Cracking the Geno Code

Last week for RotoViz, I examined the statistical profiles of the current NFL starting quarterbacks to get a baseline for evaluating college passers. That led me to believe Colin Kaepernick was a better prospect than Blaine Gabbert all along. It also generated a simple hypothesis for the 2013 NFL Draft: select Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel. Avoid everyone else.

Of course, that simple and relatively straightforward analysis doesn’t eliminate all of the scouting concerns about Geno Smith. After all, Akili Smith put up good numbers in college. So did Matt Leinart. In this article, I’ll look at the biggest red flags the scouts have elocuted and try to determine whether any appear valid.

1. Mel Kiper has a date Wednesday

When the Kansas City Star asked Mel Kiper why Smith shouldn’t be in play for the Chiefs at No. 1, he explained that Smith was the “product of West Virginia’s system that created space and didn’t require throws into tight windows,” while also citing some “dropped interceptions.”

Naysayers tend to overestimate the prevalence of system quarterbacks at the BCS level. In fact, it’s fairly self-evident that putting up Madden numbers in a major conference is very, very difficult regardless of system. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

If we make a quick digression from the stats to the tape, we see all the features of a college spread offense, but we also see stick throws at the goal line against Texas and perfectly lofted bombs against Oklahoma. Kiper’s evaluation would appear to be drawn out of thin air.

His suggestion that there were dropped interceptions is laughable. Smith attempted 518 passes and threw 6 interceptions. He finished with a 7-1 TD/INT ratio. Among current NFL starters who played at BCS colleges, the only one with a better TD/INT ratio his final year in college was Russell Wilson. Smith’s TD/INT ratio is roughly twice as good as that posted by his NFL peers.

2. Smith is Graham Harrell 2.0

Geno Smith put on a show in Indy, demonstrating plus athleticism at the Combine. But that’s obviously questionable since it wasn’t quote on tape. We’ll let highly respected draft guru Mike Mayock weigh-in on Smith’s physical talent: “I think Geno Smith . . . has first-round ability but is highly inconsistent.”

Mayock isn’t infallible. He didn’t see Russell Wilson as a clear cut NFL talent and absolutely adored Mark Sanchez. But if Mayock sees potentially big time physical talent, it would suggest Smith has little in common with the likes of Harrell, Leinart, or Kellen Moore. Instead, Mayock seems to believe that Smith’s actual results call his draft status into question.

3. Smith is highly inconsistent

Smith was on his way to a high finish in the Heisman voting before seeing his season derailed by uninspiring performances against Texas Tech and K-State. He rebounded down the stretch of the Big 12 season, finishing with a heroic performance against Oklahoma and a total evisceration of Kansas. Unfortunately, he then flopped in a Bowl loss to arch nemesis Syracuse.

This raises two questions. First, just how inconsistent was Smith? And second, does college inconsistency portend poorly in projecting a player to the NFL?

Frequent readers will know that I tend to use adjusted yards per attempt to measure quarterback efficiency. It’s the cleanest and simplest measure and doesn’t require all of the QB Rating nonsense. Geno Smith finished the season with 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt (aya).

During the season Smith averaged more than 9.0 aya five times and less than 6.0 aya three times. That seems pretty bad in the consistency department.

But it turns out not to be unusual at all.

Former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford averaged more than 9.0 aya seven times and less than 7.0 aya five times. The NFL’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, averaged more than 10.0 aya five times and less than 7.0 aya four times.

Sports Reference doesn’t have game logs for Peyton Manning, but everyone’s favorite GOAT led his Volunteers to nine games with 30 or more points in 1997 and four others with 22 or fewer (two of which were crushing losses). Needless to say, it’s lucky the flop against Nebraska in his final college game – a 42-17 shellacking by the Cornhuskers – didn’t lead the Colts to select Ryan Leaf.

Few prospects – even elite ones – post consistently dominating numbers. Scouts will say they aren’t concerned with the consistency of Smith’s numbers but the consistency of his mechanics. Of course, that’s even less of a concern. If Smith can complete 71% of his passes and manage a 7-to-1 TD/INT ratio with inconsistent mechanics, imagine how good he might be with a little NFL coaching.

4. The Syracuse game is a massive red flag

Human nature tends to assign disproportionate value to the most recent results, which is one of the reasons GMs occasionally make such poor decisions. If the Mountaineers hadn’t been bowl eligible, the case against Geno would probably be contained to mutters around the periphery. But it didn’t end there.

Smith struggled to move the ball against Syracuse, and his team was humiliated. True, there was a snowstorm and conditions were awful, but the television commentators informed us that the NFL scouts would love the opportunity to see how Smith – and fellow prospect Ryan Nassib – handled bad weather.

If you’ve heard how bad Smith was in that game – or remember watching the game yourself – you might be surprised to discover that Smith completed 68% of his passes and added two more TDs without an interception. He averaged 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt, which, as you recall, is what Matt Barkley averaged for the season. It’s better than Nassib and in a different stratosphere than Glennon. If you need any more evidence that the supposed battle to be the top quarterback isn’t a battle at all, consider that for a moment.

Smith outperformed his competitors’ full season efficiency levels in one of his nightmare games.

It’s worth repeating. Smith did all of that in the snow and with the pressure of playing from behind. Nassib, playing with a lead, completed just 48% of his passes for 5.4 adjusted yards per attempt.

Scouts Don’t Have A Strong Track Record

When you hear that there’s no consensus about the top quarterback, it also pays to keep in mind that scouts have a terrible track record in projecting quarterbacks. Any list of the most efficient quarterbacks in NFL history includes Kurt Warner and Tony Romo. Both were undrafted.

Just in the last two seasons scouts missed badly on Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Andy Dalton while being far too enamored with Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker. Of the four biggest stars currently at the position, only one was taken in the draft’s first 15 picks (Peyton Manning). Geno Smith could be the next Akili Smith. But there’s just as much reason to believe he’ll be the next Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Tom Brady.

 

 

Shawn Siegele has finished in the Top 10 of the NFFC’s Main Event Classic for two consecutive seasons and is one of only a handful of players to own three or more Main Event league titles. He also contributes to Rotoviz and works as the Lead Redraft Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

 

 

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