Over the last week, discussion has emerged among NFL media regarding the top quarterbacks in the league. Much of the discussion has been powered by the annual flurry of lists to flood the Internet. Fans love everything about lists: complaining about lists, debating about lists, using lists to praise.
As the most hyped of the next generation of quarterbacks, Andrew Luck has naturally been the subject of much of this conversation. Luck is one of the most revered quarterbacks of this group, but quarterbacks are polarizing by nature, so he has his detractors.
With less-than-stellar statistical seasons while other young quarterbacks reached Super Bowls (Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick) and won Rookie of the Year awards (Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton), Luck hasn't had one big coming-out moment in the NFL but remains adored by much of the NFL community.
So where does Luck rank among quarterbacks in the NFL, especially in the group of next-generation signal-callers?
Well, according to NFL Network's less-than-scientific poll of NFL players, Luck ranks as seventh in the league (assuming Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady all make the top 10 when it is announced next week) and third among the young quarterbacks behind Wilson and Newton.
But NFL 100 wasn't the only list to be released this week: At least three other lists were released, including NFL.com's Chris Wesseling's ranking of top quarterbacks, ESPN's Mike Sando's (subscription required) poll of NFL executives and personnel men and CBS Sports' Pete Prisco's top-100 player list. In each list, Luck ranked in the top 10 quite comfortably and was the top young quarterback.
This, however, was very different from any statistical list after the season, including the renowned site Pro Football Focus' famous grades (subscription required).
|Young QB Rank||3||1||1||1||3|
NFL.com, ESPN.com, CBS.com, Pro Football Focus
Any other notable stat was more likely to put Luck into a position like PFF's grades were rather than one of the personnel lists—yet the praise for Luck remains.
Whether it's passing or running, Luck's intelligence and efficiency are what impress most NFL scouts and media.
Though not known for being a "running" quarterback like Griffin, Newton or Kaepernick, Luck has been the most efficient runner of the group. While Griffin and Kaepernick have a notable advantage in speed and explosiveness, Luck is more deadly because he picks his spots well but still has the speed and overall athleticism to create big plays with his legs.
According to Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit, 88.6 percent of Luck's scramble attempts were a good decision in 2013, easily the best among the young "running" quarterbacks. Of his 44 scramble attempts, 33 were successful, giving him a 75 percent success rate that trounced Newton's second-best 61.8 percent.
Scrambling on third down told a similar story.
|Robert Griffin III||WAS||50%||33%|
Kyle J. Rodriguez
With his legs, Luck has been able to boost his third-down-conversion effectiveness to great heights despite a poor roster and being a rookie quarterback. Luck had the league's fifth-highest third-down conversion rate as a rookie, per ColtsAuthority.com, and was the league's best on 3rd-and-long (eight or more yards to go). Though Pep Hamilton's scheme and injuries would bring that number down in 2013, Luck has shown an uncanny ability to use both his legs and feet in critical situations.
That situational play is a big reason why advanced metrics, like ESPN's Total QBR or Brian Burke's WPA (win percentage added), tend to favor Luck. He finished 11th in QBR in 2012 and ninth in 2013, despite finishing 26th and 18th, respectively, in traditional passer rating. Luck fared even better by Burke's metrics, finishing fourth in WPA in 2012 and fifth in 2013.
It's those traditional stats that simply have to catch up now, and it's a common thought that they will in 2014 with a healthy roster and, for the first time, a deadly group of wideouts. Even with a lackluster group last season, Luck's ability to take care of the ball (his biggest criticism during the last two years) improved dramatically as the Colts had the fewest turnovers in the league.
"Luck turns the ball over too much" - a GM. He had a 20-game stretch where he threw 10 INT on 714 passes (1.4%).— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) July 2, 2014
The biggest reason for the faith in Luck is the quality of team that he has taken to the playoffs in the last two seasons. The Colts, quite simply, haven't had a good roster, yet Luck has found a way to win games. As Wesseling says:
The Colts would have been a tire fire in 2013 without Luck, who put the team on his back following Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury. There were games that saw Luck escape consistent pressure to find the likes of David Reed, Weslye Saunders, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Griff Whalen down the field.
Luck isn't the elite quarterback that the Mount Rushmore of active passers are (Manning, Brees, Brady and Aaron Rodgers), but personnel men have given him the benefit of the doubt because of the lack of help he's had. Luck didn't have near the support the "Big Four" had from the personnel Sando interview, but there was a clear gap between him and the next group of quarterbacks.
According to Sando, a defensive coordinator told him:
He can put it on his back as a younger player, where some of these other guys had good help running the ball like Ben (Roethlisberger) or Matt (Ryan) or Russell (Wilson) or Joe (Flacco). They have had people you could hand it to. They say you can win with a young QB when you have a top-10 defense and a top-10 running game. Luck hasn't had either.
It's that kind of context that things like Pro Football Focus and traditional stats often fail to take into consideration. The burden that has been placed on Luck's shoulders is greater than the one that has been placed on those of any other quarterback in the NFL.
Carolina fans will tell you that Cam Newton (who is most similar to Luck from a production standpoint) has had a similar road in Charlotte, taking a former two-win team and turning it into a top-three team in the NFC last season. However, even Newton, who has improved dramatically over the last three years, has support from his teammates that Luck has never experienced.
The Carolina defense was stifling last season, finishing with a third-best defensive DVOA, per Football Insiders, of negative-18.0 percent and allowing just 15.1 points per game. The Colts defense, by contrast, finished with a weighted DVOA of 1.9 percent, 19th in the league, and allowed 21 points per game. In the playoffs, the Colts allowed 87 points in two games. Carolina, on the other hand, didn't allow its 87th point until the seventh game of the season.
That's just on the defensive side of the ball.
While his offensive support should improve in 2014, the Colts were a mess last season, with injuries ending the season of five starters, including two of his best three receiving targets, two of the top three running backs, the best interior lineman and arguably the best two-way tight end in the NFL.
That kind of pressure gets to you in ways that can't be measured by statistics or grades. It's a pressure and consistent burden that makes what Luck has done over the last two seasons mind-blowing. Has Luck missed some throws, forced a few interceptions and generally made some mistakes that young quarterbacks tend to make? Of course.
But Luck isn't just any young quarterback because he's been put through a trial by fire unlike any of the other next-generation quarterbacks and has come out on top, going to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, winning the division in 2013 and winning a playoff game in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.
Have Luck's seasons, in a vacuum, been top-five seasons?
I don't think anyone can say that they have been, which is why things like the NFL 100 lists don't matter to me. Luck's 2013 season probably was about seventh, and maybe Newton and Wilson really did have better seasons.
But while those individual seasons haven't necessarily been among the five best, Luck as a player has proved that he deserves to be in the conversation.
No, he's not at the level of the Big Four.
But he's coming, and he's coming quickly. The 2014 season will be the best season of his young career. The only unknown is just how high he'll rise.