What’s Trevor Lawrence’s ceiling?

I wrote a story this week on Trevor Lawrence, and how he builds off a freshman campaign that essentially has no equal.

The story focuses largely on Lawrence’s growth away from the field. It’s as insightful as I’ve heard him to date, with some real candidness about how much he still has to learn about the world, and how he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career being nothing more than a QB.

Of course, he’s pretty good at being a QB, too, so I figured it’d be interesting to just take a quick look at how his season progressed last year and project that forward.

First off, let’s take a look at his performance relative to his competition. In the chart below, you’ll see Lawrence’s yards-per-attempt represented in orange, and the average yards-per-attempt of all other FBS QBs to face those same teams represented in purple.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 11.00.14 AM

What’s interesting is, as good as Lawrence’s numbers looked last year — and certainly there’s more to an effective QB than just yards-per-attempt — he really wasn’t doing anything special until late November. He had a solid game against Florida State, was well below average against Louisville (when he threw just 12 passes), and was essentially right in line with the average in every other game until Week 13. And then?

Yikes.

Sure, the Pitt game is an outlier here. That’s explained a bit by the fact that Pitt allowed nearly double its yards-per-rush average to Clemson’s ground game. The Panthers went all out to stop the passing game, and Clemson had no need to force the issue. In fact, here’s Pat Narduzzi on Lawrence’s game: “Great player. Not sure we’ve seen a guy so polished and calm. He has an incredible release and will be a force in the ACC for a few more years.” So yeah, he impressed even Pitt.

But back to the numbers.

Compared to other FBS QBs, Lawrence’s yards-per-pass were just slightly better than average (0.13 yards per attempt) in Weeks 6 through 12. (Note: We’re not counting Weeks 1-4, as Lawrence played sporadically, and in Week 5, when he was hurt in the first half).

Then, from the regular season finale against South Carolina through the national title game, Lawrence averaged 2.8 yards-per-attempt better than those team’s other opponents (and that’s with the Pitt game included). That’s an insane number that, keep in mind, also came against some of the best competition he played all season.

So what’s that all mean? Well, it means Lawrence was just hitting his stride by year’s end, which is a scary thought since he’s now had a full offseason to get better.

With that, we figured we should look for comparison points. Who else finished with a four-game stretch that looked as good as Lawrence’s (65% completions, 9 TD, 0 INT, 9.0 YPA)?

The answer? Well, no one. At least, no one hit all four of those bench marks in the past decade.

So, we dug deeper to find the guys with the most apt comparisons. For that, we came up with a list of 22 Power 5 QBs who at least came close to mirroring Lawrence’s final four contests. Here’s the list.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 10.59.41 AM

A few things to notice:

  • The list includes 11 guys who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting that year.
  • The list includes nine first-round draft picks, including seven taken first or second overall
  • The list does not include a single name who had been on campus fewer than three seasons besides Lawrence.

Of course, the list also includes some really out-of-nowhere names: Joe Burrow and Feleipe Franks? Jake Coker? Bryn Renner? Keith Price? All fine QBs but… surprising to see them here.

There are certainly guys who make an apt comparison point in one way or another to Lawrence. Coker, for example, had been relatively average most of the season, then caught fire in the playoff and led Alabama to a title. Of course, he was a fifth-year senior.

Only a handful of these guys spent another year on campus, so that also provides us with relatively little groundwork for comparison. Luck might be the obvious choice here. He returned for another season and essentially matched his 2010 performance. Of course, he finished second in Heisman balloting in 2010, so it’s not like that four-game stretch to end the year represented a turning point.

No, what we keep coming back to is that Trevor Lawrence is an anomaly. There just isn’t a ton of data to suggest how good he’ll be moving forward because we haven’t seen many guys like him. Go even broader, and look for any Power 5 QB in the past 15 years who matched Lawrence’s overall stat line: 65% completions, 30 TD, 4 INT, 3,280 yards. Here’s the full list…

Russell Wilson, 2011
Cody Kessler, 2014
Marcus Mariota, 2014

Mariota won the Heisman. Both Mariota and Wilson were starting NFL QBs the next year. Kessler didn’t blossom the same way, but he followed up with a senior season at USC in which he again accounted for 30+ TDs, 3,000+ yards and 65% completions. And again, none we’re freshmen.

Perhaps the best comparison to Lawrence is the guy who preceded him by a year, Deshaun Watson. Dabo Swinney is fond of the comparison for many reasons, but the stat lines are one of them. If we adjust Watson’s freshman campaign to match Lawrence’s number of passing attempts, we’d get this line: 68% completions, 40 TD, 6 INT, 4,248 yards. That’s a good line.

Of course, Watson didn’t play all those snaps. And the ones he did were largely against lackluster defenses. He didn’t do it against Notre Dame and Alabama.

So maybe Lawrence is a healthier Deshaun Watson. That’s high praise. And yet, it still feels like we’d be selling him a little short.

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