Could Tim Tebow Work as a Non-Quarterback?
Repent, all ye who have doubted. Yeah, the day has come and the fourth coming of Tim Tebow is nigh. Verily, he shall crush those who have slandered his name by hugging them lovingly in his enormous biceps.
If you can’t tell, I’m super excited that everyone’s favorite Internet meme is back on an NFL roster and ready to light up the blogosphere. Tebow signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend, and appears likely to compete for a single roster or practice squad spot with quarterbacks Matt Barkley and G.J. Kinne. We’ve seen this show before, however. It’s quite clear that -- despite the dearth of quarterback talent in the NFL and my love for him, not to mention his stunning eyes -- Tebow just does not have the chops to cut it as even a backup or developmental quarterback.
Still, what if we gave him a second chance and a few years of development? Where would he be now in his career as a passer? Or, more interesting still, if we reimagined him in a different position, would Tebow match up?
All of this might seem like a load of crock and guesswork, but there's certainly some science to it. We can make sense of this madness by examining a lovely little metric known here at numberFire as 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 and other on-field variables, 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.
Let’s start back at the top with Mr. Tebow and give him the benefit of the doubt. What if he had continued his career at quarterback, had been given a shot to develop on someone’s practice squad, and progressed to this point today? By taking a look at our research on the development and career arcs of quarterbacks, can we see a pattern that Tebow might have followed if given the chance?
The table below shows us the arc of the first 10 years of an average quarterback career, examined through the lens of Total NEP (Passing NEP plus Rushing NEP).
|League Year||Total NEP|
Tebow, drafted in 2010, would be in Year 6 of his career if he had been able to stay in the league and was given a chance to play full-time. This would theoretically mean he was reaching his peak production this season if he had had the experience and had a typical career arc.
Now, let’s take a look at Tebow’s career arc thus far and see if it holds to pattern. The table below shows the same the Total NEP data, but for Tebow alone. How does this look plotted out?
As we can see, Tebow’s career has been anything but predictable by the quarterback map. His best season was his rookie one in 2010, but just over half of that value was generated by his rushing production. He then regressed mightily in 2011, and seemed to have rebounded slightly in 2012. Prorated to 400 plays, his 2012 season would have been another step backwards (-40.48 Total NEP), albeit only slightly.
Whereas most quarterbacks get better with each year, Tebow got worse as his career went on, and his gimmicky option quarterback role became less and less diverse. By the end of his last stint with the Jets, he was a wildcat-only quarterback and ran the ball four times as much as he threw it. As a passer, free agency was where he belonged, due to the trajectory of his production.
But what if Tebow wasn’t a quarterback anymore? What if he finally relented to a position switch?
Most often, Tebow has been compared to an H-back style tight end. His 6’3”, 235-pound frame compares quite favorably to move ends like Lance Kendricks (6’3”, 243 pounds) or Kellen Winslow (6’4”, 247 pounds). In addition, Tebow’s 10 1/8” hands would seem to make for great targets for any quarterback, but does he have the other physical traits necessary to play a skill position?
Fortunately for us, Mock Draftable has created an amazing NFL Combine measurables database and tool that allows us to compare players not only to their peers at their positions, but also to see what they might look like compared to other positions. In a case like this, Tebow has exactly two career targets to his name, so that doesn't offer us much of a picture of how he would perform as a tight end. We can instead get an idea of his potential there due to his Mock Draftable “spider-chart”, shown below.
As the chart shows, Tebow ranked in the 70th percentile or better of all tight ends for every NFL Combine drill except the broad jump (56th percentile). This means that he was more athletically gifted than 70 percent or more of every other tight end. Where he is sorely lacking here, however, is in the size department. Tebow ranks in the second percentile for weight, seventh for height, sixth for arm length, and 59th for hand size. He could function as a small fullback-tight end hybrid, but this would not be a very sustainable role even if he did decide to switch over.
His best comparisons at the position are fairly anonymous, excepting the aforementioned Winslow and Kendricks, as well as the surprisingly non-explosive Julius Thomas and Garrett Graham. A transition to tight end could work, but it doesn’t seem like the best fit even in our thought experiment here.
This is where it gets interesting. What if we reimagine Tebow as a running back? Yes, I know -- most of you are picturing Peyton Hillis 2.0 in your head right now and running away screaming.
I think there actually might be something to Tebow as a runner, however, and the numbers seem to bear it out. While Tebow was highly effective as a rusher at the quarterback position, we can't make a one-to-one conclusion about how he would do as a running back from those numbers. However, Tebow’s Mock Draftable spider-chart as a running back is pretty impressive in its own right. What information can we glean from his physical qualities?
In this instance, Tebow would have been one of the biggest rushers in the league (99th percentile in height, 95th in weight). Against running backs, his athleticism scores take a huge nosedive, as he ranks outside the 70th percentile in the 40-yard dash, broad jump, and short shuttle. His vertical jump and three-cone drill would be in the 90th percentile or higher, however, meaning that not all hope would be lost for the potentially plodding Tebow. Fascinatingly, his best comps as a runner -- taking into account only those who did a full slate of Combine drills -- include Toby Gerhart, Le’Veon Bell, and Carlos Hyde.
For kicks, I did experiment with Tebow at defensive positions as well, and his most striking opportunity there would be at the inside linebacker position. His spider-chart is largest there for defensive options, and one of his top comparisons is All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Otherwise, he’s too small to be a reasonable defensive end, and much too slow for outside linebacker or safety.
Where does that leave us with our thought experiment? Tebow has the physical tools and build to play other positions if he chose, but much of what makes an NFL player is the refinement of technique, not merely physical ability. He’s refused switches before, however, so these do seem like unlikely propositions even if they make sense. It’s always fun to think about "what could be" though.