Is It Riskier to Draft an Unproven College QB?

With the 2021 NFL draft less than a month away, the Top 5 QBs are being analyzed and nitpicked six ways to Sunday. One of the most overlooked factors when evaluating a college QB is his years of experience playing QB in college. We tend to assume these guys have all played the same amount of games and thrown around the same amount of passes during their college careers, but this is not true.

There are often dramatic differences between the prospects in terms of actual experience playing QB. For instance, Trevor Lawrence has had 1138 career passing attempts in college. Kellen Mond had even more at 1358. On the other end of the spectrum, Trey Lance had just 288 career passing attempts in his college career at North Dakota State!

I went back to 2003 and tallied up QB draft picks’ college passing attempts, and of the 108 prospects I looked at, Trey Lance had the fewest passing attempts out of all of them. He’s 108 out of 108 in terms of career college pass attempts.

The 108 figure does not include every QB drafted since 2003; it only includes those drafted between picks 1-100, and then any notable names drafted after pick 100 (i.e. guys like Dak Prescott, who was pick 135 in 2016). I figured if I included all the QBs drafted since 2003, meaning those drafted in the 5th, 6th and 7th rounds, the “bust rate” would go up, even though if you draft a QBs in the later rounds, you’re not really expecting him to succeed. So you can’t really call a guy drafted in the late rounds a “bust” if he doesn’t do well in the NFL. You draft a QB in the late rounds hoping you’ve stumbled on the next Tom Brady. No team goes into the draft expecting to find their franchise QB in the 5th or 6th round.

A guy can only be a bust if you spent a higher draft pick on him and he doesn’t succeed. Additionally, I counted Ryan Tannehill as a bust even though he’s actually one of the better QBs in the NFL today. Why? Because he should be considered a bust by the Dolphins, the team that drafted him at #8 overall. It doesn’t matter that he’s having success in Tennessee; he’s still a bust from the Dolphins’ perspective.

So what I did with the list was I took 108 QBs drafted since 2003 and I ranked them by college career passing attempts. I then took the median number of pass attempts (1110) and separated the list of QBs into above the median and below the median. I then went through both lists, tallied up the number of boom picks, bust picks and “neither” picks (more on this in a sec) and converted the numbers into percentages to see if there really was any correlation between number of college pass attempts and NFL success/failure.

It got a little tricky because there were a few guys I didn’t feel comfortable categorizing as busts, but I also couldn’t unequivocally call them “boom” picks, either. Take Jared Goff, for example: he went #1 overall in 2016, he just got traded because his team had clearly given up on him after 5 seasons, but also has had some pretty good seasons and led his team to a Super Bowl berth. Say what you want about Goff, I can’t call him a bust. But I also can’t call him a “boom” pick, either, because clearly if he was a “boom” pick he’d still be on the Rams. So I invented a category for “neither” for guys like Jared Goff. Also in that category are guys like Carson Wentz, Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith, as well as young QBs like Tua, Daniel Jones and Jalen Hurts who I am not yet ready to deliver a final verdict on.

I included Sam Darnold in the bust category because even though he may yet turn his career around, it looks like it’s going to be with another team. Meaning in the Jets’ eyes, he’s a bust.

Anyway, here are my totals. You may have to zoom in on the image:

There were of course 108 QBs and the median number of pass attempts was 1110. Overall, the bust rate was about 64% vs. a boom rate of just 23% and a “neither” rate of about 13%.

56 QBs were above the median and 52 below it.

  • Of those QBs above the median (i.e. the QBs that had 1110 or more career passing attempts in college), the bust rate was slightly lower, 59%, and the boom rate was slightly higher, at about 28.5%. That’s a bust:boom ratio of slightly greater than 2:1.
  • Of those QBs below the median number of college passing attempts, the bust rate was 69.2% and the boom rate was just 17.3%. That’s bust:boom ratio of 4:1.

Therefore, it is undeniably riskier to draft a QB with less college experience.

So many of the most well-known busts of the 21st century are in that “below the median” grouping: Tim Tebow, EJ Manuel, Sam Bradford, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Mark Sanchez.

Yet it’s not that simple: some of the best QBs also had very few college passing attempts. You’ve got Aaron Rodgers (665), Josh Allen (649), Kyler Murray (519), and Cam Newton (292!). In fact, until Trey Lance, Cam Newton had the fewest collegiate passing attempts of any QB prospect since 2003. However, that number doesn’t include his stats at Blinn Junior College, where he went after leaving Florida but before going to Auburn. When we factor in Cam’s stats from Blinn Junior College (his Wikipedia says he had 336 passing attempts there), we get a total of 628 college passing attempts for Cam. Still well below the median, but now in a more reasonable range, and way higher than Trey Lance’s 288.

Same thing with Aaron Rodgers: he played at a JuCo before he went to Cal, and his JuCo numbers are not included here. (I just wasn’t able to find Rodgers’ JuCo stats in detail; all I can find is that he threw over 2,400 yards, 28 TDs and only 4 INTs in his lone season at Butte Community College. So we’ll just assume he had 200-300 passing attempts that season going off an estimated 8-9 yards per attempt. This bumps Rodgers up into the 800-900 college pass attempts range.)

At this point, when we factor in JuCo stats for Cam and Rodgers, the only QB even remotely close to Lance is Mark Sanchez, who had just 487 college passing attempts before jumping to the NFL. But that’s still 199 more than Lance has had.

Trey Lance is also a unique situation in that he sat out the 2020 NCAA football season. He was far from the only 2021 draft prospect to do so what with the virus going on, however, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s only had 288 career passing attempts in college football. All the other QB prospects played in 2021.

It would not be unprecedented for Trey Lance to have success in the NFL. I mean, Matt Cassell was a backup all throughout college. Literally all four years. He only had 33 passing attempts his whole time at USC as he sat behind Carson Palmer, and then Matt Leinart. I always thought of him as the QB Virgin, because he just never got to play. But Cassel still got drafted in the 7th round by the Patriots, led them to an 11-5 record in 2008 after Tom Brady tore his ACL in week 1, and wound up having a 13-year NFL career. He even made a Pro Bowl with the Chiefs in 2010! Obviously the team that drafts Trey Lance will not be particularly thrilled if he turns into the next Matt Cassel, but my point here is that just because a guy doesn’t have a lot of pass attempts in college it doesn’t mean he has no shot in the NFL.

It just means the odds are against him.

But I don’t want to pick on only Trey Lance here. While he does have a worrying lack of experience, this seems to be a bit of a theme with the 2021 QB class–with a few exceptions of course. I’ll just list off the top 6 guys in the class by pass attempts:

  • Kellen Mond (1358)
  • Trevor Lawrence (1138)
  • Zach Wilson (837)
  • Justin Fields (618)
  • Mac Jones (556)
  • Trey Lance (288)

Remember, the median since 2003 is 1110 career college pass attempts. (Patrick Mahomes had 1349, Baker Mayfield had 1497, Russell Wilson had 1489, Justin Herbert had 1293, for reference.)

Not only is Lance way below the median, so are Fields and Jones, too. Zach Wilson is below it but not egregiously so. Now I’m not saying this makes Kellen Mond a better prospect than the guys with less experience than him, but it does make me like Kellen Mond even more as a Day 2 prospect. He’s going to be a solid pick for someone in like the 3rd round, maybe even the 2nd. I don’t think he’s going to become a superstar or anything, but I think he’ll be solid. I think when all is said and done, Kellen Mond will be remembered as better than the 6th best QB in the 2021 draft class–in other words, I think he’s probably going to have a better career than one or more of the five guys ahead of him. That would not shock me.

But everyone talks about Mac Jones as if he’s so experienced and so mature and cerebral, yet the guy has very little actual on-field college quarterback experience. It doesn’t make me doubt his intelligence or his maturity that much, but it does give me some pause in terms of NFL readiness. He’s viewed as the most NFL ready of all the QB prospects, even more so than Trevor Lawrence, yet he’s had the second-fewest college passing attempts in the class. Maybe he isn’t as NFL-ready as everyone’s saying…

Fields is a bit more understandable as Ohio State only played 8 total games all season in 2020. In a normal, non-Covid college football season in which you make the National Championship Game, you end up playing 15 games. So had 2020 been a normal season, Fields would be in the 700-800 pass attempts range.

Jones would only have gotten two extra games, as Bama still ended up playing 13 games this past season. So in a normal year, Mac Jones wouldn’t have really had too many more passing attempts.

Look, just because most of this year’s QB prospects are below the median number of pass attempts doesn’t mean they’re all doomed to failure.

There are definitely some significant busts in the “above the median” category, but it’s not the high-profile-level busts like we have in the below the median category. For instance, in above the median, you’ve got guys like Kyle Boller, Brady Quinn, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler (who I don’t even know if you can call a true bust because the Broncos got such a massive trade haul from the Bears in exchange for him), Paxton Lynch, Josh Rosen, RGIII (injuries had a lot to do with his career going south, though), Marcus Mariota and Jake Locker. So there’s definitely some serious disappointments in there, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in the below the median group. Think JaMarcus Russell and Johnny Manziel.

Drafting a QB is hard no matter what. You are slightly more likely to make a good selection if you take a guy with a lot of college experience, but then again if you automatically rule out guys with below-average college passing experience, you’re going to miss out on guys like Josh Allen, Aaron Rodger and Cam Newton. You technically even have guys like Lamar Jackson (1086), Andrew Luck (1064), Matthew Stafford (987) and Joe Burrow (945) in the “below the median group,” but they’re so close to the median I really don’t think anyone would consider them guys who “lacked experience” coming out of college.

By the way, the two young QBs the jury is still out on, Daniel Jones (1275) and Tua (684), are on basically opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of college experience. It’ll be interesting to see which one makes the most of his career from this point forward. It’s also possible both end up as busts. In fact it might be the most likely outcome if I’m being honest with myself.

Anyway, the point here is that this is why I have concerns about Trey Lance. He’s got talent, and he’s definitely got the build to play in the NFL, but his lack of experience is abnormal. There’s hardly even any tape on the guy with him only having 288 passing attempts. Scouts will probably look at his high school film.

I’m kind of tipping my hand here in my 2021 QB Prospect rankings series, but I just cannot put Trey Lance ahead of the other guys when he’s got so little college experience. I am not saying he’s sure to be a bust, because he can absolutely have a great NFL career. I just think it’s a serious concern that he’s had only 288 career passing attempts in college–and that those attempts were for an FCS program, North Dakota State! I get that Carson Wentz is from that school, too, so there’s a track record, but it still scares me.

I just don’t see a strong likelihood that drafting a highly unproven FCS quarterback inside the top 5-10 will work out for a team. It strikes me as one of those decisions we’ll look back on in 5 years and go, “What the hell was that team thinking when they drafted Lance that high?”

I could be totally wrong, and I hope I am.

But the team that drafts Trey Lance early on is going deep into uncharted waters.


Here’s the full table:

This was actually a pretty eye-opening study for me. In the past I really didn’t think college experience mattered al that much for NFL QBs. I figured talent would win out always. Like with Dwayne Haskins a couple years back, I thought he was going to be really good even though people were like “Ehhh the guy’s only played one season.” In my mind, I was thinking, “I just watched this dude break all of Drew Brees’ passing records in the Big Ten, he’s gonna be fine in the NFL.” Turns out I was wrong.

The Bears didn’t care that Mitch Trubisky had only one season as a starter in college. They took him #2 overall in 2017–traded UP to get him–and now he’s not even on the team anymore.

This stuff matters.

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