2021 NFL Draft: How Quarterbacks Performed Versus Top Defenses
Whenever you see debate around who will be the second quarterback taken in this year's NFL draft, opposing schedules will come up.
Justin Fields and Zach Wilson are the top contenders for that throne, and they couldn't be more different in this arena. Fields was on All-Madden while Wilson had the vision cone turned off. That's an important thing to consider when looking at them as prospects.
The other thing you'll hear is that Fields struggled against the tough competition. His performances against Northwestern and Indiana get cited ad nauseam as reasons to question whether he can successfully transition to the NFL.
As always, there are elements of truth to these narratives. But how much do they matter when we put the proper context behind them? And how do those two, specifically, compare to other quarterbacks in this year's draft class?
We're going to try to sort through that today. We'll look at how often these quarterbacks had to face non-cupcakes and how they performed when they did. Then we'll break down what that means for them in the grand scheme of things.
Here, we're going to define a "top" defense as one ranked inside the top 50 by Bill Connelly's defensive SP+ metric. A top-50 defense certainly isn't the highest bar to set, but it absolutely weeds out the true bottom-feeder defenses.
As for the quarterbacks, we'll be focusing on the same group discussed in our overall statistical breakdown of the class. That leaves us with seven quarterbacks rated at a 75 or higher on the Scouts Inc. grading scale: Fields, Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Mac Jones, Kyle Trask, and Kellen Mond.
However, because Lance was playing at the FCS level, we don't have SP+ data on his opponents. We'll omit him. It is worth noting, though, that Lance's team had to claw through the FCS playoffs in 2019, meaning he wasn't getting tons of breezy assignments in his time at North Dakota State. The level of competition matters, but we shouldn't mistake that for not having seen tough opponents.
The Schedules They Faced
Schedules were obviously very different this year due to COVID-19. Most teams didn't get to play non-conference games until their bowls, and there were no FCS teams at all. As a result, most schedules across the board were pretty tough.
The guy who bore the full brunt of that was Fields.
Here's a look at the opposing schedule for our six quarterbacks. The "Average Opp. Rank" is the average defensive SP+ rank for their opponents. The "Attempts Versus Top-50 Ds" shows what percentage of their total throws came against defenses ranked inside the top 50. Fields never got a breather.
|Quarterback||Average Opp. Rank||Attempts Versus Top-50 Ds|
At least in this instance, the narratives around Fields and Wilson are well-founded.
The "top-50" label undersells how tough Fields' road was. Five of his eight games were against top-15 defenses by SP+, including each of his final four. It's easier to find times where a player struggles against tough competition when they're facing tough competition every week.
Not shockingly with the uniqueness of the season, this is an historic number. There have been 121 FBS quarterbacks drafted since 2010. Fields will become the first to attempt more than 86% of his passes against top-50 defenses and the first with an average defensive SP+ rank lower than 33 (here, a game against an FCS team was marked as being versus the lowest-ranked defense by SP+). Once you consider this, the fact that Fields still had a 10.1 AY/A for the full season looks pretty incredible.
Obviously, Wilson's going to be on the other end of that spectrum. Only 18 of the 121 drafted FBS quarterbacks had a lower percentage of their throws against top-50 defenses, and his average defensive ranking would be 24th. Whereas we need to bump Fields' raw stats up due to his competition, Wilson's deserve a bump down.
That, though, is just one half of the equation. It also matters how well these quarterbacks performed in the instances they were tested. This is an area where Wilson partially redeems himself.
How They Performed
For the season, Wilson faced three top-50 defenses: Western Kentucky, Boise State, and San Diego State. San Diego State was seventh in defensive SP+, the toughest test he faced all year.
He shredded them for 303 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no picks on 35 attempts. It was in line with what he did against the other tougher foes, as well.
Here's the full rundown of these quarterbacks in their splits versus the top-50 defenses. Their full-season AY/As are also included just to show how much things changed when the windows got tighter.
|Quarterback||AY/A vs. Top 50||Total AY/A|
We'll touch on Jones in a second. But this is very much a check in Wilson's corner.
Going back to our 121 quarterbacks, only six quarterbacks had a better AY/A when facing top-50 defenses than Wilson. Obviously, Jones will add his name to that list in April, as well. But Wilson came to play when the competition was tough. Five of the six names ahead of Wilson in AY/A -- Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Robert Griffin III, Tua Tagovailoa, and Joe Burrow -- wound up being top-five picks.
So, Wilson checks the performance box. This makes it worth asking whether his soft schedule is as much of a red flag as it is being billed.
We can check this out by looking at the other draftees since 2010. However, because what NFL talent evaluators think of you matters so much, it's best to whittle this down to just the first-rounders. That leaves us with 33 quarterbacks in this timeframe.
Let's split the quarterbacks into two groups. The mid-way point is an average opposing defense ranked 60th in SP+, meaning Wilson was the only guy in our group who faced a softer-than-usual schedule.
This table shows the performance of first-rounders who faced easier schedules (average rank outside the top 60) versus those with tougher schedules (average rank inside the top 60). The numbers listed are how often quarterbacks in each bucket finished inside the top 5, 10, and 15 in Total Net Expected Points (NEP), numberFire's expected points model that includes rushing production and deductions for expected points lost to things such as sacks, incompletions, and interceptions.
|First-Round QBs||Top-5s||Top-10s||Top-15s||Qualified Seasons|
|Tougher Collegiate Schedules||8.5%||15.3%||37.3%||59|
|Easier Collegiate Schedules||15.0%||32.5%||40.0%||40|
The first-rounders who faced softer schedules in college have finished in the top 10 in Total NEP in 13 of 40 qualified seasons. That's compared to just 9 of 59 for those with the tougher schedules.
Part of this is due to the names in the bottom bucket. You've got both Patrick Mahomes and Andrew Luck there, and they've combined to be outside the top 10 in Total NEP just twice in nine qualified seasons. But that's also kind of the point: facing an easy schedule doesn't impact your NFL outlook, especially if you're looking for superstars.
It's also not as if Mahomes and Luck are the only guys there. Griffin, Jared Goff, and Josh Allen were also in this bucket, and they've all had a top-five season in Total NEP. Murray and Justin Herbert are here, too, and they both hit the top 10 within their first two years in the league. Especially when a quarterback goes high in the draft, facing a cupcake schedule is not predictive of being a bust.
As a result, even with the legitimate caveat that Wilson faced softer competition, he's worth a high-end selection. He's not Lawrence, but he doesn't need to be that to justify the buzz he's getting.
Now let's go back to Fields. As noted, there has been concern around his performances in big spots this year. But his 9.4 AY/A against top-50 defenses is still very good and ranks ahead of Lawrence.
If we focus on just two games, we're ignoring what he did in other tight spots. Against Penn State -- ranked 14th in defensive SP+ -- he threw for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns on 34 attempts. He completed 70.8% of his passes and ran for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns against Michigan State even though his team was missing four of its top six offensive linemen due to COVID-19. And let us not forget the spectacle that was the Clemson game.
If we're going to harp on the Indiana and Northwestern games, it would seem noteworthy that he went nuclear with 385 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a pick on just 28 attempts in the second-biggest game of the year. Similar to Wilson, the concerns around Fields once you dig in seem overblown.
All of this talk around Wilson and Fields ignores the guy who did the best against top-50 defenses in this span. Jones' 12.8 AY/A against them not only tops this class but would tie Mayfield for the best mark of any drafted quarterback since 2010. His schedule wasn't as difficult as Fields', but it was still the fifth-toughest in this time.
That's tremendous for Jones, and it means we shouldn't care too much about the supporting cast he had around him. No matter who you're throwing to, that's elite production.
Unfortunately, this doesn't alleviate the biggest concerns around Jones. As discussed more in-depth in our overall statistical preview, older, less experienced prospects rarely demonstrate upside in the NFL, and he doesn't have plus athleticism or arm strength to shift the upside discussion. So although this data does put a dent in the supporting-cast narrative, it doesn't necessarily shift the thinking on Jones as a whole.
We're fully into nitpicking season, so it's not a surprise that concerns around Wilson's schedule or Fields' performance have popped up. But based on what we've seen here, it seems as if those factors shouldn't push them off the top end of the draft board.
For Wilson, the schedule was definitely easy. But he performed well when he did have tough tasks, and plenty of high-upside NFL quarterbacks have also faced soft schedules in college.
For Fields, he did struggle in a couple of games, but he had an historically difficult road and also had some monster games in huge spots. The overall body of work was still excellent. Both he and Wilson are fully worthy of top-five selections in this year's draft.
Finally, with Jones, his performance here does help lift the concern around his plus supporting cast. Even when they faced teams that had talent at least in the same ballpark as his skill players, he still put up elite numbers. It's the other factors that should concern us here, not the toys he had around him.