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Offseason Analysis

The Fantasy Implications of The NFL's Best Downfield Passers

by Denny Carter
Updated On: May 9, 2022, 10:57 am ET

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Some quarterbacks are just plain bad at throwing the ball deep. 

Whether it's an inability to anticipate where a receiver will be on a downfield route or a lack of touch on throws that need to be more feathery than they do bullet-like, many NFL quarterbacks can't connect on the long ball. It sometimes doesn't even matter if their guys are getting open. A bad deep ball thrower is a bad deep baller thrower. 

Then there are the QBs with a preternatural ability to place the ball exactly where it needs to be as their receiver streaks downfield, covered or uncovered. These are the quarterbacks who provide highly valuable fantasy-scoring opportunities for the dudes running downfield, begging for the football.

Below is a look at the NFL's best downfield passers over the past four seasons, according to expected points added (EPA) per attempt of more than 30 air yards. And below that: The 2022 fantasy implications of such downfield acumen, and what it could mean for these quarterbacks' primary deep threats. 

deep ball

 

Daniel Jones: Deep Ball Extraordinaire?

Dave Gettleman, who’s still typing on his fake computer, mocking analytics dorks who told him not to draft Saquon Barkley, could be (sorta kinda) vindicated by Daniel Jones’ EPA on deep throws. Jones, incredibly, has the second-highest EPA on downfield attempts since the start of the 2020 season, trailing only Matthew Stafford. If you can momentarily ignore the sample size (30 attempts), you might call him an elite downfield passer. I had to sit down to digest that tidbit; maybe you should too. 

The problem for Jones (and the entire miserable Giants fanbase) is Jason Garrett’s comical misuse of the quarterback and his pass catchers. Jones in 2020 was 32nd in deep ball rate (9.5 percent) and was seventh in downfield completion rate (46.7 percent), averaging a solid 15.3 yards per attempt on long throws, the eighth-highest mark in the NFL. Jones was good -- dare I say excellent -- on the extraordinarily rare occasion in which he ripped one down the field. 

Jones’ small-sample success on passes of more than 30 yards could portend better days ahead for Kenny Golladay, last year’s most predictable free agent busy. Golladay, for those who forgot he’s still in the league, led the NFL in downfield targets as recently as 2019. That season (in Detroit), Babytron led the Lions in air yards and had the sixth-highest yards per catch on targets of more than 30 yards; only Stefon Diggs had more downfield touchdowns than Golladay that year. 

A more aggressive Brian Daboll-led Giants offense that actually tries to score points could generate a pleasantly surprising number of deep shots for Golladay in 2022. Daboll, for his part, has told Giants beat writers he wants Jones to be more aggressive and more willing to “pull the trigger” in 2022. Jones’ former head coach, Joe Judge, had no interest in such downfield production. 

Perhaps Jones’ next team -- the Giants recently declined to pick up the QB’s fifth-year option -- will take a long, hard look at Jones’ abilities as a downfield passer and give him a shot to start. 

No Shower Narrative Necessary in Arizona

That Kyler Murray and Marquise Brown played together at Oklahoma years ago -- the so-called shower narrative -- shouldn’t matter. It can’t hurt though. 

Brown is the Cardinals’ de facto No. 1 receiver going into 2022 after DeAndre Hopkins dropped his appeal of a six-game suspension for his use of performance enhancing drugs. I think there was a halfway decent shot Brown would have been Arizona’s WR1 even if Hopkins suited up for 17 games. Nuke is clearly on the decline: He skated by on unsustainable touchdown production early in the 2021 season before his season-ending injury. His target-hogging days, more likely than not, are long gone. 

Quietly, Brown had his best pro season in 2021, totaling 1,008 receiving yards and six scores on 91 receptions while Lamar Jackson missed the final quarter of the regular season. Brown was fantasy’s WR21 while dropping at least five touchdowns in 2021 -- a remarkable if frustrating feat in itself. The speedy receiver’s deep ball production plummeted last season. He reeled in just five of his 30 downfield targets (16.6 percent) for 210 yards and four touchdowns, and his deep ball rate fell from 26.3 percent in 2020 to 21 percent in 2021. 

Jackon’s late-season injury crushed Brown’s fantasy prospects. There’s no other way to say it. Brown went from 8.6 yards per target with L-Jax to an abominably low 3.6 yards per target without him. He caught nearly 68 percent of his targets from Jackson and had a 52 percent catch rate with Tyler Huntley under center. Brown’s entire receiving profile changed with Jackson sidelined. He went from a fantasy WR2 to a low-end WR3 with no upside. 

This season Brown will see downfield chucks from one of the game’s elite downfield passers in Murray, if Kliff Kingsbury can bring himself to call a passing play of more than seven yards. No QB had a higher completion rate (49.3 percent) on deep tosses than Murray in 2021 and Pro Football Focus graded Murray as the league's best downfield thrower last year.

Let Kyler cook, Kliff. Please.

Let It Rip, Mr. Herbert 

It may come as little surprise to you, the football knower, that the canon-armed Justin Herbert is a sublime deep ball thrower. His absurd yards per attempt on passes of at least 30 yards will surely drop with a larger sample size and his interception rate might tick up through the years. But he’s been blistering in his first two pro seasons when letting it rip downfield. 

As good as Herbert has been on long balls, one would think the Chargers would have their guy launching pigskins at a higher rate than he has through two seasons. Herbert was 18th in deep ball rate in 2020 and 24th in 2021. Less than 10 percent of his pass attempts last year went beyond 20 yards, putting him alongside guys like Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, and Jared Goff. I’m once again asking our Analytics King Brandon Staley to let Herbert do some downfield cooking. In fact, only two quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford and Daniel Jones -- have a higher EPA per attempt on downfield shots since the start of the 2020 season. 

In any case, Herbert’s downfield passing acumen is good news for Mike Williams making the most of his limited over-the-top looks in LA’s offense. Williams’ 26 downfield targets were ninth-most in the league last season. Keenan Allen was a distant second with 13. 

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Russ: A Mile Above The Sea

Russell Wilson is reportedly forgoing sleep and food and other human essentials to learn the Broncos' offensive playbook a full five months before the regular season begins. He’s wearing his full uniform in what amounts to spring practice walkthroughs. Russ is nothing if not normal and well adjusted. 

Even a casual NFL observer or fantasy manager might know Wilson is a hell of a downfield passer, lobbing perfectly placed throws in Seattle’s run-heavy offense and turning D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett into the league’s preeminent deep ball duo. That Wilson’s EPA on attempts of more than 30 yards dipped to 0.57 from 2020 to 2021 shouldn’t be overly concerning for those ready to get psyched about the downfield prospects of Denver’s wideouts in 2022. 

Something wasn’t right with Cortland Sutton in 2021, a year removed from a devastating knee injury that wiped out his 2020 campaign. Perhaps a somewhat balky knee and the NFL’s worst quarterback situation were too much to overcome for Sutton. You already know if you drafted him in 2021: Sutton was not fantasy relevant for much of the year. He finished as the WR44 in PPR formats, a hair better than Cedrick Wilson and Allen Lazard, who missed three games. Sutton’s 2019 campaign, in which he finished as a top-20 fantasy receiver, was not walking through that door, apparently. 

While Sutton didn’t exactly dominate deep targets in his breakout 2019 season (23 targets, 18th most among wideouts), he was highly effective with his opportunities, with a mere six receivers averaging more yards per catch on deep catches. Sutton had nearly three times the air yards of the next closest Denver pass catcher that year. If Sutton’s pre-injury usage and offseason hype videos are any indication, he should be Wilson’s primary downfield target in 2022. 

Then there’s KJ Hamler. The speedster -- who registered a 99th percentile 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Combine -- has proven effective on his limited downfield usage in Denver. In his 2020 rookie year, he turned six deep looks into 88 yards and two touchdowns. This is where I remind you that Hamler tore his ACL last September and missed almost the whole season. Broncos general manager George Paton said in late April that Hamler is “well ahead of schedule” in his recovery. He was spotted catching passes from Wilson in a springtime throwing session shortly after the Broncos acquired their new franchise QB. 

Though Hamler has a ways to go before becoming an every-down wideout in Denver’s new-look offense, Wilson’s addition could create valuable downfield chances for the electric Hamler. He’s someone to (closely) monitor if or when the Broncos struggle with receiver injuries. 

Winston Is Excellent Downfield. Does It Matter? 

The zoomers don’t remember Jameis Winston as Tampa’s quarterback. He was as fun as any fantasy QB in the game, chucking it with reckless abandon to Bucs wideouts, living and dying by the proverbial sword. More often than not, Winston lived on those deep rocket shots. 

The New Orleans version of Winston is decidedly more boring. The Saints seem to want Winston to morph into Drew Brees. In 2021, they had neither the game plan nor the personnel to fully utilize Winston’s rip-roaring throwing arm. Before his season-ending knee injury, Winston was 26th in attempts of more than 20 yards. He had the league’s 21st highest deep ball rate (13.6 percent). Even worse, Winston was plain bad on those attempts: Only Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Tannehill had lower completion rates on downfield throws before Winston’s injury. 

Now, thankfully for Winston and the entire New Orleans offense, he has Chris Olave on the outside, a nice complement to possession receiver Michael Thomas, who’s never burned anyone over the top. 

Widely considered adept-enough as a downfield threat -- buttressed by impressive route running -- Olave could be the primary beneficiary of a more aggressive Saints passing attack. Ohio State’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns, Olave had a depth of target of more than 15 yards in three of his four seasons with the Buckeyes. No college wideout scored more receiving touchdowns on targets of at least 20 yards downfield than Olave from 2019 to 2021, according to Pro Football Focus.

Olave should have every chance to supplant Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harty as Winston’s go-to guy on over-the-top shots in 2022.