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A deep dive into Jarrett Guarantano’s 2018 season using PFF data

Last week, a tweet by Pro Football Focus turned some heads in SEC circles, as Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano graded out as the league’s second-best quarterback, nudging out Georgia’s Jake Fromm.

The raw numbers were certainly in Fromm’s favor (2,749 yards, 67.3 completion percentage and 30 TDs to 6 INTs) a year ago, but despite modest stats, Guarantano (1,904 yards, 62.3 completion percentage, 12 TDs to 3 INTs) took better care of the football and also added some value with his legs.

But rather than parsing who is better based on an overall arbitrary algorithm, I thought it would be interesting to simply take a deeper look at Guarantano’s situational stats from 2018 compared to his peers, plus how new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney used Fromm last season and what that could mean for Guarantano in 2019.

First, here’s a look at both quarterbacks’ complete passing charts from last fall:

GUARANTANO

FROMM

Both quarterbacks showcased an ability to push the ball vertically last season, but as any Tennessee fans are well aware, Guarantano was hit or miss with the intermediate and short-passing games. Chaney should help in this regard, whether it’s creating more opportunities for the ‘backs out in space or implementing more rub routes and crossing patterns for playmakers like Dominick Wood-Anderson and Jauan Jennings.

Notably, Guarantano was very efficient as a play-action passer a year ago, posting nearly identical numbers to Fromm, in fact.

Considering Georgia’s success running the ball, it’s wild that Guarantano actually threw the ball more often (percentage per attempt) off play-action than Fromm. Guarantano was better off play-action than several other of his SEC cohorts too, including Jake Bentley, Kellen Mond and Joe Borrow.

Tennessee’s veteran quarterback is clearly most comfortable throwing off play-fakes, as it naturally simplifies the throwing windows with only a couple available targets. Tennessee’s protection was typically better on those plays, too.

But with a running game that’s struggled to gain its footing in recent seasons — and didn’t look much better in the spring — how much can Tennessee actually rely on the play-action passing game to be the explosive element of its offense? Obviously, that’s for Chaney to determine.

When you dive into the raw numbers, it’s clear Guarantano must improve on traditional drop-backs as he enters his third season as the team’s starting quarterback. I’m not a quarterbacks coach, but whether it’s footwork, pre-snap reads, accuracy, decision-making or a combination, Guarantano’s numbers dip noticeably when he doesn’t throw off play-action. He’s still solid in some areas, but his completion percentage drops a few points, and perhaps more importantly, his yards per attempt go way down.

Compare Guarantano to Fromm’s numbers off all non-play-action throws in 2018. Georgia got a lot of offensive production via standard passing plays. Fromm’s completion percentage actually goes up and his yards per attempt don’t sustain a big drop. Bentley and Mond were also more productive here, although both quarterbacks were much more careless with the football (with more attempts, too).

After the spring game, Guarantano, who wasn’t very satisfied with his performance that day, again noted that he’s comfortable in Chaney’s offense but admitted he needs to summer to “master it.”

“We’re focused on more explosive plays,” he said. “We want to be able to get the ball up and down the field.”

For Tennessee’s offense to do that, it needs its quarterback to be more efficient on standard throws.

Now, protection is a component in all this, and one of the reasons Guarantano graded out as the SEC’s second-best quarterback last season was his work under pressure.

Despite getting sacked on 22.7 percent of his drops-backs when facing pressure (the highest among the quarterbacks listed), Guarantano had the best completion percentage (52.9) of the bunch. Again, his attempts were simply middle of the pack, but only Tagovailoa took better care of the football. That’s great news for Tennessee, which once again will enter the fall with serious OL concerns.

Last season, Guarantano was sacked six times, per PFF, in under 2.5 seconds. That’s about in line with the other four guys, all of whom were sacked four times in the same scenario. Guarantano’s “average time to throw” was 2.35 seconds. Fromm’s was 2.38 seconds, a feat he’s repeated exactly to the second the last two seasons. Now “time to throw” doesn’t automatically indicate throws under pressure. It’s simply how quickly a quarterback gets rid of the ball. Per the data, Guarantano typically did a nice job making decisive decisions.

In throws under 2.5 seconds, only Tagovailoa (22 TDs and 2 INTS, 146.4 passer rating) and Fromm (17 TDs and 0 INTs, 130.6 passer rating) were better than Guarantano (10 TDs to 1 INT, 105.7 passer rating).

Conversely, Guarantano really struggled when he held the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds. Now, so did the rest of the quarterbacks mentioned. For instance, Tagovailoa’s completion percentage dropped 20 points (77.9 vs. 57.0) on such throws. But he still had 20 touchdowns and mostly avoided sacks. Among SEC quarterbacks, only Tua and Fromm had passer ratings over 100.0 on such passes.

Since he was a freshman, Guarantano has had bouts where he holds on the ball too long. Of his 22 sacks last season, 16 came on plays where he was in the pocket for longer than 2.5 seconds. Two of his three interceptions came on such throws, too.

One data point not listed here, but I’d be fascinated to see, would be breaking down Guarantano’s throws and efficiency in the red zone. Again, Tennessee’s inability to run the ball is a major factor here, but the Vols were among the worst teams in the SEC in turning possessions inside the 20-yard-line into touchdowns.

How much is that on the quarterback?

Ultimately, this is a lot to parse. Still, it’s clear where Guarantano’s strengths lie and that he has the tools to be among the league’s upper echelon quarterbacks.

But if Tennessee’s offense is going to take a leap in 2019, the Vols need their veteran quarterback to refine some obvious weaknesses in his game, too.