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QB Analysis: College Success Translated to the NFL

This is the time of year when NFL GMs, coaches, and scouts get together and, often, argue over which college prospects will make the best pros. It's a time of year where many sleepless nights lead up to the NFL Draft at the end of April. Every year, scouts would agree that the hardest position to judge talent and attempt to predict NFL success is the quarterback, which just happens to be the most important position in the game. Like many of you, I also read all the scouting reports and try to interpet college statistics in hopes of figuring out which players will succeed in the NFL. This year, in particular, I've been paying close attention to the QB position, mainly because of the current QB situation in Miami. It's well known that the Dolphins are seriously considering taking a QB in the first 2 rounds, possibly even trading up for a chance to land Brady Quinn. So I thought now, with less than 2 weeks left until the NFL Draft, would be a good time to look back at recent drafts and use history to attempt to predict the future.

So how do we plan on doing this? Many scouts feel that, in interms of statistics, there are only 2 that matter when trying to translate college success into NFL success. They are starts and completion percentage. So let's go back and look at QBs taken in the first round and see if we can draw any conclusion on this theory.

Here, we have ranked most of the QBs taken in round 1 since 1998 by their career completion percentage. These are the QBs whose % is under 60%:

Player College Draft Starts Comp.%
Kyle Boller Cal 2003 31 48%
Ryan Leaf Wash. St. 1998 24 53%
Cade McNown UCLA 1999 42 55%
Joey Harrington Oregon 2002 26 55%
Mike Vick VT 2001 21 56%
JP Losman Tulane 2004 29 57%
Jay Cutler Vanderbilt 2006 43 57%
Akili Smith Oregon 1999 11 58%
Carson Palmer USC 2003 45 59%

So, of these QBs, the only one that has been very successful is Carson Palmer. And it's no coincidence that, of these QBs, he had the most collegiate starts. Jay Cutler looks as if he's going to be a good player, and he also had over 40 college starts.

Next, here are the QBs who had a career completion percentage of at least 60%:

Player College Draft Starts Comp.%
Tim Couch Kentucky 1999 27 67%
Alex Smith Utah 2005 22 66%
Ben Roethlisberger Miami (OH) 2004 38 65%
Byron Leftwich Marshall 2003 36 65%
Matt Leinart USC 2006 39 65%
Philip Rivers NC St. 2004 49 64%
Daunte Culpepper Central Florida 1999 43 64%
Donovan McNabb Syracuse 1999 45 63%
Peyton Manning Tennessee 1998 45 63%
David Carr Fresno St. 2002 26 62%
Drew Brees Purdue 2001 26 61%
Rex Grossman Florida 2003 32 61%
Eli Manning Mississippi 2004 37 61%
Vince Young Texas 2006 32 61%

The first thing I notice here is that none of the QBs with less than 30 college starts, with the exception of Drew Brees, have had any real NFL success. I also notice that all of the QBs in this group with over 40 starts have had a lot of success at the next level (Philip Rivers has a smaller body of work to base this on, but he looked very good last year and most agree he will take another step forward in '07). I think what jumps out most here is that almost all of these QBs have had NFL success. Besides Tim Couch and David Carr, this group has accomplished a lot in the NFL already or will in the future (i.e. Alex Smith and Eli Manning).

I know this is a lot to digest, but I think this analysis really does show that many scouts may be correct in that collegiate starts and completion percentage are two stats that, when looked at together, can be a little bit of an indicator as to how successful that QB might be in the pros.

It's probably no coincidence that no first round QB drafted since 1998 that had started less than 30 games at the collegiate level and completed less than 60% of their passes has been successful in the NFL (see Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington and Akili Smith). It's also probably no coincidence that all QBs with over 40 starts and over 60% completion percentage have been successful at the next level. Now of course, there are other varialbes that do need to be considered, but the starts/completion percentage numbers are a good place to start when analyzing the college stats of a QB prospect.

So, let's now look at the top 4 QBs (in my opinion) in the draft this year and compare their college numbers to some of the players listed above. First is JaMarcus Russell:

Player College Starts Comp.%
2007 Prospect: JaMarcus Russell LSU 29 61%
Best Case Comparison: Vince Young Texas 32 61%
Worst Case Comparison: JP Losman Tulane 29 57%

Now don't get me wrong. Their styles of play may differ. This is more of a comparison of their college statistics. In this case, I think that Russell will end up more on the positive side than on the negative. But having less than 30 college starts has to be a little worrisome for a team that will be spending a top 5 pick on Russell and paying him insane amounts of money.

Next, let's look at the only other 1st round QB, Brady Quinn:

Player College Starts Comp.%
2007 Prospect: Brady Quinn Notre Dame 46 58%
Best Case Comparison: Carson Palmer USC 45 59%
Worst Case Comparison: Cade McNown UCLA 42 55%

And this is just part of the reason why I hope the Dolphins land Quinn in the draft. His numbers greatly resemble those of Palmer, as do their styles of play and the level of competition they faced at the college level. I'm more inclined to guess Quinn will have a career more like Palmer than like McNown, and by a wide margin.

Next, let's look at the top QB of the second tier of prospects, Drew Stanton:

Player College Starts Comp.%
2007 Prospect: Drew Stanton Michigan St. 28 64%
Best Case Comparison: Drew Brees Purdue 26 61%
Worst Case Comparison: Tim Couch Kentucky 27 67%

Stanton seems like a boom-or-bust type prospect, but isn't as much of a risk as a round 2 QB. He has tremendous upside and potential. Like both Brees and Couch, Stanton never had much of a surrounding cast. However, in my opinion, he's got the makings of a very good NFL quarterback as long as he has excellent coaching. If Miami decides to draft him in round 2, then Stanton will have great QB coaching from Cam Cameron and Terry Shea.

Lastly, let's take a look at Trent Edwards:

Player College Starts Comp.%
2007 Prospect: Trent Edwards Stanford 31 56%
Best Case Comparison: Rex Grossman Florida 32 61%
Worst Case Comparison: JP Losman Tulane 29 57%

Edwards is a tricky player to really define. He has some upside because he can make all the throws and is a smart QB. But he's injury prone and has trouble making quick, decisive throws and, therefore, may not be a good fit for the Dolphins and Cameron's system. And for all I know, I could be totally wrong about Edwards. But I just don't like what I see from his stats. Too risky for my blood.

So there you have it. Now, will any of their college stats mean anything once training camp rolls around and these players hit the field with their respective teams? Probably not. But that isn't the point. The point here is that you can leaen something from the successes and mistakes of other teams in the past. Some people say that you can make statistics say whatever you want them too. And that idea may be true. But this was an impartial and unbiased look at past draft prospects and how their success, or lack thereof, needs to be considered when evaluating this year's QB prospects. If nothing else, hopefully you realized just how much time and effort goes into evaluating QB prospects for the NFL Draft and will realize that, if your team doesn't take the player YOU wanted them to, there's probably a reason for it. And maybe, just maybe, all you have to do to figure out that reason is to look at their stats and relate them to recent history.