Teams invest heavily in the quarterback position.
High draft picks are used annually to resolve unsettled quarterback situations. In fact, eight quarterbacks in total were selected in the first round of the past two drafts. Lucrative contracts are awarded to unproven free agents in hopes that a change of scenery will unearth the next Drew Brees.
Sometimes the success or failure of an acquisition is easy to assess. But often it's not clear cut. A team's ability to project long-term development based on short-term results is crucial to achieving quarterbacking stability.
ESPN Stats & Information took a look at a pair of quarterbacks currently on the hot seat and compared them to other quarterbacks in similar situations in recent years in order to answer the question: Is it time for Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez to go?
• In 2010, Cassel's second season with the Chiefs, he threw 27 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Cassel's plus-20 TD-INT differential trailed only Tom Brady's plus-32, and Cassel's 64.3 attempts per interception ranked fourth in the league. The next year, Cassel showed signs of regression. He threw 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games, and ranked 25th among qualified quarterbacks by averaging an interception every 29.9 attempts. Regression has turned into a free fall this year, as Cassel ranks last among qualified quarterbacks with a minus-4 TD-INT differential. He's averaging an interception every 19.6 attempts, more than three times as often as his 2010 season.
• Cassel already has thrown nine interceptions this season through five games, as many as he did all of last season in nine games.
• Cassel is completing only 62 percent of his passes thrown five yards or fewer downfield this season, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Cassel completed more than three-quarters of those passes last season, with six touchdowns and only two interceptions.
• Cassel has only one 30-yard pass play this season in 176 pass attempts. Over the past two seasons, Cassel had 19 pass plays of at least 30 yards, connecting for a big play once every 37.8 attempts.
• Matt Cassel, Total QBR by Season,
2009: 30.9 -- 28th in NFL
2010: 52.2 -- 15th in NFL
2011: 51.2 -- 18th in NFL
2012: 44.7 -- 25th in NFL
Here are Cassel's numbers from Year 2 to Year 5. Note his improvement in Year 3, but his subsequent seasons have seen major regression.
• Sanchez is currently the only qualified quarterback in the league to have a sub-50.0 completion percentage.
• A quarterback's Points Above Average figure measures the number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback. A 50.0 Total QBR is the league average.
• So how badly is Sanchez performing? Since the start of the 2008 season, no quarterback has cost his team more net points than Sanchez, if replaced by a league-average quarterback. Sanchez has been worth minus-75.0 points to the Jets over the course of his career -- worse than JaMarcus Russell, Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen, et al.
• Sanchez has overthrown or underthrown 47 passes this season, or 26.6 percent of his total attempts -- the highest percentage of any qualified quarterback.
• Sanchez is completing only 47.6 percent of his passes thrown five yards or fewer downfield this season, easily the worst in the league. The next-lowest figure belongs to Josh Freeman, who has completed 58.6 percent of his short throws.
• Mark Sanchez, Total QBR by Season,
2009: 31.6 -- 26th in NFL
2010: 48.0 -- 18th in NFL
2011: 33.6 -- 30th in NFL
2012: 33.2 -- 31st in NFL
Case studies, Year 2 to Year 3
CLASS OF 2007
JaMarcus Russell (gone after 2009 -- third season)
Russell is the poster child for when to cut bait with a quarterback. Russell regressed spectacularly in his third professional season, though it should be noted that the decision to remove him was supplemented by questionable off-field decisions.
Trent Edwards (gone two games into 2010 -- fourth season)
Edwards got every opportunity to win the Bills' starting quarterback job. He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and 14 in his second season, but his 2009 performance severely hurt his chances to become Buffalo's quarterback of the future. After two games in 2010 -- two losses by a combined 49-17 score, in which Edwards failed to reach 140 yards passing in either game -- Buffalo benched Edwards. A month later, he was traded to Jacksonville.
Brady Quinn (gone after 2009 -- third season)
Quinn played in a total of 14 games over three seasons with the Browns. He played in 10 games in 2009, his third year with Cleveland, and did not appear for the Browns again.
Kevin Kolb (gone after 2010 -- fourth season)
Kolb appeared in 12 games over three seasons with the Eagles before he had significant passing opportunities in 2010. For our purposes, it makes the most sense to use 2009 and 2010 as the case study years, though an argument could be made for 2011 as an acclimation year with the Cardinals and then 2012 as his year to produce, given the differences in systems between Arizona under Ken Whisenhunt and Philadelphia under Andy Reid. Kolb still has not appeared in double-digit games in a season and will likely not this season either.
Tyler Thigpen (benched after 2008 -- second season)
Thigpen was never viewed as a long-term answer for the Chiefs, and when general manager Scott Pioli took over before the 2009 season, he traded for Matt Cassel. Thigpen had only one season, 2008, with more than six pass attempts as a Chief.
CLASS OF 2008
Joe Flacco (Still starting)
Flacco essentially maintained his completion percentage and yards-per-attempt figures from his second season to his third, but he improved his TD-INT. Ravens management also gave Flacco better weapons in Year 3, replacing Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington with Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and drafting Torrey Smith in 2011 to allow Flacco to stretch the field.
Matt Ryan (still starting)
Ryan is a budding superstar who symbolizes the desired jump in production from Year 2 to Year 3. A small jump in completion percentage complemented a spike in touchdowns and reduction of interceptions, and Ryan's 69.4 Total QBR was second-best in the league in his third season.
Chad Henne (gone 4 games into 2011 -- fourth season)
Interceptions sank Chad Henne. After throwing 14 picks in his second pro season -- his first as starter -- Henne threw 19 more in his third year and had negative TD-INT differentials both years. Henne's leash was short to start his fourth season, and he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Miami let him leave as a free agent and drafted Ryan Tannehill No. 8 overall earlier this year.
CLASS OF 2009
Mark Sanchez (still starting)
Sanchez, still the Jets' starting quarterback, is on the hot seat with fan favorite Tim Tebow waiting in the wings. The jump in interceptions from Year 2 to Year 3 (five more) was matched by Brady Quinn and Chad Henne, both of whom are in backup roles now.
Matthew Stafford (still starting)
Stafford emerged as a breakout star in 2011, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. Though he threw only two fewer interceptions than Sanchez, he had 120 more attempts. Stafford averaged an interception every 41.4 attempts, compared to Sanchez, who averaged one every 30.2 attempts.
Josh Freeman (still starting)
Using strictly statistical comparisons, Freeman fits the profile to be next in line to be benched. His regression from Year 2 to Year 3 is even more troubling when framed by his performance this year. Freeman's 37.5 Total QBR this season ranks 30th among 33 qualified quarterbacks.
CLASS OF 2010
Sam Bradford (still starting)
Bradford is the safest bet of the class of 2010, though it's admittedly not a strong crop. His numbers have improved so far this year, and already has hit his touchdown total from a year ago, when he was limited to 10 games because of an ankle injury. His interceptions, however, have risen at an alarming rate (one every 59.5 attempts in 2011; one every 37.0 attempts this season). Bradford is being asked to do much more in St. Louis' offense compared to a year ago, especially with Steven Jackson's struggles, and he has responded fairly well so far.
Colt McCoy (benched after 2011 -- second season)
McCoy didn't even make it to a third season as the Browns' starter after ranking next to last in the league in average yards per attempt in 2011. Instead, the Browns spent the No. 22 overall pick in April's draft on 28-year-old Brandon Weeden.
The dangers of giving up too early
After examining some of the profiles above, here's a quick cautionary tale. Below is the statistical profile of a quarterback with a first-round pedigree from Year 2 to Year 3. Even more troubling, this quarterback played only seven games in his third season, and lost his fourth season entirely to a shoulder injury.
The quarterback is Alex Smith.
While it's important to see development in a quarterback early in his career, external factors cannot be ignored. In the case of Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, he played for seven offensive coordinators in his first seven seasons in the league:
2005: Mike McCarthy
2006: Norv Turner
2007: Jim Hostler
2008: Mike Martz
2009: Jimmy Raye
2010: Mike Johnson
2011: Greg Roman
2012: Greg Roman
In his seventh season, he guided the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
This season, Smith has a 73.4 Total QBR, eighth in the league. His 67.7 completion percentage is sixth in the league. Smith also has posted a plus-16 TD-INT differential (25 TD, 9 INT) since the start of last season under Greg Roman.