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Can quarterbacks learn to be accurate while in the NFL?

Is there hope for young inaccurate starting quarterbacks?

NFL: Denver Broncos Minicamp Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I have always been interested in how players develop in the NFL. One of the easiest groups to track their development is quarterbacks, because there is so much data to analyze. After years of wandering in the quarterback desert the Broncos seem to have found the oasis with Russell Wilson. I have wondered (and written) much about how NFL quarterbacks can develop, but I have never used the data from SISdatahub.com to do this level of analysis.

I watched a recent YouTube video where a football analyst was trying to say that Drew Lock could be the next Drew Brees. After catching my breath and getting back off the floor from laughing so hard, I decided to help this guy do a more thorough analysis of this absurd line of thought. Can Drew Lock, an inaccurate passer, become like Drew Brees, an extremely accurate passer?

Let’s look into the data, but first let’s point out one glaring weakness in this guy’s thought process - the general lack of historic context.

Drew Brees began his career during a year when the NFL was completing 59.0 percent of passes and the TD:INT ratio was 1.17:1. When Drew Lock started his NFL career in 2019, the league was was completing 63.5 of all passes and the TD:INT ratio was 1.94:1. QB play progressed quite dramatically in the almost twenty years between the entry of both men into the NFL so comparing Brees’ stats in his first 21 starts to Lock’s is comparing apples to kumquats (yes, that’s a real fruit). It’s safe to say that there were many more inaccurate passes thrown in the NFL in 2000 than there were in 2021. This line of thought got me asking the question about how often do inaccurate quarterbacks turn into accurate quarterbacks while in the NFL? To do this I looked at the catchable pass rate which is a stat available (surprisingly) free at sisdatahub.com. (They do make it harder to scrub the data from their free access version though.)

The best of the best in terms of catchable passes (accuracy), throw 90 percent as catchable passes. SIS watches each pass to determine whether they deem it catchable. Their data covers 2015-2021. The worst starters are in the 75-78 range. The best single season value for a QB with 150 or more passes was, I shit you not, Trevor, arm-of-the-gods, Siemian, in 2021, who had a catchable pass rate of 90.4 percent. If you cut that minimum attempts number down to 50 passes, you find that Colt McCoy has the best value at 92.5 in 2021 (on 109 drop-backs). But let’s look at the trends in the data to see what value we can find here in terms of answering the larger questions about passing accuracy progression while in the league.

Catchable pass rate (accuracy)

  • elite - 90-88
  • above average - 86-88
  • average - 83-86
  • below average - 80-83
  • poor - less than 80

For me catchable pass rate is the best measure of QB accuracy and so I will use accuracy and catchable rate interchangeably throughout this work.

Do quarterbacks get more accurate as they gain experience or do most guys just come into the league with an ability to throw accurately?

To answer the second question we will focus on the starting QBs (min 300 attempts) who have had really accurate years and try to determine how they got there. Were they always that accurate or did they have to work to get there?

Among starters from 2015 to 2021, there are only seven QBs who threw 88 percent catchable passes or better in a season:

  • Drew Brees
  • Joe Burrow
  • Kirk Cousins
  • DeShaun Watson
  • Matt Ryan
  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Sam Bradford

Since Brees, Ryan, Rodgers and Bradford were all well into their careers in 2015, let’s focus on the other three QBs who were not as established in 2015 (if they were in the league at all).

Joe Burrow entered the league with elite accuracy. His first two NFL seasons he has had catchable pass rates of 88.8 and 90.1.

Kirk Cousins got his first year as a starter in 2015. So the vast majority of his development arc is contained in his data which can be seen in the table below.

QB Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7
Newton 81.9 78.3 79.2 85.1 69.9 83.6 76.5
Winston 78.5 78.2 81.1 82.5 77.6 63.6 80.6
Cousins 85.4 82.9 82.2 87.1 87.5 89.1 87.1
Brady 82.0 84.5 82.8 83.3 82.1 83.9 83.7
Stafford 82.5 85.9 82.0 84.1 80.2 83.2 83.3
Dalton 81.8 84.6 83.2 84.0 80.6 83.8 83.9
Rodgers 79.4 83.1 83.9 80.9 83.7 88.3 85.7
Goff 80.4 77.7 84.7 79.6 84.1 86.4
Wentz 82.4 82.4 86.2 81.3 76.8 84.3
Brees 84.2 88.8 88.9 90.2 90.0 87.6
Mahomes 78.8 82.8 82.2 85.3 84.6
Allen 78.1 79.5 84.6 83.0
Mayfield 83.0 80.2 83.7 81.3
Darnold 81.0 83.3 82.3 87.8
Jackson 79.7 84.3 84.1 82.4
Watson 78.7 82.2 82.5 88.7
Murray 82.6 85.7 87.2
Jones 82.7 83.0 83.9
Burrow 88.8 90.1
Herbert 84.7 87.1
This table is just a small slice of the 204 QB seasons 2015-2021 in which a QB has thrown 300 or more passes.

The table above but with color coding which is exceedingly difficult to do in HTML.

For Cousins, it would appear that he was fairly accurate from the start (85.4 in 2015 - year 1 for him) and after two years of mild regression, he improved some to the 87-89 range (elite) during the last three seasons.

For Deshaun Watson the improvement was much more of a change the other two. His first season in the league he had a catchable pass rate of 78.7 (poor) and he has improved upon that every year since to the point where in 2020 he was one of the most accurate passers in the league (by catchable rate). So of the elite accuracy guys, only Watson went from “inaccurate” to “accurate” while in the league.

There are a few other examples of “inaccurate” passers becoming better over time.

Sam Darnold was below average for his first three seasons and then dramatically improved in his fourth year.

Josh Allen improved slightly from year 1 to year 2, but then made a huge jump in year 3. He regressed a little in year four, but not by too much.

Patrick Mahomes might appear to have improved greatly from year 1 to year 2, but his year 1 was a tiny sample size (35 attempts). I almost didn’t include that in the table. He appears to be somewhere in the 83-85 range as his norm (average or above average).

Lamar Jackson made a huge jump from year 1 to year 2 going from 79.7 to 84.3. This was actually a larger jump than Watson made.

Kyler Murray has progressed steadily from 82.6 to 85.7 to 87.2 during his first three seasons. It will be interesting to see if he ascends to truly elite levels of accuracy (Burrow accuracy) in his fourth season or if 87 is his ceiling.

I’m sure if you want to look you can find other examples of guys who progress, but from what I have seen in this (admittedly small slice) most guys don’t go move up more than one category while in the NFL. In other words, if your accuracy is below average when you enter the league, it’s most likely that you are never going to be consistently above average.

Let’s also get something out of the way before it gets discussed in the comments - being accurate does not necessarily make you a good QB. Look no further than Siemian for that. When he was actually a starter, his catchable rates were both not good (81.1 and 80.5). The fact that he was able to throw accurately for the Saints in 2021, means that he improved relative to 2016 and 2017, but he’s never going to be a viable NFL starter - accurate or not. Back to the discussion...

Here’s a full color coded list for all QBs with 150 or more passes in 2021 showing both catchable rate and on-target rate. Note that catchable is in almost all cases the higher value for a player.

Note the guys who are green in the Catchable minus On Target (C-OnT) are the guys who got the least amount of help from the catch radius of their receivers. Guys like Zach Wilson and Jacoby Brissett were frequently off-target, but many of those off-target throws were still catchable. Whereas Kyler Murray and Tyrod Taylor had on-target values that were not that far below their catchable values for 2021 - even when Murray was quite accurate and Taylor was the least accurate passer in the league in 2021. FWIW Drew Lock had an on-target of 74.7 and catchable on 84.8 on 127 throws in 2021.

The Inaccurate Guys

So let’s shift the discussion a bit to the least accurate seasons during this seven year window (min 150 throws). Only one of them occurred in 2021 (Tyrod Taylor).

Player Year Team Dropbacks On Target Catchable On target % Catchable %
Cam Newton 2016 Panthers 556 367 378 76.0 78.3
Jameis Winston 2016 Buccaneers 636 413 428 75.5 78.2
Josh Allen 2018 Bills 398 212 232 71.4 78.1
C.J. Beathard 2017 49ers 256 156 164 73.9 77.7
Jared Goff 2017 Rams 513 344 352 75.9 77.7
Jameis Winston 2019 Buccaneers 709 424 456 72.1 77.6
Tyrod Taylor 2021 Texans 180 99 107 71.7 77.5
Josh Rosen 2018 Cardinals 454 264 279 73.1 77.3
Carson Wentz 2020 Eagles 512 280 304 70.7 76.8
David Blough 2019 Lions 195 106 125 64.6 76.2
Marcus Mariota 2019 Titans 200 105 111 71.9 76.0
Colin Kaepernick 2015 49ers 293 171 180 72.2 75.9
DeShone Kizer 2017 Browns 563 327 337 72.7 74.9

The first thing that should jump out at you is the one-year guys on this list: Josh Rosen, C.J. Beathard, David Blough and Deshone Kizer. All four were only starters in the league for one season. They were all so bad that none of them got another shot at starting full-time. One of the reasons for that was how inaccurate they were. One player that is not on this list of thirteen guys is Drew Lock. His worst season from an accuracy standpoint (catchable) was 79.0 so he avoided this list (although I could have been mean and expanded it to include QB seasons with catchable rates of 79.0 or worse).

The poster boy for inaccuracy would be Jameis Winston (more of this later). He came into the league with poor accuracy and peaked at below average. Pay very little attention to his year 6 data - that is 2020 when he threw 11 passes.

For those who still care about Lock, he did show a marked improvement in his catchable rate in 2021 (84.8) relative to 2020 (79.0). With his arm strength, he has the potential to be a really good QB if his accuracy doesn’t regress in 2022. There’s also the other problem that Lock has - too many of those uncatchable balls are all too catchable by the defense. So Lock is never going to be Brees, whose stock and trade was always his accuracy, but he doesn’t have to be to be successful as an NFL starter. He simply needs to make fewer terrible throws.

One of the things we haven’t discussed yet is how far off any uncatchable throws actually are. If a QB throws an uncatchable ball that lands 15 yards out of bounds, it’s merely an ugly incompletion, but if that uncatchable pass sails five feet over the head of the intended receiver who is in the middle of the field, there is a good chance that uncatchable ball becomes an interception. Lock has thrown far too many of those during his career. So let’s stop talking about former Bronco QBs and move to our current starting QB.

Russell Wilson actually had his worst season in many aspects in 2021. One of those was catchable rate. Wilson’s catchable rates by year:

  • 2015 - 85.8
  • 2016 - 85.3
  • 2017 - 87.0
  • 2018 - 83.8
  • 2019 - 84.8
  • 2020 - 86.8
  • 2021 - 82.9

So while it was on significantly fewer dropbacks, Drew Lock was more accurate than Russell Wilson in 2021. So Lock at his best was better than Wilson at his worst. What remains to be seen is whether or not this is the start of a gradual decline for Wilson (I doubt it) or whether he will return to his normal mid 80s catchable rate in 2022 and beyond.

If you look at the catchable rates for other veterans in their mid to late 30s, you find that most continue to be accurate even as they start to lose the battle with Father Time. Tom Brady was as accurate in 2021 as he was in 2015. Brees had elite accuracy (88 or better) in four of his final six seasons. Matt Ryan has been 84.6 or better in every seasons of the last seven. Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning all ostensibly maintained their catchable ball percentages as they aged.

So we should expect RW to bounce back to his normal range in the mid 80s in 2022, particularly with Nathaniel Hackett calling the plays. With Hackett as the OC in Jacksonville 2016-2018, Blake Bortles had catchable ball rates of 82.5, 80.0 and 83.2 (career best). Rodgers catchable rate for the three seasons with Hackett as OC were 83.7, 88.3, and 85.7. With only seven seasons of data, that 88.3 is Rodgers’ best career number.

Now I don’t know how much influence the play caller has on catchable pass rate, but it stands to reason that if Bortles and Rodgers can have career best rates under Hackett, RW should be able to at least get back to his “normal” rates. Below is a chart showing Russell Wilson’s results from 2015-2021.

We should also note that even when RW had a bad year in terms of completion percentage (2017) his catchable rate has been fairly consistent over the last seven years and while his on-target rate has been declining since 2017. That doesn’t mean that I expect his on-target rate to continue to drop. I expect his on-target rate in 2022 to be north of 80 percent similar to 2020 and 2017.