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According to the Data: How to Project Rookie Quarterbacks

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. In addition to RotoWire, Jonathan also provides content to the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, DallasCowboys.com, and NBC.

How to Project Rookie Quarterbacks

Earlier this month, I broke down how to project running backs and wide receivers based on their rookie stats. For running backs, yards-per-carry is surprisingly the best predictor of future success, even more so than carries or yards. On the other hand, rookie wide receivers with the best bulk stats - yards and touchdowns - tend to have the best overall careers. Intuitively, that makes sense; yards-per-carry is a relatively stable stat that's a solid indicator of a running back's talent, whereas yards-per-reception is extremely volatile and very dependent on a wide receiver's team, skill set and so on.

Moving to quarterbacks, the choice isn't as clear. Sure, yards-per-attempt is an excellent indicator of talent, but rookie quarterbacks are also very dependent on their surrounding casts. Further, we don't have the same sample size of rookie quarterbacks to study; only a handful play in a given season, compared to numerous rookie running backs and wide receivers.

Below, I broke down the career outlooks of quarterbacks based on their rookie yards, touchdowns and YPA. The top quarterbacks in each category were measured by their career approximate value.



As was the case with running backs, efficiency trumps bulk stats for quarterbacks. That is, those rookie quarterbacks that posted high YPA have been more successful than those that have thrown for a lot of touchdowns and yards.

Remember, approximate value incorporates bulk stats, but not efficiency. That means the difference between YPA - a stat that isn't a function of AV - and yards/touchdowns in terms of predicting future success is actually even greater than the numbers indicate. All other things equal, you want to draft quarterbacks who were highly efficient in their rookie seasons.

2012 Rookie Quarterbacks
With the amazing success of Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, and even the modest production from Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Brandon Weeden, 2012 has really been the year of the rookie quarterback. Let's take a look at their numbers through 16 weeks:

Andrew Luck: #1 Pick, 4,183 yards, 21 TD, 6.98 YPA
Robert Griffin III: #2 Pick, 3,100 yards, 20 TD, 8.27 YPA
Ryan Tannehill: #8 Pick, 3,059 yards, 12 TD, 6.81 YPA
Brandon Weeden: #22 Pick, 3,385 yards, 14 TD, 6.55 YPA
Russell Wilson: #75 Pick, 2,868 yards, 25 TD, 7.67 YPA
Nick Foles: #88 Pick, 1,699 yards, 6 TD, 6.41 YPA

No matter how you slice it, RGIII is the cream of the rookie quarterback crop. No rookie quarterback has ever posted the type of efficiency we've seen from Griffin, and that's not even considering his amazing rushing ability. When others are saying it's time to sell high on RGIII, don't buy it; if you're in a keeper league, I'd look into paying the steep price to acquire Griffin. He possesses upside like we've never seen at the quarterback position, and the only real risk is one of injury.

Interestingly, Luck hasn't been quite as efficient as you might think. His bulk stats are great, but Luck's 6.98 YPA is barely better than that of Ryan Tannehill's 6.81 YPA in Miami. With greater efficiency and even more touchdowns, it's actually fair to wonder whether Russell Wilson is superior to Luck as a long-term option. Don't forget about Wilson's ability to rack up rushing yards.

The primary thing Luck has going for him is his draft spot. In analyzing the most successful quarterbacks over the past decade-plus, I noticed one major trend: first-round quarterbacks tend to dominate the position. We remember the JaMarcus Russell-type flops from the top of the draft and the Tom Brady-esque late-round steals, but the truth is that betting on a first-round quarterback is a whole lot safer than gambling on a late-rounder.

It also means you might want to stay away from a player like Nick Foles. Foles doesn't offer much in the way of rushing stats, and his 6.41 YPA is the lowest of any rookie quarterback listed above. Further, as a third-round pick, the Eagles will have no trouble moving on from him if they need to.

Who to Target in 2013

Griffin is the obvious top quarterback from this class, and he's a stud option in both re-draft and keeper leagues moving forward. Luck is going to be a long-term producer in fantasy football, but I wouldn't place him in the same tier as RGIII just yet.

Tannehill and Weeden have both been about average in terms of rookie quarterback efficiency, but their high draft spots means they'll get more opportunities. The same can't be said for Foles, whom I'd avoid if possible in 2013. Meanwhile, Wilson seems to be a mid-round pick who could really stick. We all knew about his rushing ability, but his incredible passing efficiency trumps his third-round draft spot.

Finally, give some consideration to Redskins backup quarterback Kirk Cousins if you're in a dynasty or deep keeper league. The sample size is limited, but Cousins' 9.71 YPA is incredible. It's a gamble because of his current situation, but Cousins could be one trade away from major long-term production.

Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He also runs the "Running the Numbers" blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.