NFL 1000: Ranking the Best Deep Throwers
Deep passes—throws that travel 20 or more yards in the air—rarely comprise more than 15 percent of an offense’s arsenal of plays in any given season. But those plays can define an offense, for better or worse. If you have a quarterback and receiving corps who are aligned on explosive plays that come out of the passing game, it can change the mentality of the entire franchise.
There isn’t as much pressure on the running game and the defense. Comebacks are more easily facilitated, which leads to a greater sense of confidence that a team is rarely really out of a game. But the real key to the deep passing game is efficiency. It’s nice if your quarterback can zing the ball all over the field with a Howitzer arm, but if the ball doesn’t go where he wants it to go, it’s irrelevant.
Last season, San Diego’s Philip Rivers may have been the best example of this paradox. Rivers completed 23 deep passes in 66 attempts for 859 yards and 10 touchdowns—all favorable numbers. But declining arm strength had Rivers pushing the ball too often, underthrowing the ball and forcing deep passes into multiple coverage under pressure. The eight deep interceptions he threw as a result led the league and forced him off this list.
When looking at the best deep passers, one must also rate season-to-season consistency highly. One-year wonders who thrive under favorable circumstances are questionable future prospects, especially when those circumstances are removed. In 2016, Washington’s Kirk Cousins upped his deep attempts from 67 the year before to 82, his completions from 25 to 39, his deep yardage from 807 to 1,359, his deep touchdowns from six to 11 and had the same number of deep interceptions in each season (three).
However, the departure of receiver DeSean Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency is an irreplaceable loss—Jackson was one of the NFL’s most prolific deep receivers in the league in 2016, with 16 catches of 20 or more yards downfield for 579 yards and three touchdowns, and his ability to take the top off a coverage even when he wasn’t Cousins’ target isn’t something any other receiver on the team possesses. Now, Cousins will have to rely far more on his own mechanics to get those deep completions happening, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll regress to his 2015 numbers.
As a result, it’s impossible to put him on this list, no matter how great his 2016 was—the best deep throwers in the NFL maintain a high rate of explosive-play consistency regardless of the personnel around them. Cousins has yet to prove that.
And that’s what the top 10 deep throwers on this list have in common—no matter the quality of their offensive lines, the diversity of their offensive schemes or the talents of their receiver corps, these quarterbacks stretch the field and test defenses most consistently and accurately.
10. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson was under pressure on 291 of his 701 dropbacks last season—no quarterback had so many pressured dropbacks, and only Andrew Luck had a higher percentage of pressured plays than Wilson. That’s got a lot to do with Seattle’s undermanned and underperforming offensive line, though Wilson isn’t absolved of blame here—like most mobile quarterbacks, he will run his way into pressure at times. But more often than not, Wilson was reacting to an immediately collapsing pocket and making plays in and out of structure. Out of structure to the point that Seattle’s offensive staff has created a series of plays in which the basic idea is for Wilson to get outside the pocket as quickly as possible, have his receivers follow him to the intermediate and deep levels and hope positive plays happen out of broken coverage.
Those plays did happen last season—Wilson completed 41 of 82 deep passes for 1,372 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions. The five interceptions? That’s why he’s this low on the list. Wilson is as dangerous a deep thrower as you’ll see, but he will turn that danger on his own team at times.
The upside of all that pressure he sees is that Wilson has developed a rare ability to adjust his body on the move—he’ll reset his shoulders to the target and manage to slow down his throwing motion when he’s away from defenders and throw the deep ball fairly consistently from an unsettled base. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger may be the only QBs in the league better than Wilson when it comes to throwing on the move.
The downside? Most players under as much pressure as Wilson has been over the last couple of seasons will start to bail the pocket before they need to, occasionally making frantic throws because they think they have to pull the offense out of the fire. Wilson’s deep interceptions in 2016 usually had those qualities—he was trying to make too much happen as things were falling apart.
That won’t likely change until and unless the Seahawks fortify their offensive line to the point that Wilson can allow himself to sit in the pocket calmly and use his mobility in a creative and positive sense. Without that, he’ll be running around too much, making amazing random plays and occasionally reaping the dangers, as opposed to the benefits, of his more unconventional approach.
9. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
This is a bit of a projection because the ranking is based on Dak Prescott’s second half of the regular season and into the postseason, when head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan took the training wheels off the rookie and let him throw deep more often. Prescott completed just six of 17 passes of 20 yards or more in the first eight weeks of the season for 211 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the second half of the season and into the playoffs, those numbers went up pretty considerably—12 completions in 34 attempts for 400 yards, five touchdowns and one pick.
Moreover, what puts Prescott on this list is his ability—impressive and unusual for a rookie—to alter his velocity on throws based on the deep route involved. He’s proved just as capable of throwing a touch pass with good arc on a deep end-zone fade as he has the fastball to his target to beat coverage on a deep post. Some NFL quarterbacks never get the hang of that, so to see Prescott have the knack already is pretty impressive.
And despite what you may think, Prescott isn’t just an innocent bystander relying mostly on the best offensive line in the business and a great running game. His 40-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant in Dallas’ divisional-round loss to the Packers was a perfect example of Prescott’s unusual calm and mechanical acumen for a rookie. With a blitzing defender right in his face, Prescott made a perfect cross-body throw to Bryant just over the head of Green Bay cornerback LaDarius Gunter for the score. You don’t make a play like that unless you have confidence in your velocity and accuracy.
Linehan has intimated that the Cowboys might take more downfield shots in 2017, and they certainly have the right young quarterback with which to do it. Don’t be surprised if Prescott is in the top five of a list like this in two or three years.
8. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford doesn’t throw as many deep balls now as he did in previous seasons—he attempted 86 deep passes in 2012, completing 29 for 935 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. Then, 77 attempts with 23 completions for 728 yards, eight touchdowns and seven picks in 2013, and 63, 50, and 64 deep attempts from 2014 through 2016, respectively.
The difference over the last two seasons is that Stafford has cut down severely on deep passes that lead to turnovers—in the 2015 and 2016 seasons combined, he had 10 touchdowns and just three picks on deep passes. A big part of the change is the presence of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who has worked with Stafford to make him a smarter quarterback invested in the timing and rhythm aspects of the passing game. Now, Stafford is just as likely to dump the ball to a running back or tight end if his ideal deep read is obstructed, as opposed to flinging the ball all over the field just because he can.
That change in philosophy is fairly radical because Stafford has one of the best deep arms in the NFL, and earlier in his career, his overreliance on his arm strength worked to his detriment. Stafford has a unique ability to make silly-good deep throws at times from multiple arm angles and under pressure in and out of the pocket, but the results were never reliable.
Now, when Stafford releases the deep ball—and the arm is as good as ever—there’s more applied thought to it in the context of the overall offense, which has added a crucial element of situational responsibility to Stafford’s arsenal.
7. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Derek Carr’s success as a deep passer in 2016 is how far he’s come in that regard since the Raiders selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft. In his rookie season, Carr attempted 71 deep passes and completed just 15 of them for 565 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. His 23.9 percent accuracy rate on those throws ranked him dead last in the league among quarterbacks who took at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, and only Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles had a worse quarterback rating on deep throws.
In 2015, Carr posted massive improvements in all categories, completing 25 of 66 deep throws for 831 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. Having rookie receiver Amari Cooper on board certainly helped, as Cooper led the team with 10 deep catches for 356 yards and four touchdowns. The addition of veteran receiver Michael Crabtree was valuable, as well—Crabtree ranked second on the team with eight deep catches. Cooper was more the speed guy; Crabtree excelled at the contested catch.
But the real difference over the last three seasons has been the increased efficiency he’s shown. Carr is a far more measured and reasoned thrower under pressure and on the move, and he’s tweaked his delivery to ensure minimal movement and maximum results. He completed 26 of 56 deep balls for 858 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions in 2016 despite missing the final regular-season game with a broken leg.
Assuming he’s healthy in 2017 and the promise of new Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing to give Carr more freedom at the line of scrimmage comes true, Carr could easily expand on his development over the last two seasons. Everything else is in place.
6. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season, Jameis Winston completed 22 of 69 deep passes for 646 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. Most of his deep balls went to receiver Mike Evans, who’s more of a physical, contested-catch receiver than a speed merchant who’s going to create openings downfield with raw speed. Those six interceptions were sometimes the result of poor judgment on Winston’s part and sometimes happened because Winston was throwing to a spot his receiver couldn’t quite reach.
And that’s why, after the Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $33.5 million contract with $20 million guaranteed in March, the arrow pointed straight up for Winston for a host of reasons.
As I detailed in this March article, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter was very aware of the need for more explosive plays in his offense, and adding demon speed is the best way to make that happen if you don’t already have it. With the Redskins last season, Jackson scalded many of the defenders he faced, simply blowing by them on vertical routes and creating easy openings for Kirk Cousins on deep passes.
Now, Winston has the benefit of Jackson’s speed and the ability to place the ball with anticipation where he knows only Jackson can go on the field. Jackson’s addition will change the complexion of the offense and allow Winston to be a far more efficient deep thrower, because not every throw will have to be perfect. And when we're talking about Winston as a deep passer from a mechanical perspective, the tape is impressive, for the most part—he's learning to stand in the pocket and use his lower body for optimal velocity, and when he leaves the pocket, he has the arm strength and easy delivery to zing the ball downfield as well as anybody in the league.
Winston can already make any throw he wants; the Jackson move should eliminate a lot of the bad ones.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger’s statistical decline from the first half of the 2016 season to the second half and into the playoffs was no secret—when you go from a 16:6 touchdown/interception ratio in the first eight weeks of the season to a 16:11 TD/INT ratio thereafter, that’s a problem. Interestingly, though, that didn’t show up in his deep passing numbers. Throughout the entire season, Big Ben completed 36 of 99 deep passes for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions—seven touchdowns to two interceptions in the first eight weeks of the season and seven touchdowns to two interceptions thereafter.
When Roethlisberger is on, and he isn’t making ill-advised throws into skinny windows or when he’s just about on the ground, he’s still an estimable deep passer. He also has the exceedingly rare and valuable ability to complete passes to all levels with defenders hanging all over him. That will occasionally make him a bit too confident, but it also allows him to make plays other quarterbacks wouldn’t. He plays inside structure well for the most part, and he benefits from a formationally diverse offense captained by Todd Haley and an offensive line that has improved quite a bit in recent years.
Of course, when you have Antonio Brown as your primary receiver, that doesn’t hurt, either. Brown is the best route-runner in football, and when he isn’t making defenders look silly with his angular movements, he has the speed to blow right by them. Last season, Brown caught 14 deep passes, ranking third in the league behind T.Y. Hilton and DeSean Jackson, for 407 yards and a league-leading eight touchdowns.
Roethlisberger still has a lot left in the tank at age 35, though he’s reportedly considered retirement recently, but he’ll have a short-term imperative to prove that last year’s second-half downturn was more a fluke than a forecast of the future.
4. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is the most physically gifted deep thrower in the league—when he’s on, his downfield passes are things of beauty. But the nature of Green Bay’s offense, in which head coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t give Rodgers or his receivers much to work with in the way of combination routes that test the structure of a defense, isn’t ideally helpful. Most of what you see in a Packers game when Rodgers is on the field is a series of isolation routes in which the receivers are tasked with using their physical characteristics to beat coverage, and Rodgers is tasked with making insane throws to help them out.
It’s taken its toll in the last couple of seasons. Rodgers completed just 21 of 64 deep passes for 680 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in 2015, following that up with 37 completions against a league-high 113 deep attempts for 1,195 yards, nine touchdowns and four picks last season. Not horrible numbers beyond the completion rate, but Rodgers is capable of so much more.
Of course, Rodgers is perfectly capable of making as many insane throws as you’d like—this 36-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook with three seconds left in the Packers’ eventual divisional-round win over the Cowboys is a perfect example. Flushed out of the pocket and forced to run around and wait for an open receiver, Rodgers eventually threw against his own momentum and somehow unleashed a perfect deep throw to Cook along the left sideline. It’s a throw I’m not sure any other NFL quarterback could make three times in a row, but I’d bet Rodgers could complete seven out of 10 such passes. That’s just how rare his base talent is.
What keeps Rodgers off the top of the list is a seemingly inevitable and quite unfortunate byproduct of Green Bay’s limited and restrictive route concepts—at times, Rodgers will press and try to do too much, leading to some inefficient moments. In an offense that plays to the strengths of his targets, where he could relax and simply display his Hall of Fame talent, he’d probably be the best statistical quarterback in the league, no matter how far the ball is thrown.
3. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
No NFL quarterback was under more pressure than Andrew Luck was in 2016—he was forced to bail from his first spot on 279 of his 628 dropbacks, or 44.4 percent of them. When that happens throughout a full season, two things can happen—a quarterback either folds up, gets balky and starts making a ton of mistakes until the inevitable injury, or he develops a series of adaptive strategies to keep himself going.
Luck chose the latter. Amazingly, for a player who had to bail from his first spot so often, Luck was one of the more prolific and efficient deep throwers in the league, completing 39 of 74 deep passes for 1,161 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Yes, Luck did benefit from the presence of speed receiver T.Y. Hilton, who led the league with 17 catches of 20 or more air yards, but it was Luck who held the passing game together as his protection fell apart, despite throwing-shoulder issues that have plagued him for the last two seasons and required surgery this offseason.
Moreover, in Rob Chudzinski’s offense, Luck didn’t benefit from a lot of route concepts that gave him easy openings downfield—there were more straight vertical and underneath breaking routes in the Colts playbook than the kinds of deep crossers and releases you see in more diverse offenses. Which meant that Luck had to either wait for his target to run past the coverage or zip the ball in a precise place where his receiver could get to it and the opponent couldn’t.
Luck has expanded his mechanical repertoire to an impressive degree since he came into the NFL as the first overall pick in 2012—he’s always been a good deep thrower from the pocket, but he’s learned how to align his body to the target when he’s outside the pocket, and he’s got enough arm strength and accuracy to make completions from different arm angles when he needs to.
Now, the Colts need to find ways to allow him to stay in the pocket more often and avoid those pressured throws, though he’s very good at executing them. But we'll see whether his recovery timetable from surgery has any effect on him.
2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The deep ball had not been a huge part of New England’s offensive game plan in recent years before the 2016 season. From 2013 through 2015, Tom Brady had 22, 23 and 26 deep completions, respectively—middle of the pack for starting quarterbacks in the NFL—as the Patriots moved to a quicker three- and five-step passing game to mitigate some of the inefficiencies along their offensive line.
Two factors changed in 2016, to Brady’s benefit. First, the team signed former Bills receiver Chris Hogan, and second, legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned from a short retirement. "Coach Scar” implemented a return to blocking fundamentals that gave Brady more time in the pocket to scan the field and wait for big plays to open up, and Hogan gave the team deep speed it hadn’t had in a while.
Last season, only Matt Ryan had a higher passer rating on deep passes, and Brady completed 35 of 70 deep passes with three drops for 1,164 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception. It was easy to speculate that Brady’s arm was on the wane during the previous few seasons, but 2016 proved that all he needed was the time for those plays to happen and the deep targets to facilitate them.
In 2015, Brandon LaFell led Patriots wide receivers with four deep receptions for 157 yards. Rob Gronkowski had nine deep catches for 340 yards and a touchdown to lead the team. Hogan, with his ability to get open past coverage on vertical routes, brought a new dimension to the offense, catching 10 deep balls for 397 yards and three touchdowns. Now that the Patriots have added former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks to the offense, you can expect Brady to heave the ball downfield even more—last season, Cooks caught 11 deep balls for 544 yards and four touchdowns in an offense that didn’t stretch the field as much as New England’s did. And if Gronkowski’s healthy (which he wasn’t last season), watch out.
That’s very bad news for the defenses that have to game-plan for this ruthlessly efficient offense—especially now that it’s as explosive as it’s ever been.
1. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Nobody in the 2016 Falcons organization will ever completely shake losing a Super Bowl after holding a 28-3 lead, but that story managed to eclipse the fact that Atlanta’s offense was the most diverse and effective in the league last season, especially in the passing game—and Matt Ryan ran that passing game with a mechanical efficiency he’s never had before. Ryan had always been a bit wobbly under pressure and a bit too reliant on a standard dropback offense to be truly dynamic. Moreover, his mechanics are not consistent, which led to unstable results with his deep passes.
But in his second year with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan’s light went on like never before. His release point was quicker, he set his feet for accuracy and velocity, and as a result, he was able to zip long throws to his cadre of receivers with more value than any other quarterback in the league. The most important improvement in Ryan’s game, though, was that he was finally rolling out of the pocket and throwing with mechanical consistency, aligning him perfectly with Shanahan’s boot-action offense.
The results were clear—and singularly impressive—in the deep passing game. Of all quarterbacks who attempted at least 25 deep passes last season, Ryan is the only one who didn’t throw an interception. Instead, he completed 32 of 63 deep passes for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns—including five completions for 128 yards and a touchdown in that ill-fated Super Bowl. His 60 percent completion rate on long throws led all quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts, and only Ben Roethlisberger threw more deep touchdowns.
There will be changes to Atlanta’s offense now that Shanahan has moved on to coach the 49ers, but new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will benefit from a quarterback who’s better in every facet than he’s been before, no matter what "wrinkles" the new staff introduces. And with Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel as his main deep receivers, Ryan could be even better in 2017.