Week 4 EPA Rankings: NFL Rookie QBs setting tone, well, the ones who get to play

Dan Morse

Three games into the season and eight* undefeated teams remain in the NFL, including the obvious Patriots, Chiefs, and Rams, but with a few surprises.  Are the 49ers and Bills for real?  Or did they just get lucky through these first few games?  Let's see how they stack up in terms of total EPA.

(Reminder: Expected Points uses data from previous NFL seasons to determine how many points a team is likely to come away with on a given play, based on down, distance, time remaining, and field position. The difference in expected points at the start of a play and expected points at the end is referred to as expected points added, or EPA.)

nfl 2019 wk3 team epa diff table

Teams are starting to settle in now as the sample size gets larger.  Last week, three teams moved 10 or more spots.  This week, only three teams moved at least 8 spots, with the majority shifting 3 or less.  The Carolina Panthers are the biggest risers, coming off of a big offensive performance featuring backup quarterback Kyle Allen.  It was against a porous Cardinals defense, but still an impressive outing for Allen's seconds career start.

The Chargers fell the most after Deshaun Watson threw for 10.3 Y/A on a secondary that is severely lacking a Derwin James.  It was the fourth-best Y/A of Watson's career.

As to the aforementioned 49ers and Bills, neither saw much movement, which is good for one of the teams.  San Francisco remains in the top-3 for the second straight week after holding backup Steelers QB Mason Rudolph to just 174 yards.  Rudolph had the sixth lowest average depth of target (ADoT) last week at just 5.8 yards.  The Bills fell down two spots back to their Week 1 standings after Josh Allen threw for under 7 Y/A, adding one touchdown to go with one interception.  The defense had a good day, with the fifth-best outing in the league by total EPA allowed, which keeps them sniffing the top-10.

Week 3 seemed to be the week of young, fresh faces at quarterback, as one might've noticed from some of the names above.  There are finally some of the QBs from what the Ringer's Kevin Clark describes as the "Forever Quarterback" era taking a step back, whether it be to injury, age, or a combination of the two.  Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger were all out for one reason or another.  It was the first week when none of them threw a pass in over a decade.  (Excluding Week 11 of 2015, when all three shared a bye week)

With that in mind, and with rookie quarterbacks seeming to take over starting jobs in their first year more than ever, let's take a look at how the recent quarterback  draft classes have fared in their first season in the league.

rookie qb epa by season

As expected, rookie QBs aren't typically as good in their first season as their veteran counterparts.  The lone exception where the average rookie QB was above league average in EPA/attempt was in 2015, when Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston had impressive rookie years.  The 2012 class saw the most above-average QBs by EPA/attempt, as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson were all immediately incredible.  Without Ryan Lindley, the lowest EPA/attempt of any rookie QB with 100+ attempts, the 2012 class would have the highest average of any in the last 10 years.

Quarterbacks are also seeing their opportunities increase in recent years.

rookie attempts by season

While 2012 remains the decade's biggest rookie QB year, we can quietly see an increase in rookie playing time every year since 2015.  This season right now is projected to be lower than 2018, but it also doesn't include any attempts for Drew Lock or Dwayne Haskins, both of whom are likely to see playing time sooner rather than later.  This year we could very well see the most pass attempts by rookie quarterbacks over a full season since that 2012 class.

It's important to note that in the first chart shown above, we are using EPA/dropback, which includes sacks and scrambles.  In recent years, the value a quarterback adds with his legs has become more prominent.  And in almost every season since 2009, the rookies have been the quarterbacks most likely to utilize their athleticism to make plays on the ground.

rookie attempts per carry by season

In 8 of the last 11 seasons, rookie quarterbacks were taking off and running (whether by design or by scrambling) more often than league average on a per pass attempt basis.  In 2011, there was a huge drop in the number of pass attempts per QB carry.  This was, of course, Cam Newton's first season in the NFL.  There still isn't a quarterback around that can run with the power he has.  The way the Panthers used his skillset was enough to bring the attempts per carry of the whole NFL down to the lowest point it would see until 2017.

The 2012 class, led by RGIII and Russell Wilson, maintained the low pass attempts per carry.  In 2013, there was E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith.  It started to swing the other way from 2014 til 2016, with Blake Bortles headlining as the rookie quarterback with the most rush attempts in that span.  But since then, we've seen not only the rush rate increase for rookie quarterbacks, we've seen it for the NFL as a whole.  And it's not just from players you might consider "dual-threat" quarterbacks.

The 2017 rookie QB rushing attack was led by Deshaun Watson and Deshone Kizer, but Mitchell Trubisky also finished the year with 41 carries.  Lamar Jackson was the rushing name in 2018, but did anyone expect Josh Allen to finish with over 600 rushing yards?  Daniel Jones has only played one game in his rookie year, and he's already got 5 carries and 2 touchdowns on the ground.

Rookie quarterbacks are extremely hard to predict.  But it's clear that when projecting their performance, at least in their early years, athleticism is becoming increasingly important.

*Detroit undefeated at 2-0-1

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Hal Tater
Hal Tater

Editor

Imagine if they let Dwayne Haskins play...