This year’s crop of NFL quarterback hopefuls has been ridiculed for a number of different flaws that seems unending. Although Geno Smith appears to be everyone’s favorite as the top prospect and presumably the soon-to-be first quarterback taken in the draft, he too has weaknesses.
An Andrew Luck-type quarterback will not be walking from the green room to shake Roger Goodell’s hand on April 25, and that knowledge will make this one of the more intriguing and anticipated first picks in recent memory.
No one knows who No. 1 will be.
And that’s a good thing. Last year it was Luck, and everyone knew it. Sure, the media tried to make it seem like the race to No. 1 was close between he and Robert Griffin III, but we all knew.
Two years ago, it was Cam Newton, and that was a sure thing.
In fact, a quarterback has been called first on Day 1 of the NFL draft each of the last four years, five of the last six years and nine of the last 11 since Michael Vick went to the Atlanta Falcons in 2001.
The chances of Smith, Tyler Wilson, Matt Barkley or any of the top quarterbacks in this draft having their names called before anyone else are not good, however. The San Francisco 49ers trading Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for draft picks all but ends those hopes.
These quarterbacks have had their footwork analyzed and over-analyzed. They have been poked and prodded at All-Star games and combines—all visual angles have been covered.
But what about how they did in pressure situations on the field? When their teams needed them the most, how did these young men perform? Did they step up to the challenge and lead their teams to points and ultimately victories? Or did they falter at the most inopportune time?
We are going to dissect the numbers of nine of the draft’s top prospects to find out how they performed in four key situations, as well as look at how they fared against their toughest opponents from 2012.
When the field gets short, it is imperative to protect the ball in order to come away with points. From inside an opponent’s 20-yard line, teams expect to get points every time.
That doesn’t always happen, but these quarterbacks all did a nice job in the red zone. Smith out-performed everyone by completing the highest percentage of passes and had the best touchdown to interception ratio (an outstanding number), but Barkley and Tyler Bray both completed over 60 percent of their passes.
Where we see the biggest difference is in red-zone scoring percentage. E.J. Manuel and Florida State were the only members of the NCAA’s top-10 list in this category, finishing No. 8. Landry Jones’ Oklahoma squad came in next at No. 11, then it was Bray and Tennessee at No. 29.
After that, it’s Smith and West Virginia at No. 47, and no one else is in the top 50—Zac Dysert and Miami of Ohio finished No. 103, Barkley and USC came in at No. 107 and Wilson’s Arkansas Razorbacks rounded out the list way down at No. 116.
That’s not exactly elite.
By comparison, Luck and Stanford were No. 1 in 2011, at 96.83 percent. Russell Wilson had Wisconsin at No. 4, scoring on 93.85 percent of red-zone trips. Griffin and Baylor were bad, however, scoring just 70.31 percent of the time and ranking 109th.
When Tied or Trailing by One Possession
What a quarterback does when leading is important—no one will refute that. He must keep scoring to terminate any chance his counterpart can mount a comeback. But those comebacks are what set apart quarterbacks these days.
Manuel tops this chart as well, out-dueling Wilson by a slim margin in passer rating, and that may surprise some of you. His 10.4 yards-per-attempt average is incredible, especially considering he is known as somewhat of a “check-down machine.” He is not considered among the quarterbacks to be potential first-round picks this year, as is Smith and as were Wilson and Barkley.
But he has shown up to be money when it matters so far.
Barkley and NC State’s Mike Glennon are at the bottom of this list. That’s not good for Barkley, who has shown up near the bottom of both key situational statistics lists thus far, especially considering his other known flaws—namely arm strength, which has been under considerable scrutiny of late by NFL Films Senior Producer Greg Cosell:
I've seen Barkley throw more than 250 passes. He does not drive the ball. His intermediate + deeper throws lose energy on the back end.
— Greg Cosell (@gregcosell) March 6, 2013
Using last year’s big three quarterbacks once again merely as a fun comparison, Wilson topped the list at a 218.87 passer rating by completing 77.69 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and just one interception. Griffin was next, at 198.46/73.03/20/1; and Luck finished with 156.04/73.15/7/4.
Fourth-quarter efficiency is one of the more critical parts to a quarterback’s—and ultimately, a team’s—success. How he performs when the game is on the line can mean the difference in winning and losing.
Smith was very good in the final frame of games as a senior; he is the only quarterback of the bunch to not throw a pick. His YPA average is the highest among the other eight players as well, but it is not his best quarter.
The former West Virginia signal-caller notched an impressive 8.74 YPA during the third quarter of games in 2012. The fourth quarter is also the quarter in which he was called upon the least, as in each of the other three quarters he attempted at least 124 passes (third quarter) and as many as 166 (second quarter).
Still, he ranked 12th nationally in fourth-quarter passing.
Former Syracuse front-man Ryan Nassib was impressive as well, but he was asked to throw most often in the fourth quarter by former coach Doug Marrone. His 11 touchdown passes are also the most he threw in any quarter last year.
The granddaddy of them all, converting third downs keeps drives alive, keeps tired defenses on the field and increases a team’s chance of winning a game, as they are able to control the clock by moving the chains rather than punting.
Jones was better in just about every category last season, converting over half of the third downs his Sooners faced—ranked fourth overall—while throwing a touchdown on 11.3 percent of his third-down attempts. That is outstanding, and his passer rating shows it.
The only quarterback listed with a higher touchdown percentage was Barkley at 12.9 percent. But his Trojans did not convert enough third downs, ranking 105th overall with a disappointing 34.21 percent conversion rate.
Considering the defenses he faced (we’ll get to that in a minute), Nassib’s 49.30 conversion percentage on third downs—ranked ninth—is impressive. He finished third among the group in YPA, but he was next to last in completion percentage. That tells me Syracuse’s run game picked up some of the slack.
Opposing Defenses Faced
As mentioned above, Nassib saw the best group of defenses out of all the top quarterbacks listed. The Orange play in the Big East, a conference not known for perennially-punishing defensive play. But Rutgers finished fourth in the FBS in points per game allowed, at just 14.15—behind only BYU (14 PPG), Notre Dame (12.77) and Alabama (10.93).
If not for the misfortune of facing West Virginia in the oddly-named Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, Nassib and Syracuse would have had a wider margin of average opposing defensive rank.
It's no surprise Smith saw the weakest defenses, considering the Mountaineers’ non-conference schedule last season and the fact they now play in the defensively-challenged Big 12 Conference.
West Virginia was the only team featured not to face a defense ranked in the top 15 in points allowed per game. This is where Smith could face issues on draft day. He is considered to be the top quarterback in the draft.
He is said to have enough arm and to be willing to throw it deep. That’s all well and good, but facing defenses that would struggle to stop a community college squad is worrisome. The quickness he will see at the next level is far greater than that of James Madison University, Marshall, Baylor and Kansas.
Looking at how these quarterbacks performed against their toughest opponent, you can see they all struggled to make things happen. Wilson and Nassib both saw Rutgers and put up a combined 41 points, which was nearly two touchdowns off their combined points-per-game output for the 2012 season.
Smith struggled to put up three touchdowns in losing to then-No. 4 Kansas State, just below the Wildcats’ PPG average.
These quarterbacks are not much like the top quarterbacks in the recent past. In an article from early February, I asked whether there could be any future franchise quarterbacks in this draft class.
I don’t see one, but maybe you do.
All stats gathered from cfbstats.com.