Hope is intertwined in the fabric of the NFL in July. Training camp will soon act as a conduit for the harshness of reality when veterans fail to perform, rookies struggle to adapt and players in their prime are cut down with injuries. But until then, those questionable free agent and draft acquisitions can be viewed in an overly positive light.
This artificial hope often leads to bloated expectations. And ultimately a more bitter brand of disappointment.
But 2018 should be a good year for quarterbacks. That’s in part because of how bad of a year 2017 was for quarterbacks. Playing out a full season without Andrew Luck and most of the same season without Aaron Rodgers meant the league was missing arguably its two most-talented quarterbacks. When you add in Ryan Tannehill and Sam Bradford, you were also missing the two most underrated quarterbacks in the league. It wasn’t just those who were missing. Some of those who played are also about to be put in much better situations to showcase their quality. Dak Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, Marcus Mariota and Eli Manning immediately come to mind.
There are still some black hole quarterbacks sucking the life from those who share the same field as them, but for the most part, this year promises to offer quality quarterback play or quarterbacks in perfect situations to succeed in spite of themselves.
Bills fans have lamented having to watch Tyrod Taylor, the athlete who couldn’t play quarterback, so they’ll be delighted to know that they have drafted an athlete in Josh Allen who showed off no understanding of the position in college. Allen was a parody of the prototype quarterback that professional teams constantly miss on. He’s big and he’s tall and he slaps his teammates’ asses, but he can’t throw the ball, doesn’t know how to read coverages and runs himself into pressure in the pocket more often than not.
He had upside plays in college, but there was one for every 20 or so horrendous plays. At best the Bills have a quarterback who needs to develop massively to just become an incompetent quarterback. At worst they have everything the fanbase accused Tyrod Taylor of being, but to a much worse degree.
Few people ever imagined that Joe Flacco would live up to the contract that he signed after that Super Bowl victory all those seasons ago. Even fewer people imagined that he would become so bad that the contract was the least offensive aspect of him being the Baltimore Ravens starting quarterback. Flacco isn’t just bad because he’s overpaid. If he was on a veteran minimum deal he wouldn’t be worth having on the roster. That’s how far his performances on the field have fallen.
Even while rushing to check the ball down and avoid throwing into windows that would best attack the coverage of the defense, Flacco still showed off a strong commitment to turning the ball over in 2017. He threw at least three interceptable passes in four of his 16 games last season. His 4.2 interceptable pass rate was 0.4 percent better than 2016, but still an awful number while his overall accuracy dropped from 75.3 percent to 70.9 percent.
The only thing Flacco does consistently well is destroy the design of his own team’s play designs. Lamar Jackson will make a lot of mistakes as a rookie, but he should start over Flacco immediately.
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Alvin Kamara’s yard per rush (5.6) was only 0.1 yards ahead of Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt (5.7). Only Alex Smith and Drew Brees threw the ball within five yards of the line of scrimmage more often than Joe Flacco last season. Only Derek Carr was a worse deep sideline passer than Flacco last season, the Ravens starter was accurate on seven of 28 throws that travelled further than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage and were directed outside the numbers. Six quarterbacks more than doubled Flacco’s 25 percent accuracy on those throws.
A short quarterback without great physical traits is not going to have a fun rookie season in the NFL. He’ll break the design of his offense too often and get himself into trouble that he can’t escape because those chasing him will be better athletes. The comparison has become widespread so it has cheapened it somewhat but there are Manziel elements to Mayfield’s transition to the NFL. He might be Drew Brees in the long term but he’s more likely to look like Case Keenum.
Have I left out any other short white QBs?
Mayfield’s biggest challenge over the long term is that he’s going to need to rely on shorter throws. He’s a backshoulder passer when he pushes the ball downfield because his passes float rather than cut through the air quickly (A strong aspect of the Manziel comparison). If you rely on shorter throws to be effective you have to be exceptionally efficient. Mayfield was a very effective college quarterback but he didn’t show off elite level precision and efficiency whereby you’d expect him to have immediate success in the NFL.
How is he still in the league? How is he still slated to start? What are the Jets doing. That last one is rhetorical. Josh McCown played out the perfect stat-maximizing, offense killing role in the Jets offense last year. He did what he has always done. Made way too many mistakes while making decisions that minimized his egregious errors so that casual observers come away thinking he had played better than he really had. McCown has some athleticism and some physical accuracy but he’s always going to take too many sacks, check down when he should locate a receiver in his progression and throw too many interceptable passes.
Sam Darnold can throw as many interceptions as McCown while actually offering some upside, both short term and long term.
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McCown was responsible for 31.6 percent of his sacks last season, more than 25 other quarterbacks, and threw an interceptable pass on 5.3 percent of his attempts, more than 22 other quarterbacks. He did manage to rank ninth in depth-adjusted accuracy thanks to his 12th ranking on both intermediate (11-20 yards downfield) and deep (21+ yards downfield) throws.
With a beautiful deep ball and outrageous elusiveness, Lamar Jackson has two positives to Joe Flacco’s zero. Jackson has a lot to develop before he can become a good NFL quarterback but his talent is undeniable. The Ravens are probably going to screw him over by switching between him and Flacco or putting both of them on the field because that somehow makes sense to somebody. For Jackson to be effective as a rookie he needs to have an offense catered to his skill set that he can transcend past through repetition that aids development. With the Ravens attempting to acquiesce to their departing starter, that’s simply not going to happen.
Derek Carr had the best offensive line in football during the 2016 season. It afforded him many luxuries. He got time to let routes downfield develop. He rarely had to move from the top of his drop. And, most importantly, he never had to deal with bodies around him as he began his throwing motion. The Oakland Raiders line was still excellent in 2017. It was far above average relative to the rest of the league. But viewing it through the prism of the unit’s 2016 performance and while working under the assumption that Carr was a superstar quarterback meant that the decline of that unit was overstated. Instead, the line was still outstanding and the slight increase in pressure on Carr cause him to complete collapse in on himself.
Even in 2016, Carr’s accuracy was bad. He was a good passer behind the line of scrimmage and an above average passer on throws that travelled further than 20 yards downfield. But everything in between required touch and control that Carr’s mechanics didn’t allow his arm to show off. In 2017, Carr finished 32nd out of 36 quarterbacks in depth-adjusted accuracy. He was ahead of only Tom Savage, Ben Roethlisberger, Deshaun Watson and Brett Hundley. One spot behind Trevor Siemian. Carr ranked 34th on underneath throws (1-10 yards dowfield), 23rd on intermediate throws and 24th on deep throws. Despite his arm strength, he was the worst deep sideline passer in football last year, hitting 22.2 percent of those throws, and the third worst passer on throws that travelled further than five yards downfield.
Carr combines an inability to function in the pocket with awful accuracy and even worse decision making. He doesn’t understand when to hold the ball and when to get rid of it, leading to poor mental processing and imbalanced play.
Derek Carr threw more interceptable passes, 36, than any other quarterback in football last season despite playing only 15 (basically 14) games. His 7.0 interceptable pass rate saw him throw an interceptable pass once every 14.1 attempts. Only Tom Savage was worse than that. The Raiders only asked Carr to use play action on 9.9 percent of his dropbacks last season, the third-lowest rate amongst qualifying quarterbacks. However, he did use screen passes more often than all but six other starters.
Jameis Winston is getting worse. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting quarterback promised so much entering the NFL but had two major issues that would either be erased or come to define his career. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, the latter has proven the case. Winston was given DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard to go along with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. That created one of the best skill position groups in the NFL. He also played in an offense that suited his skill set, a straight-dropback heavy scheme that put the emphasis on throwing intermediate throws. Winston’s intermediate accurate is his sole redeeming quality. He was 8.6 percent above league average on throws that travelled between 11 and 20 yards past the line of scrimmage last season. The fourth-best intermediate passer in football. He threw 32.5 percent of his passes into that range, no other quarterback reached 30 percent and Winston was an incredible 10.8 percent above the league average.
In that scheme with talent from the top tier spread around the field, Winston was the 23rd-most accurate passer in the league, the fourth-worst deep passer, and he had an interceptable pass rate of 6.3 percent, fifth worst in the league.
How do the Buccaneers make this offense better without replacing the quarterback?
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Jameis Winston only threw the ball away 10 times in 2017. Winston threw 19 deep passes to DeSean Jackson and was accurate on only five, 26 percent to the best deep-threat receiver in football. He hit only one of his 11 attempts that travelled further than 30 yards downfield, that one was 31 yards downfield. He was even worse throwing deep to Mike Evans, hitting only three of 18 deep attempts, 16.7 percent. Those are two of the easiest receivers in the league to throw to at any level. Jackson and Evans actually got better service during the six games Ryan Fitzpatrick played in.
Case Keenum didn’t suddenly figure out football. He suddenly found himself playing behind a great offensive line in a quarterback-friendly scheme with the best tandem of receivers football had to offer last season. Keenum’s contract with the Denver Broncos should have included a cut for Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Diggs and Thielen carried the passing game. Keenum ranked 26th in depth-adjusted accuracy while his two starting receivers combined for an incredible 19 created receptions (catches on inaccurate throws). Those were only the obvious times he relied on his receivers at the catch point. The separation both players created at every level of the field made every throw of Keenum’s easier.
That separation was significant because Keenum’s arm strength is so limiting that he rarely ever hits his receivers with good timing or precision. His ball placement created obstacles for his teammates that shouldn’t have existed. That was when he had his good plays. His bad plays regularly reared themselves and often that meant he didn’t see a wide open receiver or threw the ball straight to a defender. His 4.7 interceptable pass rate was amongst the worst in the league but that wasn’t felt because only eight of his 27 interceptable passes were caught. His Luck Index rate for the season was 32, only seven quarterbacks were luckier than him.
Again, accuracy and arm strength remain the biggest problems for Keenum. 16 of his 27 interceptable passes were a result of poor ball placement.
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In his second start, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Keenum threw the ball 33 times and had 125 created yards (yards gained on inaccurate throws). That alone would have ranked him 24th in the league last year. Dak prescott threw the ball 490 times in 16 games, he had 122 created yards. Drew Brees had 609 attempts in 18 games, he finished with 121 created yards. Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor and Marcus Mariota each eclipsed 400 attempts on the season, none of them had more created yards than Keenum did in that single game. Keenum’s yards per attempt was 7.3, when that number is adjusted for receiver quality, it falls to 6.7. No other quarterback in the league benefited that much from their receivers.
Andy Reid’s offense is misdirection heavy, screen heavy and it avoids asking the quarterback to make straight-dropbacks before hitting windows over the middle of the field. Mahomes will get clearly-defined reads and primarily throw the ball short or deep into space, away from the dangerous areas of the defense. If he can consistently hit open receivers, he’ll have a hugely productive first season. The amount of speed and versatility surrouding the quarterback position in Kansas City means the quarterback will have to be a disaster to stop the offense from being great. In college, Mahomes showed off a huge arm and not much else. His footwork was a complete disaster and his accuracy didn’t match the hype his arm created. If he is to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league, or even a competent starter, he will need to have developed drastically from what he showed in college.
Josh Rosen showed off plenty to be excited about during his time in college but he also showed off a consistent strain of inconsistency. His ball placement needs to improve and he will need time to adjust to the speed of the NFL like every rookie does. His wide skill set will afford his coaching staff more options with concepts than some of his counterparts. Even if Sam Bradford enters the season as the starter, his knees are at such a point where it’s hard to imagine him starting too many times. Bradford was left off this list altogether for that reason.
Sam Darnold will throw a lot of interceptions. He did it in college so it’s unlikely that he steps into the NFL and suddenly shows off the awareness required to efficiently run an offense against professional defensive backs. Sitting for a year to work on his throwing motion might help and he might actually get the chance to do it for a while, but his upside over Josh McCown’s means he’ll be the starter before his rookie season is out. Darnold’s overall skill set is hugely impressive. His only concerns are those interceptions and that elongated throwing motion.
Being the 26th-ranked quarterback in football is a huge achievement for Blake Bortles. The Jaguars won in spite of Bortles last season. He was still the same quarterback he’s always been, epitomized by his team taking a knee with a minute left in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game. There was that month during the regular season though. Blake Bortles month. The short time when Bortles appeared to be a competent quarterback. Someone who had turned it around and was combining efficiency with explosiveness. The highlight of that stretch was Bortles hitting an incredible 71.4 percent of his deep passes, that after being the worst deep passer in football during the previous season.
Even during that month though, Bortles was still not a competent quarterback. Just a lucky one. He only had one caught interception in those five games but he had thrown four interceptable passes in the Chargers game that immediately preceded it and threw three against the Cardinals. Bortles’ interceptable pass rate for the season actualy worsened from 2016 to 2017. He finished with a 5.8 interceptable pass rate despite a lower accuracy percentage while attempting safer throws.
In a run-heavy scheme where the passing game’s priority was to avoid turning the ball over at all costs, Bortles threw 35 interceptable passes on 608 attempts, one every 17 attempts. 25 quarterbacks in the league took care of the ball better than Bortles did.
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Blake Bortles threw 54.4 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimage, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Bortles used play action 131 times last year, fourth most in the league, and gained 1,267 yards, the second most in the league, on those plays. 29.6 percent of his yards came off of play action, the seventh most in the league. 48 of those plays pushed him out of the pocket by design, the Jaguars used those types of plays fifth most often at 7.9 percent.
Deshaun Watson gave the NFL everything it was missing during his brief rookie season. He brought a reckless abandon to making decisions as a passer that coaches had quashed out of the league in search of efficiency. Watson threw 17.5 percent of his passes further than 20 yards downfield. A simply outrageous number. The league average was 11 percent. Carson Wentz ranked seventh at only 12.9 percent. Only three other quarterbacks eclipsed 15 percent and one of those was teammate Tom Savage. Watson wasn’t just doing short-and-shot play passes though. He threw 24.3 percent of his passes into the 11-20 yard range, the 10th-highest rate in the league. Most quarterbacks who threw deep often had a trade-off with more short passes because that was the style of offense they ran.
The only problem for Watson was his accuracy didn’t match his mindset. 30 quarterbacks were more accurate throwing deep and his overall accuracy was a major issue. Only Brett Hundley had a worse depth-adjusted accuracy percentage. Watson also threw too many interceptable passes but that’s to be expected from a rookie.
His bloated touchdown-to-interception ratio overstated the quality of his initial season. That doesn’t mean that he’s destined to be terrible but it does set him up for unfair backlash when he doesn’t meet the same production standards in his second season. Throw in a torn ACL and the tide could turn quickly on the young Texans starter.
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Deshaun Watson was the only qualifying quarterback to be accurate on every single one of his passes to the line of scrimmage last season. Watson had the third best created reception rate, 4.9 percent of his attempts were inaccurate passes that were caught. 11.6 percent of his yards were gained on inaccurate throws, the third-best rate in the league. Only 2.5 percent of his attempts were failed receptions, accurate but incomplete because of receiver error, the lowest rate in the league. Watson gained 41.9 percent of his yards on play action, the second-highest rate in the league more than 11 percent ahead of third-placed Case Keenum.
A 5.4 interceptable pass rate for the season was punctuated by maybe the worst performance of Kirk Cousins career during Week 17 against the New York Giants. Cousins had four interceptable passes in that game and the Giants caught three. It wasn’t the first time he had four during that season, he had four against the Saints when none were caught. He could thank Josh Doctson for that. In fact, Cousins only had one game all season when he didn’t throw an interceptable pass while throwing at least two in nine of his 16 outings. A midseason game against the Seahawks captured Cousins’ season. He had three interceptable passes, none were caught which allowed him to make a handful of impressive plays to ultimately win the game.
He is a quarterback who too often relies on the defense to let his mistakes go unpunished, something that has worked out for him because he has played under smart coaching with exceptional skill position talent. In Minnesota he will have great teammates and likely good coaching, but Cousins is a quarterback who has peaked. He will always be better at putting up numbers than helping you win games because of the decisions he makes and the very specific style of play he relies on. Too often he will take what the defense wants him to take.
That is a stark contrast to Keenum who often broke structure and always made aggressive decisions. He was happy to throw the ball up for grabs, letting his wide receiver make a play on the ball in the air. Whereas Cousins had one of the best ball-winning receivers in football last year, Josh Doctson, and he turned him into a decoy all too often. Doctson was the only qualifying receiver of 110 who qualified to see an accurate target less than 50 percent of the time his quarterback looked for him. Doctson still managed to fourth in receiver efficiency behind only DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown and Marvin Jones.
The difference between Cousins and Keenum might be enough for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl, but that says more about the quality of the whole roster than it does the gap between the two quarterbacks.
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While they play different styles, there really wasn’t much difference between Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum last year:
Nick Foles undoubtedly played the best football of his career in 2017. That’s not saying all that much though. Foles’ dominant performance in the Super Bowl was mostly a reflection of the Eagles offense being a complete mismatch for the Patriots defense. It was like racing a nascar car against a gondola. On land. Foles did what he needed to do for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl. His Super Bowl display was mostly flawless save for that one misplaced throw for his interception. When you have that performance in the Super Bowl, and another excellent performance in the NFC Championship Game, it’s easier to overlook the struggles he had prior to that point. Foles nearly threw the Eagles out of the Falcons game with two dropped interceptable passes and had three interceptable passes on eight throws in the final regular season game of the year.
Foles is in the perfect spot for him and for the NFL. He’s a backup in a spot where he can be effective if he has to play. Anything surpassed that shouldn’t be a consideration regardless of his added weight around his ring finger.
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Nick Foles was the only quarterback in the NFL to use a screen or play action on more than 40 percent of his dropbacks last season. He was more than five percent ahead of second-placed Brett Hundley. He gained 15.7 percent of his yards on screens, the second-highest rate in the league. Foles was the third-most accurate passer to the five-yard line but 24th in the league when asked to push the ball further downfield.
Retaining Jim Bob Cooter as the Lions offensive coordinator means the Lions offense is unlikely to change much moving forward. Stafford will remain in this offense where he is protected from throwing into the meat of the coverage. 31.7 percent of Stafford’s throws last season either didn’t cross the line of scrimmage or travelled further than 20 yards downfield. Despite that, he still threw 28 interceptable passes on 565 attempts. A 5.0 percent interceptable pass rate that ranked 21st in the league.
As has been the case throughout his career, likely because of how hard he throws the ball, Stafford was once again very lucky with his interceptable passes. Only Tom Brady was luckier than him. Seven of his 28 interceptable passes were caught and he had three interceptions that weren’t his fault. Stafford combines wild inaccuracy with complete coverage misreads to maintain his commitment to playing il-disciplined football.
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More than 10 percent of Matthew Stafford’s yards were gained on inaccurate throws, only five quarterbacks in the league reached double digits. Stafford had the second most created yards and the fourth most created receptions, largely because Marvin Jones was the most efficient receiver in football.
It’s okay to be excited about Jimmy Garoppolo and what he could be for the San Francisco 49ers moving forward. It’s ridiculous to think he’s already a quality quarterback based on what he’s done in his career to this point.
Garoppolo’s primary selling point is his record. He started five games last year, the 49ers won all five. They had won one of the previous 11 he didn’t start. That’s the kind of simple math NFL people tend to love. Of course, you have to ignore that the team lost two overtime games and three more by three or fewer points. Half of their losses were coin-flips. And the standard of play that Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard had set wasn’t hard to improve on. Of the five games Garoppolo’s 49ers won, two were decided by less than three points, in one the offense kicked five field goals and Garoppolo’s greatest contribution was an interception.
More significant was Garoppolo’s penchant for throwing the ball to defenders. He had a 5.6 interceptable pass rate. It’s not even that he got extremely lucky. He finished his short season with five interceptions on 178 attempts. Had he thrown 600 passes he’d have finished the year with 17 interceptions. Only Deshone Kizer would have thrown more. A major part of Garoppolo’s tendency to throw the ball to defenders was his limited arm strength. This showed up when he was late with the ball and when he tried to push it outside the numbers.
Kyle Shanahan will always set up a quarterback for success, but Garoppolo has to be better than he was last season if the 49ers are going to sustain success.
The 2017 season was a write-off for the Giants. Odell Beckham’s injury completely altered the identity of the offense, then Brandon Marshall’s injury and Sterling Shepard’s health problems meant Manning’s only receiving option who could get open was Evan Engram, a rookie tight end who dropped way too many passes. Manning isn’t at the point of his career where his arm strength will allow him to throw the ball off unsettled platforms so he will be more reilant on quality pass protection this year than in seasons past.
Ben McAdoo’s offense was built around the quality of its receivers and Manning’s ability to get the ball out quickly. Without receivers who could create separation quickly, Manning couldn’t get rid of the ball and the whole design of the offense fell apart.
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12.8 percent of Manning’s throws targeted Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall in 2017. 45 percent of Manning’s throws went to running backs and tight ends, most of whom didn’t possess receiver skill sets. Pat Shurmur used play action 24 percent of the time with Case Keenum in Minnesota, Eli Manning used play action 16 percent of the time last year. Keenum ranked second in the league in play action that sent him outside of the pocket by design, Manning ranked 16th. The Giants are about to use a very different offense.
Being the quarterback of a great offense is not the same as being a great quarterback. It was true of Matt Ryan in 2016 and it’s true of Jared Goff in 2017. But still, considering where Goff was after his rookie season, 2017 was an unimaginable success.
Goff’s role in the Rams offense is diminished. It’s not diminished by his number of pass attempts or by simple formations and a Rex Ryan style of playbook that focuses too much on running the ball. It’s the opposite. Sean McVay and the rebuilt supporting cast knocks defenses off balance every down so that Goff is always able to be proactive rather than reactive. He is given clearly-defined reads and schemed open receivers with clean pockets to move the offense downfield. Adding John Sullivan and McVay alleviated the pressure on Goff to make mental adjustments before the snap, Sullivan sets protections and McVay called audibles for his quarterback after the offense had lined up.
By varying tempos in an unpredictable manner, McVay was able to create situations where Goff was throwing against defenses that weren’t set or prepared for the snap. By varying formations and styles of offense, McVay was able to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically, creating wide open shot plays and huge YAC gains on simple throws. Todd Gurley and Sammy Watkins were key pieces, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will be in 2017.
Where Goff can improve is with his footwork in the pocket. He fell over himself too often last year and made too many bad coverage reads because of his lack of authority in the pocket. His accuracy made a big jump from his rookie season when he could basically only throw the ball to the line of scrimmage, but he’s still a below-average passer ranking 29th in depth-adjusted accuracy. Goff ranked 32nd on short throws (To 0), 35th on underneath throws (1-10), 27th on intermediate throws (11-20) and 17th on deep throws (21+). His offense made a lot of plays but he regularly missed throws he should have made.
His inability to hit Watkins when he was open on vertical routes was a constant source of frustration that limited the output of the offense.
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Seven of Jared Goff’s 522 attempts last year gained more than 40 yards after the catch. Aaron Rodgers, C.J. Beathard, Trevor Siemian, Carson Palmer, Carson Wentz, Tom Savage and Brian Hoyer combined for 1,949 attempts and didn’t have a single play that gained more than 40 yards of YAC. Goff had five screen touchdowns, more than anyone else, and 549 yards on screen plays, second only to Drew Brees. 12 quarterbacks used screens more often than Goff, but only four gained more of their yards on screen plays than him. His screen efficiency was amongst the best in the league.
Andy Dalton has a clearly-defined skill set that he plays to consistently. That makes it easier to build a consistent offense around him than the players who have already appeared on this list. However, Dalton is also incapable of elevating his teammates and implodes when he’s asked to do anything outside of his skill set. That is always going to handicap the Bengals offense. They need a great offensive line for him to be effective because he’s so reliant on getting the ball out instantly. If he doesn’t get the ball out, problems arrive.
Losing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler had a major impact on Dalton. He went from throwing an interceptable pass on 4.6 percent of his attempts in 2016 with them, to throwing an interceptable pass on 6.5 percent of his attempts in 2017. Dalton didn’t really change. He just had to play a different sport. He couldn’t wait for his receiver to come open while he stared him down. He had to function in condensed pockets and was more susceptible to defenses baiting him because of the pressure speeding up the play clock.
Bill Lazor tried to protect him and it worked to a degree but there’s only so much success you can have with an anchor quarterback.
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A.J. Green’s output is severely hampered because Dalton was the 31st-ranked quarterback on deep sideline throws last season. Dalton threw 32 interceptable passes last year, 22 targeted Green. Green led the NFL in interceptable pass rate on throws made in his direction at 16.7 percent.
The biggest surprise of the 2017 season. It took a close rewatch over the offseason to realize it, but Jacoby Brissett was much better than advertised last season. He was rough around the edges, as you’d expect from an inexperienced player thrown into a new offense without an offseason, training camp or preseason. One of the main criticisms of Brissett was that he took too many sacks and didn’t process coverages quick enough to get the ball out. The same coincidences of Andrew Luck. Coincidence?
In going through Brissett’s sacks it was clear that it was again, like with Luck, a scheme and supporting cast issue rather than a quarterback issue. There were rarely opportunities for Brissett to get rid of the ball before his protection broke down, through a combination of poor execution on the offensive line and receivers struggling to get into their slow-developing routes. Brissett ultimately ranked 11th in avoidable sack percentage, responsible for only 17 percent of his sacks.
What pushes Brissett ahead of other more significant names is his accuracy. Brissett ranked sixth in depth-adjusted accuracy at 59.8 percent. He is the ideal quarterback for a short-and-shot play offense, one that spreads the defense out better than Pagano’s team did. Brissett ranked fifth on short throws, 15th on underneath throws, 21st on intermediate throws and fourth on deep throws. He was especially good on deep sideline throws, ranking first in the NFL just ahead of Drew Brees. Brissett hit 56.5 percent of his deep sideline throws.
His accuracy didn’t lead to more big plays because Brissett’s receivers had the second highest failed reception rate in the league. 8.7 percent of his attempts were accurate passes that were ruined by reciever error. He lost 414 yards on those 41 plays, the fourth-most in the league.
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Jacoby Brissett ranked eighth in interceptable pass rate, finishing the season with 18 interceptable passes on 469 attempts.
After threatening to retire prior to the 2017 season, then calling out Martavis Bryant at the start of the season before undercutting his teammates over the anthem protest and calling out Antonio Brown around the same time, Ben Roethlisberger sent Todd Haley packing after the 2017 season. It’s no coincidence that Roethlisberger is no longer pondering retirement and is commited to the Steelers for the coming few years.
Roethlisberger has acted like he’s been anchored down by those around him. Reality is he’s the one anchoring them. Ageing superstars rarely go gracefully. They don’t have the self-awareness to recognize their own struggles. Roethlisberger really struggled in 2017. He was still capable of long stretches of quality play working the underneath coverage of the defense and changing plays to take advantage of the defense’s alignment before the snap, but Roehtlisberger’s physical ability to throw the ball has diminished.
He was an awful deep passer last year. Even when he had Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, 32 quarterbacks were more accurate throwing deep than him last season. His 28.6 percent can’t be blamed on Bryant not running his routes properly. He was accurate on six of 24 deep attempts to Bryant, 25 percent, and 13 of 46 deep attempts to Brown, 28 percent. Brown is uncoverable and had a great season. If you’re struggling to connect with him and Bryant while getting good pass protection, it’s you that needs to be better.
The irony of Roethlisberger getting Haley fired is that the quarterback is about to be more reliant on shorter throws than ever before. Shorter throws within structure.
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Only three quarterbacks in the league threw a screen more often than Roethlisberger’s 13.4 percent last season. Roethlisberger threw 34 interceptable passes and had an interceptable pass rate of 5.5 percent. They were often inexplicable decisions from clean pockets. Roethlisberger didn’t have a single game all season without an interceptable pass. He combined for 10 in two games against the Jaguars.
Ironically, the Chiefs would never have drafted Patrick Mahomes if Alex Smith had played like that every season. 2017 was the peak of Smith’s career. And it’s sad that that statement is true. It shows us what a wasted talent he truly was. Sure, he can’t play outside of structure, latches onto his first read and is way too quick to run. All those things were still true last season, but his accuracy with a slightly more aggressive mindset throwing the ball was really impressive.
The Chiefs ran a short-and-shot play offense. Like they always have. 26.2 percent of Smith’s passes didn’t cross the line of scrimmage, Brett Hundley was the only other quarterback above 24 percent. He threw 11.6 percent of his passes deep in 2017 after throwing 8.2 percent in 2016. Two things allowed that offense to work. He could throw short without becoming predictable because of the versatility of Travis Kelce and his receivers. But he was also excellent when he did push the ball downfield.
Smith was 43.8 percent accurate on deep throws last year. The third-best rate in the league and 16.3 percent above the league average.
Taking him out of Andy Reid’s offense, away from the speed that permeated through the Kansas City offense, is going to make life tougher for Smith. He’s not comfortable throwing into tighter windows so Josh Doctson and Jordan Reed’s value will take a hit and while Jay Gruden spreads the field out, he doesn’t incorporate options and misdirection as much as Reid does. We’ve seen the best of Smith and his best really wasn’t all that much to get excited about.
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Tyreek Hill accounted for 26 of Smith’s 58 deep passes last season. Smith was accurate on 13 of those 26. Travis Kelce accounted for 14 of the remaining 32, meaning Kelce and Hill accounted for 40 of his 58 deep attempts and 19 of his 30 accurate throws. 15.1 percent of Travis Kelce’s targets last season were screens, the highest rate for a tight end in the NFL. Albert Wilson led all tight ends and receivers with a 23.5 percent screen rate and Tyreek Hill checked in at sixth with a 20.4 rate.
Like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz took a big step forward in his second season. Also like Goff, Wentz’s step forward is overstated because of his production. Specifically his touchdown-to-interception ratio. As Nick Foles highlighted after Wentz’s injury, the Eagles had a dominant offense where the quarterback didn’t need to be the catalyst for success. Wentz’s big step forward came in how he took care of the ball. As a rookie he constantly made awful coverage reads because his feet were planted too firmly in the pocket. That wasn’t the case during his second season.
He lowered his interceptable pass rate from 5.1 percent as a rookie to 4.1 percent last season. He actually began the season with seven interceptable passes over the first two games before taking nine more games to throw another seven. Wentz only threw more than one interceptable pass in a single game once, Week 4 against the Chargers. He finished the year with the 11th-best interceptable pass rate even when you include that awful beginning to the season.
The Eagles’ ability to overwhelm their opponents allowed Wentz to rack up touchdowns but he needs to become a more efficient quarterback. His accuracy is still holding him back. He can make spectacular plays that showcase great athleticism, such as those against the Seahawks, but it will be more beneficial long term for him to more consistently hit receivers with accuracy. Wentz ranked 22nd in depth-adjusted accuracy. He had the same accuracy percentage as Deshone Kizer and was 0.7 percent worse than Nick Foles.
As he did during his rookie season, Wentz struggled with his ball placement on short throws. He was accurate on 78.8 percent of his throws behind the line of scrimmage, second worst in the league, and was only slightly better on underneath throws, ranking 32nd at 72.8 percent. Wentz was accurate on 16 of 53 deep attempts, 30.2 percent, 25th in the league. It was on intermediate throws that he thrived.
He was the seventh-best intermediate passer last season. He had a brilliant understanding with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. Ertz caught every accurate throw in the intermediate range. Pederson recognized Wentz’s strength and played to it. The quarterback threw 24.6 percent of his passes to the intermediate level, the ninth-highest rate in the league. For comparison, Nick Foles only threw 19 percent of his passes to that level, 26th in the league.
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7.9 percent of Carson Wentz’s yards were gained on inaccurate throws and three of his touchdowns were. Carson Wentz was one of only six quarterbacks in the league who were more accurate throwing with play action than without play action.
This is a benefit of the doubt ranking for Russell Wilson because it’s been a long time since he’s played close to his ability. His offensive line has taken all of the blame over recent seasons but the unit really wasn’t that bad in pass protection last season. There are plenty of highlight plays of players falling flat on their faces but the snap to snap consistency wasn’t as big of a problem as Wilson’s recklessness.
As is often the case when the quarterback doesn’t play to his standards, those around him have to take the blame. While Darrell Bevell had his issues, he didn’t put Wilson in positions where he had no chance to be effective. He didn’t force him into a heavy-set, deep drop offense where the receivers always ran vertical routes downfield. The offense became more vertical, but it was still spreading the field as a foundation of its identity. This afforded Wilson the opportunity to get rid of the ball. However, as has been the case throughout his career, Wilson got into trouble when the ball didn’t come out instantly and he didn’t create enough outside of structure to overcome the opportunities he missed inside of structure.
Wilson wound up with an incredible 32 interceptable passes on 553 attempts. His 5.8 interceptable pass rate was amongst the worst in the league. A big part of that was his eight interceptable pass game against the Washington defense where he completely fell apart. That was the worst performance by any quarterback all season long. The constant commitment to interception opportunities is a major problem on its own. When you add in his commitment to missing wide open receivers downfield, Wilson’s two biggest contributions to his offense were creating explosive play opportunities for his opponent and taking away explosive play opportunities for his teammates.
His overall accuracy wasn’t awful, but when you’re as reckless and inconsistent within structure as Wilson is you can’t afford to miss the big plays as often as he did.
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Russell Wilson threw 15.9 percent of his passes deep last season, only Deshaun Watson threw a higher percentage that far downfield. Swapping Jermaine Kearse out for more of Tyler Lockett, Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson meant that the identity of the offense changed. Wilson threw more deep passes than he had the previous year and slightly more intermediate passes. He threw 64 percent of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, 26 quarterbacks threw more often to that level.
Not many players can say joining the Browns is a major upgrade but such has been the situation for Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. Taylor had by far the worst receiving corps in the NFL last season. His receivers gave him the worst failed reception rate in the league, he lost 9.4 percent of his attempts to receiver error and the third-most lost yards at 423. Eight times last year Taylor threw an accurate pass further than 15 yards downfield and it wasn’t caught.
Zay Jones had a 67.4 percent efficiency rating, that’s 15 failed receptions and one created reception. He was the worst receiver in football. Ricardo Louis was the second-worst receiver in football and he was 11.4 percent better than Jones. Having the least reliable receiver in the league wasn’t enough. Charles Clay had 11 failed receptions and one created reception, an 83.6 efficiency rating and the worst tight end in the league. He dropped four touchdowns and created two of Taylor’s interceptions.
It wasn’t just the failures at the catch point. Taylor’s receivers also struggled to beat press and create any separation. He regularly had to throw receivers open for the offense to have any shot at functioning.
Any starting quarterback needs to offer two things to the offense. Explosive plays and efficiency. There’s no arguing against Taylor’s ability to create explosive plays. He was 40.7 percent accurate on deep throws last year while throwing to receivers who couldn’t create separation downfield. He was the fifth-best deep sideline passer in the league, hitting an incredible 52.5 percent of those throws. Taylor’s efficiency comes from him diversifying the running game with his athleticism and his ability to take care of the football. Taylor had an incredible 1.8 interceptable pass rate.
Taylor could work the middle of the field more often but it’s an issue that has become wildly overstated in the context of his whole skill set.
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Only two quarterbacks rolled out of the pocket by design more often than Taylor last year. Taylor threw the ball 27 times on those plays and was accurate on every single one. Taylor was the 12th-most accurate passer in the league, propped up by being third on underneath throws with an 81.9 accuracy percentage and ninth on intermediate throws with a 63.4 accuracy percentage.
When Ryan Tannehill last played football he ranked 13th in interceptable pass rate, fourth in accuracy percentage, 11th in intermediate passing and third in deep passing. Tannehill was the third-most accurate passer to five yards and the eight-best passer past five yards. Tannehill has spent his career in broken offenses. Bad scheming with receivers who couldn’t catch the ball and one of the worst offensive lines in the league have erased his production.
But his performances through those difficult circumstances have always been impressive. The reason he tore his ACL in the first place was his willingness to plant his feet and deliver the ball in the pocket against arriving defenders. Tannehill has existed in condensed and broken pockets for as long as he’s been in the league. Assuming he’s healthy, he should get better pass protection in 2017 with a more congruent and explosive receiving corps thanks to the departure of Jarvis Landry.
Tannehill’s talent and consistency were highlighted more in Adam Gase’s offense. He should thrive again in 2017 if he’s healthy.
Early on during the 2017 season it appeared that his age had finally caught up with Philip Rivers. He made a solid start in Week 1 but followed that up with nine interceptable passes and some of the worst accuracy of his career over the following three games. Rivers’ arm strength appeared to be gone because he was wildly overthrowing open receivers on routine throws. He was even worse when pushing the ball downfield, hitting three of his 12 deep attempts in those three games.
But then he returned to being one of the more effective quarterbacks in the league. For the full season he ranked 16th on deep passing, with a 39.3 accuracy percentage and his interceptable pass rate dropped down to four percent. There’s no question that Rivers was no longer the great Philip Rivers of previous seasons, but he was still proving to be a good quarterback.
A good quarterback in a scheme that wasn’t helping him.
No team ran more often than the Bills in 2016. Only one team ran more often than the Bills in 2015. The Jets ran the ball 31.7 times per game in 2014, only two teams ran more often. Only one team had run more often than the Jets the previous year. Those are the offenses Anthony Lynn worked on before becoming the Chargers head coach. The former running back did not fit philosophically with Rivers’ skill set. Rivers would play under center more, function is part of run-oriented designs more, and throw the ball deeper than previous seasons.
In 2016, Rivers threw the ball within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage 68 percent of the time. That ranked 15th in the league. In 2017, he threw the ball into that range 62 percent of the time, 31st in the league. Rivers had the 12th-highest rate into the 1-10 yard range in 2016, but that number fell a monstrous nine percent so he ranked 34th out of 36 quarterbacks in 2017.
Lynn asked Rivers to work more vertical routes than he should have, creating greater challenges for a quarterback who relies more on his acumen than his athleticism at this point of his career.
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Philip Rivers ranked third on sideline throws where the ball travelled further than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage but his ranking dropped to 11th when the ball travelled further than 20 yards downfield. Rivers was 11.4 percent less accurate after a play fake than when he threw the ball without a play fake. Only five quarterbacks had a wider drop-off. Rivers had 38 throwaways last season, more than any other quarterback because he would just quit on plays if the defense fooled him at the snap because he knew he didn’t have the athleticism to extend passed the initial phase of the play.
Matt Nagy doesn’t need to be Andy Reid or Doug Pederson to bring the principles of their offenses to Chicago. If he can replicate what the Chiefs/Eagles do, then Mitchell Trubisky is the perfect fit for him. Trubisky is like Alex Smith on steroids with an aggressive mindset. He’s a big-bodied athlete who shows off better footwork in the pocket and truly phenomenal ball placement throwing to every level of the field.
Trubisky got more from his receicing corps last year than a rookie in John Fox’s offense should have. He did so by hitting tiny windows with precise throws, often under pressure. Nagy should create wider windows and easier reads by spreading the field and incorporating more option looks in the running game. Adding Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, with maybe some help from Kevin White and Anthony Miller, should dramatically upgrade the Bears’ ability to showcase their young quarterback’s quality.
Only four quarterbacks had a better depth-adjusted accuracy percentage than Trubisky last season. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Marcus Mariota and Dak Prescott. Trubisky was accurate on 91.7 percent of his throws to the line of scrimmage (14th in the league), 81.2 percent of his throws in the 1-10 yard range (6th in the league), 55.6 percent of his throws in the 11-20 yard range (19th) and 42.9 percent of his deep throws (9th). Only Rodgers was a better seam passer than Trubisky who hit 71.8 percent of his passes down the seam.
Crucially, Trubisky ranked in the top 10 on deep sideline throws. That was with receivers who couldn’t create separation or get positioning against defensive backs down either sideline. Allen Robinson specializes in winning on those types of routes, meaning Trubisky will have someone who can create the production his accuracy warrants in 2017.
27.5 percent of Trubisky’s throws were intermediate passes last year, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Nagy will take him away from those tougher throws and concentrate the offense on short and shot plays. That will alleviate the mental strain on the young quarterback and allow his precision as a passer to define his career.
This ranking assumes some mental development but that’s not unreasonable moving from year one to year two.
Did you know?
Trubisky was five percent more accurate on underneath throws than Deshaun Watson. Trubisky was 14 percent more accurate on intermediate throws than Deshaun Watson. Trubisky was 15 percent more accurate on deep throws than Deshaun Watson. It’s a lot easier to throw to Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins than the random names in the Bears locker room. And yet, Trubisky was still more accurate than the more celebrated rookie from last season. Trubisky threw an interceptable pass once every 27.5 attempts, Deshaun Watson threw one every 17 attempts.
2017 was a bad season for Cam Newton. One of his worst. Depth-adjusted accuracy was a measurement created largely because of Newton and how often he pushed the ball downfield relative to the rest of the league. Ironically, Newton threw the ball downfield less in 2017 and ultimately wound up ranking just 13th in depth-adjusted accuracy. The Panthers tried to aggressively alter their identity on offense, incorporating more short passes and fewer vertical concepts. The lack of speed on the field after Ted Ginn’s departure shrunk Newton’s windows but too often he missed throws he should have made.
Newton has always had the reputation of an inaccurate passer but it’s always been a product of circumstance rather than his personal responsibility. In 2017, his inaccuracy was primarily a result of his performance. He only threw 9.3 percent of his passes deep in 2017 after throwing 13.8 percent that far in 2016.
The offense focused more on Christian McCaffrey who was constantly open.
McCaffrey had the lowest accuracy percentage of any runing back with at least 30 accurate targets. That’s Newton’s fault. Newton targeted him 113 times and was accurate 87 times, 77 percent. 90 of those targets didn’t travel further than five yards downfield and Newton was accurate on only 75 of those, 83.3 percent. Considering that McCaffrey was often wide open, those numbers should have been above 90 percent.
In this new offense, Newton was the most inconsistent quarterback from week-to-week during last season. He is still a phenomenal talent who diversifies the running game and executes at a higher level than most of the league, but he has dropped off from being right next to the very best quarterbacks in football. It won’t take much for him to return to the top. Especially if Norv Turner designs better plays than Mike Shula.
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Newton gained 2.25 percent of his yards on inaccurate throws, only Marcus Mariota and Aaron Rodgers had a lower percentage of yards gained on inaccurate throws. Even during a down year throwing to only receivers who couldn’t get open deep, Newton still ranked 11th on deep passes.
Andrew Luck last played football in 2016. He was coming off of a shoulder injury that year. He was one of the best quarterbacks in football. Assuming he’s on the field this season, there’s no reason to think Luck won’t again be one of the best players in the league.
Luck combines consistent ball placement with the ability to make any throw while performing under pressure executing difficult play designs. He charted well in interceptable pass rate, accuracy to different levels of the field, avoidable sacks and week-to-week consistency when he was last on the field. Luck is one of the league’s most well-rounded and impressive players who deserves to be celebrated as such.
If there weren’t any health question marks, he’d be in the top five of this list.
Marcus Mariota is a good test of how you evaluate quarterbacks. Those of us who care about touchdown-to-interception ratios and believe that they reflect quarterback quality more than anything else are not going to be Mariota fans. They’ll likely go as far as to suggest that Mariota needs to be replaced as the Titans starting quarterback. Those of us who actually pay attention to how offenses work and how those numbers are created have a better understanding of the Titans’ young starter.
Andy Dalton threw the ball to defenders 32 times last year, he had 12 interceptions. Derek Carr threw the ball to defenders 36 times last year, he had 13 interceptions. Mariota finished the year with 16 interceptions. He threw the ball to defenders 14 times. How is that possible? He was by far the least fortunate quarterback in the league. Of Mariota’s 14 interceptable passes, 13 were caught. 92.9 percent of the time he threw the ball to a defender the defender caught it, 27 of the 36 qualifying quarterbacks had less than half of their interceptable passes caught by defenders. Compounding Mariota’s misfortune, he also had three interceptions that were direct results of one of his teammates making an egregious error.
In Mike Mularkey’s offense, Mariota was forced to hold the ball in the pocket before pushing it deep downfield. The goal of the offense was to have the quarterback make difficult throws into very tight windows. Obviously, that didn’t work. It wouldn’t have worked for any quarterback but it’s especially bad for Mariota whose skill set fit the exact opposite of that offense.
Yet, despite that awful fit (and some health issues). Mariota’s individual performance was excellent.
He ranked third in interceptable pass rate, throwing one every 37.2 attempts. Only Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers ranked ahead of him in depth-adjusted accuracy. Mariota was one of only four quarterbacks to eclipse 60 percent while half of the qualifying quarterbacks were at 51.8 percent or below. Mariota was the most accurate underneath passer (1-10 yard range) and the fifth most accurate deep passer. He ranked in the top 20 for all four yard ranges. His consistent accuracy and good decision making didn’t lead to more production because of he combined an awful scheme with the worst receiving corps in the NFL.
Mariota’s receivers had the 11th worst failed reception rate at 6.3 percent. They lost the 10th-most completions but managed to lose the second-most yards, 425, while creating only four receptions on inaccurate throws. 0.84 percent of Mariota’s yards were gained on inaccurate throws. Only he and Aaron Rodgers were below two percent. When you adjust each quarterback’s yards per attempt by accounting for failed and created receptions, Mariota’s number jumps by 0.7 yards, the highest jump in the league.
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Mariota gained only 40 percent of his yards after the catch, the fifth-lowest rate in the league, despite having one of the most efficient screen games in the league. 32 quarterbacks threw the ball within five yards of the line of scrimmage more often than Mariota. 31 quarterbacks threw the ball within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage more often than Mariota. 75.2 percent of his offense existed in the 1-20 yard range, the fifth-highest rate in the league. It was the exact opposite of the type of offense Mariota would thrive in.
Jason Witten will move as much in the commentary booth as he moved on the field last year. Witten was a major problem for the Cowboys passing game. Opposing defenses knew he couldn’t run anymore so they aggressively pressed him, leaving him one-on-one in space, so they could cheat onto the rest of the receivers on the field. This put Dak Prescott in an unwinnable position all too often. Without Witten, the Cowboys will have a less proven commodity at tight end but it should be like removing an anchor from the passing game.
Dez Bryant was almost as bad as Witten. Bryant’s inability to run away from defenders at this point of his career combined with him having some of the worst hands in football last year made him a bad receiver. Not just a receiver who wasn’t worthy of his contract, a bad receiver independent of his cost. Someone who made those around him worse rather than better. Bryant ranked 99th in receiver efficiency last season. He had 14 failed receptions, only Zay Jones, Ricardo Louis, J.J. Nelson, David Njoku and Evan Egnram were worse than him out of 110 receivers last season.
Because Witten is a hero to Cowboys fans and because Bryant has been established for a few years, all of the blowback fell onto Dak Prescott. Prescott had his struggles at different points in the season, but for the most part he was an excellent quarterback last season. His growth from his first season to his second wasn’t matched by production because of the lack of quality around him. The offensive line lost multiple pieces before more players were hurt and the receiving corps was always built to be complementary to a dominant running game. His receivers needed to get open off of the run threat/great pass protection, they couldn’t get open within the timing of routes.
Even with receivers who couldn’t get open in Jason Garrett’s archaic passing game, Prescott was still supremely accurate.
He was the fourth most accurate passer by depth-adjusted accuracy, finishing fifth on underneath throws, 17th on intermediate throws and 10th on deep throws. Because Bryant could no longer work the intermediate and deep levels of the defense consistently, and because Terrance Williams is Terrance Williams, the offense primarily focused on underneath throws. 58 percent of Prescott’s passes travelled between 1 and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. No other quarterback eclipsed 57 percent. Prescott’s passing game had focused heavily on the intermediate level during his rookie season. With a rebuilt receiving corps and Ezekiel Elliott available in the backfield, he should return to those types of throws in his third season.
Where Prescott excelled in 2017 was mentally. He showed off full command of his offense, making smart pre-snap adjustments while calling full-blown audibles when necessary. The Cowboys offense would be much better suited to letting Prescott call and adjust plays more than Garrett who appears to be completely out of his depth in regards to making adjustments during games. That Falcons game where his backup left tackle never got any help highlighted that.
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Jason Witten averaged 1.6 yards after the catch, the worst number in football. Prescott ranked sixth in interceptable pass rate, throwing one every 29 attempts, despite throwing into the thick of the coverage more often than most quarterbacks. 77.2 percent of Prescott’s passes went into the 1-20 yard range, the second-highest rate in the league behind only Trevor Siemian. Alex Smith, in Andy Reid’s beautifully designed offense, threw only 62 percent of his passes into the 1-20 yard range.
Matt Ryan didn’t desere to win the MVP in 2016 but he was a top-10 quarterback that year. In 2017, he was arguably the best quarterback in football. Ryan was phenomenal. He consistently made difficult plays, mitigating pressure in the pocket while throwing receivers open downfield. He was put in that position because Steve Sarkisian isn’t as good a coordinator as the departed Kyle Shanahan. Sarkisian’s impact and less consistency from his skill position players curtailed Ryan’s output from the unsustainable levels from the previous season.
Ryan’s consistency throwing short, underneath and intermediate passes while getting the ball out ahead of schedule made him extremely difficult to gameplan against. He ranked fourth on underneath throws, hitting 81.7 percent of those throws, and finished fifth on intermediate throws, hitting 65 percent of those throws. Ryan only ranked 20th on deep throws but without Shanahan scheming receivers open deep downfield the types of deep throws he had to make were often extremely difficult. He was better than the 20th-ranked deep passer in the league despite his charting.
In 2016, Ryan’s season was in part defined by his fortune avoiding interceptions. He was the single luckiest quarterback in the league when it came to defenders catching his interceptable passes. In 2017, only Marcus Mariota was less fortunate than him. He threw 13 interceptable passes, six were caught and he had six more interceptions that were the fault of one of his teammates. His Luck Index rating of 85.7 was one of only three above 70 percent.
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Matt Ryan’s receivers cost him 42 receptions on accurate throws last year, the third most in the league. Only 1.68 percent of Ryan’s yards were gained on inaccurate throws, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. After leading the league in play action usage by a long distance under Shanahan in 2016, Ryan fell all the way to 17th in play action usage under Sarkisian.
What Tom Brady did in 2017 was illogical. Even during his prime, Brady never had the skill set to run an offense that emphasized shot plays. An offense where his receivers ran more vertical routes than horizontal routes. An offense where he pushed the ball downfield 13.9 percent of the time. In his late 30s, Brady shouldn’t have been the fifth-most aggressive deep passer in the league. He definitely shouldn’t have been 40 percent accurate while throwing deep that often.
In the past, Brady’s deep passes have been efficient because he’s only thrown them when they’ve favored the defense. When the secondary overplayed underneath routes so he had a receiver running into space who he could lay the ball out for. The Patriots would use aggressive play fakes to free one specific pass catcher in behind the defense. That wasn’t the case in 2017. In 2017, Brady had to repeatedly hit tight windows with precision throws that covered 40 and 50 yards in the air.
He was the seventh-best deep sideline passer not because his receivers were wide open but because he was just that good.
Playing in a short-passing, shotgun-heavy offense helped Brady to avoid interceptions over the years. His acumen obviously was the protagonist of his success but being set up properly was also a huge part of allowing him to be that effective. Playing in this more aggressive offense naturally led to more interceptable passes. Brady threw 33 interceptable passes on 720 attempts, one every 21.6 attempts. That’s a good number considering the style of offense he played in. Not a great one, but a good enough one when viewed with his overall accuracy and effectiveness. It helped that he had the best Luck Index score of any quarterback, only nine of his interceptable passes were caught and he didn’t have a non-quarterback interception.
He’s going to hit a decline at some point, but after 2017 it’s clear that Brady has more left physically than he had previously shown.
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Brady threw only 43.8 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He threw the ninth-highest rate of passes further than five yards downfield. He threw 37.2 percent of his passes further than 10 yards downfield, the eighth-highest rate in the league. Brady threw 1.3 percent more intermediate throws and 2.2 percent more deep throws in 2017 compared to 2016. Rob Gronkowski was 100 percent efficient on the season, catching five inaccurate passes and dropping five accurate passes.
Drew Brees was a hall of fame player long before the 2017 season, but 2017 was one of his best seasons. The quarterback who had been repeatedly overstressed by his supporting casts over previous years got the opportunity to play behind an effective offensive line, with a running game and screen game that acted as the primary threat. Brees was almost a complementary part of the offense but his role wasn’t diminished as much as it was made easier.
This wasn’t the case of a quarterback relying on those around him to carry him. It was a supporting cast highlighting the consistent excellence of its starter.
Brees tied Aaron Rodgers in depth-adjusted accuracy, but he was more impressive because of his consistency to each level of the field. Brees ranked second on throws to the line of scrimmage, seventh on underneath throws, first on intermediate throws and second on deep throws. Rodgers ranked 10th, 11th, 8th and 1st in those yard ranges. The touch and anticipation that Brees consistently placed the ball with allowed him to regularly throw his receivers open. Even his best target, Michael Thomas, often looked for Brees to lay the ball in a specific spot against tight coverage where the receiver could use his size to win it.
As is always the case, Brees’ pocket presence and intelligence to diagnose defenses while keeping the timing of his offense’s play designs was consistently spectacular. He should continue to age well in this situation.
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Drew Brees hit 17 of his 23 seam throws down the right side of the field. Only Aaron Rodgers was better but he only attempted eight total. Brees was 81 percent accurate on throws with play action, best in the league. He was 80.5 percent accurate on throws without play action, best in the league. He was 90.2 percent accurate to the five-yard line, first in the league, and 67.9 percent accurate past the five-yard line, first in the league.
Without the Carolina Panthers game, Rodgers would have ranked 12th in the league in interceptable pass rate last season. With the Panthers game, he ranked 16th. That’s a truly awful ranking for Rodgers. But it’s still above average when measured for the top one percent of human beings who play the quarterback position. Rodgers had a down year even before he got hurt, but a down year for Rodgers is still phenomenal. He was still tied with Drew Brees for the most accurate quarterback in the league last season. He still made superhuman plays that no other quarterback makes on a regular basis. He still combined efficiency and explosiveness in an athletic and disciplined style that nobody else does.
Rodgers doesn’t need an argument to be made for him. It’s abundantly clear that he’s the best quarterback in football and will be until he suffers a major drop-off.
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Rodgers had 238 pass attempts last year. Only once did a receiver catch one of his inaccurate passes. Every other quarterback with at least 200 attempts had at least four created receptions. 0.12 percent of Rodgers’ yards were gained on inaccurate throws, a stark contrast to Brian Hoyer, Ben Roethlisberger, Deshaun Watson, Case Keenum and Matthew Stafford who all gained more than 10 percent of their yards on inaccurate throws. At least Rodgers receivers were more consistent catching the ball in 2017, his 6.3 percent failed reception rate ranked as the 12th worst in the league.