Is Jameis Winston's College Interception Rate a Real Problem?
There’s no manual for playing quarterback in the NFL. If there was, one of the first chapters would likely be on the importance of not turning the ball over. Coaches talk about it all the time -- it’s definitely a chapter in their cliche´ manual -- and quarterbacks themselves stress the importance of limiting turnovers to be successful in the league.
Turnovers can be the difference in Alex Smith being a bust and receiving a $68 million contract -- two real things that happened. It appears curious, then, that the consensus top quarterback and expected number-one pick in the NFL Draft just spent his last college season turning the ball over at an unprecedented rate.
Going back to 2000, none of the 38 quarterbacks drafted in the first round have put up a higher interception ratio in their final college season than Jameis Winston did during 2014 at Florida State. During his redshirt sophomore year, Winston threw an interception on 3.8 percent of his passes. That’s not ideal. Winston was praised for his ability to lead the Seminoles back in games during the 2014 season, but it was routinely his own mistakes that were putting the team behind.
Winston hasn't always thrown picks at this rate, though his 2.6 percent interception rate from 2013 -- the year he won the Heisman Trophy -- would still place him among the more interception-prone quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft.
Last College Season vs. First-Year Production
Since 2000, the average interception rate of quarterbacks taken in the first round has been 2.3 percent. That increases to 3.4 percent for that group during their first year as a starter in the NFL, but there’s little correlation between interception rates in a final college season and interception rates during the first year in the NFL.
There are plot points are all over the graph, and the trendline even has a negative slope, meaning a higher college interception rate leads to a lower NFL rate (no causation, of course). For every Robert Griffin III who keeps a sub-2 percent interception rate from college to his rookie season, there’s an Alex Smith more than quintupling his interception rate, from 1.3 to 6.7 percent. There are also players like Matt Ryan with the fourth-highest inception rate of these quarterbacks in college who decreased that rate in each of his first three pro seasons.
While a college interception rate won’t help project how many interceptions that quarterback will throw during his rookie year, what about production as a whole? A bad decision maker could be masking potential interceptions with other plays negatively affecting his team. Deciding to hold onto the ball and taking a sack could have a similar on-field impact, for instance, without inflating turnover numbers.
To find out if that could be the case, let’s look at our Net Expected Points metric. Net Expected Points (NEP), for those unaware, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. In other words, it shows how a player performs versus how he's expected to perform. You can read more about it in our glossary.
For this exercise, Passing NEP -- points added through the air -- actually sees a very small correlation to the college interception rate, at least for the first season.
Results, again, are sporadic. David Carr had a Passing NEP of -128.24 during his first season, the worst of this group, after having an interception rate of just 1.7 percent in his final season at Fresno State. Matt Ryan posted an 89.16 Passing NEP season -- the seventh highest total for quarterbacks in 2008 -- in his rookie year after throwing a pick on 2.9 percent of his passes in his last college season. Of course these are the two extremes, but there are enough seasons in the in-between that little statistical significance can be placed on the results.
Interception Rates vs. the First Three Seasons
One thing we do know is that the player a quarterback is during his rookie season isn’t always the quarterback he’ll be for the rest of his career, though there's a decent correlation associated with this. What if trends start to show over a larger sample of passes rather than whatever is revealed during the first season? Well, that doesn’t appear to be the case either.
There’s a slightly better correlation in a three-year sample, but still not enough to make any definitive statements. No trends suggest quarterbacks prone to throwing interceptions in college will progress to be bad quarterbacks at the professional level. The same can be said about those quarterbacks who stayed away from interceptions in college and their ability to become above average starters.
Of the 38 quarterbacks chosen in the first round since 2000, only four have been selected after posting an interception rate above three percent in his final college season. Those four quarterbacks were Michael Vick (3.7), Rex Grossman (3.4), J.P. Losman (3.3) and Vince Young (3.1). When young quarterbacks identify older quarterbacks they want to model their careers after, that’s not the type of group that usually gets mentioned.
Take a look again at the final chart above. Notice the four rightmost dots and how none of them fall above the x-axis representing 0 Passing NEP. They aren’t the lowest totals on the chart, but none of those four quarterbacks reached a net positive value, according to Passing NEP, after their third season in the league.
This isn't to say Winston is destined to the fate of these quarterbacks. That group didn’t see their careers play out in a similar way. While Young and Losman flamed out, Vick and Grossman were both able to string along lengthy careers despite early-career struggles. While it seems Grossman has been in the league forever, he’s only had two seasons with 13 or more games played. In both of those seasons, he threw 20 interceptions. In one of those seasons, the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl.
It’s hard to compare Winston to Vick, the only quarterback of that group to be selected first overall. Vick’s early value came from his ability to make plays with his feet, as he was raw and developing as a passer. Winston is clearly more refined as a thrower, but the question still remains if that’s a good thing.
The promise surrounding Vick is that his throwing ability would progress to match his athleticism, and his mistakes would be diminished. Some of that held true, as Vick was the only player of this group to post a season with positive Passing NEP in his first three seasons.
Winston is nowhere near the athlete of Vick -- it’s ok, no one else is, either -- but his 4.97 40-yard dash time also vastly undersells his ability to move in the pocket and outmaneuver pressure. However, Winston is going to try to make many more plays with his arm, which could help lead to those high interception totals. If those decisions and throws are a result of being “refined,” it’s fair to wonder if those decisions or throws will improve at the pro level.
What we’ve proved so far is all of this proves very little. Winston's interceptions might be a problem, but there are examples showing the opposite stance as well. Winston isn’t destined to be a star nor can we say his tendency to throw interceptions will derail his career. Teams should definitely be concerned at the rate in which Winston turned the ball over during his last season in college, but it shouldn’t be enough to deter them from thinking he could find success in the NFL.