Today we have a guest post from James Deyerle, a longtime reader of this blog and the PFR blog, and who lives in Richmond, VA. As always, we thank our guests for contributing to the site.
If there’s one thing NFL fans can’t resist, it’s ranking quarterbacks, but while those conversations are often framed with stats, playoff success, awards, and more, it misses a big part of how fans and front offices treat quarterbacks. For example, despite similar stat lines in 2014 Vikings fans are justified in feeling very differently about Teddy Bridgewater than Bears fans feel about Jay Cutler.
One of the biggest reasons is age: Cutler was 31 and in his 9th season last year, while Bridgewater was only a 22 year old rookie, making him one of the youngest rookies in the past 15 years to see significant playing time. A collection of studies on quarterback aging from Chase, Neil Paine, and Brian Burke show that as a group, quarterbacks rapidly improve into their late 20s, peak for a few years, and then begin an accelerating decline throughout their 30s. This expected improvement lends promise to Bridgewater’s young career while the projected decline condemns Cutler’s, which informs our opinions and feelings on these quarterbacks. As such, I decided to create a system that more accurately reflects a team’s quarterback situation.
Still a work in progress, I started simple while I worked out the concepts. Based on the aging studies referenced above, I created four age buckets: Young, Prime, Aging, and Old. The theory behind each bucket is straightforward – Young quarterbacks (25 and under) are expected to significantly improve in the upcoming seasons, Prime quarterbacks (26-30) are at or near their peak, Aging quarterbacks (31-35) aren’t likely to get any better and may decline slightly, and Old quarterbacks (36+) are in danger of falling off a cliff (or even retiring!) in the very near future. This makes Old quarterbacks a high risk proposition – the upside is excellent QB play as only the best QBs last long enough to still be starting caliber into their late 30s, but the end can come suddenly and without much warning.
The next step is creating present-day skill tiers. While separating individual talent from supporting casts to determine who fits in which tier is difficult and subjective, the tiers themselves should not be. After a few variations I settled on a 5 tier system; the labels indicate the approximate quality of the QBs and each tier has a maximum number of QBs: 3 All Pros, 7 Pro Bowlers, 7 Above Average, 10 Below Average, and all others in Replacement. The intention is each tier represents a tangible benefit over the one below, and the size of the tiers match the reality that the drop off from the 2nd to the 6th best quarterback is much more significant than the marginal difference between the 18th and 25th best QB.
The last step (for now) is giving each combination of age and talent an overall Outlook. I originally had 5 different Outlook categories – Fantastic, Great, Good, Acceptable, and Poor – before adding a “Why” category for the worst possible situations as a joke. At the time, I didn’t imagine any team would bother wasting its time starting an Old, Replacement level quarterback when there are plenty of Young, Replacement quarterbacks that might improve. I was wrong!
The general philosophy is a Young Pro Bowl QB is Fantastic because of the expectation that they will be an All Pro in their Prime years, which is also Fantastic, while an Old All Pro is only Great because they aren’t likely to stay an All Pro for long. You may also notice there’s no way to have a Poor outlook with a Young quarterback under center – you only need to look at Oakland and Jacksonville to see the eternal optimism around Young QBs no matter their level of play.
I also placed a heavy emphasis on higher quality, which is why I made it impossible to have a Good Outlook if your QB is Aging, or Acceptable if your QB is Old. The aging studies indicate that if your early 30s QB isn’t a borderline Pro Bowler every year then they aren’t ever going to be, so unless your team is stacked everywhere else you won’t find much success. And teams often compound the problem by paying them exorbitant sums – I’m talking about you, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith.
So, readers of Football Perspective, what do you think of my reasoning up to this point? As I said above it’s still a work in progress so I’d appreciate any advice as I continue to refine it. One improvement I’d like to make it moving to a more continuous system as the increase from age 30 to 31 and 35 to 36 can be extremely harsh, but quantifying age is very easy. The problem is creating a simple and continuous judge for talent, although shortcuts like ANY/A or a fantasy point style system would get most of the way there.
The big kicker to distinguish this from something you’d find on a dynasty fantasy website would be to include contracts, but that’s an even larger obstacle. How do you easily quantify the Length, Average Annual Value, and Guaranteed/Dead Money of such disparate contracts as Matt Ryan’s 4 year, $20.8M AAV, and $34M DM with Andy Dalton’s 6 year, $16M AAV, $10M DM, much less against Andrew Luck’s presumably massive future contract in a straightforward way?
But before I go, here’s how my system ranks the notable quarterbacks in the NFL. The best part is if you disagree with my Talent evaluations, which I did during the preseason, I’ve provided you with the framework to make your own Outlooks. It’s a fun exercise, and can be quite difficult to decide between the last QB in a tier!
|Aaron Rodgers||GNB||32||Aging||All Pro||Fantastic|
|Tony Romo||DAL||35||Aging||All Pro||Fantastic|
|Andrew Luck||IND||26||Prime||All Pro||Fantastic|
|Philip Rivers||SDG||34||Aging||Pro Bowl||Great|
|Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||33||Aging||Pro Bowl||Great|
|Matt Ryan||ATL||30||Prime||Pro Bowl||Great|
|Russell Wilson||SEA||27||Prime||Pro Bowl||Great|
|Teddy Bridgewater||MIN||23||Young||Above Avg||Great|
|Peyton Manning||DEN||39||Old||Pro Bowl||Good|
|Tom Brady||NWE||38||Old||Pro Bowl||Good|
|Drew Brees||NOR||36||Old||Pro Bowl||Good|
|Matthew Stafford||DET||27||Prime||Above Avg||Good|
|Ryan Tannehill||MIA||27||Prime||Above Avg||Good|
|Cam Newton||CAR||26||Prime||Above Avg||Good|
|Joe Flacco||BAL||30||Prime||Above Avg||Good|
|Marcus Mariota||TEN||22||Young||Below Avg||Good|
|Jameis Winston||TAM||21||Young||Below Avg||Good|
|Eli Manning||NYG||34||Aging||Above Avg||Acceptable|
|Sam Bradford||PHI||28||Prime||Below Avg||Acceptable|
|Colin Kaepernick||SFO||28||Prime||Below Avg||Acceptable|
|Andy Dalton||CIN||28||Prime||Below Avg||Acceptable|
|Nick Foles||STL||26||Prime||Below Avg||Acceptable|
|Tyrod Taylor||BUF||26||Prime||Below Avg||Acceptable|
|Carson Palmer||ARI||36||Old||Above Avg||Poor|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick||NYJ||33||Aging||Below Avg||Poor|
|Jay Cutler||CHI||32||Aging||Below Avg||Poor|
|Alex Smith||KAN||31||Aging||Below Avg||Poor|
Footnote Caveat: aging curves are not perfect as no quarterback improves or declines exactly as expected, so this system won’t be perfect. At the start of the 2012 season Matt Schaub was entering his age 31 season after four years as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league, and his combination of Aging and Pro Bowl would have given the Texans a Great outlook, and he would go on to earn his 2nd Pro Bowl. Obviously that didn’t work out as Schaub was finished by mid-2013.