I truly believe that there isn’t an end-all, be-all stat for any position in the NFL and there never will be. That's not the way that football works and scouting will forever be an inexact science. Football is the ultimate team game and thus, picking one stat or measurement to prop up or tear down a player is foolish.
However, some things do help us predict future success for NFL players. For example, the 20-yard shuttle is the most important drill for offensive linemen. Interior offensive linemen require quick bursts of explosion, rather than long speed. We have seen that the best offensive linemen in the league routinely do well in this drill. For defensive linemen," tackles for a loss" production is the easily the most predictive stat. If a defensive lineman can't produce in college, the odds are stacked against him producing in the NFL.
But for quarterbacks, this is an entirely different conversation. Since the dawn of the forward pass, we have discussed and debated what traits or measurables make a quarterback special. Some have pointed to hand size, while others will look to height. Fortunately for us, those measurements have decreased in importance. As for actual statistics, some teams like to use completion percentage to judge a passer, while others will point to a quarterback's TD-INT ratio. Each team and scout is going to have their own favorite measuring stick.
However, in my opinion, the most important and relevant statistic for predicting future success for collegiate quarterbacks is how well they fare on third downs. Just like in the NFL, third down is the money down in college football. If a quarterback struggles on third down at the college level, he’s not likely to get better in that area in the NFL.
Let’s first take a look at every draft-eligible QB from 2011-2018 and see how they fared on third down. But just a few important notes before we begin. The data below was compiled via ESPN and some prospects from lower schools, such as Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) and Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois) did not have third down data. We are also only taking the numbers from each player's final season in college, rather than the average or their best season. Shall we begin?
Our first set of data is the eight yards per attempt threshold. Almost every successful quarterback over the past eight drafts averaged at least eight yards per attempt on third down in their best college season. Below is a list of every quarterback who has hit that threshold from 2011-18:
The most important thing to note about this list is that just because a quarterback hits the eight yards per attempt threshold, doesn't necessarily make them a good quarterback. However, it does appear that in order to be a good quarterback in the NFL, you do need to hit the magic number of 8.0. Now let's narrow this list down a little more, shall we?
In the NFL, a 60 percent completion rate is typically the baseline for what NFL coaches expect. What if we narrowed our data down to quarterbacks who completed at least 60 percent of their passes on third down while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt? As you can see below, this list is much more exclusive and littered with successful quarterbacks.
There are a few misses here, but those typically come from non-power house schools, such as Ball State, Colorado State, and Toledo. If you take away smaller schools and limit the results to Power-5 conferences, once again, you will see some pretty impressive results.
Let’s dig into that a little further and reverse engineer our data. Let's take a look at every quarterback who was drafted from 2011-2018 who has been selected to the Pro Bowl at least once in his career:
As you can see, of the 14 quarterbacks to make the Pro Bowl, 11 exceeded the eight yards per attempt average on third down in their collegiate career. A few quarterbacks haven’t turned out to be great players, such as Robert Griffin III and Teddy Bridgewater, but injuries can be partly blamed for their demise. Otherwise, you can see that most of the Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks will hit that eight-yards-per-attempt threshold on third down in college.
But enough about the successful quarterbacks. Let's take a look at which college quarterbacks had the least amount of success on third down in their career and determine if any of them were able to carve out successful careers. Below is the list of every draft-eligible quarterback from 2011-18 who averaged six yards or fewer per attempt on third down.
Surprisingly, three of these quarterbacks were top-10 selections in their respective drafts: Blaine Gabbert, Josh Allen, and Jake Locker. Allen is still in the early stages of his career, but the success rate of the rest of the quarterbacks on this list should be concerning. But what about the quarterbacks that fall between the margins? Well, the success rate of that group has mixed results.
Of the 47 quarterbacks listed, only three have been selected to the Pro Bowl in their careers (Foles, Goff, and Carr). Outside of those three, the only quarterbacks with moderate success are Ryan Tannehill, Mitchell Trubisky and…Blake Bortles? While it’s not impossible to find a quality quarterback from this group, the odds aren’t in your favor.
Finally, let's talk about this upcoming batch of quarterbacks. While it doesn't have the same amount of "buzz" as the 2018 class, that could prove to be a mistake. Five different quarterbacks crossed the eight yards per attempt threshold, and two were well over the 10 yards per attempt on third down. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the list:
We'll start with the top two quarterbacks, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. Of all 120 quarterbacks I have charted, Grier and Murray have the highest yards per attempt, with Baker Mayfield just slightly behind them. There is indeed something to be said about the lack of defense in the Big 12, where six of the top seven quarterbacks charted since 2011 hail from.
Drew Lock of Missouri is an exciting prospect considering he hits quite a few thresholds for the quarterback position all while playing in the best conference in college football. Lock's strong arm, athleticism, and effectiveness on third down make him a prime candidate to go inside the top 10 of the draft. On paper alone, Lock should be a first-round pick.
Dwayne Haskins, the presumed top-quarterback in the 2018 NFL draft, barely hits the 8 YPA threshold. However, his season was even more impressive than Lock's when you consider that this was his first season starting. At just 20 years old, Haskins might have the highest ceiling of all of these quarterbacks, despite being extremely raw. Haskins is another player who is worth a top pick, given his college production.
One interesting name to keep an eye on during the draft process is Tyree Jackson of Buffalo. Standing at 6-foot-7, Jackson has the size and big-play ability to make it in the NFL. The 54.4 completion percentage is concerning, especially when coming from a small school like Buffalo, but Jackson is worth a pick on Day 2 based on his upside alone.
Ultimately, the third-down yards per attempt statistic shouldn't be taken as gospel for any talent evaluator. Instead, it should be used as a singular piece of the puzzle. When drafting a quarterback high, especially in the first round, it's important to eliminate unnecessary risks. Using the eight-yards per attempt threshold should be able to do just that.