Aaron Rodgers won this third MVP award last season, and he did it in part by avoiding the throw that other quarterbacks attempt most often. While most passers are often content to make safe throws with little upside, Rodgers thrived by forcing defenses to chase receivers running across the field on shallow patterns, then blowing them up with bombs down the sidelines.
Last week, we looked at the most common routes in the 2020 season from a receiver’s perspective—how much production, or lack thereof, the most commonly targeted receivers could produce on a given route. That’s only half the story, however. Today, we’re looking at the guys who are throwing those passes.
We’re still looking at small sample sizes here, of course—even on the most common route in football, the curl, several qualified quarterbacks had fewer than 50 attempts—but larger sample sizes help give a clearer picture of which routes teams and quarterbacks prefer to throw, as well as how effectively they actually throw them. Only one player was targeted on more than 40 curl routes, for example, but 30 players threw at least that many curls last season. We can more accurately measure Patrick Mahomes’ ability to throw the curl route than we can Travis Kelce’s ability to catch it. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the success of a quarterback and his receiver, but you can look at the differences between, say, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles to see that the quarterback has a lot of impact on both the frequency and effectiveness of any given route.
It’s worth noting that, due to the way the data is collected, we are looking at receiving DYAR and DVOA, not passing. One big difference is that sacks aren’t included—obviously, if you’re tackled to the ground, you’re not throwing any particular route. Also, interceptions are not penalized more than any other incomplete pass.
That last caveat barely applies to Rodgers, who only threw five interceptions all season long. That’s a big reason he was last season’s leader in passing DVOA. But he got there in a very unusual way. As mentioned, the most frequently targeted route in the NFL is the curl. It’s a short, simple throw that leads to a lot of easy completions. Rodgers, however, threw only 33 curls in 510 targeted passes. That’s a rate of 6.5%, which was the lowest of any qualified passer. He also avoided some of the most common in-breaking routes such as digs, slants, and posts.
Here’s a look at the passes Rodgers was throwing. The following table shows his DYAR, DVOA, and target share last season on each of the league’s 13 most common routes:
|Aaron Rodgers’ Performance on NFL’s Most Common Routes, 2020|
Rodgers dominated on shallow, horizontal patterns, finishing first in DYAR on both drag and flat routes. He also loved going deep to the outside, ranking first in DYAR on go/fly routes and near the top in fades as well. Along with the occasional deep cross, those were the patterns where Rodgers made the bulk of his good throws. Meanwhile, he only had negative DYAR on two routes: WR/TE screens (where he still fared better than average) and, surprisingly, slants—perhaps there’s a reason he rarely threw them.
To qualify for the following tables, quarterbacks must have had at least 200 dropbacks (including sacks and defensive pass interference penalties) in 2020. This left us with 36 qualified passers. We then added three other players—San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, New Orleans’ Taysom Hill, and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts—who had at least 100 dropbacks and may end up starting this fall. We already covered league-wide trends and notable plays in our receivers piece, so today we’re going to focus solely on passing production in 2020. Each table is sorted by descending DYAR.
Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley ranked second and third among receivers in curl route DVOA, so it’s no surprise to see the Bills’ quarterback atop the passing table.
Josh Allen threw the curl often, ranking third in target rate, and he threw it well, ranking fifth in DVOA. Allen was not the most efficient passer on the play. That would be Houston’s Deshaun Watson, but he didn’t throw the route nearly as often. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger had the worst luck on the curl, ranking last in both DYAR and DVOA. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t throw it more often—Rodgers was the only full-timer who threw curls less frequently.
Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a curl on a league-high 19.7% of his throws; we’ll see if he throws the curl that often in Washington, where both Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins were below average in target rate.
Again we see a high correlation between receiver and passer on a given route. Travis Kelce led all receivers in DYAR on the out, and Patrick Mahomes finished first when throwing the same play.
Mahomes didn’t throw a ton of outs, ranking below average in target rate, but he finished first in both DYAR and DVOA. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow was the opposite, ranking last in both DYAR and DVOA. He can’t blame his struggles on any one receiver—no Bengals wideouts qualified for the receivers table.
A pair of part-timers—Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo—ranked one-two in target rate on outs. Among full-time quarterbacks, nobody threw the out more frequently than Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield. Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa had the lowest target rate on outs, but his teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick was next to last. This might indicate that target rate sometimes tells us more about scheme and coaching than it does about individual players. It’s also not the last time today that Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa will find themselves clustered together at the extreme end of one of these tables.
Ryan Fitzpatrick threw the slant a league-high 15.0% of the time; Tagovailoa was second at 14.1%.
How will Fitzpatrick’s approach change in Washington? That’s hard to say. Alex Smith was below average in slant target rate, but Dwayne Haskins was near the top. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts had the lowest target rate on slants; Sam Darnold of the Jets had the lowest rate among full-timers. Darnold is now in Carolina, where Teddy Bridgewater made the top 10 in target rate last season.
Buffalo’s Josh Allen led the league in DYAR on slants, with L.A.’s Jared Goff in second place; that order was flip-flopped when looking at DVOA. Daniel Jones narrowly edged out Denver’s Drew Lock for the worst DYAR ranking on slats. Lock was last among full-timers in DVOA, though Hurts was worse in a smaller sample size.
We have come to the first route that Rodgers dominated … though, to be fair, that says as much about Green Bay’s running backs as it does their passer.
Rodgers excelled here in part because he was throwing to Jamaal Williams, the top receiver in flats. It’s similar for many of the quarterbacks who ranked highly in DYAR; Nick Mullens had Jerick McKinnon, while Teddy Bridgewater had Mike Davis. Meanwhile, the three quarterbacks who ranked last in DYAR—Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady—all lacked running backs who could make an impact as receivers. Ryan will certainly be a lot happier so see Davis coming over from division rival Carolina. Rodgers had the best DYAR and DVOA on these throws, while Washington’s Alex Smith had the worst among full-timers and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts was worst overall.
Miami’s Tua Tagovaila had the league’s highest target rate on flats, and Ryan Fitzpatrick was also in the top 10. However, Miami’s old quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, had the lowest target rate on flats in the NFL. That’s because he was too busy throwing digs.
Tannehill led all quarterbacks in DYAR on digs. You’ll recall that Julio Jones led all receivers in DYAR on digs, and A.J. Brown was also in the top three. The safeties of the AFC South are in big trouble, is what we’re getting at.
It was Seattle’s Russell Wilson, not Tannehill, who had the top DVOA on digs. Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz was last in both DYAR and DVOA, but then, he was last in a lot of categories last season.
San Francisco’s Nick Mullens had by far the league’s highest target rate on digs at 13.2%; nobody else was even in double digits. Jimmy Garoppolo’s target rate on digs was also high, which suggests this is a Kyle Shanahan thing. Kyler Murray had the NFL’s lowest target rate on digs, because the dig is a generally productive route, and that sort of thing is frowned on in Arizona. The Cardinals would much rather throw to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage so he can be tackled for a loss. That’s how Murray ended up last in DYAR in our next route.
Kyler Murray did a lot of things right last year—he was in the top 10 in DVOA on curls, outs, deep crosses, posts, digs, and drags. But he and the Cardinals were terrible at WR/TE screens despite plenty of practice—only Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger threw more. As a result, Murray finished the worst numbers on the worst route in the NFL.
Patrick Mahomes finished first, which is no surprise after Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce finished one-two as receivers.
You would think that success on screens would tell us less about a quarterback and more about his successes, and that two quarterbacks on the same team should have similar results, but that’s not what happened with the Bears. The funniest thing you will read in this entire article is that Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky finished first in the league on WR/TE screen DVOA, but Chicago’s Nick Foles finished last in that same statistic. Bears receivers averaged twice as many yards after the catch on these plays for Trubisky as they did for Foles. That alone may have been the difference between Trubisky finishing 24th in DVOA and Foles finishing 29th.
Other pairs of teammates were not so radically different. Alex Smith had the highest WR/TE screen target rate in the league, and Dwayne Haskins was also in the top five. As for the lowest rate in the league, we turn once more to Miami, where Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa again finished one-two. The Dolphins only threw nine WR/TE screen passes all season, fewest in the league; the league average was more than triple that at 32.6. In other news, Brian Flores is quickly becoming one of our favorite coaches.
There were way more of these in 2020 than there had been in 2019. And no player benefitted from the boom in throws on the run more than Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
At this point, the entire Houston franchise is basically an infinite series of broken plays both on and off the field, so maybe it’s fitting that Watson was at his best when things were at their worst. It was a different story in Denver, where Drew Lock specialized in making the worst of terrible circumstances.
In 2019, Jameis Winston led all quarterbacks in broken play DYAR, and his receivers took home gold, silver, and bronze in the same department. We wrote at the time that Tampa Bay was unlikely to have similar success on broken plays with Tom Brady taking over for Winston. Well, the joke’s on us—Brady certainly didn’t have as many broken plays as Winston had the year before, but he still shined, leading the league in DVOA. Andy Dalton had the worst DVOA on broken plays, which is less surprising but still kind of funny (unless you are a Cowboys or Bears fan).
As you might expect, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson had the highest broken play target rate among full-timers last year, while Ryan Fitzpatrick had the lowest, but it’s a part-timer who had the most stunning result. New Orleans’ Taysom Hill started four games at quarterback and saw sporadic action there throughout the year, yet he only threw one broken play target all season. Just one! (It was a doozy of a play too—under a heavy rush, Hill virtually sidearmed a pass to Tre’Quan Smith, who should have been brought down for a big loss but broke a bunch of tackles and zipped ahead to make something out of nothing.) And it’s not as if he was never under pressure—he had 17 scrambles and was sacked 14 times, beating more of both than Drew Brees had in a dozen starts for the same team. It seems like whenever Hill was chased out of the pocket, he gave up on throwing the ball entirely and decided to run for whatever he could get—and since he gained 159 yards on scrambles and only lost 87 yards on sacks, maybe that wasn’t the worst idea.
This is another route where Rodgers finished atop the tables, and by a very wide margin. Russell Wilson was second in DYAR, but he was closer to 10th-place Daniel Jones than he was to Rodgers. Tom Brady was second in DVOA, but he was closer to sixth-place Ryan Tannehill than he was to Rodgers.
While veteran quarterbacks had most of the best numbers in this table, some surprising youngsters struggled. Justin Herbert of the Chargers set a rookie record with 31 touchdown passes, but he was dead last in DYAR on drag targets. Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins was an average passer overall, but he was last in DVOA on drags.
Ben Roethlisberger had the league’s highest drag target rate … which is unfortunate, because he was below-average in DVOA on the route, and third-worst in DYAR. Carson Wentz had the lowest drag rate among full-timers, though Jimmy Garoppolo’s was even lower in fewer passes.
The top player in DYAR here also had a large gap on the field, but the leader in efficiency … well, that’s complicated.
Deshaun Watson was the top passer in DYAR on crossing routes. Justin Herbert was a distant second place, but hey, he did better here than he did on drags. Dwayne Haskins, meanwhile was last in DYAR, and one of two full-timers to finish below replacement level on the route. He was also last in DVOA.
The most efficient passer on deep crosses was something of a surprise: Dallas’ Andy Dalton. If you’re struggling to recall any big plays Dalton made on deep crosses, let’s give you a refresher course. Here is a comprehensive list of every deep cross Dalton threw in 2020:
A 19-yard completion to Michael Gallup against Minnesota in Week 10.
A 45-yard completion to CeeDee Lamb against San Francisco in Week 15.
That’s it. Dalton threw more than 300 passes in 11 games and only threw two deep crosses all season long. That was tied with Nick Foles for the lowest total among qualifiers. For comparison’s sake, Drew Lock led the league with 34 deep crosses. Lock and Dalton had the highest and lowest deep cross target rates in the NFL.
Anyway, if you throw out Dalton’s tiny-sample-size performance, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson had the highest DVOA on deep crosses.
Welcome back the Aaron Rodgers Show … and the point in the essay where sample-size issues are largely unavoidable.
We can probably put at least a little faith in the DYAR numbers here, at least at the extremes. Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert, as a group, were reliably better than Daniel Jones, Kirk Cousins, Joe Burrow, and Mitchell Trubisky. But the DVOA leaders and trailers are based mostly on random noise. Taysom Hill didn’t throw a single go/fly route all season; none of Sam Darnold, Jimmy Garoppolo, Dwayne Haskins, Daniel Jones, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, or Ryan Tannehill completed any. Dak Prescott had the best DVOA on go/flies, but he only threw four of them. Garoppolo had the worst DVOA, but he only threw two of them; Jones was next-worst, but he only threw six.
Mind you, a few quarterbacks threw the go/fly with some regularity. Jalen Hurts had the highest rate in this table, though he only started four games. Ben Roethlisberger led all passers with 30 go/fly passes. He missed one start, so that works out to exactly two per game.
Philip Rivers’ last NFL season didn’t end the way he wanted to, but if it’s any consolation, he was the league’s best passer on corner routes.
Gardner Minshew finished last on the corner route, which we suggested might be the case after DJ Chark and Keelan Cole each made the bottom three among individual receivers.
We can ignore most of the DVOA numbers by this point. Josh Allen had the best DVOA, but he only threw four corners all season. Taysom Hill had the worst, but he only threw one. Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t throw any at all. Ryan Fitzpatrick had the highest corner target rate, while Rivers threw the most corners in the league with 31, five more than anyone else.
Here is an area where we can be confident that Matthew Stafford will be an upgrade for the Rams. Jared Goff’s efficiency numbers on posts were decent, but he rarely ever threw them. Stafford was not as efficient, but he was better than most. More importantly, he threw a ton of them, leading all passers with 35. Nobody else had more than 21. Combine decent efficiency with tons of volume and the you have the best post passer in the NFL.
Carson Wentz had the worst DYAR on posts, but look who’s one slot above him. If there’s one thing Patrick Mahomes struggles with, it’s apparently the post route, where he finished next to last in DYAR and dead last in DVOA. That’s on nine throws, which is tiny, but Mahomes threw more of those balls to the other team (two) than to his own receivers (one).
Tom Brady was drafted in 2000. Joe Burrow was drafted 20 years later. They’re on opposite ends of the age spectrum, and on opposite ends of the fade leaderboard too, with Brady in first and Burrow in last.
The DVOA numbers here are mostly meaningless. Jimmy Garoppolo and Taysom Hill ranked one-two in DVOA, but they threw just one fade each. Jalen Hurts was last, but he only threw two. Gardner Minshew had the league’s highest fade target rate, because the Jaguars’ offense last year often boiled down to “chuck it to the sideline and hope our guy wins a jump ball,” and even he only threw 16 of them. For the record, Daniel Jones led all quarterbacks with 21 fade passes. Carson Wentz threw 14 of them, with modest results. Those aren’t the passes that hurt him the most last year.
The Throws that Hurt Carson Wentz
Wentz was perhaps the worst quarterback in football in 2020, finishing last in passing DYAR and third-worst in DVOA—and the two passers who were worse, the Washington duo of Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith, won’t be starting this year. That doesn’t mean he was completely hopeless, however.
|Carson Wentz’s Performance on NFL’s Most Common Routes, 2020|
Wentz had positive value on go/flies, corners, fades, and outs. In short, he was still somewhat effective when throwing to the perimeter. However, he was dead last on both posts and digs, and also ranked 30th or worse on deep crosses, curls, and slants. It’s those interior routes where he really struggled. If Frank Reich can improve Wentz’s performance on those throws—or just eliminate them from the playbook and let Wentz to what Wentz does best—the Colts could contend in the AFC South.