Yards per Attempt and 2012 NFL Quarterbacks

This Pro Football Focus article by Jonathan Bales looked at the Yards per Attempt statistic in quarterbacks at the NFL level. He discovered that a quarterback’s Yards per Attempt average over his three most recent seasons will give us a pretty good indication of what he’ll do the following year. Let’s take a look at how his predictions fared, and how we can explain the biggest outlier.

Philip Rivers, San Diego – Rivers had a Y/A average of 8.5 over the past three seasons, despite putting up 7.9 Y/A in 2011. We should have seen that number move toward the average, but through week 14 in the 2012 season he’s recorded only 6.8 Y/A, a drop of nearly 1.67 Y/A. What are some reasons that Rivers’ Y/A fled even further away from the average?

I’m willing to bet that the culprit was his offensive line, and it does correlate this year. Football Outsider’s offensive line rankings take a statistically-based look at offensive lien performance. For ease, we’ll just look at the rankings on a 1-32 scale. So far in 2012, the Chargers’ line ranked 28th in the league in pass protection. It makes sense, but does it apply to the rest of the quarterbacks this season? Let’s take a look.

I used Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference and to find the offensive line rankings of the top 10 qualified Y/A leaders in the NFL so far this season. Here are the top 10, with their offensive line rankings to the right:

  1. Cam Newton (8.3 Y/A) – 23
  2. Robert Griffin, III (8.3 Y/A) – 27
  3. Alex Smith (8.0 Y/A) – 32
  4. Peyton Manning (7.9 Y/A) – 5
  5. Matt Ryan (7.7 Y/A) – 9
  6. Tom Brady (7.7 Y/A) – 2
  7. Josh Freeman (7.6 Y/A) – 6
  8. Russell Wilson (7.6 Y/A) – 16
  9. Drew Brees (7.5 Y/A) – 10
  10. Tony Romo (7.5 Y/A) – 11

Two main takeaways here – first, five of the top 10 offensive lines are represented in the top 10 Y/A leaders. I think it’s reasonable to say that better offensive lines give quarterbacks more time to throw and increase their chances of success. It’s also important that all of the quarterbacks with poorer offensive lines are all considered mobile. It makes sense that a quarterback who can move around defenders will have more time to throw and more time to let his receivers run down the field.

Now for the bottom 10:

  1. John Skelton (5.6 Y/A) – 29
  2. Blaine Gabbert (6.0 Y/A) – 28
  3. Christian Ponder (6.0 Y/A) – 22
  4. Nick Foles (6.2 Y/A) – 26
  5. Matt Hasselbeck (6.2 Y/A) – 12
  6. Kevin Kolb (6.4 Y/A) – 29
  7. Matt Cassel (6.5 Y/A) – 24
  8. Mark Sanchez (6.5 Y/A) – 20
  9. Brandon Weeden (6.6 Y/A) – 8
  10. Chad Henne (6.7 Y/A) – 28

We can see the opposite effect here. Out of the bottom 10 qualified quarterbacks in 2012, eight of them are ranked in the bottom third of the league in offensive line pass efficiency by Football Outsiders. How do we explain Brandon Weeden and Matt Hasselbeck? It’s easy to say that one is a 29-year-old rookie and another is a 37-year-old veteran on his last legs, but I’d like to look into it more at a later date.

How should this change your fantasy football strategy? If I could find a way to predict offensive line performance, I might identify which quarterbacks are most likely to outperform their predicted Y/A. The other takeaway is that mobile quarterbacks were much less affected by offensive line pass protection in 2012. If that applies to future seasons, we’ll be able to predict their Y/A much more accurately than pocket passers.

Even if we can’t accurately predict all types of quarterbacks, even a slight advantage could be huge in identifying the best place to draft a given player.

If you’d like to see more analysis on Yards per Attempt that includes an accurate way to predict the statistic, please click here.

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