Deep passes are the most exciting play in televised football—the viewing audience can't see the situation downfield until the ball (and the camera) make it down there, so the play always feels, in that tiny moment before we catch up, like a sure touchdown or interception. It's well known that not every QB in the league has the ability (or proclivity) to throw a good deep ball, but we want to know: Who are best deeper passers in the NFL?
Let's look at this from a few different angles. For starters, let's look at who's actually throwing it downfield. Pro Football Focus has tracked every single passing attempt at a target 20+ yards down the field going back to 2008. The chart at the top shows, for this year's QBs (min. 150 total attempts), who's thrown deep passes the most often over the six seasons, as a percentage of total attempts. There are some surprises in there—I didn't know Jake Locker chucked it so often—but for the most part this conforms with general assumptions about who have the "strong arms" in the league. Slingers like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco are towards the top, while dink-and-dunkers like Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder, Alex Smith, and Matt Schaub are towards the bottom.
But who's throwing the most accurate deep throws? Pro Football Focus also tracks receiver drops, so instead of completion percentage—which knocks the QB for throws that should have been caught—we can use PFF's "accuracy" figure, which is a measurement of how many throws were on target (completions + drops over attempts):
Well that might be why I hadn't heard too much about Jake Locker—while he ranks first in the league in deep pass attempt rate, just 35.6 percent of his deep looks are on target, which puts him at 26th in the league. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick have been accurate on over 50 percent of their deep throws so far in their careers, which is just absurd, joining Drew Brees at the very top (with Geno Smith and Aaron Rodgers close behind). Mike Glennon and Matt Schaub are notable in that they attempt very few deep passes, but when they do they've been very accurate. Finally, it's interesting to see that while Eli Manning has seen a lot of success with the deep ball, Joe Flacco has actually been pretty terrible.
Accuracy isn't a perfectly fair measure though; a 25-yard first down is great, but it's not as good as a 50-yard touchdown, even if that throw is harder to hit. Here's a chart of yards per attempt by QB on 20+ yard targets, still from 2008 through present:
Drew Brees takes over the top spot, thanks in no small part to the absurd downfield dominance of Jimmy Graham. Joe Flacco joins a very sad group of passers who are at least 10% below the league average, although Tom Brady, Jay Cutler, and Matt Stafford aren't far behind. The Jets face the Ravens this weekend in a critical game for the AFC playoff picture, and while a very successful deep passer will be taking the field, it probably isn't the QB you'd expect it to be.
Data via Pro Football Focus