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Top Nick Mullens takeaways from PFF’s QB Annual

What does Pro Football Focus’s deep dive into quarterbacking tell us about the 49ers accidental star?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Pro Football Focus released their QB Annual last week, and you know what that means. It’s time to scour the pages of the 341-page tome for golden nuggets of information that tell us more about Nick Mullens than any crowd-noise track ever could.

Before you dig in to the takeaways, I highly recommend reading Steve Palazzolo and Sam Monson’s fantastic primer detailing the mechanics PFF’s grading system as it pertains to quarterbacks. It’s one of the most clear explanations of what goes into grading and it defines terms used throughout the recap.

Nick Mullens plays it safer than Alex Smith

Part of the value of the QB Annual is the statistical rigor they apply to quarterback analytics. Through their evaluation we learn that certain statistics are fairly stable year to year, meaning they are more likely to predict future performance. However, others serve a more descriptive purpose. They merely describe what happened in a given game, or year, but aren’t likely to remain consistent year to year.

A quarterback’s percentage of negatively graded throws is one of those predictive metrics. Sorry Mitchell Trubisky fans, but if your quarterback has a penchant for making poor throws that behavior isn’t likely to change dramatically from year to year.

Nick Mullens ranked 11th in negative play rate out of thirty-five qualifying quarterbacks. If you look specifically at turnover-worthy plays, the plays to which PFF assigns the worst grades, Mullens ranks 15th. Mullens avoids turnover worthy plays at roughly the same rate as Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, and Baker Mayfield. Turnover worthy plays result in turnovers about 50% of the time, so being in the “safe” category is a plus for Mullens.

Mullens isn’t attempting, or executing, many difficult throws

Avoiding negative plays is only part of the recipe for successful quarterbacking. A good quarterback also executes on difficult NFL throws. Generally speaking, those are throws that have excellent ball location and timing. They are also thrown farther down field, typically into a tight window.

The first problem for Mullens is that he doesn’t really make many downfield throws. On first and second read throws, which make up the vast majority of NFL throws for a quarterback, Mullens’ average depth of target was 9.15 yards. That’s 1.65 yards below NFL average for that subset of throws. Mullens also ranked dead last in big time throw percentage.

Mullens ball location also left something to be desired in 2018. On intermediate throws, the money throws in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, Mullens accuracy was 8.5 percentage points below NFL average. When it came to throwing into tight windows Mullens didn’t fare much better. When a defender was in within a step of the receiver, Mullens’ accuracy rate was over 21 percentage points below average.

But if Mullens was relatively inaccurate, how did he amass those gaudy yardage totals? Some of it was game script, but a large piece of that was Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. 52 percent of Mullens throws were to open receivers, a relatively easy throw for an NFL quarterback. And even with those open looks, only two quarterbacks had more catchable inaccurate passes than Mullens — meaning his receivers often helped mask some of Mullens’ inaccuracies.

Mullens struggles outside of structure

Mullens played his best football within the cozy structure of Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The second-year quarterback ranked 15th in the NFL in PFF grade from a clean pocket, which is a couple spots better than Matt Ryan. Mullens also succeeded when throwing the ball quickly. Mullens’ 102.3 quarterback rating on throws made in 2.5 seconds or less compares favorably to Kirk Cousins.

But when things started to fall apart, so did Mullens. On throws that extended past 2.6 seconds Mullens’ passer rating drops to 76.5. But perhaps more telling, his expected points added (EPA) per play plummets to -.11. That’s right — Mullens effectively takes points off the board when he takes longer than 2.6 seconds to throw the ball.

And if Mullens is forced to scramble due to pressure things get even worse. He only completes one of every five passes, a rate well below average. And his expected points “added” plummets to -.48. The NFL average EPA on scramble drill plays is .03.

Nick Mullens is by no means ready to take over the starting role for an NFL team. Sub-optimal accuracy and an inability to execute difficult throws limits his effectiveness. If anything, the key takeaway from his chapter should be “Kyle Shanahan is amazing.” But Mullens has proven that, at times, he can be a moderately effective shepherd for Shanahan’s offense, and he’s good at avoiding disaster. This is exactly why he’s earned a spot competing for the backup role in 2019.