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PFF Data Study: Does quarterback aggressiveness translate from college to the NFL?

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell (7) drops back in the pocket against the Florida State Seminoles at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NFL Draft is just weeks away, and for the first time since 2017, a non-quarterback is likely to be drafted with the first overall pick. With a lot of the focus on this year’s draft being on the three main edge players (Aidan Hutchinson, Travon Walker, Kayvon Thibodeaux), there doesn’t seem to be as much coverage on what is perceived to be one of the weakest quarterback classes in a while. 

So let's talk about it. Here, we'll examine one aspect of quarterback play in college — aggressiveness — and see if it's something that can translate to the NFL. Based on simple counting stats, we can use metrics like average depth of target (ADOT) or air yards to measure how aggressive a quarterback is. But these metrics are influenced by factors such as the score differential, time remaining in the game and yards to a first down.

Thus, I decided to build a metric I’m calling air yards over expected (AYOE), which aims to highlight the quarterbacks who are the most aggressive given the situation they’re in. It’s measuring the quarterback’s air yards on a given play and subtracting the expected air yards based on the model. This was created using an Extreme Gradient Boost Model (XGBoost) and trained using data going back to 2013.

The Results

After running the model and applying it to all draft-eligible quarterbacks, here are their air yards over expected for all years they were in college.

According to the model, Sam Howell was the most aggressive quarterback in this draft in all his years as a college signal-caller. He ranked 41st out of 378 eligible college quarterbacks since 2013, and in 2021, he had the 10th-highest AYOE among all quarterbacks. Malik Willis having the second-highest AYOE in this year’s draft class also makes sense. It doesn't take many Google searches of Willis to find clips of him evading pressure and firing the ball downfield with ease.

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