Numbers never tell the complete story about any NFL draft prospect, particularly at the quarterback position.
But unless there’s some revolutionary new, fail-proof analytics-driven measurement system that can accurately place numeric values on the many other vital attributes needed to succeed in the NFL — football smarts, information processing, decision-making, ability to handle stress in key moments, toughness, and leadership being just a few — then numbers will continue to be critical when it comes to assessing and drafting quarterbacks.
The key for the men in the personnel departments of every NFL team is to figure out which numbers paint the truest picture and provide the most useful predictive appraisal. For the Buffalo Bills and the other quarterback-needy teams in this draft, that’s a perplexing dilemma in the evaluation of Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
“Some people are always going to say, ‘I’ll never take the quarterback under 60 percent (completion percentage)’ just like some people say, ‘I’ll never take a quarterback under 6-foot-2,’” said ESPN’s Mel Kiper, who believes the Browns should and will take Allen No. 1. “Josh Allen’s got physical, athletic skills that nobody else has at the quarterback position.”
Others aren’t so sure and would have you believe if the Bills stay at No. 12, he’d fall right into their laps if they want him. That’s interesting because Allen has been strongly linked to the Bills in recent weeks as a possible target at No. 2 overall if they can make a trade with the Giants.
Most polarizing player in the draft
What isn’t up for debate is that Allen is one of the most polarizing players in this draft, the ultimate risk-reward proposition at the game’s most important position.
“This guy is what the quarterbacks look like when they get out of a truck,” said Browns coach Hue Jackson at the NFL Owner’s meetings in late March, practically drooling over Allen’s 6-foot-5, 235-pound physique and his rocket-powered arm.
But then, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock points out that playing for Wyoming, in the Mountain West which isn’t a power-five conference, Allen did not dominate the competition. In fact, he was often underwhelming, especially in two 2017 games against power-five schools Iowa and Oregon when he completed just 32 of 64 passes for 238 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions combined.
“It does worry me that he was a 56 percent (career completion) guy,” said Mayock around the time of the NFL Scouting Combine. “ ... how many college quarterbacks with sub-60 percent completion percentages ended up being significantly better in the NFL? When you're talking about high-level guys, I think Matthew Stafford was the only one I could find.”
Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is considered a franchise quarterback for the Lions, but remember, his 57.1 percent career completion percentage came at Georgia in the SEC, the best football conference in America.
Kiper hates the completion percentage argument, and he counters that Allen’s surrounding cast at Wyoming played a role in the perceived accuracy issues. “If you go watch the throws, it wasn’t all on him,” said Kiper. “Incompletions are a result of bad offensive line play, not having a running game this year, receivers dropping balls. There’s a lot of factors that contribute to that. Certainly there are times where he could be a little more precise, a little more accurate, but for the most part, if you watch the kid play, he can whip it to any point on the field.”
Strongest arm in the draft
So, which numbers most accurately portray what type of NFL player Allen could be?
You put Allen in shorts and a T-shirt and, as Jackson eluded to, the measurables are undeniably impressive. He’s tall, he’s got muscular bulk yet he’s athletic enough to escape pressure and make plays with his legs. His hand size was a tick over 10 inches, second-largest in the QB class and biggest among the top quarterbacks, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield, which means former Bills GMs Buddy Nix and Doug Whaley would love him (see EJ Manuel).
Allen also outranked those three in height, weight, arm length, and wing span, and outperformed them at the combine in the 40-yard dash (4.75 seconds), the vertical jump (33.5 inches) and broad jump (9 feet, 11 inches), if you’re into any of that.
That was all without a football in his hands. Once he grabbed a ball and started zipping lasers, both at the combine and later at his mid-March pro day at Wyoming, he put on a show, though no one was surprised given that he has the strongest arm in the draft.
“He's the most physically gifted quarterback in this draft class,” said Mayock. “He’s got as live an arm as anybody I’ve seen since JaMarcus Russell. I heard people thought that was a negative because of JaMarcus’s career (he proved to be perhaps the biggest draft bust in NFL history). But to qualify that, all I’m talking about is arm talent; I’m not talking about the ability to play in the NFL. Allen’s arm talent is the best I’ve seen since Russell. His arm talent was off the charts.”
Which leads us to the next set of numbers; Allen’s pedestrian game statistics at Wyoming. Arm strength is great, provided you can actually put the ball on target, and despite Kiper’s protestations, this was a problem for Allen. You compare him statistically to the other top quarterbacks, and he falls far short.
Among the top four prospects during the 2017 season, Allen finished last in several key categories with a 56.3 completion percentage, 6.7 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, and a QB rating (which is calculated differently than in the NFL) of 127.8.
By comparison, the Heisman Trophy-winning Mayfield was tops in all the categories with a 70.5 completion percentage, 11.5 yards per attempt, 43 TDs, just six picks, and a whopping NCAA-record 198.92 rating, which broke the previous record of 196.39 set in 2016 by, yes, Mayfield. Rosen and Darnold were almost interchangeable across the board, sitting between Mayfield and Allen.
2017 college QB ratings: Allen was 73rd
In the simplest of terms, Mayfield was No. 1 in the country in QB rating, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph was third, Darnold was 26th, Rosen was 28th, Lamar Jackson of Louisville was 29th, and Allen was 73rd.
Stewart Mandel, college football writer for The Athletic, did an interesting study. He looked at the final-season college stats of the 27 first-round QB draftees between 2008-17, and compared those to Allen’s 2017 performance. Allen ranked 27th in both completion percentage and yards per attempt, 25th in QB rating, and 19th in TD-to-interception ratio.
In 2013 when the Bills made one of those first-round QB picks by taking Manuel, he ranked 13th in the country in QB rating with a mark of 156.1 for Florida State, and he finished his career with a 150.4 rating. Oh, the leader in that 2012 season was none other than current Bills’ starting quarterback A.J. McCarron with a 175.3 for Alabama.
Allen was asked about the red flags that have been raised and he shrugged it off. “It's cool; I don't really pay attention to you guys very much to be honest,” he said. “I'm sorry about that, but I don't read anything you guys put out. My mom and dad call me daily and try to send me links and articles and stuff, and I tell them to delete Twitter and Instagram and all that stuff because it's just going to make you more anxious and stuff. But it doesn't bother me very much.”
All Allen can do once he’s drafted — no matter what spot in the first round — is to get to his new place of employment and begin dispelling the concerns so many have about his long-term NFL viability. He’s confident he can do it.
“Everybody does things well in their own aspect and we’re all different, we all have our pluses, our minuses, but if you don’t have the mindset that you’re the best quarterback in this draft, you’re not going to fare well in this league,” he said. “Sometimes the best quarterbacks aren’t the guys that are taken No. 1. And you can look in the past few drafts, it doesn’t always turn out that the No. 1 quarterback is going to be this great player who leads your team to multiple Super Bowls and ends up in the Hall of Fame. That’s just not how it is. Getting drafted is only the start of your NFL career and that has no impact on how you finish it. It’s going to be determined on how hard you work after you get drafted and I intend to work extremely hard.”
Which numbers matter most? As they say in Wyoming, giddy-up, because whether it’s the Bills, or another team, the ride with Allen figures to be adventuresome.