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Comparing Aidan O’Connell’s preseason debut to other rookie quarterbacks

How AOC stacks up vs. his peers

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San Francisco 49ers v Las Vegas Raiders
Aidan O’Connell
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Aidan O’Connell’s NFL debut during the Las Vegas Raiders’ first preseason against the San Francisco 49ers game couldn't have gone much better. He played the entire first half and completed 15 of 18 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown while leading the Raiders to two scoring drives.

There’s little to no doubt that O’Connell was one of the top performers during the opening week of preseason action, but how does his performance stack up against the other rookie quarterbacks in the league?

Let’s dive into some numbers from Pro Football Focus and find out!

Box Score Stats

O’Connell’s completion percentage was his most-notable box score figure. At 83.3 percent, only two players were better—Holton Ahlers of the Seattle Seahawks (100%) and the Cleveland Browns’ Dorian Thompson-Robinson (90%). However, Ahlers only threw four passes and Thompson-Robinson had just 10, so one could argue that O’Connell was more impressive when adjusting for the sample size.

As far as yards go, the Raider ranked fifth with 141 while a few notable guys like Stetson Bennett (191, second) from the Los Angeles Rams and Tanner McKee (148, fourth) were ahead of him. However, he did have the highest yards per attempt (7.8) of anyone in the top five and everyone else threw at least 20 passes. It took Bennett 29 attempts to reach his figure.

Literally every rookie QB had one or zero passing touchdowns so there isn’t much to glean on there.

Advanced Metrics

‘Big time throws’ (BTT) have become a staple stat for PFF when it comes to evaluating quarterback play and what those are, are passes that earn a high grade on PFF’s scale. Typically, that’s going to be a ball thrown 20 or more yards down the field and in a good location, or a pass in the 10- to 20-yard range that’s thrown accurately into a tight window.

O’Connell had one BTT last weekend which was tied for the second-most in the draft class as the Green Bay Packers’ Sean Clifford was the only guy to have two. Where O’Connell loses some steam in this category is his BTT rate of 5.3 percent, the seventh-highest in the group. Granted, playing time has a lot to do with that as Anthony Richardson ranked third at 7.7 percent. But Richardson also had just one BTT, it just took him fewer attempts (12).

San Francisco 49ers v Las Vegas Raiders
Aidan O’Connell
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

‘Turnover-worthy plays’ are another PFF staple, and O’Connell managed to stay clean with zero, as did 11 other rookies.

The Raiders’ fourth-round pick stood out when it comes to adjusted completion percentage. With two of his three incompletions going down as drops, he finished third at 94.4 percent as Ahlers and Malik Cunningham from the New England Patriots were perfect. However, Ahlers had a 5.8-yard average depth of target compared to O’Connell’s 8.5 yards, and Cunningham only threw four passes.

Play Action

Something that helped O’Connell on Sunday is Josh McDaniels called a healthy dose of play-action passes. The rookie led the draft class with 42.1 percent of his dropbacks including a run fake. He was six of seven (85.7 percent) for 82 yards on such plays as those figures ranked sixth and first, respectively, among rookie quarterbacks. All five guys ahead of him in completion percentage were at 100 percent but threw at most two passes off play-action.

Where O’Connell really stood out on this passing concept is with his 11.7 yards per attempt. That was second-best in the group and means he was pushing the ball down the field despite having his back turned to the defense initially, which is a good sign that he’s comfortable in the offense and trusts the protection.

Grades

Feel how you want about PFF grades as they aren’t the end-all-be-all, but the grades can at least provide another measuring stick to compare players against each other.

O’Connell’s performance earned him elite grades overall and specifically as a passer from PFF with marks of 92.3 and 90.8, respectively. Both of those led the 2023 draft class, and only Matt Barkley and Davis Mills outperformed him when expanding the pool to the entire league.

A couple of quarterback sneaks that went for first downs gave the Purdue product a 70.7 grade as a runner, fifth-best among rookies, but I wouldn’t expect that to be sustainable given he isn’t someone who is going to make a ton of plays with his legs. Plus, O’Connell moving the chains on sneaks is more of a testament to how well the offensive line blocked on those plays.