Indianapolis Colts Advanced Stat of the Week: How Far Is Luck from Elite?

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Indianapolis Colts Advanced Stat of the Week: How Far Is Luck from Elite?
USA TODAY Sports
Avoiding sacks and getting rid of the ball is the first step for Luck.

The offseason is the perfect time to review the Indianapolis Colts's progress in key statistical indicators.

Everyone knows that Andrew Luck had a special rookie season. Taken in context, it was completely remarkable in many ways and will stand out as one of the best rookie years in NFL history.

Still, compared to the rest of the league context-free, Luck's season was merely average. What does he have to do to truly reach elite status? Net yards per attempt will give us a clue.

For the uninitiated, net yards per attempt is a derivative of the grandfather of all passing stats: yards per attempt (YPA). In actuality, YPA may be the single most telling stat in football.

If you want to know why teams win and lose, look first at their YPA. Passing yards are wholly irrelevant to winning football games, but YPA goes a long way in determining the outcome.

Like its stately cousin, NY/A helps us understand what happens each time the quarterback drops back for a pass. For reference, NY/A is calculated by subtracting sack yardage from passing yardage and then dividing by passes attempted plus sacks. In other words:

(yards passing - sack yards) / (pass attempts + sacks) = Net Yards per Attempt

While it will be difficult for fans to do, it's important to set aside all of the "noise" surrounding Luck's season. Issues like a young team, a terrible line and no running game inform the savvy observer about Luck's true ability, but have no value for the purpose of diagnosing where Luck needs to go.

In NY/A, he ranked 19th of 32 qualified quarterbacks. League average for all passes was 6.24 NY/A. Luck averaged 6.18 NY/A.

In other words, he was almost perfectly average. This is about the same results that other metrics like DVOA reveal for Luck. In a vacuum, without taking circumstances into consideration, Luck had an average season.

What will 2013 look like for Luck?

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What needs to happen in order for Luck to become an elite quarterback?

First, the threshold for elite play is pegged around 7.0 NY/A attempt. The top six quarterbacks in the league all finished right at 7.0 or above. They were Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.

Five of those six players made the playoffs and five of them also qualified for the Pro Bowl. It's not a perfect standard, but as a rough target, it makes sense. It's important to note that three of the six quarterbacks threw roughly the same number of times as Luck on the season.

For Luck to raise his NY/A 0.8 yards per throw in 2013, it won't be easy.

One component will be cutting his sack total. Luck's sack rate wasn't terrible. He ranked 15th among qualified quarterbacks, again placing him right around league average. For a rookie in a vertical offense with a bad line, that's a remarkable number but remember that the "reasons" for his performance are irrelevant for this purpose.

For Luck to elevate his sack rate to "elite" levels, he needs to cut it from 6.1 percent to around 4.5 percent. Without a change to his yards per sack, that would raise his NY/A to 6.93.

Luck can't take shots like this.

In other words, if Luck can improve his sack rate to elite levels, the rest of his game is basically right there.

Improving sack rate is not as simple as just getting better linemen. While anyone with eyes could see the Colts' offensive line was terrible, it wasn't any worse than when Manning played for the Colts. Still, Manning always managed to keep his sack rate under four percent. In fact, he led the league in sack rate in 2009 and 2010 despite having an offensive line every bit as putrid as Luck's.

While the Colts clearly need to upgrade the line, the primary responsibility for sack avoidance always rests with the quarterback. There were times when Luck held the ball too long while looking for a man deep downfield.

Part of that was due to a receiving corps that couldn't get open and a scheme that allowed few outlet targets. Upgrades at wideout and a more West Coast-based offense should alleviate most of those worries. Simply not playing Donnie Avery would help.

If the Colts do right by Luck and improve his line and his receivers, he will likely jump from average to good.The jump to elite is more difficult and will depend on his ability to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks.

If he does the hard work to develop the elite pocket presence that was visible early in 2012, there's no reason to think he won't be a top-10 quarterback (or better) in 2013.

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