As the offseason grinds towards OTAs and training camp in the coming months, it's a good idea to take stock of the NFC South to see how the Falcons stack up against the competition heading into the 2016 season. This series is going to go position by position tackling every major position group on the team.
Quarterback is where the series will start since there'll be no change between now and the start of the season. Each team has an established starter, let's see how they stack up with each other.
My favorite ways to measure quarterback performance over a season are touchdown percentage, interception percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown to interception ratio, and percentage of passes dropped. Here's how Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Drew Brees compared to each other in these four categories.
1. Cam Newton (7.1%)
2. Drew Brees (5.1%)
3. Jameis Winston (4.1%)
4. Matt Ryan (3.4%)
1. Drew Brees (1.8%)
2. Cam Newton (2%)
3. Matt Ryan (2.6%)
4. Jameis Winston (2.8%)
Yards Per Attempt
1. Drew Brees (7.77 YPA)
2. Cam Newton (7.75 YPA)
3. Jameis Winston (7.56 YPA)
4. Matt Ryan (7.48 YPA)
Touchdown to Interception Ratio
1. Cam Newton (3.5)
2. Drew Brees (2.9)
3. Jameis Winston (1.5)
4. Matt Ryan (1.3)
Percentage of Passes Dropped (via SportingCharts)
1. Matt Ryan (4.89%)
2. Jameis Winston (4.67%)
3. Cam Newton (4.65%)
4. Drew Brees (2.55%)
The stats above display that Drew Brees and Cam Newton were the clear top two quarterbacks in the NFC South last season. Factor in Newton's performance on the ground (637 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) and he separates himself from the rest of the group, establishing himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
What separates Newton from the pack is his ability to threaten the short, intermediate, and deep portions of the field. He has an absolute rifle for an arm that let him make plays over the top while keeping the intermediate portion of the field open.
Here's an example of the intermediate portion of the field opening for the Panthers on their Levels Concept. Malcolm Jenkins kind of blows his Cover 3 assignment on the play, but Corey Brown draws a double team on his nine route at the top left of the screen.
While Cam is an ascending superstar, Drew Brees just keeps finding ways to stay effective and keep the Saints afloat. New Orleans had one of the worst defenses in the league last year, but Brees and the offense were somehow able to scratch out seven wins.
Even at 36 years old, Drew Brees was still doing wizard like things in the pocket.
One connection to watch through 2016 is the continued growth between Brees and third year receiver Brandin Cooks (who'll be 23 years old in September). Brees can still throw times down the field and Cooks has lethal speed capable of torching most NFL corners.
The comparison between Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan is an interesting one. Both were learning new systems; Winston making the leap from Florida State to the NFL and Ryan transitioning from four years of Dirk Koetter's offense to the first year of Kyle Shanahan's offense.
Much was made during the season of Shanahan's offense "ruining" Ryan, but Shanahan's offense featured many of the same passing concepts as Koetter's offense; especially attacking the deep portions of the field.
Both passing offenses were designed around feeding the ball to their top two wideouts (Julio Jones, Mike Evans) and using them as decoys to open up the middle of the field. The passing concept below is called a Yankee Concept.
Ignore the outcomes of the play, instead notice how Julio Jones and Mike Evans are used to open up the middle of the field. The Falcons and the Buccaneers use heavy protection schemes in these situations, but the Falcons have play action sprinkled in as they often did on their deep routes.
Atlanta and Tampa Bay utilized similar concepts on play action rollouts as well last year, but there's a bit of a constriction on what can actually be thrown in these situations. The #1 option on a vast majority of these plays is going to be reaching his landmark on the same side the quarterback is rolling out too.
Here's another example from the Bucs' game against the Rams. This time they executed a fake toss instead of outside zone away from the rollout.
The main difference between Ryan and Winston's tasks last season was their movement in the pocket. Ryan was asked to execute rollouts and play action stretch plays on a more frequent basis than Winston. This wasn't ideal for Ryan's skill set, but he did become more effective with the play action throws as the season progressed.
Playing any position in the NFL is about establishing a base of comfortability within the realm of the system. Once Ryan realized stopping rollouts a yard or two early and setting his feet prior to throwing worked for him, he became more effective on these throws.
With Newton and Brees distancing themselves from Winston and Ryan (based on 2015 play), the battle between Winston and Ryan really comes down to the valuation of variance and consistency. Percentage of big plays held next to interception percentage is a good way to get a framing of variance between quarterbacks.
SportingCharts.com categorizes a big play as 25 or more yards gained. Ryan had a big play percentage of 4.4% while Winston ended up totaling 4.9%. As stated before, Ryan and Winston had interception percentages of 2.6% and 2.8%, respectively.
When looking at two quarterbacks who weren't very efficient by any measure their ability to create big plays and scoring plays in relation to their volume is key; Winston comes away the victor in this instance.
An interesting argument that could be made in favor of Ryan being over ranked Winston heading into 2016 is the dropped pass percentage (4.89%). While Mike Evans was the league leader in drops according to SportingCharts.com (11), Atlanta had three of the top twenty players in this dubious category in Devonta Freeman (7), Julio Jones (6), and Leonard Hankerson (6).
When converted to drop percentage, the numbers clearly paint an inconsistent picture of Ryan's receiving core:
1. Leonard Hankerson (13%)!!!!!!
2. Mike Evans (7.4%)
3. Devonta Freeman (7.2%)
4. Julio Jones (3.0%)
Cam Newton is the clear cream of the crop in the NFC South with Old Man Brees still kicking not too far behind him. Ryan didn't play particularly well last season, but he's shown in the past that he can be an efficient quarterback capable of playing good enough football to get the Falcons into the postseason.
With another year in Kyle Shanahan's offense expect Ryan to play much better in 2016 than he did this past season. Winston looks like he can be an elite quarterback in the NFL. Yes, it was one year. Yes, Ryan's body of work is (obviously) better than Winston's. Winston showed rare traits as a passer last season while dealing with inconsistencies from himself and his supporting cast.
Overall, the NFC South has one of the better collections of quarterbacks in the NFL. It'll be interesting to see if Brees and Newton can maintain their level of play this season while Ryan and Winston take step forwards. Based on film evaluation and statistics, here's how I would rank the NFC South quarterbacks heading into the 2016 season.
Keep in mind, these are all top 15 quarterbacks to me.
1. Cam Newton
2. Drew Brees
3. Jameis Winston
4. Matt Ryan
Stay tuned for a look at the NFC South defensive lines next week!