Friday, May 6, 2016

Do Small School QBs Underperform?

Welcome to the Carson Wentz era!

Now that the Eagles draft is behind us, we can start thinking about what's in store for us in the future.

The Eagles have a shiny new QB in North Dakota's Carson Wentz -- and while they still haven't figured a way out of the messy situation San Bradford has created (yes, I'm putting the blame on him), that shouldn't stop us from wondering what a Wentz' led Eagles team could look like.

I have to admit, I wasn't following all the pre-draft hype that closely, but once the Eagles moved up and were in a position to draft Wentz, I started wondering about one specific narrative that would obviously become attached to him.

Wentz played at North Dakota State, which is about as far away from a college football powerhouse as you can get unless your college has the word 'barber' or 'clown' in front of it.

I'll be honest, that concerned me. Would Wentz be at a significant disadvantage because he played in college football's lower level?

My first thought was that this will be easy - let's just look and see all the other lower division quarterbacks that have been drafted and see how they've done.

Only problem...look at this list

That's a link to all non D-1 quarterbacks drafted over the last twenty years.

You'll notice that only one lower level QB in 20 years has been drafted in the first round. Joe Flacco.

Not exactly a robust set of comps. It felt very unsatisfying.

But then I had a thought, that just looking at D-1 vs. non-D-1 QBs might be to strong of a distinction.

What I'm trying to see is whether quarterbacks at lower level football programs perform disproportionately better or worse than those who play at higher level programs. It's easy to see why the narrative might logically apply -- a higher level program is one with more pressure, more fans, more talented athletes -- so it seems plausible that QBs exposed to that crucible and perform well are more likely to succeed in the NFL than those who don't (and ostensibly, might not have their weaknesses exposed).

Yet, D-1 vs. Non-D-1 QBs is only one way to get at that distinction - it's a binary one and as we can see, there are near zero observations.

So we need another basis for comparison to measure how 'big-time' a college football program is.

What I thought would be just as good of an indicator of how 'big-time' a college football program is, is the capacity of its football stadium.

A college with 100,000 fans in the bleachers every Saturday is going to be one with a lot of exposure, pressure, and talent.

A college with 20,000 fans in the bleachers, is going to have less of all of those things.

If we use that capacity as our metric, all of a sudden we have a much broader set of observations -- you can play at a small school in the highest level of college football (e.g., Tulane, which has a capacity of only 30,000). Now those small stadium teams may still play against better competition -- but we have to use what we can.

I'd argue that going a QB from Tulane might be better compared to other small school QBs than a QB who played at Notre Dame or USC.

So I took every quarterback, from all schools, drafted in the first round since 2000, and charted them on two dimensions:

1 - The capacity of their college football stadium (thanks Wikipedia)
2 - Their career Approximate Value (Pro-Football-Reference's stat) per Game

If highly drafted quarterbacks from small schools (e.g., Carson Wentz) are more likely to underperform, we'd expect to see QBs from smaller schools have a lower approximate value, while the QBs from football factories will outpace them once they get to the NFL.

That red line is the trendline, which shows a slight negative correlation. Across our 41 quarterbacks, the data does not suggest that those from smaller schools are any worse than those from big schools. If anything, it suggests the opposite might be true.

Now this isn't a perfect methodology, but it's enough for me to feel comfortable that smaller school QBs don't clearly have a handicap relative to guys from bigger schools. But you'll also notice that the sample size of small school QBs is small -- like REALLY small.

Carson Wentz's stadium at North Dakota St. has a capacity of only 18,700, smaller than any QB drafted that high since 2000. The only guys even really close are the aforementioned Flacco and Big Ben (Miami of Ohio had a capacity of under 25k).

Even if you go back 40 years - you only have a few more first rounders from small schools.

Steve McNair - 1995 (Alcorn State)
Ken O'Brien - 1983 (Cal-Davis)
Phil Simms - 1979 (Morehead State)

So while the data suggests there's not an inherent issue with small school QBs taken in the first round, these cases just don't come along very frequently. There have been six (including Wentz) in the last 40 years.

Of course, looking across that list, all but O'Brien led their teams to at least one Super Bowl appearance.

So we got that going for us, which is nice.

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