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Air raid QBs haven’t succeeded in the NFL. Will Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb?

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The offense racks up huge stats and has influenced successful schemes but has yet to produce a top pro QB.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, at least one NFL draft prospect intrigues fans by having cranked out hilarious stats in college. This often comes by way of the air raid offense, a pass-first spread popularized at the power-conference level by Mike Leach and evolved by his coaching tree. Pieces of its up-tempo, streamlined, wide-distribution style have filtered to the NFL, but it’s still mostly for the amateur levels.

In 2017’s draft, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes is heading to the Kansas City Chiefs after heaving a hilarious 421 yards per game in 2016 and breaking various NCAA records. One of his TTU predecessors, Cal’s Davis Webb, is in the mix.

While modern offenses all mishmash together to some degree, those two offenses were close to pure air raid. Since-departed Cal head coach Sonny Dykes was a Leach assistant, and TTU head coach Kliff Kingsbury was an air raid QB under Leach. Cal and TTU ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in pass attempts per game, right ahead of Leach’s Washington State.

So here’s an annually updated list of prominent air raid-ish QBs who’ve gone on to the NFL.

As always, we can debate who exactly goes on the list. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, and Baylor's Robert Griffin III definitely played in similar offenses (OU in particular has evolved constantly since employing Leach in 1999), for example, but we’ve got to cut it off somewhere.

Noteworthy NFL QBs from college air raid offenses

QB Pick number Career NFL starts Career NFL passer rating
QB Pick number Career NFL starts Career NFL passer rating
Tim Couch, Kentucky 1 59 75
Jared Goff*, Cal 1 7 64
Brandon Weeden*, Oklahoma State 22 25 76
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M 22 15 74
Kevin Kolb, Houston 36 21 79
Geno Smith*, West Virginia 39 30 72
John Beck, BYU 40 7 68
Nick Foles*, Arizona 88 26 88
Josh Heupel, Oklahoma 177 0 N/A
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech 201 0 79
B.J. Symons, Texas Tech 248 0 N/A
Case Keenum*, Houston UFA 24 78
Max Hall, BYU UFA 3 36
Dominique Davis, ECU UFA 0 82
Graham Harrell, Texas Tech UFA 0 65
Jared Lorenzen, Kentucky UFA 0 58
Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech UFA 0 N/A
Taylor Potts, Texas Tech UFA 0 N/A
Average career passer rating for all active QBs with 500-plus attempts: 83.3, meaning Foles is the only QB on this list who’s been above average. * = Currently active, more or less

Why has it yet to translate? Here are a few theories.

  • It’s not the most complex, pro-style offense. (But QBs from other relatively simple schemes have found pro success, and ... like ... the 2007 Patriots went 16-1 via verts to Randy Moss and option routes to former TTU star Wes Welker.)
  • It’s typically an underdog strategy, rarely used by teams that bring in top talent. That’s led to huge upset wins, but few blue-chip QBs, aka the recruits most likely to make the pros. (I think this is a more valid theory. Mahomes and Webb were three-stars, FWIW.)
  • Air raid QBs rarely face good defenses in college. (IMHO, this is the big one.)

More on that last one:

The Big 12 is notoriously high-scoring, with its offenses having talent advantages almost across the board. That’s led to inflated numbers for many of its QBs. The Pac-12, where Webb had about half his starts, is more balanced, but isn’t exactly Iowa-Minnesota.

So Mahomes setting records is amazing — being the best at a weird style of football still means being the best at a style of football — but needs some context.

2017 NFL draft QBs, ranked by 2015/2016 schedule strength

QB Average opposing defense Top-10 defenses Top-30 defenses Top-60 defenses
QB Average opposing defense Top-10 defenses Top-30 defenses Top-60 defenses
Deshaun Watson, Clemson 35.1 6 14 23
Mitch Trubisky, UNC* 36.9 1 5 9
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee 39.6 6 11 16
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss 41.9 6 10 12
DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame 45 3 9 18
Nathan Peterman, Pitt 49.3 1 5 16
Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech* 51.2 1 4 8
Davis Webb, Cal and Texas Tech** 51.3 2 7 12
Brad Kaaya, Miami 52.5 1 6 14
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech 70.3 0 2 9
* = only started one year; ** = 2014 included due to transfer Defensive S&P+ ratings by Bill Connelly. FBS opponents only

Do we think Mahomes and Webb can make it, though?

Well, first of all, Goff still could!

Webb and Mahomes are bigger and more athletic than most of their brethren. Both have NFL height, both ran about 4.8 40s despite weighing around 230, Webb otherwise impressed at the combine, and Mahomes ran for 22 college TDs.

Mahomes’ 2016 passer rating of 156.96 would've ranked No. 12 on this list of 66 seasons by air raid QBs, behind the best years of Keenum, Beck, Smith, Kolb, and so forth. Webb’s 135.62 ... wouldn’t.

NFL folks say completion percentage and games started are the most telling college QB stats. The efficient air raid should mean a leg up in the former.

  • Mahomes’ 65.7 completion percentage as a senior ranks behind the best years by QBs like Manziel, Smith, Keenum, Harrell, Foles, and Weeden, who hit 70 percent or so.
  • Webb: 61.6 percent.
  • They’ve both started at least 27 games, though.

And here’s our NFL draft analyst, Dan Kadar, from his 2017 QB ranking:

Thanks to a good arm and athleticism, Mahomes can throw from multiple angles and while on the move. He can also be frustratingly reckless on the move and chucks the ball into multiple coverage. But funny enough, it often worked. Some teams will love his ability to adjust, and some teams will be scared because he’s not refined. Even though you can’t coach his creativity out of him, Mahomes will benefit from some refinement.

Webb is a big-bodied signal caller with a good release and a strong arm who can make passes all over the field. His touch on deep passes and fades is impressive. He has coachable traits that some team will love to develop, but pressure really gives Webb issues. When defenses come after him, it knocks off his timing and his accuracy drops.

So! Do you think there’s reason to believe the trend stops here?