Here at CFB Film Room one of our primary goals is to create advanced statistics which can assist the scouting process. We strongly believe in the traditional scouting process and weight the eye test more than any statistic. But we do believe that advanced stats can provide more context to a scouting report and should always be considered in player evaluations.
As we prepare for the 2016 college football season, the two players we are most interested in watching are Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya—the two favorites to go No. 1 overall in the 2017 NFL draft.
So to prepare for the 2016 season, we’ve gone back to our stats from 2015 and put together an advanced stats scouting report on the two prospects. We’ll highlight four key areas of their games and attempt to use our advanced stats to determine who has the better resume in each category.
Let’s start with the area with the most obvious difference.
Watson holds a clear edge in mobility and is a dangerous open field runner. For this reason, it’s easy to make the case that Watson is the better college quarterback. The ability to run the read option—or just straight designed QB keepers—is such a huge advantage in the college game and separates Watson from Kaaya.
But we’re trying to compare them as NFL quarterbacks, where outside-the-pocket mobility is significantly less important, and can actually serve as a detriment to a player’s ability to develop as a pocket passer.
In the NFL mobility takes on a different meaning, and is more about your ability to simply avoid pressure than actually take off running.
When looking simply at ability to avoid sacks, Kaaya narrows the gap significantly due to his exceptional pocket precense.
11.8 percent of Kaaya’s dropbacks under pressure resulted in sacks, compared to 9.5 percent for Watson. But both of these rates put Watson and Kaaya in an upper tier of quarterbacks in terms ability to avoid the sack. To put those numbers into perspective, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield—whose mobility is much closer to Watson’s than Kaaya’s—was sacked on 24.4 percent of his pressured dropbacks.
Due to his lack of mobility, Kaaya’s sack avoidance might actually be more impressive. His ability to move within the pocket is elite, especially considering his age.
Watson tends to avoid sacks by leaving the pocket—which makes sense given the threat he poses to run the ball. But Kaaya rarely rolls out. In fact, of Kaaya’s 103 pass attempts under pressure, 89 came from the pocket (86.4 percent). Watson only stayed in the pocket for 64.5 percent of his pressure pass attempts.
So the edge in mobility clearly goes to Watson, but in terms of what the NFL expects of a quarterback, the gap is not as wide for them as NFL prospects as it appears to be in college game.
Passing Under Pressure
Mobility is part of handling pressure, and we’ve already established that Watson holds an edge there. But when the two quarterbacks get off a pass under pressure the advantage may swing the other direction.
The completion rates are similar, but due to the enormous talent gap in their supporting cast, that’s a misleading stat in this comparison. The 15.3 percent drop rate from Kaaya’s receivers is pathetic and clearly impacts his completion percentage as well as his yards per attempt.
If we exclude the attempts with dropped passes for each quarterback, the yards per attempt comes out to 8.1 for Kaaya and 8.6 for Watson—a negligible difference.
But the biggest difference in this category is undoubtedly the interception rate.
Watson tossed an interception once every 16 attempts under pressure, compared to once every 92 attempts for Kaaya.
Why did Watson throw so many interceptions under pressure? It simply boils down to poor decision making.
Sometimes a low interception rate under pressure like Kaaya’s can be attributed to checking down at a high rate, but Kaaya’s passes under pressure actual traveled further through the air on average than Watson (12.6 air yards per att for Kaaya, 11.7 for Watson).
Again, the completion percentage and yards per attempt are almost irrelevant given the astronomical 27.3 percent drop rate by Kaaya’s receivers. If we remove the dropped passes, Kaaya’s yards per attempts rises to 11.3 and his completion rate rises to 39 percent—both slightly better that Watson’s numbers.
Despite the pitiful performance from Kaaya’s supporting cast, it’s clear he holds an advantage over Watson in this category. But Watson’s numbers outside of the interceptions are still relatively impressive. Remember, he was just a sophomore last season, so some struggles should be expected. Just because he falls short in a comparison to Kaaya does not mean decision making under pressure is a long-term concern for Watson.
One of the stats we chart is uncatchable passes. This stat can be subjective, especially with a huge discrepancy in the talent level of receivers around different quarterbacks. So to fairly chart this stat, we are extremely generous to the quarterbacks. As a general rule, we assume every receiver is a hybrid of Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. If that receiver on his best day with his most acrobatic effort still couldn’t make the catch, then we chart it as uncatchable.
For this reason, uncatchable pass rates are relatively low across the board. Excluding throw aways, the average among teams we’ve charted is 13.7 percent.
Both Watson and Kaaya fall fairly significantly below the average, which should be expected given their obvious future in the NFL. On pass attempts at all levels, Kaaya posted an uncatchable pass rate of 10.9 percent. Watson’s rate fell at 8.5 percent.
Both quarterbacks’ rates predictably rise on the deep ball. Watson’s uncatchable rate on passes 20 or more yards downfield was 22.1 percent, while Kaaya’s was 23.5 percent (average is 25.4 percent).
These numbers don’t highlight the ball placement skills that can set a quarterback apart at the next level, but eliminating the truly errant throws is a part of the development process and both quarterbacks check that box.
A subjective viewing of the two quarterbacks in this area clearly favors Watson, who noticeably has a stronger arm. But as we’ve seen time and time again in the NFL, a strong arm doesn’t always lead to success at the next level.
An assessment of Watson and Kaaya’s deep passing looks a lot like their numbers at other levels. Very little separates the two quarterbacks until you analyze their interception rates.
The raw numbers give a slight edge to Watson in completion percentage and yards per attempt but, once again, once you account for the dropped passes the advantage swings back slightly in Kaaya’s favor.
Based on Watson’s concerning interception rate on the deep ball, it’s tough not to give the edge to Kaaya in this category. However, Watson’s obvious arm talent gives him a much higher ceiling. What you see is what you get with Kaaya in this area—which is just fine—but Watson has the potential to develop the deep ball into an area of strength in the future.
Edge: Kaaya (short term), Watson (long term)
Separating the two quarterbacks at this stage of their careers is extremely difficult and if they continue to progress as expected it will simply come down to a stylistic preference for each NFL team evaluating their skills.
Watson’s mobility and arm strength will endear him to certain teams who see an elite ceiling for him. But Kaaya’s more traditional skill set within the pocket will cause some teams lean his direction.
There simply isn’t a right answer to this question now and there might not be next April either.