Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated expressed a pretty common sentiment of the 2017 quarterback class back in April of that year: “Let’s be honest: 2017 doesn’t offer the most enticing draft class of quarterbacks. The six best QBs all need to sit and learn early in their pro careers.” On that same day, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com referred to it as a class “lacking elite talent.” Will Brinson of CBS Sports was harsher a few days earlier: “the crop of quarterbacks in this class just isn’t that great.” The press was bad enough that fans around Chicago were worried when it looked like the Bears were finally going to draft their next franchise passer.
Though, to be fair, Zierlein did like one 2017 passer--he called Nathan Peterman underrated, and thought there was a lot in his game to get excited about.
So, how is this class of sub-par passing prospects doing? The eye test tells me that the top three are all playing solid football, but the problem is that these days, with the rules slanted in favor of offenses, most quarterbacks are playing fairly solid football. Or, perhaps more accurately, most quarterbacks are playing statistically impressive football. That turns any discussion of football into an argument over who knows more, supposedly, about how to watch football.
However, there is a way to dig a bit deeper. Pro Football Reference maintains a stat they call Passer Rating Index, or Rate+. Simply put, this stat gives a player’s passer rating indexed to the league average that season, with 100 meaning average for that season. It is a clever answer to the problem of inflating quarterback stats, and it is revelatory for anyone who is curious about how the Class of 2017 is managing these days.
They aren’t managing at all. Or, rather, they aren’t just game-managing. They are blowing the doors off of the competition. Remember that this was supposed to be a terrible draft class for quarterbacks. Teams, like the Bears, that drafted in 2017 were supposedly at a disadvantage because the 2018 class was going to be so much better. Instead, one of the 17ers is in the lead to be league MVP while Chicago’s own Mitchell Trubisky has the tenth-highest passer rating in the league (101.6). On that front, even Deshaun Watson—feared to be a flash in the pan last year—is ahead of Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady.
Surely that can’t be right. Can it?
To get a sense of things in historical context, I fired up PFR and compared the second-season Rate+ scores of the top three quarterbacks of 2017 (Mahomes, Trubisky, and Watson) and compared them to what Mark Sessler of NFL.com called “the gold standard for quarterback classes of the 21st century,” the class of 2004. The top three quarterbacks of 2004 (Roethlisberger, Manning, and Rivers) set a high bar for any quarterback group, and those are the players I want to use as a point of comparison for the 17ers.
I was amused, but not surprised, by the result. Mahomes led the way (Rate+ of 132), followed by Roethlisberger (122), and then Trubisky 114 and Watson 113 at a functional dead heat so far. All four of those players were above average for their sophomore seasons, and Eli Manning was not that far below average (93). Meanwhile, Philip Rivers was far behind (a Rate+ of 61), but to be fair Rivers only had 22 attempts in his second season. If I substitute Rivers’ third season, I find an indexed passer rating of 115. That means that the 2004 class deserved to be heralded--but also that the 17ers are acquitting themselves nicely, as well.
There are some interesting parallels here, too.
Roethlisberger went to a team that was positioned to compete (the 2001 and 2002 Steelers went to the playoffs, even if the 2003 Steelers went 6-10). The Steelers had in place a proven head coach (Cowher), and top wide receiver (Ward), and a Pro Bowl running back (Bettis). The defense wasn’t bad, either. That head start probably helped to lift Roethlisberger to the lead of his class, but that doesn’t take anything away from his own contributions or the fact that he has proven himself (as a quarterback) since then. At least in that sense, Mahomes seems to be in a similar position to Roethlisberger, and is leading his class (and all six qbs in this comparison so far).
What about Rivers? Using his third season’s 115, he is basically putting in the same level of performance (relative to his quarterbacking peers) that Watson and Trubisky are managing. That leaves Manning (he of two Super Bowl rings and little respect) as the only QB to perform worse than his average in his second season of active competition.
In other words, at least in box scores, the maligned class of 2017 is performing better -- adjusted for QB inflation -- than the celebrated 2004 class. The “gold standard” is being outplayed by a group that “isn’t that great.”
Well, okay then. What about more recent comparisons?
2012 was heralded by draft gurus, but a lot of that was “Andrew Luck and…”. Still, the class has proven to be one of the best of recent times. While initially it was a dead heat between Luck and Griffen, a stronger comparison might be matching the 2017 class up against Luck, Russell Wilson, and Nick Foles. Like the 2004 class, this gives the 2012 class a pair of Super Bowl winners. In their sophomore seasons, Foles turned in an indexed passer rating of 142, Wilson an indexed rating of 119, and Luck a 100. It’s worth noting that in 2013, Foles caught lightning in a bottle and reached a level of performance for the season (an actual QB rating of 119.2) so far ahead of his career average (87) that it’s almost unsettling.
However, even when structured in this way, across these three quarterback classes and nine positions, the sophomore seasons of the 2017 quarterbacks rank 2nd, 6th, and 7th. Trubisky and Watson are ahead of Luck and Manning, just behind Rivers and Wilson.
Simply put, the 2017 quarterbacks are holding up just fine to historical comparisons. Well, surely that has an explanation. Friendlier rules and modern preparation techniques and whatnot. The game might have changed dramatically in the six years since Luck was drafted, because of....reasons.
Okay, let’s look at first seasons and compare then to the 2018 class, how about? Remember that the knock on the 2017 class was supposed to be that they all needed to sit for a bit. By contrast, 2018 was supposedly going to produce more polished passers. So, the validation of the critics should be found in how the 17ers performed in their first year compared to how the Class of 2018 is doing. Here’s how these players managed in their first years:
Deshaun Watson had an indexed passer rating in his first season of 116, Trubisky had an 85, and Mahomes (with only 35 passing attempts) checked in with an 84. By comparison, the 2018 class is led by Mayfield (97), Darnold (75), and Allen (67). That means that right out of the gate, the 17ers pulled 1st, 3rd, and 4th place. The ‘superior’ class took 2nd, 5th, and 6th place.
So, the draft class the Bears missed by one season is actually on a path to be anything but impressive. There is plenty of room for things to change, true. But little about the performance of these players or their teams to date suggests that the 2017 class was nearly as bad as it was made out to be, and the praise and anticipation heaped upon 2018 is looking a little silly by comparison.
For now, the 17ers are proving their critics wrong. Since two play in the AFC and the other is on pace to set franchise records for the Bears, that’s really good news in Chicago.
If you had to pick one, which career arc would you prefer Trubisky to parallel?
This poll is closed
Philip Rivers (111 Rate+, 113-88 W-L, 4-5 playoff record)
Eli Manning (97 Rate+, 113 W-110 W-L, 8-4 playoff record, 2 Super Bowl wins)