Whenever you bet on an NFL game, it’s important to consider many different elements.
Aside from the obvious (matchups, talent, etc.), this includes factors like momentum, scheduling spot, injury concerns, motivation, coaching, and weather. Most of these elements can be weighted equally. While approaches to handicapping vary widely, evaluating starting quarterbacks is among the most important. And let’s face the facts: not all NFL quarterbacks are built the same.
In biology, a phenotype is defined as a set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. Starting quarterbacks are inarguably the most scrutinized and most significant position on the field. Using phenotypic evaluation methods can help us break down our expectations for quarterbacks throughout the season. From a betting perspective, starting quarterbacks move lines more than any other skill-player.
Week 8 last year presented a great example of quarterbacks affecting line movement. Minnesota (3-3) was hosting Dallas (5-1) at home. The Cowboys were entering this contest as one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, but Dak Prescott incurred a calf injury in Week 6 that sidelined him from the contest. Sportsbooks had the Vikings as four-point favorites. If Dak was healthy and playing in Week 8, it’s likely that Dallas would have been the favorite, even on the road. The Cowboys still ended up winning that game.
Below are the five phenotypic categories I use to better understand NFL starting quarterbacks. These are all based on observable tendencies throughout many seasons, although other quarterbacks are still more mysterious and unpredictable. Derek Carr and Kyler Murray, for example, are tough to categorize. Use these or build you own, but by all means: study quarterbacks if you want to consistently win in NFL betting.
Stiff, Big-Arms: These are quarterbacks with extremely limited athleticism, but they can make all the big throws. When they face defenses that aren’t as skilled at pressuring or sacking the passer, they can absolutely dominate you. The archetype I think of most is Kerry Collins. He was big, he could see over the defense, and he could throw it 70-80 yards downfield. However, he had a very small chance of escaping a blitz or scrambling out of trouble. Count on these quarterbacks when they have exceptional protection; they made it to the pros by their arms alone.
Examples: Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins
Rhythm Throwers: These throwers are like Steph Curry at the three-point-line: defenses cannot allow them to get hot! Whether they have exceptional arm talent or not, all quarterbacks on this list are deadly when they’re in rhythm. They’re also very dependent on their environment. Daniel Jones and Tua Tagovailoa are ideal examples of this category. Jones and Tua can both look elite, but they’re not talented enough to overcome pedestrian scheming or lackluster surrounding talent.
When they’re placed in a role-player position, they can win games. In general, the arm talent on this list is exceptional; it’s the poise, decision-making, and playmaking ability that’s questionable when they’re up against tough odds. This is the most volatile quarterback phenotype.
Examples: Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz
Exceptionally Athletic, Flawed Passers: Some will view this category as controversial, but it really shouldn’t be. This isn’t about emotions or who we all want to succeed, it’s about observable tendencies that we can expect to continue until proven otherwise. The qualifications for this category are two-fold: these quarterbacks can beat you by their athleticism alone, but we can’t consistently rely on their arms to win games.
Lamar Jackson is usually the controversial figure in this debate. Jackson has completed insanely difficult throws, he’s a fantastic leader, and when he breaks loose in the open field he’s always a threat to score a touchdown. He’s also been terribly inconsistent in big-game scenarios when he needs to rely on passing alone. Playoff defenses are better at adapting and limiting a quarterback who can run. Historically, in big game scenarios, these quarterbacks are shaky passers, at best. Rely on these quarterbacks against poor to mediocre defenses and in games where there’s less pressure on them to make big throws.
Examples: Lamar Jackson, Mitch Trubisky, Trey Lance, Jalen Hurts
Unathletic Brainiacs: These quarterbacks are harder to find but in general they’re all very successful. Mac Jones is a current quarterback that exemplifies this category. Jones doesn’t “wow” a crowd with his athleticism or arm-talent. He can do enough. What separates this quarterback phenotype is preparation. Jones is similar to Tom Brady in this sense, which is probably why Bill Belichick and the Patriots drafted the Alabama star. These quarterbacks can struggle in situations where they’re under duress or they need to aggressively push the ball downfield, but they shine in most scenarios simply because of their understanding of the game. And it shows on the field.
Before the opposition can figure out what’s happening, these quarterbacks read defenses with lightning efficiency and usually release the ball quickly. They’re also exceptional at calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. In most cases, you can count on these quarterbacks to bring consistent performance, although they may not have the innate physical skills to win in big moments.
Examples: Mac Jones, Davis Mills, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning
Superstars: Tom Brady is the quintessential example of this category. These quarterbacks vary in physical skills and proclivities, but they all have one essential tenet: they win, even if the game is entirely on their shoulders. Most of the quarterbacks are exceptionally talented in obvious ways: they can scramble, complete any pass, and their football IQ is sky-high. What separates them further is their intangibles. This quarterback phenotype is often inspirational, tenacious, they show exceptional communication and leadership skills, and they’re ultra-competitive.
These are the quarterbacks that win the most and need the least around them to do so. All of these passers are brilliant in endgame situations, too. When someone asks, “who would you want with only two minutes remaining in the contest?”, this phenotype is the answer. Whether it’s by intelligence, athleticism, arm-talent or all three, these quarterbacks find a way to get down the field when it matters most. You can count on these quarterbacks more than you can any other phenotype, and it’s why they’re deemed superstars.
Examples: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers