It happens every winter. First, it comes, as Ned Stark warned us. Then, the questions are raised regarding the crop of quarterbacks: Can they make all the throws? Do they have enough velocity? Last year the 49 miles per hour number dogged Deshaun Watson through his draft day and into his rookie season (more on that in a minute). This year the velocity and arm strength questions seem to center on two quarterbacks, Kyle Lauletta from the University of Richmond (who was clocked at 52 MPH) on one end of the spectrum, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen (who was clocked at 62 MPH) on the other. Now that all the numbers have been released, concerns will be raised about Lamar Jackson’s arm strength, as the Louisville product threw at 49 MPH. For all the combine velocity numbers, click here.
So that got me thinking, which is often a dangerous proposition. Spurred in part by this tweet from Josh Hermsmeyer, who does some very interesting research on Air Yards:
NFL people: “Look at Allen throw that ball 70 yards in the air”
*95% of NFL passes are under 30 yards in the air*
NFL People: “You see these guys are uncomfortable playing under center. Will be a problem in the pros”
*~80% of all plays were run out of shotgun in 2017*
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) March 3, 2018
I decided to dive into the numbers from last season, to see if I could put some teeth to this argument. How often are NFL QBs pushing the ball down the field? What schemes or offenses might be difficult for a quarterback lacking upper-level velocity? Can quarterbacks who perhaps lack that trait still be effective throwing downfield?
So, using ESPN’s charting and split data, I put together this table:
A few notes on this. I included all quarterbacks with five or more starts, to get as broad of a sample as I could. I did, however, eliminate Brian Hoyer from this group because after going through his numbers multiple times, the charting data by distance was nowhere close to his total number of passes. Also, you will notice that for some quarterbacks the charted passes do not add up to the total number of attempts, which I assume is explained by eliminating throwaways, spikes, and other non-attempts.
Having put this together, a few things jumped out at me pretty quickly:
- On a league-average basis, at least for these charted quarterbacks, they are attempting throws shorter than 20 yards 85.8 percent of the time.
- On a league-average basis, at least for these charted quarterbacks, they are attempting throws 21 yards or longer just 10.2 percent of the time.
- The top two quarterbacks in 2017 according to ANY/A, Jared Goff and Drew Brees, attempted just 9 percent of their passes at a depth of 21 yards or more.
- Brees, Goff and Alex Smith, the top three quarterbacks in ANY/A last year, attempted 25.6, 23.5 and 25.1 percent of their passes, respectively, behind the line of scrimmage.
- Six quarterbacks attempted 70 percent or more of their passes 10 yards or shorter (including passes behind the line of scrimmage): Brees (71.5%), Smith (72.2%), Brett Hundley (70.9%), Aaron Rodgers (73.1%), Josh McCown (73.6%), and C.J. Beathard (74.1%).
- Only one quarterback attempted less than 10% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage: Jimmy Garoppolo (7.9%). I’m wondering if that was more of a sample-size issue, as he attempted only 178 passes, or if that trend will hold in 2018.
- The trend of Smith becoming a more vertical quarterback was borne out in the numbers, as 11.1% of his throws were for 21 yards or more, above the league average of 10.2%.
- Jay Cutler (or more specifically Adam Gase) took some heat for their offense being too conservative in 2017, but Cutler attempted 11.2 of his throws at a depth of 21 yards or more, which was also above league average.
- Only three quarterbacks attempted 14 percent or more of their passes more than 21 yards downfield: Russell Wilson (14.3%), Ben Roethlisberger (15.3%) and the player with the highest percentage, Deshaun Watson (17.3%).
That Watson number is amazing, and we’ll get to that in a second.
Now, feel free to dig around and come to your own conclusions on these numbers. But here are my major takeaways:
- NFL offenses are truly focused on the 20 and under area of the field. Only three quarterbacks (Roethlisberger at 8.2%, Watson at 9.3% and Tom Savage at 9.4%) attempted more than 8 percent of their throws in the 21-30 area of their field.
- Traditional West Coast offenses such as the Green Bay Packers, and other teams rooted in the West Coast offense (Kansas City and the New York Jets) really rely on the shorter areas of the field, which should not be a surprise.
- What was a surprise, given that, were the numbers from Carson Wentz. The second-year quarterback attempted just 14.8 throws behind the line of scrimmage, which was below the league average. He attempted 24.3 percent of his throws in that 11-20 range, which was above league average. Finally, 12.4 percent of Wentz’s throws were more than 21 yards downfield, above the league average, and 3.4 percent of his throws were in the 31-40 range, also above the league average.
- Can you lack arm strength and push the ball downfield? Well, Watson’s numbers might point to the answer to that question. His velocity never truly concerned me during last draft season, as we was able to win on the outside and downfield using a combination of touch, timing and scheme. A team can build a downfield component to their offense with a quarterback who lacks elite arm strength by using route design and scheme. The Houston Texans were able to have a successful downfield passing game with Watson by building it off of play-action and the Yankee Concept.
Here are some additional thoughts on these numbers as well as some areas for further study:
- Now, to dive into Watson’s numbers a bit more, I wanted to see how successful he was on those throws downfield. On throws of 21+ yards, he completed 14 of 35 passes (40%) for 445 yards and seven touchdowns, against five interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 87.5. Not perfect by any means, but he was nearly perfect in the 31-40 yrange, completing 4 of 9 passes for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns, without an interception.
- I also wanted to see if these numbers were part of a larger, historical trend. For example, the fine folks over at Mile High Report conducted a similar study last season. Using those numbers, in the 2016-2017 season Alex Smith attempted 91.3% of his passes under the 20 yard mark, as opposed to the 88.9 number this season. The league average for the quarterbacks they studied, in terms of throws 20 yards or under, was 89.4%, which is above the 84.8% number I found for the 2017-2018 season. So that might undercut the argument I’m making a bit, but it warrants mentioning.
- Many felt Tom Brady was getting more vertical with the New England Patriots this past season, and thanks to the numbers from Mile High Report we can see that indeed was the case. 89.5 percent of Brady’s attempts in the 2016-2017 season were under 20 yards, but only 81.2 were last year.
Circling back to the start, I think it is important to put questions about arm strength into the appropriate context, given some of this data. NFL offenses do the bulk of their work in the 20 yards and under areas of the field. Only a few quarterbacks are really pushing the football downfield at a higher clip than others, and one of them, Deshaun Watson, faced arm strength questions during his draft process.
Arm strength is just one component of playing the position, and an ancillary one at that in my opinion. There are ways to be successful as an NFL quarterback without elite arm strength. The ultimate equalizers are those traits that matter more at the position in my opinion: Processing speed, decision-making, timing, and anticipation. Lauletta and Josh Allen can throw the same route and have the football arrive at the same time, but the difference is Lauletta gets the football out first because timing, anticipation and processing speed are areas where he excels. Conversely, quarterbacks who think their arm can bail them out of any situation, tend to find themselves in more situations where they need to be bailed out.
Also, let’s flip this question a bit. With NFL offenses running about 90% of their passing game 20 yards or shorter, that should be the threshold to study, right? Can a quarterback make those throws on time, with sufficient velocity and placement? Lauletta meets that threshold. Is the boost to what Allen can do over him beyond that distance, which is just about 10% of an NFL offense, that important? If a guy struggles at 90% of the offense, but is elite at 10%, how valuable can he be?
NFL offenses are changing, and the traits quarterbacks need to execute them need to be put through the proper context. Otherwise your team will be looking for an upgrade at quarterback sooner than you would like.