Projections show Luck faces rough first season - NBC Sports

Projections show Luck faces rough first season
What does future hold for likely No. 1 pick? We make our best 'scientific' predictions
AP
The hype for quarterback Andrew Luck has been nearly nonstop in the run up to the NFL draft. Only time will tell if he can live up to it.
April 24, 2012, 1:04 pm

Maybe you want to wager with a friend. Maybe your fantasy league drafts really, really, early. It doesn't matter: you want to know. Will he be Cam Newton? Andy Dalton? Blaine (shudder) Gabbert?

We could just make up some dartboard numbers and throw them at you, but you could do that yourself. It's more fun - and a little more accurate - to use real math, science, and research. Luckily, I have all the toys in the Football Outsiders database and toolbox at my disposal.

Get your lab coat and goggles on. It is time for some mad scientific predictions.

Forecasting 2012
At Football Outsiders, we use a projection system called KUBIAK (named after the Texans coach when he was a lowly assistant) to crunch fantasy numbers for every player in the NFL. The KUBIAK system is the most accurate model in the football world. So it should be no problem plugging in some Luck data and watching the yards and touchdowns pour out. Right?

Not so fast. KUBIAK makes projections by calculating whole team totals, then breaking those totals down by position. That means we need a close-to-accurate roster and depth chart to make the system work. It is also opponent-adjusted, which is a big deal if you are projecting stats in a division like the AFC North (four Ravens and Steelers games can really skew a quarterback's numbers). We cannot make opponent adjustments without opponent rosters. And no one has drafted yet, so we do not have rosters.

Still, Football Outsiders president and CEO Aaron Schatz agreed to scale back the opponent adjustments, work with best-available rosters, and run the numbers for Luck. Because we knew you would ask, he also ran them for Robert Griffin III. Here they are:

The numbers reflect the fact that Griffin is going to a team with two established receiving tight ends, some adequate receivers, and a stable, veteran offensive line. Luck is going to a team with Reggie Wayne. Again, there are no opponent adjustments, but neither the Colts or Redskins play an extreme schedule.

Schatz explained why the interception totals look so high: "Remember that rookies generally throw a lot of picks because they are rookies. Peyton Manning threw 28!" And Cam Newton threw 17 last season.

Projecting beyond 2012
One of the most important tools in the Football Outsiders shed is the Lewin Career Forecaster (LCF), developed by researcher David Lewin after analysis of dozens of variables to find true predictors of a college quarterback's potential. The LCF takes into account games started, completion percentage, rushing ability, variations in year-to-year performance, and a handful of other variables that correlate with NFL success. The LCF also strives to make predictions about the "early middle years" of a quarterback's career: The Colts don't care if Luck throws 19 interceptions this year; they are worried about how he will perform in 2014 and beyond.

Here are the LCF results for this year's top prospects. The numbers represent "Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement" in years 3 through 5 of his career. Don't worry about the exact. Bigger is better.

Similarity, similarity
We have one last trick up our sleeves: the Similarity Score generator. Here's how it works: Plug a young player's stats into the formula, run it through some calculations and our database, and get a list of players who had similar early careers. In this case, we will be plugging Luck's projection for 2012 into the generator.

Warning: we are now plugging projected data into a data projector. This is "instant coffee in the microwave" territory, and we rapidly lose our grounding on planet earth when we use one prediction to fuel the next prediction. The following results are strictly for entertainment purposes and do not represent the editorial opinions or research philosophies of Football Outsiders or anyone with a passing knowledge of scientific method.

Yeah, but the list of 10 quarterbacks similar to Luck is pretty neat: Joe Flacco, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Timm Rosenbach, Joe Montana and Sam Bradford.

Flacco ranks as the most similar quarterback, by far. Schatz explains: "Luck is a better quarterback, but he's going to a worse offense. Flacco had fewer passing touchdowns because his team liked to run the ball in. Luck will have fewer passing touchdowns because his defense won't put him in good field position."

Look down the list and you see several current and future Hall of Famers. And Timm Rosenbach, who may be in the rodeo Hall of Fame for all we know. But it is a fine list.

As for Griffin, the Similarity generator spat out Cam Newton as the top comparison. Big surprise. Montana, Ryan, and Cutler also made his list, as did the first seasons of some passers who had to wait a few years for their NFL starting debuts: Jim Kelly and Aaron Rodgers.

Better data through patience
That's the best we can do right now, but in a month or two, we can do far better. More accurate Luck and Griffin projections will appear in the Football Outsiders Almanac, which will be available in July. Oh, and there will be Colts and Redskins projections, too. Because it's not about how these future stars win or lose, but whether they win or lose.

Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.