10. Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers)
No top 10 pick in the 2020 draft was universally slandered more than Justin Herbert at No. 6. He had bust written all over him, and it would be all too easy to watch as he would struggle to make a leap in the NFL after his last season at Oregon left more questions than answers about his career.
Herbert was expected to fail in year one. And holy shit that did not happen.
See, Herbert wasn’t just fun in 2020, he was good, astonishingly good at times. If you believed he’d break the rookie passing touchdown record (Cam Newton still holds the overall rookie TD record), please stop lying because you’re very bad at it. But it’s true, behind an awful offensive line and a coaching staff that didn’t understand clock management, the rookie thrived and in a big way.
That didn’t mean some vintage Chargers shit wasn’t going to go down, and in fact it would take until Week 7 for Herbert to win his first start in the NFL because of special teams and clock management blunders. It’s a miracle this team even finished 7-9, and I can say that without deflecting most of the blame on the quarterback. I said most. After all, the usual rookie growing pains were experienced by Herbert, but nowhere near the extent I was expecting.
Now, in terms of deep passing, where do we begin? How about we start with tight windows, where Herbert was the second most accurate deep passer in that area (also throwing 5 touchdowns!!!). That’s unheard of for a 22-year-old just getting warmed up in the big leagues. He also finished inside the top five throwing to his left, in clean pockets, inside the pocket, on throws of 26-30 yards, and on throws of 41+. He also left his mark on the end zone, as his 9 touchdowns were tied for 6th most in 2020.
Really the only bad part about Herbert’s rookie season was his haircut, and even then I can understand why he did it. When you’re this good as a rookie, you can do whatever you want and no one should have the right to say otherwise, no matter how bad the decision might be. Packed with an endless amount of dimes, I cannot wait to see how Herbert will build on a phenomenal first season.
Longest Pass Completion: 58 air yards, 4 YAC (Week 4 at TB, 8:24 1st Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 11 vs. NYJ (13:00 2nd Quarter)
You’ve gotta be kidding me. I knew Herbert had a mammoth arm going into the season, but this colossal moonshot to Tyron Johnson has to cement his arm as 99 Club worthy. 57 air yards, 4 YAC.
9. Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions)
This is uncharted territory for Matthew Stafford. In previous seasons his deep accuracy never ranked high from my charting, but that never meant he was a horrible deep passer, just inconsistent in terms of accuracy.
Something happened in 2020. And that “something” catapulted Stafford into the top 10 in deep accuracy for the first time in the history of the Deep Ball Project.
It’s bittersweet, as the longtime Detroit legend will soon make a new home with the Rams in March. And this is when he finally gets a great deep accuracy ranking. Such is the case for the Lions, who seem to be eternally cursed with bad officiating and a natural gift for wasting homegrown talent.
But Detroit also meant a lot to Stafford and his family. It was his home, a place he grew fond of as the years went by and a city I’m sure he’ll miss dearly no matter how successful he is in the NFC West. He finished one last season in the Motor City with his best deep passing to date.
At 83.33% Stafford was the most accurate deep passer from a clean pocket, and as a testament to how ridiculous of an outlier that number is, consider that second place was 66.7%. He was also first on throws of 31-35 yards, being accurate on all 7 of his passes in that area. No slouch on throws of 36-40 either, those passes had him ranked third in that area.
Stafford had a bit of accuracy struggles against pressure, but his placement into tight windows improved significantly over previous seasons. And for the first time in his career, he escaped the Deep Ball Project without throwing one interception. His 9 Accurate Incompletions were tied for 9th most, granting a big boost in his Accuracy Percentage.
This was done despite playing in an offense that focused less on deep passing than in 2019. Stafford is going to a better scenario with the Rams, who look to be a more aggressive passing team with a mobile, big armed passer at the helm. That leaves Jared Goff to command the tanking Lions, and I feel like a huge upgrade is among us in LA.
Stafford left Detroit on a bang in deep accuracy. Here’s to further success with Sean McVay.
Longest Pass Completion: 61 air yards, 16 YAC (Week 8 vs. IND, 12:52 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 7 at ATL (0:19 4th Quarter)
What Jesus did to water Matthew Stafford did to fourth quarter comebacks in Detroit. There’s no shortage of miracles of his time in the clutch, and this throw into the minus window to Kenny Golladay ranks among my favorite throws he’s ever made in this situation. 39 air yards, 0 YAC.
8. Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns)
Baker Mayfield’s first season outside the top 5 in deep accuracy still lands him at No. 8, and with the added benefit of helping end the Browns long postseason drought.
I didn’t even think we’d get to this point. It looked like Baker was on the verge of exiting, and yet I felt I would come out of it at least appreciating the small amount of consistency he gave Cleveland and the hope he created in his rookie season. Enter Kevin Stefanski, and suddenly this is looking closer to the quarterback that broke the rookie passing touchdown record.
What Bernie Kosar was for my dad’s generation of Browns fans, Baker Mayfield is to my generation. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a quarterback we can be proud of, even if he doesn’t have the voodoo level playmaking of some of his peers. I guess you can say Cleveland loves his confidence and the improvements Stefanski helped implant in him during year No. 3.
Let’s add kerosene to the fires of Lake Erie. On Baker’s first 12 passes of the season he was only accurate on four of them, which might explain why he finished outside the top five this season. After Odell Beckham Jr.’s, injury, Mayfield was accurate on 19 of his following 29 deep passes. I think Beckham makes the Browns better, but it sucks that Baker truly got used to the new system at the same time Odell’s season ended.
We can look back on it with less misery thanks to the Browns’ playoff run and Baker’s revived play. Surprisingly, one area Baker showed growth in was against pressure on deep passes, finishing 10th there. In the shotgun he finished just outside the top 10, and was inside the top 10 under center, fifth on throws of 21-25 yards, and in the top 10 outside the pocket.
Helping was the improved efficiency of his receiving corps, as Baker only suffered two Accurate Incompletions all season compared to the 10 he suffered a year ago. He and Stefanski have not just given the Browns hope, but further belief that this team can compete for a Super Bowl, that perhaps this team can do something special after all. Time will tell, but the duo coming out of this with a playoff win in their first season together in a season without authentic practice is special.
Longest Pass Completion: 50 air yards, 2 YAC (Week 2 vs. CIN, 12:02 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 2 vs. CIN (12:02 2nd Quarter)
This was the moment Browns fans held onto the 2020 team and never let go. Whereas last season Baker’s best throw was a play Odell Beckham couldn’t haul in, his best throw this season was a launch Beckham proudly held onto. 50 air yards, 2 YAC.
7. Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills)
Josh Allen was supposed to prove how laughable his selection was in year three, that he was holding a talented Bills team back from their true potential. There was no way they would win a playoff game or become one of the AFC’s elite with this flawed quarterback goofily missing open receivers.
In year three Josh Allen
really sucked instead made perhaps the greatest single season stride forward I have ever seen from a quarterback. How far of a leap was it? Well, he now has more MVP votes than Russell Wilson. That far.
Help came in the form of Stefon Diggs. The two benefitted as they formed an unforgettable duo, earning career years for the two and spots on the Associated Press’ All-Pro Team. In 2019 Allen was dead last in accuracy inside the pocket and 29th out of 32 quarterbacks in overall deep accuracy. In 2020 that made a slight improvement to ninth in accuracy inside the pocket and seventh overall.
The increase in accuracy lent to Allen ranking fourth in air yards (975) and tied for fifth in touchdowns (10). He always had the physical talent, but by minimizing the misses he’s been able to send Buffalo’s offense into the top, transforming the team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Further testifying the quarterback’s magnificent strides in quality, Allen was the most accurate passer on throws of 21-25 yards. He still has work to do on throws of 41+ and into tight windows, but this season was a big statement for him, showing not just that he belonged, but that he could play at a high level and dominate in an AFC East that was the personal playground of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for two decades.
No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills, and no one fires a moonshot quite like Josh Allen.
Longest Pass Completion: 56 air yards, 6 YAC (Week 15 at DEN, 9:03 3rd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 15 at DEN, 9:03 3rd Quarter
This is impossible work throwing a pass this high in the air, this far, and in stride. This is the Good Josh Allen people have been talking about for the past couple of years, there’s no doubting it. 56 air yards, 6 YAC.
6. Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans)
If you were expecting Deshaun Watson to top this year’s Deep Ball Project, I’m sorry to say your journey ends here. But that doesn’t make what he accomplished in 2020 any less special, as he resumed his deep passing greatness in spite of an awful situation around him.
Losing DeAndre Hopkins to one of the worst trades in NFL history was bad enough, but none of us were prepared for the shit blizzard the Texans would have to ride through. Bad fourth quarter luck, constant sacks, bad game management, crap defense, shuffling receiving corps, and an eerie sense that something was wrong in the front office haunted the team and it haunted them bad. But not Watson. In fact, he had a career year on a 4-12 team, putting together a season that cemented him in the elite conversation for good.
Watson was phenomenal in areas such as throwing to his left, throwing under interior pressure, inside the pocket, and on throws of 36-40 yards. He continued his hot streak under center, finishing tied for seventh in accuracy to that area, and his 896 air yards were fifth most without Hopkins.
That’s the key part. Despite what his detractors will say, Watson proved he didn’t need Hopkins to be elite. The team did, but Watson was already becoming something special whether or not Nuk was involved. Despite how flawed the roster construction was, this was not a team that should’ve been anywhere less than 8-10 wins. A quarterback this talented guarantees you 10 wins a year, it’s just that Houston was so bad it subtracted six wins from the year.
Whether Watson played his last down in Houston or not, he’s what the streets call a generational talent. He’s a top five, maybe top three, quarterback, one of the game’s current elite passers, and wherever he goes next should be thrilled with his deep pass happy style of play. Smart, calculated, and aggressive, he’s one of the most complete, well-rounded players in football and a gift to a generation of fans already used to mobile deep passing freaks.
Longest Pass Completion: 60 air yards, 1 YAC (Week 6 at TEN, 8:44 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 6 at TEN (8:44 4th Quarter)
This might not look that impressive considering Will Fuller waits on this a bit, but hear me out. This travels 60 yards in the air on a behemoth arc to the end zone. This is not a normal throw. It’s also an awesome one. 60 air yards, 1 YAC.
5. Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
Another season has passed where Russell Wilson does not have the coveted MVP or a single MVP vote. Who cares? This is Russell Wilson we’re referring to, a quarterback with a superhuman gift of deep passing sensation.
Wilson was having an all time great season in 2020, in his first seven games. In that stretch he was accurate on 17 of 25 deep passes, or a 68% rate. That easily would’ve made him No. 1 for this year’s Deep Ball Project had he just been able to hold onto that rate, but sadly fate did not see it this way.
For the remainder of the season, Wilson’s deep accuracy regressed to 17/34, or a 50% rate. It’s a second consecutive year where an outstanding start couldn’t last and he cooled off. I can’t particularly explain why that is, it just happened. This time, it wasn’t enough to keep him outside the top five in deep accuracy.
Wilson threw for over 1,000 air yards for a second consecutive season, and four touchdowns in tight windows and under pressure. Speaking of tight windows, he finished third in accuracy to this area. It wasn’t the only area he finished third in, as he was also third on throws of 31-35 yards.
Topping this all off, Wilson was one of five quarterbacks to throw at least 10 touchdowns on the year, putting himself in some truly worthwhile company. His God given talent of quickly releasing deep passes at a high arc gives his receivers favorable opportunities in tightly contested windows, several of which involved this touchdowns.
Will Wilson ever put together a full MVP campaign soon? It’s difficult to say in a league that has the likes of Patrick Mahomes and a bunch of other young stars in the mix. But what’s guaranteed is Wilson will always have a spectacular season of deep passing. That much is true and shall remain true for as long as he doesn’t suck in this league.
Longest Pass Completion: 60 air yards, 0 YAC (Week 9 at BUF, 9:01 4th Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 7 at ARI (0:51 2nd Quarter)
As is often the case, Tyler Lockett is the recipient of a stratosphere shot from Wilson, and this is one of the best passes I’ve ever seen the QB make. I don’t and also do understand how this was completed when the odds looked impossible, because that’s just how good Russ is. 54 air yards, 0 YAC.
4. Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals)
The most accurate deep passer a season ago, Kyler Murray suffered a bit of a drop off but remains inside the top five for his second season.
You’re probably thinking that the injury he suffered late in the year prevented Kyler from ranking No. 1 for a second straight season. Actually, the first four games of the season was his worst stretch of deep accuracy, as he was accurate on just four of 13 pass attempts past 21 yards. Despite playing with injuries and a scheme that forced way too many screen passes, Murray was accurate on 26 of his remaining 39 passes, a 66.67% rate.
His receivers gave him a decent amount of yards after the catch, but also 10 Accurate Incompletions, making Murray one of four quarterbacks with this distinction. Trading for DeAndre Hopkins helped the Cardinals in ways Kliff Kingsbury was not able to comprehend, as his situational play calling and usage of Hopkins got worse as the season progressed. Combined with Murray’s injuries, it set the stage for a second half collapse where the team went 2-5 after starting 6-3.
Murray’s deep accuracy remained excellent throughout. He was inside the top five on throws 36-40 and 41+ yards, to his left, in the shotgun, against pressure, interior pressure, and edge pressure, and while throwing into tight windows. He was limited to just six deep pass attempts outside the pocket, but with how good he was inside the pocket I could care less. Or is it couldn’t?
Murray’s 2020 season finished with several bruises, but from a deep passing perspective it was another phenomenal stretch. I look forward to seeing what he can do in a 16-game stretch where he’s actually healthy throughout.
Longest Pass Completion: 58 air yards, 6 YAC (Week 9 vs. MIA, 14:31 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 2 vs. WAS (3:31 2nd Quarter)
Yes, The Hail Murray would’ve been way too easy to fit here, but I’m going to throw dynamite into the woodchipper with a different throw. This nuke outside the pocket to Christian Kirk will do quite nicely. 52 air yards, 2 YAC.
3. Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs)
It ended in the first blowout loss of his career, but Patrick Mahomes once against finished in the top three for deep accuracy with one of the most exciting displays of downfield passing yet.
Often considered Kermit on HGH, Mahomes arguably has the best arm in football, capable to launching 50 yard bombs anywhere on the field at any time. We said this of Aaron Rodgers, yet with this guy it feels like it happens twice as much as any quarterback. That’s also why his hype is this high. When you’re getting tackled to the ground yet find a way to fit passes into windows that don’t even exist, you’re doing something right.
Sadly, the Chiefs’ receiving corps left a share on plays on the field. Mahomes led the league in Accurate Incompletions with 14, an infuriating mark considering he has the likes of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce at his disposal. But the drops and shortcomings at the catch point were considerably more than in previous seasons, a rate that helped cost Kansas City a second consecutive Super Bowl and the establishment of a dynasty.
Still, this much is true: Boomers had Dan Marino, Gen X had Kurt Warner, and Millennials and Zoomer have Patrick Mahomes, that is to say a quarterback who breaks records in his first three seasons as a starter and makes quarterback stats fun for the rest of us. Once again, his deep accuracy was in top form.
Mahomes was the most accurate deep passer throwing to the middle of the field. His tight window accuracy also improved, as he finished fifth in that category. The only area of the field he struggled throwing to was to his left, as he otherwise finished in the top five throwing to the middle and right parts of the field. He could’ve been better throwing under pressure, but he was masterful in the shotgun and in clean pockets, plus his ability to squeeze the last drop out of every play by rolling outside the pocket is second to none.
Throwing for the third most touchdowns downfield in 2020, Mahomes also threw six touchdowns into tight windows, an incredible feat. It was a season where his receivers weren’t quite as efficient on deep passes as in the prior two seasons, but one that wasn’t enough to diminish all that he’s accomplished up to this point. At one point I thought he was putting together the most exciting season I’ve ever seen from a quarterback, a testament to how easy he was making playing the position look.
It isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Longest Pass Completion: 60 air yards, 12 YAC (Week 12 at TB, 6:59 1st Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 2 at LAC (12:58 4th Quarter)
Just about any completion from Mahomes will do, but how about this swing and a drive to Tyreek Hill against the Chargers? This is one of the best throws he’ll ever make, which says a lot because he’ll no doubt have about 25 next season that make me say the exact same thing. 55 air yards, 8 YAC.
2. Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders)
It’s happened. An AFC West quarterback was more accurate down the field than Mahomes, and just barely.
Derek Carr was looking outside the top 10 in deep accuracy for previous last two seasons, so the front office helped him have his best season since 2016 by going out and getting Nelson Agholor and Henry Ruggs the third. For Carr, it’s never been that he’s missed on deep attempts, but that he wasn’t throwing them to begin with, or at least at the rate we wanted him to. With the addition of Agholor and Ruggs and the continued greatness of Darren Waller, his deep accuracy was sent out of orbit as he was one of two quarterbacks to finish with an Accuracy Percentage of 60%.
Carr also had a considerable advantage over the rest in tight windows, finishing by far as the most accurate deep passer in that area. He was also first in accuracy from the shotgun and throwing to his right, while also improving in accuracy against pressure and finishing in the top three on throws of 26-30 yards and inside the pocket.
The result was a very fun deep passing season, one undermined by infamously stupid red zone play calling and a defense that did not play defense. It’s hard to fault Carr for the mediocrity the Raiders showcased in another second half collapse, as nearly losing to the Jets will raise concerns about your team every time. He did get some help in terms of YAC, finishing with 202 in that category. That helped him finish fourth in deep passing yards as well (902).
To sum it all up, Carr was wonderful as a deep passer in 2020, offering consistent precision and thrills that made the Raiders offense one of the league’s most fascinating throughout the season. And he was just short of first place in deep accuracy.
Longest Pass Completion: 52 air yards, 4 YAC (Week 9 at LAC, 11:00 3rd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 9 at LAC (13:26 3rd Quarter)
A dime to Nelson Agholor for the 45-yard touchdown. I wonder how that Eagles fan is doing right now…48 air yards, 5 YAC
1. Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)
For the first time since 2014, the league’s MVP finished as the best deep passer in the Deep Ball Project’s history.
That quarterback was also Aaron Rodgers.
I wasn’t sure if we were going to see anything like this from him again. In addition to the Packers failing to even upgrade the receiving corps in the offseason, Rodgers’ deep accuracy fell off a cliff in his previous two seasons. 2019 was largely the result of a Week 17 game at Detroit where he was 3 of 14 in accuracy down the field. As you can see here, there was no such disaster this time.
Like Mahomes, Rodgers finished with four dropped interceptions down the field. Also like Mahomes, who cares? The plays Rodgers was making easily offset the mistakes defenses weren’t capitalizing on, and he was making plays because he was pissed. Jordan Love unleashed a Super Saiyan quarterback once more, giving the 37-year-old arguably the best season of his entire career.
Oddly enough, Rodgers didn’t place first in a single accuracy category outside of overall deep accuracy. He did finish second in five categories, just coming up short of pulling together more stats he could be No. 1 in. However, he also threw for the most deep passing yards (1,356) and touchdowns (14) in 2020, doing so while escaping without throwing a single interception. As indicated before, there was luck involved in this regard but also skill.
This kind of season was needed from Rodgers. Even at 37 he still possesses a mystical arm cannon and enough mobility to please any casual fan. The Packers offered him incredible pass protection for most of the year, yet even when he wasn’t kept clean he was still making plays at a high level. After two season where it looked like his deep passing would never return to true form, getting pissed off made sure that wouldn’t happen for a third consecutive season.
As such, Rodgers put together a blockbuster year, frequently becoming a cheat code and kicking the crap out of defenses through the air and to receivers with some of the funniest names in NFL history. And he was doing this while throwing the ball downfield more than any quarterback except for some guy named Tom Brady.
That’s the greatest gift Matt Lafleur has offered the MVP. It may not seem like much, but compared to Mike McCarthy’s last four seasons in Green Bay, Lafleur has allowed Aaron Rodgers to be Aaron Rodgers. In spite of that infamous fourth down play call against the Buccaneers, his head coach was aggressive for most of the season and let Rodgers step on the gas consistently.
The result was a magical 2020 campaign that I’d wager as Rodgers’ very best. And from a deep passing perspective it’s the most accurate from the last three seasons of charting. That’s special. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen from him this high up on the list, because it can’t get much better than this.
Longest Pass Completion: 59 air yards, 2 YAC (Week 9 at SF, 2:00 2nd Quarter)
Best Deep Throw: Week 3 at NO (11:59 2nd Quarter)
Despite what it looks like, this didn’t lead Allen Lazard too far. He’s a bit of a goof, as he tripped just before the catch point, but not before hauling in this Exodia level moonshot from Rodgers. 51 air yards, 6 YAC.
With everything added up, let’s take a look at the final chart of deep passing: All throws of 21+ air yards.
All Throws of 21+ Yards
I want to thank everyone for taking the time to read this edition of the 2020-21 Deep Ball Project, we’ll see you again next year. Until then, stay safe, and rest easy!