Skip to main content

Next Gen Stats' top 10 NFL deep passers of 2021: Three QBs playing for new teams in '22 earn spot

With summer upon us, it's time to renew my annual tradition of using Next Gen Stats to reflect on some of last season's top performers and rank them accordingly. However, this time, the NGS team has provided me with its greatest achievement to date: Passing Score.

It's a complicated but firmly grounded metric that takes into account a number of advanced statistics with the capability of isolating passes based on type for specific evaluation. We're digging into deep pass attempts (passes of 20-plus air yards) to determine who was the best at heaving the ball downfield in 2021. Two NGS measurements that you might be unfamiliar with:

  • xComp (Expected Completion Percentage): A quarterback's average "completion probability," which represents the aggregate level of difficulty of a set of pass attempts.
  • CPOE (Completion Percentage Above Expectation): The difference between a quarterback's actual completion percentage and expected completion percentage, controlling for the level of difficulty of each pass.

As I dug into these numbers, I realized just how incredible quarterbacks were during the 2020 campaign. I set the minimum passer rating for this exercise to 100 after the 2020 season to truly separate the best from the rest, and in attempting to follow the same methodology this time around, there weren't even 10 qualifiers. Eight quarterbacks broke a passer rating of 100 on deep throws in 2021 (min. 15 attempts), so I dropped the minimum rating requirement to 90, and ended up with some interesting candidates.

Last year, the biggest surprises from the list included the absence of Patrick Mahomes (who didn't make the top 10 by virtue of throwing to teammates who consistently got open more than most other pass-catchers), and Daniel Jones' placement atop the list.

This time around, some eyebrows might be raised by the inclusion of Carson Wentz after what was ultimately a disappointing season with the Colts. Also, it's worth noting that 2021 third-round pick Davis Mills fell just short of the top 10. As we always do for this series, we're leaning on the numbers gathered from specific scenarios to frame the rankings. And once again, things might not line up exactly as you would predict.

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals; Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings; Davis Mills, Houston Texans; Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · Age 38
  • Deep attempts: 24-of-63, 873 yards, 6:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 97.8 passer rating
  • Comp: 38.1%
  • xComp: 30.8%
  • CPOE: +7.3%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 91

One prominent detail from Rodgers' deep-passing résumé won't shock you: Rodgers racked up 93.8 percent of his deep passing yards from inside the tackle box.

The rest of Rodgers' statistical breakdown is simple, if not discouraging. As Green Bay's greatest threat, Rodgers rarely capitalized on play-action, finishing with the eighth-fewest deep passing yards via play-action among qualified starters while tossing just one touchdown pass on 10 attempts. He struggled mightily on deep passes thrown under pressure, posting a passer rating of just 56.6.

Rodgers lands at No. 10 because the Packers just weren't all that explosive downfield. That's fine: Rodgers still won his second straight NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Yes, the man is incredible, even if Green Bay's offense wasn't optimally balanced when it came to opening up home-run opportunities.

Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · Age 31
  • Deep attempts: 26-of-67, 934 yards, 7:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 90.2 passer rating
  • Comp: 38.8%
  • xComp: 32.6%
  • CPOE: +6.2%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 92

Hopefully we've reached the end of an unrelenting, multi-year slog marked by people consistently questioning this man's viability as the Raiders' franchise quarterback. Derek Carr IS a quality signal-caller. Got it? Good.

As unprecedented adversity threatened to sink the Raiders in 2021, Carr put together one of his most impressive seasons, leading the franchise to its first playoff berth in five years. He did so while permanently losing his top deep threat after Week 7 -- yet he still made this list.

In the face of persistent hardship, Carr stood tall in the pocket, racking up 806 deep passing yards from inside the tackle box. Against the blitz, Carr completed 50 percent of his deep pass attempts for the most deep passing yards (420) on such attempts in the NFL. He was one of just six qualified quarterbacks in the NFL to post a completion percentage of 50 or better on such attempts and tied for the most touchdowns with four. His CPOE of 15.8 in this area was the fifth-highest in the league.

Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos (Seahawks in '21) · Age 33
  • Deep attempts: 26-of-71, 978 yards, 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 112.5 passer rating
  • Comp: 36.6%
  • xComp: 32.1%
  • CPOE: +4.5%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 92

When I was initially compiling these rankings, Wilson landed as high as sixth, mainly because of his 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio on deep passes and 978 deep passing yards, the third-most in the NFL. And after diving even deeper into the details, well, I can see why I had him there.

Wilson spent the 2021 offseason complaining about being hit too much, essentially begging for better protection. Then he went out and posted an 8:1 TD-to-INT ratio and 115.3 passer rating on deep passes thrown from inside the tackle box. The touchdown total was the second-highest in the league, as was the passer rating. Not bad, especially considering the (false) narrative that Wilson was constantly peeking over his shoulder for free rushers looking to flatten him.

Russ still used his mobility to extend plays, completing 41.7 percent of deep passes for 403 yards and a +14.1 CPOE on extended dropbacks (four-plus seconds). Tyler Lockett's presence also continued to help Wilson, who completed 60 percent of deep passes to slot targets, tying for the second-most touchdowns and second-highest passer rating on such attempts, while also finishing third in yards, CPOE and pass EPA.

Wilson's passing score dropped him a couple of spots, but it was still a very strong showing for a quarterback trying his darndest to lift a struggling team out of the NFC West cellar. With a new chapter awaiting him in Denver, the rest of the AFC West should be worried. It's a strong division that just got even tougher with the arrival of Wilson.

Carson Wentz
Washington Commanders (Colts in '21) · Age 29
  • Deep attempts: 23-of-53, 797 yards, 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 106.3 passer rating
  • Comp: 43.4%
  • xComp: 33.3%
  • CPOE: +10.1%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 93

Look, I understand, this might make you question my credibility. While the Next Gen Stats aren't canon, they are akin to a scientific theory. And since we're specifically digging into deep passes, I can't allow Wentz's struggles elsewhere to cloud my judgment. I won't stand for it, even if it doesn't fit conventional wisdom on the former No. 2 overall pick.

Shred me if you must, but before those Twitter fingers start melting your keyboard, let's reflect on who Wentz had in his backfield. Yes, that's correct: The answer is all-world running back Jonathan Taylor. Indianapolis used this advantage to great success in 2021, drawing defenses closer to the line of scrimmage to stop Taylor and victimizing them with play-action passes. From under center -- you know, the setting in which most handoffs occur -- Wentz ranked near the top of the league in the following deep passing metrics: yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage and completion percentage over expected. His play-action passer rating on deep throws was the seventh-highest in the NFL, and he posted the highest EPA and second-highest completion percentage and CPOE on these throws.

Wentz wasn't an all-around stud in 2021. Just ask Colts owner Jim Irsay. But because Indianapolis had a frightening stallion in the backfield, Wentz found opportunities to succeed -- and capitalized. I can't argue with this production, even if the rest of the picture was far from perfect.

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Age 26
  • Deep attempts: 27-of-66, 916 yards, 7:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 111 passer rating
  • Comp: 40.9%
  • xComp: 36.7%
  • CPOE: +4.2%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 93

It's 2022, and by this point, we know how Mahomes creates his success: By getting out and running before launching beautiful strikes to his teammates. Mahomes picked up more than a third of his deep yards by firing passes from outside the tackle box -- and he wasn't afraid to do so quite often, finishing with the third-most deep attempts from outside the box. His 262 deep passing yards on scrambles led the NFL in 2021, and he feasted on Cover 2 defenses, posting a 133 passer rating on deep passes down the seams and picking up 661 deep passing yards against two-high safety shells.

Unfortunately for Kansas City, the trend that began in Super Bowl LV continued into 2021. Mahomes struggled against the blitz, posting a 60.9 deep passer rating on such attempts. Mahomes is far from alone in this regard, but it does reveal a weakness for teams to potentially exploit -- if they have a secondary strong enough to cover downfield with fewer defenders available to eliminate passing windows.

Mahomes will have to find a way to replicate his downfield success without Tyreek Hill, but K.C. has thrown plenty of resources at attempting to make up for Hill's production. Don't worry, Chiefs fans: Mahomes still has Travis Kelce available to cause headaches down the seams. Perhaps a shorter offense -- while it goes against the logic of this production -- will help dissuade defenses from blitzing and maximize Mahomes' production without the lethal threat of Hill in 2022.

Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · Age 34
  • Deep attempts: 27-of-58, 1,175 yards, 7:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 93 passer rating
  • Comp: 46.6%
  • xComp: 34.6%
  • CPOE: +12%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 94

Stafford finally has a Super Bowl ring to polish -- and a deep passing score worthy of his prodigious arm talent. Unlike some of the other players in these rankings, Stafford made his money in traditional fashion. No, not in the stock market -- in the pocket. Stafford posted the highest deep pass EPA from the pocket at 45.1. The only knock on his statistical résumé? The risks he took from this same prism. Stafford's seven interceptions on deep passes from the pocket were the most in the NFL, but that's not necessarily a fatal flaw. Much of Los Angeles' transformation into a Super Bowl champion came with the acceptance of risk in how the Rams operated offensively. Stafford was given plenty of leeway to let it fly, and occasionally, it produced a turnover. But the rest of his performance (and the help provided by quality targets like Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and Robert Woods) outweighs those mistakes.

With talents like Kupp at his disposal, Stafford lit it up down the seams in 2021, completing 68 percent of his deep slot targets, the best rate in the NFL. He led the NFL in pass EPA on such attempts by a wide margin (nearly 11 points). With talent and agency to fire away, it's hard to blame Stafford for taking chances -- and he certainly wasn't afraid to do so, targeting pass-catchers down the seams on 31 percent of his deep passes (the seventh-highest rate in the NFL) for 518 yards gained. Stafford's mode of operation fell right in line with general manager Les Snead's valuation of draft picks: There's no tomorrow, so sling it when you see it. Stafford did that well enough to earn the Rams the ultimate prize -- and should probably treat Kupp to a steak dinner as a thank you.

Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers · Age 24
  • Deep attempts: 24-of-60, 882 yards, 8:4 TD-to-INT ratio, 99.3 passer rating
  • Comp: 40%
  • xComp: 32.2%
  • CPOE: +7.8%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 97

Herbert has already cemented himself as the Chargers' franchise quarterback in just two professional seasons, and a lot that is due to his ability to make the seemingly impossible look easy. Herbert is excellent at fitting passes into incredibly tight windows and he's as sharp as they come when on the move. Los Angeles has wisely used all of this to its advantage, watching Herbert complete 7 of 9 deep pass attempts on designed rollouts for a league-leading 284 yards. Those nine such attempts led the NFL, and his 21 deep pass attempts outside the pocket were tied for the most in the NFL.

He owns the second-highest deep play-action pass EPA at 28.5, and the fourth-highest passer rating on such attempts at 120. Herbert is another quarterback with a strong arm capable of making magic downfield, standing alongside Kyler Murray as the only two passers with a pass EPA north of 20 on deep attempts thrown from outside the tackle box. He's also tied for the second-most deep passing yards when scrambling (223, trailing only Patrick Mahomes).

When it comes to throwing deep passes, the only negative aspect of Herbert's statistical sheet is when he faces the blitz. He ranked just 25th in passing yards against extra pass rushers, highlighting Los Angeles' need to improve its situation up front. Regardless, Herbert is special. It doesn't take a statistical expert to tell you this, but it does help to see his talents shine in the numbers.

Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · Age 24
  • Deep attempts: 28-of-60, 940 yards, 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 111.1 passer rating
  • Comp: 46.7%
  • xComp: 34.4%
  • CPOE: +12.3%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 98

Murray earns the No. 3 spot in what was an incredibly tight race for the podium. He's behind Matt Ryan because of what Ryan had to overcome to compile such impressive deep-passing numbers, but this is as far down the list as Murray could possibly land. The electric Murray might have finished higher had his receivers helped him less: Of the quarterbacks on this list, no passer had a higher percentage of wide-open targets on deep passes (11.7%).

Let's take a moment to review what we know about Murray: He's a small but incredibly elusive quarterback with a rocket for an arm. That blend helped him finish with the second-highest deep passer rating against the blitz (135.4), the second-highest pass EPA on such attempts (18.9), the third-most deep passing yards against the blitz (314) and the fourth-highest completion percentage over expected against the blitz (+14.2 percent). 

Scrambling is, of course, a massive part of Murray's game, and it showed in the Next Gen Stats. Murray completed 7-of-11 deep pass attempts while scrambling, posting the highest completion percentage among quarterbacks with 10 or more such attempts. Also, he ranked second in deep passing yards when scrambling (behind only Patrick Mahomes) and posted the highest deep pass EPA when scrambling.

The only lingering question is whether Murray can do it when it matters most: down the final stretch of the season. Murray's Cardinals have entered a tailspin in the final month of each of the last two seasons. If Murray and the Cardinals are eventually able to find common ground in their contract standoff and he rectifies the late-season issues in 2022, we could see him land even higher on this list next year.

Matt Ryan
Indianapolis Colts (Falcons in '21) · Age 37
  • Deep attempts: 20-of-42, 718 yards, 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 107.7 passer rating
  • Comp: 47.6%
  • xComp: 29.9%
  • CPOE: +17.8%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

As we know, Ryan's Falcons didn't make the playoffs last season, and he was traded to the Colts in March. However, Ryan’s deep-passing stats show how he vastly outperformed expectations under difficult circumstances in 2021. Consider: Atlanta’s top receiver, Calvin Ridley, played in just five games before leaving the teams to focus on his "mental wellbeing." Ryan was left to lean on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, with Russell Gage, Tajae Sharpe and Olamide Zaccheaus as his top wideouts. His offensive line was notoriously leaky. And he still tied for the top passing score on deep passes in the entire league.

While we're only discussing deep throws here -- as opposed to every type of pass attempt -- it is rather easy to see why the Colts felt Ryan would be the solution to their quarterbacking problems. Those of you who believe "Matty Ice" is washed, over the hill, past his prime, etc., are flat-out wrong. The numbers prove it.

Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · Age 26
  • Deep attempts: 28-of-68, 954 yards, 5:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 100.7 passer rating
  • Comp: 41.2%
  • xComp: 33.4%
  • CPOE: +7.8%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

It wasn't surprising when reviewing exactly how Allen made his deep-passing hay in 2021. Known for his mobility and cannon arm, Allen stuck to his strengths, throwing four deep touchdown passes from outside the tackle box, tying with Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray for the NFL lead in that category. Allen's mobility helped him post the second-highest evade rate on deep passes (80%), and his percentage of deep passes attempted on the run was the third-highest among all qualifying quarterbacks (23.5%). This all fits with Allen’s reputation as a big-bodied quarterback who uses his legs to extend the play and lets it fly to great success.

In fact, his play in those scenarios played a big role in powering him to the top of this list. He completed 52.2 percent of deep passes on extended dropbacks (four or more seconds before releasing a pass) for a league-best 427 yards, a 5:1 TD-INT ratio and a 119.1 passer rating. He completed 22.2 percent more of such attempts than expected, and owned the highest passer rating of quarterbacks with 10 or more such attempts. No one was close to Allen's class on extended dropbacks when passing deep: He led the NFL in pass expected points added on such throws, nearly 10 pass EPA better than the next-closest quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. No wonder the Divisional Round game between the Bills and Chiefs was such a thriller.

After battling accuracy and consistency struggles early in his career, Allen's blossomed into a big-play machine who has refined the raw skills that initially drew the Bills to draft him seventh overall in 2018.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

Related Content