On Monday night, the Broncos and Titans each will start a quarterback in his second season. In fact, both teams are rebuilding their offenses around players from the 2006 draft: Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler for Denver, Vince Young and LenDale White for Tennessee.
Four weeks ago, when the Colts and Jaguars met on "Monday Night Football," we used similarity scores to try to gauge how Joseph Addai and Maurice Jones-Drew are developing in their second seasons. Now we'll use the same method on the young Broncos and Titans players, looking at a two-year span that projects each player's numbers based on their play so far in 2007 (projections noted by asterisks in charts below).
Similarity scores were first introduced by Bill James to compare baseball players to other baseball players from the past, and the idea has spread to other sports. They aren't a perfect measurement by any means -- because similarity scores compare standard statistics like yards and touchdowns, they are subject to all kinds of biases, from strength of schedule to the quality of each player's offensive line. Nevertheless, they're fun to play with and they tell you a little bit about whether a player is good, bad or just unique.
It is hard to find players similar to Cutler because young quarterbacks don't often complete such a high percentage of their passes. The similar players are generally players with similar totals, but either more attempts or fewer completions.
The most similar quarterback was actually a player in his third season, Tim Couch (2000-2001). However, there is one huge difference between the two: completion percentage. Couch completed just 60 percent of his passes in 2001, which also means that he's far behind Cutler in yards per attempt (7.6 versus 6.7) despite having total stats similar to our 2007 projection for Cutler.
Since Cutler played just five games as a rookie, perhaps we'll learn more by only looking at our 2007 projection. When we look only at quarterbacks in their second years, without considering what they did in their first, the most similar quarterback is ... come on, you all know this is coming ... Brett Favre.
Favre vs. Cutler
The main difference between the two is that Cutler is getting more yardage per pass, while Favre threw fewer interceptions.
After Favre, the most similar second-year quarterbacks are Drew Brees again (2002), Tom Brady (2001) and Tony Eason (1984).
Yes, Marshall is really on pace for that many yards. You probably had no idea he is one of the NFL's top 10 wide receivers this year, partly because his fantasy football value is depressed by his low touchdown total. But without Javon Walker around to be the go-to guy, Marshall has gained 70 or more yards in seven different games.
It isn't too uncommon for a wide receiver to explode like this in his second year. The receiver most similar to Marshall is Koren Robinson, who had 1,240 yards and five touchdowns for the 2002 Seahawks. Unfortunately, Robinson and Marshall are also similar off the field.
After Robinson, the most similar second-year receivers are Germane Crowell (1999 Lions), Al Toon (1986 Jets), Dwight Clark (1980 49ers), Anthony Miller (1989 Chargers) and Chad Johnson (2002 Bengals). Crowell had 1,338 yards and seven touchdowns for a Lions team that sneaked into the playoffs at 8-8, then had his career derailed by a Lisfranc injury. The other four receivers combined for 14 Pro Bowls and were top receivers in the NFL for years.
Take heart, Denver fans. Similarity scores suggest that Marshall will become one of the NFL's top receivers -- as long as he can stay away from health and off-field issues.
Scheffler's yards per reception have really fallen this year. The tight ends most similar to Scheffler include David Lewis (1985 Lions), L.J. Smith (2004 Eagles), Mark Brammer (1981 Bills), Chris Dressel (1985 Oilers) and Anthony Becht (2001 Jets). If that sounds like a list of guys you've never heard of, well, that's Scheffler's career path. So far he's a serviceable tight end, unlikely to become a star.
The most similar player to LenDale White is Earnest Jackson, an eighth-round pick in 1983 who somehow stumbled into the San Diego starting job after the Chargers made one of the worst trades in NFL history, sending James Brooks to Cincinnati for a fullback who played one game. Jackson gained 1,179 yards, averaging 4 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. It was an unspectacular year, but Jackson actually made the Pro Bowl because the great running backs of that era were almost all in the NFC.
The Chargers thought so much of this Pro Bowl year that they dealt Jackson to the Eagles for a fourth-rounder in 1986. Jackson played one year in Philly and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. After the season, the Eagles hired Buddy Ryan, who thought Jackson had no big-play ability and sent him to Pittsburgh. He played three mediocre seasons there as a part-time back who lacked receiving skills. You can see where this is not a promising tale for LenDale White.
After Jackson comes Billy Taylor (1980 Giants), Lynn Cain (1980 Falcons), Mario Bates (1995 Saints), Duce Staley (1998 Eagles) and Rodney Hampton (1991 Giants). The list of players similar to White doesn't include any recent players, because these days they don't give you 300 carries if you can barely gain 3.5 yards per carry.
Staley and Hampton developed into good players -- but they were already good players, the only players on this list who averaged more than 4 yards per carry. Taylor, Cain and Bates all bounced around for a few years as pedestrian backups and touchdown vultures. It's worth noting that all of these guys except Bates had at least twice as many receiving yards as White.
A little further down White's list is T.J. Duckett, who provides a good model for what the Titans need to do in 2008. They should sign a more agile Warrick Dunn-type back to be the leader of the committee, and use White as the change-up bowling ball.
The quarterback most similar to Vince Young is Vince Young. There are no other quarterbacks remotely like him in their first two seasons. Quarterbacks rarely get worse in their second year, but Young stands out even more because he is worse in every category except one. Young's completion percentage has improved as much as all his other stats have declined. On top of that, his rushing yardage differentiates him from all the pocket passers.
Similarity scores start at 1,000, and the lower the number, the less similar the player. The most similar quarterback to Young is Steve Fuller (1980 Chiefs) at 662. By comparison, there are 16 second-year quarterbacks, and 34 quarterbacks total, who are more similar to Jay Cutler over a two-year span.
If we don't consider any running stats, the most similar quarterback is actually Troy Aikman (1990 Cowboys), followed by Jeff George (1991 Colts) and Fuller. But seriously, does Vince Young have anything in common with Aikman and George, other than being a top-three pick?
Vince Young is unique for two reasons: He's a great scrambler, and his passing skills have regressed since his rookie year. The latter is not a good thing for Tennessee.
Note: The specifics of our similarity scores system are found here. It's important to note that we don't start looking for similar players until 1978, the year the 16-game season began and passing rules were liberalized.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.