Franchise or Not? Ranking Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, More Young QBs
Getty Images. Pictured: Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Dwayne Haskins
It’s not easy to find a franchise quarterback, but it’s pretty easy to know when you don’t have one.
What exactly is a franchise quarterback?
“Franchise” as defined by the franchise tag is too exclusive, limiting it to the five-highest paid players at the position. Though it certainly helps, you don’t need a top-five quarterback to win a Super Bowl: The Eagles won with Nick Foles, the Ravens with Joe Flacco and the Broncos with The Ghost of Peyton Manning — not to be confused with Peyton Manning, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
Rather, a franchise quarterback is one who is average or better — a quarterback you would rather pay big money than explore the alternatives, or one who a team will pay even if you don’t (looking at you, Kirk Cousins).
What many don’t realize is that quarterbacks tell us who they are a lot quicker than we think.
That’s because the most important quarterback metric — Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA), which is indicative of true quality of play since it accounts for sack yards lost, touchdowns and interceptions — stabilizes around 407 dropbacks. That means that after 400 dropbacks, you would attribute more than half of a quarterback’s performance to skill rather than luck or random variance.
In statistical terms, to project a quarterback’s future ANYA at 407 dropbacks, you would use 50% of his actual performance in 50% league average. Said another way, you would add 407 dropbacks of league-average performance.
Other metrics, such as completion rate (about 250 attempts) and sack rate (about 200 dropbacks) stabilize even sooner, while traditional yards per attempt stabilizes not long after ANYA (about 430 attempts). Touchdown rate (about 800 attempts) and interception rate ( about 1,000 attempts) take longer, but are accounted for in ANYA, which is why it’s such a useful stat.
The league-average ANYA over the past three seasons is right around 6.3, though it’s fluctuated from 6.3 in 2018 to 6.2 in 2019 to 6.5 through Sunday of Week 6 this season.
So, with that in mind, which young quarterbacks can we apply this earlier-than-expected sample size to in order to identify whether they are (or are not) franchise quarterbacks?
There’s little argument that Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray are franchise QBs, so instead, I’ve ranked seven quarterbacks belonging to the past three draft classes whose standing as a franchise quarterback is still up for debate — even if it shouldn’t be.
They’re ordered from worst to first below, along with their career ANYA, number of dropbacks and projected “true” ANYA (assuming a league average of 6.3).
Ranking QBs By Franchise Potential
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7. Dwayne Haskins, Washington
Haskins has dropped back 391 times in his career, and Washington would have been just as well of handing the ball off 391 times instead.
Since Haskins came into the league, 31 quarterbacks have at least as many dropbacks as Haskins, and none have produced fewer ANYA than Haskins’ 4.52.
Could Haskins improve? Sure. Would having more than one NFL-caliber receiver help? Sure. But when your skills clock in as worst in the NFL, even the chances of becoming just average are slim — especially when you’re not adding much on the ground: Haskins has averaged 9.8 rushing yards per game in 11 career starts.
It’s fitting that Haskins’ career highlights are also his career lowlights.
In his first win as a pro, a 19-16 victory over the Lions in Week 12 of 2019, Haskins infamously missed lining up in victory formation — unless taking a selfie with a fan in the stands is the new victory formation.
And in Haskins’ most recent game as a pro — his Week 4 start against the Ravens — he threw for a career-high 314 yards, rushed for a touchdown and played turnover-free football. He felt so good about his performance, he decided to gloat to his teammates in the locker room after the game. The only problem? Washington lost, 31-17.
Haskins was promptly given a seat by head coach Ron Rivera in favor of the second-worst QB in ANYA since Haskins came into the league: Kyle Allen.
With all due respect to Rivera, this is a ludicrous development.
It completely goes against maximizing the value of your first-round pick. Why have him sit on the bench when he’s most valuable on the field, helping you lose games and tank for Trevor Lawrence? Allen came a 2-point conversion away from actually winning a football game, for goodness sakes.
6. Sam Darnold, Jets
At least Haskins had something to gloat about.
As bad as Haskins has been this season, Darnold has been even worse, throwing more interceptions (four) than TDs (three) while completing fewer than 60% of his passes. His ANYA sits at 3.88, which doubles as an accurate estimate of how many games the Jets should expect to win per season if they stick with Darnold at QB.
There are many things to blame Adam Gase for, but ruining Darnold isn’t one of them — Darnold’s ANYA under Gase (5.11) is not much different than his career rate (5.16).
Even Ryan Tannehill, one of the lone exceptions to the rule when it comes to early-career performance foreshadowing what’s to come, put up his best season as a Dolphin under Gase in his first year coaching the team in 2016. Tannehill averaged 6.27 ANYA and leading the team to an 8-5 record that season.
Here’s why Darnold probably won’t turn it around like Tannehill: Though Tannehill isn’t as talented as some franchise passers, he is lethal off play action, posting a 138.2 passer rating on play action passes since joining the Titans. Most passers see an increase in efficiency on play action passes, but Darnold has posted a 78.2 rating on 115 play action attempts since the start of last season, which is virtually the same as his career rating in all situations (79.2).
5. Daniel Jones, Giants
Jones’ rookie year promise is quickly fading. Though he produced just a 3-9 record in 2019, he looked reasonably competent at times, throwing 24 TDs to just 12 interceptions. His ANYA was 5.50 — below-average, but certainly not doomed. (For comparison, Carson Wentz’s ANYA since 2019 is 5.55, and Kyler Murray’s is 5.69.)
Ball security continues to be an issue for Jones, who has lost three fumbles this season and 14 over his short career. Most worrisome, however, is that Jones has taken a step backward as a passer: This season, his ANYA is just 4.20, torpedoing his career mark to 5.02, ranking ahead of only Allen and Haskins among QBs with at least 349 attempts since 2019.
What has caused the regression?
It may be partly due to a brutal opening slate, as five of the Giants’ first six opponents entered Week 6 ranked 11th or higher in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA: Steelers (7th), Bears (5th), 49ers (11th), Rams (8th), Washington (4th).
Jones has also clearly struggled in Jason Garrett’s new system, which our own Matthew Freedman has been predicting all offseason. Dan Duggen of The Athletic has outlined a great explanation of why Garrett’s system is challenging for Jones:
One topic that has come up when talking with coaches not affiliated with the Giants is that Garrett’s scheme is challenging for quarterbacks. One reason is that receivers run a lot of isolation routes. That means the quarterback has to read the coverage and then read which receiver is winning his route. That challenge is compounded by the Giants’ lack of talent at wide receiver, so Jones is rarely throwing into big windows.
Jones is a good example of why it’s important to know when different QB rate stats stabilize.
During his rookie year, he posted below-average marks in completion rate (61.9%), yards per attempt (6.6) and sack rate (7.6%), but was above-average in terms of TD rate (5.2%). But, as mentioned, TD rate takes more than twice as long to stabilize as any of those other metrics, and Jones’ sophomore regression has come with a TD rate of just 1.5% this season, knocking his career mark down to 4.1%, which is below the league average since 2018 of 4.7%.
Jones adds more as a rusher than players like Haskins and Darnold, and given the tough slate to start the season, the Giants shouldn’t be ready to throw in the towel quite yet. But if there isn’t marked improvement in his final 10 games, Jones vs. Haskins may very well be more of a wash than any Giants fan would like to admit, and the team may regret beating Washington in Week 6’s tank-off.
4. Baker Mayfield, Browns
We’re more than 1,200 dropbacks into Mayfield’s career, and his ANYA of 5.90, so this is likely who he is: A slightly below-average passer.
This is the first year under new head coach and former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, so there’s hope at the end of the new system tunnel for Mayfield, but his ANYA through six games of it is 5.33, which is nearly the same as it was in Year 2 of the old system under Freddie Kitchens (5.29).
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Mayfield hasn’t been able to rekindle the success of his rookie year, despite playing every start since with Odell Beckham Jr. added to the mix. Mayfield is shaping up like Stefanski’s former QB in his previous stop in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins, who plays well from a clean pocket but struggles under pressure.
3. Josh Allen, Bills
Allen’s career ANYA is 5.77 — slightly below Mayfield’s 5.90 mark — but Allen’s rushing prowess and his progression have him well on the way to being considered a franchise QB … if he’s not already one.
The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder has functioned as another running back for the Bills, averaging 7.0 carries for 38.0 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 0.63 rushing TDs in 32 career starts.
As a passer, he’s seen his ANYA improve each season in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s system:
- 2018: 4.37
- 2019: 5.71
- 2020: 8.36
If Allen were to continue his 2020 rate for the rest of the season, it would bring his career mark to 6.53.
Allen is more “franchise QB” than “franchise passer,” as his performance has been impacted more greatly than you’d like to see by the quality of receivers around him. Great QBs make those around him better, but Allen couldn’t function with Zay Jones (39-of-83, 47.0%, 5.9 YPA), and has seen his improvement come after adding John Brown and Cole Beasley in 2019 and Stefon Diggs this season.
Still, if an above-average supporting cast and not throwing to the worst receiver in football is what it takes for Allen to post strong passing numbers, the Bills will take it (and they should).
2. Drew Lock, Broncos
Lock has only 226 career dropbacks to his name, so we’re not exactly at the point where we can be too sure about him, but his career ANYA of 5.85 is better than the likes of Haskins, Jones and even Murray (5.69).
Lock is great at avoiding sacks, taking only eight through eight career starts, which is good for an excellent 3.5% sack rate. His interception rate is around league average (2.3%), and if he can continue to avoid negative plays, his future looks bright as he should improve on his below-average yard-per-attempt (6.6) and TD rate (3.7%) figures once Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, KJ Hamler and Jerry Jeudy are all healthy and on the field at the same time.
1. Gardner Minshew, Jaguars
Minshew has been solid as a pro, averaging 6.33 ANYA for a nondescript Jaguars ball club, also adding 23.9 rushing yards per game as a starter. In fact, Minshew has been a better passer in terms of ANYA than any quarterback drafted since 2018 besides Lamar Jackson (7.29 ANYA). But that will go largely unnoticed until the Jags are able to back him up with a NFL-level defense and not the one that has allowed 30.2 points per game this season.
Despite being drafted in the sixth round (178th overall) in 2019, don’t be surprised if Minshew outlasts some of the higher profile names of the 2019 draft class, such as Haskins, Jones and perhaps even Lock.
Defining Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt
We’ve focused on Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA) instead of raw Yards Per Attempt (YPA) because YPA only accounts for raw passing yards gained without accounting for negative plays such as sack yardage lost and interceptions thrown. YPA also does not account for the fact that passing yardage accompanied by a touchdown thrown is obviously worth more than yardage gained without a touchdown.
“Net” yards simply means deducting sack yardage from raw passing yards, adding 20 yards per passing touchdown and subtracting 45 yards per interception — it’s simply as a method of converting these high-impact plays into their yardage equivalent based on expected points added or lost.
Here’s the equation:
ANYA = [Passing Yards – Sack Yards + (Passing TDs20) – (Interceptions45)] ÷ [Passing Attempts + Sacks]
For an illustrative example, consider Jameis Winston in 2019.
Winston was tied for fifth in YPA (8.2), but he also led the league in interceptions (30) and lost the eighth-most yardage on sacks (282), so his 18th-place ranking in ANYA (6.15) is much more indicative of his true quality of play as a passer.
For more on how the yardage conversions were arrived at for TDs and INTs, check out Chase Stuart’s work on the subject.