The prospect of a rookie quarterback is one of the most exciting things that can happen to an NFL franchise. In 2020, we got the pleasure of watching five teams lay their football hopes and dreams at the feet of young signal-callers. As the saying goes, a diamond is just a chunk of coal that did well under pressure. Which of these rookies are set up to have the best season, and become a diamond under all that pressure?
“In football, it’s the ultimate team sport. You have to have good people around you as a quarterback for things to happen.”– Warren Moon
There are many factors to consider, and we are not getting into the physical or mental makeup of the quarterbacks. Instead, we are looking at roster construction to see which QB’s have the tools to succeed.
Historical Rookie QB Seasons
EPA + CPOE composite is used in this analysis to judge QB play. This stat is a mix of Adjusted EPA (expected points added) and CPOE (completion percentage over expected). In determining this stat, you are able to filter out certain plays based on win probability. This means that we can filter out garbage time. In order to do this, I filtered out plays where win probability was less than 20% or greater than 80%.
- EPA (expected points added): A metric to measure success on a play-by-play basis. It accounts for down, distance, field position, and time, among other factors.
- CPOE (completion percentage over expected): A metric to measure QB success relative to the difficulty of their pass attempts.
I included every rookie QB to start in ten games or more since 2011 in the analysis. This gives us a pool of 30 rookie QB’s over the ten-year period. Among that group, only eight QBs exceeded league average in the EPA+CPOE composite during their rookie seasons:
- Robert Griffin III: 0.176 EPA + CPOE Composite / 143% above average
- Russell Wilson: 0.137 / 89%
- Dak Prescott: 0.123 / 46%
- Mike Glennon: 0.096 / 39%
- Cam Newton: 0.11 / 33%
- Justin Herbert: 0.159 / 33%
- Andrew Luck: 0.086 / 19%
- Kyler Murray: 0.094 / 2%
What did these signal-callers have around them that others did not? How did roster construction affect the perception of their play league-wide?
Skill Position Talent vs. Rookie QB Production
Separating Skill Position Production from Rookie QB Production
First, let’s look at skill position talent around each rookie QB. Specifically, pass-catching and route-running talent for the WR, TE, and RB positions. In order to determine this, I used two factors:
- PFF Receiving Grades
- Average Annual Contract Value (AAV) allocated to the position group as a percentage of total AAV allocated for that team
The two aforementioned factors were each weighed against the values for the group and shown as a percent above or below average. (i.e. a WR group showing -3% would mean that the WR room for that team was 3% below average.) The two percentages are then averaged together in order to not put too much weight on either PFF Grades or contracts, as both can be subject to criticism at times. I should note that PFF grades are not my go-to for player evaluation, but they do work well for larger groups of data. I have also run a similar analysis using Football Outsiders DYAR metric with similar results.
For rookie QB’s expected to start in 2021, rookie offensive player grades were based on the average of three recently drafted players at the same position and same draft round who started as rookies.
The ultimate goal here is to separate pass-catching production from passer production, in order to determine how much a good WR or TE can help a rookie QB. An example of strong WR play despite poor QB play is evident in the case of Allen Robinson, whom PFF has graded above 80 three times in his career despite his quarterbacks being Blake Bortles, Mitchell Trubisky, and Nick Foles in those three years.
I used correlation coefficients to determine how closely tied skill position talent was to rookie QB EPA+CPOE composite scores. Correlation coefficients determine the strength and direction of relationships between two variables. The value ranges are as follows:
- +1.0 = Perfect Correlation
- +0.8 to +0.99 = Very Strong Correlation
- +0.6 to +0.8 = Strong Correlation
- +0.4 to +0.6 = Moderate Correlation
- +0.2 to +0.4 = Weak Correlation
- Negative values represent reverse correlation (i.e. as one factor improves, another gets worse)
- Wide receiver talent shows a correlation coefficient to rookie QB EPA + CPOE of 0.724, pointing to strong correlation between wide receiver talent and rookie QB success.
- This means that there is strong evidence for good wide receiver play helping a rookie QB find success. The top five receiver rooms to be paired with a rookie signal-caller resulted in Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, RG3, Joe Burrow, and Daniel Jones.
- Tight end talent shows a correlation coefficient to rookie QB EPA + CPOE of 0.418, pointing to moderate correlation between tight end receiving talent and rookie QB success.
- This means that there is some validity to the sentiment of a good tight end in the passing game helping a rookie QB find success. Examples here are more hit or miss, with Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Geno Smith, and Carson Wentz having the best tight end options among the rookie QB’s considered.
- Running back receiving talent shows a correlation coefficient to rookie QB EPA + CPOE of -0.137, pointing to very weak negative correlation between tight end receiving talent and rookie QB success.
- This means very little, as the correlation is very weak, leaving little to be drawn from the analysis. The top five receiving backs to play with rookie QB’s played alongside DeShone Kizer, Jameis Winston, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert, and EJ Manuel.
Pass Blocking vs. Rookie QB Production
Next, we look at pass blocking talent around each rookie QB. Specifically, pass blocking for the offensive line. In order to determine this, I used two factors:
- PFF Pass Blocking Grades
- Average Annual Contract Value (AAV) allocated to the offensive line as a percentage of total AAV allocated for that team
These two factors were each weighed against the values for the group, and shown as a percent above or below average (i.e. a team showing PBLK of -3% would mean that the OL for that team was 3% below average). The two percentages are averaged together for the final grade.
- Pass blocking talent has a correlation coefficient to rookie QB EPA + CPOE of 0.042, representing very weak correlation between pass blocking and rookie QB success.
- There is very little to draw from the analysis. There does not appear to be much correlation between the two. The top five offensive lines to pass block for a rookie QB protected Baker Mayfield, Mike Glennon, Carson Wentz, DeShone Kizer, and Geno Smith.
Rushing Offense vs. Rookie QB Production
Rounding it all out, we look at rushing offense around each rookie QB. It’s worth keeping in mind that QB’s who improved their team’s rushing grades with QB scrambles might hurt the data here. Three factors play into this equation:
- PFF run blocking grades
- PFF rushing grades
- Average Annual Contract Value (AAV) allocated to the running back position as a percentage of total AAV allocated for that team
The three factors average together in the same fashion as the position groups above.
- Rushing talent has a correlation coefficient to rookie QB EPA + CPOE of 0.522. This represents moderate correlation between effectively pounding the rock and rookie QB success.
- This means that there is some validity to the sentiment of a strong ground game helping a rookie QB find success. The top five rushing attacks to be paired with rookie QB’s helped Christian Ponder, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, RG3, and Dak Prescott in their rookie seasons.
Total Supporting Cast
The result below is sorted by the ranking of each rookie QB’s supporting cast, based on the results of this analysis.
- Wide receiver talent strongly correlates to rookie QB success.
- Tight end talent in the passing game helps a rookie QB, but is not as valuable as quality receivers are to a rookie QB.
- Overall, skill position talent strongly correlates to rookie QB success.
- Receiving running backs and pass blocking ability does not directly correlate to rookie QB success.
- A strong ground game may have a valid claim to helping a rookie QB succeed. The data is not completely clear, as rushing offense grades would include rushing abilities of that rookie QB.
- Trey Lance and Mac Jones are neck and neck in having the best rosters for development, followed by Justin Fields and Zach Wilson. Trevor Lawrence appears to have the most variables against him.
“If the quarterback throws the ball in the end zone, and the wide receiver catches it, it’s a touchdown.– John Madden
- Wide receivers may be the most important piece to helping a rookie QB. The best wide receivers have the ability to open up and create separation downfield. If a team fields wideouts that struggle to separate or run routes at the correct depth and timing, a young QB might fail to learn what “open” is in real time on the field.
- That rookie QB might make a habit of throwing into tighter windows, leading to contested targets and turnovers. Alternatively, he might hold the ball too long waiting for an opening, leading to shellshock from taking too many hits. Another possibility is that the QB becomes check-down happy due to hits taken and/or interceptions thrown, never truly processing how to read the defense or find the openings.
- Tight ends can provide a safety net to a rookie QB, and be a chess piece to create mismatches over the middle of the field. A lack of a quality tight end may lead to a young QB that relies too much on hitting routes downfield taking unnecessary risks deep because there is no option in the middle of the field that he can rely on.
- A very strong pass blocking offensive line can make life too easy on a rookie signal-caller. Offensive line is not as steady year-to-year as skill position talent due to the more physical nature of the position leading to injuries and changes. A rookie QB that learns the NFL behind a strong pass-blocking unit may become too reliant on pocket time that is not the norm in the NFL, leading to a reliance on that pocket time that may not be there for the entire season.