Matthew Stafford vs. Josh Freeman, Four Years Later
Prior to the 2009 NFL draft, and not long before I began this internet hotspot, I was unable to discerne much of a difference at all between two committed underclassmen from the college ranks who had strong 2008 seasons, came from an Elite 11 pedigree, and were primed to be selected in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Given the benefit of hindsight, not a whole lot has changed. The following table shows the results of the 2009 quarterback class, graded by total career Approximate Value (position rating). And the two players that were fairly indecipherable before the draft have remained as such four years into their pro careers.
|Player Name||Age||Position Rating||College|
|Bomar||28||0||Sam Houston State|
In fairness to history, my top rated quarterback in this draft was Ball State’s Nate Davis, who was rostered by the San Francisco 49ers for the 2009 season, had a virtuoso performance in the NFL preseason in 2010, got ripped in the post game press conference by his head coach (Mike Singletary) for reasons that are still unclear, and disappeared off the face of the earth. Davis’ semi-public learning disability issues are the argument I still use to comment about modern quarterback intangibles, because he’s the test case to prove that it the NFL doesn’t understand something, it can just pretend it never existed in the first place. This analysis will take after the NFL and assume Davis never existed.
That leaves my top two quarterbacks from that draft as the top two performers through four years. Off memory, I put solid second round grades on both Stafford and Freeman, a third round grade on Graham Harrell, a fourth round grade on Mark Sanchez and Drew Willy, and remember clearly having Painter, Hoyer, Bomar, and Carpenter in the ranks of the undrafted. I don’t remember where I had anywhere else, and one of the reasons I began this blog in the first place is issues with documentation of my draft ranking history.
It’s remarkable how very little quarterback depth has come out of this draft. The fourth best QB has pretty clearly turned out to be
Davis Chase Daniel of the Saints (he originally signed with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent), who has looked good in incredibly limited action. The NFL views him as a backup. It’s more of an indictment of the class that the third best QB…was Sanchez.
In getting away from what this draft didn’t produce, it did produce Freeman and Stafford. Those two quarterbacks are a good case study for the value of analytics in the NFL. Stafford was much more highly regarded prospect coming out than Freeman was, even though they had really similar backgrounds (Freeman grew up in a football family in the Kansas City area, Stafford grew up in the affluent Arlington, TX area). They would both incredibly young QB prospects: no quarterback as young as either Stafford or Freeman has been drafted in any round since 2009, and you have to go all the way back to 2005 (Alex Smith) to find a younger QB who was drafted in the first round. And while the common belief was that Stafford’s arm was a grade above Freeman’s, that hasn’t necessarily been true in the NFL. Stafford and Freeman are both mechanically inconsistent players. Stafford, at times, is intentionally inconsistent with his mechanics. Stafford has been very underrated as an athlete in the NFL though, while Freeman has been more or less as advertised.
Statistics in the college days
Stafford — boosted no doubt by having a freshman AJ Green to throw to — completed 61% of his passes and threw for 9.0 yards per attempt as a senior. That will get you noticed. Freeman also had a very nice year as a junior, completing 58% of his passes for 7.7 yards per attempt. That wasn’t seen as a year on par with Stafford because Freeman played in the defense deficient Big 12. However, he also played for Kansas State in the Ron Prince era.
But what got lost was the relative issues with a one year sample size at the college level (Mark Sanchez says “hi”). If we expand the sample to include their respective Sophomore years, Freeman becomes a 61% college passer who maintains a 2:1 TD:INT ratio. Stafford becomes a 59% passer. And without Green for the whole time, he trends back towards 8.0 YPA. Freeman hangs in just above 7.0 YPA.
Stafford was a more prolific college player, but the more we isolate the quarterback from the team (by including multiple years in our analysis), the more identical that Stafford and Freeman look as collegiate prospects.
Statistics in the NFL
What’s remarkable is that this comparison holds very tight at the next level. It hardly matters what statistical category you judge on, they’re neck and neck in yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, sack rate (duh), TD rate, rushing average, everything down to INT rate, which favors Stafford in part because of the high percentage of screens in the Detroit offense. What’s most shocking is perhaps the volume: Stafford has thrown just ten fewer passes through four years than Freeman has. And they’ve been approximately worth the exact same. They both play on teams with elite NFL receivers, and annoyingly inconsistent defenses.
DVOA, for what it’s worth, prefers Stafford by a comfortable margin, but EPA (the base for QBR), and most stat analyses see practical equals. I checked to see if the opponent adjustments were creating the big difference and they were…in 2012 only. The Panther, Falcon, and Saint defenses were pretty big jokes this year and Stafford had to face the Bears twice.
Four years later, the conclusion to be made is that there wasn’t a concrete reason to prefer Matthew Stafford as the first overall pick in 2009. It’s not as if he hasn’t been worth the pick — he clearly has and will receive a big money extension in the near term future — but every issue Stafford has had in the pros was identifiable in his college performance. Stafford’s mechanical inconsistencies have led to a lot of missed opportunities for the Lions. Like most passers (and Freeman in particular), Stafford is capable of running very hot and cold at times, looking both like a bust of a pick and a franchise quarterback within the last two seasons, sometimes even week to week.
As with Freeman (and Joe Flacco — who mirrors Freeman’s career path strongly), he’s been largely unable to sustain consistent gains. Freeman benefits from a vertical option in Vincent Jackson, and didn’t always take advantage of him. To his top three receiving targets: Jackson, Mike Williams, and Tiquan Underwood, Freeman completed just half his passes. He suffers from many of the consistent accuracy issues that Stafford does.
Despite the equivalent ages, Freeman’s improvement must be more prompt. Stafford can flounder again in 2013, and likely keep his job into 2014, with Jim Schwartz taking the fall. Freeman’s either going to get the franchise tag plus an extension after the season, or he’s going to end up as a backup in 2014. The Bucs are in really good position in the NFC, probably a bit better than the Lions. But the time for Freeman to strike is now. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Stafford and Freeman will likely continue to progress as passers at an equal rate. The best is yet to come for both, but both franchises need to start seeing positive returns on a consistent, week-to-week basis, in order to be confident that they picked the right guy in 2009.