News & Analysis

Ranking the 50 most valuable seasons by a college quarterback since 2014

PFF recently debuted its ‘Wins Above Average' metric (also known as WAA or WAR) at both the professional and collegiate levels. This model was built by the incredible research and development team and, as indicated, does the following:

    • Determines how good a given player was during a period of time (generally a season) using PFF grades.
    • Maps a player's production to a “wins” value for his team using the relative importance of each facet of play.
    • Simulates a team's expected performance with a player of interest and with an average FBS player participating identically in his place.
    • Takes the difference in expected wins (i.e., Wins Above Average).

With that said, we give you a look inside our findings and present the 50 most valuable seasons by a quarterback in the PFF College era:

50. Drew Lock, Missouri (2018)

Following his 2017 season, Lock was told he wasn’t a first- or second-round pick and subsequently opted to return to Missouri for his senior season. After posting an 88.1 overall grade and the 50th most valuable season from a quarterback, it’s clear that it was the right call. Lock was a potent downfield threat for the Tigers that year, finishing second in deep passing grade and in big-time throws.

Kim Klement/IMAGN

49. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (2016)

Lamar in college was just as dangerous as Lamar in the NFL. During his Heisman-winning season, Jackson broke a tackle on 53 of his 214 carries and picked up a first down or touchdown on 43% of them. He got off to a hot start that year, recording an elite 91.5 overall grade through Week 9. Whether it was a pass or a run play, Jackson averaged over 8.5 yards per touch and assisted in leading the Cardinals to the 12th highest rate of plays that resulted in positive expected points added (EPA).

48. Nathan Rourke, Ohio (2018)

Similar to that of Lamar Jackson, Ohio Bobcat Nathan Rourke was a formidable dual-threat quarterback. In 2018, he finished with a 79.9 passing grade and the highest rushing grade for a quarterback at 87.2 (yes, even higher than Kyler Murray). Through the air, Rourke was one of few to find success when under pressure. His pressured-passing grade that year was the best in the country, and his 121.6 passer rating when facing the heat was over 10 points higher than the next best signal-caller.

47. Ryan Finley, North Carolina State (2017)

From Week 6 and on in 2017, Ryan Finley had the second-best passing grade among quarterbacks, behind only Baker Mayfield. When throwing at or beyond the sticks, Finley had the third-lowest rate of turnover-worthy plays. Finley executed a quick-pass offense and was highly successful, ranking sixth in PFF grade when he got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less.

46. Cooper Rush, Central Michigan (2015)

Cooper Rush in 2015 was worth four times as much as any other player to the Central Michigan Chippewas. Rush finished with an 84.6 overall grade and was clearly a huge fan of two routes in particular: the comeback and corner routes. Rush had 15 more attempts to these routes than any other quarterback, recording a 92.7 passing grade and 73.5% adjusted completion percentage.

45. Alex McGough, Florida International (2017)

He had a rough start to his collegiate career, but Alex McGough turned it around in a big way in 2017, producing the sixth-best PFF grade (90.3). McGough was at his best on short/intermediate passes. When throwing 19 yards or fewer downfield, McGough ranked behind only Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in PFF grade.

44. Kelly Bryant, Clemson (2017)

In his lone season as starting quarterback for Clemson, Kelly Bryant was the Tigers’ most valuable player in their path to the College Football Playoff's number one seed before getting upset by Alabama. Bryant limited mistakes incredibly well against a tough schedule, generating the third-lowest negatively graded play rate on pass plays.

Jerome Miron/IMAGN

43. Will Grier, West Virginia (2017)

Will Grier emerged in 2017, posting the second-highest PFF grade for a quarterback in the country (91.1). What we found out in that breakout year of his is that he has a cannon of an arm that jumps off the tape. Grier played in just 10 full games and still tied for the most completions of 30-plus yards (23).

42. D’Eriq King, Houston (2018)

The final stretch of the 2018 season is when everyone really began to notice D’Eriq King’s abilities on the field. From Week 8 and beyond, King had a 93.1 PFF grade, just behind No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray. Houston and King utilized play-action passing more than half the time and ended up with the fourth-best grade on those passes. When King went deep on those throws, he ended up as the second highest-graded quarterback, tossing 17 big-time throws and making just one turnover-worthy play.

41. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss (2015)

Swag Kelly had a solid 2015 season through the air and on the ground by being one of three quarterbacks with a passing grade above 80.0 and rushing grade above 70.0. Kelly was better than most outside the pocket, owning the fourth-highest PFF grade and third-highest adjusted completion percentage (83%).

40. Dustin Crum, Kent State (2019)

Kent State’s Dustin Crum lit up the MACtion scene in 2019 and produced the sixth-highest overall grade (90.2). Crum has produced big-time throws at a rate that’s nearly half a percentage point above the FBS average, and he's avoiding mistakes better than anyone else. Crum posted a college-best turnover-worthy play rate of just .7%.

39. Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina (2016)

In his one and only season as the starting quarterback at North Carolina, Mitchell Trubisky produced the fifth-highest grade in the FBS (88.5). Trubisky’s greatest strength with the Tar Heels was in the red zone, where he owned the third-highest PFF grade.

38. Trace McSorley, Penn State (2017)

The best season of Trace McSorley’s career at Penn State was hands down his 2017 campaign when he posted the 10th best PFF passing grade (85.4). Most quarterbacks do far better when passing out of play action, but McSorley was good regardless. On non-play-action plays, McSorley had the third-best PFF passing grade (89.2).

Matthew O'Haren/IMAGN

37. Nick Marshall, Auburn (2014)

Auburn’s Nick Marshall was one of the best quarterbacks in 2014 and is far and away the best the program has had in the PFF College era. In fact, his WAA is nearly three times higher than the next-best Auburn quarterback.

36. Mason Fine, North Texas (2018)

Kyler Murray owned the highest passing grade in 2018, but the guy in second was North Texas’ Mason Fine. His downfield passing from inside the pocket was something special last season. On 20-plus yard attempts in the pocket, Fine owned the highest PFF grade while producing 24 big-time throws and just one turnover-worthy play.

35. Trevone Boykin, TCU (2015)

Quarterback Trevone Boykin was instrumental in TCU’s success a few years ago. In 2015, Boykin and the Horned Frogs got off to a hot start, with the then-senior being the highest-graded quarterback in college football and his team producing an undefeated record. No other quarterback in the FBS was as good as Boykin was when under pressure, as he was the highest graded on pressured dropbacks.

34. Sam Ehlinger, Texas (2018)

Sam Ehlinger’s 2018 season was something Texas fans hadn’t seen from a starting quarterback in a long time. In the previous four seasons, their highest-graded quarterback was Jerrod Heard in 2015. In 2018, Ehlinger shattered the previous best PFF has seen from a Texas quarterback with his 85.7 PFF grade.

33. Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech (2016)

Patrick Mahomes’ 2016 season — which resulted in the sixth-best PFF grade (88.0) and second-most big-time throws (36) — brought him to center stage. When he was passing from inside the pocket or on a designed rollout, Mahomes was on point and graded out to be the third-best Power-5 quarterback, behind only Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph.

Michael C. Johnson/IMAGN

32. Shane Carden, ECU (2014)

With Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator, Eastern Carolina’s Shane Carden put together a solid year in 2014, ranking sixth in PFF grade among Group-of-Five quarterbacks. Carden had over 50 more dropbacks than any other quarterback, thus accounting for most of the Pirates’ offense, and was an integral part of his team ranking sixth in percentage of offensive plays with a positive EPA.

31. McKenzie Milton, UCF (2017)

McKenzie Milton was on the path to stardom before suffering a gruesome knee injury last season that put his football future up in the air — but we should never forget the 2017 season that got him there. In that season, Milton was PFF’s third highest-graded quarterback (90.7) and was a polished deep passer. When tossing it 20 or more yards downfield, Milton was PFF’s highest-graded signal-caller.

30. Sam Ehlinger, Texas (2019)

While Texas football isn’t back to the dominant form we’ve seen before, Sam Ehlinger stood out by recording the eighth-best PFF grade (89.8). Ehlinger was one of the top quarterbacks in the country on horizontal lead passes (throws that lead the receiver across the field). On such throws, Ehlinger ranked fourth in PFF grade (91.6) and was behind only Joe Burrow in percentage of passes being accurate-plus (perfectly placed throws).

Ben Queen/IMAGN

29. Blake Sims, Alabama (2014)

Blake Sims led Alabama to the College Football Playoff in its inaugural season and was on point outside the numbers. When passing down the sideline, Sims had an FBS-low turnover-worthy play rate (.7%) and was the seventh highest-graded quarterback (90.1).

28. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2019)

The start to his sophomore season was far below everyone’s expectations, but Lawrence rebounded in a great way. Since Week 10 of the college football season, Lawrence is first among all quarterbacks in PFF grade (94.4) and has produced 15 big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays. His tight-window passing was unmatched in that timespan, as he ranked first in PFF grade and in accurate-plus pass rate.

27. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma (2019)

Once at the forefront of the Alabama Crimson Tide's offense, Jalen Hurts transferred into Norman, Oklahoma, to become the Sooners’ signal-caller for 2019 — and the results were far better than many imagined. Along with being a Heisman finalist and leading Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, Hurts produced the fourth-best PFF grade (91.4). Hurts’ ability to escape the pocket and turn a likely negative play into a positive is one of his greatest strengths. On scrambles, Hurts averaged 8.6 yards per carry. One of his most underrated strengths is his deep passing — where he ranked fourth in yards per attempt at 19.7 and had a clean big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio of 15 to zero.

26. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (2018)

The supporting cast around Tua Tagovailoa throughout his college career has been exceptional — there’s no debate about that. That being said, Tua was pivotal to the Crimson Tide in 2018. His downfield passing was about as good as it can get — he ranked behind only Kyler Murray and Will Grier in PFF passing grade on throws of 10-plus yards. Along with that, Tua produced the most yards per attempt on those passes (15.1) and generated the highest rate of accurate passes thrown.

25. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (2017)

Lamar topped his 2016 Heisman season in 2017, recording higher passing and rushing grades. From a rushing perspective, Jackson racked up 50 broken tackles and 61 runs of 10-plus yards on his 201 carries. When dropping back to pass, Lamar’s 2017 season was full of great throws to the intermediate range of 10-to-19 yards and to the middle of the field. On those throws, Jackson had the fifth-highest adjusted completion percentage (77.5%).

Mark Zerof/IMAGN

24. Charlie Brewer, Baylor (2018)

Including postseason play, Charlie Brewer was the second highest-graded quarterback of 2018. Brewer’s intermediate passing stood out in that campaign, as he posted the second-best adjusted completion percentage (72.8%) and second-best PFF grade. Brewer perfected the horizontal lead pass, ranking just above elite quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Trevor Lawrence in PFF grade on those passes.

23. Ryan Finley, North Carolina State (2018)

Ryan Finley has his second career season in the top 50 of WAA and was lights out during regular-season play. Prior to the bowl game that season, Finley was behind only Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa in overall grade (91.3). His tight-window passing downfield was his greatest strength — he was the highest-graded quarterback and produced the second most big-time throws (13) on those throws.

22. Deshaun Watson, Clemson (2015)

Deshaun Watson may have fallen short of a National Championship win in 2015, but he still had one of the top 25 seasons by a college quarterback in the PFF College era. That season, Watson was a master of the vertical route tree, generating the fourth-highest PFF grade on those throws while tossing eight big-time throws that went 40 or more yards.

21. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion (2014)

Taylor Heinicke put the Old Dominion Monarchs on the map with his 2015 season. His clean-pocket play was among the best in the FBS at that time, ranking fourth in passing grade on those dropbacks. Heinicke was the heart and soul of that team — he was worth 10 times as much as the next closest player on the roster in WAA.

20. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (2015)

Mason Rudolph’s first full season as a starter didn’t disappoint, as he posted the highest passing grade in the FBS (91.9). Rudolph’s deep passing that season was near perfect — no one came close to his grade on those throws. Rudolph posted an insane big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio of 35 to three on those deep passes.

19. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (2017)

Rudolph’s senior campaign ended with him putting up his third straight season in the top 10 in PFF overall grade. That year, it was evident he had the poise of a college football veteran. Among the 2018 draft class, Rudolph trailed only Mayfield when not passing to his first read.

Rob Ferguson/IMAGN

18. Mike White, Western Kentucky (2016)

After transferring to Western Kentucky from USF, Mike White made a statement in his first year as a Hilltopper in 2016, owning the second-highest PFF grade at 92.3 — behind only Baker Mayfield. No one could stop White in a clean pocket, as he produced three more big-time throws than anyone else (30).

17. Cody Kessler, USC (2014)

Cody Kessler's 2014 campaign stands as one of the best seasons we have graded from a passing perspective, as he finished with a 92.3 passing grade. His accuracy downfield was sharp — no one owned a higher PFF grade than Kessler when targeting the sticks in 2014, and his 67% adjusted completion percentage on those throws was 14 percentage points higher than the FBS average.

16. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2018)

There hasn’t been a better true freshman season from the eyes of PFF than Trevor Lawrence’s in 2018. Lawrence finished off the season with a 90.7 overall grade — with his best game coming in the playoff in Clemson’s 30-3 blowout win over Notre Dame (92.6 grade). No quarterback was better on third down than Lawrence, who had a 13% big-time throw rate on those dropbacks.

15. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (2016)

Similar to that of his season before, Rudolph saw most of his success come on his deep passes, posting the best in college football. Rudolph was better than everyone when throwing outside the numbers, recording a 94.0 PFF grade, a 9.7% big-time throw rate and a 1.9% turnover-worthy play rate. With three seasons in the top 20 in WAA, it’s obvious Rudolph had one of the best college careers in the PFF College era.

14. Justin Fields, Ohio State (2019)

Joe Burrow’s dominance may be underrating Justin Fields’ 2019 season, which has crept up to the 14th best we at PFF have ever seen. Fields’ 92.9 passing grade is the best Ohio State has had and shatters the Big Ten record. He’s limited mistakes and produced big plays by being just one of two quarterbacks to rank in the top 10 in both big-time throw rate and turnover-worthy play rate. Fields is by far at his best when in a clean pocket, where he owns the highest PFF grade in the entire FBS (94.5) — and these weren’t short, dump-off passes, either, as 72.7% of his yards when clean have come through the air, which is the highest by over 3.5 percentage points. Not to mention, he’s done this in just 13 games. If he can put up that type of production in the College Football Playoff, he’ll continue to climb this list.

Tim Fuller/IMAGN

13. Rakeem Cato, Marshall (2014)

In 2014, Cato was the fifth highest-graded quarterback (88.7) and was known for being able to launch the ball downfield. Cato had the second-most pass attempts of 30 or more yards that season and was among the three best in PFF grade, posting five more big-time throws than anyone else (22) while having just four turnover-worthy plays. Cato ended the season with 54 big-time throws — 18 more than the next-best player.

12. Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky (2015)

Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty had an incredible career, with the highlight of it being his 2015 season. Doughty was PFF’s fourth highest-graded signal-caller that year (91.5) and showed great patience in the pocket. Whenever his time-to-throw eclipsed 3.1 seconds, Doughty was PFF’s highest-graded quarterback, averaged the second-most yards per pass attempt (12.3), produced a big-time throw on 9.4% and had a turnover-worthy play just 1.6% of the time.

11. Grant Hedrick, Boise State (2014)

In the first season of the PFF College era, one of the biggest standouts was Boise State Bronco Grant Hedrick. The quarterback ranked third in PFF grade (90.7) and was a phenomenal play-action passer. On play-action passes, Hedrick was fourth in PFF grade and averaged 11.8 yards per attempt. Hedrick often took these passes deep, and when he launched it over 20 yards, he was the second highest-graded, producing nine big-time throws on his 20 attempts.

10. Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi (2015)

Mullens’ 2015 season got him on the NFL radar, as he posted the sixth-best PFF grade for a quarterback (91.1). His best play came in a clean pocket, ranking first in PFF grade on those dropbacks. Even when he was playing Power-5 competition, Mullens stood his ground and maintained his number one grade from a clean pocket.

9. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (2015)

In his first season as a starter for the Oklahoma Sooners, Mayfield shocked all and produced an elite 91.7 overall grade. Mayfield had a quick trigger that season — his average time-to-throw was two-tenths of a second less than his other two years — and he executed the quick-pass offense perfectly. On throws of two seconds or less, Mayfield had the highest PFF grade (90.3), with five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays.

Kevin Jairaj/IMAGN

8. Jared Goff, California (2015)

Jared Goff was on fire out of the gate for the Golden Bears in 2015, rattling off four straight elite-graded games and a 94.7 grade overall. Goff was a vertical route tree savant, throwing to one of those routes more than anyone else and ranking top 10 in PFF grade. Even when he was under duress, Goff still used the vertical route tree to his advantage, with more than a quarter of those pressured passes resulting in a big-time throw (11 to be exact, two more than anyone else).

7. Deshaun Watson, Clemson (2016)

Everyone remembers one of the most underwhelming games of the College Football Playoff era when Clemson throttled Ohio State 31-0. They then went on to upset Alabama in the National Championship. Clemson was filled with elite talent at every position, but no player was more valuable to their team than Deshaun Watson. Overall, Watson produced a solid 87.3 PFF grade and was phenomenal under pressure, ranking second in grade behind only the next-best quarterback in WAA.

6. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (2016)

Mayfield’s second top 10 finish in WAA is his 2016 season that ended on a hot stretch. From Week 6 onward that year, Mayfield posted six elite-graded games passing and an overall 96.0 passing grade. Throughout the season, he was the highest-graded quarterback when kept clean, when under pressure, on play-action passes, on non-play action passes, when throwing 10-plus yards downfield, etc. — he was unmatched in nearly every situation.

5. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green (2015)

Yes, you are reading that correctly — Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson in 2015 was the fifth-best WAA we have seen. Johnson produced the second-highest passing grade that season (91.6) and was one of the best playmaking quarterbacks of 2015. He was the only quarterback to rank in the top 15 in both big-time throw rate and turnover-worthy play rate and was the second-highest graded signal-caller on throws at or beyond the sticks. Johnson might just be the biggest Heisman snub we have seen.

4. Joe Burrow, LSU (2019)

Joe Burrow left the 2018 season ranking 35th among 150 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF passing grade (79.5), making a case to possibly be a late-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now, through conference championship play in 2019, he leads all quarterbacks in PFF grade (94.3) and seems to be locked in at number one overall in the upcoming draft. A lot of people have been suspicious of the complete 180 in Burrow’s play, claiming “he’s a one-hit-wonder” or “he’s in a favorable scheme and has the best supporting cast in football” — but that’s just flat out wrong. Burrow is legit.

He’s been one of the best quarterbacks to create a play in an unfavorable situation. For example, when his first read is locked down and the coverage dictates to not throw it there, Burrow doesn’t try to force it. Instead, he’ll pass to his next read — he is the highest-graded quarterback in 2019 on those plays and owned an accurate-pass rate that’s 14 percentage points higher than anyone else. Last season, Burrow tossed 19 turnover-worthy passes to his first read — the sixth-most. He dropped that number to six this season. The difference in play is apparent, and it's helped Burrow reach the elite level he's at now.

Burrow has nearly tripled his WAA from 2018 to 2019 and is by far the most valuable among all quarterbacks to play just 13 games.

PlayerWins Above Average (WAA)
Joe Burrow (2019)2.16
Baker Mayfield (2016)1.97
Jared Goff (2015)1.75
Baker Mayfield (2015)1.70
Justin Fields (2019)1.51

While he comes in at number four on this list now, the three quarterbacks ahead of him played either 14 or 15 games. Assuming he plays in the College Football Playoff at the same level he has all year, Burrow is likely to be the best player we have ever seen in regard to WAA by the end of the night Jan. 13.

3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (2017)

No quarterback has recorded a higher PFF grade in a single season than Baker Mayfield’s 94.6 grade in 2017. We all know that Big-12 teams are known for their powerful offenses and below-average defenses — and in that season, Mayfield made his Big-12 competition look like a youth football league. Over a quarter of Mayfield’s dropbacks that season ended up outside the pocket, whether it was designed or not. On those passes, Mayfield took advantage of the opposition’s coverage by putting up an FBS-high 91.6 grade while averaging 4.48 seconds to throw. His positively graded play rate on throws of 10-plus yards that year was the highest we have ever seen among any quarterback. With three seasons in the top 10 in WAA, Mayfield is arguably the best college quarterback we have ever seen over the course of his career.

2. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma (2018)

The heir to Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray barely edged his predecessor for the second-best season we have seen in WAA. Murray posted the same overall grade as Mayfield that year (94.6) in his first full season as a starting college quarterback. While his passing was better than all, Murray was dangerous on the ground, too, by picking up a run of at least 10 yards in every single one of his games — with six in his final game in the playoff against Alabama. From a clean pocket, Murray had a positively graded play rate that was nearly five percentage points higher than the next best player and over 12 percentage points higher than the FBS average.

Jasen Vinlove/IMAGN

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon (2014)

Marcus Mariota owns the highest WAA we have ever seen in the PFF College era. He’s barely ahead of Burrow, Mayfield and Murray and played in more games (15), but his 2014 season was something remarkable. Mariota had the highest grade in college football that year (93.0) and the pass-rush hardly came close to forcing him into an error. When pressured, Mariota had the third-highest passing grade, averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt and generated 9.7 yards per carry when he bailed on the play. His positively graded play rate under pressure was five percentage points higher than second place and 16 percentage points higher than the FBS average. The Oregon Ducks had far and away the most expected points added per pass play, and a lot of that had to do with Marcus Mariota.

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