After watching Robert Griffin III struggle in his second season, I set out to examine if the sophomore slump really exists. I’ve doubted the theory but defendants would make arguments like, “he’s struggling in his second season because the defense has adjusted to his playing style.” In this article I’m going to examine if quarterbacks are more productive as rookies or second-year players.
Examining Historical Seasons
To start this research process, I took each rookie quarterback since 2003 that had at least 100 pass attempts – a total of 45 players. I also found every sophomore quarterback since 2003 with at least 100 pass attempts – a total of 57 players. With the help of Pro-Football-Reference.com, I was able to create this table below comparing their averages:
The top row of both tables represents the rookies, the bottom row sophomores. By broadly comparing these statistics, it’s obvious that the sophomores are superior. The sophomores have a higher completion percentage, average more touchdowns, less interceptions, have a better quarterback rating, higher yards per attempt, and higher winning percentage. Oddly enough, the only thing that rookies are better at is making the Pro Bowl… (insert Pro Bowl joke here). The sophomores’ Approximate Value (AV) shows how much more dominant they were than their rookie counterparts.
While I do believe sophomores are superior, I believe that we can dissect this data to teach us even more. To get a closer look let’s compare how rookies and sophomores compared based on the round that they were selected.
While sophomores average a better completion percentage, more passing touchdowns, and fewer interceptions, the gap is not huge. Rookie quarterbacks threw for more yards per attempt (although that is likely a fluke because they didn’t throw for more adjusted yards per attempt), had the same winning percentage and rushed for more touchdowns. The AV is closer than our broader look but clearly prefers sophomores.
When comparing just 1st round players, the rookie to sophomore jump is less drastic – seemingly having something to do with the fact that 1st rounders are usually the most polished and NFL-ready quarterbacks. Since they start at a higher level than quarterbacks selected in other rounds, it’s not as easy for them to improve.
Here we notice more of a substantial improvement. The sophomore quarterbacks are superior to the rookies in nearly every statistical category. It’s not just bulk statistics either; the sophomores’ efficiency is greatly improved and thus, their winning percentage is 17% higher.
The 3rd rounders’ statistics look very similar to the 2nd rounders’ statistics – large improvements across the board. While the quarterbacks barely threw for more yards per game, they completed more passes, threw more touchdowns, and were much more efficient. They also won 9% more games.
4th Round or Later (Including UDFA)
The established trend continues for quarterbacks drafted in the 4th round or later. This group includes undrafted free agents (UDFA). Unsurprisingly, the winning percentage and AV for this group is poor.
This study teaches us that the sophomore slump is an illusion and that quarterbacks, on average, greatly improve in their second season. By separating quarterbacks by draft position, we have gained a better understanding as to how they produce in their second season. Despite being more likely to play as a rookie, first round selections are less likely to improve in their second season than other rookie quarterbacks.
What Does This Mean for 2014?
Based on this research, we can expect E.J. Manuel (1st round), Geno Smith (2nd round), and Mike Glennon (3rd round) to improve. While I expect all to improve their efficiency from last season, I’m not going to comment extensively because I don’t expect any of these 2nd year quarterbacks to have a substantial fantasy impact. Frankly at this point, I don’t think Geno Smith or Mike Glennon will start this season.