How High Is Andrew Luck's Ceiling?
Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck will have all eyes on his performance under center for the Indianapolis Colts this year. How good can the player deemed the "best draft prospect since John Elway" become?
To better understand Luck, I went through and charted every throw he made in the 2012 regular season and playoffs. All 681 of them—good for No. 5 in the league last season. Of those 681 attempts, there were 367 completions, 19 interceptions and 23 touchdowns. Of Luck's 764 dropbacks, he was sacked 40 times, hit another 14 and saw his receivers drop 56 passes.
The numbers, however, do not tell the whole story of Luck's 2012 season, nor of his upside. What does the film say?
Where Luck Excels
Writing up a list of Luck's positives can sound like hyperbole, but it's all justified by watching his play in 2012 and weighing it with his potential.
We talk about quarterbacks having the "it" factor, and Luck has that. Want evidence? His four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives in 2012 are hardcore data to back up his ability to turn chicken waste into chicken salad. That's rare from a first-year quarterback. How rare? Luck led the NFL in game-winning drives, the first rookie to do so since Ben Roethlisberger had six in 2004, and posted the third-most ever in a single season since comebacks were tracked, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Game-winning drives, like wins and losses, can't all be placed on the quarterback's shoulders, but on a team that won two games the season before, Luck's ability to orchestrate late-game heroics is notable.
Playing behind a poor offensive line, we also got to see Luck's ability to make plays on the move. Like a right-handed Steve Young, Luck was able to keep plays alive once the defense broke through the line of scrimmage by moving laterally in the pocket to find passing windows or rushing lanes. His dual-threat ability isn't talked about enough, but with great size (6'4", 234 lbs.) and speed (4.67 in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com), he can make plays on the perimeter at a high level.
What makes Luck most impressive, though, is his ability to get his team in the right play before the snap. In his first season the Colts didn't hold his hand in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, choosing instead to throw the Stanford product into the fire. And he succeeded. Luck has the intricacies of the position down, and in watching him you see a smooth, calm operator who is close to breaking through and becoming elite.
Where Luck Can Improve
Everyone with a platform to speak mentioned Luck's 19 interceptions (regular season and playoffs combined) in comparison with Robert Griffin III (6), Russell Wilson (11) and other top-tier quarterbacks. This is what I like to call "box-score scouting."
Luck did throw 19 interceptions, that's undeniable, but how many were caused by a bad read or bad throw and not a drop or ill-timed route? It's far too simple to say that Luck threw 19 interceptions and be done with it, but that's not good analysis.
Taking a look at the actual throws Luck made, you can see where he struggled—deep and over the middle. Why is this?
Coming from the Stanford system, Luck wasn't an established deep-ball thrower. In fact, he averaged just 8.7 yards per attempt in his final season at Stanford, which was a far worse mark than that of Griffin III and Wilson, per CFBStats.com. Arm strength isn't an issue for Luck—no matter what Phil Simms says—but more so his inexperience with the deep ball and the relative inexperience of his receivers in running deep routes.
Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians loves the deep ball, and his system asked Luck to play outside his comfort zone by attempting 108 passes of over 20 yards on the season. By comparison, Luck threw 108 deep balls to Robert Griffin's 37, according to Pro Football Focus. The people who would quote Griffin's impressive six-interception season tend to leave out the fact that Luck was attempting more difficult throws all season.
These may sound like excuses, but it's important to know why a player is struggling so that you may change it. Arians' reliance on the deep ball to open up the Colts' offense left the rookie quarterback in too many deep-throw situations without an established deep threat to win matchups. Yes, Luck must cut down on interceptions, but a change in coordinator will go far in helping rid him of the deep turnovers.
Now how about those interceptions over the middle?
|20+ yards||32 attempts/0 INT||40 attempts/3 INT||36 attempts/3 INT|
|10-19 yards||35 attempts/3 INT||106 attempts/5 INT||36 attempts/1 INT|
|0-9 yards||46 attempts/1 INT||164 attempts/3 INT||66 attempts/0 INT|
Pro Football Focus
Luck has a bad habit of looking where he's going to throw, especially on hot routes over the middle. Too many times in 2012 he stared down the receiver from the snap of the ball, allowing linebackers and safeties to close in on the football.
Another issue is pressure. When the offensive line cannot keep the defense at bay, Luck is forced to throw with defenders chasing him. In these scenarios, too many times he forced throws into traffic, which resulted in interceptions. It's frustrating, but it's a classic rookie mistake that can be cleaned up with coaching and helped by better protection.
Luck has all the talent you could want from a quarterback, but to take the next step and realize his tremendous upside, he has to cut down on the turnovers. That's on him and new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but my belief is that we'll see him settle down into a 10-to-12-interception-per-year passer.
The Bottom Line
If I could start an NFL franchise with any quarterback in today's game, Andrew Luck would be my first pick.
In Luck we see a quarterback who combines all of the tools needed to succeed in today's game—size, strength, mobility, leadership, high character, high football IQ and the accuracy to thread the ball to any plane on the field. It's rare to find a passer with half of those traits, but he has them all at high levels.
Luck has the raw ability to be one of the best passers of this generation—up there with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. What separates those men from Luck currently—other than experience—is that each had talent around them, either on the offensive line and/or in skill players. Luck currently doesn't have this, but the front office is building up the talent level around him.
For Luck to reach his upside, which is the highest of highs, he must take ownership for deficiencies in his own game and improve them, but he also needs his front office to build the team around him that will allow him to be great. Only then will we see if Luck is more John Elway or Dan Marino.
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