The QB Traits Hype-Cycle and Leaning Against the Wind
The next big thing in quarterback evaluation is claims of elite-traits-or-nothing, but this is just another overreaction to the last cycle of success
As a great American poet once said, “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” He was certainly right, and the last several weeks in NFL evaluation circles, there’s been a gale wind pushing Anthony Richardson up various NFL draft boards.
The Florida quarterback was ranked 13th in the 1.0 version of my consensus mock draft (power by Grinding the Mocks) published in late January, with only a smattering of drafts having him going in the first six selections. After a recording-breaking NFL Combine performance and a wave of enthusiasm, he moved up to 8th in the consensus mock draft 2.0, which still lags popular opinion. Just this week, nerds and film hipsters alike are making the case for Richardson to go No. 1 overall, above C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young, quarterbacks who NFL front offices have been salivating over for at least the last year.
Why the movement to anoint Richardson the next big thing for the NFL? In a word, it all comes down to traits. A quick google of the definition of trait yields a vague definition:
a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person
So anything distinguishing could be a trait, yet in this context we’re talking about two qualities: athletic ability and arm talent (it doesn’t hurt to have both). The last several seasons we’ve seen a seemingly definitive shift to a new era of quarterback play with the arrival of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence. All of these quarterbacks have strong athletic traits (elite in the cases of Jackson and Herbert), and most combine that with the ability to make any throw, often from compromised platforms. Joe Burrow is probably the only one of the new generation of quarterback who doesn’t completely fit the bill, and even he has shown the ability to generate value with scrambles and the occasional designed run the NFL (Burrow’s 327 rushing yards and six touchdowns ranked 10th and 6th, respectively, among quarterbacks).
If nearly all the elite quarterbacks that every team is seeking fits a certain profile, it makes sense that the rest of the league would be looking to copy that strategy. Yet just handful of years ago, following several years of traditional pocket passer dominating the NFL, the model was to find a different profile of quarterback. You want to react to new data, but you don’t want to overreact.
In the 10-year stretch from 2008 to 2017, 22 of the 30 First-and Second-Team All-Pro selections were given to quarterbacks who most would classify as lacking elite traits in the current context (Tom Brady 6, Payton Manning 5, Drew Brees 4, Matt Ryan 3, Philip Rivers 2, Tony Romo 1 and Carson Palmer 1). Even the five selections between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger (good athletes and arms) weren’t to obvious outliers. Outside of two combined selections for Michael Vick and Cam Newton, the league was a pocket passers’ domain.
As big of a mistake as it was to assume that only the Brady/Manning model of quarterbacking could work after their decade and a half of dominance, it’s just as egregious to assume only the Mahomes/Allen model will work going forward. I’m not saying that you need to zig when everyone else is zagging; you don’t have to be contrarian for the sake of it. Jeff Bezos is right, contrarians are mostly wrong. But leaning against the shifting winds of sentiment often places you in the zone of the greatest truth, and those winds are strongly blowing towards overvaluing a traits-based prospect like Anthony Richardson.
LET’S TALK ACCURACY AND THE ABILITY TO IMPROVE
Accuracy is the No. 1 weakness for Richardson, and there isn’t a close second. It’s going to be the focus of this analysis since how we view and analyze Richardson’s accuracy is a microcosm of the entire quarterback evaluation exercise.
Before I get into the negatives, I’ll stress that we know Richardson’s an Uber athlete, he’s was surprising good at avoiding negatives via sacks (pressure-to-sack rate an excellent 9.6%, ranking 6th last season), and he wasn’t surrounded by the most talent. There are lots of positives to Richardson’s profile that are important context around this accuracy analysis.
But like our perceptions of the quarterback position generally, there’s been a sharp turn from the idea that prospect accuracy is the only thing that matters to it not mattering at all. Justin Herbert wasn’t extremely accurate in college. His 66.1% completion percentage trailed Joe Burrow by more than 10%, though he did have an outsized drop rate (10.1%). Lamar Jackson’s completion percentage dropped under 60% in his final season, materially below the 50th percentile for college quarterbacks that year.
The shining light of “college accuracy doesn’t matter” truthers is Josh Allen. In two starting seasons at Wyoming, Allen didn’t complete better than 56% of his passes. In one season at Reedley junior college, Allen didn’t even hit the 50% mark. From when he started as a sophomore in high school through his second NFL season (nine years) Allen never broke a 60% completion rate. Then his last three NFL seasons, Allen hasn’t been lower than 63.3%, hitting as high as 69.2% in 2020.
If Allen can improve his accuracy from awful to good, why not Richardson? NFL evaluation is about a combination of weighing the possible against the probable. Allen shows it’s possible for Richardson to fix his accuracy, which would fill out his otherwise robust profile. But is it probable, or even somewhat likely?
The key to understand accuracy is looking at which forms of it are stable transitioning to the NFL. Generally, you don’t get a ton of stability in any stat quarterback stat. If that wasn’t the case, we’d be a lot better at evaluating, projecting and drafting quarterbacks. But completion percentage is one of the more stable metrics when making a jump to the pros, and nearly all of that stability comes from passes in the short area of the field (0-9 yards).
Using charted PFF college data that goes back to 2015, I plotted the seasonal percentiles for completion percentage in four different depth cohorts (Behind the line-of-scrimmage, 0-9 yards, 10-19 yards and 20+ yards) for the 37 quarterbacks who had at least 100 pass attempts combined in their second and third NFL season. I skipped rookie years knowing that second and third year production correlations more strongly with career production.