Guest column by John Kinsley
When it comes to the most exciting parts of football, few things can compare to the downfield pass. The simple act of quarterbacks launching the ball into the sky like a cannon can be downright mesmerizing at times, so it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable plays of the 2019 season happened to be on deep throws.
When it comes to measuring a player’s quality on these throws, people seem to be split. Some favor completion percentage, touchdowns, yards, or deep passer rating. All these uses are perfectly fine, but I wanted to know how accurate quarterbacks were on these plays.
As a result of these thoughts, I decided to create what I like to call The Deep Ball Project, which takes a look at the accuracy of quarterbacks on throws of 21-plus air yards past the line of scrimmage. Recently I released the sixth annual edition of the project, which covers the 2019 season (which you can check here and here), and for the third time Football Outsiders has kindly allowed me to write a follow-up.
For as long as I’ve written these articles, I’ve had various questions on what I consider to be an accurate deep pass, measured by Accuracy Percentage (which differentiates from the normally used completion percentage in that it looks the accuracy of throws regardless of whether they’re caught or not). Obviously, straight-up drops are counted as accurate passes, which in turn boost the quarterback’s accuracy percentage, but it doesn’t stop there.
Certain sideline/back-shoulder plays where the receiver can’t get two feet in bounds (with varying adjustments), most Hail Marys that reach the end zone, and certain plays where the pass was disrupted (depending on the effort from the receiver at the catch point) can also help boost a quarterback’s accuracy percentage. Going further, I use Accurate Incompletions to label these plays.
On the flip side, Inaccurate Completions are counted on plays where the pass was completed but wasn’t necessarily accurate. These include plays where the receiver was forced to make an unnecessary adjustment on the ball (See also: DeAndre Hopkins for the first four years of his career), but in the latest edition of the Deep Ball Project these were less frequent because I found fewer plays of this category. As a result, no quarterback has more than a few inaccurate completions from 2019.
A question I’ve gotten occasionally is how air yards fit into the equation on red zone plays. Any throw 20 yards or less from the end zone does not qualify. These are throws of 21-plus yards in the air past the line of scrimmage, including the beginning of the end zone.
As with last year’s edition of the Deep Ball Project, accuracy on throws from the left, middle, and right areas of the field are included as stats, as are distances of the field (21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40, and 41-plus air yards); pressure splits (clean vs. pressure); open– and tight-window throws; air yards; and yards after the catch (YAC).
New to this year’s edition are under center vs. shotgun; throws inside and outside the pocket; and throws against interior and edge pressure.
Keep in mind that more accurate deep passers aren’t always better deep passers (and that there are numerous outliers in these projects, so certain quarterbacks don’t have sustainable success on deep accuracy). Accuracy percentage docks for misses but doesn’t grade poor throws, and decision-making isn’t factored into it either. I use it because it’s a more convenient metric for me to use than yards, touchdowns, completions, attempts, etc.
Lastly, throwaways and plays nullified by penalties are excluded from deep-pass charting.
Let’s dive right into the numbers behind the 2019-20 Deep Ball Project and how quarterbacks from last season fared. First, here’s a look at the average of the numbers of each raw statistic in this year’s Deep Ball Project.
|2019 Deep Ball Project Totals|
In this year’s study, 12 out of 32 quarterbacks had an above-average accuracy percentage, meaning a higher rate than at least 47.7%. In comparison, 19 of 35 quarterbacks finished above average in the 2018-19 Deep Ball Project (which was 46.6%). The main reason the rate finished slightly higher this year is because three quarterbacks had an accuracy percentage of at least 60%, whereas only one reached that mark in the 2018-19 edition.
Most of the stat averages are about the same as well. Accurate passes (19.0 in 2018 to 22.3 in 2019), attempts (43.4 to 46.6), yards (627.1 to 628.0), touchdowns (4.54 to 4.75), interceptions (2.37 to 2.38), and YAC (124.3 to 121.3) reflect this, but there was a significant difference between 2018 and 2019 in air yards (477.7 to 508.7). One reason for this is that only two quarterbacks finished with over 800 air yards in 2018, while five managed to do that in 2019.
2019 Deep Ball Accuracy
Let’s look at how everyone did in accuracy on all throws of 21-plus yards, ranked from first to last out of 32 quarterbacks.
There is a lot to digest from this chart, so let’s tackle these rankings.
Yes, Kyler Murray, in his rookie season, was the most accurate deep passer in the 2019-20 Deep Ball Project. He was even more accurate than the top-ranked deep passer in 2018, which was Andrew Luck (60.0%). I’m not ready to confirm Murray as the best deep passer since he has one season in him, but he’s off to a tremendous start.
Two quarterbacks from the 2017 draft class fill up the rest of the top three. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were both incredible in deep accuracy, and Watson showed incredible improvement in this area, jumping from 18th in 2018 to third in 2019. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan finds himself in the top five once again; in spite of a shaky start to the season, his accuracy shined downfield.
Surprisingly, Baker Mayfield returned to the top five in deep accuracy even after a sophomore slump. He saw an increase in turnovers and his decision-making was worse, but 10 accurate incompletions from his receivers boosted his accuracy percentage. Perhaps a change with new head coach Kevin Stefanski will get him back on track after a 2019 Browns season riddled with problems sank a talented offense on paper.
Dak Prescott starts the bottom end of the top 10. His accuracy downfield was just 20th in 2018, but he found himself in much better shape this time around. God only knows how much better he’ll be with CeeDee Lamb joining a group of receivers that already includes Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.
Kyler Murray wasn’t the only rookie to find himself in the top 10, as Gardner Minshew came in at seventh in deep accuracy. His combination of mobility, deep passing, and an iconic moustache are enticing for a late Day 3 rookie, and Jacksonville appears to wisely be sticking with him to see what he can offer in 2020.
This does not mean I’d rather have Minshew as a deep passer over Russell Wilson, who would’ve ranked higher than eighth had it not been for a streaky second-half stretch. Even still, he’s arguably the best deep passer in the league with an awe-inspiring play style, and at least his receivers didn’t screw him over to the extent Carson Wentz’s did. Eagles’ fans’ complaints of the receivers dropping everything coming their way were valid, as the corps forced 12 accurate incompletions, tied for the most in the 2019-20 Deep Ball Project. As you may have guessed, this helped benefit Wentz’s accuracy percentage, and he finished ninth for the second consecutive season.
Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t throw downfield as often as the other nine quarterbacks in the top 10, but at least it’s not worse. Much like Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins is a polarizing quarterback who generates all sorts of opinions. I’ve never been a huge fan of his, but his accuracy was solid down the field in 2019, as he just missed the top 10.
Lamar Jackson’s deep accuracy isn’t consistently great just yet, but it’s coming together for one of the league’s most exciting players, and a sophomore leap from Marquise Brown should help. Derek Carr himself has been talked about as a quality deep passer, and there’s no argument here as he landed 13th in accuracy.
It can’t all be positive though. Jared Goff fell from eighth in deep accuracy in 2018 to tied for 19th in 2019. A worse performance from the offensive line contributed to his struggles, and it’s not a good look for the player with the most guaranteed money in league history. Jameis Winston climbed from dead-last in 2018 to 21st in 2019, but it wasn’t enough for him to keep his job in Tampa Bay. Fortunately for him, his LASIK surgery and landing spot with the Saints could prove useful for his football career.
Aaron Rodgers’ spot at No. 22 is heavily inflated by arguably the worst performance of his career: a Week 17 slopfest against the Lions where he was only accurate on three of 14 passes of 21-plus air yards. Without that, his outlook on the chart would look significantly more in his favor. On the bright side, his fall wasn’t as far as Drew Brees’. The New Orleans legend barely threw down the field, and when he did it was clear that something was off.
Considering the season he had, Ryan Tannehill’s placement here is a surprise. He enjoyed some big plays off deep throws in 2019, so it’s not like the year was a complete loss. Still, consistent accuracy wasn’t there in my charting.
Josh Allen and Sam Darnold have much work to do in terms of deep accuracy, but they’re further along than Kyle Allen, who finished dead last in the entire project. Allen’s 31.7% accuracy percentage was even worse than Cam Newton’s 37.9% mark in 2018, and this was with a stark contrast in health between the two.
Improvements and Declines
From last year’s edition on Football Outsiders, you may recall a chart where I took a look at the splits between quarterbacks who appeared in the 2017 and 2018 Deep Ball Projects. This time, we’re going to look at the accuracy splits of the 25 quarterbacks who appeared on the 2018 and 2019 editions. Any differentials that show up as green are positive, and those in red are negative.
Starting from the top, Jameis Winston took a step in the right direction with the highest accuracy percentage differential. His deep accuracy still wasn’t particularly good, but at least it wasn’t an absolute trainwreck like it was in 2018.
Deshaun Watson finished with the second-highest differential. In general, his 2019 season was a lot of fun to watch, and it was a joy to watch him sling the ball downfield. Dak Prescott also showed significant improvement in 2019, as did Tom Brady, who did well in accuracy considering his age.
Less successful was Drew Brees, who had the worst differential of any quarterback here. It’s not realistic to expect a player in his early 40s to sustain a good level of success as a deep passer, and Brees clearly had another quality year anyway, but it is disappointing to see a normally fantastic player in this category show decline. Even more glaring is that Michael Thomas, in the midst of a career year, was only targeted on three passes of 21-plus air yards.
Keep in mind that negative differentials aren’t necessarily bad. For instance, while Carson Wentz had a negative differential between 2018 and 2019, he still finished with the same accuracy ranking as he had in 2018. Similarly, Russell Wilson dropped from second in deep accuracy in 2018 to eighth, which is still really damn good. The opposite is also true for certain players with positive differentials. Sam Darnold and Ryan Tannehill both finished low in accuracy in spite of an increase from 2018 to 2019.
For the next segment, let’s take a look at distance splits. Last year, we used accuracy splits of 21-30 and 31-plus air yards, so we’ll do the same here.
Yes, Drew Brees only threw five passes of 31-plus yards. Missing five games to injury affected this area as well, but it says a lot about the style of passing the Saints offense has assumed with an aging quarterback. Compare this to guys like Aaron Rodgers and Jameis Winston, who had 38 and 40 attempts, respectively.
While Kyler Murray wasn’t fantastic throwing between 21 and 30 yards, he was sensational past 31-plus, with the highest accuracy percentage in this split (and it wasn’t even close, though some might be less impressed with his 14 attempts here). Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson was the only quarterback to finish in the top five in both; he was joined by Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield as the only quarterbacks inside the top 10 of both. Also joining the top 10 between 21 and 30 is Gardner Minshew, who was quite promising in that area.
There’s a significant contrast in Dak Prescott’s splits here; His accuracy past 31-plus yards was lacking, but he was the most accurate passer between 21 and 30 air yards. The opposite was true for Derek Carr; he was only 28th between 21 and 30 yards, but was the second most accurate passer in the 31-plus category. Matt Ryan (who finished third between 21 and 30) was seen as having a noodle arm when throwing the ball significantly far down the field, though it wasn’t all bad as he finished 14th on throws of 31-plus.
Matthew Stafford tied for 19th in overall accuracy, but his placement in the 2019-20 Deep Ball Project is a little misleading. His consistent accuracy couldn’t meet the standards of guys like Mahomes or Watson, but in an offense that prioritized more downfield throws, he had one of the best seasons of his career. This is evidenced by the fact that he was fifth in accuracy on throws of 31-plus yards.
Case Keenum is in the project instead of Dwayne Haskins because he had more deep passing attempts. Still, no one’s gonna be that impressed by his top-five ranking in throws of 21 to 30 yards considering he only threw 11 passes in that range. On the other hand, Tom Brady was seventh in the same area, and Kyle Allen (surprisingly) finished tied for 10th.
Next, let’s take a look at how each quarterback fared throwing to the left, middle, and right areas of the field.
Every stat Case Keenum appears in this article is without much of a sample size, but since he had more deep passing attempts than Dwayne Haskins, he’s here. That said, while he finished first on throws to the left, he only threw six passes, so take that with a grain of salt. Contrarily, Carson Wentz finished second in accuracy to the left with 24 attempts. (Oddly enough, his accuracy didn’t come close to that when throwing to the middle or to the right). Mitchell Trubisky also tied for ninth in this area, so comprehend that however you can.
Ryan Tannehill was the most accurate passer throwing deep passes to the middle of the field, and though he threw just seven passes, no quarterback had more than 16 attempts (Aaron Rodgers) to this area. Three quarterbacks (Kyler Murray, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Joe Flacco) tied for second, but it’s Murray with the highest sample size of the three.
On throws to the right, Gardner Minshew led the pack, one spot ahead of Lamar Jackson. Patrick Mahomes threw almost as many attempts as Minshew and Jackson combined and still managed to come in at third. No quarterback finished in the top five in accuracy in all three areas, but Murray and Mahomes were in the proximity of doing so.
Shotgun vs. Under Center
Next, let’s look at accuracy splits throwing under center and in the shotgun.
Deshaun Watson ranking No. 1 in deep accuracy under center is kind of a big deal considering there were questions about his ability to play under center coming out of college; he also remained in the top 10 passing from the shotgun. Just behind him were Russell Wilson and Gardner Minshew, who finished second and third under center respectively.
Certain quarterbacks rarely threw under center, so their rankings here are meaningless. Most notably, this includes Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray; the two of them ranked low in accuracy in this area, but they combined for only four passes. Murray was the most accurate deep passer from the shotgun, while Jackson ranked 10th. (Jackson’s season was interesting because a good portion of his passes were from the pistol, a similar formation to the shotgun.)
Speaking of shotgun, Patrick Mahomes ranked second in this category, and guys like Dak Prescott and Matt Ryanfared well here, scooching inside the top five. Tom Brady’s deep accuracy from the shotgun was also great, as he finished fifth. Jameis Winston was the least accurate deep passer in this area, but he finished seventh under center.
In vs. Out of Pocket
Now let’s transition to inside and outside the pocket.
This is tricky because while four quarterbacks technically tied for first in accuracy outside the pocket, Kirk Cousins, who finished fifth, had a higher sample size than those four quarterbacks combined. In other words, the data is extremely unreliable for the top four. Jimmy Garoppolo and Mason Rudolph were the only two quarterbacks to have zero attempts outside the pocket.
Obviously, the more mobile quarterbacks have more of a sample size of plays outside the pocket, but this is yet another category where Kyler Murray ranked No. 1 in accuracy. In fact, the seven most accurate deep passers from this year’s project are in the exact same order in this category.
This was one area where Josh Allen really struggled with precision, as he was the least accurate quarterback inside the pocket, the only quarterback under 30%. His accuracy outside the pocket was much better, however. Inside the pocket was also an area where Lamar Jackson fared better than outside, ranking ninth and 12th respectfully.
Next let’s look at arguably the most important part of playing quarterback: playing under pressure. The stats we’ll use here are Clean (or Without Pressure), Pressure, Interior Pressure, and Edge Pressure.
One player that comes to mind when contrasting accuracy with and without pressure is Baker Mayfield. In his sophomore season he was the most accurate deep passer without pressure, but with pressure his accuracy fell to 22nd. On the other hand, quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Philip Rivers fared much better in the rankings under pressure than they did without.
Not only was Kyler Murray the most accurate deep passer under pressure, he was the most accurate by a significant margin (77.8% compared to second-place Lamar Jackson at 66.7%). It just goes to show how incredible Murray’s accuracy was under duress behind an offensive line that certainly gave him enough practice.
In terms of play against interior pressure, Deshaun Watson was the most accurate deep passer (though with only three attempts). A much larger sample comes from Russell Wilson, in second place with 10 accurate passes on 13 attempts. Lamar Jackson, who was the second-most accurate deep passer under pressure, was also the fourth-most accurate under interior pressure, while Jacoby Brissett was a pleasant surprise at No. 3.
Yet again, Kyler Murray leads another stat, this time in deep accuracy against edge pressure. No one was close to touching his 90.9% accuracy rate, though fellow rookie Daniel Jones impressed by tying for second with the largest sample size of the three quarterbacks that finished in that same spot. If you needed any indication as to why the Buccaneers drafted tackle Tristan Wirfs, consider that Jameis Winston faced edge pressure on 28 of his deep attempts (Watson was second with 19).
Open and Tight Windows
Finally, let’s look at open-window and tight-window passing. Open-window throws essentially include plays where the receivers provided clear separation and more room for error for the quarterback, whereas tight-window throws include plays with extremely tight coverage without much in the way of separation.
No surprise that the league’s best quarterback ranked first in deep throws to open receivers. Patrick Mahomes just barely finished ahead of second-place Baker Mayfield, who finished a hair above third-place Matthew Stafford. Not far behind is Deshaun Watson at fourth, and other quality deep passers such as Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz finished inside the top 10 as well.
Somehow, this was a stat where Kyle Allen exceeded expectations, but in the worst way possible. Not only was Allen the least accurate deep passer to open receivers, he was the least accurate by a long shot, being the only quarterback to fail to reach a 45% accuracy rate. Mason Rudolph was also quite bad; he was the only other passer with an accurate rate under 50% on open-window throws.
Tight-window throws are where this gets a little more interesting. While Carson Wentz ranked much lower than expected, I don’t think throwing to receivers who offered extremely little in the way of separation gave him any favors. Hopefully the addition of rookie Jalen Reagor and the return of DeSean Jackson help fix that. Patrick Mahomessurprisingly finished 19th in this area, though playing hurt for a good portion of the season clearly had an effect on him.
Matt Ryan was the most accurate deep passer into tight windows, with the help of someone as great as Julio Jones. Kyler Murray finished second in this area, proving the quality of his season as a deep passer wasn’t just the product of many open looks. The top two MVP candidates, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson, also finished inside the top four, and Deshaun Watson was the only quarterback to finish in the top five in accuracy in both open- and tight-window throws.
While Case Keenum finished as the least accurate tight-window passer, second-to-last Josh Allen with a much larger sample. Allen has been the target of heavy criticism for his accuracy, especially his deep passing, but the addition of Stefon Diggs will hopefully alleviate some of his accuracy woes. On the other hand, Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott both excelled here, as the two tied for sixth in accuracy.