Can a College Spread Quarterback Survive in the NFL?

Marcus Mariota is yet another spread quarterback to enter the NFL. How have players like him historically performed?

There is one four-word phrase that will doom a quarterback prospect to scouting purgatory faster than any other in the English language: “He’s a system guy.” Faster than you can say “Mariota”, scouts determining that a player can only succeed within the confines of one type of offensive scheme will doom their stock value, deem them inflexible players, and even cast doubt upon their talent as it will be assumed that it was the offense -– not the player –- that succeeded.

This is the biggest knock on players like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who seems to have all the tools necessary to be an NFL quarterback, but played in Oregon’s up-tempo “spread option” offense, which certainly didn’t hurt his production. The simplified route concepts and reads of the spread option, along with the misdirection that the read-option rushing threat provides, certainly buoyed Mariota over the past few years.

Nonetheless, this is a bigger question than Mariota. We’re all curious to know if spread quarterbacks make the scheme, or if the scheme makes them. Pro evaluators want to know even more: can a spread quarterback in college make it in the NFL?

Daunte’s Inferno

In order to answer this question, we have to know what we’re talking about. We hear the terms “spread” and "pro-style" thrown around all the time; what exactly do they mean?

The spread offense is primarily a passing system that seeks to do exactly what its name says: spread the defense. Think of this horizontally, while a more vertically-based offense could be considered a field-stretching attack. I explain and compare these two in great detail in our study on passing schemes, published earlier this year. In our terms, we refer to the spread as a precision-based offense, as its success is predicated primarily on precise route-running, timing between the quarterback and receiver, and accurate throws in small windows.

This is supposedly a contrast to what's considered a "pro-style offense", and that is the big problem with the terminology. Originally, this was a term that loosely defined vertical attacks, but the way it's used today is for route trees and reads that scouts have deemed "good enough" to be NFL-worthy without much empirical basis -- it's nothing more than a value judgment by talent evaluators. For instance: Ohio State is "pro-style", but runs a spread scheme. Oregon runs a spread, but it's not "pro-style". Same with Nevada, even though we saw the San Francisco 49ers use the Pistol Spread effectively in the pros, and we saw Washington level teams with Baylor's Spread Option variation. A pro-style offense does not distinguish a scheme in today's parlance whatsoever. The terminology we have to approximate that is the vertical attack -- that's the traditional pro offense.

But I digress -- back to the spread. By using a variety of quick crossing routes for its receivers, this offensive scheme allows smaller, faster players to gain mismatches with defensive backs off of the snap. It’s a very demanding style of play in the minutiae, but it’s much less demanding from a natural physical gift standpoint. It’s no shock that the up-tempo spread attack emerged as a way for football teams with less athletic talent to keep up with the “ground-and-pound” offenses that were all the rage in the early days of the game. The earliest form of the spread emerged in 1927 under coach Rusty Russell, who led the high school Masonic Home Mighty Mites to 10 state playoffs in his 16 years with the school. These were smaller players, and he knew that it would mean certain defeat to try to hit other teams with a similar “smash-mouth” style of play. Thus, an alternative was born.

Now, the question still remains, how does it look when the spread offense is grafted from the college ranks to the NFL? And more importantly, can players who have mostly played the spread in college function properly in a vertically-based offense?

The Ninth Sphere of Manziel

The foundation of this discussion for us will be based in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Here at numberFire, we’ve developed NEP as a way to track the real production a team or player has; it goes deeper than box score production and truly breaks down the on-field contribution a player makes to his team’s chances of scoring. If you’d like to read more about how NEP works, check out our glossary.

For this study, I decided to look at only the quarterbacks that have been drafted in the top 50 selections of each draft since 2000 to give us a better chance of finding successes. The draft is always a crapshoot, but there have been extensive studies on the success rate of finding quality starting quarterbacks outside this range, and it’s absolutely atrocious. To minimize the effect of poor talent on this study and isolate the effect of a scheme on quarterback success, we will limit this to the top talent available in the draft.

In the last 15 seasons, 48 quarterbacks have been selected with a first- or early second-round pick. Of these, 17 worked in precision (spread) passing schemes in college. I find it interesting that nearly half of those were selected in the last five years alone, with Teddy Bridgewater the most recent of them. This leaves 31 college quarterbacks who operated primarily in vertical passing offenses in college. When we look at how the average quarterback from these schemes performs in the NFL, what do we find?

The table below shows the Total NEP data (Passing NEP plus Rushing NEP) for the average NFL quarterback who originated in each of these schemes. It also displays the average career length and years in positive Total NEP for each style of college quarterback. What do we find?

College StyleTotal NEPAvg. Career LengthAvg. Years Positive NEP

This seems pretty straightforward here. College quarterbacks who came out of spread offenses just haven’t mustered up the Total NEP of those who came out of vertical passing attacks. To make matters worse, they have had slightly shorter careers on average than the average vertical passer, and they’ve had a little more than a full season less of a positive Total NEP score on average.

We could have predicted this somewhat, I think, by looking at my article on the two differences between the offenses. The precision attacks are not predicated on picking up huge chunks of value at a time. Instead, they eat away at an opposing team in pieces, so that theoretically they face those high leverage third-and-long situations much less frequently. Thus, precision attacks tend to have better per drop back value, but less value overall.

Eternal Camnation

I’m still curious about one thing, however. People slam spread quarterbacks like Marcus Mariota because they say he’ll be inflexible and useless without the Oregon offensive scheme. But is there a difference between quarterbacks who stay in their college scheme, and those who transition to another scheme in the pros? And if so, are vertical passers any less scheme-dependent?

The table below shows these averages once more, but now split a little bit further. What do we see when we divide up the schemes even more like this?

College StylePro StyleTotal NEPAvg. Career LengthAvg. Years Positive NEP

Overwhelmingly, this table shows us that vertical college quarterbacks that remain in vertical passing schemes tend to have the best careers on average, ranking first in all of these categories. With evidence of players like Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, this makes a certain amount of sense. The next-best, however, are the precision college quarterbacks who become vertical passers. It seems that these players are not so bad at adapting, all things considered, especially if their tools are used properly.

And for all the talk of the inflexibility of spread quarterbacks, the numbers show that the worst signal-callers by far are those who play in a vertical system in college and transition to precision offenses in the pros. Even Aaron Rodgers and Chad Pennington couldn’t boost this tier.

With this baseline of value from the scheme, I’d almost rather take a read-option quarterback like Mariota, because his athleticism adds another dimension to the game. Each case is individual, and each individual and team has a different way of translating the game. There is no certainty in the NFL Draft alone; teams will have to groom their selections to fit their plans. From our study, it appears that vertical college quarterbacks transition better to the NFL, but no style is any more or less flexible than the other in terms of translation.