Why Sam Bradford Might Not Be the Sleeper We’re All Expecting

Jonathan Bales takes a look at quarterback dropback trends to gauge shifts in opportunity and predict improvement in 2013.

| 3 years ago
Sam-Bradford

Why Sam Bradford Might Not Be the Sleeper We’re All Expecting


Perhaps the coolest stats you can access with a PFF Fantasy Gold membership are the points per snap and points per opportunity efficiency metrics. Looking at total fantasy points as a function of playing time and opportunities, we can attain all sorts of meaningful insights. In short, if we can predict how many opportunities a player will see and what he’ll do with those opportunities, our projections will be accurate.

There are all sorts of factors that influence a player’s total opportunities and efficiency, one of which is randomness. In projecting any player, we want randomness to rear its ugly head as little as possible. That’s why it’s important to examine pre-2012 stats when projecting players in 2013. If we see wild swings in either opportunities or efficiency that don’t necessarily seem warranted, that’s a reason to pause and dig a little deeper.

Projecting Opportunities for Quarterbacks

Below, I charted the dropbacks per game for some prominent quarterbacks in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The passers are sorted based upon the relationship between their dropbacks in the previous two seasons; those who saw the largest jumps are at the top, and those whose workloads decreased the most are at the bottom.

Quarterback 2012 Dropbacks 2011 Dropbacks 2012/2011
Tony Romo 43.3 35.4 1.22
Matt Schaub 35.8 31.3 1.14
Carson Palmer 39.7 35.0 1.13
Christian Ponder 34.7 31.1 1.12
Matt Ryan 41.4 37.9 1.09
Matthew Stafford 48.5 44.4 1.09
Michael Vick 41.8 38.5 1.09
Andy Dalton 37.1 35.3 1.05
Aaron Rodgers 39.9 38.7 1.03
Tom Brady 41.8 41.0 1.02
Drew Brees 43.7 43.4 1.01
Ben Roethlisberger 37.8 37.7 1.00
Joe Flacco 35.7 36.4 0.98
Jay Cutler 33.1 34.5 0.96
Sam Bradford 37.8 39.9 0.95
Philip Rivers 36.7 38.8 0.95
Josh Freeman 37.7 40.5 0.93
Cam Newton 34.7 37.8 0.92
Eli Manning 35.3 39.2 0.90
Mark Sanchez 33.1 37.5 0.88

When inspecting the numbers, we should be looking at the extremes and trying to determine potential causes for dramatic shifts in opportunity. Sometimes, there’s a good reason for such a shift. Other times there’s not. We want to determine if the shifts were primarily due to randomness, and likely to regress toward the mean, or due to more repeatable circumstances.

In the case of Christian Ponder, for example, we know that he attempted nearly four more passes per game in 2012 as compared to his rookie season simply because the Vikings likely trusted him more. That’s a trend that’s likely to continue, so we’re probably justified in claiming that Ponder’s opportunities will increase in 2013.

Meanwhile, take a look at Tony Romo. His workload increased more than any other quarterback in the NFL last year, and by a wide margin. Nothing really changed for the Cowboys in 2012, however, outside of losing early and often and being forced to throw. Regardless of your opinion of the Cowboys’ team strength, it’s pretty clear that Romo is unlikely to again see 693 dropbacks in 2013 — a number that ranked him well ahead of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning last season.

Looking at the changes in opportunity, we see quarterbacks like Romo, Matt Schaub, and Matthew Stafford, who are unlikely to repeat their 2012 workloads. Meanwhile, passers like Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, Philip Rivers, and Sam Bradford are all highly likely to throw more passes this year than last.

Projecting Efficiency for Quarterbacks

We can examine quarterback efficiency using the same methodology as above. Below, I sorted the quarterbacks based on a comparison of their 2011 and 2012 points per dropback. The passers at the top are those who improved the most in 2012.

Quarterback 2012 PPDB 2011 PPDB 2012/2011
Sam Bradford 0.39 0.27 1.44
Josh Freeman 0.44 0.38 1.16
Andy Dalton 0.46 0.40 1.15
Ben Roethlisberger 0.48 0.42 1.14
Joe Flacco 0.44 0.39 1.13
Matt Ryan 0.49 0.48 1.02
Christian Ponder 0.39 0.39 1.00
Jay Cutler 0.42 0.43 0.98
Cam Newton 0.61 0.63 0.97
Carson Palmer 0.41 0.44 0.93
Eli Manning 0.44 0.49 0.90
Tom Brady 0.52 0.58 0.90
Drew Brees 0.52 0.58 0.90
Philip Rivers 0.40 0.46 0.87
Tony Romo 0.43 0.52 0.83
Aaron Rodgers 0.56 0.69 0.81
Michael Vick 0.41 0.51 0.80
Matt Schaub 0.41 0.53 0.77
Matthew Stafford 0.38 0.50 0.76
Mark Sanchez 0.31 0.45 0.69

Right off the bat, we see that Bradford’s efficiency improved dramatically in 2012. It’s of course worth noting that Bradford was horribly inefficient in 2011, so a big jump last year was expected, and he’s now equipped with all sorts of new weapons.

Freeman and Dalton’s surges in efficiency can be explained by the arrival of Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay and Dalton’s maturation in his second season, but take a look at Roethlisberger. He had just about the same number of dropbacks per game in 2012 as the season before, but his efficiency increased by 14 percent. Is there a good reason why? It’s difficult to think of one, outside of simple variance. Now that he’s lost his No. 1 wide receiver, we can probably expect a drop in fantasy points per game in 2013.

At the other extreme, we see quarterbacks like Stafford, Rodgers, and Romo experienced a drop in efficiency in 2012. Stafford in particular is a unique case because we know he’s going to see a decreased workload, yet his efficiency is highly likely to increase. His projected jump in points per dropback should be far more than his anticipated decline in dropbacks, meaning he’s a rebound candidate even though we know he’ll attempt fewer passes in 2013.

Bringing It Together

Below, I’ve created an “improvement metric” to grade each quarterback. Granted, there’s a lot that goes into a projection outside of a comparison of 2011 and 2012 numbers, but it’s a general foundation to determine whether or not a quarterback is naturally in for an increase in production.

The metric is (1-Dropback Change) + (1-Efficiency Change). Since the quarterbacks with the lowest totals in terms of changes in dropbacks and efficiency were generally more likely to improve, this metric should capture each passer’s general likelihood of increased production. Again, outside factors like changes in scheme and personnel aren’t factored in.

Quarterback Projected 2013 Improvement
Mark Sanchez 0.429
Eli Manning 0.203
Philip Rivers 0.185
Aaron Rodgers 0.157
Matthew Stafford 0.149
Cam Newton 0.114
Michael Vick 0.109
Drew Brees 0.096
Tom Brady 0.084
Matt Schaub 0.082
Jay Cutler 0.064
Tony Romo -0.051
Carson Palmer -0.065
Josh Freeman -0.089
Joe Flacco -0.109
Matt Ryan -0.113
Christian Ponder -0.116
Ben Roethlisberger -0.146
Andy Dalton -0.201
Sam Bradford -0.392

Is Mark Sanchez worth a flier in deep redraft leagues? I still don’t think so given his situation, but it’s interesting that, if he wins the starting job over Geno Smith, he’s likely to see a heavier workload with increased efficiency.

The real winners here are Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Cam Newton. Eli in particular had such a down 2012 season — the fewest attempts he’d had since 2009 and the fewest touchdowns since 2008 — that he’s extremely likely to rebound in 2013. He has surprising upside for a player getting drafted in the ninth round.

At the other end, you have to take note of how much this metric hates Bradford. Like I said, we need to account for Bradford’s horrendous 2011 season, his maturation, and the Rams’ improved personnel, but with a cumulative decline in opportunities and efficiency that’s nearly double that of any other quarterback, it’s worth taking a step back to wonder what’s going on.

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He also runs the “Running the Numbers” blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.

  • [email protected]

    Really? Mark Sanchez? He could improve and still be one of the worst QB’s in NFL history. Look at the offensive line rankings ON YOUR SITE, the Jets have a top offensive line. I think he had the worst QB performance in NFL history last year, given the talent around him. Only Ryan Lindley was worse and he had a horrible line and was a rookie.

  • [email protected]

    Its easy to blame all of the Jets troubles on Mark Sanchez. (there is no but)

  • mike jones

    Sanchez is the worst qb to start 48 games in the entire history of the post modern nfl (after 2003 when pass interference changed). He is simply outstandingly inaccurate, easily flustered, and devoid of pocket awareness. You’d need a 28 team deep league or a screw loose in order to be willing to take flier on him your upcoming draft. Sometimes players don’t head back towards the mean; sometimes they crash into the ocean and burn and then sink to the bottom of the sea and then a whale takes a dump on them. Time to throw out the outliers perhaps.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.willie.509 Joe Willie

      I agree this guy is the worst starting NFL QB (2 seasons) Ive seen in 45 yrs of watching the NFL—Go Geno! Go Jets!