This week, I'm going to take a deeper look at each of the three starting quarterbacks from the 2014 draft and produce a progress report for where they stand after two years in the NFL. Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr have each thrown more than 800 pass attempts and shown progress, but none would yet qualify as a finished product or a confirmed superstar. Let's figure out where they are and try to get a sense of how likely they might be to push forward in 2016.
And let's start this series with Bortles, the first quarterback of the three chosen. Bortles was a steady riser during the pre-draft process, eventually making his way toward the top of the class before settling in with the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 3 overall. General manager David Caldwell has basically revamped the entire offense around Bortles, 24, during the ensuing three offseasons; the offensive starters a healthy (and suspension-free) Jaguars team would have thrown out in 2013 look nothing like the unit that is likely to show up in Week 1 this upcoming season.
Seven of those 11 offensive starters aren't even in the league anymore, and this doesn't even include additions such as Toby Gerhart and Zane Beadles, who have already come and gone. The only holdover in the starting lineup is Joeckel, who flamed out after moving to left tackle and will try to salvage his Jags career at guard. (Lewis will start in two-tight-end lineups.) It has come at the cost of a lot of draft picks and plenty of money in free agency, but this Jaguars offense is undeniably better than the group from 2013.
There's unquestionably more talent surrounding Bortles, and after offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was fired at the end of 2014 and replaced by the more experienced Greg Olson, there was better coaching. After a dismal rookie season saw Bortles post a league-low Total QBR of 25.2 while finishing near the bottom of the charts in just about every traditional statistic, it was heartening to see him improve last season. His QBR jumped to 46.5, which was still good for only 27th out of 33 qualifiers, but a far cry from the disastrously low of his rookie campaign.
He led the league in interceptions, but Bortles still managed to cut his interception rate from 3.6 percent to 3.0 percent. Bortles' completion percentage stayed stagnant, but by picking up 1.1 additional yards per pass attempt and cutting his sack rate to 7.8 percent, he was a more efficient, effective passer.
That's the bird's-eye view of Bortles' season: He was better, and better was not quite good. You could stop there, but if you unpack more about how Bortles performed, there's a lot more insight into how real those improvements might end up playing down the line. I mentioned that Bortles led the league with 18 interceptions, but he also led the league in what Football Outsiders calls adjusted interceptions, a measure that includes would-be picks dropped by the opposition. By that metric, we would have expected Bortles' 603 passes to produce 20.5 interceptions. He was actually the fourth-luckiest passer in the league in terms of getting away with passes that should have been taken away by the opposition.
Nowhere does that stand out more than in the most statistically controversial game of Bortles' season, which came in Week 14 during a 51-16 blowout victory over the Colts. Bortles' team won comfortably, and his overall line looks fine: 16-of-30 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and a 1-yard TD plunge as a runner for good measure. ESPN's QBR metric disagreed with that perception, assigning Bortles a dismal 3.8 figure for the day while suggesting that the Jaguars blew out Indy almost entirely in spite of their young quarterback.
I don't know if individual-game QBR is finely tuned to the extent that I would agree with a single-digit figure for the former UCF star, but in watching the tape, he was unquestionably bad against Indy. Bortles had three would-be interceptions dropped by Indy defenders and was responsible for not getting the ball out quickly enough on two bad strip-sacks. Jags center Stefen Wisniewski was a mess snapping the football at times, but Bortles was primarily at fault for a shotgun snap that hit him in the hands and bounced into the end zone for a Colts touchdown.
Bortles repeatedly put his passes in the wrong spots and either created an easy pass breakup for Indy or made it difficult for his receivers to make plays. One such throw ended up well: Bortles telegraphed a throw to Allen Hurns and delivered it late, but the deep safety misjudged his own closing speed and got to the throw a quarter-second late, allowing Hurns to then go 80 yards for a touchdown.
Saying Bortles lived down to the advanced metrics against the Colts doesn't mean he always looked as bad as QBR suggested. Bortles had one other disaster start, which came against the Texans in Week 17 to the tune of a 3.7 QBR. While I wouldn't say Bortles played well during what ended up as a 30-6 loss, it wasn't really his fault. Olson perhaps inexplicably spent the entire game trying to block J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus while giving little help to his tackles, Joeckel and Sam Young. It went miserably. Bortles was under fire constantly, with Houston's two ends combining to finish the game with 6.5 sacks. Bortles did occasionally hold the ball too long in the pocket and threw an arm punt to Andre Hal before staring down a slant for an easy pick-six, but he had no hope. It was ugly.
Something those two opponents have in common: The Colts (12th in DVOA) and Texans (7th) were two of the better defenses Bortles faced last season. Jacksonville faced the league's 22nd-ranked slate of defenses last year, which doesn't really suggest that Bortles faced a cakewalk slate. It's not that Bortles faced shockingly easy competition, but instead that he did more of his damage against the easier teams than a typical quarterback might.
Let's split up Bortles' season into two eight-game stretches: one against the eight easier pass defenses he faced last year (with an average DVOA rank of 25th), and the other against the eight tougher pass defenses he faced (average rank of 10th). You probably won't be surprised to read that Bortles looked a lot better against the easier teams:
I suspect you're thinking that every quarterback is going to look better against the easier teams on the schedule, and that's true, but not to the same extent it was for Bortles last year. The difference in passer rating between the two schedules for Bortles in 2016 was akin to the overall difference between Drew Brees (101.0, sixth in the NFL) and Colin Kaepernick (78.5, 31st). If you plug in the performance for every other quarterback against the same teams on Bortles' schedule last year and generate a combined passer rating, they all posted a rating of 97.8 against the friendly side of the slate and an 81.3 mark against the tougher guys. That's more like the difference between Matthew Stafford (97.0, ninth) and Joe Flacco (83.1, 30th).
The same sort of allowance has to come into play for what Bortles did when his team was way behind. Bortles threw only five passes all season with his team up 15 or more points, but he threw 70 passes while his team was down by 15 or more. The latter is about in line with the rest of the league: 11.4 percent of Bortles' throws were in those moments when he was getting routed, a figure that rose slightly to 11.8 percent for the rest of the league.
Bortles wasn't in more blowouts, but he was way better in those little-hope situations. The NFL as a whole posted an 89.7 passer rating while games were within 14 points and an 88.2 passer rating when they were down by 15 or more. Bortles posted an 83.6 rating while the game was within two touchdowns and a whopping 116.9 passer rating on those 70 pass attempts while he was down 15 or more, throwing seven touchdowns against just two picks. Interestingly, his QBR on those passes was only 29.0, far below his QBR of 47.4 in the closer two-score situations.
The disparity implies that Bortles wasn't playing very well in those situations, and that his impressive numbers were a product of his teammates. The Venn diagram in which all of these issues meet is in Bortles' second-half performance against the most dismal pass defense in football, the Saints, in Week 16. Trailing 24-6 at halftime after throwing two interceptions in the first half, Bortles went wild against a terrible New Orleans D: He was 18-of-21 for 288 yards with three touchdowns and no picks, all while the Jaguars were down by double-digits.
His biggest play from that half and, indeed, the entire season, a 90-yard touchdown pass to Allen Robinson, is a good example of this sort of conundrum in evaluating Bortles. He really doesn't do very much on this play. The Jags come out with trips to the right and Robinson one-on-one against a comically overmatched Brandon Browner on the left side. Single-high safety Jairus Byrd is already cheating with steps to the right as Bortles takes the snap, and while you can give the quarterback credit for not staring Robinson down from the start, Byrd was going to head that way unless Bortles stared down Robinson.
With a clean pocket, this is basically pitch and catch. Bortles delivers an excellent throw, but there has never really been much doubt about Bortles' ability to throw the football. It's the other aspects of being a professional quarterback that would worry you about Bortles' ability to become a star as a pro, and there's no way to judge how he handles, say, pressure around the pocket here. It's a good play from Bortles, just not one that offers a ton of insight into his future.
In watching a lot of Bortles, that thought came up over and over again with regard to the presence of Robinson. In a way, it was a blessing, because Robinson was truly awesome and every bit as good as his numbers suggested from afar. It was also a curse in terms of evaluation because so many of Bortles' big plays came just by chucking the ball up to Robinson in a one-on-one (or one-on-two) situation and hoping he came away with the football. Watch a Robinson highlight reel from 2015 and you'll see what I mean.
Again, I'm not saying that to criticize Bortles. It's defensible to launch the ball up on isos and go routes to your star receiver, and plenty of great quarterbacks do just that. In terms of evaluating the strides Bortles has made, though, it's disingenuous to suggest that those lobs to Robinson represent significant progress from Bortles' side of the coin. It's the difference between a scorer in basketball creating shots off of the dribble as opposed to a guy standing in the corner and having open 3-pointers created for him by the penetration from a star point guard. That latter player still has to hit the shots and deserves credit for sinking them, but is he a significantly improved creative force?
Getting past the Robinson bombs, it's clear that Olson placed a real priority on getting Bortles out of the pocket and into space, in part because of how bad his offensive line looked at times. As much as any team in football, the Jaguars had Bortles play-fake and then immediately sprint out of the pocket to try to take advantage of his athleticism and arm strength. It worked, as Bortles was a much-improved passer with the threat of a run. His QBR was 29th in the league without a play-fake; when he did threaten teams with play-action, though, Bortles' QBR rose to 13th. He was 25th in QBR in the pocket and 21st outside the pocket.
And for whatever reason -- the presence of tight end Julius Thomas, the total lack of fear of his receivers (including Bryan Walters) going over the middle to make catches, or perhaps the ease with which he was able to see the middle of the field after rolling out -- Bortles was money between the hashmarks. He posted a 99.5 QBR between the hashmarks, going 49-of-61 for 556 yards with nine touchdowns and no picks. That was the best QBR between the hashes in football, and he was in good company: Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton, Tom Brady, Alex Smith and Russell Wilson were just behind him.
The flip side, as you might suspect, is that he was 28th in the league in QBR on throws to every other part of the field. And after his first two seasons, that's more the company Bortles is keeping.
Going back through 1990, there have been 37 quarterbacks drafted in the first round who threw at least 500 attempts over their first two years in the league. The ANY/A+ stat calculates adjusted net yards per attempt and then normalizes the statistic for the era in which it was played; by that figure, Bortles is tied for 29th among 37 qualifying passers. He's tied with Jeff George and Christian Ponder and ahead of the likes of Kyle Boller, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Leaf. The only first-rounder with a worse ANY/A+ over his first two years to turn into a successful pro quarterback was Alex Smith.
Even worse, the guys directly ahead of Bortles are also disappointing: It's a list that includes Brandon Weeden, Cade McNown, Sam Bradford and Rick Mirer. The next guy by the statistic is Donovan McNabb, and the Jags would be happy if Bortles ended up having McNabb's career, but he's one of the few success stories lurking at this level of recent history.
That's the concerning thing in projecting Bortles' future. You can't throw out how bad he was as a rookie just because he got better last year, and when you look at how and why he got better, a noticeable chunk of the improvement came in low-pressure situations and by virtue of Robinson's leaping ability. There's a lot to like in terms of raw ability, and Bortles certainly has moments or even full games when he looks like a great passer, but even during his best performance of the year -- Week 13 against Tennessee, when Bortles posted a QBR of 90.6 -- the opposing defense dropped two interceptions.
The book is far from finished on Bortles. He has two more seasons to go before the Jaguars really need to give serious thought toward making a long-term decision. Jags fans can rightly hope that the addition of left tackle Kelvin Beachum should shore up one of the weakest spots on Jacksonville's line, given how bad Joeckel looked at times over the past couple of seasons. All of Bortles' receivers are distressingly young. The offense as a whole, in fact, is young enough that it's hardly out of the question to think that players such as T.J. Yeldon or Brandon Linder could take big leaps forward this season.
And yet, the final play of Jacksonville's 2015 season seemed to portend ominous things about Bortles and the skills he hasn't yet developed. Down 30-6 and in the red zone with 14 seconds left, Bortles took a third-down snap and faced heavy pressure. With Texans defenders bearing down, Bortles started to feverishly sprint backward but failed to ever get a pass off, ending his year with an 18-yard megasack.
In that moment, it felt like Bortles was relying on sheer athleticism, trying to outrun the rush instead of doing the more logical thing and throwing up a pass. A seasoned veteran would have sprinted to throw the ball away and taken another shot on fourth down. Bortles definitely made strides last season, and he still has the athleticism capable of giving him a fighting chance against that sort of pressure, but he's also far from seasoned.