I was nine years old when I learned I would never be an NFL quarterback. That was the year we were supposed to move from flag football to full pads, and I just didn’t have the size to pull it off. I made even the smallest kids on the field look like Ray Lewis. It only took a few hits for me to realize the inevitable: my career as a quarterback was over before it began.
Even back then I knew there was a type. Quarterbacks come in a very specific mold, and unless you are the next Russell Wilson, you won’t be the one to break their mold. When it comes to professional sports, the odds are heavily stacked against those who don’t fit the mold, and NFL general managers aren’t known for their willingness to buck the status quo.
If we look at recent NFL draft history, certain patterns emerge when it comes to the quarterbacks NFL teams are willing to draft. Successful NFL quarterbacks can be described by a few specific characteristics, and almost all the elite ones fit that mold.
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Those patterns are important to fantasy owners no less than NFL owners. As a dynasty owner, your goal is to successfully predict which rookie quarterback is worth pinning your team’s hopes on. If you become familiar with the prevailing norms in the NFL, you can begin to spot the early favorites to win a starting job once they hit the pros. That should be your goal: pick the favorites, and ride them to victory. You and I can’t out-scout billion dollar NFL teams, and we aren’t going to catch a subtle tidbit of information no one else knows.
This is the age of information, and we’re all drowning in the same flood of data. Instead of trying to root out the most obscure pieces of news on this year’s rookie quarterbacks, take a look instead at some patterns that can help you predict future success. This article provides an early introduction to some of those important numbers when you’re evaluating incoming quarterbacks.
My focus here is primarily on the traits strongly correlated with NFL longevity, so the analysis compares a few statistical categories to the percentage of games NFL quarterbacks have started out of those they could have started. Let’s take a look at the data.
What Is The NFL’s Type?
First, successful NFL quarterbacks fall almost solely between the ages of 22 and 24 when they are drafted. Since 2006, no quarterback under the age of 22 or over the age of 24 (at the time of the draft) has gone on to start every one of their NFL games. Very few outside that range even start half.
When we look at the incoming class of top quarterbacks, we should note that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are both going to be under 22 when they are drafted, as is Brett Hundley. Bryce Petty squeaks into the window, with a precise age of 23.92 years old on Day 1 of the draft. While prospect ages alone aren’t enough that I suggest disqualifying anyone in this year’s class, it’s a factor worth including in your consideration. For reference, Andrew Luck was 22.62, Russell Wilson was 23.41, and Cam Newton was 21.96 at the time of their respective drafts.
Next, no one will be surprised to read that Russell Wilson is a rarity. Wilson is the sole quarterback under 6’2” in the last nine draft classes to start more than 25% of his games in the NFL. Every other regular starter is at least 74 inches tall. (Note: these heights are rounded to the nearest inch.)
Both Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston check that box, with heights of 6’4”, as shown by the star on the chart above.
Draft weight is also important, as nearly every starting quarterback from the last nine classes has been between 210 and 240 pounds at the time of the combine. Winston (red star) and Mariota (yellow star) both fit into that window, although Mariota skirts the bottom of the range.
College Production Helps Predict NFL Success
Now let’s move beyond the physical traits necessary to succeed as an NFL quarterback, and let’s take a look at production. If you want to be an NFL starter, you need a college career completion rate over 60%. Almost no one comes into the NFL with a sub-60% completion rate and turns into an established starter. If someone tells you to buy into a darkhorse quarterback prospect with sub-60% accuracy, don’t believe it. History doesn’t bear out the myth that inaccurate college quarterbacks can mature into accurate NFL starters. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Tim Tebow.) Both Mariota and Winston check that box as well, having completed 66 and 66.8% of their passes in college.
A quarterback’s final collegiate season also provides significant clues into whether they have a chance at NFL success. Successful NFL quarterbacks have good red zone success in college, completing more than 55% of their passes when they are inside their opponent’s twenty-yard line. Winston and Mariota both completed 54.3% of their red zone passes last year, putting them right on that threshold.
Two statistics from last year give me pause, however, when I consider drafting Jameis Winston with the 1.01 pick in my upcoming rookie drafts, and they should also give the Buccaneers pause when they make their decision next week. While neither is damning, both stats raise red flags.
First, a quarterback’s success when his team is down by one touchdown or less in his final year is a decent stand-in for his ability to perform in pressure situations. The top quarterbacks from the last five draft classes have consistently completed at least 65% of their passes in those situations.
Like the chart shows above, Marcus Mariota easily cleared that bar last year, completing 71.1% of his passes when down by 1-7 points. Winston, however, only managed a 61.9% completion rate.
Next, Jameis Winston’s interceptions, which have been much-discussed in the recent months, put him in rare company. His 4.03% interception rate is not only outside the norm for successful NFL quarterbacks, it is the worst ratio for an incoming rookie quarterback since Matt Cassel and James Kilian in the 2005 draft class. Whether you believe Winston’s inaccuracy was a fluke or think it’s a concern, one thing is clear, those interceptions paint him in a very poor light when compared with the last decade of quarterback prospects.
Marcus Mariota, by contrast, had one of the best interception rates in recent history, turning the ball over on only 0.54% of his passing attempts. (Mariota did have fumble problems, which aren’t reflected in the numbers above.)
TL;DR: Draft Marcus Mariota in Your 2QB and Superflex Rookie Drafts
At the end of the day, the most reliable predictor of NFL success is still the draft pick an NFL team is willing to spend on their quarterback. Since the 2005 draft class, Russell Wilson is the only quarterback to be drafted outside the first 40 picks and also start more than 60% of his NFL games.
If an NFL team is willing to spend first-round draft capital on a quarterback, they are going to give him every opportunity to become the leader of their franchise. And those are the quarterbacks you want to own.
We know that Marcus Mariota will be drafted in the top 40 picks. Most project him to go in the first two. There is no doubt that an NFL team is going to invest in Marcus Mariota, and that means you should too. Fantasy football is all about playing the odds, and any time you can stack the odds in your favor, you have to go for it.
In this draft class, that means picking up Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, or another quarterback if one goes in the first 40 picks. History says those are the quarterbacks that will give you the best odds of success. After that, look at more nuanced numbers to pick which top-tier rookie quarterback you’ll pick as yours. For me, that’s Marcus Mariota.
I will leave you with this: none of these stats, possibly excluding draft position, has any causative relationship with NFL success, but several of the categories are strongly predictive of whether or not a rookie quarterback will become a regular NFL starter. In 2QB and superflex leagues, that’s what you’re looking for. You want a player you can start for years to come.
The NFL has a type, without a doubt. Marcus Mariota checks all the right boxes, and he might be the only quarterback in this year’s class to do that. Take those odds and lock him up in your 2QB and superflex rookie drafts this year.