For an updated version of this article, which includes all of 2018, click here
by MARK SIMON
A quarterback throwing the deep ball is one of the most exciting things you’ll see in a football game. It leads to big plays, sometimes game-changing moments and puts a receiver’s athleticism on display.
So let’s dig into a few of the numbers related to long passes this season. For our purposes, unless otherwise noted, we’re referring to passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield.
Who throws them most often?
The NFL leader in deep pass attempts this season is Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes with 62, just ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Mitchell Trubisky ranks fourth despite having missed two games. He could have been atop the list had he played every game this season.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led the NFL with 88 deep pass attempts last season. More on him in a moment.
|Most Deep Passes Attempted in 2018|
Who throws them most accurately?
An easy explanation for Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ success this season is his success on deep balls. He’s 22-of-37 on them, a 60 percent completion percentage that easily ranks best in the NFL. Two other quarterbacks are at 50 percent or higher — Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buccaneers (52 percent) and Jared Goff of the Rams (50 percent).
If we change the criteria to on-target percentage, rather than completion percentage, Goff takes the lead. He’s thrown 31 of his 46 deep passes on target (67 percent).
The contrasts to Brees and Goff are Jets rookie Sam Darnold and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
Darnold is 6-of-36 on his deep throws (17 percent, the lowest completion percentage in the league), though that’s not completely his fault. His on-target percentage is 47 percent (17-of-36). Darnold’s backup Josh McCown is actually worse, going 1-of-15 on his deep throws. He was a much more respectable 20-of-46 (43 percent) completing those passes last season.
Prescott has a 33 percent completion percentage, but an NFL-low 40 percent on-target percentage (12-of-30).
The NFL averages on deep throws this season are a 37 percent completion percentage and a 52 percent on-target percentage.
|Highest Completion Percentage on Deep Passes – Minimum 25 Attempts|
Who is hitting on the deepest deep balls?
The thin air in Denver is allowing Case Keenum’s balls to carry a bit. He’s average 31.7 air yards on his long pass completions, the highest average in the NFL. He’s about a half-yard better than Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
Who has had the biggest payoff the most often?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 10 touchdown passes on deep throws, one more than Wilson and Drew Brees.
Brees has yet to throw an interception on one of these pass attempts. Roethlisberger has two. Wilson has one.
On the opposite side of the ledger, Deshaun Watson leads the NFL with five interceptions on those passes. Six quarterbacks have four, including Mahomes.
In all, quarterbacks have 150 touchdown passes and 89 interceptions on these passes, which averages to 4.7 and 2.8 per team respectively.
Who is the best overall?
It would be easy to say that Brees is the top guy, given his completion percentage and his touchdown success on these passes, and if you did, that would be completely fair.
However, our Total Points system makes a different choice. It goes with Wilson, who ranked seventh last season (Alex Smith and Tom Brady were 1-2).
To excerpt from Alex Vigderman’s Football Outsiders article on a quarterback’s Passing Points Earned.
The core assumption of passing Points Earned is that each throw has a certain expected outcome based on information like the route, the depth, and the coverage. From that point, the passer and receiver split responsibility for how well they perform above that expectation. Throwing off-target passes and deserved interceptions (caught or not) will bury a signal-caller, while he will be rewarded for leading receivers to more yards after catch and making something out of a broken pocket.
Wilson’s volume of success, his rate of success, and the outcomes themselves have combined to put him in the No. 1 spot in terms of which quarterbacks are best at one of the most exciting plays in the game.
For those wondering about Rodgers, his value gain comes in the drops by his receivers, which are being treated as completed passes in this system. With those, and his performance on 30-yard or longer throws, he vaults ahead of Brees by a hair.
|NFL Leaders – Points Earned on Deep Passes|
|Pts||Comp-Att, TD, INT|
|1. Russell Wilson||29.5||23-of-47, 9 TD, 1 INT|
|2. Aaron Rodgers||25.8||22-of-61, 6 TD, 0 INT|
|3. Drew Brees||23.5||22-of-37, 9 TD, 0 INT|
|4. Patrick Mahomes||23.4||27-of-62, 8 TD, 4 INT|
|5. Philip Rivers||22.5||18-of-41, 7 TD, 1 INT|