There are four active quarterbacks who most will agree are elite. In alphabetical order, they are: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
But what about Atlanta’s Matt Ryan?
“Matt’s an excellent quarterback, but he’s not elite. He’s this close,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said while placing his thumb near his index finger. “He’ll get there, but he has some learning to do.”
The 28-year-old signed a five-year, $103.75 million extension in July that puts him sixth in quarterback contract values, so he is already paid like an elite quarterback.
Money, however, isn’t everything – production is what matters.
Going back to Ryan’s rookie year, only Brees, Rodgers and Philip Rivers have a higher career approximate value, which is Doug Drinen’s method of putting a single numerical value on any player’s season, at any position, from any year.
The main idea is very similar to another of Bill James’ concoctions: Win Shares. The output and the goal of the Win Shares method are in some sense similar to those of the value approximation method: put a number on every player-season so that we can compare across years and across positions.
No doubt Manning and Brady would be higher on the list if they had not each missed an entire season to injury, but not even the most elite of quarterbacks can have any impact on a game if they can’t suit up.
According to Pro Football Focus’ Accuracy Percentage, which accounts for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball, Ryan was second best in the league last season among quarterbacks dropping back for at least half their team’s snaps. And it is something he has improved in each of the past five seasons.
Accuracy Percentage, in of itself, isn’t going to convince anyone, but it does show that he is more than capable of getting the football into the hands of his receivers, even after losing Julio Jones and Roddy White to injury. This helps explain why Ryan is such a big part of Atlanta’s offense. Even bigger than Manning’s impact in Denver.
Adjusted yards gained per pass attempt, a metric that closely mirrors what quarterbacks are supposed to do to win games, can be translated into expected points scored. The math is not for the faint of heart, but the formula is as follows: AY/A * attempts * 0.075 = expected points generated.
For example, Ryan had 6.56 AY/A last season on 651 attempts, so he should generate 320.3 points of offense against a league average defense, or 90.7 percent of the Falcon’s 353 points scored. That’s a higher percentage than any of the “Elite Four” outside of Brees.
If we base Rodgers’s percentage on 550 attempts like he had in 2012, he would be “responsible” for 88.9 percent of the Packers’ 2013 offense.
Of course, the one stat where Ryan falls short of the Elite Four is in Super Bowl rings, but it takes more than elite quarterback play to be the last team standing at the end of the postseason. And that’s what it will take for Ryan to step up into “elite” class: A better supporting cast.
Here is Jadeveon Clowney having an easy time getting to Ryan during Saturday’s 32-7 preseason loss to Houston.
Yes, Clowney was the number one overall pick for a reason, but Atlanta’s offensive line is not one of the league’s best. Despite this, Ryan still managed 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. In fact, Ryan was rated just a smidge higher by Pro Football Focus game charting than Brady, despite New England having more talented pass blockers on the offensive line.
But Ryan sees improvement on the horizon for the unit.
I really like Jake Matthews coming in. He has a great attitude for a rookie. He’s really athletic and he’s really smart. I think that’s a great combination for when you are talking about a cornerstone of your organization for a long time. Jon Asamoah has done a great job of coming in and picking up our scheme. He’s a veteran guy. So, I really like what he brings to the table. I think you’ve got a guy in Joe Hawley, who’s in that slot competing with Peter Konz at center right now. Joe at the end of last year got to get a lot of experience and at that center position. I think that’s under-valued a lot because those guys are asked to do so much at the line of scrimmage in terms of getting the other four guys on the same page. Then we get Sam Baker back healthy, which is huge for us. He’s a great player. On paper I think we should be a lot better. On the field from what I’ve seen right now, those guys have done a great job.
Defensively, Atlanta gave up 3.9 points more than average (fourth worst in the NFC last season), but saw their 3-4 defensive front bolstered by the additions of 345-pound nose tackle Paul Soliai and 296-pound end Tyson Jackson.
“We’ve got to show people what we want to be this year and we’ve got to go out there and prove it,” Soliai said. “We can’t just talk about it. We’ve just got to show it on tape.”
If both the offensive and defensive lines can take a step forward this year, adding Ryan to the league’s elite quarterbacks might not seem so far fetched.