Winners & Losers of 2020 NFL QB Changes: How Offseason Moves Will Affect Point Spreads
Mark Brown/Getty Images. Pictured: Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham
With the (virtual) 2020 NFL Draft drawing near and a slew of offseason quarterback moves on the books, I thought it would be interesting to look at how all of the reshuffling will (or should) impact point spreads next season.
Below, I’ve ranked every team expected to start a new quarterback by projected net gain/loss against the spread. Of course, there are still a couple of fish yet to find water, namely Cam Newton and Jameis Winston, who you can check out my rankings for which franchises they would provide the biggest upgrades to relative to the spread. But for this piece, I’ve focused in on the nine teams already affected my offseason QB changes.
First, how did I arrive at these numbers?
It’s only April, so I’ll spare you from the intricacies of NFL model building, but in a nutshell, I rely heavily on projected adjusted net yards per attempt (ANYA) — that’s net passing yards with 20 yards added per touchdown and 45 subtracted per interception, divided by total dropbacks. The league average tends to be in the 6.2-6.3 range, and every 0.25 yards above or below the league average is worth approximately one point to the spread.
If that makes sense, great; if not, don’t worry, the rest of the article still will.
Note: I’ve omitted the Bengals from this analysis as they are widely expected to draft Joe Burrow first overall and start him while incumbent starter Andy Dalton remains on the roster.
ATS Winners of 2020 NFL QB Changes
Ben Roethlisberger Replacing Mason Rudolph: +4.5
Assuming Big Ben returns as healthy as his beard, he’ll earn the Steelers a bigger net upgrade than any team that made an offseason move at quarterback.
A defense that finished third overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA masked the abomination that was Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, carrying the team to an 8-8 record (9-7 against the spread) despite finishing 31st in the league in ANYA (4.6).
A 4.5-point swing in games Roethlisberger didn’t start last season would have vaulted the Steelers to 10-6 straight up. At +1300 to win the AFC Championship at DraftKings, the Steelers look like the top value on the board.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady Replacing Jameis Winston: +3.5
Brady is 43 years old and is coming off the worst season of his career, but his 2019 supporting cast may as well have been 86. Last season, wide receivers averaged 8.1 yards per target and caught a touchdown on 4.8% of their targets league-wide.
Particularly in the yards per target department, Brady’s wide receiving corps came up well short:
- Julian Edelman: 153 targets , 7.3 YPT, 6 TD (3.9%)
- Phillip Dorsett: 52 targets, 7.1 YPT, 4 TD (7.1%)
- Mohamed Sanu: 47 targets, 4.4 YPT, 1 TD (2.1%)
- Jakobi Meyers: 39 targets, 8.3 YPT, 0 TD
- Josh Gordon: 36 targets, 8.0 YPT, 1 TD (2.8%)
- N’Keal Harry: 24 targets, 4.4 YPT, 2 TD (8.3%)
- Antonio Brown: 8 targets, 7.0 YPT, 1 TD (12.5%)
- Gunner Olszewski: 4 targets, 8.5 YPT, 0 TD
- All WRs: 363 targets, 6.9 YPT, 15 TD (4.1%)
Brady lucked out that Edelman managed to play 16 games, or things could have gotten a whole lot worse. But a chain-moving slot receiver with below-average efficiency marks becomes suboptimal when he becomes the focal point of an offense.
Luckily, Brady will no longer have that problem in Tampa. Say hello to arguably the NFL’s top tandem at wide receiver.
- Chris Godwin: 121 targets, 11.0 YPT, 9 TD (7.4%)
- Mike Evans: 118 targets, 9.8 YPT, 8 TD (6.8%)
O.J. Howard can provide similar help at tight end. In 2019, Brady averaged 7.9 yards per target on 53 targets with 1 TD (1.9%) when targeting Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson. Even in a down season, Howard averaged 8.7 YPT and 1.9% TD rate in 2019 on the exact same number of targets in 2019. For his career, Howard averages 10.4 yards per target and an 8.6% TD rate.
Upgrading from a maligned to top-of-the-line supporting cast, and friendlier weather in the NFC South, the aging Brady could endure a decline in performance and still show a potentially drastic improvement in production relative to 2019 — a year in which he still ranked 10th among 39 qualified passers with a Pro Football Focus passing grade of 77.4.
A 3.5-point per-game swing last season would have flipped the Bucs from 7-9 to 9-7. And don’t forget, by season’s end, this is a team that shot all the way up to fifth in defensive DVOA.
Teddy Bridgewater Replacing Kyle Allen: +2.5
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Panthers quarterbacks were last year. Kyle Allen’s 4.75 adjusted net yards per attempt ranked 31st of 32 qualifiers, and as a team, they finished dead-last at 4.4 ANYA on the season.
Even with Bridgewater in tow, much work remains to be done. A 2.5-point swing wouldn’t have flipped any of the Panthers’ 11 losses to wins last season, mostly thanks to a defense that ranked 25th in DVOA and 31st in points per game allowed (29.4).
One final note on Carolina: Quarterback ATS records are generally about as predictive as #QBWins (read: not predictive at all), but it’s worth pointing out that the market has consistently been too low on Bridgewater, enabling him to compile an absurd 28-7 ATS mark all-time as a starter per our Bet Labs data.
Philip Rivers Replacing Jacoby Brissett: +2
Rivers’ 6.32 ANYA last season represented a steep decline relative to the year prior (7.88) and his career average (6.92), but it was still good enough to best Brissett, who registered a 6.06 in 2019 and stands at 5.63 for his career.
There’s more volatility attached to this projection than most, as Brissett’s primary strength is not throwing picks — his 1.3% interception rate was tied for sixth-best in 2019 — while post-interception exasperation has become Rivers’ default image.
With a per-game swing of two points, the Colts’ 7-9 straight up record last season would have improved to only 7-8-1, so general manager Chris Ballard still has work to do. At this stage, Rivers probably can’t take the Colts as far as Andrew Luck would have, but Rivers can take them farther than Brissett.
Nick Foles (Likely) Replacing Mitch Trubisky: +1.5
Foles isn’t guaranteed the starting job just yet, but he will likely win it. Foles outpaces Trubisky in almost every passing metric — albeit marginally so — but it adds up to a substantial edge in career ANYA (6.18) over Trubisky (5.56).
Simply put, Foles is a better thrower of the football and executor of the offense.
A 2018 season that saw Trubisky post a 6.59 ANYA and showcase rushing upside to the tune of 30.1 yards per game provides a glimmer of hope that there’s still untapped upside lurking beneath the struggle. But 1,373 dropbacks into his career, odds are we know who Trubisky is: Not quite as good as Foles, who is your prototypical too-good-to-be-a-backup who shuttles from one franchise that won’t be able to afford him as a backup for long to the next.
Every once in a while, Foles looks brilliant, though that may just be a Philly thing for him. He’s Ryan Fitzpatrick without the swag. But more importantly for the city of Chicago, he’s not Mitchell Trubisky.
Gardner Minshew Replaces Nick Foles: +1
Minshew acquitted himself well last season, finishing with a 6.44 ANYA that ranked 14th among 33 qualifiers. That showing was primarily built on a penchant for limiting mistakes: His 1.3% interception rate tied for sixth-best, and while his 6.3% sack rate ranked 17th, his 5.6 yards lost per sack ranked third. Meanwhile, he posted middling marks in yards per attempt (7.0, T-17th) and TD rate (4.5%, T-15th).
This puts Minshew on somewhat of a slippery slope in regard to being the future at quarterback in Jacksonville — his strongest attribute, limiting interceptions, is also the one most likely to regress to the mean. But while the jury is still out, his overall statistical profile paints him as a high-floor quarterback who could be solidly above-average with modest development.
The Jags are listed as the favorite for the services of both Winston (+250) and Dalton (+250) at DraftKings, but neither would project as an upgrade on Minshew.
ATS Losers of 2020 NFL QB Changes
Los Angeles Chargers
Tyrod Taylor Replacing Philip Rivers: -3
Taylor is an adequate bridge quarterback, but doesn’t see the field well and takes too many sacks. While he is a clear step down from Rivers, the Chargers play at one of the slowest paces in the league and should field a strong defense, so they are well-positioned to minimize the downgrade downgrade.
Things could change, of course — the Chargers are the favorites to land Newton (+175 at DraftKings) and could also use the No. 6 pick on a quarterback who then becomes the Week 1 starter — but assuming a negative 3-point swing, the Chargers would have gone from 5-11 to 4-12 last season.
That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them improve in 2020 — perhaps significantly — even with Taylor at the helm. Despite their 5-11 record, their point differential was nearly that of an 8-win team. Prior-season point differential is more predictive of future wins than prior-season win-loss record, and the Chargers’ -2.8 Pythagorean differential was the highest in the league.
With the coronavirus pandemic’s social-distancing measures potentially still in effect come fall, the Chargers may be joined by the other 31 teams in having next to no one in the stands for their home games.
New England Patriots
Jarrett Stidham Replacing Tom Brady: -6.5
If the Pats are going to field a competitive offense with Stidham, they’ll need to make major upgrades at pass catcher. Because right now, the Pats are like that fantasy owner who drafts five RBs before his WR2.
The Pats are probably right to see something in Stidham: He was one of the top college prospects in the nation before being (allegedly) miscast in Auburn’s offense. And his top receiver, Ryan Davis, would go on to become an XFL benchwarmer.
Unfortunately, the current state of the Pats receiving corps is Auburn all over again. And Bill Belichick whiffing on a receiver in the draft is about as sure of a bet as the Pats were to win the AFC East over the past two decades.
Just as disconcertingly, Belichick hasn’t exactly been able to mitigate his anti-Midas touch at drafting WRs in the free agency or trade markets: Under Belichick’s watch, Josh Gordon’s biggest issue morphed from availability to ability, Phillip Dorsett became even less productive than he was with the Colts, Antonio Brown lasted one game, and Mohamed Sanu averaged 4.4 yards per target.
The best way to sum up the Patriots’ current wide receiver depth chart is that after Edelman, their next most valuable player at the position is special-teams ace Matthew Slater, who hasn’t caught a pass since 2011.
The good news: The Pats could be good enough to withstand it all. Thanks to a defense that allowed a league-low 14.1 points per game last season, their average point differential was +12.2, so even with a 6.5-point swing, their record last season would have been 10-6.
Still, defense tends to regress to the mean more than offense, and the Pats need to use some of their selections in the upcoming draft to replenish the front seven after losing Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, but they also would do well to come away with 2-3 wide receiver prospects in a deep class. It’s also possible 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry takes a Year 2 leap a la D.J. Chark or Mike Williams, and that Meyers — their most efficient wide receiver on a per-target basis — builds on the chemistry he showed with Stidham last preseason. But with the coronavirus pandemic limiting offseason activities, year-over-year improvement can’t be viewed as a given, and right now both players project more as WR4s on a good team than top-three options.
Ironically, the model for success for the 2020 Patriots may be the same as last-year’s version of the team they traded the quarterback once thought to be Brady’s successor to: The 49ers. Inserting 2019 third-rounder Damien Harris to the backfield rotation would allow the Pats to replicate the 49ers’ winning mix of a top-level defense, four-headed backfield and low-volume passing attack.
Marcus Mariota Takes Over For Derek Carr: -2.5
To say I’ve been critical of Derek Carr in the past is an understatement.
Derek Carr since entering the NFL:
-6.54 yards/attempt (33rd of 36, min. 800 att.)
-Avg. Total QBR rank: 25.3
Raiders have a great backup QB on the roster…His name’s Derek Carr. https://t.co/okUSxJPkyK
— Chris Raybon (@ChrisRaybon) August 25, 2018
Still, Carr represents a clear upgrade on Marcus Meh-riota. Mariota hasn’t posted better than 5.9 ANYA since 2016, while Carr has been above 6.0 in every season except his rookie year in 2014, including a career-best 7.25 mark last season.