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Landry Jones, Philip Rivers, and the Lewin Career Forecast

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Like Spinal Tap, the RotoViz staff has gone up to eleven, and with the 2013 NFL Draft fewer than ten days away, we are looking for amps that go up to twelve. Know of any? Oh, well, here’s an article.

Recently I’ve written two pieces, the first on Matt Barkley and the second on Geno Smith, in which I consider their NFL prospects within the context of their the Lewin Career Forecast (Version 2.0) as it appears on Football Outsiders. Ultimately, the NFL performances of their LCF predecessors suggest that these two QBs are likely to find success early in their careers. In the present article, I want to perform a similar comparative exercise with one of the QBs many people are ignoring—Lance, ur, I mean, Landry Jones, who sports the fourth-highest LCF since 1998 (as far back as Football Outsiders has measured), a score of 2276 DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement), projecting that in Years 3-5 of his NFL career Jones will be 2276 passing yards “better” than the average QB.

Dominant as a sophomore, Jones (at best) held steady in his junior and senior years and now enters the draft as a player who has seemingly been forgotten, as Alen Dumonjic suggests. Once considered a potential first-round prospect, Jones is rarely seen in even the third round of many recent mock drafts. And yet he has appeared on the periphery of several RotoViz articles. In this article by (the mysterious) FD, Jones is the fourth-best rookie QB according to one measure that has proven (relatively) predictive. In this fantastic piece by Jon Moore on Quarterback Readiness, Jones has a score of 96.50, second in the rookie class only to Geno Smith. And in Moore’s “clutch” article on the most clutch QBs of the 2013 class, Jones is the best.

Granted, he’s older than some of the other prospects—he just turned 24—but despite this article and this article noting the relative NFL underperformance of QBs who enter the league as “older rookies,” I think the age-disadvantage isn’t that big. He’s not nearly as old as Brandon Weeden (whose LFC was less than half of Jones’s). In fact, Andy Dalton (another high-LCF QB, with a score of 1616) turned 24 in the middle of his rookie year, and he has already produced a top-12 season. Regardless of his age, Jones’s high LCF suggests that he should have success in the NFL.

Additionally, RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele wrote a series of excellent articles (here, here, and here) on the predictiveness of adjusted yards per attempts (AY/A) for NFL success. Anything below 8.0 AYA in a passer’s last college season Shawn declares as being weak, and he is certainly correct in asserting a correlation, as generally the QBs with higher AYAs do better than those with lower, but the QBs in this weak tier are still serviceable. In 2012, Jones recorded a 7.9 AYA (8.0 in 2010, 7.8 in 2011). He is right on the cusp. Who are the starting NFL QBs who surround him on a list ordered from highest AYA to lowest? Aaron Rodgers (8.5), Peyton Manning (8.5), Carson Palmer (8.5), Eli Manning (8.5) and Tom Brady (8.0) would be the five players immediately above him (all of whom are in a higher tier), and the five QBs immediately below would be Josh Freeman (7.8), Matt Schaub (7.1), Drew Brees (7.0), Michael Vick (7.0), and Christian Ponder (7.0). Of all the players flanking Jones, only Freeman and Ponder have failed to record multiple top-10 finishes (according to PFR), and out of the players in the “Below 8.0 AYA” Tier who have at least 7.0 AYA only Ponder failed to record at least one season with a top-8 finish. To me, this information means that, if Jones ever becomes a starting QB, he’s likely not to fall on his face; in fact, he’s likely to provide some above-average fantasy production.

And I think he’ll eventually become a starter. Not right away—he’ll be “Malletted” for a year or so on a roster behind an established QB—but he should get his chance, because that’s normally what happens with QBs selected in the top three rounds—and that better happen, because if it doesn’t then this article may be (more) useless.

Why do I think Jones will be selected in the first three rounds? Because an LCF score of 1600+ DYAR has proven predictive not only of NFL success but also of draft status, within a certain range. As far as Football Outsiders has disclosed, no prospect who has had his score calculated (so no prospect likely to be drafted in the top five rounds or so) has ever scored a 1600 DYAR on the LCF and then not been drafted in the first three rounds. It’s like scoring a 1600 on the old SAT. If you did that, you had a pretty good chance of getting into an Ivy League school, as long as everything else in your application was at least adequate. With an NFL arm attached to an NFL body, Jones will likely seem adequate to at least one team with a third-round pick.

Jones’s 2276 DYAR is the fourth-highest LCF that Football Outsiders has measured, right behind Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Philip Rivers, and right before Drew Brees, Colt McCoy, and Geno Smith. Who would you rather have: Geno Smith for a first-round pick in a rookie draft, or (NFL third-round pick) Landry Jones off of waivers? Who is Jones more like: The strong-armed guy whom few people expected to go in the top rounds, or the weak-armed guy who “fell” to the third round? Despite playing in the Big 12, OU’s Jones is more like Wisconsin’s Wilson than UT’s McCoy.

In fact McCoy and Wilson collectively provided an LCF test case in 2010 and 2012. Both high-scoring LCF QBs with limitations, they slipped to but not beyond the third round, roughly showing the bounds of value—an LCF QB can fall to the third round, but not beyond, as up to this time that round has been the point at which an NFL team decides the player is simply too valuable not to select. In other words, the third round is the point where an LCF QB becomes cheap enough that the NFL value investors step in and start buying. If the draft positions of LCF QBs were charted to form an NFL “price chart,” McCoy and Wilson, as the low points, would constitute the third-round support, the technical line below which the price would not drop. For Jones not to go before the fourth round, a long-term trend would have to be broken, and often breaking an established trend is much harder than operating within it.

Why am I putting so much emphasis on the first three rounds? Because, as Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders clearly states in his article on the 2013 LCFs, “The LCF is built to apply only to quarterbacks chosen in the first three rounds of the draft. After that, quarterback success and failure becomes too difficult to predict. [. . .] So here’s Landry Jones, who will rank with the fourth-highest projection ever – unless he doesn’t get taken in the first three rounds.” Again, I think Jones will be taken no later than the third round.

Last year, Football Outsiders called Wilson “The Asterisk” because his LCF seemed incompatible with his expected draft position. In fact, his LCF predicted his draft position. Or, as Schatz puts it, “unexpected numbers may be telling you something.” Labeled “The Asterisk Part II,” Jones has produced an LCF that seems incommensurate with his draft stock. If the trend holds in 2013, Jones’s unexpected number will prove predictive of his draft position. Just as happened last year with Wilson, some team is going to look at Jones’s college production, see him sitting there in the third, and decide that he is too good to pass on for another round. In fact, I would not be surprised if at least one team constructed a draft strategy around the idea of selecting Jones in the third instead of Barkley or Nassib in the second.

So—now that I’ve gotten that out of my system!—what does the LCF tell us about Jones’s NFL prospects? I thought you’d never ask. Although some people have some reservations about the LCF, last year it proved—with its high scores for Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck—to have a valuable predictive quality, and, while this year’s QB cohort generally grades lower than last year’s, the 2013 LCF gives Landry Jones an immense score made all the more impressive by the NFL careers of his predecessors.

Since few players produced scores in the vicinity of Jones’s 2276, I have used a wide range of 2676-1876 DYAR in backtesting the first five-year performance of LCF QBs back to 1998. The following table is sorted by descending LCF, with the positional ranks of the players’ first five NFL seasons provided by www.pro-football-focus.com. (Note that in the averages I do not include Rivers, Brees, Palmer and McCoy’s positional rankings from their years as backups, primarily because they were not treated as starters—and what I want to know is how these QBs performed as every-week players. Also note that I have prorated McCoy’s two seasons, as he started only eight games as a rookie and missed three games in his second year.)

Player Draft Year Draft Round Draft Pick LCF Y1 Rank Y2 Rank Y3 Rank Y4 Rank Y5 Rank Total Avg
Russell Wilson 2012 3 75 2650 9 9
Robert Griffin III 2012 1 2 2530 5 5
Philip Rivers 2004 1 4 2476 Backup Backup 8 15 2 8.33
Drew Brees 2001 2 32 2190 Backup 18 26 8 6 14.5
Colt McCoy 2010 3 85 2092 22 18 Backup 20
Carson Palmer 2003 1 1 1973 Backup 23 1 4 9 9.25
Ave 1.83 33.17 2318.5 12 19.67 11.67 9 5.67 11.02
Med 1.5 18 2333 9 18 8 8 6 9.13
Landry Jones ?? ?? 2276

This cohort of six QBs seems to provide a range of realistic possibilities for Jones. Like three of these QBs, Jones is unlikely to be taken in the first round, and like Rivers, Brees, and Palmer he is almost certain to be a backup for at least his rookie year. But when Jones gets a chance to start, he is likely to be a soild QB1. In total, the cohort members’ mean finishes yield a top-12 average (the median is top-10), and four out of five years the cohort averages a top-12 finish. In year five, the cohort averages a top-6 finish. If one looked at this table simplistically, one could say that Jones has basically a 5 out of 6 chance (83.3%) of performing like one of the guys not named Colt McCoy. And what is all the more impressive is that we haven’t even seen what Wilson and RG3 will do as they develop. In all likelihood, these cohort averages will improve as those two young QBs age.

How truly impressive is this collection of comparable players? This table may provide an idea. Here are the averages and medians of the cohort comparables for both Landry Jones and Geno Smith.

Player Draft Year Draft Round Draft Pick LCF Y1 Rank Y2 Rank Y3 Rank Y4 Rank Y5 Rank Total Avg
LJ Ave 1.83 33.17 2318.5 12 19.67 11.67 9 5.67 11.02
LJ Med 1.5 18 2333 9 18 8 8 6 9.13
GS Ave 1.6 24 1957.6 13.67 15.75 10 6 6.33 11.79
GS Med 1 1 1973 10 18 3 6 6 10

The LJ cohort provides four top-12 seasons; the GS cohort, only three. The LJ cohort, selected at pick 33.17, averages a positional ranking of 11.02; the GS cohort, selected at pick 24, averages a PR of 11.79. The LJ cohort’s best single-season PR is 5.67; the GS cohort, 6.33. And how does the composition of the cohort groups differ? Subtract Wilson, RG3, and Rivers, and add Manning and Luck—and now Jones’s comparables are Smith’s. Think about that. Jones and Smith have three comparable players in common (Brees, McCoy, Palmer), and Smith also has perhaps the two most desirable dynasty QBs of the last 15 years—and Jones’s list of comparables is better, or, at a minimum, is just as good, which is amazing when one considers that the players of difference on Jones’s list (Wilson, RG3, and Rivers)—despite their superior LCFs—were generally far cheaper to acquire as rookies than those (Manning and Luck) on Smith’s list. This year, Jones seems to provide a similar opportunity for ADP arbitrage. With a strong cohort of LCF comparables, he may end up producing like Geno Smith but at a fraction of the cost.

The cohort player to whom Jones seems most comparable is Rivers. Both tall, fairly immobile pocket passers, the two QBs are similar in their style of play, and Rivers seems to be Jones’s upside. If given the opportunity to sit behind an established starter for a year or two, Jones could certainly produce like an elite QB in his fifth season. And Jones’s downside? Although McCoy is on the list, he does not represent Jones’s downside, as the two QBs have little in common. Rather, Jones’s downside is . . . Philip Rivers. At his worst, Rivers exhibits all of the negative characteristics that scouts typically associate with Jones: immobility, inaccuracy, poor decision-making and anticipation, poor mechanics and footwork, and the inability to perform under intense game- and pocket-pressure. Jones’s downside is “Bad Philip Rivers,” the guy who finished 2012 ranked as the #21 QB. He could be an NFL starter, but not someone you’d start on your fantasy team. Still, if that’s his downside, that’s not bad for a guy you acquired off of waivers. You could do worse than the 2012 version of Philip Rivers as your QB2 or QB3, especially when the 2008 Rivers could emerge in the future.

As bullish as I was about Geno Smith in my LCF article last week—when I said, “I may be crazy, but if you find yourself in a rookie draft with no first-round-worthy RBs on the board, such as Knile Davis, and you don’t like the WRs staring you in the face, questions of need and supply-and-demand be damned, you should just stand up and say, in a loud and clear voice, ‘Drewson Lucking,’ because if you select Geno Smith some version of that composite LCF QB is most likely the guy you’ll be getting”—I may be more bullish about Landry Jones, at the right price, because he seems to have Geno’s upside. And if I can find Smith’s upside in the third round of a rookie draft—or on waivers—why would I bother to draft Geno Smith at all?

So what I’m really saying is this: Hope that Jones gets drafted before Saturday the 27th, or you just might be stuck paying full price for the real Geno Smith.

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