QBs in Focus: Drop-back Depth

Steve Palazzolo once again slices the league's QB data, this time revealing the leaders at various drop-back depths.

| 3 years ago

QBs in Focus: Drop-back Depth


Though we certainly miss football during the offseason, it’s always a good time to take a step back and analyze our plethora of data.

We’re often so busy grading and collecting data during the season that we’re unable to put a lot of the information to good use. With that said, we’ve decided to declare June as “QB Month” as we break down NFL quarterbacks every which way.

We’re going to examine quarterbacks from a number of situations before looking at each of them individually. The grades and numbers should reveal each quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses from the 2013 season.

As we go through this series, it’s important to understand the relationship between QB Rating (NFL’s version) and PFF Grade.

While QB Rating is obviously supposed to be a QB statistic, it’s actually a better gauge of what the entire offense did in a given situation. This is the type of information that is actually extremely valuable to our NFL team customers as their game planning efforts must go towards stopping an entire passing offense, not just the quarterback.

 If the quarterback throws an easy dump off pass to the RB who then weaves through the defense for the touchdown, it’s certainly not a great indicator of quarterbacking skill as it is the running back and defense accounting for the majority of the work on the play. Of course the QB Rating will look quite shiny in that situation.

On the other hand, PFF Grade is a good indicator of how well the quarterback actually performed in a given situation. Whether they throw an accurate pass that was dropped, or perhaps an inaccurate one that should have been intercepted and the defense dropped, the PFF grade will account for those situations with a positive and a negative grade respectively while QB Rating will simply reflect the 0-for-1 passing.

It’s important to distinguish between QB Rating and PFF grade, though there’s a good chance they’ll match up in most situations.


Dropback Depth

Another new data point here at PFF, we started tracking the depth of the quarterback’s drop in 2013. Rather than counting number of steps, it’s a little easier to track how deep the quarterback drops and then group them later into general categories that represent 3-step, 5-step, and 7-step drops.

The numbers are interesting as it gives even more insight into each team’s scheme, but also each quarteerback’s ability to set up and throw the ball in rhythm. Peyton Manning is meticulous in getting to his 7-8 yard (5-step) depth while inexperienced rookies like Geno Smith appeared to drift much deeper than the play call design. It should be noted that dropback depth is charted as the intial dropback from center and adjusting for pressure is not accounted for in the number.

The new data is sorted into four categories and they are pretty reflective of the quick, intermediate, and deep passing game. The 1-3 yard category is essentially wide receiver screens, end zone fades, and other extremely quick throws, while the 4-6 yard range is generally the 3-step game (1 step from shotgun), the 7-8 yard range corresponds to a 5-step drop (3 steps from shotgun), and finally the 9+ yard range is more of a 7-step drop (5 steps from shotgun.


1-3 Yds

1-3 Yd Drops

•  There were only 286 1-3 yard drops in the NFL with Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer leading the way with 24 apiece.


4-6 Yds (3-step game)

4-6 Yd Drop

4-6 Yd Drop (2)

•  Andy Dalton led the league with 195 4-6 yard drops with Alex Smith just behind him with 186.

•  Phillip Rivers led the league in Accuracy Percentage at 89.4% as well as success percentage at 52.9%

•  Tom Brady was the league’s best on the short drops at +11.1, though his 5.6 YAC/completion was right around league average

•  Michael Vick’s sample size is a small one but he led with 11.4 yards per attempt to go with his league-leading 9.1 YAC per completion. He also dwarfed the rest of the league averaging 9.4 yards depth per target.

•  E.J. Manuel ranked last on quick drops at -8.9, just above Andrew Luck who came in at 7.1

•  Aaron Rodgers (38%) and Matt Flynn (37.7%) led the league with the highest percentage of their drops coming at 4-6 yards.

•  Among the Bottom 5 in fewest percentages of drop-backs in the 4-6 yard range resides two Texans in Matt Schaub (7.3%) and Case Keenum (7.9%), two Browns in Jason Campbell (4.9%) and Brandon Weeden (9.0%) as well as Joe Flacco (8.4%) who will be running an offense similar to the Texans next year.


7-8 Yds (5-step game)

7-8 Yd Drop

7-8 Yd Drop (2)

•  PFF’s three top-graded quarterbacks reside at the top of the 7-8 yard drop list in Peyton Manning (+33.8), Philip Rivers (+19.4), and Drew Brees (+19.1).

•  76.6% of Rivers’ drops came in the 7-8 yard range to lead the league, followed by Manning at 65.6% and Brady at 65.4%.

•  Though the Packers relied heavily on the quick game with Aaron Rodgers last season, his 11.3 average depth of target on 7-8 yard drops was the league’s highest, so they got the ball down the field more than most in the intermediate game

•  Brees had one of the quickest releases at 2.51 average time to throw and he led the league in Accuracy Percentage at 78.4%.

•  Josh McCown ranked fifth at +15.7 to go with a league-leading 121.2 QB Rating and 51.7% success percentage.

•  Jason Campbell had the lowest percentage of his drop-backs in the 7-8 range at 27.5%, followed by Cam Newton at 39.1% and Jake Locker at 39.9%.


9+ Yds (7-step game)

9+ Yd Drop

9+ Yd Drop (2)

•  Jay Cutler and Andrew Luck both did their best work on deep drops grading at +13.5 and +11.8respectively.

•  Nick Foles led the league in most major categories, including QB Rating (131.5), success percentage (45.3%), Accuracy Percentage (81.6%), and yards per attempt (11.4).

•  Newton led the league with 223 deep drops and he fared well at +7.4.

•  Interesting to see some of the league’s top quarterbacks take so few deep drops, including Aaron Rodgers at a league-low 6.1% of his drop-backs as well as Peyton Manning (7.7%), Philip Rivers (10.5%), and Tom Brady (12.2%).

•  Though the QB Rating doesn’t reflect it, Geno Smith did his best work on the deep drop at +1.5.

•  Russell Wilson led the league with an average depth of target of 19.9 


For the entire set of “QBs in Focus” posts, click here.


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| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Chris

    Lucks 3 step drop chart shows a -7.1 grade, but the comment below the chart says he comes in 2nd to last with +7.1.

    • Jeff

      Think about this one…

      • Chris

        I did think about it, and then I pointed out the typo?

    • Steve Palazzolo

      Was a typo, we fixed it. Thanks.

      • Robert Snell

        Thanks for the breakdown cause the more drop back steps the better the Oline needs to be… Gives a good perspective on how good each teams Oline played last year

  • LightsOut85

    Too bad you just started charting it, I’d love to know River’s 7-step% from last season (when it seemed like Norv was consistently calling them despite the line’s poor ability to protect (esp. Mike Harris))

  • Brian Dugan

    As a Packers fan, I would assume that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t execute a lot of 9-step drops because of major pass protection issues. This year, the offensive line (if they stay healthy) looks stronger than they have in years, maybe longer drops will follow.

    • Kevin

      GB actually grades out really good on PFF as far as pass protection goes.

      As an example, in 2013, GB graded out as the 4th best OL in pass blocking efficiency and also gave up the 4th fewest pressures. They gave up the 8th most sacks at 28 while the league average was 23(Det was best at 10 and Mia was worst at 41). The difference is they gave up the least combined hits(6th best at 20) and hurires(1st and 94).

      GB’s OL often looks worse based on raw sacks numbers but on PFF Rodgers is often credited with more sacks than a majority of QB’s. In 2011 Rodgers was credited with 8 sacks, 2012 he had 10, and 2013 he had 5.

      So even though GB allowed 51 sacks in 2012, GB’s OL was only charged with 33 of those while Rodgers had 10.

      • Brian Dugan

        That’s really interesting. Rodgers definitely has a tendency to hold the ball as long as possible to make a play… I guess my question becomes: Does Green Bay give up less pressures because they attempt less down-the-field throws?

        • Kevin

          IDK but Rodgers is top 5 in time to throw and top 10 in time to sack. So it isn’t like he is being pressured really fast on a consistent basis.

          Really he is holding onto the ball longer than a majority of the QB’s in the NFL and has more time to throw than most QB’s also.

          He is really middle of the pack in deep passing as far as attempts even though he is VERY effective on these throws, GB doesn’t attempt a ton of them.