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Live for tomorrow: Mitchell Trubisky’s rookie year compares well historically

There are a variety of determining factors for a young quarterback’s success. Trubisky’s rookie season stacks up to recent peers.

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears
Historically, Trubisky is on the right track to success.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Playing quarterback as a pro is not enough to go through one progression and deliver a strike through a sizable throwing window. The capable starters, and even greats, are those that go through a multitude of reads every play. They’re continually attacking the defense and putting the ball in play while making these decisions on a split second basis. And, they’re consistently delivering well-placed passes that only their receivers have an opportunity to catch. Ball placement in conjunction with a wherewithal to attack a defense defines a passing offense’s bar more than anything.

Luckily, these are trait that were most noticeable about the Bears’ second-year face of the franchise in Mitchell Trubisky. One of the most notable NFL draft analysts, Lance Zeirlein, maintained in his draft profile of the quarterback, that Trubisky “made the standard pitch and catch throws with consistent accuracy” in college at North Carolina. He was “quick through his progressions” and his “pocket mechanics and throwing motion were solid.”

Every consensus descriptor there are the only necessary traits to be accurate and have the ability to stretch a defense. Being able to throw a ball like the rocket-armed Brett Favre is nice and welcome, but the pass still has to be accurate as you uncork a bomb. You need strong footwork, a throwing foundation, and a sense of timing and touch to accomplish that.

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
Favre excelled not only because of his strong arm and “gunslinger” mentality. But because he knew how to put receivers in position to catch his passes.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Trubisky didn’t come out perfect in any of these mechanic senses as a draft prospect. A rookie quarterback rarely, if ever, does. He didn’t perfect himself in 2017 either. He shouldn’t have had that expectation because he had the necessary foundation to build upon, that a smart coach - like Matt Nagy for example - can take advantage of.

Historical context is what favors Trubisky fine-tuning his mechanics and capitalizing on his accurate instincts as a passer to ultimately thrive. To be the star the Bears believe he is. With Trubisky being the 2017 No. 2 overall pick, this context details the rookie season of each of the last 10 quarterbacks to be drafted No. 1 or No. 2 overall (excluding the 2018 Draft, and including Trubisky at the end).

The reason this sample size isn’t extended farther is because the game changes so much from year to year. The NFL has evolved so much to favor higher level quarterback play, that including data from 20 years ago in a “Stone Age” makes little sense. You want to evaluate a quarterback under generally the same prism of others that have gone through similar parameters.

The two most relevant indicators of a quarterback’s success in the modern era are completion percentage: how often they were on target (although supporting casts can take away from this facet with drops and poor routes. Note that ball placement fits in). And yards per attempt: the extent to which a quarterback is taking a defense past it’s limits downfield. The combined are how productive the quarterback has his passing offense humming along at an efficient rate.

In terms of completion percentage, the standard we want to see from a starter in 2018 is at least 63.8 percent: the lowest of the top 12 marks in 2017. In reference to yards per attempt, anything less than seven yards is a failure, as at least 18 quarterbacks reached this figure last season. Seeing as how an astonishing 18 hit that number, one could even make the argument a yards per attempt of 7.40 (the cutoff for the top 12) is a better eventual aim and indicator of a quality playoff level quarterback.

Don’t expect either of these to change as completions in tandem with aggressiveness are emphasized in offensive philosophies. And, note that an elite yards per attempt can outweigh a completion percentage that might be lacking to some. Big chunks of yardage means consistent big plays. The same goes for completion percentage significantly rising, while the yards per attempt dips only slightly. That means the offense has become more efficient in the ideal of losing the smallest of yardage.

These two statistical notes are how we’ll separate this historical group of quarterbacks and compare them to Trubisky in their early formative years. Everyone progresses differently, but many get off to a better foot than others. Initial steps must be mostly taken by the quarterback before any further advances are made. Those further advances are made by a quarterback’s diligence and hard work, as well as a viable support system around him.

If you don’t learn your past, you’re doomed to repeat it. One of the most common cliches in the English language. The Bears should happily revel in young quarterbacking recent history to see a second-year leap from Trubisky.

Jared Goff, Rams, No. 1 overall (2016)

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams
Goff has become one of the NFL’s poster boys for second-year leaps.
Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Rookie season completion percentage: 54.6 percent

Yards per attempt: 5.3

Games started: Seven

2017 season: 62.1 percent, 8.0 YPA, Pro Bowl selection

Summary: Goff is often compared to Trubisky because of the circumstances he went through that Trubisky did as a rookie.

  • A coach (Jeff Fisher to John Fox) where the game has passed him by? Check.
  • An inept offensive scheme designed to limit risk, and not cultivate a young passer? Check.
  • A breath of fresh air in a young coach (Sean McVay to Matt Nagy)? Check.

The only difference is that Goff was worse in his first season (albeit at a smaller sample size), with in my mind, a slightly better supporting cast in most part due to Todd Gurley.

Last season, Goff was good but more maestro and manager, than primary catalyst because of what Los Angeles had in place on it’s roster. Either way, he’s an example of the jump guys like Trubisky can make once there’s a coach with a plan in place.

Carson Wentz, Eagles, No. 2 overall (2016)

Rookie season completion percentage: 62.4 percent

Yards per attempt: 6.2

Games started: 16

2017 season: 60.2 percent, 7.5 YPA, Pro Bowl selection

Summary: An unconventional top 2 pick because of his status as an FCS draft prospect from North Dakota State, Wentz is an exception to the analytical rule of top college competition. Before an ACL injury suffered last December, Wentz would’ve unquestionably been the NFL’s MVP. He’s also another fine model Trubisky compares better to on an individual level and in a new situation. Meaning, Trubisky’s play style as a mobile passer is more comparable to Wentz, and he’ll play in a similar offense with similar personnel under Nagy in comparison to Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson.

Trubisky is writing his own story in Chicago, but his relevant statistical line favorably mirrors Wentz as a rookie and NFL sophomore. As does the offense’s they played on.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers, No. 1 overall (2015) (Made Pro Bowl as rookie)

Rookie season completion percentage: 58.3 percent

Yards per attempt: 7.6

Games started: 16

2016 season: 60.8 percent, 7.2 yards per attempt

Summary: Every number says that Winston should be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s consistently gashed defenses, and had the natural talent to improve each year of his three-year career.

Where he differs in accuracy and huge chunks of yardage, is turnovers: meaning 44 interceptions in three seasons. For all the good Winston has done to execute his offense, he gives the ball away too much. Completions and yards per attempt can only go so far when you’re wasting possessions. The first example of a quarterback that succeeds immediately not having the most favorable recent history.

Marcus Mariota, Titans, No. 2 overall (2015)

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots
Mariota is another quarterback finally in an offensive system catered to his talents.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Rookie season completion percentage: 62.2 percent

Yards per attempt: 7.6

Games started: 12

2016 season: 61.2 percent, 7.6 YPA

Summary: Look at the time, it’s “This year is his year!” time of the off-season for Mariota. Most have believed him to be a star in the making in Tennessee. Three years in, that status has been underwhelming. Though, if not for a season finale injury that in actuality eliminated Tennessee from the playoffs, Mariota’s 2016 is remembered more fondly.

Furthermore, to be fair, former head coach Mike Mularkey has been more to blame for other Mariota struggles than anyone will let on. Mariota has the tools, and has proven accurate and confident to fit the high quarterbacking standard many expect of him. Expect new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to bring back out the 2016 version of Mariota.

Andrew Luck, Colts, No. 1 overall (2012)

Rookie season completion percentage: 54.1 percent

Yards per attempt: 7.0

Games started: 16

2013 season: 60.2, 6.7 YPA, Pro Bowl selection

Summary: Talk about missed opportunities. Luck was rightfully lauded as a generational quarterback prospect coming out. With steady progression, a Pro Bowl berth in each of his first three seasons, and being the only reason the Colts made the playoffs in those years: Luck more than fit his original billing.

Injuries to his shoulder have since derailed that original potential. Comparing Trubisky to the bright star that Luck once was is unfair from that perspective. Nevertheless, his accuracy and chunk numbers determining quality of play as a young quarterback didn’t lie.

Robert Griffin III, Redskins, No. 2 overall (2012) (Made Pro Bowl as rookie)

Rookie season completion percentage: 65.6 percent

Yards per attempt: 8.1

Games started: 15

2013 season: 60.1 percent, 7.0 YPA

Summary: The common theme of every quarterback detailed that didn’t progress (aside from the turnover-prone Winston) is injury. Griffin could reasonably be seen as one of the greatest “What if?” stories in NFL history based on his special rookie year. The level of play Griffin had as a rookie was the highest yards per attempt of anyone, and the fourth-most accurate.

He was everything for Washington: until a late-season ACL tear was thoroughly mismanaged by Mike Shanahan and company. Griffin was never the same after that, losing his confidence, and succumbing to consistent injury woes. If healthy, it would’ve been difficult to maintain his exemplary level of play from 2012. But, he wouldn’t have experienced such a precipitous drop the following season.

Cam Newton, Panthers, No. 1 overall (2011) (Made Pro Bowl as rookie)

Rookie season completion percentage: 60 percent

Yards per attempt: 7.8

Games started: 16

2012 season: 57.7 percent, 8.0 YPA

Summary: The lone player on this list to actually win an MVP and play in a Super Bowl, Newton has historically been an inaccurate passer based on normal standards. How he makes up for it is exceptional playmaking with his legs and one of the great penchants in the league for deep passing shots. His accuracy has rarely improved throughout his career, but his yards per attempt has steadily been where you like to see an elite, dynamic quarterback. The rookie you saw in the 2011 Newton undoubtedly improved in 2012 too.

Sam Bradford, Rams, No. 1 overall (2010)

St Louis Rams v Carolina Panthers
Bradford never could quite get his career going due to injuries.

Rookie season completion percentage: 60 percent

Yards per attempt: 6.0

Games started: 16

2011 season: 53.1 percent, 6.1 YPA

Summary: Any progress Bradford would’ve made from his rookie to second year was derailed by injury. Much like his entire career has unfolded, the man has never been able to consistently stay on the field. Development can’t happen without experience, and now Bradford is a “bridge.”

It wasn’t until he reached Minnesota in 2016 to where Bradford began to reach his potential with a quality supporting cast and coaching staff around him, as well as enjoying better health. Predictably, injuries in 2017 limited that from continuing as his NFL livelihood isn’t anything to be relied on.

Matthew Stafford, Lions, No. 1 overall (2009)

Rookie season completion percentage: 53.3 percent

Yards per attempt: 6.0

Games started: 10

2010 season: 59.4 percent, 5.6

Summary: Reasonably, Stafford is a current top 10 quarterback. It took him a long time before he started to light up the league and reach his potential, though. Injuries and progression threw off Stafford in his first two seasons in Detroit, as he was the rare young passer in this group to wait until his third year to start to blossom.

Since then, Stafford has become one of the NFL’s most efficient and game breaking quarterbacks, carrying the Lions’ offense the way you’d expect a franchise guy to accomplish. What his track best exemplifies is that quarterback development is not linear, nor does it have to be immediately gratified.

Mitchell Trubisky, Bears, No. 2 overall (2017)

Cleveland Browns v Chicago Bears
Trubisky will carve his own path along precedents set before him.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Rookie season completion percentage: 59.4 percent

Yards per attempt: 6.6

Games started: 12

2018 season: ?

Conclusion: Trubisky’s first season was not that of a bust, that much is obvious as evidenced. Declaring any player at any position a failure after one season - especially at quarterback - is ludicrous. There’s no guarantees that he does flourish in Nagy’s offense with better players around him either, but history’s previous returns at the most valuable evaluation tools say he will. Especially as he’s done relatively better than others in these accuracy and chunk play figures.

Trubisky doesn’t have to have a Pro Bowl season in 2018. He doesn’t have to be an MVP. He just has to be the primary catalyst for a balanced and efficient Bears offense. Even if that doesn’t totally go according to plan because of injuries and the like, if Trubisky shows signs of progress towards that goal: he’ll be on track with no reason to panic. Quarterback development is not linear. Though, the aptitude of Trubisky maintains a steady baseline for the young passer.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.