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The 2018 Quarterback and Tight End Classes, By the Numbers

A tour through the relevant data and evaluations for 2018's hotly-debated QB and TE classes

QUARTERBACK

Simply put, no measure tells us more about a quarterback prospect’s fantasy outlook than projected playing time. It’s widely known just what an uphill climb mid- and late-round QBs face for NFL relevance. Dating back to 1990, quarterbacks from the top 18 picks of Round 1 have started 70% of their teams’ games, and they average more than twice the touchdowns as the next tier. There are always chic sleepers in play, but the reality is that, if he’s not taken early in Round 1, he carries very little historical indication of a high-level starter.

As a result, draft status will ultimately determine the order we should rank these guys. We don’t have that data yet, but we (generally) know enough to isolate the likely franchise picks from the pet projects who won’t be drafted in the first three rounds.

All told, I’m looking into these factors:

How big/athletic is he? The prototype size of a quarterback is less important than it used to be. Smaller signal-callers with serious skill, like Drew Brees, are able to systemize better, and dual-threat types like Russell Wilson make up for their middling size with mobility. Still, it’s always worth noting for a number of reasons. Size can speak to durability, arm power, and an overall athletic profile. So, while I’ll no longer strike a prospect for sub-optimal size, I’m still looking much harder at guys who meet or beat the overwhelming NFL size curve.

How hard does he throw? This is a relatively new aspect to consider, and quite frankly, it’s far from a perfect metric. At this point, we measure velocity very simply: by miles per hour of a typical throw, as measured at the NFL Combine or at a pro day. Again, there’s much more to the puzzles of arm strength and release time than this. But it’s a nice starting point, if nothing else, and it’s shown a decent degree of correlation to NFL success since its first tracking in 2008.

How productive/efficient was he? And how was he used in college? You don’t need me to clue you in on why we want our prospects to boast productivity and efficiency at the most crucial position in sports. Many wonder what we can really glean from college stats, which are often wildly inflated/deflated by college scheme and fail to match up proportionately to typical NFL stats. But there’s a stronger correlation than you might think. The great Shawn Siegele has studied QB predictiveness quite a bit, and he recently found that current NFL starters averaged roughly 8.7 adjusted yards per attempt in their final college seasons. AYA is a simple equation: AYA = ((pass yards + (20 * pass TD) – (45 * interceptions)) / pass attempts. As you can see, it leverages yardage, touchdowns, and interceptions on a per-pass basis to show us how efficient the passer was across the board. And it’s been especially helpful in identifying quarterback studs and busts, if a bit hazy in between.

Did he run a lot in school? If so, how productive was he? This one is straightforward: was he a dual threat in college? And if so, did he churn out helpful (or even dynamic) yardage production when he ran? This can help to separate for us the explosive college runners from the also-rans, so to speak, and prepare us for the level of dynamism they might project to going forward.

Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2018 class of quarterbacks:

qb18

 

Josh Rosen, UCLA

Sam Darnold, Southern California

In terms of pro-readiness, I’d call Rosen the actual “safe” play over Darnold, who could wind up folding like an accordion in the face of NFL pass rushes. Rosen boasts the longer collegiate resume, and he looked downright surgical at times while compiling it. From a footwork/delivery standpoint, Rosen is right on track with where a 1,170-attempt passer should be. He’s fearless, if not especially nimble, in the pocket, and his active eyes do wonders in opening up lanes for his receivers. He places the ball well, and he looks confident in every throw he makes. There’s a lot of chatter over his attitude, but I rarely knock franchise signal-callers for personal opinions on coachability. His aura, or what have you, isn’t what I’m looking at here. Besides, had Jay Cutler been a slightly better quarterback, he’d be described as “fiery” and “dynamic,” rather than “unpredictable” or “careless.”

Rosen boasts the tools to captain an NFL West Coast offense, so there’s franchise value there. Can he lead an offense with multiple dimensions and downfield-striking ability? Like Darnold and Josh Allen, Rosen has intriguing pieces in place. Unlike Darnold and Allen, he doesn’t have a very winning downfield arm, and his NFL success may be limited to the Andy Dalton/Jimmy Garoppolo tier. He didn’t push the ball deep often at UCLA, and his tested velocity was ho-hum. That’s no death knell, of course, especially if he somehow lands as an early starter in a well-suited offense – the Giants or Broncos make sense in that regard. But wherever he lands, he’s waiver-wire material in redraft and no better than a late-second round play in rookie drafts, at best.

Darnold is generally viewed as the safest of this rich class, the one most NFL-suited off the bat. Even beyond his arm, there are big chunks of his game that look NFL-ready. Darnold may struggle to recognize complex defenses at this point, but he’s adept at looking off safeties and setting up his receivers down the field, with a strong set of instincts and an arm that can push the ball into tight windows. He places the ball exceptionally well, too; back-shoulder throws and jump balls that allow the receiver to shield the defender from the ball should come naturally to him. The real question on Darnold is, simply, how he’ll perform in an NFL pocket. He can get awfully choppy and frantic in the backfield, and while he boasts generally strong instinct with the ball, tends to fall apart when pressured persistently.

And his athleticism looks subpar, which the combine all but confirmed (only 22nd-percentile among the class, according to) – he likely won’t be extending plays on the next level nearly as easily. All told, it’s easy to see all of the best and worst parts of Derek Carr in his game. Darnold boasts a solid NFL floor – with seasoning, he’ll certainly be able to make NFL throws and move an offense. To what degree, is what we’re evaluating here. There’s a real chance Darnold never winds up capable of truly stymying NFL defenses, never able to overcome the best looks he faces and ultimately settles in as a mid-level quarterback on the Carr level. He definitely doesn’t look like the rookie phenom type, so redrafters shouldn’t be paying him much attention. And dynasty/startup owners should hedge strongly themselves. There are indeed quarterback prospects with the sheer potential, be it from athleticism or landing spot, that project well enough to make a Round 1 dent in rookie drafts. Darnold doesn’t quite look like that, though, so I’m not interested until the Michael Gallup/D.J. Chark tier has dried up.

Josh Allen, Wyoming

Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

There are indeed plenty of warts on Allen, who was wildly inconsistent in school and regressed sharply in his final year at Wyoming. Yes, the range of outcomes is… wide; Walter Football compares Allen to both Ben Roethlisberger and Kyle Boller. It was nice to see him showcase an absolute cannon at the combine – his 62 MPH mark (in each direction) broke the event’s record. And while velocity can tell quite a legitimate bit about a prospect’s throwing ability, the top It’s the low-end scores that haven’t correlated well to NFL success, rather than the top marks panning out consistently. (The only other prospects to reach 60 MPH have been Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Logan Thomas, and Bryan Bennet). It’s still a net positive, of course, and it speaks to Allen’s primary strength: no throw is really a stretch for him. The bad: Allen’s a gunslinger, pure and simple, and we generally only like those guys when they come in with gobs of experience. It’s concerning that Allen only threw 649 passes in school; it’s stomach-turning that only 56.2% of them were completed (and that 3.2% were intercepted). That said, there are also underrated nuances to Allen’s game. It’s a joy to watch his feet as he glides around the pocket, and it’s not as though he’s some untamed bronco who’s allergic to the right throw – his tape shows more than a few on-target strikes that were dropped or well-defended.

All told, it appears some team is going to take a top-ten stab at a less-experienced, less-efficient Blake Bortles. That sounds like an insult, but only if we’re putting guys into boxes. Allen is a wholly separate individual from Bortles; his makeup could certainly vault him beyond Bortles’ development. It appears the early going, however, will be especially rocky for such a high pick. Even Bortles entered the league after 891 collegiate throws and worlds more efficiency than Allen. What Allen has going for him – dynamic, gunslinging upside in the Carson Wentz vein – could easily wind up more valuable to a top-picking NFL team than the perceived safety of a lesser arm talent.

Rudolph is an interesting case, a massive, big-armed deep-baller who threw 1,447 passes in the Cowboys’ spread-option offense. He’s drawing plenty of first-round attention and, given the volume of top prospects, should land in there. And what’s not to like about the on-paper prospect? Rudolph is enormous and great at throwing downfield, and his efficiency numbers improved steadily over his career. Still, Rudolph didn’t look as accurate as should’ve been in 2017. Critics have noted his tendency to play a tick slower than a top prospect should, often throwing his receivers into traffic and missing on plenty of what should have been generally quick, easy throws. He’s improved throughout his career, as we can see in his ascending numbers above, but it’s concerning that he still holds those flaws at this stage. Rudolph doesn’t seem to fit it into a tightly-regimented offense; rather, he brings late-first round upside on the strength of his arm. His velocity (and overall athleticism) tested poorly at the combine, but was arguably college football’s most accurate deep-ball passer over the past few seasons. There’s a Joe Flacco level of upside here, and if he lands in a favorable spot, Rudolph could hold similar value to the top-chosen guys in his rookie season.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Despite his ho-hum size and good-not-great athleticism at the combine, don’t let it be said that Mayfield doesn’t boast franchise traits. He’s a wildly accurate passer, completing 68.5% of his college throws and 70.5% in his Heisman-winning senior year. He was phenomenal in the Sooners’ early-season win over Ohio State, completing 27 of 35 passes for 386 yards and 3 scores. In fact, one anonymous NFL coach labeled him the most accurate thrower he’d ever evaluated. He can move well in the pocket, with top-notch improvisational skills and eyes always looking for openings. That said, the knocks on Mayfield are, for the most part, legitimate. He’s short and small-bodied, and he doesn’t bring much of an arm to the position. That’s not to say he can’t throw with velocity – his 59.5-MPH average at the combine was truly elite. But for all of his quick-throw accuracy, Mayfield struggles to consistently beat defenders with his throws. (Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline has pointed out times he feels Mayfield’s receivers have had to slow their routes downfield to wait for his zip-less throws.) His footwork is scattershot, and many of his college throws were manufactured to be ultra-quick shots without strong foot placement or mechanics required. Like many Oklahoma passers before him, Mayfield might not prove capable of winning down the field, and the NFL is already swamped with applications from small-framed passers only adept at hitting wide-open quick slants. Spread option quarterbacks simply enter the league with a lot to prove, and Mayfield doesn’t boast major tools that convince us of that promise. He’ll land somewhere as a franchise (franchise-adjacent?) guy, but one around whom an offense will need to be built strategically. He won’t be completing 71% of his throws on the next level, and it’s fair to wonder how much patience a rebuilding NFL team will have with him. When we factor in his off-field behavioral concerns, though, the leash could get even shorter, and Mayfield may not be especially long for a starting gig. The floor is troubling, and the ceiling is in serious question.

Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Jackson is going out of his way to insist on an NFL shot at a starting quarterback role, which is admirable, and he certainly has some voices in his corner. That said, negativity has been all over the menu since Jackson’s combine. He didn’t work out, registered a poor velocity mark of 49.0 (tied for the class-worst), and drew questionable marks in his throwing drills. It’s easy to see where that comes from: on tape, you rarely see Jackson set his feet and drive into a throw. Rather, he prefers to wing low-release bullets toward his target and hope for the best. He’ll wing them into traffic, on timing routes, and down the field; there’s very little nuance to his throwing game. He’s especially shaky when forced to pivot his base and throw outside, which can be tweaked in the right offensive scheme, but looks incredibly raw – more so than most first-round prospects with similar run-first pedigrees.

Jackson looks destined for NFL work early, with (nearly) all the athleticism of a young Michael Vick. It’s hard to oversell his burst and open-field ability, which are both disciplined and lethal, even against NFL-level competition. We don’t have any testing numbers from draft season, but we don’t particularly need them – he’s already, quite possibly, the NFL’s most dynamic runner at the position. But unless he’s shockingly drafted with a top-10 NFL pick, don’t expect anything concrete from his role/usage. While you’re at it, don’t hold your breath waiting for him to put serious pressure on a current/bridge quarterback like Case Keenum or Ryan Tannehill. He’s entering the league as one of its worst pure throwers right off the bat, and his slight build doesn’t speak well of his franchise profile. He’s a candidate to be used sparingly early, then struggle to make his way into a starting job. Rookie drafters can feel comfortable chasing his ceiling in the second rounds of their drafts, but patience is key.

 

TIGHT END

I don’t love this 2018 class of tight ends. There is a decent chunk of speed and athleticism atop the stack, but this looks like a cohort packed with inline blockers and iffy receiving resumes. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas:

How productive was he? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Receivers who took a hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. It’s exceptionally rare that a college tight end dominates his passing game like a wideout does, but I like to see solid relative integration into the offense. Generally speaking, for a tight end to project as an NFL pass catcher, I like to see him claim at least 20-22% of his team’s passing yardage over the course of his career. There are exceptions to this, of course, but at TE it’s an extremely strong indicator. The size/athleticism freaks who never played much at school simply don’t project as well at this position than at other, less complex spots. And I want to know about his production in two different arenas: throughout his career, and in his final season. I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year.

How well did he score touchdowns? Simply put, most of the NFL-caliber playmakers first made plays in college. I like to see how often a prospect used his gifts to dominate defensive backs and find the end zone – relative, of course, to his teammates. If a tight end prospect catches 8-10 touchdowns, I’m far more impressed if his team only threw 25 or 30, as opposed to a mile-a-minute offense that threw 50.

How explosive is he? A few years ago, Raymond Summerlin devised a metric to measure a prospect’s explosiveness – essentially, how well he runs and jumps for his size. The formula is simple: add a player’s height, weight, vertical jump, and broad jump, then divide out his 40-yard dash time. The result is Adjusted Explosiveness Index, and the NFL returns have been somewhat eye-popping. It’s best used to evaluate wide receiver explosiveness, where there’s more variance, but it’s still a nice measuring stick for tight ends.

Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per reception, as it helps to build a profile. A 70-catch season is made far less impressive if the guy in question only managed 9-10 yards apiece against college defenses.

Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2018 class of tight ends:

te18


Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State

Mike Gesicki, Penn State

Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

Hoo boy, look at all of that green for Goedert. That’s just a remarkable set of shares for a tight end; Goedert dominated the Jackrabbits’ passing game over his final 2 seasons, averaging 82 catches for 1,202 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was no dink-and-dunk compiler, either, averaging an ungodly 15.2 yards per reception over his 3 functional seasons. He didn’t work out at the combine due to a hamstring injury, but worked out well at his pro day, posting a 35” vertical jump and an outstanding 6.87 three-cone drill. He skipped the 40-yard dash, which isn’t inherently a huge deal, but for Goedert a 40 time would be helpful in evaluation. He’s not a “burn you off the line type,” rather building up to speed and winning with catch radius and dependable hands. He makes up for some of that with good agility, adjusting quickly to throws and deftly turning into the open field; his tape from the Jackrabbits’ matchup with TCU is, at times, a sight to behold. Goedert can be lethal against soft zones up the seams and parallel to the line of scrimmage, and it’s easy to see some of the best parts of Zach Ertz in his game. But he’s not a truly elite prospect, some mismatch-creating dominator who will be brought in as a massive piece of someone’s offensive puzzle. He may come off the board in Round 1 or early in Round 2, though, which would likely slot him in as the top rookie prospect. Just don’t expect the same kind of offensive domination on the next level.

It’s not enough to merely say that Gesicki aced the combine. He shredded it, in fact, as 3 Sigma Athlete charted him with the third-best tight end combine in history (behind Vernon Davis and Dustin Keller). Blessed with a seemingly alien 82.3” wingspan and massive 10.3” hands, it’s difficult to find a real comparison for this physical profile; not even last season’s trio of early-round freaks can boast this kind of body. It’s hard to pinpoint which measurements were most eye-popping, but his 116.28 speed score was just silly, and his 10.86 agility score would be elite at any position. That certainly sounds like Vernon Davis, and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein makes a Jimmy Graham comparison that doesn’t seem off-base. However, like Graham once was, Gesicki is fairly raw across the position, and he brings little to the table as a blocker. He’s not an exceptionally strong guy, and his middling college usage in the run game suggests he’s got a long way to go to take in-line NFL snaps. Furthermore, when watching Gesicki play, it’s not often we see all of that dazzling athleticism. He’s a long-legged strider who doesn’t break especially quickly into shorter routes, and I don’t see much finesse or nuance as he addresses defenders and looks for separation. Gesicki’s type is obviously in high NFL demand; he boasts a Graham-type ceiling with his ability to physically dominate most comers out of the slot and create major splashes down the seam. But there are solid reasons he’s not being valued draft-wise on a Davis/Kellen Winslow/Eric Ebron level. He looks like a near-redshirt prospect, one likely to go to a contender late in Round 1 and learn the many ropes he’s unfamiliar with. The sky’s the limit, but immediate impact may be a stretch.

Hurst is just as polarizing a prospect as Goedert or Gesicki, with some scouts underwhelmed and others proclaiming him the safest first-round play of the bunch. He didn’t test well at the combine, checking in with speed, agility, and leaping numbers solidly below the class’ other top names. And it doesn’t help that he’ll already be 25 in Week 1 of his rookie year; it’s hard to envision much physical improvement on the next level. The appeal of Hurst lies in his versatility – unlike Gesicki or Goedert, Hurst is a contributor on running downs, blocking eagerly and with great technique. While he isn’t as productive or athletically tantalizing as those two, he’s always shown the fundamentals: Hurst is the prototypical hustle guy, using quick, decisive motions and great hands (only one registered collegiate drop) to create yardage. He’s adept at shielding defenders from the ball in close quarters, and he’s tight-fisted on the ball, churning through trash upon the catch. Hurst isn’t much of an upside play, but guys like Brent Celek and Marcedes Lewis have carved out long careers (with sporadic fantasy utility) while countless specimen TEs have flamed out. For whatever it’s worth, Hurst looks poised to be in the NFL 5-6 years from now, which may not be the case for his more raw counterparts.

Ian Thomas, Indiana

Thomas’ appeal comes from his perceived potential; he only posted one noteworthy season in school, catching 25 balls and gobbling up 15.7% of the Hoosiers’ 2017 yardage in a shortened season. Those are bare-bones count stats, but there’s a lot to like in the peripheral. Thomas averaged a studly 15.0 yards per grab, recording big downfield catches against Penn State and Rutgers. He found the end zone on 5 of his 25 receptions, thanks in large part to his powerful frame and extreme competitiveness through routes and on the ball. Thomas isn’t a lockdown prospect by any means, but he’s intriguing enough for a team to chase his potential in Round 2 or 3.

Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State

Mark Andrews, Oklahoma

A wildly non-traditional TE prospect, Samuels enters the league undersized (5’11” and 223 pounds) and far from an inline prospect. He tested average at the combine, with a 99.01 AEI that’s decent for his profile but not exactly a walking mismatch. His value comes from his versatility – Samuels was first-team All-SEC in 2017 for a reason, catching 75 balls while chiming in 407 yards (and 12 touchdowns) on the ground. A true chess piece, Samuels is working out for teams as both a TE and a running back, and he looks destined for a Kyle Juszczyk role on the next level. It’s nice to have such a guy, of course, but it’s hard to invest much draft capital in one that boasts an average across-the-board skillset. Samuels was productive as a collegian, finding room on options and bubble screens, but doesn’t seem built to excel against NFL defenses. And he’s not very experienced as a blocker, so where does he play? Teams seeking versatile h-back types with premium picks tend to aim higher, so Samuels looks like a speculative prospect and little else.

Essentially an oversized slot man, Andrews rarely played on the line at Oklahoma, entering the NFL as a truly one-dimensional prospect. But that’s where any Evan Engram recall stops. Andrews checked in at the combine as a painfully mediocre athlete, “boasting” a poor (for a tight end) AEI of 102.14 thanks mostly to awful jump numbers. He racked up big touchdown numbers in school, but when we adjust for the Sooners’ wide-open offense, his scoring rates were only a bit above average. The bottom line on Andrews is that he looks miscast in his only potential role, that of a seam and downfield playmaker who creates mismatches in the slot. For all his size, he looks unlikely to create much separation against NFL defenders, and he hasn’t shown the ball skills we’d like to see from a guy who will frequently have competition right on his hip. It’s hard to see much more than a mid-round NFL prospect here, one lacking both polish and athletic upside.