Third & Long Study: Recent NFL 1st Round Rookie Quarterbacks Since 2017

Recently, I provided an article that looked at rookie NFL quarterbacks in the extended red zone, an area quarterback Kenny Pickett and the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers struggled mightily in. Today’s goal is to take a similar view, but in another critical area for team and quarterback success in the passing game, third and long (seven yards or more). Let’s dive in and see how Pickett’s rookie season stacked up with recent rookie quarterbacks in their first year.

First, let’s look at Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) which is Passing yards – Sack Yards + (20 * Passing TD) – (45 * Interceptions)) / (Passes Attempted + Times Sacked), along with average throw depth (excluding spikes and throwaways) in these situations from Sports Info Solutions (SIS):

Of the 20 qualifying quarterbacks that received playing time in their rookie seasons since 2017, Pickett landed just below the mean with a 4.7 ANY/A which actually tied for his season average. While his overall ANY/A number must improve going forward in hopes of a stronger 2023 Steelers season, his third and long numbers were an encouraging aspect to the overall grim number when compared to recent rookies, with the ninth rank in the last six years and tied for the same rank in attempts with 61. In terms of ATD, Pickett ranked 17th (fourth lowest) at 8.5 yards, at the lower end of the spectrum compared to his peers in the study. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes comfortably led the pack with a 13.5 ANY/A in his limited playing time his rookie year, in which he had only five attempts in these situations. Bills quarterback Josh Allen led the group with a 14.3 ATD, but landed on the lower end of the ANY/A ranks at 3.6. So, the rookie quarterback who had the best balance of opportunity (78 attempts, third), ANY/A (8.5, second), and ATD (11.1, sixth) in their rookie year was Justin Herbert.

Next let’s look at some accuracy data, using catchable and on-target percentages (Catchable % = The percentage of pass attempts that were deemed catchable, excluding spikes, throwaways, and miscommunications, and including defensed accurate passes. On Target % = The number of on-target/catchable throws a quarterback makes divided by the total number of pass attempts, excluding spikes, throwaways, QB/WR miscommunications, receiver slips, and passes batted at the line of scrimmage):

Here we can see Pickett fared very well in terms of accuracy, one of nine quarterbacks on the top right of the chart. He had an 83.6% catchable rate which ranked fifth along with a 76.4 on target percentage that ranked slightly lower at seventh. This highlights a very encouraging aspect of his rookie year that hopefully sticks moving forward, showing the critical down moments were not too big for him, and continuing to deliver on one of his strongest attributes of accuracy in these situations. Interestingly, fellow Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky topped the on target ranks at 83.9% in his rookie year with the Bears, but had the lowest ATD which of course aids this result. This is also a prime example of how much the trajectory of a quarterback can change year-to-year as their careers unfold, considering his lackluster career since and most recently a 2022 season that definitely fit this bill. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow topped the catchable ranks at 86%, but interestingly had a lower on-target percentage than Pickett. Considering many have made comparisons between the two, here’s to hoping Pickett will trend similarly on the positive end of the spectrum moving forward.

Now let’s look at touchdown and interception percentages:

Here we see another encouraging element to Pickett’s rookie season on third and long, having the third-ranked touchdown percentage at 4.9%. It is important to see the big drop off from the top two ranks though, with Herbert (11.5%) and Deshaun Watson’s rookie year with Houston (9.1%). Three of Pickett’s seven touchdowns came on third and long, where we also saw more aggression as a passer in my opinion, and hopefully, this can carry over across the board regardless of down in his second season. His 3.3% interception rate was below the mean though ranking 12th, with two of his nine interceptions on the year coming on third and long. Knock on wood his late-season trend of taking care of the ball can trickle over in 2023.

Here are the quarterbacks’ pressure and sack percentages:

Ideally, a quarterback lands on the top left meaning he was pressured and sacked at lower rates on average. Pickett lands in this camp, sacked at only 8.5% on third and long which was sixth least, along with a 45.1% pressure rate that was seventh least. So, Pickett was given above-average situations to throw from which is important context when taking in all the data, and fingers crossed that the offensive line continues their positive trend from the back half of 2022 into next season for similar (or better) results. On Mahomes’ five attempts, he was pressured the highest rate by far (83.3%) and sacked the fourth most (16.7%), adding impressive context to his strong ANY/A, ATD, and accuracy data despite the low sample size. Quarterback Kyler Murray was the least sacked quarterback (5.2%) which is interesting considering his more average results in many aspects, along with no touchdowns though having a low interception rate.

To wrap up, let’s look at IQR (Sports Info Solutions’ proprietary quarterback metric builds on the traditional Passer Rating formula by considering the value of a quarterback independent of results outside of his control such as dropped passes, dropped interceptions, throwaways, etc.) and completion percentages:

Here we see Pickett lands smack dab in the middle of the chart, with an IQR of 80.5 which ranks eighth amongst the group, but ranked 11th in completion rate at 57.4%. Considering his overall 63% completion percentage in 2022 and comparing to his peers in the situation, we can this as a hopeful improvement area for next season. So, in less-than-ideal third and long situations, Pickett’s strongest areas were accuracy, touchdown percentage, and low pressure/sack rates. He was at/near average among these rookie first-round quarterbacks in attempts, IQR, and completion percentage, with just below-average results in ANY/A and interception percentage. Pickett’s only well below average results came in ATD, highlighting an overall quality foundation to build on moving forward in my opinion, and hopefully providing even more in 2023 in these money situations where quarterbacks tend to separate themselves.

What are your thoughts on the data? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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