Throughout Sam Darnold’s rookie season, much was made about the help (or lack thereof) that he was getting from the team around him. The offensive line didn’t protect well enough. The run game wasn’t good enough. The receivers weren’t open enough. The coaches didn’t let him play enough.
I decided to take a look at some of the factors that could affect quarterback play but are out of the quarterback’s control, comparing the help Sam Darnold got to the other prominent rookie quarterbacks - Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson.
Average Defense DVOA Rank of Opponents Faced
How tough a slate of opposing defenses did each rookie face? This is the average defense DVOA rank of the opponents each rookie quarterback started against.
Note: For each category throughout this article, the quarterbacks will be ranked from least help/most difficult at #1 to most help/least difficult at #5.
- Sam Darnold, 13.0
- Josh Allen, 16.9
- Baker Mayfield, 18.4
- Josh Rosen, 19.5
- Lamar Jackson, 23.9
Darnold was the only member of the group to face a schedule of above-average difficulty, and by far had the hardest slate of the bunch. In fact, the Jets faced the league’s hardest slate of opposing defenses this year based on DVOA. Darnold faced each of the top two defenses, six of the top seven, and eight of the top twelve this year. He only got to play four games against bottom-half defenses, versus nine top-half defenses.
Starting field position
Did Darnold receive prime field position from his defense and special teams? Here are the quarterbacks ordered by their team’s rank in average starting field position.
- Rosen, 18th
- Mayfield, 17th
- Jackson, 12th
- Allen, 8th
- Darnold, 7th
Field position was a rare category where Darnold got some help this year, as the Jets were the best team of the rookie bunch in that area. A great return unit led by Andre Roberts and some timely takeaways helped set Darnold up with some of the league’s best field position. This is the only category in this post where the Jets checked in above average.
Team defense DVOA
How good of a defense did each quarterback have behind his back? A good defense is a great way to support a rookie signal-caller. In addition to field position benefits, a defense can help their quarterback get back on to the field quickly without losing rhythm, and prevent him from having to press and force things while playing from behind. Here are the QBs ordered by their team’s rank in defensive DVOA.
- Darnold, 21st
- Rosen, 17th
- Mayfield, 12th
- Jackson, 3rd
- Allen, 2nd
The rookie group actually got a lot of help from their defenses this year. None of the five ranked in the bottom ten of the league, while Jackson and Allen were supported by top-three units. Darnold checks in with the worst defense behind him, as the Jets finished 21st in defensive DVOA after hovering around the middle for most of the season.
Offensive line quality
A high quality offensive front is probably the most essential piece you want to have around your rookie quarterback. In addition to the obvious physical risk of getting him hurt from taking too many hits, you don’t want him to develop bad tendencies from seeing defenders in his face so frequently right off the bat in his professional career. The common phrase for this development is “seeing ghosts” - a common consequence dealt with by young quarterbacks who start their careers with bad O-lines. In addition, the offensive line is very important in establishing a reliable run game to support the quarterback. Here are the QBs ordered by the rank of their team’s offensive line, via Pro Football Focus.
- Rosen, 32nd
- Allen, 26th
- Darnold, 25th
- Jackson, 10th
- Mayfield, 2nd
Lo and behold! The only two rookies with good offensive lines also happened to be the two that generated the most hype and won the most games! What a massive surprise!
Pro Football Focus placed the Jets offensive line at 25th for the year, a very fair ranking. Darnold, Allen, and Rosen all had to deal with a myriad of troubles in front of them all season. Rosen in particular had almost zero chance with what was going on up front in Arizona.
Rushing offense DVOA
The NFL is a pass-first league, but that doesn’t mean the run game has lost its value. A good run game helps set up the offense with more favorable and less predictable 3rd & short situations. If dominant enough, it can draw extra defenders into the box to open up the passing game. Here are the QBs ordered by their team’s ranking in rush offense DVOA.
- Rosen, 31st
- Darnold, 30th
- Allen, 24th
- Mayfield, 17th
- Jackson, 10th
Rosen and Darnold, neither of whom added much value to the run game with their own legs, both dealt with bottom-three rushing attacks this season.
Rushing yards per carry by teammates
Our next couple of categories will go into rushing support with more detail. First, we’ll look at how many rushing yards per carry each quarterback’s teammates gained. Obviously, quarterbacks do have a role in a team’s rushing attack. In particular, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson were both majorly involved pieces in their respective rushing attacks. Here are the QBs ordered by the rushing yards per carry average posted by their teammates.
- Allen, 3.27
- Rosen, 3.65
- Darnold, 3.91
- Mayfield, 4.87
- Jackson, 5.31
(League average: about 4.4)
Once again, the two rookies who claimed the most victories have a clear advantage. Mayfield and Jackson both saw a huge amount of chunk gains from their teammates, making their lives easier. Darnold, Allen, and Rosen each got little help from their backs (and the occasional wide receiver handoff).
Aside from a turnover, nothing hurts the offense more than going backwards. An early-down run for no gain is a huge detriment to an offense, shrinking their playbook and making them more predictable on the next down. A third or fourth down stuff short of the sticks is a drive-ending failure of which the quarterback played no part in. Here are the QBs ordered by the percentage of their team’s rushing attempts resulting in no gain or less.
- Darnold, 24.8%
- Mayfield, 21.7%
- Allen, 20.3%
- Rosen, 19.0%
- Jackson, 18.5%
(League average: about 21%)
The Jets led the league in stuff frequency this season. Over Darnold’s hot streak to finish the season, the Jets were getting stuffed even more often than their league-leading average, hovering in the low-30s.
Percentage of quarterback’s passing plays on 3rd or 4th & 10+ to go
Each of the past few categories we’ve looked at have built up to this. How often is the quarterback forced to operate from an unfavorable situation?
While you pay him to lift your team up in the toughest moments, it’s essential to make life as easy on your quarterback as possible and try to minimize the amount of times he needs to put the team on his back. Take a look at Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay recently. Even the greatest QBs can only do so much on their own.
This is especially important for a young quarterback who is only just beginning to get his feet wet in the NFL. Yes, you want your youngster to prove he has the franchise-lifting ability you drafted him to have, but you still want to try to make the transition as smooth as possible for him. Lessening the amount of stressful, low-percentage situations he faces is a key part of that. Here are the QBs ordered by the percentage of their total pass plays that came on 3rd or 4th down and ten-plus yards to go.
- Darnold, 13.06%
- Allen, 10.66%
- Rosen, 10.34%
- Mayfield, 8.79%
- Jackson, 8.55%
(League average: about 8.3%)
Every member of the group was thrown into tough third and fourth down situations more than average, but none were in the same stratosphere as Darnold. 13.1% of all Darnold pass plays were on third or fourth and ten-plus, which was the highest rate in the league among qualified quarterbacks.
Everything we’ve looked at so far has come together to create this. A bad run game, a bad offensive line, and often predictable play calling all forced Darnold into an abnormal amount of high-stress situations. He posted a 44.2 passer rating on his 50 attempts in this scenario, better than only Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton among qualifiers. He also took eight sacks, fewer than only Rosen, Tannehill, and Eli Manning.
Average yards to go on 3rd down pass plays
The top six teams that averaged the fewest yards to go on third down pass plays all had winning records, and the top three are still alive (Patriots, Saints, Colts). Ten of the top eleven quarterbacks in passer rating threw from fewer yards to go on third down than the league average.
This stat bounces off our previous one, taking an estimate of the average difficulty the quarterback has had to face on third down. In addition to having to cover more ground to gain a first when the sticks are further away, your play-calling becomes more predictable and your offense thus becomes easier to stop. Life becomes tougher on quarterbacks, they press, and they look bad trying to make something happen in a tough situation. Here are the QBs ordered by their team’s average yards to go on third down pass plays.
- Jackson, 8.80
- Rosen, 8.51
- Darnold, 8.49
- Allen, 8.42
- Mayfield, 8.01
(League average: about 7.7)
Every rookie faced longer than average third downs. Allen, Rosen, and Darnold each had numbers that were bottom-three caliber. Jackson’s number was abnormally high, smashing Buffalo’s league-worst overall season average of 8.54. Mayfield’s number was below average but closer to the median than the bottom.
Dropped passes by receivers are one of the most common excuses made for quarterbacks. Here are the QBs ordered by their team’s rank in lowest percentage of pass attempts resulting in a drop, via ESPN NFL Matchup.
- Mayfield, 31st
- Jackson, 25th
- Darnold, 22nd
- Rosen, 20th
- Allen, 12th
Four of the five quarterbacks saw a bottom-half drop rate, with Allen as the exception.
Turnovers by teammates
Turnovers are killers. The quarterback is at least partially responsible for most of them, but sometimes the offense loses the ball because of a mistake that wasn’t the fault of the quarterback. Here are the QBs ordered by the amount of turnovers their teammates were responsible for. This includes lost fumbles by teammates, bad snaps, and an interception thrown by a teammate of Mayfield’s that was actually intended for him on a trick play. The count only includes turnovers that occurred while the quarterback was on the field.
*Interceptions not the fault of the QB are not included
- Darnold, 8
- Mayfield, 5
- Rosen, 3
- Jackson, 2
- Allen, 1
Darnold saw a whopping eight turnovers by his teammates. There were lost fumbles by Anderson (2), McGuire (2), Enunwa (1), Powell (1), and Henderson (1), while Spencer Long launched an awful snap that resulted in Isaiah Crowell botching a handoff.
Jackson and Allen had some good luck in this category. Mayfield came the closest to Darnold, with five teammate turnovers.
Pro Bowl skill position teammates
Talent level of teammates is a tough thing to quantify, but I thought it would be interesting to list how many RB/WR/TE teammates with a Pro Bowl appearance each QB had.
- Darnold, 0
- Jackson, 0
- Mayfield, 1 (Jarvis Landry)
- Allen, 1 (LeSean McCoy)
- Rosen, 2 (Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson)
Here are the five first round rookies ordered by their average rank among the group in each of these categories.
- Darnold, 2.42
- Rosen, 2.67
- Mayfield, 3.17
- Allen, 3.25
- Jackson, 3.67
Which first round rookie quarterback faced the toughest circumstances this year?
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