Behind the stats: QB completion percentage

One of the toughest evaluations an NFL team and scouting department can make is assessing and ranking a draft’s quarterback class. With more and more money being invested in the position every year, it’s becoming critical for a franchise to make the right decision regarding its quarterback. The St. Louis Rams currently find themselves debating whether to take a quarterback with the first overall pick and play the risk/reward game or choose a safer prospect with less potential future impact.

When evaluating the quarterback position, terms such as “big-time arm strength” and “impressive physical skill set” are frequently used to describe the type of physical attributes a prospect possesses. However, if quarterback success was derived solely from physical attributes, players like Jeff George and Ryan Leaf would be headed to the Hall of Fame. Regardless, finding NFL signal callers is becoming more about accuracy, intelligence and intangibles than it is overall physical skills.

When developing my own grading scale for quarterbacks, I based much of my evaluation around the theories of Marc Trestman, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, who identified four qualities a quarterback needs to have a shot at being successful in the NFL:

1. The quarterback needs to have an ability to make all the throws required to attack a defense on every play. This includes the arm strength to throw the deep out, the feel to drop a deep ball into a receiver’s hands down the field and the touch to hit a running back out of the backfield.

2. The quarterback needs to be able to make quick and decisive decisions under pressure. You not only want an intelligent quarterback in the pocket but also a quarterback who has the instincts to feel pressure and create a play when things break down.

3. The quarterback needs to be mobile in some capacity and have an ability to avoid the rush in one of three ways:

A. The ability to sidestep pressure in the pocket.

B. The ability to get outside the pocket and accurately deliver the ball on the move.

C. The ability to scramble and gain yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

4. The quarterback needs to be tough and able to stare down the barrel of the shotgun, take a hit, get up and do it again. It takes a special type of player who can take a shot, dust himself off and rally his team on the next play, but the quarterback needs to have that quality.

Notice, there isn’t a prerequisite of a rocket arm or elite athletic ability for a quarterback to be successful in the NFL. Quarterback success is all about decision making, accuracy and timing in the pass game. So when identifying a possible number or statistic to aid in the evaluation of a college quarterback, nothing may be more helpful than considering his completion percentage. It boggles my mind to see a quarterback drafted high based on his pure physical skill set, especially when he never completed a high percentage of passes in his college career. What makes you think a QB who never completed 60 percent of his passes in college will be able to complete 60 percent of his passes in the NFL?

To add some substance to my thoughts, I want to look at every quarterback drafted in the first round from 1997-2006 who didn’t complete 60 percent of his passes during his final college season to show the alarming rate of failure.

Jim Druckenmiller, Virginia Tech (Completion percentage: 54 percent)

Ryan Leaf, Washington State (55 percent)

Akili Smith, Oregon (58 percent)
Cade McNown, UCLA (58 percent)

Michael Vick, Virginia Tech (54 percent)

Joey Harrington, Oregon (59 percent)
Patrick Ramsey, Tulane (57 percent)

Kyle Boller, California (53 percent)
Rex Grossman, Florida (57 percent)

J.P. Losman, Tulane (59 percent)

Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt (59 percent)

As you can see, there has been minimal success by first-round quarterbacks who didn’t complete 60 percent of their passes during their final year of college football.

Now, with an eye toward the 2010 draft class, let’s take a look at four of the draft’s top quarterbacks and break down what their completion percentage means in relation to their possible success at the next level.

1. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (6-4, 223) Completion Percentage: 68 percent (2008)

Having missed most of the 2009 season, Bradford isn’t the easiest quarterback prospect to grade out. However, any time you put on tape of the guy from 2008, his accuracy, touch and anticipation instantly jump out at you. Plus, the fact he was able to show well for himself against Florida in the 2009 BCS National Championship game makes me think he won’t have any additional troubles making the jump from the Big 12 to the NFL. Now, he might need some time to shake off the rust a bit, but the fact remains, Bradford is the most accurate quarterback in this draft, and I expect him to mature into a very solid starting pro at the next level.

2. Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (6-3, 223), 68 percent

To say Clausen’s play improved by leaps and bounds in 2009 is an understatement. He did a nice job all year managing the offense as well as showcasing impressive accuracy and timing in the short/intermediate pass game. However, one of my big concerns with Clausen is his ability to make plays down the field at the next level. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and consistently asked his talented receiving corps to go up and make plays for him. There’s no doubt in my mind he can be efficient underneath in an NFL pass game, but he’s going to have to get used to teams putting a lot of defenders on the first two levels of the field, forcing him to be on time with his throws outside the numbers.

3. Tim Tebow, Florida (6-3, 245), 68 percent

To say Tebow is overly inaccurate with the football is completely off base. When the guy has a chance to see the throw on any level of the field, he certainly – in my opinion -- exhibits the arm strength and accuracy needed to make any throw at the next level. My biggest concern with him is his release and overall lack of timing/rhythm in the pass game. However, with some time to develop from under center and work on his overall throwing mechanics, I think his timing in the pass game will naturally improve if he can mature in both those areas. Tebow is a couple of years away, but he’s a worker and a bright kid, and I believe if given time, he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

4. Colt McCoy: Texas (6-2, 210), 71 percent

McCoy is another accurate passer in the underneath pass game who has made a living completing passes under five yards and allowing his receivers to create after catch. However, the biggest concern I have with McCoy is his inability to be decisive with the ball when his initial read isn’t on. He struggles when asked to go through his progressions and lacks the arm strength to be late with a throw outside the numbers. He’s one guy whose completion percentage has been inflated because of his scheme at the college level, and he’ll have a significantly larger learning curve than the others as he tries to develop into an NFL-caliber passer.

Summing up

With the consistent evolution of the passing game, an NFL quarterback is now being asked to play a bigger role than ever. With the success of more and more plays hinging on a quarterback’s decision-making, accuracy and timing, it’s becoming paramount to find someone who can make efficient decisions from the pocket and be effective in the face of pressure.

Consequently, a quart erback’s completion percentage, which helps indicate his accuracy and decision-making, is a helpful aid when searching for NFL-quality starters.

Follow me on Twitter: WesBunting

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