The NFL Scouting Combine and Wide Receivers

In my analysis, I focus mostly on the role of the quarterback. But football is a team sport and quarterback performance can’t easily be separated from the roles of other players. Is the offensive line giving the quarterback time to throw? Is there a running game that forces defenses out of nickel personnel? And is there enough talent at wide receiver to catch the quarterback’s passes?

Bill Belichick, easily the most accomplished head coach in the Cap Era, struggles mightily with wide receivers. If you look at Patriot drafts, they’re littered with receiver busts. For every Julian Edelman at the end of the draft, there are two Chad Jacksons and a Bethel Johnson near the beginning. And he’s hardly alone.

The Detroit Lions had one of the all-time bad number-two overall picks with Charles Rogers in 2003. The following year, it was Roy Williams at number seven, who was a little more effective, but hardly worth the pick. In 2005, they doubled down with Mike Williams at number ten, who did pretty much nothing in his first four years. Undaunted, they struck gold at number two in 2007 with Calvin Johnson.

With other teams, it’s not so dramatic. I’ve tracked wide receivers chosen in the last 16 years, and there have been 25 chosen in the top ten. I’d be generous if I said half of those picks were worth it. In general, about 40-50% of wide receivers picked in the first round become effective starters. That drops to about one third in the second round, so it’s not like teams have no idea what they’re doing in the draft room. It’s just difficult to find good receivers.

How do you even define good? Someone has to take the field, even if a team doesn’t have anyone on the roster worth a darn.

I decided to study the issue. Since every team needs at least a couple of effective wide receivers, what should they look for? Analytics is the buzz word of 2015. Technically, it’s the art of finding meaningful patterns in seemingly random data.

In the NFL, you build through the draft. The annual Scouting Combine gives teams an opportunity to collect data on these players. They use that data, along with interviews and a lot of tape-watching to come up with their best guesses on players worth drafting. And they still miss a lot of the time.

I tried to put together a full list of Combine (and some Pro Day) performances for wide receivers over the 1999-2015 time period. I have heights and weights along with 40-yard-dash times for everyone. Where I could find them, I included vertical jumps, broad jumps, the 20-yard shuttle drill and the three-cone drill. I even have some bench presses thrown in there, and hand size for the last few years.

I would love to have some objective way to measure the Gauntlet drill, or at least a lot of tape I can watch myself and maybe come up with a metric. I’m a big believer in the Gauntlet. In this drill a receiver runs from sideline to sideline, alternating taking passes thrown from his left and from his right. It’s a timing drill, and players need to get into a rhythm. But it’s also a test of hands and a mental test that I think is quite relevant to running routes. I score players not only on whether they can show decent speed getting into their rhythm and making clean catches, but also how much they “cheat” in the drill by slowing down or running on curves so they can gain a tiny advantage in turning to the next throw. Run straight, quickly, don’t drop any balls and you “pass” the drill. It’s very tempting to cheat, but the players who take the Combine seriously do their best not to cheat. And I think challenging yourself by following the instructions is an important mental test in this day and age when agents prepare athletes so thoroughly to answer questions in interviews.

Alas, it’s not easy to find tape from old Combines. So I ran what numbers I could, and now I understand a little better why teams have so much trouble drafting wide receivers.

The best I can do with size and Combine performance is explain maybe (if I work a little harder) one quarter of a player’s potential. That’s lousy.

By far the most important number is a player’s time in the 40-yard dash. Even though they’re running without pads, and Jerry Rice has certainly taught us that raw straight-line speed is not a requirement for NFL success, the 40-time is deservingly the Combine headliner. I found the vertical jump was about half as valuable – more for long-term success than instant success. I found the broad jump was just a little less valuable, but more important for younger players. The three-cone drill had small significance. The shuttle run and the bench press were completely irrelevant.

On the pure size side of the equation, I shocked myself a little. I found weight was maybe a little more important than the broad jump. Receivers need some bulk to get past press coverage – that makes sense. But height was insignificant – correlating to success at maybe 1-2%. In fact, when you consider that weight already includes height (they correlate with each other at 71%) and many really short receivers show up as not having done well simply because they were drafted exclusively to return kicks, I don’t see the value of considering height in any way when I look at a wide receiver.

If nothing else in this study comes back to Front Office Football, that probably will. It makes sense to say that height gives a receiver that added oomph when going up for a competitive ball (as Calvin Johnson so often does), but that’s not a universal experience.

I played with the numbers for a while and came up with a “Combine Score”. That tells me that Donte Moncrief, chosen by Indianapolis in the third round last year, is the best receiver from that draft. So far, he has definitely been worth the pick. But, on the other end of the scale, this metric suggests Jarvis Landry, selected by Miami toward the end of the second round, would be useless. And he had a stronger rookie season than Moncrief.

I come away from this exercise realizing I have a lot more work to do before I can execute analytics in a manner that has any use for the NFL draft. Certainly, I can add variables. I could throw in college performance, competition faced, maybe those elusive Gauntlet tapes. I think that would help. But the simple Moncrief/Landry example illustrates why this is a very difficult task.

Just for grins, the list of top 2015 draftees based on this metric:

1. Chris Conley, Georgia
2. Darren Waller, Georgia Tech
3. Sammie Coates, Auburn
4. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
5. Kevin White, West Virginia
6. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
7. Tre McBride, Willliam & Mary
8. Kenny Bell, Nebraska
9. Ty Montgomery, Stanford
10. Antwan Goodley, Baylor
11. DeVante Parker, Louisville
12. Devin Funchess, Michigan
13. Amari Cooper, Alabama
14. Nelson Agholor, USC
15. Devin Smith, Ohio State

Of this group, White, Cooper and Parker are considered easy first-rounders. Green-Beckham, Strong, Coates, Agholor and Smith possible first-rounders. Funchess and Rashad Green (33rd) had rough Combines and their grades have dropped to rounds 2-3. And will anyone reach to grab Combine stars like McBride, Bell, Waller and Conley, who were expected to be late picks or priority free agents until last week? Oakland loves guys like that.

State of the Quarterback – Assessing the Needs

In the NFL, it’s hard to win without a good quarterback. The game has become so complex that many good quarterback prospects are completely ineffective in the pro game. NFL teams build in the draft, and if they find a good quarterback, they hold on to him. You’re not going to find a good quarterback in free agency.

What’s positive about quarterbacks is if they stay healthy, they’re decent for about 12 years on average, and the great ones for 14-15 years. The average projected starting quarterback in the NFL for 2015 already has 5 1/2 seasons of starting experience. That means an average of three starting-caliber quarterbacks need to enter the league in a given year.

Who are those three quarterbacks? Eight of the 32 current projected starters were the first pick in the entire draft. Four more went in picks 2-4, four more in picks 5-16 and another three in the bottom half of the first round. So that’s 19 of 32 in round one. Another five came in the second round (all in the first handful of picks). Add two threes, two sixes, one seven, one undrafted and two uncertain situations, and you have your set of 32 starters.

The 2015 quarterback crop is considered a shallow one, but it has two prospects – Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota – who are considered great prospects. Winston seems prepared to step in and run an NFL offense immediately. Tampa Bay, which drafts first, will probably take him. Mariota is a little less prepared, but is a phenomenal athlete, a top-character guy, and has the skill set that suggests a short learning curve for the position. Given how many teams need quarterbacks and the importance of the position, either Tennessee, which picks second and doesn’t seem convinced of its future with last year’s sixth-rounder running the show, will take Mariota or get overwhelmed with a trade offer.

No offense to defensive end Leonard Williams, who will be an impact pass rusher and effective run defender at a position where many teams get very little rush, but the quarterback position is worth too much.

There are analysts out there who can break down tape far better than I can. They will write a lot about the quarterbacks between now and May, and it’s usually a good read. But the position is hard to break down and the bust rate of top picks is very high. In my own analysis, I take what others write and form opinions based on what has happened in past drafts and past NFL seasons. From that, I expect Winston and Mariota to go 1-2. They seem like relatively solid picks.

What happens next? There are maybe a dozen other quarterbacks who might be worth drafting. None of them carry a first-round grade. Could one be the next Tom Brady? Of course. And any GM is lying to you if he tells you he doesn’t dream of watching some tape with his coaches and seeing Tom Brady in some guy who’s flying under everyone else’s radar.

Problem is, out of the dozens of guys who have been drafted as project quarterbacks, very few ever show enough to start, and maybe once or twice a decade, you find a franchise quarterback in the later rounds. Brady and Tony Romo (who was actually undrafted) are the only two current examples – Brady will be 38 this season, Romo 35. Scouting quarterbacks, as difficult as it is, has improved in recent years, and the numbers show that a higher percentage of starting quarterbacks are being drafted earlier than in past years.

That’s why the quarterback draft curve is so unusual compared to that of other positions. You have that initial rush, and then quarterbacks have to take a back seat to likely starters at other positions.

While about a dozen quarterbacks will be drafted, they’re all projects after Winston and Mariota. I’ll outline the ones who seem to have the buzz right now. Some team might work one of these guys out and become convinced he’s an NFL starter. It only takes one of the 32 teams to fall in love, and you get a second rounder who had a fourth-round grade.

Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson (who sounds like he’s a part of that ridiculous ABC nighttime soap where the girl from Everwood becomes a ninja warrior) heads the list of quarterbacks who someone might fall in love with and take out that second-round lottery ticket. Grayson has pro-style experience, which is quite important because it means he’ll have less to learn in the NFL. There’s more relevant tape to watch on him, so scouting will be more accurate. Grayson didn’t work out at the Combine because of a minor injury, but he has NFL size.

UCLA’s Brett Hundley is a phenomenal athlete who also might get a reach into the second round. The question on Hundley is whether he can read defenses. He also played in a spread offense that doesn’t translate well to the NFL. Definite boom or bust here.

Baylor’s Bryce Petty put up magic numbers in a spread offense. He’s also has NFL size, good athleticism, and a strong arm. He has accuracy issues, however.

Southeastern Louisiana’s Bryan Bennett was once Mariota’s backup at Oregon. He has enough size and athleticism to play in the NFL and he has a very impressive arm. He’s probably a little more likely than Petty to make a huge jump up someone’s draft board.

Oregon State’s Sean Mannion is tall and an accurate thrower, but he’s not as good an athlete as the other prospects, and he has tiny hands.

My guess is that these five are very likely to be on NFL rosters in 2015. One of the five will probably get some starts somewhere.

Other names include ECU’s Shane Carden and Prairie View A&M’s Jerry Lovelocke. You might hear these names toward the end of the draft, but each is probably only 50/50 to make it through training camp this summer.

Next, I’ll divide NFL teams into their need to draft a quarterback.

Category 1: Desperate need – would start a rookie even if the rookie wasn’t fully ready.

Tampa Bay (drafting 1st overall), New York Jets (6th).

Category 2: Very strong need – maybe some desperation this year and probably looking for a new quarterback. A starter in place, but might start a rookie even if the rookie wasn’t fully ready.

Tennessee (2nd), Chicago (7th)*, Buffalo (50th – the 19th went to Cleveland as part of the deal that allowed the Bills to draft Sammy Watkins last year).

Category 3: Strong need – some urgency to get a promising rookie on the roster. He wouldn’t start unless he was ready, but he’d probably be on the clock. To point out the obvious – Cleveland’s two firsts and second have the approximate combined chart value of Tennessee’s #2 pick… just sayin’. They might still be sold on Johnny Football ™.

St. Louis (10th)*, Cleveland (12th and 19th), Houston (16th), Philadelphia (20th).

Category 4: Definite need – these teams need to get a good prospect into the system. Any team in this category or higher could spend a second-round pick on someone who isn’t worth a second-round pick. These teams could mortgage the future to trade with Tennessee if they’re convinced about Mariota.

Washington (5th)*, New Orleans (13th), Miami (14th), San Francisco (15th), Detroit (23rd)*.

Category 5: Some need – these teams would have some interest in developing a late-round pick, probably just as a backup, but they won’t reach for a guy.

Atlanta (8th), Kansas City (18th), Carolina (25th), Dallas (27th)**, Denver (28th), Indianapolis (29th), Green Bay (30th), New England (32nd).

Category 6: Little need – these teams have an established starter and youth already at the position. They might take a late-round development pick, but not if there’s a more important need at another position.

Arizona, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New York Giants, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle.

* – indicates teams where the current starter is on shaky ground, but he was a very high pick and will likely have the opportunity to make his coach fall in love again. Chicago is truly a unique case even here. Jay Cutler’s career is one of the strangest in NFL history.

** – Jerry Jones makes Jay Cutler look normal by comparison. Who knows what he’ll want to do?

State of the Quarterback – NFC West

This is the last of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Arizona: The Cardinals have settled on Carson Palmer (54, 51, 50), who hasn’t been the same since a serious elbow injury seven years ago that cost him most of a season. He’s 35, and is just good enough to keep his job, despite having a losing career record (69-73). He seemed like a world-beater before the injury. He is now coming off another shortened season and major knee surgery, though he says he’s progressing ahead of schedule and will play in training camp. Drew Stanton (42, -, -) is the backup, and has more career interceptions than touchdowns in limited play since being a second round pick in 2007. Last year’s fourth-round pick, Logan Thomas, is huge and a terrific athlete, but needs a lot of work to develop. The Cardinals have had double-digit wins the last two years, but they don’t have an ideal quarterback situation. If they don’t start out quickly, it may be time to see if Thomas has something.

Seattle: Russell Wilson (61, 59, 56) has put up unprecedented numbers for a quarterback just three years removed from college. He’s the perfect quarterback for the Seahawks – he doesn’t throw many interceptions (though he does have a problem with fumbles – not quite a Robert Griffin III problem, but still a problem). His yards per catch is best in the league. He’s due for a huge contract extension. However, part of this is Seattle’s approach. Wilson throws fewer passes per game than anyone in the NFL. So he often throws when teams are hedging against the run. He runs a lot himself, so injuries could be a concern down the road. And Marshawn Lynch is also around to punish defenses. Not to take away too much from someone who has accomplished so much already, I hesitate to put him in the elite category.

San Francisco: Colin Kaepernick (49, 52, 62) has steadily declined as a starter. Like Wilson, he averages under 30 pass attempts per game, and his yards per catch is second to Wilson’s. His interception rate is lower than Wilson’s. He has been to a Super Bowl, and has a 29-16 record. The main differences between Kaepernick and Wilson are that Kaepernick has more games when he’s off-target for long periods of time and he throws far fewer touchdown passes. Since he doesn’t throw a lot, those bad games have quite an impact. It’s not time to panic about Kaepernick, but he needs to improve this season. The 49ers will probably draft a project quarterback this season.

St. Louis: Sam Bradford (-, 49, 48) is only 27, but he hasn’t played since October 2013 due to injuries. He is 18-30 over his career with a 45 average in the metric. These aren’t impressive numbers in the slightest, and if he weren’t once the top pick in the draft, his job would be in serious danger. Austin Davis (48, -, -), undrafted in 2012, was the starter much of last season. But he was benched for Shaun Hill (49, -, -) later in the season. Hill, 35, is a free agent, and has proven a capable backup over his career. Still, that Davis was benched at all is an indication that the Rams expect Bradford to reclaim his job. Bradford probably deserves one more long look, but I’m not confident he’s more than a marginal NFL starter.

State of the Quarterback – NFC South

This is the seventh of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Atlanta: Matt Ryan (57, 55, 65) will be 30 this coming season and has consistently provided quality leadership for the Falcons. There’s no reason to consider a switch – Atlanta has many other problems far more important and a new head coach fully focused on the defense.

Carolina: The Panthers selected Cam Newton with the first pick in the 2011 draft (44, 53, 54) and until this season, it looked like a solid choice. Nine of his last 13 game scores in 2014, including both playoff games, were 40 or under. He had a 19/15 TD/Int ratio over that stretch, and his yards per attempt were almost a full yard under his career average. He did suffer two fractures in his back in a December car crash, ankle surgery last March, and possibly a broken rib during the preseason. This could easily explain the performance issues. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to form in 2015. Derek Anderson, 32, was outstanding in relief when he was needed, but his career metric average of 42 is indication he should remain a backup.

New Orleans: The only thing the Saints need to know about Drew Brees (61, 63, 59) is his age (36). While he’s still a top five quarterback, he’s at the age where decline can happen any year. His completion percentage, 66.3%, is the best all-time.

Tampa Bay: Last year’s free agent acquisition, Josh McCown (37, 67, -), was cut after an awful season. Mike Glennon (45, 45, x) remains a project, and is 4-14 with a remarkably low career yards per pass attempt (6.51). By comparison, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (8.15) is the best of all time. The Buccaneers draft first in May. They will probably take Jameis Winston. They should. Winston has some personal issues, but they aren’t the type of issues that affect his leadership qualities or his work ethic. He has all the physical tools necessary for success in the NFL.

State of the Quarterback – NFC North

This is the sixth of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Chicago: The deadline is coming for John Fox and the Bears. They’re already on the hook for Jay Cutler’s (48, 51, 48) massive salary for 2015. If he remains on the roster another three weeks, most of his 2016 salary becomes guaranteed. So do they stick with the physically talented 32-year-old who has never lived up to that promise? Or do they cut ties with the guy who has been consistently mediocre in the six years since he was involved in perhaps the biggest NFL trade of the cap era? Maybe the clock has run out on Cutler. The Bears have given him excellent receivers and Matt Forte is one of the elite running backs in the NFL. Cutler tantalizes by making some throws that very few would even attempt. But he also throws a lot of interceptions and his completion percentage is just average. If he were a third-year guy, no question he’d still start. But how do you upgrade from average in the NFL? David Fales, a sixth-rounder from last year, is also on the roster, but this was just a lottery pick and the Bears turned to Jimmy Clausen (now a free agent) when Cutler was temporarily benched. Fox must have some ideas, or he wouldn’t have taken a job most coaches with options would have avoided because of the Cutler situation. Could the Bears overwhelm Tennessee with a trade offer to move from seventh to second in the draft? We’ll know a lot more on March 12.

Detroit: Matthew Stafford (49, 47, 48) is 27, and is the only quarterback in NFL history to average more than 40 pass attempts per start with any significant starting experience. Much of NFL defense is deciding what to try and stop. With Detroit, you focus on the pass. So the question with the Lions isn’t whether Stafford is currently the best option, it’s how much better than average Stafford would be if only the Lions could run the ball. And that is hard to determine. They have the best receiver in football, but opponents double-team him like clockwork. Detroit has to run the ball more in 2015 – that much is a given. Then they can better evaluate whether it’s time to develop a potential replacement.

Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers (63, 63, 64) is 31, and the best player in the NFL. All the Packers have to do is ensure he stays healthy.

Minnesota: The Vikings took Teddy Bridgewater (52, x, x) at the end of the first round last year, and he was starting in week four. Despite a host of analysis issues that led to Bridgewater’s draft stock plummeting during the last off-season, he’s done nothing but impress on the field, though he has to cut down on his interceptions. Score one for relatively short, small-handed rookie quarterbacks. Matt Cassel (-, 48, 38) is the primary backup and is best suited for that role.

State of the Quarterback – NFC East

This is the fifth of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Dallas: When people think of Tony Romo (68, 54, 59), they think of Romo fumbling the long snap for an easy field-goal attempt in his first season as a starter eight years ago. And they think of a guy who has never played in a Super Bowl. And they think of a guy who wasn’t drafted and isn’t physically imposing, but magically took over the starting role with the full confidence of an owner people love to hate. Romo’s an easy target, but when you look at the numbers, he’s top five in the NFL easily. The question is whether he falls to putty in key games. This season – scores of 64 and 79 in the playoffs – he put that ball right on Dez Bryant’s hands when it counted. He scored a 65 and a 38 in the 2009 playoffs. The Cowboys have had some key losses at the ends of seasons. At 35, he’s at the latter end of his prime, and time is running out. Dallas is still in good shape with Romo. Brandon Weeden (-, 38, 44) is a below-average backup. Dustin Vaughan, a rookie last year, has tiny hands and not much upside.

New York Giants: In the division of the embattled quarterback, two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning (55, 41, 52) is either loved or hated. Like Joe Flacco, he rebounded from a miserable 2013, though not quite as much. He throws too many interceptions for a team that doesn’t ask as much from him as many teams. But he’s 99-78 in the NFL, comes from royalty, and he’s durable, calm and competent. He’s 34, so it’s not time to think about his replacement just yet. Backup Ryan Nassib is intriguing, but because of Manning’s durability, not much has been seen.

Philadelphia: Chip Kelly is the coach, but his quick-hitting, lead-the-league in offensive and defensive snaps, run from any angle and score from any distance mentality makes him more a name than any plain-clothes NFL guy this side of Mr. Hoodie. He made good use of Mark Sanchez (52, -. 39) in 2014, but Sanchez is a free agent who might actually get a new opportunity somewhere because of Kelly’s magic. Nick Foles (46, 67, 44) was injured when the Eagles were 5-2. For the first time in his career, he struggled with interceptions where in 2013 he excelled in playing mistake-free. Is Foles, a 6-6 third-rounder from 2012, the answer? No one’s certain. Kelly surely is tempted to mortgage the future to trade up to take his former college quarterback, Marcus Mariota. In the movies, it would be a done deal. In real life, shall we revisit Herschel Walker? Matt Barkley has starting potential as a backup, but didn’t fare well in his two games as a reliever in 2013, throwing lots of interceptions.

Washington: As embattled as Romo and Manning have been, the harsh gazes of angry fans are hottest when it comes to Washington’s Robert Griffin III (54, 45, 58). Part of the problem is that Griffin is 25, but played magnificently as a rookie. He brought a bad team into the playoffs. Expectations were through the roof. As he ages and the injuries are starting to take a toll, his running ability is less of a threat. The Redskins have just seven wins in their last two seasons, and Griffin is starting to get criticism for his preparation. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but for a quarterback who can run, the Redskins are not a good red-zone threat. So the most popular guy in town is backup Kirk Cousins (54, -. -), who looked okay early this past season, but has the highest career interception percentage (4.6) of any quarterback with a season’s worth of experience on an NFL roster. He might not remain popular for long if he gets the call. The Redskins need to see what they have in Griffin, and find a coach who can get the best out of him.

State of the Quarterback – AFC West

This is the fourth of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Denver: You don’t talk about replacing possibly the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Peyton Manning (59, 64, 67) will be 39 this coming season. Twenty quarterbacks in the last 41 years have recorded season scores. Generally, quarterbacks retire or stop receiving playing time when they can’t play any more. So the question is when will Manning stop playing. Odds are good this will be his last season (only seven of those 20 played at age 40). Is backup Brock Osweiler, drafted in the second round three years ago, the next Aaron Rodgers? Who knows? He’s 6-7, a pretty good athlete, and known more for his frustrated gesture toward Manning when he didn’t come out during garbage time in a game this year than anything else.

Kansas City: Alex Smith (55, 48, 64) is an established veteran who isn’t asked to do as much as many starters with his experience. The numbers say he’s a low-interception guy who is probably not worth his draft position (first overall in 2005). They also suggest he’s not a guy who can win a lot of games on his own. Backup Terrelle Pryor (-, 41, -) struggled when given a starting shot in Oakland in 2013. Backup Chase Daniel has been around for several years, but has never had the opportunity to play. He is just 6-0, though.

Oakland: The Raiders seem happy with Derek Carr (38, x, x) who struggled as a rookie drafted early in the second round last year, but threw 37 passes per game and didn’t have a lot of support. While a 3-13 career record isn’t inspiring, he didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Perhaps he checks down too much, but mistakes undid his older brother, who was the first overall draft pick in 2002. Matt Schaub (-, 42, 56) is a solid backup who might get traded into a starting role, and Matt McGloin (-, 44, x) is a young backup who wasn’t impressive in a half-season relieving Pryor, but could be useful if Schaub goes. This is Carr’s season to show he deserves the job, as no one is expecting anything from Oakland.

San Diego: Philip Rivers (55, 65, 53) is 89-62 during his career, is 33, and seems like he should have a lot more playoff success than he has experienced. Is it bad luck? Is he the Tony Romo of the AFC? He’s physically much more impressive than Romo and he was drafted fourth overall while Romo was undrafted, but they have had similar career arcs. My take is that Rivers is one of the top quarterbacks in the game, and the Chargers simply have to put together a better supporting cast. Kellen Clemens (-, 45, -) is a weak backup.

State of the Quarterback – AFC South

This is the third of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Houston: The Texans have one of the trickiest quarterback situations. They went with Ryan Fitzpatrick (57, 47, 49), everybody’s favorite Harvard graduate and Wonderlic-test acer (48 out of 50) who had a career year at age 32 last season. But, if you look at the individual game scores, they’re all either great or mediocre. Looking back, he’s had just two games in the 50s in the last two seasons. That has to be exhausting for a coach. In fact, Fitzpatrick briefly lost his job to Ryan Mallett, who got hurt after one good game and one bad game. He’s now a free agent. Fitzgerald was lost to an injury a couple of weeks later. Tom Savage looked bad before he was hurt. They brought in Case Keenum after all those injuries and he didn’t look very good. The Texans draft 16th, so there’s no real chance of trading up. It looks like Fitzpatrick is the guy again. Ideally, he’s a top backup. But if he can sort out this Jekyll-and-Hyde thing, he could be a decent starter.

Indianapolis: Andrew Luck (51, 48, 43) is the unquestioned starter in Indianapolis. Right now, he’s the only quarterback on the roster. One thing the metric can’t do is examine a quarterback’s role. The Colts put a lot on Luck. He averages 38.4 pass attempts per start, which is right up there with Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees at the top of the league. He is steadily improving. So even though his metric scores are just average, there’s reason to believe that he is as good as his considerable hype. The Colts are probably set for a long time.

Jacksonville: The Jaguars drafted Blake Bortles (36, x, x) with the third pick in the last draft and soon handed him the starting job over Chad Henne (-, 45, 42). Bortles was pretty bad, but he looks like a prototype NFL quarterback, he was given a lot of responsibility in year one, and there’s reason to hope for improvement. Henne is an average NFL backup.

Tennessee: The Titans let Jake Locker (43, 47, 46) go to free agency. Locker showed promise, but struggled with injuries. Sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger (48, x, x) became the starter and was nursed along with a more limited playbook. While Mettenberger is a terrific athlete, there are serious character concerns and he has limited experience. Charlie Whitehurst (52, -, -) also had some success with a reduced-passing game plan, finally logging his first season as a qualifying starter since he was drafted in 2006. Competent career backup Jordan Palmer and intriguing non-prospect Alex Tanney are also somewhere in the mix, though not considered starting material. Tennessee picks second in the draft. It’s probably a good idea for them to take Marcus Mariota, but they could get overwhelmed with a trade offer. I don’t think Mettenberger or Whitehurst can handle a full NFL quarterback’s game plan, though.

State of the Quarterback – AFC North

This is the second of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Baltimore: Joe Flacco (56, 42, 55) rebounded from a terrible 2013 to give the Ravens that stable presence they need. He doesn’t light up the scoreboard, but he doesn’t make many mistakes, either. At 30, he’s in the prime of his career.

Cincinnati: Andy Dalton (51, 51, 50) seems to be that prototype guy who is good enough that you don’t look at the backup, but not quite good enough to threaten to win a Super Bowl. He needs a lot of pieces around him. Still, he’s only 27, and could have a breakout season. A.J. McCarron is an intriguing backup – maybe more for teams looking desperately for a quarterback than for Cincinnati.

Cleveland: Tyler Thigpen is the only quarterback on the roster with a qualifying season, and that was a long time ago. Thigpen isn’t the answer. Brian Hoyer (49, -, -) may resign with the Browns, but he is a free agent and this isn’t an easy situation for a quarterback. Rookie Connor Shaw looked pretty bad in a week 17 debut, and belongs in the small-hands, short-stature category. So that leaves Johnny Manziel. Manziel has enormous potential, and plenty of experts still believe he could win big in the NFL. He’s short, but has big hands. He’s also, apparently, a heavy partier who doesn’t take the NFL very seriously. Manziel had two starts late in the season, scoring 25 and 40 in the metric. So far, he hasn’t been impressive, but I think the Browns are in a situation where they have to see what they’ve got here. It’s not a great situation, but you play the cards you’re dealt.

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger (63, 52, 55) has just about sewn up his Hall of Fame resume, and he’s only 33. Including playoffs, he’s 115-55 in his career, with 29 late game-winning drives. The Steelers are working on their break-the-bank contract right now, because he’s headed into a contract season. But they’ll work it out and Pittsburgh will remain a contender.

State of the Quarterback – Introduction and AFC East

I’ve been using my modified quarterback metric for several years now. It is an index of quarterback performance that’s a little like the quarterback rating, only it’s correlated to winning performances every year.

Because the metric changes each year and uses a series of five-year averages for several categories, it can be used to compare players going back to the beginning of the modern era (1978). It’s also very useful in tracking quarterbacks across their careers.

For instance, the data shows quite clearly that most excellent quarterbacks don’t fade away with gradually poorer performances. They either have one bad year and retire, or they stop getting playing time immediately upon no longer being a good starter. Unlike most sports and maybe even unlike many positions in football, if a quarterback can’t get the job done, he loses his starting job.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

AFC East

Buffalo: Kyle Orton (50, -, -) is retiring. E.J. Manuel (-, 46, x) is returning for his third season. This is generally the season after which GMs either sign a quarterback to his big money-making franchise-guy contract, or they let him go. There’s going to be a new coach in Buffalo. Doug Marrone had given up on Manuel. But Manuel, after a somewhat average rookie season, had scores of 58 and 60 to lead off the season with wins, then 41 and finally 21 in week four at New England. Then Marrone went with Orton the rest of the season. Will Rex Ryan give Manuel another look? He probably should. Otherwise, Manuel is playing out his option next year and if he does well, he’ll be a free agent.

Miami: Ryan Tannehill (53, 45, 46) took a step up as a third-year player, but the Dolphins didn’t. As of now, Tannehill will be playing out his option this year. But since he was a first-rounder, the Dolphins have a very expensive option they can use before this season that would extend the contract into 2016. As I wrote with Buffalo, generally it doesn’t get this far. Tannehill had a rough start to 2014, but played like a third-year quarterback who’s starting to get it. It’s a rough spot for Miami, but this might be a rare case where signing the expensive option-year contract is a good idea, then try and work on a long-term deal during 2015 if he continues to improve.

New England: Tom Brady (54, 47, 61) is a legend. He and Joe Montana have three Super Bowl MVPs. Nobody else. When do legends retire? Brady will be 38 in August. That’s the problem. Since 1973, there have been 1,501 quarterback seasons. Forty by 36-year-olds, 30 by 37-year-olds, 20 by 38-year-olds and only seven by 39-year-olds. Brett Favre is unique in terms of having seasons, at 36 and 37, that looked like end-of-the-road seasons. He was then very productive for three years before falling off the cliff at 41. Generally, top quarterbacks retire at about 36-38. I think we can trust Bill Belichick, however, to know what he’s dealing with. If Brady falls off that cliff, the Patriots are a different team. But for now, he’s their guy.

New York Jets: Geno Smith (42, 39, x) has been well below average his first two seasons. He’s looking like a bust, though for a guy drafted in the second round and thrust into the starting role, it’s not a huge bust. Just that he’s had his chance and it didn’t work very well. Todd Bowles is the new coach in New York, and he’s a defense guy. The Jets draft sixth. If Marcus Mariotta is still around, it seems like a good fit. Personally, I don’t think he lasts that long and I don’t think a defense-minded coach will be happy if his GM tries to trade up to grab a quarterback in his first draft. It may not be up to Bowles, but I see the Jets trying to solve this problem through free agency, as meager as free agency looks right now.

So, I’ll take this time to list the free agent quarterbacks currently available… Jake Locker (43, 47, 46) – a lot of talent, but also injury issues and performance issues. A scenery change could be all he needs to break out and justify that number-eight pick in 2011. Mark Sanchez (52, -, 39) – but even with new blood in New York, Jets fans would never accept this and the decent performances this past season could be just the result of a good scheme for him in Philadelphia. Brian Hoyer (49, -. -). Hoyer, 29, will get an opportunity somewhere. Josh McCown (37, 67, -). McCown, 36, might get another starting look. He was dreadful in Tampa Bay after looking like a world-beater in relief of Jay Cutler in Chicago the year before. I don’t see a new head coach investing in a journeyman, though. Colt McCoy (-, 40, 51). McCoy showed some promise for Cleveland before struggling in 2013. Then he went to Washington where he performed decently last year in a limited role, but was buried on the depth chart. The problem here is that short quarterbacks with small hands don’t get handed franchises. He will get a backup role somewhere. That leaves Matt Flynn (age 30), Matt Moore (age 31), Dan Orlovsky (age 32), Tarvaris Jackson (age 32), Jason Campbell (age 33), Michael Vick (age 35) and Shaun Hill (age 35) amongst the journeymen with some experience. And Blaine Gabbert (-, 45, 32) and Christian Ponder (-, 47, 46) as younger guys who looked pretty bad but might get another chance to move up a depth chart.

Yes, free agency looks miserable when it comes to quarterbacks. Offhand, I’d say Hoyer and Locker will get first-team looks somewhere and the others will sign as backups or retire.