Andrew Luck Will Get Elite QB Money, but Is Luck an Elite QB?

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Andrew Luck Will Get Elite QB Money, but Is Luck an Elite QB?
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Go ahead and let the words “elite” and “quarterback” roll around for a second. Feel the white noise wash over you as an image of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck dances around, too.

Where does he fall on the eliteness scale? It’s a question worth pondering for a long, long time, even if the term itself has beaten you over the head repeatedly. Because elite or not, Luck will have an elite bank account soon.

When those two words come together, they form the tallest cliche weed known in modern football language. During the 2011-12 season, the phrase “elite quarterback” was used 1,270 times in newspapers, according to Jason Lisk of The Big Lead, up drastically from 477 instances the previous year.

So yes, in the quarterback conversation, “elite” has become the most viral, recycled and buzziest word. But it’s still not suddenly devoid of meaning.

Being elite means belonging to a highly select group at the top of a craft. In this case, the craft is throwing a football accurately, weaving around pass-rushers and running a winning offense. A quarterback has to do all of that and more at a level few others match.

More than just a quarterback’s play is factored in when a team is deciding just how massive his slice of salary-cap pie will be at contract extension time. What he’s done for you lately is the primary concern, of course, but age is also a significant variable.

Age is partly why Luck—who will turn 27 in September as he enters the final season of his rookie contract—will be doing laps in his Olympic-sized money pool soon enough. Age is also why Ryan Fitzpatrick (33) is still a free agent.

What will a new contract for the young, spry Luck look like, then, after the salary cap increased by $12 million? And after the Houston Texans dumped $72 million on Brock Osweiler and his seven career starts?

It will look, well, record-setting. Probably.

That projection by Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star feels mammoth at first. Then it seems just about right.

Prior to training camp in 2015, the Seattle Seahawks gave quarterback Russell Wilson a four-year extension with $61.5 million guaranteed at an average annual value of $21.9 million.

He was drafted the same year as Luck: 2012. They’re both still young and heading into an era when quarterback wallets are fattened by a league that’s made about $18 million the yearly standard rate for even mediocre play. Lesser quarterbacks, such as the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco ($22.1 million annually), the Atlanta FalconsMatt Ryan ($20.8 million) and the San Francisco 49ersColin Kaepernick ($19 million), have raised that salary floor.

Luck is still well shy of age 30, and he may not have even reached his talent ceiling yet. The Colts drafted him to be a franchise cornerstone at the most important and intricate position. He’s done that so far, making his age and caliber of play two reasons to expect a money avalanche rivaling John Kasich’s confetti burial.

Reason No. 3: Colts owner Jim Irsay’s starting point for negotiations:

That number is only logical, and it fits due to the basic principles of supply and demand. There aren’t enough quality quarterbacks to fill 32 starting spots around the league. So it will always cost more to retain the youngest and most promising talents who can solidify the position for years.

But does Luck really, truly and honestly deserve that elite-quarterback money? Or is he merely the next in line set to benefit from a QB-starved NFL?

In 2015, he needed only seven starts to throw 12 interceptions. Luck threw an interception on a whopping 4.1 percent of his throws, shattering a previous single-season high of 2.6 percent.

But for Luck, 2015 was a season in which he was first battered, then trampled. He missed two games early due to a shoulder injury suffered in Week 3. After he returned, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports (via the Washington Postreported Luck was playing through broken ribs, an injury that also occurred during Week 3.

Later, Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star confirmed Luck’s effectiveness was severely restricted while coping with the pain of torn rib cartilage. He needed pain-killing injections just to stay on the field.

Immediately, his season was unraveling due to the constant haymakers Luck’s body had to endure. Then came the knockout blow: his lacerated kidney.

Judging the entire Luck package, then, actually means setting aside part of it, with 2015 a lost season after he missed nine games.

But 55 interceptions over 55 regular-season starts is a sizable chunk. Those mistakes are a product of his relentless flirtation with danger while trying to fit balls through narrow throwing windows, a tolerated risk because of the reward that comes much more often.

The impact of those misfires is balanced by precision and arm strength during times when both of those qualities matter most. In 2014, Luck’s last healthy season, he was asked to attempt by far the most 20-plus-yard throws, heaving 88 of them, according to Pro Football Focus.

It would be understandable, and even typical, if such a high volume of long-range throws hurt his overall completion percentage on deep attempts. But Luck’s aim was true; despite the consistent aerial bombing, he still nailed 47.7 percent of his throws traveling 20-plus yards through the air, per PFF. That was good enough for sixth among the 25 quarterbacks who threw at least half of their team’s passes in 2014.

Need further proof of Luck rising when the difficulty setting is cranked to “expert”? He also finished second in 20-plus-yard touchdown passes in 2014 (12) and fifth in yards through the air (2,620).

But we often stumble at Luck’s interceptions while sifting through the tangled web of numbers the four-year starter has compiled. Which brings us back to the hazards of his dangerous living. The concern grows when a wider lens is applied to his interception percentage.

Since entering the league in 2012, he’s thrown an interception on 2.61 percent of his attempts, which ranks 14th among the 20 passers who have logged at least 1,500 throws during that period. Luck’s interception percentage resides in the same neighborhood as Flacco, the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo and the Arizona Cardinals’ Carson Palmer.

Interception percentages since 2012 (min 1,500 attempts)
Quarterback Rank Interception %
Tony Romo 13 2.59
Andrew Luck 14 2.61
Carson Palmer 15 2.63
Joe Flacco 16 2.65

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

That is, by definition, a below-average turnover rate.

It’s higher than what you’d like to see from a quarterback set to reach a top-tier financial plateau, and there are moments when Luck’s decision-making creates a queasy feeling in your stomach. Including the playoffs, he’s trotted onto an NFL field 61 times, and the former Stanford standout has recorded 15 multiple-interception games.

But again, those moments pass quickly enough and are outweighed by accuracy when it’s needed most. Keep in mind that nearly a quarter (21.8 percent) of Luck’s career interceptions came during an injury-plagued season when he was zapped of his usual arm strength to slip throws through tight holes.

A healthy Luck is a quarterback with the natural, fluid mobility to manipulate the pocket or break it for significant gains. During the three seasons he remained in one working piece, Luck averaged 301.7 rushing yards per year while scoring 12 touchdowns on the ground. And in 2014, he also finished with the fourth-highest passer rating on play-action attempts (118.9), per PFF.

We still saw the true version of Luck with his pinpoint ball placement in 2015, even when a lengthy list of injuries restricted him. That Luck didn’t show up as often during a shortened season, but it felt familiar when he lobbed balls into imaginary buckets—just as he did in Week 6 against the New England Patriots on a fade thrown to wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

On the game’s opening drive, the Colts had advanced to New England’s 5-yard line, but they failed to convert on third down. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano kept the offense on the field and trusted Luck to execute.

The very nature of a fade route invites danger at an inopportune time and leaves little margin for error. The slightest underthrow can give a cornerback time to wait underneath a lofted ball and pounce for a debilitating end-zone interception. And in this case, the slightest overthrow would have left the Colts with zero points after an 84-yard drive.

But there was Luck, calmly dropping back with his torn-up ribs and wonky shoulder to drift his throw into an area only his receiver could access. An area just beyond the outstretched fingertips of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Credit: NFL GamePass

Fades are common, but they’re not commonly completed. Lisk and his Big Lead colleague, Michael Shamburger, did a study midway through the 2013 season and observed that red-zone throws toward the sideline from between three and seven yards away were completed only about 24.5 percent of the time (sample size of 106 throws).

It’s a play that leans on a receiver's athleticism and the quarterback throwing the perfect rainbow. Luck certainly did his part, but that throw alone is only a tiny snapshot of what makes him effective when the three-time Pro Bowler is at his best.

What sets Luck apart is an ability to improvise. He has sufficient speed as a runner, though Luck will never be mistaken for, say, Wilson or Kaepernick in that department, as they're able to plant and enter into full-blur mode one step later.

No, Luck’s own brand of athleticism leans more on a keen sense for space, which then translates to a unique slipperiness. He's maddeningly creative as a scrambler. Just ask Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (now with the Falcons).

In Week 3 of 2014, a horribly blown blocking assignment gave Reynolds a free run at Luck, and as he closed in, Marks was swerving around from the right side to collapse the edge.

Luck’s first read took his eyes to the right side of the field, and he was understandably concerned with Marks, the hard-charging 316-pounder who had dipped his shoulder to turn the corner. But a more imminent threat was charging fast: Reynolds, who bounded into Luck’s grill while completely unblocked.

Credit: NFL GamePass

An image like that doesn’t usually have a happy ending. Typically, the quarterback in question is left staring at puffy clouds. Or maybe seeing puffy clouds that aren’t there at all.

Reynolds was at a full sprint and about two strides away, and Marks was just about done fitting right tackle Jack Mewhort for his clown suit.

This was when time seemed to slow down for Luck. He planted with his left foot, then stared down Reynolds and spun left, sensing that was his only option for escape.

Credit: NFL GamePass

But his work wasn’t done, as Reynolds skidded on past.

By default in that sort of chaos, many quarterbacks would live for the next down. Or on third down, live for the next series. They would continue scrambling toward the sideline, then launch the ball toward the nearest friendly hot dog vendor.

Luck, however, played it cool. His feel for space and mental awareness to know where the escape hatch was located on this play led him toward an opening. After the spin, he curled to his left some more and reset himself to fire.

The pocket had essentially shifted to the left. Luck settled with his shoulders squared and feet planted, keeping his eyes downfield the whole time. He was ready to fire again.

Then Marks came, and the tap dancing began once more.

Credit: NFL GamePass

Finally and mercifully, he found peace amid the carnage. He had whirled around to dodge one pass-rusher, then reset before sidestepping another and setting yet again. The end result? Still fundamental form before releasing a nine-yard throw to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Credit: NFL GamePass

The Luck seen in those two plays, and others like them, is elite. He’s the passer who succeeds when success feels like a mirage and the magician who creates space when it seems like he's caged.

Irsay has said his Colts want to pay that guy and that quarterback by July 4, via NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. They’d like him to learn how to slide a bit more, because the 2015 version of that guy and that quarterback wasn’t Luck at all. Instead, a hobbled Luck tried to imitate what he did over his first three seasons and failed.

The Colts will soon make an elite payment, investing in Luck’s youth and the sustained stretches of elite play shown so far. Then, like so many teams before them, they’ll be left to only wait and watch, hoping those stretches become the norm and injuries don't hack Luck down again.

Judging eliteness can be an expensive game, with plenty of educated guessing and finger crossing.

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