College Scouting

Behind The Stats: QB Completion Percentage



One of the toughest evaluations an NFL team and scouting department can make is assessing and ranking a draft’s quarterback class. With more and more money being thrust at the position every year, it’s becoming critical for a franchise to make the right decision regarding its quarterback. The Detroit Lions currently find themselves debating weather to take a quarterback with the first overall pick and play the risk/reward game or choose a safer prospect with far less potential who may wash out in the NFL.


When evaluating the quarterback position, terms such as “arm strength,” “physical skill set” and “has the ability to make all the throws” are frequently used to describe the type of physical attributes a prospect possesses. However, if quarterback success was derived solely from physical attributes, players like Andre Ware and Jeff George would both be headed to the Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, finding NFL signal callers is becoming more about accuracy, intelligence and intangibles than it is overall physical skills.


When developing my own grading scale for quarterbacks, I based much of my evaluation around the theories of Marc Trestman, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, who said there are four “qualities” a quarterback needs to have a shot at being successful in the NFL.


1.     The quarterback needs to have the ability to make all the throws required to attack a defense on every play. This includes the arm strength to throw the deep out, the feel to drop a deep ball into a receiver’s hands down the field, the touch to hit a running back out of the backfield, etc. 


2.     Quarterbacks need to be able to make quick and decisive decisions under pressure. You not only want an intelligent quarterback in the pocket but also a quarterback who has the instincts to feel pressure and create a play when things break down.


3.     The quarterback needs to be mobile in some capacity and have an ability to avoid the rush in one of three ways:

A.    The ability to side-step pressure in the pocket.

B.    The ability to get outside the pocket and accurately deliver the ball on the move.

C.    The ability to scramble and gain yards beyond the line of scrimmage.


4.     The quarterback must be tough and be able to stare down the barrel of the shotgun, take a hit, get up and do it again. It takes a special type of player who can take a shot, dust himself off and rally his team on the next play, but the quarterback needs that type of quality.


Notice, there isn’t a prerequisite of a rocket arm or elite athletic ability for a quarterback to be successful in the NFL. Quarterback success is all about decision making, accuracy and timing in the pass game. Therefore, when identifying a possible number or statistic to aid in the evaluation of a college quarterback, nothing may be more helpful than considering his completion percentage. It boggles my mind to see a quarterback drafted high based on his pure physical skill set, especially when he never completed a high percentage of passes in his college career. What makes you think a QB who never completed 60 percent of his passes in college will be able to complete 60 percent of his passes in the NFL?


To add some substance to my thoughts, I want to look at every quarterback drafted in the first round from 1997-2004 who didn’t complete 60 percent of his passes during his final college season to show the alarming rate of failure.




Jim Druckenmiller, Virginia Tech (Completion Percentage: 54 percent)




Ryan Leaf, Washington State (Completion Percentage: 55 percent)




Akili Smith, Oregon (Completion Percentage: 58 percent)

Cade McNown, UCLA (Completion Percentage: 58 percent)




Michael Vick, Virginia Tech (Completion Percentage: 54 percent)




Joey Harrington, Oregon (Completion Percentage: 59 percent)

Patrick Ramsey, Tulane (Completion Percentage: 57 percent




Kyle Boller, California (Completion Percentage: 53 percent)

Rex Grossman, Florida (Completion Percentage: 57 percent)




J.P. Losman, Tulane (Completion Percentage: 59 percent)


As you can see above, there has been a minimal amount of success by first-round quarterbacks who didn’t complete 60 percent of their passes during their final year of college football. Now, with an eye toward the 2009 draft class, we take a look at the draft’s three possible first-round quarterbacks and break down what their completion percentage means in relation to their possible success at the next level.


1.     Mark Sanchez, USC (6-2, 227), Completion Percentage: 65.8 percent)

I consider Sanchez the top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft, mostly due to his timing and accuracy in the pass game. Sanchez does a great job recognizing defenses and quickly going through his progressions as a passer. He has the arm strength, touch and confidence to make all the throws, and his ability to throw receivers open on all levels of the field is what really sets him apart. Sanchez’s completion percentage is a direct result of his accuracy and decision making from the pocket, and I expect him to carry these traits over to the NFL as he develops into a quality starter.


2.     Matthew Stafford, Georgia (6-2, 225) (Completion Percentage: 61.4 percent)

There’s no question that Stafford has the arm strength and physical tools needed to develop into a quality NFL passer. The main concern is his inability to be consistent in the face of pressure. Stafford isn’t the quickest decision-maker and at times struggles going through his progressions at NFL speed. He also has a tendency to trust his arm strength too much, which causes him to throw off his back foot and become spotty with his accuracy. I still feel Stafford has the makings of an NFL passer, but his completion rate will always been on the fence around 60 percent until he learns to make quicker decisions and stop forcing the ball into traffic.


      3.     Josh Freeman, Kansas State (6-6, 248) (Completion Percentage: 58.6 percent)

NFL scouts and officials are intrigued by Freeman’s elite size, arm strength and physical skill set. However, his subpar completion percentage is something I think will follow him throughout his NFL career. Freeman has never been a real accurate passer from the pocket and is slow to recognize coverage and anticipate throws. Those are three traits that don’t bode well for his overall development and should be red flags to teams interested in drafting him.


Summing up, with the consistent evolution of the passing game in the NFL, the quarterback is now being asked to play a bigger role. Therefore, with the success of more and more plays hinging on a quarterback’s decision making, accuracy and timing, it’s becoming paramount to find someone who can make the right decisions from the pocket and be effective in the face of pressure. Consequently, a quarterback’s completion percentage, which helps indicate his accuracy and decision-making, is a much better gauge in finding NFL-quality starters than simply evaluating a quarterback’s physical and athletic skill set.


29 comments for “Behind The Stats: QB Completion Percentage”

  1. JP
    March 26, 2009
    12:17 pm

    Interesting article. I’d be curious if you were to follow up with this analysis of some of the “next tier” QB’s in the draft. Seems like all *anyone* is talking about are these three, yet we know there are other QB’s who will be drafted.

  2. JC in FL
    March 26, 2009
    12:24 pm

    To show a real correlation of success/failure to the 60% completion threshold, I’d be interested in seeing the list of QBs who DID complete 60% or more passes their final college year.

  3. Log
    March 26, 2009
    12:24 pm

    I\’m intrigued by the endless discussion of arm strength, specifically, where the strength comes from. I assume that by the time a quarterback gets to the NFL level he has worked out for several years as well as thrown thousands of passes - so why do some have a stronger arm? Is it something to do with the body type and muscle mass they are born into? To say it another way, are there quarterbacks with \"weak arms\" that will never have a strong arm no matter how much they lift, throw and work out? Thanks.

    On a side note, I love this site and part of the reason is the comments from other readers are intelligent and well thought out (for the most part). I can\’t even read the comments sections on most sports related sites.

  4. Finnegans Wake
    March 26, 2009
    12:29 pm

    Cf. the 59% Rule at NFL Draft Scout.

    Good stuff, Wes. I’m not much enamored of this year’s QBs, and Stafford’s mini-melt with the SF crew over his parents’ divorce makes me wonder if he’s got Leaf-like maturity issues to go with that enormous ego. Sanchez is the safest bet among a weak lot at the top.

  5. Wild Bill
    March 26, 2009
    12:31 pm

    Yeah, great stuff as always Wes, really interesting stuff,

    I can see why you like Sanchez so much, are so-so on Stafford and don’t like Freeman.

  6. Matt
    March 26, 2009
    12:32 pm

    Wes, let me preface the following comment by stating that accuracy is one of the top 2 attributes a QB must possess to be successful on the NFL level. However, you can’t underestimate the quality of players around the QB that play a LARGE role in the success or failure of the QB. Does he have time to throw the ball? Is he surrounded by a receiving corps that runs good routes, gains separation, and makes the catch? Does he have an adequate running to keep opposing defenses honest? All of these ‘intangible’ factors impact accuracy and completion percentage. Now, I happen to think Stafford will struggle in the NFL. And it’s interesting to look at your senior year statistical analysis. To be fair, can you go back in time and look at the senior year completion percentages of some hall of famers, or elite QB’s? That would be a great exercise, and a more balanced approach to your post. Thinking of guys like Marino, Elway, Montana, Big Ben, McNabb, etc.

    Finally, I don’t think you can underestimate leadership ability and starting reps as a criterion for future success.


  7. Bob
    March 26, 2009
    12:44 pm

    The article piques my interest BUT…
    What was the completion percentage in college of current starting NFL quarterbacks that rank in the top 1/2 in terms of quarterback ratings for the past 5 years? I’ll bet less than half had a completion rate of over 60%. Probably less than 1/3. Plus not all starting quarterbacks come from the 1st round: i.e. Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner,Joe Montana,Jeff Garcia, etc. Only 2 of those went in the 3rd round or higher.None in the 1st round.And some were’nt drafted at all. It seems that this sample was very carefully shaped so as to manipulate the truth. Not to present a true and accurate represtentation of what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.

  8. Walt
    March 26, 2009
    12:47 pm

    Wes, along with Matt above me, I’m wondering about the other things that go into a quarterback’s ability to complete passes, such as OL play, WR play, etc. Are there ways in which scouts and other talent evaluators account for these factors? Will a scout only look at a QB’s most recent season in regard to accuracy, or does the QB’s entire college career get factored in somehow?

    Thanks for all of your insightful articles. I really enjoy reading them, and they have helped me better understand the game and the draft process.

  9. Greg
    March 26, 2009
    12:49 pm

    Hey Wes, nice article.

    Curious: do you take into account *true* completion percentage? By this I mean: take out intentional throwaways, dropped passes that are on-target, pass completions or incompletions negated by penalty. I would leave batted balls in there, personally.

    I say this because I watched a good bit of Stafford as a UGA fan. I personally wouldn’t pick him higher than about 8th, based on a layman’s eye. However, he also suffered a great deal from a young O-line giving him poor protection, forcing some throwaways, plus an inordinate # of drops (largely by Massaquoi and the TEs) compared to other top-flight WR/TE corps.

    Just a thought, as I think he’s not quite as bad, %-wise, as some think. But like I said, I also agree that his decision making, especially in Favre-esque forced passes into coverage, is concerning.

  10. Wes Bunting
    March 26, 2009
    1:10 pm

    Bob: This article was just to take a look at QB’s who were drafted in the first round who didn’t completed 60% of their passes, that was it. With so much money invested into 1st round quarterbacks and the alarming rate of failure among those QB who don’t connect on 60% of their passes I thought it was an interesting bit of info.

    Also looking back, many first round QB’s who had completion % over 60 flopped out, (Alex Smith, Tim Couch), this piece was just to help limit the mistakes of first round QB based on looking at completion percentage.

    Turst me with the struggles of drafting a QB, NFL teams should look at any type of trend to give them an edge.

  11. Drew T.
    March 26, 2009
    1:14 pm

    Shouldn’t Phillip Rivers be the case study on how important accuracy is? The guy has the goofiest mechanics I’ve ever seen and marginal arm strength, but when he is on– which is more often than not these days– its hard to get the Chargers off the field because he consistently puts the ball exactly where it needs to be. I can’t count the times when I’ve happily watched a duck leave his hands, only to see him drop it in for another huge conversion. He makes his recievers better because they don’t necessarily have to be ‘traditionally’ open.

    Uhhg, I can’t stand praising the guy…

  12. Jacob
    March 26, 2009
    1:17 pm

    Matt Ryan completed 59% of his passes during his senior year at BC.

    I hate be the guy who throws out one exception to your rule and then declare it a fallacy, so I won’t. I think completion percentage needs to be taken into account for the system the guy played in and the number of passes the guy threw.

    Here’s some thoughts on system:

    Urban Meyer’s system will drastically increase a QB’s completion percent. It did it for Alex Smith and it is doing it for Tim “Bust in waiting” Tebow.

    In regard to QBs who have few attempts:

    Look to Matt Ryan for an example. As I mentioned, he completed 59% of his throws his senior year. (He was above 60% his other years at BC.) He was required to throw the ball much more than BC ran b/c BC just didn’t have a legit RB. As a result, teams sat on the pass more, thus making it more difficult for him to complete passes.

    The corollary to this: QBs who have fewer attempts than normal have higher completion percentages b/c teams are protecting against the run.

    Look to Big Ben. During his rookie season, he completed 66% of his throws. He was also only attempting 21 passes per game on average. However, seasons that he’s averaged around around 30 attempts per game (2005 and 2008), he’s only completed 59% of his passes.

    Wes, I think that accuracy is the biggest factor as to whether a QB succeeds or not in the NFL, but many things affect completion percentage.

  13. Wes Bunting
    March 26, 2009
    1:26 pm

    Hey guys great points all around,

    Matt Ryan was not included bc he was only a rookie and I am not one to anoint guys as “stars” this early in their career. (Although he looks to be on the right track).

    Also, Jay Cutler was also a 59% guy his senior year. (Again didn’t include him because I’d like to have a little more time to judge him)

    However, I agree with almost everything being said, but the point is that accuracy, decision making and timing are three of the best traits to have in order to be successful NFL QB. And the best way to put a “stat” on that is completion %. That is how I looked at it, and with this years QB class I think their completion %’s is a direct result of what I study on film and what their careers will be like in the NFL.

    Obviously other things go into success, Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler both completed 60% of their passes as juniors, were 3+ year starters and were asked to carry their team. That definitely has a lot of weight to it!

    So again, this isn’t scripture but just one small way to break it down.

    Great discussion though, keep it up, I enjoy reading you guys as well.

  14. Jacob
    March 26, 2009
    1:42 pm

    Thanks for clarifying, Wes. If I were forced to evaluate a QB with nothing else but one stat, it would be completion percentage.

  15. Mr.Murder
    March 26, 2009
    1:42 pm

    Bill Walsh believed a quick accurate release was the top trait needed.

    That carries over to decision making and playing smart. Smart enough to know where he can fit a pass and quick enough to avoid most big mistakes.

  16. akuehn
    March 26, 2009
    2:17 pm


    How much stock do NFL scouts put in the Wonderlic? That is a high pressure decision making test, but I know that a lot of agents have gotten their hands on old copies or re-create their own versions for these guys to practice with. Has that watered down the importance, or was it never really important to begin with?

    I have taken the wonderlic and also taken an untimed re-creation. The thing was really easy when there wasn\’t a time limit, but obviously with the time there is a whole lot more pressure.

  17. Bob
    March 26, 2009
    2:19 pm

    Thanks Wes for posting my entry. Something I have noticed in the best qbs is if you watch their college and pro tapes is that the best seem to play calmer and faster and with a confidence that is evident, even on then tape or TV. I don’t know how you quantify that. But qbs like Montana and Bart Starr who had reletively average skill sets, just seemed to be able to get it done somehow. While the really gifted like Vince Young, and Ryan Leaf just don’t have the command for the game

  18. Brett(NJ)
    March 26, 2009
    2:22 pm

    I absolutely believe in this theory, you just can’t really teach accuracy. You can improve your accuracy but you’re just not going to see vast improvements. This is part of the reason why I didn’t really like Matt Ryan last year but he is most likely the exception, not the rule. That’s also a reason why I was and still am so high on Aaron Rodgers, the kid is just crazy accurate.

  19. JP
    March 26, 2009
    2:35 pm

    Well FWIW, I looked up the stats on the other QB’s listed in NFP’s own positional rankings going into the draft. Among the other top-10 QB’s, only 3 of them “cut the mustard” according to the 60% rule:

    #4 Pat White (W Va, 65.7%)
    #6 Graham Harrell (Tex Tech, 70.6%)
    #9 Nate Davis (Ball State, 64.3%).

    Those who fail:

    #7 John Parker Wilson (Ala, 57.9%)
    #8 Rhett Bomar (Sam Hou St, 56.2%)
    #10 Nathan Brown (Cent Ark, 57.8%)

    It’s difficult to know what to do with #5 Stephen McGee (Tex A&M); this year he was an excellent 65.9% but only on 85 pass attempts (I presume he had a highly injury-shortened year, anyone know?) Whereas in a full season in 2007, he was only 58.0% which would land him in the fail category. So do with him as you may.

    Among QB’s not in the NFP’s top 10 but who appear in some other lists of the top 10 QB prospects in the draft, only one passes the test: Chase Daniel (Mizzou), with the blazing value of 72.9%. Among the others who appear in such lists but fail the test are Brian Hoyer (Mich St, 51.0%), Tom Brandstater (Fresno St., 59.6%) and Hunter Cantwell (L’ville, 58.6%).

  20. Bill Parcells is my uncle
    March 26, 2009
    3:04 pm

    Excellent write up on the quarterback, Wes -

    A bit off topic, but along these same guidelines - Why is Kenny “Snake” Stabler not in the NFL Hall of Fame?

    Stabler leads all quarterbacks of his era in completion percentage - Snake has a Super Bowl ring and he had some of the most amazing comebacks in NFL history -

    The sea of hands - The dive on the drive - The ghost to the post - The holy roller - And Snake just missed another legendary comeback against Pittsburgh when the immaculate reception took precedent over Snake’s 30 yard touchdown run with 1:17 left in the game putting Oakland up by 1 -

    Career completion percentage:

    Ken Stabler 59.8%
    Dan Fouts 58.8%
    Roger Staubach 57%
    Fran Tarkenton 57%
    Bob Griese 56.2%
    Terry Bradshaw 51.9%
    Joe Namath 50.1%

  21. Finnegans Wake
    March 26, 2009
    3:31 pm

    In fairness to Big Ben, he’s had an OL in decline these past few years, averaging high-40s in sacks the past couple. (And for the argument that he holds the ball too long, his scrambling negates as many sacks as it creates.) BTW, that sack number puts the Steelers OL bottom 5, FWIW, so I’m willing to grade Ben on the curve. And hope the front office drafts some beef to protect him; he’s been getting killed out there.

  22. Joe T.
    March 26, 2009
    4:40 pm

    Completion % is a big part of David Lewin’s projections (link in name). However, completion % is not the be-all-and-end-all of what makes a successful pro QB. Lewin only uses his projections on the prospects who are likely to go in the first 2 rounds. Lots of college QBs have high completion % (like Chase Daniel) but are not seriously considered by NFL teams since they lack other tangibles (Daniel’s biggest knock seems to be height, and being identified as a system QB).

    Anyway, Lewin comes to similar conclusions…Sanchez is the best prospect, but he has Freeman before Stafford.

    If I were a GM, unless I could have Sanchez, I just assume wait until next year.

  23. Jayme
    March 26, 2009
    5:18 pm

    Whenever I hear someone talking about a college prospects arm strength, I shudder. As you have stated, they just need enough strength to make all of the throws. Yet, regularly, we hear of a guy shooting up draft charts because of the amazing “canon” that they guy has. It seems that, invariably, these guys always turn out to be busts.

  24. Chad M.
    March 26, 2009
    5:19 pm

    Nice breakdown, Wes.

    Are you planning on commenting on Lombardi’s mock draft? Or, on Bowen’s comments on it? I’d love to read your take.

    Keep up the good work!

  25. Mr.Murder
    March 26, 2009
    7:15 pm

    Throw to the player, not through the player. At times there is a limit to usefulness of arm strength. Less is more for control passing on slants, screens, etc.

  26. Packer Pete
    March 26, 2009
    9:54 pm

    In the 70s or 80s during the Packers’ dark ages, Bart Starr drafted Rich Campbell of Cal who had a 70 percent plus completion percentage his senior season. The guy couldn’t play a lick in the NFL.

    Judging college QBs is quite difficult. Most of the top teams only play two or three games all season against equally matched opponents. How do you rate the QB when his RBs, OL, and WRs clearly outclass the defensive opposition in 10 of the 12 season games?

    Anyway, I’ll vouch for Aaron Rodgers’ accuracy. I watched nearly every game of Favre’s career, and no one could throw a better ball than Brett for a 30 yard frozen rope. But Brett was never very accurate when hanging the ball up in the air for 40 plus yards. Rodgers dropped numerous deep tosses right on the numbers last season, and in several games I mentioned that to viewing buddies. We’ve got a 10-year starter in Rodgers, and San Fran picked the wrong guy in taking Alex Smith.

  27. Will Osgood
    March 27, 2009
    9:29 pm

    The actual completion percentage itself is a little deceiving. Instead of the completion percentage, you must watch film and watch accuracy percentage. If the QB has great receivers, the accuracy could be exaggerated because of great catches. I’d rather watch a guy put it on the money and his receiver drop the ball than a horrible throw w/ a tremendous catch. That is what should really be noted.

  28. CJ
    March 28, 2009
    5:57 pm

    you seem to have hit a nerve with the stat geeks wes. ha ha i bet you knew you would. trestman evaluation should be in the hands of every nfl scout. bucko kilroy, the first real super scout, used to say that if a qb can’t throw the ball to a spot then he’s not going to be able to throw it to his receiver any better than he is to the db covering him, so accuracy is paramount when deciding amongst “throwers”. kilroy would then point out that you better not pick a qb based on throwing only

  29. Ben Allbright
    March 30, 2009
    11:50 am

    JP: UCA’s Nathan Brown has a completion % that was 67.8% not the 57.8% you have listed above…

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