Has Russell Wilson Already Peaked?

Russell Wilson has been one of the most successful young quarterbacks in recent NFL history, but can he actually get better?

I like Russell Wilson.

I root for the guy. I think he's a stand-up citizen and a good role model. But that's not what this is about.

It's not as though I have a vendetta against Wilson or just want to stir up controversy. Based on the analytics, Wilson is actually declining as a passer, and it's important to figure out if it's normal for young passers to do that or not.

But there's a chance he is already as good as he can be -- unless he starts being utilized in a different way and is called upon more to air it out or run the ball more.

And don't get me wrong: if Wilson is as good as he can be already, that's not bad news.

Wilson's first three seasons were pretty obviously better than the first three from Tom Brady's, and Wilson has been inside the top 10 among quarterbacks in terms of Total Net Expected Points (NEP) in each of these campaigns. NEP is our signature metric, and it quantifies how far above or below expectation (or replacement-level) a player has performed.

But Wilson may have already peaked, as his passing metrics are trending backward. As a result, it's worthwhile to see if this trend is normal for other young quarterbacks, too.

Wilson's Numbers

Like I said before, Russell Wilson has been a top-10 quarterback in his first three seasons from an advanced metrics perspective. Here are his Passing NEP and Total NEP marks and ranks in his first three seasons.

PlayerYearPassing NEPRankPass NEP/Drop BackRankTotal NEPRank

This year, Wilson's Passing NEP -- the expected points he added to the Seahawks on his drop backs -- was his lowest in his career and was just 15th among quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs. His Rushing NEP (60.50) was tops in the NFL, though, and he remained inside the top 10 in Total NEP as a result, despite having a worse cumulative Passing NEP than Mark Sanchez (49.51) and Alex Smith (50.66)

You can accredit this to the team's deferral to the run, but the Seahawks were the run-heaviest team in 2012 (with a pass-to-run ratio of 0.82) and second-heaviest in both 2013 and 2014 (0.91 and 0.95, respectively). The weapons thing is a more valid argument, as the best receiver season he's ever been paired with was Sidney Rice's 2012 campaign when he ranked just 30th among receivers in Reception NEP (77.15).

But the main question is whether this type of regression is normal for quarterbacks.

Quarterback Improvements in the Last Decade

Perhaps the biggest problem for Wilson's future is that he started off as well as he did and left himself little room for improvement. There have been 92 seasons since 2000 with a Passing NEP better than 85.00, so Wilson does have upward mobility, but I was being evocative.

But it turns out that a bad third season isn't all that uncommon for young passers who have made a name for themselves in the league. For example, check out the rookie class of 2004 (meaning the quarterbacks who actually started playing in 2004) and their early career arcs. (Ranks are among passers with at least 200 drop backs, roughly 35 per season.)

Passing NEP2004Rank2005Rank2006Rank
Carson Palmer-30.1227113.19264.526
Ben Roethlisberger62.251070.7573.8317
Eli Manning-35.202842.89112.0118

First thing's first: don't get too caught up in comparing NEP numbers from a decade ago to Wilson's numbers. After all, the average Passing NEP among quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs in 2004 was about 11. In 2014 it was roughly 55.

Still, each of these three quarterbacks improved Passing NEP from his rookie season to his sophomore season -- quite drastically in some cases -- but all declined in year three. Still, all three have had enough success to have a starting gig this NFL season, so overreacting, in hindsight, would have been the wrong call.

What about later rookies? Again, I'm mainly looking at substantive cases of players who had significant rookie-year volume. I think it's safe to say that I don't need to be calling up JaMarcus Russell's metrics to prove or disprove anything about one of the players who is already one of the best in the league. Here were two guys with very different rookie years but who later improved regardless.

Passing NEP2008Rank2009Rank2010Rank
Joe Flacco-7.532556.401347.6213
Matt Ryan89.16749.3614113.305

The most interesting name so far has been Matt Ryan, as his Passing NEP was very impressive as a rookie and was comparable to Wilson's. After a pretty sharp decline in 2009, Ryan elevated past his promising rookie season, something Wilson hasn't yet done.

Here are five more players whose rookie seasons fell between 2009 and 2012 and their three-year arcs. You'll see the first instance of a player's declining in all three years.

Passing NEPRookie SeasonYear 1RankYear 2RankYear 3Rank
Matt Stafford*2009-55.4431112.26540.2415
Cam Newton201157.481164.951237.3016
Andy Dalton201112.641810.692254.6913
Andrew Luck201236.681641.7315110.337
Robert Griffin201273.631020.8620-36.8435
Stafford's line omits his injury-shortened 2010 season.

So a few things are becoming obvious. Russell Wilson's rookie year was very, very good compared to other rookies. There's no denying that. But even players with respectable rookie Passing NEPs (such as Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton) were able to improve in their second season. In fairness, Matt Ryan didn't. But of the 10 quarterbacks I included, only three declined from their rookie year to their sophomore year.

However, seven of the 10 declined from year two to year three. And, of course, nine of these guys have a solid grasp on the starting role for an NFL team (except Robert Griffin III). And they all had their ups and downs early, and most had downs in year three like Wilson did.

But of this year's top-10 Passing NEP quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ryan, Philip Rivers, and Joe Flacco), none declined in Passing NEP in each of their first three seasons with at least 200 drop backs.

Too Early to Tell

The problem is that Wilson, despite declining passing metrics, is still really good, and that's a good problem to have. He just posted the second-best Rushing NEP season by a player since 2000, but unless he continues to run the ball at near-record-breaking efficiency and volume, then his Total NEP is going to take a dive if his Passing NEP continues to drop. Despite a historic rushing campaign, his Total NEP was just barely inside the top 10.

You can say that he's a fantastic runner -- and he his -- but unless his passing improves, his ceiling is capped unless he somehow begins shattering rushing records.

Wilson might end up with two Super Bowl rings through three seasons, yeah, and you can't ask for much more than that. You also can't fault him for entering the league at a higher level in terms of passing than other rookies did, leaving him little in the way of trending upward early on.

But if we want to look at Wilson as a passer and an overall quarterback going forward, then there is actually some cause for concern if his passing metrics continue to plummet and his legs can't keep up.