Finding the Best Historical Comps for the NFL’s Top Young Quarterbacks

There was a lot of talk over the offseason about which young quarterback insiders and outsiders would want to start their franchises. Bleacher Report found that 42 current and former NFL insiders put Derek Carr and Carson Wentz at the top. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit had Wentz as his top pick.

While the “football people” like the pocket presence of traditional throwers like Carr and Wentz, the numerically inclined tend to favor Marcus Mariota and Dak Prescott. Field Gulls’ Ben Baldwin makes a compelling stats-based case for Prescott over Carr, and doesn’t think they’re particularly close.

In previous posts I’ve shown how we can use Bayesian updating to project future passing efficiency. A quick refresher: we can calculate the best future estimate by adjusting a knowledge-less, league-average expectation for each piece of evidence, or pass attempt. In that way, we don’t overreact to small samples by incorporating the fact that variance plays a big role in the final numbers of any drive, game or even full season.

It’s easy from a stats-based perspective to say you should always take the player with better numbers, but clearly there is a development cycle for quarterbacks, and we’ve seen those who haven’t been particularly great earlier in their careers, like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, go on to be some of the best ever.

In this post, I’m going to take the previous Bayesian updating analyses a step further and use the results to find the most comparable players to the NFL’s top young quarterbacks. I did this by matching the career arcs for out true passing efficiency estimates to previously drafted quarterbacks (since 2000) and see who from the past most closely resembles the youngsters. KNN (K-Nearest Neighbors) algorithm takes a number of data points – in this case the quarterbacks’ true passing efficiency estimates – and matches them against the historical data for the same points in time, then find the closest matches from the historical quarterbacks. I used adjusted net passing yards per attempt (ANY/A) for my passing efficiency metric, as it incorporates yards per attempt, lost yards on sacks, and rewards/penalties for touchdowns/interceptions.

An initial look at all of the NFL’s young quarterbacks

You see that all the quarterbacks begin at the same point – league average NFL efficiency – and move based on their efficiency displayed. It might seem like there’s a huge difference from Prescott to Jared Goff, but the Bayesian updating actually understates the differences based on the fact that we have a limited sample. Our true passing efficiency for Prescott at 7.2 ANY/A is much lower than his actual rookie performance of 7.9 ANY/A. And Goff at a little under 5 ANY/A is much higher than his actual number: 2.82 ANY/A.

But there is still an issue that we’re looking at quarterbacks’ passing efficiency as a stat that is fully reflected by their abilities, but we all know that quarterback performance is influenced by many outside factors: receiver ability, offensive line protection and running game efficiency.

That’s why I decided to match the young quarterbacks’ performance so far against the beginnings of older quarterbacks who have been in many great or bad surrounding situations, to get a better idea of range of outcomes, not only a baseline number.

Let’s go through all the young quarterbacks, starting with those with the most NFL experience.

Fourth-year quarterbacks

Blake Bortles (No. 3 overall pick)

It should come as a surprise that Bortles doesn’t have very good comps after seeing him benched in the preseason and almost losing his starting job. It’s a funny coincidence that David Carr, the former No. 1 pick and older brother of his fellow 2014 draftee Derek Carr, in one of Bortles closest comps. Bortles could still make a success of his career, but his closest comps say that there isn’t much hope.

Derek Carr (No. 36 pick)

Carr also struggled to start his career with efficiency in terms of yards per attempt, but there are two important differences to Bortles: 1) He was able to avoid in sacks and interceptions, thereby boosting his ANY/A, and 2) he turned things around quickly in his second season. That’s why Carr sees franchise quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford in his comps. I wouldn’t call Manning and Stafford great quarterbacks. But Manning and others have shown us that you can win Super Bowls with an average quarterbacks, and many struggling teams would line up to take either quarterback’s career instead of years of disarray.

The key here is that a poor rookie season is acceptable, but there must be positive momentum shortly thereafter. This is one of the reasons the Jaguars should have soured on Bortles, who improved in his second year but was still poor in terms of efficiency, much earlier and drafted for their future quarterback in 2016 or 2017.

Third-year quarterbacks

Jamies Winston (No. 1 overall pick)

Anyone who has watched Winston play knows that he’s shown a lot of skill, and comfort with risk-taking. His true ANY/A estimate didn’t fall drastically in his rookie year like for Bortles and Carr, but he also didn’t improve in his second season. Andrew LuckJoe Flacco and Andy Dalton aren’t the greatest comps, but not too shabby also. We can’t expect every young quarterback to be a future Hall-of-Famer, and those quarterbacks are certainly good enough to win it all with the right supporting cast.

Marcus Mariota (No. 2 overall pick)

Mariota has more inspiring comps, including a recent MVP in Cam Newton. Mariota had some trouble to finish his first year, but turned things around early in his sophomore season. That improvement is likely what give him a different set of comps from Winston. Aaron Brooks and Bryon Leftwich aren’t the most impressive names, but both played well enough early in there careers that their teams could have been successful if they were surrounded by more talent.

Second-year quarterbacks

Jared Goff (No. 1 overall pick)

Yikes and double yikes. It’s not looking good for Rams fans if Goff’s best comp is Mark Sanchez, and Sanchez actually played better in his rookie season. Adding Geno SmithJimmy Clausen and Blaine Gabbert to the mix just adds to the pain. If Goff can turn things around this year – which is a big if considering his comps, there might be some chance. But my recommendation for the Rams front office is that they should look at the many picks they traded to get Goff as a sunk cost and quickly look for a new solution at quarterbacks if Goff struggles again. They probably should have been thinking about adding a quarterback in the late rounds in 2017.

Carson Wentz (No. 2 overall pick)

The narrative on Wentz and Goff is almost night-and-day going into their sophomore seasons. But their true pass efficiency estimates aren’t really that different. Why would that be the case when Wentz’s 2016 ANY/A was 5.1 and Goff’s was only 2.8? It’s because were more confident in Wentz’s poor performance based on his 607 pass attempt sample being nearly three times than of Goff’s 205. Again, Wentz doesn’t have very good comps. But he’s surrounded by better weapons in 2017 and still has one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. Things cold certainly get better for Wentz, and then his closest comps would also change to include at least some former franchise quarterbacks.

Dak Prescott (No. 135 overall pick)

Prescott was a sensation in 2016, leading his team (no, Ezekiel Elliott was not the leader) to a 12-4 record and division title. But Prescott is rarely listed as the top young quarterback in the NFL. It’s likely due to his lowly draft status and the perception that he’s more a product of Dallas strong supporting cast. His comps tell a different story. It isn’t all hits, but Prescott has, by far, the most impressive comps. Likely Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger tops the list, with last year’s MVP Matt Ryan also in the mix. Marc Bulger and Robert Griffen III fell off after strong starts, but both had injury issues and it’s possible they could have seen longer success under different circumstances.

Conclusion

While Derek Carr and Carson Wentz lead the pundit’s race for top young NFL quarterback, my top choice is unquestionably Dak Prescott. As always with young player in the volatile game, this year will be hugely important for our assessments of all the young quarterbacks. But Prescott has had a start that forecasts a strong NFL career, and there’s little reason to think with his health and supporting cast that he’ll falter the way other early successes have in the past.

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