While the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the NFL offseason could change their plans, the expectation is that the New England Patriots will give second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham every chance to earn the starting job this summer and become Tom Brady’s heir. Brady, of course, filled the role on as high a level as any player in pro football history over the course of the last two decades — expecting Stidham to come close, especially early on in his career, would be unfair to him.
With that said, the question is a legitimate one: What can reasonably be expected from the former fourth-round draft pick if he indeed beats out fellow QBs Brian Hoyer, J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke during this year’s training camp?
In order to get an answer that is more than just a simple projection, but rather rooted in data, we will need to set some parameters. This is where the endeavor already gets tricky, because Stidham’s situation is not as common as it may seem: the list of quarterbacks to start zero games during their rookie season before being asked to carry the load for a substantial amount of time in Year Two is a pretty short one. In fact, the only 16 players to fall under the following parameters since the introduction of the salary cap in 1994:
- Second-year quarterback
- 0 starts in Year One
- 6+ starts in Year Two
The list of those quarterbacks, one that includes Tom Brady, looks like this:
QB starts: 1994-2019 (Year Two)
What can be seen is that the numbers are all over the place. The MVP campaign by the then-St. Louis Rams’ Kurt Warner obviously stands out, and so does Colin Kaepernick’s first year as a starter with the San Francisco 49ers. There also is a solid middle class — one that includes Tom Brady — as well as a few players that struggled with bigger roles: J.P. Losman (Buffalo Bills), Brodie Croyle (Kansas City Chiefs) and Brett Hundley (Green Bay Packers) were all mediocre at best.
The sample size may be small, but it does give us something to work with. In the next step, we will therefore take a look at the 16 quarterbacks’ average performance. Before doing that, however, we will split it into three category to get a better feel for the data: one row will look at the entire 1994-2019 window, the others will break them up into categories divided by major rule changes in 2004 and 2011 that helped to shape the NFL into the pass-heavy league that we know today.
QB starts: 1994-2019 (Year Two averages)
We can see that Warner’s outstanding 1999 campaign obviously warps the numbers in favor of the first time frame we looked at. When we go further down the list to the row covering 2011 through 2019, on the other hand, we can see the averages posted in their respective first starting seasons by Kaepernick and Hundley as well as Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans) and Mason Rudolph (Pittsburgh Steelers):
9 starts, 170-for-283 (60.4%), 1,898 yards, 11 touchdowns, 9 interceptions (81.2 rating)
As far as comparisons for Stidham are concerned, this is the closest that we can come under the circumstances we previously defined (zero starts in Year One, six-plus starts in Year Two). But what if we expanded the scope a bit to include first-year starters between their rookie and sophomore seasons in general? This would add players like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, and ex-Patriot Jacoby Brissett, now with the Indianapolis Colts.
The new parameters now look like this:
- First- or second-year quarterback
- First-year starter
- 6+ starts in either Year One or Year Two
If we go this route, we can find a total of 125 quarterbacks since the 1994 season who started at least six games in their first and/or their second season in the league. The list that we now get does include the men listed so far, but may be a bit more representative due to the increased sample size not just overall but also in relation to the primary time frame we will focus on between the 2011 and 2019 seasons. By honing in on those nine years, we can now analyze 52 quarterbacks and how they performed in their first year as starters.
What we therefore get are the following averages:
QB starts: 2011-2019 (averages)
The numbers shown here do not look a lot different than those presented in the second table above, looking at starts in Year Two between 2011 and 2019 by players that have not started in Year One. Here, all first-time starters within their first and second years in the league are included, and the averages do not differ dramatically — all while remaining somewhat mediocre by statistical standards:
12 starts, 220-for-372 (58.8%), 2,549 yards, 14 touchdowns, 11 interceptions (80.1 rating)
What we can say with relative confidence at this point is that first-year starters, on average, do not tend to move the needle too much for their respective teams — something that has been the case going all the way back to the introduction of the salary cap in 1994. Our preferred timeframe — 2011 to 2019 — is no exception despite including some impressive first-year numbers posted by Mahomes, Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys) and Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks). For every outstanding first-year starting QB, however, there appear to be quite a few that struggle.
This fact becomes evident when we add advanced metrics to the equation. There are plenty of them — from the ratings posted by Pro Football Focus to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic — but for our purposes we will go with Expected Points Added (EPA). Dave Archibald of Inside the Pylon explained EPA as follows last October:
Expected Points Added (EPA) is a football statistic that seeks to measure the value of individual plays in terms of points. This is done by calculating the Expected Points (EP) of the down, distance, and field position situation at the start of a play and contrasting it with the situation at the end of the play. A three-yard gain on first-and-10 is pretty different than a three-yard gain on third-and-two, something not usually captured in conventional statistics. The Expected Points framework helps translate raw gains into value.
If we take a look at EPA since 2011, we can see that first-year starting QBs as identified by the parameters set above consistently trailer their more experienced brethren:
With the exception of 2012, when players such as Wilson, Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins) entered the league and posted comparatively impressive seasons, first-year starters have consistently lacked behind their veteran counterparts. Sure, every now and then a player breaks out — Mahomes, Prescott, Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans) — but for the most part QBs tend not to have the same level of consistent impact as more experienced players at the position.
So with all that said, what does this mean for Stidham?
When looking at averages both from a statistical and an advanced perspective, he should not be expected to become the second coming of Tom Brady in 2020. In fact, not even Brady was the player he later became in his first season as a starter despite leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl. And herein lies the great unknown: while quarterback is the most important position in the game, and can impact it like no other, situations and environments are incredibly important to a player’s development when he gets thrust into the spotlight.
Just look at Dak Prescott, who entered the NFL as a fourth-round player such as Stidham and was not expected to start until Tony Romo suffered a season-ending injury in preseason. Prescott’s success over the last four years speaks for itself and will make him one of the highest paid players in league history sooner rather than later, but the fact that he joined an experienced offense that had quality pieces across the board certainly assisted his growth into the Cowboys’ eventual QB1 and franchise quarterback.
Not every first-year starter enjoys the same luxury, though. For every Dak Prescott there is a Johnny Manziel and a Blake Bortles, an E.J. Manuel and an Austin Davis.
Where will Stidham end up on this scale? Given the fact that the Patriots still have some quality pieces on both sides of the ball — from their offensive line to their secondary — and their coaching staff, chances are that the lands closer to Prescott than Manziel and company. But he and the team surrounding him on and off the field will need to put in the necessary work to make it happen, and also have the right amount of (unquantifiable) luck.
So, what do realistic expectations for the 23-year-old look like? On average, not all that magnificent — say around 60 percent completions and a passer rating in the 80s, with an EPA trailing that of other quarterbacks across the league on a week-to-week basis. But as multiple players over the last 25-plus years have shown, talent and circumstance can make for powerful allies.