(Special Thanks To @Finscentral on Twitter for creating this year’s Deep Ball Project cover!)
Welcome to the 2020-21 edition of The Deep Ball Project, the seventh of its kind! Click here to go to the 2019-20 edition if you want.
It’s been a long, grueling road past a season we didn’t even think would happen, yet here we are at the light at the end of the tunnel.
What you see from the title is what you get. If you’re looking for a comprehensive study about screen passes then I apologize, but this is not for you. Instead, we’re here to sing the hymnal praises presented by deep passes and the quarterbacks that launch them.
Now what constitutes as a deep pass? That’s a tricky riddle to solve becaue it seems like our methods are different from others. Pro Football Focus constitutes throws of 20+ yards as a deep pass, while NFL play by play constitutes throws of 16+ yards as a deep pass. For the sake of The Deep Ball Project, we’re going with throws of 21+ yards.
In other words, if the rankings look different than PFF’s, this is probably why.
But The Deep Ball Project doesn’t just measure throws of 21+ yards from the line of scrimmage. In this lab the study includes passes of 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40, and 41+ yards as distance splits. Areas of the field are represented by Left, Middle, and Right, basic stuff. Formations are sponsored by Under Center and Shotgun, and you also have the Clean and Pressure stats (plus the Interior/Edge Pressure sub stats) to measure a QB’s stats with or without a defender in his wheelhouse. Throws from Inside and Outside The Pocket are represented, and so are Open and Tight Window throws.
That was a lot of information for one paragraph to comprehend, so to make things easier let’s look at how all the stats compile onto a chart. The chart below is of an actual quarterback studied, the No. 1 deep passer of this year’s study, but with his name erased as to not spoil who he is.
All the basic raw stats are here, from completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. In the black boxes are the Accuracy Percentage numbers. Accuracy Percentage is the main focus of The Deep Ball Project, taking into account every accurate throw regardless of if it was caught or if the receiver developed a drinking problem mid play and couldn’t snag the pass in. Next to those numbers are each quarterback’s rankings out of 34 quarterbacks charted for this year’s study. For example, (1) means a quarterback finished as the most accurate in that field, and so on.
Below these you may have noticed Even More Throwing Stats. These include Air Yards, Yards After the Catch (YAC), Passes Defensed (includes interceptions and breakups), and Dropped Interceptions. Air Yards have been modified this year to include yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The two key stats to look at are Accurate Completions and Inaccurate Completions. This quarterback had 12 Accurate Incompletions, which is to say he threw 12 accurate passes that were not caught by his receivers. Adjacent to that is Inaccurate Completions, where the receiver makes an unnecessary adjustment on his route for the ball. Quarterbacks generally have 2-3 of these, though some have tested my patience and have broken this barrier.
Now, what qualifies as an Accurate Incompletion? Drops (of course), perfect throws where the defender gets a hand in at the catch point, certain jump balls that weren’t reeled in, and every Hail Mary that makes it to the end zone.
Finally (and as always), QB-WR miscommunications, plays offset by penalties, throws where the ball or receiver did not reach at least 21 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and throws where the quarterback was hit before he could get a clean pass off did not qualify for deep pass charting. This is done to make this a straightforward study about deep accuracy and everything that goes on with it.
Finally x2, No, Ryan Fitzpatrick did not qualify for deep pass charting. I know, I’m sorry, but he only threw 13 attempts of 21+ yards. I don’t have an official qualifying number, though if you have thrown about 18 deep passes, you most likely qualify.
Now, with this in mind, let’s begin The Deep Ball Project countdown, going from least accurate (34th) to most accurate (what other number would it be?). This will be a three-part piece, with links to the next part provided at the bottom of the page and at the top. Please enjoy as we go through each of the 34 quarterbacks ranked in this study, with their longest throws listed and their best throws shown!
T-32. Dwayne Haskins (Washington Football Team)
Interestingly enough, we have three quarterbacks tied for last in deep accuracy this time, and because Dwayne Haskins threw for the fewest yards of the three QBs he takes the bottom spot of last place.
Haskins was not on here last season because he didn’t throw for enough attempts. In fact, I was concerned no Washington QB would individually qualify unless I combined all of them. I knew charting Alex Smith would be pointless because good luck finding deep passes he’s thrown. Fortunately, Haskins was there to provide enough attempts to qualify.
Unfortunately, the sample size he provided was a shitstorm of epic proportions.
Dead last in accuracy on throws of 21-25 yards, throws to the middle, and near the bottom in the shotgun, in the pocket, and into tight windows, Haskins may have had a short career in D.C., but when he did play the results were beyond brutal. He was the only quarterback on the study to not throw of 100 yards passing down the field, as well as the only one to not throw a single touchdown. That’s hard to do in a pandemic filled season where defenses were begging to be torched by receivers with 12 yards of separation.
Speaking of which, the difficulty in which defenses had to adjust for the pandemic are part of why the average accuracy percentage is up from different seasons, which makes Haskins’ placement at the bottom all the more astounding. He’s settled in Pittsburgh for now, perhaps making a comeback attempt with the Steelers. Thankfully they have the talent in the receiving corps where he should make some immediate friends, but before he can do that he has to severely work on his accuracy if he’s going to play behind that offensive line.
One bright spot is that Haskins was tied for first in accuracy on throws of 36-40 yards, though with three pass attempts I don’t blame you if you’re unimpressed. Lacking in mobility and packed with inconsistent accuracy, his deep passing season was one Washington fans would love to forget.
Longest Pass Completion: 46 air yards, 3 YAC (Week 4 vs. BAL, 3:29 4th Quarter)
Best Throw: Week 4 vs. BAL (3:29 4th Quarter)
Haskins’ tape wasn’t all bad, as this bomb to Terry McLaurin down the sideline late against the Ravens was pretty. 46 air yards, 3 YAC.
T-32. Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago Bears)
Despite what you might be thinking, no this is not familiar territory for Mitchell Trubisky, but it probably doesn’t matter at this point.
Trubisky was semi-decent in deep accuracy for much of his career, and early on I saw potential in him after his rookie season. Unfortunately, that led to an uneven 2018, a worse 2019, and an equally bad 2020 where he could not develop past his floor. Having Matt Nagy as a play caller further complicated things, and at this point Mitch’s career is likely done in Chicago.
Finishing alone in last place in accuracy in the pocket and near the abyss on throws of 21-25 and 26-30 yards, Trubisky had few areas where he looked good in deep accuracy. Those, however include throws to the middle (where he was 8th) as well as a very good spot inside the top ten against edge pressure. Interestingly enough, he was more accurate against pressure than he was inside a clean pocket, where he was also dead last in accuracy.
I have a soft spot for Trubisky. He’s had some fascinating stretches of play, and his running ability has been far underutilized with the Bears. But it’s clear he’s going to have to find another team, and where his deep accuracy was much better in previous seasons, it was flat out abysmal in 2020.
Longest Pass Completion: 58 air yards, 3 YAC (Week 17 vs. GB, 8:37 3rd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 1 at DET, 2:00 4th Quarter
As the birth to one of the wildest playoff teams in recent memory, this touchdown seed to Anthony Miller was a thing of beauty, and continued a legendary winning streak for the QB against the Lions. 31 air yards, 3 YAC.
T-32. Andy Dalton (Dallas Cowboys)
God almighty this sucks.
On one hand, Andy Dalton’s placement this low is cathartic for me, because having to hear that he could have the same success as Dak Prescott with the amount of weapons at his red headed disposal was expected but annoying. On the other hand I was punished with watching an extreme lack of completed passes.
Dalton tried his best to make Dallas’ offense respectable, oh he certainly did. But his failure to really elevate the Cowboys offense showed how badly Prescott’s presence was missed. The Red Rifle ranked in the bottom four in many stats in this study, bringing back painful memories of his time in Cincinnati where he was just mediocre enough to not stand out even with some stacked receiving corps. And despite Trubisky’s narrative of being a dead man walking throwing to his left, Dalton has him beat for dead last in accuracy in the area.
There are a couple great throws in here, as somehow is the case for Dalton’s entire career. He’ll provide a few impressive throws in the bucket to make you forget about how he’s holding back talented skill players. I’m just shocked that we’re even talking about Andy Dalton as a member of the Cowboys, so let’s just move on while I’m able to keep my composure.
Longest Pass Completion: 43 air yards, 3 YAC (Week 5 vs. NYG, 0:31 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 12 vs. WAS (14:17 2nd Quarter)
See what I mean? Dalton’s level play can range from abysmal, to bad, to below average, to average, to above average, to good, to five seconds as an elite quarterback. This bomb to Amari Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown shows him at a moment where he masquerades as a good passer. 42 air yards, 18 YAC.
31. Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals)
While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks that play or have played in Northern Kentucky, let’s take a peak at the former Heisman winner and College Football National Champion himself.
If you expected Joe Burrow to place higher on this study, boy you must be disappointed. Let’s put it this way; Starting off your career only completing 1 pass of 21+ yards in your first 19 attempts will not give you a good chance to rank anywhere inside the top 15. Concerns of arm strength arose among the minds of many, though if we can just prevent the Bengals from further creating an empire of cardboard we might get somewhere.
There really isn’t an area where Burrow stands out in a positive way in accuracy. Throwing no interceptions and getting away with only one dropped pick is a positive, especially playing behind ass protection. But while he begins the journey in rehab, he’ll need to work on his touch down the field. Many of his passes tend to float, which is why you see 12 pass disruptions in just 37 attempts.
It’s just one season thus far, and Burrow can certainly improve in year two. That might be difficult from the start because of the depth of his leg injury, and also because Zac Taylor is still employed.
Longest Pass Completion: 37 air yards, 0 YAC (Week 7 vs. CLE, 11:33 1st Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 1 vs. LAC (10:11 3rd Quarter)
Is this cheating? Probably, but with not much to choose from Burrow’s best deep pass comes as an Accurate Incompletion. Going right through John Ross’ hands, it wastes a pretty well thrown ball from the rookie. Accurate Incompletion.
30. Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams)
In previous seasons, Jared Goff’s deep accuracy showed flashes of promise, especially in 2018 where he ranked inside the top 10 of that year’s study. That is not now. Now is an atrocious season of deep passing from the previous year in spite of improved play calling and the presence of Sean McVay.
As a testament to Goff’s greatness as a deep passer in 2020, he was dead last on throw to tight windows, dead last in the shotgun, second last under pressure, and 31st to open windows. His incredible lack in creativity outside of structure or ability to process multiple reads reached a boiling point, as McVay finally had enough and shipped him off to Detroit in exchange for some guy Clayton Kershaw went to school with. You may have heard of him, I’m not sure.
In rhythm Goff has shown moments of quality, with some pretty passes in the intermediate field. It doesn’t matter anymore. I can’t even be impressed by him ranking first in accuracy outside the pocket, and that’s because he only had one attempt in that area. Let’s move onto better things like the Rams did this month.
Longest Pass Completion: 49 air yards, 0 YAC (Week 6 at SF, 3:33 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 1 vs. DAL (3:52 2nd Quarter)
The window this ball was thrown into does not exist, or at least I don’t think it does. Beautiful precision to Van Jefferson and proof that even the most disgusting starting quarterbacks can dazzle you with some downfield dimes. 36 air yards, 3 YAC.
29. Sam Darnold (New York Jets)
It would be sad seeing how far Sam Darnold has fallen, but that would imply he had a mountain top to fall from, and that’s even sadder.
Left for dead by the murderous Adam Gase, Darnold could not develop in an offense that encouraged bombs of 3-5 yards past the line of scrimmage to a cast of receivers that were certainly there on paper. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that he just hasn’t developed. Perhaps in a different setting he could have a better grasp of being a quarterback in the NFL, but his sensational raw talents haven’t been close to being met by anything resembling a surface.
Lacking in accuracy to the left, middle, and right, there isn’t much for Darnold to hang onto for his deep passing resume. New Jets head coach Robert Saleh has sung some praises about his quarterback, but so did Kliff Kingsbury when asked about Josh Rosen. We know they had a great, long lasting relationship, so there’s no reason not to expect the same from Darnold and Saleh.
But even if the Jets hang onto their former first round pick, they still have to build an offensive line and improve the receiving corps for him. And based on how well he’s fared thus far, is the investment in him still worth it? His peak performance is astonishingly good, but the problem is that shows up for about 10 plays a season and never appears beyond that.
I fear it’s too late. Keeping Gase for two years left The Darnold’s foundation in ruin. It’ll take a miracle for the Jets to get a Drew Brees-esque surgence from him, and I’ll be surprised if he isn’t traded.
Longest Pass Completion: 40 air yards, 5 YAC (Week 12 vs. MIA, 12:20 1st Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 15 at LAR (12:59 2nd Quarter)
Plays like this show who Darnold could have been if the gaze of Gase didn’t turn his career into stone. As is the case with Burrow’s best throw, this excellent pass to Braxton Berrios can’t be hauled in, resulting in an Accurate Incompletion. At least the Jets won this game. (wait that’s not good either…) Accurate Incompletion.
28. Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard (San Francisco 49ers)
Wait a minute, why are there three quarterbacks here instead of one? Well, the problem with the 49ers is not one of their quarterbacks individually threw enough deep passes to qualify, so I had to combined Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard into one hideously deformed quarterback for the team to even be on this year’s study.
In terms of deep accuracy, Garoppolo was 1/9 for a percentage of 11.11%, while Beathard was 4/10 for 40%. The team is saved from ranking any lower because of Mullens, who was 7/14 in accuracy for a 50% rate.
Coincidentally, Mullens’ deep tape was the most fun to sit through. He sucks, but at least his downfield passing had a few cool plays in the mix. Injuries did not help the cause for Garoppolo, but there’s a possibility his time with the 49ers may come to an end soon, as Kyle Shanahan is reported to have his handsome signal caller on thin ice.
This is just bizarre altogether, but at least Mullens’ deep passing tape prevented this group from sinking further into a bottomless pit.
Longest Pass Completion: (C.J. Beathard) 60 air yards, 0 YAC (Week 15 at DAL, 0:07 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: (Nick Mullens) Week 10 at NO (3:01 4th Quarterback)
This isn’t that deep of a deep pass, but there’s not much to choose from. Having said that, this is a fantastic play under heavy pressure, and proof that Mullens was the best deep passer of the three quarterbacks in 2020. 27 air yards, 0 YAC.
27. Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles)
What happened to you, Carson?
Wentz didn’t just go from ranking in the top 10 in deep accuracy to near the bottom that quick. He went from arguably a top 10 passer to a bottom 3 player at his position. Orignally, I chalked off his early struggles due to adjusting to a lack of actual practices and preseason, and in games against the Steelers, Giants, and Ravens seemed to indicate he was getting his groove back.
But no. It was a trick.
Wentz wasn’t just missing receivers, he was missing open receivers by miles, the sort of stuff he was doing in his rookie season. This is shown by the fact that he was dead last in accuracy to open windows, leaving touchdowns and chunk yardage on the turf. Playing with endless combinations of offensive lines and skill players made things worse, but Wentz could not stop taking coverage sacks or locking onto a read that wasn’t open.
These were plays he erased as his career progressed. These were plays we weren’t seeing too much of in 2017, 2018, and 2019. And yet, as quickly as he refined his decision making, his fall back into the pit was twice as quick. We can blame Doug Pederson all we want, and he for sure looked like a fraud without Frank Reich to rely on, but the Eagles have a major problem with a quarterback they pulled out a mortage for.
Now, can Wentz rebound in 2021? Sure, but we don’t know if it’ll be for the Eagles or for another team. And quarterbacks don’t decline this fast, which is a major concern. Then again, I mentioned in last year’s Deep Ball Project that Eagles fans should be proud of him as their starter, so perhaps this is my fault and I cursed him.
Longest Pass Completion: 58 air yards, 5 YAC (Week 1 at WAS, 5:05 1st Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 5 at PIT (0:22 2nd Quarter)
This is who Wentz used to be. He nukes this pass into another stratosphere to John Hightower, and it’s one of the best passes I’ve ever seen him make. Hightower doesn’t seem to agree as this pass goes through his hands. Accurate Incompletion.
26. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Many of us knew Ben Roethlisberger’s success to start 2020 wasn’t going to last. Without a running game of any kind, predictable play calling, and little accuracy to speak of down the field, this is not the same Big Ben that used to be one of the game’s great deep passers.
Yet, you might not get that impression based on the amount of touchdowns Ben threw. He threw 10 of them on 18 completions, an incredible mark. But this masks how much he was missing, as he was the third least accurate passer into open windows and a non factor against pressure. The arm injury he suffered in 2019 drastically made his decline more staggering, but this was a decline that started long before that season. In the seasons prior to that, his deep accuracy was also a liability.
But after an 11-0 start, the Steelers straight up collapsed, doing just enough to win the AFC North but not much else. Making the situation that more painful was losing to the rival Browns at home for the first time in 17 years, and in a playoff game. Ben threw for 500 yards and four touchdowns, but his four interceptions sealed Pittsburgh’s fate from the start.
That’s about how his season as a deep passer went. I’m impressed he threw for as many touchdowns as he did, but they might as well have been lost in the vast sea of shit his other deep passes skipped across.
Longest Pass Completion: 46 air yards, 46 YAC (Week 2 vs. DEN, 6:34 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 2 vs. DEN (6:34 2nd Quarter)
There’s not much more to say about this. It’s a sensational mammoth cannon to Chase Claypool under pressue for an 84-yard touchdown. This is the kind of throw Ben would make with ease back in 2014 and 2015. Those were the days. 46 air yards, 46 YAC.
25. Teddy Bridgewater (Carolina Panthers)
I missed watching Teddy Bridgewater as a starter in the NFL after that brutal knee injury from 2016, but this was not what I had in mind.
Replacing Cam Newton in the eyes of Panthers fans was not going to be easy, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen. Normally I don’t talk much about Inaccurate Completions considering each quarterback has at least 1 or 2 of them. Teddy had 5. F-I-V-E of them. That should be impossible to achieve, and yet the impossible has happened.
Bridgewater also threw for less accurate passes than he had completions, and that’s never a good thing. He fared well on passes of 31-35 yards, but otherwise was well below average as a deep passer. The decision making was there, but the arm strength simply was not, leaving plays on the field for D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson.
However, I can also appreciate that he’s not dead last. Last year, Kyle Allen was the worst deep passer in the 2019-20 Deep Ball Project, and Teddy is Dan Marino in comparison to Allen. Surprisingly, he was 10th in accuracy against pressure for instance. So while his deep passing season was bad, it wasn’t the cyanide trainwreck Allen’s season was a year ago.
Longest Pass Completion: 50 air yards, 35 YAC (Week 7 at New Orleans, 11:06 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 5 at ATL (13:16 2nd Quarter)
Bridgewater left a lot of plays on the field, so appreciate the ones that weren’t, like this beauty to Robby Anderson. 31 air yards, 5 YAC.
24. Drew Lock (Denver Broncos)
I have a weird relationship with Drew Lock’s style of quarterbacking. I’m not a fan of him as a starter, but I’m a fan of him as a quarterback. If this doesn’t make sense, allow me to explain myself.
I’m not going to say Lock is good, because as we know he is not. He’s terrible, but he’s terrible in a fascinating way. His arm talent is tremendous, and with some above average mobility he’s been able to play aggressively down the field. That’s cost him in many scenarios, as he tied for the most interceptions thrown on deep passes in 2020.
Yes he was injured for part of the season, but with a talented receiving corps Lock did not develop on the path the Broncos expected him to, continuing a bad string of quarterback selections from John Elway. There actually isn’t any area he was atrocious in in terms of deep accuracy, but there also wasn’t much he was particularly good at.
As a backup I think Lock could truly shine. But we can’t get there yet, as Denver may want to give him one more chance to see if he can turn into something as a starter. But until then I’ll hold out hope for what one reader described as “Jameis Winston but worse.”
Longest Pass Completion: 50 air yards, 7 YAC (Week 4 at CAR, 4:02 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 7 vs. KC (7:50 1st Quarter)
This is crazy. On the run and this tightly to Tim Patrick, this is part of what excites me when it comes to Drew Lock the player. To be honest it’s been difficult for me to stop watching this throw, it’s that good. 36 air yards, 0 YAC.
23. Nick Foles (Chicago Bears)
The worst part about watching the Chicago Bears by far is putting up with the atrocious All-22 angle shown at Soldier Field, so when two Bears quarterbacks qualify for this year’s Deep Ball Project it feels like I’m in Hell.
It’s not all bad, as Nick Foles had some decent accuracy rankings in 2020, such as on throws down the middle where he placed second. He was also 10th on throws to the left, so that’s another positive. But overall, his tenure in Chicago further mystifies the magical unicorn that is Nick Foles with the Eagles, as he got hot at the right time and has sucked gloriously elsewhere.
So yeah, Foles is not much of a deep passer, and though he was decent against pressure, he was still subpar without pressure in his face. The best we can do is admire that this man once won Super Bowl MVP and continue on with the study.
Longest Pass Completion: 52 air yards, 4 YAC (Week 8 vs. NO, 9:51 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 3 at ATL, 2:00 4th Quarter
Anthony Miller was involved on both of the Bears’ QB’s best deep throws in 2020. This pass was sensational, with perfect accuracy under heavy pressure for the game winning score. 38 air yards, 0 YAC.
22. Philip Rivers (Indianapolis Colts)
As surreal as it was seeing Philip Rivers outside
San Diego Los Angeles, his Colts tenure ended just as soon.
The best I can say about his season as a deep passer was that it was uneven. There’s moments of excellence and moments where there was a reason Rivers called it quits after an early First Round exit in Buffalo. He did finish spectacularly in throws to open windows, placing third overall, but he was also third last in accuracy to tight windows. Somehow, he was also fourth against pressure, continuing an impress career of play under duress.
But whereas he did well on passes of 21-25 and 41+ yards, Rivers also threw five interceptions, tied for the most in 2020. So it’s a mishmash of great and not-so-great deep passing. Still, I’ll take whatever good we got from one of the most under appreciated players of this generation, and at least he went out retiring with one last playoff appearance.
Longest Pass Completion: 50 air yards, 14 YAC (Week 6 vs. CIN, 13:01 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 16 at PIT (4:08 2nd Quarter)
A usual customer at the restaurant of pressure, Rivers was a master in the pocket. For a recent example, here’s this phenomenal touchdown play to Zach Pascal on a bomb. It’s bittersweet to see him leave, but plays like this show just how memorable he was as a quarterback. 48 air yards, 0 YAC.