Three Years of Deep Passing

| 5 years ago

Three Years of Deep Passing

We continue our three year Signature Stats series by taking a look at one of the most exciting plays in football: the deep pass. Here we will take a look at how well quarterbacks did when targeting receivers at least 20 yards down the field. While these are high risk plays–no quarterback had a completion percentage above 50%–they are also high reward, with over 28% of deep completions resulting in touchdowns.

There were 42 quarterbacks over the last three years with at least 50 attempts that saw the ball in the air for 20 yards or more. In some cases you will see the All-Pro quarterbacks you expect on the various lists, but you will also see some players that could surprise you. And, while plenty of quarterbacks have found success throwing deep, there is one who stands out from the rest.  


Who Is Throwing Deep

We’ll look at two different ways of seeing who is throwing the ball deep the most. First off are the quarterbacks that had the highest portion of their throws as deep passes, in other words, we take their deep pass attempts and dividing it by their total pass attempts. At the top of the list there are three quarterbacks with a reputation for running the ball in Tim Tebow, Vince Young, and Cam Newton. Logical as defenses will prepare to keep men close to the line of scrimmage to contain them, often leaving the deep ball open. While this list shows who has the deep ball as the biggest part of their game, it doesn’t necessarily illustrate those who are good at it. It isn’t until the sixth quarterback on the list that we see someone who is an elite passer, Eli Manning.


RankPlayerCurrent TeamDeep AttTotal Att% Att
1Tim TebowNYJ7735321.81%
2Vince YoungBUF9352917.58%
3Cam NewtonCAR8951717.21%
4Matt MooreMIA10662816.88%
5Bruce GradkowskiCIN5132615.64%
6Eli ManningNYG248163715.15%
7Michael VickPHI12080714.87%
8Joe FlaccoBAL225153014.71%
9Derek AndersonCAR7350914.34%
10Ben RoethlisbergerPIT191140813.57%


Since you’re probably more interested in who’s had more success throwing the ball deep rather than just who has heaved the largest percentage of their passes, we’ll move on to the quarterbacks with the most deep passing yards. This list looks a lot more like what you would expect out of a list of quality quarterbacking. Five of the six QBs initially voted to the Pro Bowl form the Top 5 here, with Tom Brady being the exception. The most surprising name on the list might be Donovan McNabb, who missed a combined 13 games the last two seasons for being benched. Only 105 of those yards came from his stint with the Vikings.


RankPlayerCurrent TeamDeep Yds
1Drew BreesNO3457
2Eli ManningNYG3306
3Aaron RodgersGB3181
4Philip RiversSD2878
5Ben RoethlisbergerPIT2482
6Joe FlaccoBAL2247
7Matt SchaubHOU2081
8Tony RomoDAL2014
9Donovan McNabbFA1936
10Tom BradyNE1935


The Touchdown King

While it’s always nice to have the big play and rack-up the yards, it’s that much nicer when it results in points. While the usual suspects are on the list again, at the top is Drew Brees with an astounding 10 more deep touchdown passes than any other quarterback in this period. While there is no one single statistic (outside of our PFF pass rating) to show who the best deep passer is, the sizable lead that Brees enjys here gives a good idea of how much ahead of his competition he really is. Brady throws a lower portion of deep balls than the average quarterback, but ended up high on this list as well. Another nice feat by a great quarterback is Peyton Manning making this list despite missing all of last year. One name that might surprise you is Mark Sanchez who has been consistently putting up six or seven deep touchdown passes every year.


RankPlayerCurrent TeamDeep TD
1Drew BreesNO41
2Eli ManningNYG31
3Philip RiversSD29
4Aaron RodgersGB27
4Joe FlaccoBAL27
6Tom BradyNE24
7Tony RomoDAL21
8Peyton ManningDEN20
9Ben RoethlisbergerPIT19
10Matt SchaubHOU17
10Mark SanchezNYJ17


Accuracy of Throws

Finally, we take a look at the quarterbacks with the highest Accuracy Percentage on deep throws. While Accuracy Percentage weeds out some throws (like spikes and balls batted at the line), in this case, the only factor that makes it different than completion percentage is drops.

For the third time in a row, Brees tops the list, assuring his spot as the top deep passer in the past three seasons. Two of the three men competing for the Miami Dolphins’ starting job are in the Top 10, offering hope for Chad Ochocinco finding himself back on the highlight reels. While Andy Dalton has the second-highest completion percentage for quarterbacks on deep passes, the fact that he has yet to have a ball dropped on his long throws hurts his accuracy percentage relative to the rest of the quarterbacks.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you need one set of statistics to point to in a “JaMarcus Russell is a bust” conversation, this is it: of the 34 deep passes Russell threw in 2009, just one was completed … and seven were intercepted. Fellow 2007 draft class bust Brady Quinn wasn’t much better, with just five completions on his 34 deep passes in 2009. Those numbers contributed to keeping either from attempting a pass since that season.


RankPlayerCurrent TeamDeep CompDeep AttDeep DropsDeep Comp%Deep Acc%
1Drew BreesNO1012061049.0%53.9%
2Michael VickPHI51120942.5%50.0%
3Vince YoungBUF3893840.9%49.5%
4David GarrardMIA51115344.3%47.0%
5Eli ManningNYG1022481441.1%46.8%
6Andy DaltonCIN2860046.7%46.7%
7Aaron RodgersGB792001439.5%46.5%
8Matt SchaubHOU58136542.6%46.3%
9Matt MooreMIA40106937.7%46.2%
10Tony RomoDAL56128343.8%46.1%


While these numbers give a good general sense of the top deep-passing QBs, the best method would be to dig into our premium statistics and have a look at each quarterback’s ‘passes by direction’ chart. There you’ll find their PFF rating when throwing into each area of the field; not just deep throws, but at various distances and in each direction. For example, you would find there that over three years Drew Brees has a +53.5 passing grade on deep throws alone. The PFF ratings play a vital role simply because not every deep throw is equal. Throwing to someone who beat the man covering them and makes themselves open is a lot different than a late game desperation attempt that needs to be exactly on the mark. However, these numbers give a pretty good indication.

In our next three-year look at the quarterbacks, we’ll examine how they’ve fared under pressure.


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| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • uppercut

    quick question (possible discrepancy): Looking at Philip River’s passing-by-direction (2011), all 3 grades ( “total aimed” & “total” on the right side, and “all plays” on the bottom table) differ from any of the 4 grades (namely passing) on the QB position grade page. The “all plays” one comes closest to his passing grade on the QB page, but it’s still a bit off. Is there a reason (like 1 of them being normalized & the other not?) or was this just an error?

    (before posting this I also just examined Cam Newton & Tony Romo (2 non-playoff QBs & Romo was like Rivers where the “all plays” was the closest, but all 3 were still off, and all 3 of Cam Newton’s grades (on the pass by direction page) were very off (the “all plays” was in fact the MOST off of his passing grade))

    • Nathan Jahnke

      Sorry for the delayed response.

      First off, the reason that there might be a difference between total aimed passes, and a sum of all passes by direction is rounding. Each of the passes by direction is rounded to the nearest tenth, which could differ with the rounding for the total aimed passes. Without rounding those two numbers would be the same.

      Second, the reason that all of those are different from the PFF Pass grade is because the PFF Pass grade is a combination of both the total(both aimed passes and non-aimed passes), as well as plays that were intended to be pass plays but the quarterback didn’t end up passing the ball(like a sack). There are also plays that are passes, but the play is called back due to a penalty. We can give grades on those plays, but they wouldn’t show up in his total pass numbers. I might be missing some pass plays where we grade a quarterback that doesn’t count as a pass attempt, but those would be the main examples.