Is There Less Quarterback Talent Coming Into the NFL?

With such sporadic rookie quarterback play of late, we have to consider whether or not we're lacking talent at the NFL's most important position.

We aren't only less than a week away from NFL kickoff. We're also a less than a week away from the beginning of my fourth year teaching theatre.

I’ve taught at high school level, I’ve taught middle school and elementary age kids, I’ve even taught preschool children, and one thing remains constant for all of them: I am out of touch with the pop cultural references of today.

I know I don’t have a TV and don’t listen to the radio, but after 'googling' a few things, I have so many questions. Are we really living in a world where Miley Cyrus is a role model? Is Demi Lovato actually relevant again? Why is Skrillex doing a collaboration with Justin Bieber? And seriously, why can’t Zac Efron just go away instead of making more teen blockbusters? He’s 27 now and beginning to look more like Rob Lowe than a teenage heartthrob.

I think I’m getting old. Kids these days…

Even in the NFL, many can’t really comprehend what’s happening to the youth in the game. People have been saying for years now that the NFL has less quarterback talent coming into the league, and that this is going to create a problem for the level of competition soon. Based on the level of value that I found with the Google search I did in order to make the above references, it seems like a fair question to me.

Are the old fogies right? Are the quarterback kids these days just not up to par?

Where Are U Now

It’s fascinating to think about how different the life of a rookie quarterback is now compared to my childhood, just a mere 20 years ago. The legendary Brett Favre sat for a season when he was drafted in 1991 because rookies were never expected to make an impact in the league. Steve McNair, drafted in 1995, didn’t get to start a game until December of 1996, sitting for nearly two full seasons.

Fast-forward almost 20 years to 2014. We saw four quarterbacks drafted in the top 40 of the NFL Draft, and all four of them saw starter snaps in their first season in the league. There's such a demand for rookie quarterbacks to perform early these days that few get a chance to develop behind a veteran like they did in recent history.

It’s possible that this lack of quality quarterback talent in the NFL has led teams to draft rookie passers higher than ever before and force them into starting roles that they aren’t ready for -- a la Johnny Manziel's 2014 debacle.

It’s also possible to trace this lack of quality quarterback talent in the NFL to teams’ decisions to draft rookie passers higher and start them earlier than ever before. The table below illustrates this effect, showing the number of quarterbacks drafted in the top 40 draft picks of a class in a given decade. I also included the average games started by a quarterback in their rookie season for each decade, so that we can see just how much the value placed on young passers has grown.

Decade Top-40 Avg. Rookie Starts
1970-79 20 4.92
1980-89 27 4.36
1990-99 24 4.96
2000-09 29 6.08
2010-19 33* 8.25

The decade of 2010 to 2019 shows the current pace of top-40 drafted quarterbacks, given the average per year so far. We can see very clearly that quarterbacks are becoming more valuable to teams as they enter the league, as they're drafting more and more of them higher – there’s been a 33% increase in top-40 quarterbacks since the 1970’s. To an even more extreme extent, teams are thrusting them into the starting lineup early on -- the average amount of games a rookie quarterback starts has almost doubled in the last 40 years. But has their production – their real on-field value – actually been worse?

Bad Blood

To investigate this, I decided to look at a couple of different parameters for rookie quarterbacks’ production in the league. Specifically, we'll examine just how effective they have been via our signature metric at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

I assembled the list of all quarterbacks drafted between 2000 and 2012, to give us a minimum sample size of at least three years of a career. We specifically will look at the Total NEP -- the sum of all Passing NEP and Rushing NEP -- of each quarterback class, and see whether or not the talent level has dropped off for rookies in the league since the new millennium.

The table below shows this comparison, including the sum of Total NEP (includes rushing, not just passing, numbers) for the average rookie year and the average first three years in the NFL. I also included a measure of my own making, the percentage of seasons that an average player in each class finished at Replacement Level (top-64 quarterback in a season) and Elite Level (top-5) across their career. What do we find?

QB Class Rookie TNEP First 3 TNEP R-Level% E-Level%
2000 -5.59 5.82 86.25% 11.25%
2001 -17.06 -35.16 77.03% 13.51%
2002 -30.92 -50.07 64.06% 0.00%
2003 -7.49 -20.32 76.74% 1.16%
2004 -12.21 3.40 82.43% 10.81%
2005 -24.46 -49.35 72.73% 7.95%
2006 -13.03 -6.21 85.25% 1.64%
2007 -11.90 -35.73 76.47% 0.00%
2008 10.79 41.41 85.37% 7.32%
2009 -29.09 -10.71 60.71% 3.57%
2010 -14.93 41.43 71.88% 0.00%
2011 2.50 41.03 80.56% 5.56%
2012 21.66 76.71 79.31% 17.24%

While there are certainly valleys of value in these years – 2002 was a dead zone – the obvious general trend of Total NEP is upward over the years. We can see this demonstrated by the regression line across the scatterplots below. The fact that quarterbacks are starting more and more games early on in their careers likely contributes to this inflation effect in total value in the early years, but offensive value has flat-out skyrocketed over the last few decades as well, and that will also factor into the rise of Total NEP scores.

Indeed, the same is true for each class three years down the road. While there is no linear upward slant or curve, the Total NEP raw value of a quarterback class in its first three years has increased over time, and the 2012 class is the halcyon of that effect so far. The chart showing this is below.

First 3 Years Total NEP

What's most interesting, however, is that when we compare the classes on a relative basis and look at the percentage of times that they finished a season worth an NFL roster spot – again, top-64 in Total NEP among quarterbacks in a season – we find that the trend has essentially stayed static over the years. Take a look:

Replacement Level Percentage

The slope of that line, in case you can't read it, is -0.0017. That means the relative R-Level of quarterbacks has diminished over the past fifteen years, but by about 0.17% annually, which is statistically negligible. So, if there's been no change in how the young quarterback performs relative to the other passers in the league, we can chalk up any production inflation to mere league inflation of passing value. Clearly the level of competition at quarterback really hasn't diminished with each new class in the league.

Locked Away

It’s clear that quarterbacks today are getting drafted higher, starting earlier, and just flat-out producing more value for their teams, even in the first three years of their careers. There is nothing to say, though, that the quality of a quarterback these days is worse than it’s ever been before. At least for the last decade and a half, early-career quarterbacks are putting up replacement-level and elite-level seasons at identical rates on average. The relative landscape for the young passer is pretty similar now to what it was at the new millennium.

There may be some poor play happening early on in careers, as young quarterbacks don’t have the luxury of sitting behind veterans and developing anymore -- not to mention the added pressure of increasingly higher and higher draft selections -- but there is nothing concrete that tells us young quarterbacks are less talented nowadays than they have been before. If anything, they’re actually more talented in multiple ways, as we are seeing a Golden Age of mobile quarterbacks in the league right now. There have been 28 quarterback seasons from 2010 to 2014 with 40 or more rushing attempts, that also accumulated 15.00 Rushing NEP or more; there were just 38 such seasons in the ten years prior.

So, you old goats, don’t be hatin’; the kids are alright, yo.