As the NFL kicks off its season, quarterbacks will again take center stage. Though many existing metrics for quarterback play are a vast oversimplification, the quarterback remains the player most responsible for a team’s wins and losses. With that in mind, here are two storylines we’re watching when it comes to two of the young, promising players at the sport’s most important position.
Will Josh Allen stay elite?
In his first two years in the league, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s play was so erratic and unpredictable that it was dubbed “The Josh Allen Experience.” Accuracy problems and a striking lack of fundamentals plagued 2018’s seventh overall pick. But Allen showed flashes of promise as his sophomore season came to a close, giving Bills fans hope for the future. He picked up last season where he left off, turning in not just a good season in 2020, but an unexpectedly elite one. His opponent-adjusted Total QBR of 81.7 was third in the NFL and ranks as the 12th highest in the league since 2006.1
Most explanations for Allen’s improvement note his winning attitude and raw potential — potential that was ultimately unlocked through patience and good coaching. It’s a nice, feel-good story about long odds and hard work. But despite Allen being rewarded with a contract that made him the second-highest paid player at his position, at least one NFL decision maker is still unsure if he’s the real deal: “He perplexes me,” an anonymous personnel director told The Athletic’s Mike Sando, “because in my career I have not seen someone go from as inaccurate as he was in college to making this kind of transition.”
Projecting college quarterbacks to the NFL is hardly an exact science, but accuracy is one trait that is seldom learned after a player enters the league. Mike Leach — one of the innovators of the QB-friendly air raid offense — has quipped that you can teach a shortstop to play quarterback more easily than you can teach accuracy to an inaccurate passer.
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Yet last year, Allen’s accuracy did improve. In 2019 — Allen’s sophomore season — 23 percent of his incompletions were charted as off-target by ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, worst in the league. Based on history, we would have expected his below-average performance to continue.2 But Allen’s off-target rate fell dramatically last year to 15.4 percent, a hair better than league average.3 That 7.6 percentage point improvement was good for second best in the NFL in 2020, behind only MVP Aaron Rodgers. Perhaps more impressive: Allen’s performance represents the eighth-largest year-over-year improvement in accuracy since 2006.4
Still, as impressive as Allen’s rapid ascent was, it should probably give us pause. Of the 31 players since 2006 to record at least a 5-point improvement in off-target rate, nearly three quarters saw it rise the following season.5
Off-target throws that end in incompletions aren’t the end of the story, though. “Off-frame” passes — passes that were thrown high, low, ahead or behind a target but were still caught — represent another way to quantify Allen’s accuracy. By this measure, 2020 was a banner year for the Bills QB. Allen threw for 10 touchdowns on 58 plays categorized as “off the frame” by the ESPN Stats & Information Group. That compares to just two touchdowns on 46 such plays in 2019. Allen’s 10 TDs in 2020 are tied for second most in a season since 2017 (the first year for which we have data). Moreover, Allen’s eight-touchdown increase on off-frame throws accounts for 47 percent of his total year-over-year touchdown improvement.
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Unfortunately for Allen, success on these throws appears to be heavily driven by luck instead of skill. Among Allen’s peers who threw six or more off-frame TDs in a season, 85 percent saw their TD totals fall the next year. In fact, assuming the same volume of catches and average luck, and after adjusting for Allen’s yards per attempt, we should expect him to throw for around 4.7 fewer touchdowns in 2021 on those off-frame throws.
Allen already beat the odds simply by making it to the NFL. That he led the Bills to two playoff wins, inserted himself into the MVP discussion, and followed that up by getting paid like a 1990s rock star are all strong indicators that he’s a player you probably shouldn’t bet against. Yet despite this, the evidence suggesting Allen is due for regression is powerful. Will he defy expectations and excel for another year, or will we get a revival of the old Josh Allen Experience?
Will Zac Taylor protect Joe Burrow?
After Joe Burrow went down in a heap with a knee injury Week 11 at Washington, the Cincinnati Bengals were confronted with questions about their plans for protecting the first overall pick of the 2020 draft. The Bengals responded, but perhaps not in the way most expected — and one big storyline to watch will be whether Burrow can remain upright behind a reconfigured offensive line. But another important issue will be where Bengals head coach Zac Taylor asks Burrow to throw when he does get time.
Immediately after Burrow’s injury, left guard Michael Jordan was benched — and this week the Bengals released the 2019 fourth-round pick. Cincinnati fired offensive line coach Jim Turner in January then cut right tackle Bobby Hart two months later. Hart was replaced on the right side with veteran tackle Riley Reiff, and Turner was replaced by Frank Pollack. With the fifth overall pick in the draft, the Bengals could have found more help for the line, but instead of taking Oregon’s Penei Sewell, they drafted Burrow’s former teammate at LSU, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
Both Reiff and 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams earned 70-point scores in pass blocking from Pro Football Focus, so it’s possible that the Bengals can improve on last year’s 29th-place finish in pass block win rate, despite passing on Sewell. The question that remains to be answered is if Taylor will do more to protect Burrow through his play-calling.
Coming into the league, Burrow had very few faults — that’s what made him the first overall pick, after all. But he wasn’t a perfect QB prospect. Scouts noted that he had trouble with deeper passes to the sidelines, which require a strong arm, and the analytics backed up their observations. This likely wouldn’t be a big deal on most teams, but in 2019, Taylor asked his quarterbacks to throw the fifth-most sideline passes in the NFL. Some wondered6 if Taylor would adapt his scheme to better emphasize Burrow’s strengths rather than accentuate his weaknesses.
Last year we got our answer: Not at all! Through Week 10 of 2020, Burrow was tied for third in the NFL in pass attempts to the sideline 5 to 20 yards down the field. Burrow is an exceptionally accurate passer — as a rookie, he had the fifth-lowest off-target pass attempt percentage in the NFL — and has great touch on his deep ball, but he does not have a big arm. When he was asked to make plays that require a big arm, Burrow was not efficient, throwing for just 5.1 yards per attempt and completing 38.5 percent of his deep sideline pass attempts.
Taylor and the Bengals will need to do more than protect Burrow from rushing defenders if they want to be successful in 2021; they’ll also need to recognize and adapt to his weaknesses. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Taylor, but early returns seem worrisome for the Bengals — and perhaps for Taylor’s future in Cincinnati.