Welcome to the fifth annual edition of The Deep Ball Project. Since 2014 I have been researching what I consider the most fascinating part of the NFL; Deep passing, and who stands out. The projects take up a lot of time, are fun to do and have even set me up with interviews about my work.
First, you can check out the 2017-18 edition of the Deep Ball Project here. With that said, let’s get to the basics.
For each new edition I like to add new stats and change things up. For this year’s edition I rehauled the distances measured and made Accuracy Percentage the main focus for this year’s Deep Ball Project. In past seasons, all qualifying throws of 16+ air yards made it onto the project. This time, however, all qualifying throws of 21+ air yards count as deep passes. I wanted to go for a more “authentic” research of deep passes which is why I went with this decision.
Like the 2017-18 edition, 35 quarterbacks were charted, with each team being represented at least once. Stats returning from the 2017-18 edition include Clean Pockets, Pressure, Open Window, Tight Window, Accurate Incompletions and Inaccurate Completions. New to this year’s edition are a number of stats that will be represented by the chart example below:
You may have noticed in black and white in the middle of the chart are all the splits for Accuracy Percentage. Not to be confused with completion percentage, Accuracy Percentage looks at if a pass is accurate or not regardless if it’s caught or dropped. And when charting downfield passes, I’ve found a lot of drops that have benefited the quarterback’s Accuracy Percentage.
In parentheses in the Accuracy Percentage splits are the rankings out of 35, representing the amount of quarterbacks charted. For example, this quarterback was the most accurate on throws into tight windows with an Accuracy Percentage of 53.13%, represented by the (1).
New stats exclusive to the 2018-19 Deep Ball Project include rehauled distances. Throws of 20-24, 25-29, 31-34, 35-39 and 40+ air yards have now been replaced with throws of 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40 and 41+ air yards. These show how many yards in the air the ball travelled before landing in a receiver’s hands or the turf. The Left, Middle, and Right statistics have also been added, of course representing the direction the pass was thrown.
Air Yards and Yards after the Catch (YAC) have also been added, and these go without explaining. Passes Defensed takes a look at any throw directly disrupted by a defender, including interceptions, pass breakups, Dropped Interceptions (also a new stat), and showing their heads on a few Accurate Incompletions. These aren’t exactly good or bad, but I thought I’d include them there to show a little more context.
Speaking of, Accurate Incompletions reward the quarterbacks with an accurate pass that couldn’t be hauled in by the receiver. These include drops, pass breakups depending on the placement, sideline throws where the receiver couldn’t get two feet in bounds, some Hail Marys, etc. Inaccurate Completions are the exact opposite, taking a look at plays where the quarterback completed a pass but forced the receiver to make an adjustment when he didn’t need to, counting as a strike on the quarterback’s Accuracy Percentage.
For this year’s edition, I also decided to add separate charts for raw statistics, including yards, touchdowns, interceptions, etc. Completion Percentage is really here just to show contrasts with Accuracy Percentage, otherwise it’s far from the most important stat in this project.
So you’re probably wondering what passes don’t count or aren’t charted? Obviously any pass thrown under a distance of 21 air yards doesn’t count, but the following are also excluded: Throwaways, passes deflected at the line of scrimmage, miscommunications, and throws offset by penalty (Plays where the penalty is declined or a penalty is tacked on after the play count and are charted).
Finally, while each quarterback is ranked out of 35 in each Accuracy Percentage split, sometimes last place is a tie between two or more quarterbacks. For example, two quarterbacks finished last in Accuracy Percentage throwing to the left, so last place in this regard is 34th. This will be reflected on each quarterback’s individual charts.
So now let’s get to the countdown. This is a three part article looking at all 35 quarterbacks charted from least accurate to most accurate. Each quarterback will have their own individual chart, a brief summary of their deep passing season, where they were at their most accurate, and a GIF highlighting their best deep pass of the 2018 season.
With that said, I now present The 2018-19 Deep Ball Project. There’s 35 quarterbacks to countdown and 1,520 throws that were charted, so it’s time to get started!
35. James Winston (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
New Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has made it clear he wants to build his team around James Winston, and the combination does make sense. Arians prides himself on a vertical passing heavy scheme that includes mostly straight up drop backs, something Tampa Bay has done in the Winston era. Winston himself is a downfield-minded passer, the issue was he was the least accurate deep passer in 2018.
Ranking last in accuracy on all throws (29.41%), throws of 21-25 yards (12.5%) and throwing with clean pockets (21.74%), it was a brutal season for Winston from an accuracy standpoint. His 52 yards after the catch were the third fewest in 2018, but with a supporting cast of receivers that included Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson (who Winston was accurate to on just 1 of 10 deep passing targets), Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard and even Adam Humphries, I just don’t see an excuse for all these misses.
Winston was at his best as a deep passer in 2018 under pressure, where he ranked 11th in accuracy percentage (45.45%). Outside of that, he was the only quarterback in the 2018-19 Deep Ball Project with an accuracy percentage lower than 30%. He showed weaknesses throwing to the left, middle, or right, and he was the third least accurate into tight windows (19.23%).
While James Winston is capable of good to great quarterback play, there’s so many instances of bad accuracy that those moments aren’t as abundant as they should be. In the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, Winston might as well be playing for his job in Tampa Bay, especially considering free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick put up more impressive accuracy numbers.
Best Throw (Week 15 at Baltimore)
As aforementioned, Winston’s accuracy looked impressive under pressure. His ability to dodge and escape the interior buys himself some time, and he escapes the pocket and makes a beautiful throw to Mike Evans for a 64-yard pass play.
34. Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins)
He’s normally done very well in the Deep Ball Project, but Ryan Tannehill’s deep passing accuracy took a massive decline in 2018. Once a top five downfield passer in 2016 (in terms of accuracy percentage), knee injuries have sapped away much of his mobility and escapability, which were huge parts of his game. This also limits his ability to offset the poor quality of the Dolphins offensive line.
I always liked Tannehill more than most people, but it’s become clear he’s a different quarterback post knee injury. Second to last in overall deep accuracy, tied for last in accuracy on throws to his left, last on throws of 26-30 yards, and second to last under pressure, it’s been a tough road to recovery, and word is Miami will cut Tannehill once free agency starts.
Still, there were a couple of bright spots. Tannehill was at his best on throws of 21-25 yards, where he was the third most accurate passer in that area (71.43%). He was also the 7th most accurate deep passer on throws to the middle (tied with Lamar Jackson and Jared Goff at 66.67%) and into open windows (75.0%).
Still, this was the kind of season that justified the anti-Tannehill crowd. He could serve as a half-decent stopgap QB for a team looking to draft a rookie, but I’m not sure at this stage of his career he can be anything more than that.
Best Throw (Week 3 vs. Oakland)
This was a sensational touchdown toss to Kenny Stills. Tannehill remains calm even with edge pressure bulldozing through both of his tackles and delivers a perfect tight pass to the back of the end zone to Stills as he gets hit.
33. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
It’s been one hell of an offseason for the Steelers. It’s bad enough that they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, but now they will most likely enter the 2019 season without both Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, A.K.A. “Mr. Big Chest.” On top of that, they have a quarterback who’s seemingly declining rapidly in downfield accuracy the older he gets.
Ben Roethlisberger’s days as a top downfield passer appear to be over, as he was third last in downfield accuracy in 2018 at 33.87%. He was also dead last on throws into tight windows (15.38%) and second to last in clean pockets (34.62%, despite throwing eight touchdowns in such pockets).
Oddly enough, Roethlisberger still threw for nine touchdowns, tied for the second most this season despite the low accuracy numbers. He was also sixth in deep passing yards with 889 of them. The closest Big Ben got to respectful accuracy numbers was on throws to the middle, which ended up being where he ranked the highest as he was tied for 14th in accuracy (50.0%).
There’s been a lot of talk of Roethlisberger throwing people under the bus, I think an issue a lot of people aren’t talking about his how many plays he’s leaving on the field. He definitely has a spot in Canton, but I think it’s fair to question how long he has left in the league, especially since he once briefly pondered that thought in 2017.
Best Throw (Week 6 at Cincinnati)
In a rare occurence, Roethlisberger’s best downfield throw of 2018 came on a drop. JuJu Smith-Schuster has become quite the star receiver in his first two seasons in the league, but he couldn’t haul in this dime from Big Ben as the pass was disrupted by Dre Kirkpatrick. That’s a shame because this was a perfect throw, though Pittsburgh did end up winning this game.
32. Sam Darnold (New York Jets)
Outside of Baker Mayfield, the rest of the rookie quarterbacks of the 2018 draft class are a work in progress. Sam Darnold, being the youngest, has flashed his talents from time to time and can certainly develop into a quality starter. I’m just not sure Adam Gase is the right head coach for him.
Anyways, these numbers might not matter in Darnold’s sophomore year (knock on wood), but it’s fascinating looking at them after his rookie season. He tied with fellow rookie Josh Allen for the most interceptions in deep passes with five, but also threw the fourth most accurate incompletions (9), so his receivers did screw him over quite often.
Most of Darnold’s deep accuracy numbers are well below average, but to be fair it’s difficult for a rookie to produce league average play. And besides, Darnold did exceptionally well on throws of 41+ yards (tied for 6th in accuracy at 66.67%), and he did particularly well on passes of 31-35 yards, where he was also sixth in accuracy (62.5%).
I think Darnold’s numbers will grow with more experience, so I’m going to go easy on him. I liked him coming out of USC, and I hope Gase and company surround him with good coaching and a capable supporting cast, because the Jets sure could use a good quarterback.
Best Throw (Week 5 vs. Denver)
Off of play action, this touchdown throw to Robby Anderson down the sideline was beautiful. It seems like it’s floating forever thanks to the trajectory yet it arrives in Anderson’s hands perfectly.
31. Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
Unless Joe Flacco gets in a freak accident (and hopefully he doesn’t meet that fate because he seems like a good dude in real life), he will be heading to the Broncos via trade once free agency starts in mid-March. If this were coming after the 2012 season (when Flacco was a free agent after his rookie deal), I would find more reason for Denver to be excited about this. But I’m not.
Flacco has been arguably the worst starting quarterback in the league from 2013 to 2018. There have been worse overall quarterbacks from that time period, but as far as starters go, it’s hard to find anyone worse. Once with a reputation as a downfield passer, Flacco’s accuracy numbers are way below average to the point where he shouldn’t even be starting.
Flacco was dead last in accuracy on throws to the right (23.53%) and against pressure (12.5%), and he was also atrocious on throws into open windows, finishing third last in accuracy in this area (36.36%). On top of that, he threw the most dropped interceptions on deep throws with four of them, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider how interceptions when caught drastically alter the impact of games, it’s saying something.
Flacco definitely was at his best on throws to the left, where he finished an impressive fourth in accuracy percentage (62.5%). He also tied for 6th in accuracy on throws of 41+ yards (66.67%) and finished a decent 14th in accuracy to tight windows (37.5%).
Ultimately, Ravens fans will remember Flacco fondly as the years go by, and deservedly so. But the quarterback John Elway thinks he’s getting is far from the one Flacco used to be.
Best Throw (Week 3 Vs. Denver)
All things considered, this is a sensational throw to rookie tight end Mark Andrews over the middle. The window Flacco is given is ridiculously small, and yet he manages to rifle in this seed to Andrews for a beautiful pass play. And wouldn’t you know it, this is against the very same team Flacco is set to join in March.
30. Tom Brady (New England Patriots)
Tom Brady is an all-time great quarterback, perhaps the all-time great. His 2018 season wasn’t quite as good as his MVP campaign the year prior, but it was still a pretty good year, especially considering his age. And with six Super Bowl rings I don’t think his legacy is in question with his placement on this year’s Deep Ball Project.
Last season Brady stood his ground as a downfield passer, and in all fairness, it’s extremely tough to keep that going at the age of 41. I just find it amazing that Brady is still a high caliber starter this late in his career, a testament to how well his skill set has aged.
From my understanding, Pro Football Focus had him 12th in downfield accuracy, but let’s just say my methods were probably different from theirs’. Brady’s all-around accuracy numbers were lackluster, and he’s definitely far better in the short/intermediate passing games.
Again, to be fair, Brady didn’t really have a true vertical threat at the beginning of the season, and many Patriots fans will say he didn’t have a consistent one at all. I thought Josh Gordon impressed when he was on the field, but I do agree that his accuracy was affected somewhat by this.
Brady was at his best on passes of 31-35 yards, where he was 9th in accuracy (50.0%). He was also decent on passes of 26-30 yards (13th in accuracy with 50.0%). If you think Brady did well down the field in 2018, I can’t stop you. Personally, I feel we’ve seen better days from him as a deep passer,
Best Throw (Week 12 at New York Jets)
Brady gets drilled by interior pressure from Henry Anderson yet still fires this incredible pass to Gronk for the touchdown, maintaining comfortable footwork and mechanics even as Anderson is staring him in the face. Serves him right for disrespecting his elders.
29. Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)
In previous seasons Cam Newton’s downfield accuracy was first class, but something felt off in 2018, and it wasn’t because Norv Turner’s scheme gave him a decrease in average depth of target. By the Week 14 game at Cleveland, it was clear his throwing arm was nowhere near 100%.
Newton finished near the bottom on most of his accuracy splits, most notably finishing third last under pressure (18.75%) and tied for last throwing into open windows (33.33%). As a long time fan of his, it was difficult for me to sit through Cam’s deep passing film when it was clear he wasn’t right.
With that said, there were still some good moments. Newton’s accuracy was fantastic in clean pockets, where he was third in accuracy with 61.54%. On passes to his left he finished eighth in accuracy (50.0%) and finished 11th on throws into tight windows (39.13%).
Newton had the fewest yards after catch of any quarterback in the 2018-19 Deep Ball Project, with only 18 of his yards being after the catch. It didn’t help that his accuracy took a steep decline due to injuries, though, and thankfully the Panthers rested him for the final two games of the season before further damage could be done. Here’s hoping he returns to form in 2019 with a healthier throwing arm.
Best Throw (Week 12 vs. Seattle)
There isn’t a lot to choose from, but this throw off play action to D.J. Moore was impressive. The placement down the field is vintage Cam, and is something I hope to see more of once again next season.
28. Josh Rosen (Arizona Cardinals)
Most statistics, raw or analytical, have had Josh Rosen at or near the bottom of. Hopefully new head coach Kliff Kingsbury can install a better offense for him than Steve Wilks did.
Anyway, much like Sam Darnold, Rosen’s rookie numbers down the field aren’t good at all, but I’m reserving judgement for him. Still, he finished tied with Cam Newton for last on throws to open windows, only being accurate on 33.33% of such passes. Things didn’t fare much better on passes to the middle (32nd, 20.0%) or in clean pockets (31st, 37.04%), and Rosen’s debut as a professional is a reminder of the presence of growing pains for a quarterback.
Incredibly, however, Rosen was at his best throwing into tight windows, where he finished seventh in accuracy percentage (40.63%). He was decent against pressure, finishing 14th in accuracy (42.86%). That’s a good thing considering the Cardinals had a turnstile parade in what was one of the league’s worst offensive lines in 2018.
Considering where he finished on throws into tight windows, I think there’s optimism Rosen can be a good quarterback with the right coaching. Whether Kingsbury can be that guy will be determined.
Best Throw (Week 6 at Minnesota)
Rosen made some spectacular throws into tight windows early in the season, with none being more spectacular than this one to Christian Kirk. The edge pressure from #91 Stephen Weatherly forces him to act quickly, and I’m not sure how he was able to fit this pass in this beautifully to Kirk. Rosen showcased a ton of promise as a tight window passer in his rookie season.
27. Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills)
Out of any rookie in 2018, Josh Allen has seen the most criticism this side of Lamar Jackson. And yeah, his accuracy needs a lot of work, but I can’t say I don’t find him a little entertaining. He’s always going after the long pass play, so you’ll never know what happens when he releases the ball.
Allen’s accuracy into tight windows was 4th last (20.0%), about where a lot of people expected him to be. His 35.0% accuracy percentage in clean pockets ranked 33rd overall, though he also watched eight accurate incompletions occur thanks to his receivers.
Allen was at his best on throws of 36-40 yards, where his 66.67% accuracy percentage was third (it’s not quite as high of a sample as other quarterbacks, but Bills fans will take whatever they can get). He also finished 13th in accuracy against pressure (43.33%), a respectful spot especially for a rookie Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot to praise. Allen’s accuracy could be a major setback for his career, but his aggressive mindset is fun to watch.
Best Throw (Week 13 vs. Jacksonville)
Ok, this touchdown throw to Robert Foster is impossible. From a naked eye it looks like the football pops out of Allen’s hands as he’s sandwiched by the Jaguars’ pass rush. Not only is the best throw I’ve seen Josh Allen make, it’s one of the best throws I’ve seen from any quarterback in 2018.
26. Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions)
The firing of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter should open up the Lions deep passing game, but it should be noted that he played a hand in Matthew Stafford’s improved statistics from 2015-17. In 2018 Stafford regressed statistically, and the offense didn’t seem all that interested in pushing the ball past the sticks on third down.
Most of Stafford’s deep accuracy numbers aren’t atrocious, but there isn’t a lot to be impressed by either. I’ve never really been a big fan of him, though I will admit he has good/great stretches of play. He was 22nd in accuracy percentage in both open windows (63.64%) and tight windows (33.33%). To be fair, lmost all of Stafford’s misses into open windows came in Week 2 against the 49ers where he left three touchdowns on the field.
Injuries to Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay didn’t help either.
Stafford was at his best on throws of 26-30 yards, where he finished second in accuracy percentage (80.0%), obviously a great spot to be in. On throws to the middle he was 14th in accuracy (50.0%) so not all of his accuracy splits are bad. And perhaps the opening of the deep passing game (I hope) will benefit Stafford, but I think he has to prove it first, especially with how mixed opinions from Lions fans are on him.
Best Throw (Week 8 vs. Seattle)
This looks a little similar to the example I used for James Winston in how Stafford escapes from the pocket. On third and long Stafford wants the touchdown and he gets it with this amazing play to Marvin Jones.
25. Case Keenum (Denver Broncos)
The Broncos are planning on replacing a quarterback that’s more accurate down the field than Joe Flacco. And if the plan is to get a stopgap QB to help Drew Lock or whoever they draft, they could’ve just kept Case Keenum and saved themselves the trouble.
But alas, I’m not John Elway.
While Keenum was better than Flacco as a deep passer in 2018, it wasn’t by much. I pretty much expected Keenum to regress after an outlier season in Minnesota, and the numbers definitely show it. For instance he finished second last in accuracy on throws of 21-25 yards (42.0%) and 31st on throws to the middle of the field (25.0%). His five inaccurate completions were the most of any quarterback as well.
Improbably, Keenum was at his best on throws of 41+ yards, as he had the highest accuracy percentage of any quarterback on such throws (88.89%). He was also fantastic on throws of 36-40 yards, finishing second in accuracy with 71.43%.
I don’t believe Keenum is a good starter at all, but I think teams should be highly interested in him as a backup. He’s not afraid to take risks and stand tall in the pocket under pressure, and his mobility gives him value once the plays break down. So I think as a backup teams should invest in him. Just don’t expect anything from him as a starter.
Best Throw (Week 5 at New York Jets)
With a flick of the wrist Keenum converts this third down to Demaryius Thomas on a sensational throw. Again, the Broncos could just keep Case Keenum as a stopgap instead of trading for Joe Flacco, but I digress.
24. Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
For a while Ryan Fitzpatrick was an MVP candidate in 2018, and by “a while” I mean “the first two games.” He was constantly hitting his targets downfield, most notably DeSean Jackson, and caught the eye of plenty of analytics based analysts.
As a backup quarterback Fitzpatrick brings excitement. He’s not very mobile but he’s a deep pass happy player that outperformed Jameis Winston from an accuracy standpoint. However, he struggled on passes to the left (31st in accuracy with 33.33%) and into tight windows (second last with an accuracy percentage of 17.65%), and was 32nd in accuracy against pressure (28.57%).
Fitzpatrick was particularly outstanding throwing into open windows, where he was 2nd in accuracy (88.89%). He was also sixth in accuracy on throws to the right (55.56%), and seventh on throws of 36-40 yards (50.0%). While he was tied for sixth in accuracy on throws of 41+ yards, he only threw two passes in this area, so the sample size is small.
Fitzpatrick is a free agent this offseason, and he’s notable for cursing whoever is starting in front of him. For teams that don’t believe in this highly scientific jinx, Fitzpatrick should garner attraction as a backup, just not as a guy you’d bet the house for as a starter. So basically he’s a lot like Case Keenum.
Best Throw (Week 3 vs. Pittsburgh)
Fitzpatrick really sucked in the first half against the Steelers, but this dime to Mike Evans was an exception. For all of Fitzpatrick’s faults, his deep accuracy looked like Patrick Mahomes in comparison to James Winston.