Quarterback Rex Grossman is winding up his best season ever, which is not good news. Grossman has posted modestly positive Expected Points Added (EPA) and Win Probability Added (WPA) numbers with one game left to play. He is popular with the offensive staff and with many teammates, and with so many needs heading into the off-season, it might be tempting for the Redskins to think that Grossman is a medium-term solution at quarterback. But this is a trap.
In his ninth year in the league, Grossman has played as well as he likely ever will, which is just about league-average. The problem is that league-average sounds a lot better than it is. That average includes many 2nd and 3rd stringers forced into duty. Grossman ranks 29th in EPA per play and 23rd in WPA per game. If advanced stats like WPA or EPA aren’t your cup of tea, consider that Grossman leads the NFL in interceptions, and his Adjusted Yards Per Attempt (AYPA) is 4.2, tied for 31st in the league.
“Best season ever”, “31st in the league”, and “leads the league in interceptions” is a combination that does not bode well for the future of a franchise that would consider standing pat at quarterback.
The free agent market for quarterbacks isn’t favorable in 2012. Drew Brees headlines the list but the conventional wisdom is that it’s a certainty he’ll stay in New Orleans. The next best player available might be, ironically, Jason Campbell. Vince Young is out there, as are a number of other retreads. One intriguing option might be Matt Flynn, the Packers’ backup who is highly regarded, but who has only one start on his résumé. None of those options is particularly appealing, which leaves the draft.
Depending on the outcome of the final week of play, the Redskins are likely to end up with the 6th or 7th pick of the 1st round. Top prospect Andrew Luck will certainly be off the board by then. Now that Matt Barkley has announced his intention to remain in college, Robert Griffin III is often mentioned as the next best option, and it’s likely he’ll be taken before the Redskins go on the clock. Landry Jones and Ryan Tannehill are the next best prospects.
It’s beyond my expertise to say which prospect is better, but I can use history as a guide to gauge expectations about how drafted QBs tend to turn out based on draft order. Scouts and general managers are generally successful at selecting the better quarterback on the board. Although we’re frequently reminded that Tom Brady was taken in the 6th round and Joe Montana in the 3rd, for every diamond in the late-round rough, there are countless rocks who never make it off the bench.
The very first quarterback taken has a higher chance of panning out as a top performer than subsequent picks, but then the likelihood of top success levels off rapidly. Of the first quarterbacks taken, 38% earned a Pro Bowl selection. The second quarterbacks selected appeared in at least one Pro Bowl 29% of the time, and the third appeared in a Pro Bowl 14% of the time. Although a Pro Bowl appearance is far from a scientific measure, it at least indicates the player was most likely not a bust.
If we use a more exact measuring stick than Pro Bowls, we get a slightly different picture of how drafted quarterbacks turn out. From the 1980 through the 2000 draft classes, and using career AYPA as a measure of success, the first quarterback taken was better than the next one taken 81% of the time. The second one taken turned out better than the third 38% of the time. The third quarterback taken was better than the fourth 52% of the time. It seems that, beyond the first quarterback taken in any given draft, there is little reason to be confident one pick will outperform the pick taken immediately before him.
Of course, this year it’s different. Luck and Griffin are considered on a level above the next best prospects, so it might be tempting to trade up several slots to grab Griffin. But every year appears ‘different’ at the time to the teams that trade away picks to reach up for their preferred guy.
Mike Shanahan arrived as head coach in Denver with a guaranteed Hall of Famer already installed. After John Elway’s retirement, Shanahan’s quarterbacks comprise an uncelebrated list: Brian Griese, Danny Kanell, Jake Plummer, Donovan McNabb, Grossman, and John Beck. Griese and Plummer were serviceable, but his only true success in selecting quarterbacks was Jay Cutler, the third quarterback taken in 2006 (11th overall), behind Vince Young and Matt Leinart.
What does all this mean for the Redskins in 2012? Regardless of how well he may ‘fit the system’, Grossman is not a viable option beyond serving as a placeholder or backup. The free agent options are thin, and the Redskins need to look to the draft. The Redskins can expect either the second or third quarterback to fall to the seventh pick. The team would be best not to fall in love with a particular quarterback, and resist the temptation to sell picks to move up to ensure they get their guy.
Recent history shows that there isn’t usually a large drop-off in career success between the second and third quarterbacks taken. Depending on how the first round unfolds and which teams are picking behind the Redskins, it might even make sense to trade down, pick up an extra pick and still land the third quarterback available. Shanahan’s experience with Cutler might just pull him in that direction.