The High Cost of a Franchise Quarterback
With the Minnesota Vikings’ trade of Matt Cassel yesterday, I saw a few beat writers and analysts begin speculating about the state of the depth chart under center in the North Star State.
2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater is the locked-and-loaded starter for 2015 (and the foreseeable future), but behind him, things look a bit messy. Christian Ponder -- the Vikings’ 2011 12th overall selection -- has completely flamed out since setting foot on NFL turf and is an impending free agent, Cassel has now departed for snowier pastures, and practice squad player Pat Devlin is the only other quarterback on the roster.
Almost every single analyst commented that the Vikings clearly needed to do two things now: first, they had to sign a veteran backup quarterback as depth, and second, they had to draft a late-round “project” quarterback to develop.
I’ve inquired about these same questions as it relates to running backs, but teams’ decision-making processes on draft day endlessly fascinate me. How much draft capital does it cost for teams to take developmental quarterbacks, and how effective are those picks? Do late-round quarterbacks in the NFL draft tend to pan out, or are they often wastes? And is there any way that we, as armchair decision-makers ourselves, can predict these potential busts or studs?
The National Football League has shifted rapidly from anything resembling “balanced” to an insanely pass-heavy atmosphere. In 2000, 15 years ago, teams were averaging just 549 pass attempts per season, and the league-average play calling ratio of pass-to-run was 1.29. In 2014, that number had risen to an average 597 passing attempts per season and a ratio of 1.40. The numbers themselves may not seem like a massive increase, but that is a titanic shift to see an 8.5% boost in passing attempts and play call percentage over just 15 years.
Consider that the average top-32 (theoretically, starting) quarterback in the NFL costs just over $11 million in the upcoming NFL season -- that is, exactly one-twelfth of each team’s available salary cap -- and you begin to realize the importance of having a good one. Also consider the fact that Blaine Gabbert and Ricky Stanzi are still on NFL rosters, and you realize just how thin the positional talent in the league has become. It’s not overkill to say that we are at a crisis in the NFL for serviceable quarterback talent, and it’s getting more and more expensive to acquire them, even in the draft.
The Face of a Franchise
When I examined these quarterbacks’ careers and production, I plotted out their Total Net Expected Points (NEP) to help me see just how valuable each was for his team. Total NEP is a metric that shows us the number of expected points a player adds for his team both with his legs and his arm. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
I put that data side-by-side with each player's round selected in, overall pick, and draft cost per the standard NFL draft evaluation chart, which assigns each draft pick a relative value from 3,000 points for first overall to 0 points for 250th overall. Next, I measured the correlations between each of these draft factors and a player's career Total NEP or average Total NEP over their career. The strongest such mathematical relationship was between draft round and average Total NEP, and even that was the tiniest of margins above the range of a negligible correlation.
Therefore, we don’t have much evidence to say that draft position is a bona fide indicator of future player productivity. But there must be some rough way to measure general success of a draft selection; let’s find out.
Levels of Confidence
In order to map out the success of a player in any given year properly, I set up production thresholds for these players to see just what levels they were performing at in any given year. Assuming an average of two quarterbacks on each NFL roster, I decided that replacement-level simply meant good enough to be on an NFL roster, and set a value of -13.76 NEP (the 64th-best quarterback Total NEP score in 2014) for this threshold. I also wanted to measure the potential for greatness, so I set a threshold for elite production as a top-10 quarterback in 2014, or 105.36 Total NEP.
With these goals in mind, it was time to see how our signal-callers matched up by their draft values. My goal was to see the percentage of players in each round that even once reached these replacement and elite thresholds. As could have been expected, the later we got in the draft, the worse these picks performed. The table below shows this data by round value.
The numbers seem pretty clear on this: if you’re drafting a quarterback beyond the third round, there is almost no chance they will have an elite season in their careers. There is a stark drop-off in quarterback E-Level% after this point, but it is a welcome thing to see that the fourth round seems to still hold some serviceable potential within it. Remember, replacement-level in this instance is not startable, just a player a team should feel comfortable enough to roster. After the fourth round, this R-Level% quality drops off sharply as well, though we do see an interesting amount of rosterable talent apparently in the sixth round of the draft.
The other category I didn’t mention before was that of the Non-Factor%, or “bust factor.” This is the percentage of players that did not even play an offensive snap in the league. Within the first two rounds, no quarterback in the last 15 years has been given zero snaps in his career, likely due to the invested amount of draft value teams have put into them. From the third round onward, there is some risk of non-playing, and by the fifth round, there is a significant bust factor.
There’s no specific trend in production or reliability by draft round, but we can see certain thresholds emerge in the data. The best talent at this position tends to be concentrated at the top, due to a high E-Level% in the first round, but there is almost a flat tier of contributors from the first to fourth rounds, suggesting that -- since this compares career production, and not necessarily talent -- a high-round pick has just as likely a shot at being serviceable as an early middle-round selection.
The Value Point
Just as in my running back value article, I also wanted to examine how well the value of spending draft picks on this position works out for teams. By taking the average career Total NEP of quarterbacks per round and dividing that by the average slot value for those rounds (per the standard NFL value chart), I was able to come up with a sort of cost-benefit ratio. Essentially, the cheaper the pick you spend and the more production you get from it, the better off you are. If I can get Tom Brady (1,534.31 career Total NEP) at 199th overall for draft value cost of 11.8, I’d much more prefer that to spending the third overall pick with a draft value cost of 2,200 on Joey Harrington (-274.63 career Total NEP).
The table below shows this average data in a per-round manner.
Tom Brady ruins all my ratios. The sixth-round value anomaly is due to Brady’s tremendous career -- which has by far the best per-cost Total NEP of any quarterback (130.03) -- but without him, this round clocks in at a paltry -1.129 Total NEP per draft cost. It’s a little surprising that this data somewhat contradicts my expectations: I assumed that due to the immensely low cost of the later picks, there would be some measure of a flat tier lower in the per-cost value chart. Instead, there is a strong downward trend with each lower round, meaning that the first two rounds are truly the best places to get the bang for your buck in a signal-caller.
To triangulate a best possible point for teams to select their franchise passer, factoring in reliability (Non-Factor% and R-Level%), potential (E-Level%), and per-cost production (NEP/Value), based on this data, I would suggest first- or second-round picks only be spent on quarterbacks in the NFL draft. The natural talent based on the reliability percentages sustains somewhat through the fourth round, so if looking for a solid backup only, I could see spending a third- or fourth-round pick on a benchwarmer. For a true franchise player, though, the elite upside doesn’t tend to make it out of the first and second rounds, and the production-per-cost is actually at its peak early on.
So beg your favorite team’s general manager not to be stingy: the quarterback position is, in fact, one to pay highly for on draft day. Strong investment there could change team’s futures for a long time.