The NFL is often considered the go to sport for Americans, and it’s easy to see why. The game is exciting, strategic, unpredictable, frustrating, amazing, and over the top.
One of the game’s most exciting features is the use of the deep ball. Quarterbacks fire the long ball in an attempt to score quicker or move down the field quicker (both), and these are often awe inspiring to watch.
But who has a good deep ball? How can we tell if a QB is throwing the ball downfield well? Are we missing something?
That’s where The Deep Ball Project comes in. For 2 years, I have dedicated a chunk of my time to studying every deep ball throw from every quarterback that qualifies for the project (with a minimum requirement of 8 games as the starter per season), charting the stats, watching film, and grading the quarterbacks based on their throws.
Most sites list deep passes as 20+ yards in the air. For the Deep Ball Project, I have gone by 16+ yards in the air, as it is tracked that way by ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference, and other sites (NOTE: I am changing this to 20+ yards once the 2016-17 season comes along). As a result, my stats may look a bit different from the rest.
For the 2015 edition, I decided to switch from watching the broadcasts to watching All-22 coverage, as I felt it would make the grading far more authentic. I also grade tougher throws higher, as easy completions do not impress me (I am one sadistic bastard, I know.).
For questions you may have on the Deep Ball Project, please click this link. For now, however, I shall introduce the key statistics I’ve used for charting the deep ball.
CMP: Amount of deep passes that were completed.
ATT: Amount of deep passes attempted.
CMP%: Percentage of attempted deep passes that were completed.
ACCURACY: New for the 2015-16 Deep Ball Project, this stat takes a look at the amount of accurate passes the QB threw. NOT EVERY ACCURATE PASS IS CAUGHT, AND NOT EVERY COMPLETED PASS IS ACCURATE. Sometimes the receiver dropped or failed at the catch point with the ball, ran a poor route, or slipped on his route. On the other hand, a receiver might bail out a QB on a poor throw with a great catch or by stopping his route prematurely to grab the pass. The situation varies.
ACC%: Percentage of accurate deep passes.
YDS: Amount of yards achieved from completed deep passes.
TD: Touchdowns thrown deep.
INT: Interceptions thrown deep.
YPA: Deep Ball Yards Per Attempt
YPC: Deep Ball Yards Per Completed Pass.
TD%: Percentage of attempted deep passes that resulted in a touchdown.
INT%: Percentage of attempted deep passes that resulted in an interception.
YPG: Deep Ball Yards Per Game.
There are also splits for home games and away games, with each of the aforementioned statistics.
And now for the fun part.
THE GRADES FOR THE QUARTERBACKS HAVE VERY LITTLE TO DO WITH THE STATISTICS (though ACCURACY and ACC% help a lot). These are just there to show the results of the total amount of deep passes.
Finally, before I get started, I just want to thank all of you guys for your patience and understanding. This past semester of college, while a tremendous success, took its tool on me emotionally, so I had to delay the Deep Ball Project from April to June. I really appreciate the support I’ve gotten for this thing, and after 7 months of research and blood, sweat, and tears, I can finally rest knowing that this year’s edition is in the history books.
Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I present The 2015 Deep Ball Project (in alphabetical order from A-Z).
Blake Bortles (Jacksonville Jaguars)
4,000+ yards and 35 touchdowns in a season, and you’ll have Jaguars fans setting high expectations for the 2016 season. He even threw for the most deep ball yards in 2015 (1,827), as well as the most attempts (140).
However, the truth of the matter is that Blake Bortles’ 2015 statistics have overrated him severely (like a few other QBs soon to be on this list *cough Ryan Fitzpatrick cough*). While not bad, there’s still much work to be done if he wants to be as polished as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, or Ben Roethlisberger.
On deep throws, Bortles mixed the good with the bad, offering amazing play making abilities and inconsistent, even horrible at times, decision making. Sometimes he thinks way too much, resulting in some terrible sacks and throws.
With that said, since there’s a healthy (or unhealthy, I guess) mix of fantastic and awful plays, Bortles grades out average for the 2015 season. He’s shown signs of improvement, and his best plays give Jacksonville hope for the future.
FINAL GRADE: C
Sam Bradford (Philadelphia Eagles)
Often scrutinized for his supposed lack of leadership, production, and leadership, secretly Sam Bradford is actually a good quarterback.
And his deep ball is a part of that game.
Yes, that is correct. With a 63.1 Accuracy Percentage, Sam Bradford was found to be the 2nd most accurate quarterback in the 2015 Deep Ball Project Study, only behind Carson Palmer. Bradford threw consistently excellent downfield in 2015. The problem was his receivers couldn’t catch a pass, resulting in missed yards, missed touchdowns, missed opportunities, and missed wins.
Thus, Bradford’s reputation continues to be the way it is. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover that he’s one of the game’s most accurate downfield passers, and his 2015 season is a perfect example of a hidden gem.
FINAL GRADE: A
Tom Brady (New England Patriots)
Let me be clear on this: Tom Brady is a great quarterback, one of the greatest the game has ever seen. He’s smart, gets the ball out quickly, and is usually spot on with intermediate passing. He’s everything you’d want in a late round pick.
He’s just not a good deep passer.
I thought Brady improved a shade on his 2014 downfield passing (Week 2 against the Bills was a surprisingly excellent display of deep passing). But that still isn’t nearly enough when compared to his peers. Some may scoff at his “lack of WR options,” but Brady is more to blame in my opinion.
At times Brady threw downfield poorly, forcing his receivers to stop their routes and come back to the ball. This includes completions. That’s something that can’t be blamed on the wide receivers, even with the drop issues experienced in the 2015 season.
There’s enough good passes so that Brady doesn’t grade out worse, but there’s not nearly enough to suggest he’s anything but a below average deep ball passer. He’s far better throwing intermediate, so at least we have that to watch.
FINAL GRADE: D+
Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)
It’s astounding how very little Drew Brees is discussed.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback may not be getting to the playoffs in recent years, but for the longest time he’s been able to get by on excellent deep passing. His 2015 season was less impressive, as his hits weren’t as spectacular, but it can’t be denied he’s still a quality QB downfield.
What helps Brees is that he has perhaps the smoothest throwing mechanics in the NFL. Something about it just seems so sublime, and it’s even more impressive when you consider he’s one of the most blatant volume passers in NFL history.
That’s something you can’t really hate on, even if you’re a fan of another NFC South team. There’s not a whole lot that will truly knock your socks off, but Brees was still consistently good throwing downfield, and for me that’s easily good enough.
FINAL GRADE: B+
Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota Vikings)
If you’ve spent even a second on NFL Twitter, you’ve probably noticed Teddy Bridgewater being ripped to shreds for his lack of production in 2015 despite having Adrian Peterson at his side. Part of this is because of a supposed lack of downfield passing.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a good reason for that: his offensive line and wide receivers haven’t been up to the task. Not even close.
None of us thought the Vikings offensive line would get worse in 2015, but surprise surprise, that’s what happened. To get 76 deep attempts (and this isn’t including the amount of throwaways) from that pass protection in the early stages of your career is simply remarkable on its own.
Most of Bridgewater’s completions come from the 16+ range, so there’s nothing truly special, but nothing really bad either, so he grades out decently. I’d like to see what he could do with receivers that could separate (excluding Stefon Diggs) and an offensive line that could protect.
FINAL GRADE: B-
Derek Carr (Oakland Raiders)
Raiders fans haven’t been this excited in years, and the reason is obvious: They have a QB they can trust.
I was by no means a fan of Derek Carr’s 2014 rookie season, but in 2015 he took noteworthy steps of improvement. Gone was the general inaccuracy in favor of more connections and better use of his arm strength, and the result was 14 touchdown passes on the long ball.
So why doesn’t Carr grade out with an A? His 2nd half is to blame. While there were enough great throws to prevent a huge free fall, when the offensive line collapsed Carr had more poor throws than he had in the first half of 2015. But what’s strange is how Carr actually was far more accurate away than at home (63.8% to 51.9%). Considering the opposite is usually true for most quarterbacks, it’s bizarre to see.
Anyway, flaws aside, Derek Carr took a huge leap forward, and provided a quality downfield season as a result.
FINAL GRADE: B
Matt Cassel (Dallas Cowboys)
Taking over for the injured Tony Romo, Matt Cassel’s deep ball was nowhere near the excellence Romo achieved in 2014, but you may be a bit surprised by the grade.
There’s literally nothing to say other than this; the misses sucked but the completions were actually quite good at times. There’s a few diamonds in the rough, so this is far from the worst deep ball film you’ll stumble upon.
That’s somewhat impressive considering the Bills traded this guy in the middle of the 2015 season.
FINAL GRADE: D+
Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)
It’s not confidential (not a secret) that Kirk Cousins has been one of the most popular topics to discuss in the current NFL offseason. Has he made the leap to become a franchise quarterback? Do the Redskins finally have a longterm option they are able to find reliance (trust) in?
You’ll get a lot of different answers on this, but I see no reason to play the devil’s advocate on this one.
Cousins’ 2015 production looks to be the result of a very favorable schedule, a high quality OL and cast of receivers, and favorable outcomes such as dropped interceptions. His downfield accuracy was particularly poor, with his accuracy percentage actually being lower than his completion percentage.
I’m not even sure what Cousins was thinking half of the time he threw the long ball. Most of his completions came on easy throws as well, so when you take in account the missed throws and interceptions, it results in a bad downfield year.
FINAL GRADE: D-
Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears)
To quote the late great Roger Ebert: “I hated this. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
What I was just referring to was actually the All-22 angle at Soldier Field.
Now to Jay Cutler. Panned by pretty much everyone in 2014, now the word is that Cutler is good enough to continue being the Chicago Bears’ starting quarterback. But was he really a different quarterback, or was he in a better situation in 2015?
That seems to be the case, and his deep ball has improved as a result. While not really good, there are a good amount of brilliant throws in tight windows in addition to the boneheaded plays. Cutler’s always been known for his arm strength, but his accuracy has been another story.
Even so, Cutler’s 2015 deep ball year is ok. It won’t convert the Cutler haters, but it’s a step up from 2014, so you’ll get no complaints here.
FINAL GRADE: C
Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals)
Like Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton’s increase in efficiency for the 2015 season seems like the result of the cast around him, but in terms of downfield passing, he graded out far ahead of anything Kirk had done in 2015.
The 2nd half of the season experienced a collapse in accuracy (hence the accuracy percentage being significantly lower than the completion percentage), but the first half was near perfect, with precision bucket passes and terrific long bombs that rarely missed a beat.
Like any Dalton season, there’s plenty of plays where the receivers bailed him out, as well as “WTF” moments, but in this instance, there’s much more quality to be seen.
FINAL GRADE: B
Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
It’s been assumed by NFL fans that Joe Flacco is one of the game’s deep ball masters.
This was not the instance in 2015.
Blame will shift to the receiving cast, but Flacco’s footwork and play under pressure were terrible. Some of his turnovers are of the worst you’ll ever see.
There’s a good chunk of decent throws so that his grade isn’t near that of the worst deep passers, but Flacco’s accuracy in 2015 was by no means elite. Coming off injuries to the ACL and MCL are especially troubling for a QB that has to fix his recently sloppy game.
At the least, Flacco isn’t a bad deep passer, but nowhere near the reputation he’s gotten.
FINAL GRADE: C-
Ryan Fitzpatrick (New York Jets)
Flacco may have been underwhelming in 2015, but there’s no question that he’s still leagues above Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Jets are in a tug-of-war battle with Fitzpatrick regarding contract negotiations after a career year. There’s a simple reason for this: He just isn’t good.
Fitzpatrick may have thrown 10 deep TD passes in 2015, but these were mostly easy throws. His 10 deep interceptions are more interesting, as these passes were impressively dumb. As a whole, Fitz’s consistency and accuracy struggled, even with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker at his disposal, as he forced his receivers to go out of their way to make a catch on a designed route. The fact that he threw 124 downfield passes just makes his deep film all the more appalling.
Let me say this: I know Fitzpatrick is a better quarterback than any of us outside the gridiron will ever be. No one is disputing this, no one is questioning it, and good for him that he had the stats he had in 2015. I wish him the best going forward, and do not wish any QB would lose their starting job
But with all due respect, if he’s best option the Jets have at quarterback going into 2016, then that’s a very sad state of affairs.
FINAL GRADE: F
Nick Foles (St. Louis Rams, now the Los Angeles Rams)
I didn’t have any hopes for Foles’ downfield passing in 2015. Considering I gave him a D- for the 2014 season, the expectation was that he’d grade a bit lower.
Boy was I wrong.
No, Foles was not a good deep passer in 2015, not even close, but he was better than anything I had predicted. There’s actually a decent number of quality passes, and even some of the misses weren’t all that bad.
It’s not something to write home about, but Foles’ 2015 downfield season is tolerable.
FINAL GRADE: D+
Blaine Gabbert (San Francisco 49ers)
The QB battle between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick is one of the most uninteresting stories of the current offseason, even with Chip Kelly behind the wheel.
Most of this has to do with the fact that Blaine Gabbert is a bad QB. One of the league’s most ill advised decision makers in a pass happy era, Gabbert’s accuracy downfield wasn’t bad, but there’s nothing in here that really pops out, and the misses are particularly bad.
As the expectation with 2016 is that the 49ers will begin to rebuild under Chip, there’s little to get excited about in regards to Gabbert.
FINAL GRADE: D-
Matt Hasselbeck (Indianapolis Colts, now retired)
With Peyton Manning’s retirement going on, Matt Hasselbeck’s has gone under the radar. Quietly, he’s had an impressive statistical career, and didn’t do half-bad taking over for an injured Andrew Luck in 2015.
Hasselbeck was a nice surprise in 2015, providing quality throws and avoiding the misses, even if there’s nothing eye popping. It’s not the film you’re looking for, but it’s interesting if only to look at the last steps of a noteworthy QB.
Overall, it’s nothing special, but it’s pretty good at the same time.
FINAL GRADE: B-
Brian Hoyer (Houston Texans, now with the Chicago Bears)
Now presenting a QB so bad, Browns fans could care less that he started a playoff game on a different team.
Unlike Fitzpatrick, there’s mercy in the amount of deep passes Brian Hoyer threw in 2015, but that still doesn’t excuse any of it. Hoyer succeeds in making DeAndre Hopkins do all of the dirty work and nothing else.
The accuracy sucks, the decision making sucks, and frankly that’s all the Texans needed to release him. Moving on.
FINAL GRADE: F
Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers)
My thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s deep season can be summed up by looking at Blaine Gabbert’s column, so I’ll say the following instead.
Initially, I had graded Kaepernick out as an F, having been unimpressed at the terrible misses and lack of impressive throws.
It wasn’t until I watched through a second time that I warmed up slightly. There were a few more quality throws than I had initially thought. It still kind of sucks, but hey, it’s not an F level kind of suck.
FINAL GRADE: D