Last week, Andrew Luck's ranking among current NFL quarterbacks became a major talking point among NFL media. But Luck, who has been discussed alongside the NFL's "Big Four" (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) in recent rankings, has yet to reach that level statistically.
The lack of numerical evidence in Luck's corner can be difficult to reconcile, especially for fans of Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. For those fans, the love for Luck can seem excessive. Last week, I broke down just why Luck is viewed with such optimism, focusing on his knack for comebacks, his underrated dual-threat nature and the unequivocal burden that's been placed on his shoulders.
But no matter how strong one's feelings are for the quarterback out of Stanford, it's impossible to overlook his less-than-stellar statistical production. Luck put together some impressive bulk totals during his rookie year, breaking Cam Newton's record for most passing yards for a rookie, but his efficiency stats have been subpar and his touchdown numbers lacking.
|Statistic||2012 Stat||2012 Rank||2013 Stat||2013 Rank|
Pro-Football-Reference, ESPN, Advanced Football Analytics
The only numbers that favor Luck are those that include win percentage added (WPA) and expected points added (EPA, included in QBR)—another piece of evidence that points to Luck's ability to carry his roster to wins despite less than stellar raw production.
Despite those numbers, Luck is poised to join the NFL's elite sooner rather rather than later, according to most analysts. Vegas agrees, with OddsChecker listing Luck as having the fifth-best odds to win the Most Valuable Player in 2014 by some sportsbooks.
An Improved Supporting Cast
The biggest reason for the optimism for Luck in 2014 is his vastly improved supporting cast, namely his receiving corp.
Before the Colts even started adding players via free agency and the draft, the 2014 season looked to be more promising for Luck. Among players returning from season-ending injuries were Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen and Donald Thomas, all of whom were projected to be among the Colts' better starters in 2013.
Wayne and Allen were particularly depressing losses. Allen, called the Colts' "Secret Superstar" by Pro Football Focus last offseason, was supposed to play a key role in offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's scheme before going down with a season-ending hip injury in the Colts' Week 1 win over the Oakland Raiders.
I broke down Allen's rookie season prior to last year's opener and was very impressed:
There are tight ends who are better receivers than Allen and tight ends who may be better blockers (although that list is very small), but nobody save Rob Gronkowski (who is a question mark to see the field at this point) has the whole package that Allen possesses.
That's why, especially if he improves just a small amount in 2013, he's already one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
NFL.com's Chris Wesseling agreed, saying Allen had "the talent and the opportunity to emerge as the AFC's most well-rounded tight end" in 2013.
I could continue with Allen praise, but you get the point.
When it comes to Wayne, there's no question that his return, if healthy, will help Andrew Luck. Wayne has been Luck's safety blanket for the last two years, especially in intermediate distances and on third down.
Both of those areas should be dramatically aided by Wayne and Allen's return. Both players have good hands and catch the ball well, with Allen using his body to shield defenders and absorb hits, as Cian Fahey illustrated for Football Guys earlier this week. Wayne is a master of reading defenses and making catches in traffic.
Based on my charting, Wayne was Luck's most-targeted receiver on third down in 2012, while Allen was the most-targeted non-receiver. From 2012-2013, Reggie Wayne's success rate on third down was nearly 10 percentage points higher than average (54.7 percent compared to 44.8 percent). Allen's 2012 third-down success rate of 46.7 percent was five percentage points higher than every Colt but Wayne and Hilton in 2013.
The point is, Luck is going to get his go-to third-down receivers back, and it will pay off.
Then, of course, there are the rest of Luck's new toys. Hakeem Nicks will add a well-rounded receiver who wins at the line of scrimmage, something the Colts' young receivers struggled with last year. Nicks has his issues, but he has all the tools to join Wayne as a possession receiver and occasionally keep the defense honest on deep routes up the seam.
Then there's Donte Moncrief, the Colts' third-round pick in this year's draft. Moncrief is a physical specimen at 6'2", 221 pounds with a 4.4 40-yard dash. Moncrief has reportedly impressed teammates at minicamp and OTAs, and he gives the Colts another big-play option to pair with T.Y. Hilton long term. With high-ceiling Da'Rick Rogers and reliable Griff Whalen waiting in the wings, the Colts have depth for each receiving role.
Sure, the offensive line still has questions, but they have multiple young, strong options for the interior line that should be an upgrade from Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn. Of course, that's kind of like assuming that Star Wars Episode II had to improve from Episode I. Basically, Mike McGlynn was Jar-Jar Binks to Andrew Luck's pod racing.
But while the offensive line won't be a strength, Luck has one caveat: If there's one thing that Luck has had a leg up on the other young receivers, statistically, it's his pocket presence.
Luck was eighth in the league in sack rate in 2013, and sixth in "True Sack Rate," which was developed by Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar to adjust for scrambles and intentional grounding.
With the receiving weapons around him, it'd be a complete shock if Luck didn't have his best season yet in 2014.
Now that Luck has the means to put up the impressive numbers expected of him, all he needs is the opportunity.
Fortunately for Luck's numbers, but unfortunately for the franchise, the rest of the team is lacking in the talent collected at the wide receiver and tight end positions.
As alluded to earlier, the offensive line still has questions, especially in the interior. While the Colts have decent individual parts with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus at tackle and some promising young interior linemen, they are so inconsistent that it seems like every other play involves a man in the backfield.
This is not helpful for a team that wants to push the running game, especially one with mediocre talent at running back. While Trent Richardson should improve in 2014, it's no guarantee. If his awareness and instincts don't improve, any production-related improvements will be marginal, and Richardson will find himself on the bench again.
With a running game that likely will be average at best, the Colts will be relying on the offense to keep up with the points allowed by the defense. At this point, that looks like it could be a tall task.
The Colts didn't bring in a starting-caliber safety to replace Antoine Bethea, nor did they upgrade the cornerback unit. The defense will be relying on former inconsistent rotational defensive backs to take leaps forward in 2014. The front seven will be improved with Arthur Jones bringing a much-needed consistency to the defensive line, but there haven't been any new pass-rushers added to a team that relied heavily on Robert Mathis for pressure last season.
The Colts were 19th in weighted defensive DVOA last season and allowed 87 points in the playoffs. Unless the secondary improves even quicker than expected, it's going to be a long season for the defense.
With the defense projecting poorly, it doesn't look like Hamilton is going to be able to shackle Luck and stay within striking distance of the opponent. Fortunately, it was clear by the end of the 2013 season that Hamilton had opened up to giving Luck more freedom to push the field, with the Colts' comeback against Kansas City being the ultimate victory.
While Hamilton will likely continue to feature the tight ends and occasional fullback use, he's shown that he knows how to use players like Hilton. We've already seen some signs of this, as Luck will reportedly have up to three times as much control at the line of scrimmage going forward.
Andrew Luck is being asked to take greater control at the line of scrimmage. Will go to line with as many as 6 play calls instead of just 2.— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) June 19, 2014
The machine will be at Luck's fingertips in 2014, for better or for worse. From everything we've seen so far, it's going to be better.
Bleacher Report's Alessandro Miglio recently projected Luck to finish 2014 with a 63 percent completion percentage, 4,350 yards, 30 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
That may be a bit optimistic. That would rival some of the best seasons ever by quarterbacks in their third season, including Peyton Manning's 4,413/35/15 season in 2000.
While that's probably on the high end of estimations, Luck certainly has the ability to do it. If he can raise his touchdowns to 30 while keeping his interception rate low, raise his yards per attempt to over 7.5 and throw for 4,000 yards, while the Colts win 12 or more games and win the division, he'll be an MVP candidate. It's not as far-fetched as you would think: Before Wayne's injury last season, Luck was playing like a top-five quarterback in the league.
All the pieces are in place, now we're just waiting for the season to start.