Iron Men: Mapping Out the Careers of NFL Quarterbacks

Peyton Manning is typically the exception, and not the rule. But what does a common career for an NFL passer look like?

A week filled with news from the NFL about draft rumors, blockbuster trades, and heartbreaking cuts has overshadowed what could probably have been one of the more impactful stories of the offseason. On Thursday, the Denver Broncos announced that star quarterback Peyton Manning had passed his physical exam and accepted a $4 million dollar pay cut to return for the 2015 season, his 16th in the league and potentially his last.

Certainly Peyton Manning is always the exception and never the rule, but it’s interesting to consider his legacy not just in a vacuum –- while quite impressive this way indeed. In the context of the quarterback position on the whole, how rare is this sort of longevity and dominance?

As teams go into draft season, they can't simply expect to find a Peyton Manning, a Drew Brees or a Tom Brady -- those kinds of players just don’t come around every year. So what should teams and fans look for in the draft? What can we, as fantasy owners, expect of these players that we’re hoping to draft? What does the anatomy of a quarterback’s career look like?

Neon Knights

The quarterback has become the NFL. I’m going to rip this statistic from an earlier article of mine, but I think it’s important to give context to the state of positional value in the league: the league has seen an 8.5% boost in both passing play call percentage and number of passing attempts by volume in just the last 15 years alone. This is reflected by what teams are having to spend to retain their franchise signal-callers, as the average top-32 quarterback in the NFL has an $11 million cap cost for their team. That is, they consume about 8.3% of the available money a team has to spend on 53 total players.

I’ll even go one further. The average draft pick value spent in the last 15 years on a quarterback: equivalent to 47th overall, or the 15th pick of the second round. This is due to so many picks being spent on early-round quarterbacks, and the immense value of those picks.

Teams are willing to drop enormous capital into this position, so we as analysts and fans should know what our favorite franchises are getting themselves into. After Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III came out in 2012, it seemed like every fanbase expected to be able to draft a once-in-a-decade star like that, but that certainly isn’t the case. Some won’t even be stars, and they’ll flame out.

What should they be looking for?


To map out the likely course of this position, we will use numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we see in the box score and assign them contextual value as they relate to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each player influence the outcome of the game. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

For this study, I was curious about a few different factors. First, what does the map of a typical quarterback career look like under the lens of NEP? Second, does draft round affect anything about this expected career arc?

I plotted out the Total NEP (NEP gained from both passing and rushing) data by year of each quarterback drafted since 2000, as well as assigning their draft round and overall pick. The table below shows our first tool: a map of average Total NEP production for each league year of a quarterback. What do we find?

League YearTotal NEP

It seems that rookie quarterbacks have it pretty rough in the NFL, as they actually bring in an average negative NEP score. This is fairly hard to do, as Total NEP is calculated primarily through Passing NEP (which is highly efficient in production, metrically speaking). This effect is likely due to the high number of poor players who wash out of the league early on, but it is important to note the increase from this point onward.

There is a sharp incline in production over the first three seasons, and then a plateau is reached from about Year 3 to Year 5. After this, from Year 6 to Year 9, there is another step up to peak production, and then Year 10 onward sees a gradual decline in value.

Granted, not all quarterbacks last this long in the league, so this is not a typical chart by exact year, necessarily. For those with the staying power to be a league backup or starter, this is an appropriate road map. For others, this average might happen over a shorter time, or be cut off earlier.

Still, this helps us to see what the average production of an NFL quarterback has been over the past decade and a half. One can’t count on a 15-year quarterback with their draft pick always, though. Or can they?

Lords of This World

As I said, I also want to examine how draft pick value affects the career of a quarterback in the NFL. We keep hearing rumors that Johnny Manziel will be done with the Browns after just one season, we saw Tim Tebow out of the league after just three years: how rare are those occurrences for a first-round pick?

The table below shows the average length of an NFL quarterback’s career in terms of years played in the league, years above replacement-level (set at the 64th-best quarterback by Total NEP in 2014, theoretically the worst roster-worthy quarterback in the league), and years above elite level (set as a top-10 quarterback by Total NEP in 2014). These are divided by round of draft pick. What do we find when we break this apart?

Round DraftedCareerR-LevelE-Level

As in my previous study on quarterback draft value, Tom Brady proves to be the Round 6 outlier yet again. Without him, R-Level and E-Level for this round drop directly into line with the downward progression of value with each round. Clearly a quarterback drafted in the first round is going to be given a longer leash to develop and prove themselves, but they are given nearly one and a half seasons more than the next round in the NFL to play at all. They nearly triple the lifespan of seventh round selections, in fact.

Aside from coaching bias allowing these more costly draft picks to play longer, though, we can see that on average, teams that draft quarterbacks higher will get more NFL-level value out of them than bargain bin options in the draft. Elite potential, too, is no guarantee –- even for first rounders -– but this level of production drops off sharply after Round 2 of the draft, to nearly nothing.

Say what you will about teams like the Vikings or Browns repeatedly spending first-round picks on quarterbacks, but they’ve got the right idea. Those players traditionally have the best talent, and last the longest in the league. Everything else is a crapshoot.

For us fantasy players, what can we take away? The landscape of quarterbacking has changed greatly in the last 15 years, and now rookies are almost always expected to start. They really won’t hit their stride until Year 2 or Year 3, however. If they don’t by then, move on from them as your fantasy passer. Once your dynasty quarterback reaches his middle years –- somewhere between Year 6 and Year 9 -– consider selling them. They’re at their peak value, and as we’ve seen, even for the elite quarterbacks, there’s no guarantee that they last longer than six or seven years in the league.