Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Jake Waters: The Foundling

Reilly and I generally don't have much to say about quarterbacks.  It's not just because this is one of the more difficult positions to predict success for.  It's also because having thoughts about this subject can be rather pointless.

Let's face the facts here.  If a quarterback isn't selected in the first couple of rounds in the draft, they are unlikely to be treated with much respect, or given any real opportunity to compete.  If a quarterback is selected in the first few rounds, mediocrity will be celebrated as a sign of potential, and actual greatness is a rare outcome.  The best predictor of quarterback success, or at least playing time, is merely being an individual who was predicted for success in the first place.  So, any interest I might have in Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters is unlikely to ever amount to anything, since he is generally viewed as a late round prospect at best.

Admittedly, I've always preferred quarterbacks like Kyle Orton, who are generally treated like disposable bozos.  Pay a guy like him about $3 million per year, toss together a quality offensive line, and watch as he performs to pretty much the same level as most of the league's average quarterbacks.  But who is going to want to buy Orton jerseys, am I right?  No, that approach is clearly unthinkable.  We want unfulfilled promise and potential.  The fans want a Cutler.  The fans want a Kaepernick.  The fans want a Stafford, Dalton or Flacco.  The teams clearly don't feel much differently than the fans, and are apparently willing to shell out $14-20 million per year for these types of players.  While your team could attempt to gamble on someone in the 3rd round, and watch him perform in a perfectly respectable manner, they will inevitably proceed to trade this player to St. Louis for a gimp and a ham sandwich.  The people demand someone that they can call a 'franchise quarterback', as if this means anything more than an individual who has financially taken your team hostage.

So, why are we still interested in Jake Waters, when we don't really expect that he will ever play?  Well, I guess that is because Reilly and I have been playing around with some potentially foolish ideas about what relates to success at the quarterback position.  Instead of looking for players who were 'winners', who led talented teams to great success, we decided to look for something different.  We didn't care about championships.  We didn't care about prestigious college programs.  We went looking for the guy who kept getting knocked down, and kept getting up again.  I mean this quite literally.

I'm not sure what you can say about a player who goes through college rarely getting hit by his opponents.  Maybe they possess some great ability for sensing oncoming pressure, and compensating for it, like Peyton Manning.  That's an interesting possibility, and something we're going to discuss in the future, but for the most part we think this is a fairly rare and difficult trait to measure.  The other possibility, is that a player has just never had to deal with adversity, which could be a problem.  So, we went on a search for quarterbacks who were knocked on their ass fairly frequently, and ran some regressions to see how this affected their overall passing performance.  Again and again, this kept leading us back to Jake Waters.

In 2013, Waters was sacked on 8.12% of his passing attempts, which is a rather high result compared to most of the players who will be selected ahead of him.  Despite that, he still completed 61.2% of his passes, for an impressive YPA of 9.5, and a touchdown to interception ratio of 2:1.  Yes, his interception rate was a bit higher than we would like, at 3.46%, but this was his first season starting as an FBS quarterback.  In 2014, that interception rate would drop to a much more impressive 1.76%, so he did appear to be making progress, even though he was still getting sacked on 7.24% of his passing attempts.  Waters would similarly improve his completion percentage in this season to 66% as well as boosting his touchdown to interception ratio to a hair over 3:1. Whether it was do to a slight improvement in the frequency with which he was getting hit, or just a product of added experience, he appeared to be making significant progress.  Imagine what his results could have been if Waters was only getting sacked 5 or 6 percent of the time, like many of this years more hyped prospects.

Maybe the credit for Waters improvement from 2013 to 2014 should go to Kansas States' offensive line.  Maybe Waters is overly dependent on the protection he receives from his linemen.  It's a possibility, though we really saw almost no significant statistical correlation between Waters game to game passing efficiency and the rate at which he was getting sacked.  Either way, the majority of the league's quarterbacks are somewhat dependent on getting good protection, and improving a team's offensive line shouldn't be a  terribly difficult obstacle to overcome, even though many organizations seem to neglect doing so.  In fact, simply avoiding a negative correlation between a player's passing efficiency, and their sack rate, could be more of a positive than you might suspect.  The only real correlation we could find between Waters good games, and his bad ones, was that he occasionally threw more interceptions when his team faced a significantly superior opponent   Even then, his failures rarely outweighed his successes.  In 2014, he only had two games where his touchdown to interception ration dipped to 2:1 or worse, and these games were against Auburn and West Virginia, though only the Auburn game would probably have been viewed by most people as a poor performance.

Of course, people always seem to want to come back to a more subjective evaluation of a players abilities, rather than just relying on the numbers a player brings with them.  It's hard to say what real value there is in this, since this approach more often than not produces 1st round picks like Johnny Manziel, Blaine Gabbert, E.J. Manuel, Christian Ponder and Brandon Weeden.  Clearly, somebody watched these guys play, and had a high opinion of them, for all of the good that accomplished.  Still, I will say that Waters was arguably one of the most enjoyable quarterbacks I have watched this season.  All I will say, is that I think there is a vaguely Tony Romo-ish improvisational vibe to Waters' play.  Of course, my opinion isn't really worth anything, so maybe you should watch him play for yourself and make up your own mind.

Do I think that Waters is going to become a Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady?  No, I'm not a complete idiot.  I also don't think whatever quarterback your team might select in the first round is likely to become that caliber of player either.  The question for me is whether I think Waters can be a respectably average NFL quarterback, who might even end up surprising people.  To that I would say yes, I think Waters could be capable of doing this, if he is given a chance...which almost certainly won't happen.  At just 6'1" tall, and about 210 pounds, NFL teams are most likely going to ignore Waters.  They would much rather select someone who is probably inferior, but conforms to the 6'5" and 230 pound mold, even if that player is absolutely wretched at actually throwing the ball.

In the end, if events unfold the way they have in the past, the majority of this year's highly drafted quarterbacks will end up becoming serious disappointments.  That won't stop them from starting a lot of games, signing lucrative second contracts, and lingering around the league for a decade.  That's just the way things are, and always has been.  So, I'll just be sitting here, waiting for the possibility of glimpsing Waters in the 4th quarter of some preseason game, because that may be the last we ever see of him.  Meanwhile, we can all enjoy the eventual evolution of either the Crab Thief, Chip Kelly's love child, or Brett Hundley along their inevitable path towards becoming a mere journeyman quarterback.  It's bound to happen to at least one of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment