if they decide to roll the dice on Willis early in the draft. It's just tough to bank on outliers hitting consistently, and with Willis' overall collegiate resume shaping up the way it does, this would, indeed, be another outlier bet.