NFL 1000: Ranking the Most Accurate Passers

Doug FarrarNFL Lead ScoutJune 16, 2017

NFL 1000: Ranking the Most Accurate Passers

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    When we talk about quarterback accuracy, we’re talking about a lot of different things. Accuracy, like any other crucial quarterback attribute, requires a full picture and a lot of context to be truly appreciated. The most accurate quarterbacks at any level are the ones who can throw the ball to all parts of the field, despite pressure, above and beyond the quality of his targets, and in ways that make it easier for his receivers to catch it than for the defenders trying to prevent that. 

    Completion percentage is often cited as the ultimate arbiter of accuracy, but it only tells part of the story. Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill tied for sixth in the league in completion percentage last season at 67.1 percent. Smith attempted exactly 100 more passes (489 to 389), but neither quarterback was great in the deep passing game—Smith’s Air Yards comprised 45.1 percent of his total passing yards, and Tannehill’s Air Yards made up 50.2 percent of his yardage. The difference with Tannehill, and why he's on this top 10 where Smith is not, is Tannehill's ability to make the more difficult throw. 

    But compare that to Jameis Winston’s 66.1 percent, Cam Newton’s 61.5 percent or Marcus Mariota’s 61.2 percent. When you have a quarterback who isn’t as reliant on yards after the catch to provide consistent accuracy, it obviously helps your offense and forces defenders to deal with bigger field chunks play to play.

    Of course, throwing the ball deep generally leads to a lower completion percentage—that’s just part of the risk/reward equation. Winston finished 23rd in completion percentage last year at 60.8 percent, Newton finished 30th at 52.9 percent and Mariota finished 20th with 61.2 percent.

    So, there needs to be a balance. You also have to look at the openness and diversity of the passing playbook, because the creation and implementation of designed openings are an obvious help to any quarterback and will increase that quarterback’s completion rate—or, at least, the opportunity for a higher completion rate.

    Additionally, the talent of the receiver group must be considered. Does the quarterback have a group of targets that allow him to throw in a receiver’s general area, with the knowledge that the receiver has the kind of catch radius that will aid him? Is there a deep receiver who can take the top off coverage and open things up for the guys underneath? Do those receivers run their routes with the right spacing and rhythm?

    And, is the quarterback constantly under pressure due to a subpar offensive line? That can certainly lead to busted potential completions and a lower overall efficiency rate.

    The most accurate quarterbacks are the ones who achieve peak efficiency regardless of these factors. They have the physical talent, mental acuity and understanding of timing and rhythm to make their—or any—passing game go.


    All advanced stats courtesy of SportingCharts.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.

10. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

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    Matt Stafford has always been a tremendously talented deep-ball thrower, to the point where his arm gets him in trouble at times. He has such an ability to throw from different arm angles and launching points that early in his NFL career, he was prone to as many mistakes as he was impressive plays with a more unformed palette of attributes.

    But over the last two seasons, with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in charge, Stafford has learned a few things. His delivery angle is far more consistent, he's become more risk-averse without losing the potential for explosive plays, and he's better able to understand that a dump-off to a running back on 3rd-and-3 when the deep receiver is double-covered isn't always a bad thing.

    As a result, when he throws deep, it's a more dangerous proposition for defenses. And because Cooter's offense is one where the quarterback spreads the ball around to different targets, Stafford isn't fixated on a particular receiver as he was when he had Calvin Johnson. 

    It's a progression common to a lot of young quarterbacks—2017 will be Stafford's ninth NFL season, but he just turned 29 in February. He had a completion percentage over 60 percent just once in his first five seasons, but the needle has moved in the right direction over the last two campaigns, where he had a 67.2 percent completion rate in 2015 (his career high) and a 65.3 percent completion rate in 2016.

    And it's not that Stafford has been throwing deep less often—in 2014 B.C. (Before Cooter), 46.4 percent of his yards were air yards, and that number slightly rose to 48.5 percent last season. It's just that now, the deep ball is a key part of a more integrated plan.

9. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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    In 2016, Dak Prescott set an NFL record for rookie quarterbacks with a 67.76 percent completion rate, completing 311 passes in 459 attempts for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. It took a while for the fourth-rounder from Mississippi State to establish chemistry on the deep ball with top receiver Dez Bryant, but Prescott was especially impressive as his first NFL season went along—he threw 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions from November through January.

    Moreover, he wasn't just dinking and dunking. Prescott was especially impressive on intermediate to deep passes—not only does he have the velocity to make just about any throw from the pocket or on the run, but he can also deliver the ball to his receivers with multiple arcs and speeds. Per ESPN.com, he completed 60.6 percent of his passes from 11 to 20 yards downfield with six touchdowns and no interceptions, and 41.4 percent of his passes from 21 to 30 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

    As Prescott gained the trust of his coaching staff through the season and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan started to open up the passing game, Prescott was able to show the full range of his talent—from zone-read plays to deep passes with multiple reads.

    And his coaches don't see any kind of sophomore slump coming.

    "He's improved strength-wise, flexibility-wise, speed-wise, quickness-wise, so he's not resting on anything that went on last year," Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson recently told the Dallas Morning News. "He had a phenomenal rookie year. He's been out here working the whole offseason and taking over a little bit more of a leadership role this year that's kind of innate with the position, but it is his personality as well, and the guys are really responding to that."

    If he stays on this kind of track, Prescott could lead the new wave of young quarterbacks. He's got an impressive cadre of receivers, a great running game and the best offensive line in football, but he's bringing a lot to the table as well.

8. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

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    Ryan Tannehill's development as an NFL quarterback was bound to be a process, and there was no guarantee that it would work out. He was a receiver in his first two years at Texas A&M, playing quarterback for just two campaigns. He had three different offensive coordinators through his first four seasons with the Dolphins (Mike Sherman, Bill Lazor, Zac Taylor), and was dealing with a receiving corps that was finding its own collective feet as Tannehill was learning the subtleties of the position.

    He had a bit of a breakout season in 2014, when he completed 66.4 percent of his passes, throwing 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but regression hit to a point in the following season. Tannehill's completion rate slipped to 61.9, and though he threw for a career-high 4,208 yards, he had obvious issues with reading defenses and aligning with the timing of his targets on deep passes.

    It's one of the main reasons the Dolphins hired former Broncos and Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase as their head coach before the 2016 season. In Denver and Chicago, Gase developed a well-deserved reputation as the kind of coach who would maximize his quarterback's attributes and minimize his inefficiencies by matching a coordinated deep attack with a short to intermediate passing game in which receivers were schemed open as much as they got free from defenders with their own physical abilities.

    The difference was clear. Before he was lost in December with a partially torn ACL, Tannehill put up a new accuracy rate to all parts of the field—he completed a career-high 67.1 percent of his passes overall, and he improved his completion rate on passes thrown 21 to 30 yards in the air from 31.9 percent in 2015 to 45.5 percent in 2016.

    Tannehill still needs development when it comes to judging coverages on deep passes—there's a rogue element of his game that he may never be able to shake. But he has the athletic talent to be one of the league's best passers, and with Gase on board, expect to see continued increases in efficiency and accuracy over the next few seasons.

7. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

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    As the Redskins try to make the best of Kirk Cousins' ongoing contract situation—right now, he's on the hook for the quarterback franchise number of $23.94 million for 2017—Cousins has made things more "complicated" by improving vastly as a deep passer, rounding out what has become an estimable skill set for a guy who was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

    Helped as he was by receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, who are now out of the picture as a result of free agency, Cousins, who has always been accurate in the short to intermediate game, did obvious work on his mechanics from play to play and became a dangerous deep passer. In 2015, he threw four touchdowns and three interceptions on passes thrown 21 or more yards in the air—last season, it was nine touchdowns and two interceptions.

    Cousins is a perfect foil for head coach Jay Gruden, who wants a possession-based passing offense in which mistakes are kept to a minimum and explosive plays only happen when a quarterback is trusted and the receivers and scheme allow it. So the fact that Cousins was able to have more deep opportunities speaks to his own development. Cousins led the league in 2015 with a 69.8 percent completion rate, but that was primarily a result of his efficiency on shorter stuff. Completing 67.0 percent of his passes with a higher deep efficiency, as he did last season, is a major development.

    Of course, the question is how Cousins will rebound from the loss of his two most prolific targets in Jackson and Garcon—especially Jackson, who was the NFL's most effective deep receiver last season and affected coverages for other receivers with his deep speed even when he didn't get the ball. There's no question about Cousins' accuracy on short passes—he completed 75 percent of his passes when throwing between one and 10 yards in the air in 2016—but he'll have to shoulder more of the load to keep the deep stuff going.

    If he's able to do that in 2017, there will be no question about his overall improvement and its effect on the Redskins offense.

6. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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    At age 37, Drew Brees proved in 2016 that he's just about as accurate as he's ever been in certain instances, though the standard he's set over his career is fairly ridiculous. He finished second in the league last year with a 70.0 percent completion rate, and that's on the most passing attempts (673) and completions (471) of any quarterback in the league. Sam Bradford, the guy he finished second to in completion rate last season, broke his single-season mark of 71.2 percent, which Brees set in 2011.

    Why, then, is Brees sixth on this list? While he's still an amazingly proficient short passer, Brees' deep arm has not been what it used to be over the last couple of seasons, and that's just as true on the tape as it is in the stats. His six picks on throws from 11 to 20 yards in the air merit some concern, but it's really his stats in the 21- to 30-yard range—12 completions in 31 attempts for 456 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions—that really raise a red flag.

    Two of his three picks against the Buccaneers in Week 14 are perfect examples of the problem. The first was an attempt to tight end Coby Fleener in which Brees had an open throwing lane and tried to fit the ball to Fleener with multiple defenders around the target. Brees threw the ball hot, but without the necessary arc to get it over the heads of those defenders and to Fleener. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III had an easy pick off a deflection. The last was an intermediate attempt to receiver Willie Snead, but there wasn't enough on the ball, and safety Keith Tandy was able to easily jump the route.

    When you look at Brees' deep completions these days, what you see are a lot of receivers coming back to the ball because the velocity to allow the receiver to catch the ball in stride simply isn't there anymore. It's great that Brees' receivers seem to have developed this adaptive strategy on a consistent basis, but it doesn't eliminate the problem.

    That's not to say that Brees' efficiency numbers are a mere mirage—he's still got more to offer than most quarterbacks ever will, but the tape also shows one disconcerting aspect of an inevitable decline. That his completion rate is so high despite this shows he's adapting to that reality.

5. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

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    Perhaps more than any other quarterback on this list, Russell Wilson's accuracy stats must be mitigated by tape and scheme. There's more going on here than you may think.

    In 2016, Wilson completed 64.7 percent of his passes despite a host of minor injuries, a stilted running game and an offensive line that would have to improve drastically to rise to the status of league-average. He was pressured on 291 of his 701 dropbacks last year—no quarterback was pressured more often—but he still managed to put together an estimable season in which he set a career high for passing attempts and became the epicenter of Seattle's offense after four years as a caretaker and distributor in more of a run-based attack.

    Wilson's 64.7 percent completion rate was the second highest of his career, and he threw 58 of his passes 20 or more yards downfield, with six touchdowns and four picks on deep passes. That's not a high efficiency rate, but when discussing Wilson's game, you have to factor in Seattle's offensive line and the "designed sandlot" aspect of the playbook.

    Simply put, even when Wilson wasn't directly pressured last season, he was going to see at least one throwing lane obstructed by a penetrating defender on just about every play. Already at a relative handicap to see over offensive and defensive linemen due to his height, the 5'11" Wilson can't always count on those throwing lanes as, say, Drew Brees has generally been able to.

    When throwing lanes are blocked off and the quarterback can't see the field from his current position, he's going to start to run around, the play design is going to break down and he's going to have to go off script. To complicate things further, his receivers are going to have to go off script with him.

    As a result, the Seahawks have incorporated an element of randomness into their playbook, in which it's designed for Wilson to break out of the pocket and outside of structure if he doesn't get a quick, easy read. He has shown that he can be accurate to all levels of the field consistently with a more stable plan in place, but given the current situation, it's likely Wilson will have to run his way out of trouble and be exceptionally accurate with that high bar set for the foreseeable future.

4. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    Over the last few seasons, the Patriots' passing concepts have moved from a deep attack to more three-step drops out of the shotgun with Tom Brady quickly distributing the ball. As a result, some may have come to believe that Brady's arm wasn't what it used to be. The truth came to light in the 2016 season: With better deep receivers and a well-coached offensive line, Brady made just about every throw he had before, with flawless mechanics and outstanding timing and rhythm. He has become a peerless pass distributor—whoever is open and correctly runs New England's set of option routes will get the ball.

    The result was perhaps Brady's most efficient campaign in a career that's seen more than a few. Brady threw 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season—his 0.5 percent interception rate was the lowest of his career, and his 67.4 percent completion rate was the second highest of his career.

    And this wasn't Brady loading up on easy completions and avoiding picks by shying away from deeper, riskier passes. Chris Hogan, signed away from the Bills, became Brady's most prolific deep receiver. And though the focus was still on the short to intermediate passing game, Brady had a quarterback rating of 131.9 on passes that traveled 21 to 30 yards in the air and a rating of 106.9 on passes that went 31 to 40 yards.

    Now, with former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks in the fold via trade, Brady could well throw the deep ball more than he has since Randy Moss was in his prime. And given his current skill level, Tom Brady with a full array of deep receivers and the ability to still get the ball to those receivers is a scary thought for any defense.

3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

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    Aaron Rodgers ranked ninth in completion percentage at 65.7 percent, which is up from his highly disappointing 60.7 percent in 2015 (by far his worst as a starter) but isn't quite the level he was at when he was dominating the league in 2011 and 2012. Then, in a more diverse, advantageous offense, Rodgers aligned his talent with a great playbook and singed nearly every defense he faced.

    In 2011, he completed 68.3 percent of his passes and averaged a league-leading 10.5 adjusted yards per pass attempt—back then, he was the perfect combination of accuracy to all fields, mobility and velocity in a West Coast offense that played perfectly to his strengths.

    But over the last few seasons, as head coach Mike McCarthy has forgone that offense in favor of one in which the receiver formations are far more staid and the routes do far less to provide him with easy openings, Rodgers has understandably suffered when it comes to play-to-play efficiency. Moreover, as I've detailed before, Rodgers now has stretches in which he doesn't seem to trust the open receivers he sees—he's bizarrely hesitant at times.

    So, why is he ranked third on this list?

    When you watch the tape, Rodgers is still capable of creating completions that other quarterbacks would struggle to achieve—even the great quarterbacks. And when his receivers do anything more than run straight-ahead deep iso routes, Rodgers has the mechanics, quick release and easy velocity to make any throw.

    It's just that he's operating with a schematic handicap, and it affects not only the entire offense but also Rodgers' faith in what he sees. And when a quarterback has to wait for receivers to get open on their own as opposed to with help from route concepts, it leads to extra defensive pressure as blocks break down over time.

    Rodgers still averaged 8.1 adjusted yards per attempt last season, tying for fourth in the league. Watch him on tape and imagine how his stats would surge if he had, say, Atlanta's offense from last season. That's why he's this high on the list: He's a better player than his scheme allows him to be.

2. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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    The reigning Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year according to a host of awards, Matt Ryan has been a very accurate quarterback over the last five seasons, leading the league with a 68.6 percent completion rate in 2012 and never posting a completion rate lower than 66.1 percent thereafter. His career-high rate of 69.9 would have led the league were it not for Sam Bradford's NFL record 71.6 percent and Drew Brees' 70.0 percent, but Ryan's season—and overall accuracy—were nothing to sneeze at, either.

    Why is he ranked second on this list? The tape shows that Ryan played his best in 2016—he used to have issues under pressure and when he had to move out of the pocket, but over the last two seasons under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan added the boot-action elements from Shanahan's offense to his own attributes in a seamless fashion.

    Still, he had a lot of help. First, Shanahan's pre-snap motion concepts put defenses on their heels a great deal of the time, and his route concepts gave Ryan a lot of easy openings. Second, the improvements along Atlanta's offensive line and in the overall blocking schemes gave Ryan cleaner pockets and the time to go through his progressions, for the most part.

    Still, it's hard to look at any NFL quarterback from last season and rank them higher than Ryan when everything was going well. Ryan has worked hard on his mechanics and understands how to use his lower body for maximum efficient velocity. It's why he was able to throw nine touchdowns and no interceptions on passes traveling 21 or more yards in the air, and his 10:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on passes to the left sideline shows that he can be ruthlessly efficient on cross-body throws, which less experienced quarterbacks tend to struggle with.

    But again, those deep numbers have a bit to do with the ways in which Shanahan's route concepts created easy openings downfield—in the short to intermediate game, Ryan was less efficient, throwing 19 touchdowns and seven picks on passes from one to 20 yards. When the field was crowded with defenders in shorter spaces, Ryan tended to miss defenders jumping his routes and going into disguised coverages at times.

    Still, we're splitting hairs here. Ryan has established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and it will be interesting to see how Atlanta's passing offense changes with Shanahan gone to the 49ers and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian in Shanahan's stead.  

1. Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings

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    To break the single-season record for completion percentage in any year is impressive enough, but doing it on a new team as a last-minute starter is even more remarkable. That's what Sam Bradford did in 2016, setting the all-time mark with a 71.6 percent completion rate after the Vikings gave up their first-round pick in 2017 and fourth-round pick in 2018 to the Eagles for Bradford in early September, following the knee injury suffered by former starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

    Bradford had little time to hit the ground running, but that's what he did. He had experience with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur from his time in St. Louis and Philadelphia, but he was still throwing to a new group of receivers and playing behind perhaps the worst pass-blocking line in the NFL.

    The lack of protection predicated more short passes than anything else, but when Bradford had to sling it deep, he could, throwing 11 touchdowns and two interceptions on passes 11 yards and longer downfield.

    Even more remarkable were the ways in which Bradford developed an instant, lasting chemistry with his targets—tight end Kyle Rudolph and receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen all enjoyed career years with Bradford as their quarterback.

    None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who saw Bradford play in college at Oklahoma, where he displayed rare deep accuracy both in the pocket and on the move. When he's healthy and integrated in a fully functioning offense, Bradford still has that deep accuracy, as well as a full understanding of his team's route concepts and overall offensive structure.

    It was a primary reason the Rams selected him first overall in the 2010 draft, though they never surrounded him with anything near the complementary talent any quarterback needs. He experienced a professional rebirth in Philadelphia in 2015, completing 65.0 percent of his passes and throwing for a then-career-high 3,725 yards. His 3,877 yards, 20 touchdowns and five picks last season must be seen in the context of a quarterback who had no time to adjust to his new surroundings.

    "He had to get up to speed with what we were doing, [and] he had to quickly learn the players he was playing with," Shurmur told Ben Goessling of ESPN.com in February. "That connection between the quarterback and the skill players is extremely important, and that chemistry is built really in the offseason, when you get the chance to slow it down and run the individual routes that are within the concept, so he gets a feel for their body language and vice versa. That's where you're hopeful that you're going to see a big jump in efficiency in terms of the passing game."

    And that's why Shurmur believes Bradford can be even more efficient in the upcoming season. Based on the tape, it's easy to believe he can—and that record-setting completion rate is more than the product of a dink-and-dunk offense.