Which quarterbacks are best at throwing long passes?

By: Kyle Rodemann

There is nothing quite like the deep ball in the NFL. The anticipation that builds from the moment the ball leaves the QB’s hand and drops in as a game-changing completion gets the blood pumping and adrenaline going. Thrill seekers who are looking for the most exciting games often look for the highest scoring games: and those games often come with big plays and long completions. But which quarterbacks should these thrill seekers be watching? This article will investigate which quarterbacks should be watched when it comes to the deep ball.

For our purposes, we’re referring to balls thrown at least 20 yards downfield, unless otherwise stated.

The Gunslingers

A “gunslinger” is a quarterback that takes chances downfield by taking deep shots to their receivers. These quarterbacks are notorious for throwing the deep ball. So far in 2019, there have been a handful of “gunslingers,” with the No. 1 spot attempting deep throws at a much higher rate than those who follow. Below is a table that shows which quarterbacks have thrown the deep ball the most at the halfway point of the 2019 season:

Quarterback Number of Throws
Matthew Stafford 54
Aaron Rodgers 44
Russell Wilson 42
Dak Prescott 42
Deshaun Watson 42
Jameis Winston 42
Phillip Rivers 42

 

Matthew Stafford has thrown the deep ball the most, and by a large margin; he has done it 23% more than the next highest deep ball thrower, Aaron Rodgers. Stafford has always been a fan of the deep ball but has been leaning heavily on the explosive play during a season that has featured an inconsistent backfield. With the loss of lead back Kerryon Johnson, expect Stafford to continue taking shots downfield.

The Precision Passers

The table below will show which passers have been the most accurate on passes that travel at least 20 yards down the field. Catchable Percentage looks at the percentage of passes that should be caught by the receiver based on where the pass is placed. Here are the season leaders in Catchable Percentage on deep balls so far during 2019 (minimum 15 attempts):

Quarterback Catchable %
Jacoby Brissett 74%
Jimmy Garoppolo 70%
Kirk Cousins 65%
Daniel Jones 63%
Matt Ryan 62%
Russell Wilson 62%
Deshaun Watson 62%

This table looks a lot different when compared to the table displaying those quarterbacks who take the most shots. Some of the more timid quarterbacks are on this list, with Brissett only attempting 19 deep balls, and Garoppolo only attempting 20. On the flip side, there are only two players who belong on both lists: Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. These two passers have taken plenty of shots and have been very accurate while doing so.

In terms of who is completing the most deep passes, Garoppolo leads with a 60% completion rate (12-of-20). He’s followed by Wilson (23-of-42, 55%), Tom Brady (19-of-37, 51%), Minshew (17-of-34, 50%) and Dak Prescott (21-of-42, 50%). Brady already has one more completion on deep throws than he did all of last season, when he was 18-of-56 (32%).

The Touchdown Machines

Touchdown percentage looks at the percentage of deep throws that result in a touchdown. The following list can help determine where negative regression is possible, as a high touchdown percentage is often unsustainable.

Quarterback TD%
Jimmy Garoppolo 20%
Case Keenum 20%
Patrick Mahomes 19%
Dak Prescott 17%
Daniel Jones 17%
Kirk Cousins 15%
Tom Brady 14%
Mason Rudolph 13%

The long pass leader of last year, Patrick Mahomes, makes his first appearance on this list. It’s not surprising that it’s his first appearance, as he has battled with injury this season. It’s also not surprising to see him finding success while throwing deep, as he throws to one of the fastest players in the NFL in Tyreek Hill. One surprise on this list is Mason Rudolph. While he hasn’t attempted many passes downfield this season (only 23), his deep attempts are resulting in a touchdown on a surprising 13% of throws.

The Most Impactful

Points Earned is one way to determine which quarterbacks have made the largest positive impact while throwing the deep ball. Here is a quick explanation of Points Earned, as written by Alex Vigderman:

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.

A more in-depth explanation can be found here. This stat shows which quarterback has helped their team win the most while throwing the deep ball. Check out the league leaders below:

Quarterback Points Earned
Russell Wilson 32.2
Kirk Cousins 24.5
Aaron Rodgers 21.6
Gardner Minshew 18.9
Dak Prescott 17.7
Deshaun Watson 17.5
Jimmy Garoppolo 14.0

 

Russell Wilson has been phenomenal when throwing the deep ball. He leads the league by a hefty margin (7.7 points) when it comes to Points Earned. Wilson and Deshaun Watson, are the only players to make an appearance on three lists in this article, displaying their elite play when throwing passes at least 20 yards downfield. One surprise on this list is Gardner Minshew, who has a Points Earned total of 18.9, 1.4 points higher than Watson. At least in this regard, Minshew-mania is legit.

Conclusion

There are few players who truly excel at throwing the deep ball. Wilson and Watson are two players who continually throw the ball downfield, and who continually find success doing so. Quarterbacks who take shots try to will their team to a win. These plays can change momentum in the blink of an eye and are crucial to the success of many teams. We’ll see if these trends continue and if the quarterbacks on this list are still looking long well into January.

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