As the NFL learns to embrace advanced metrics, there are stories to tell from those numbers, especially when you match them with tape. One of the things these drill-down stats give you is an interesting set of names when it comes to the best quarterbacks for different types of throws, in different schemes, against different defensive ideas, and with certain pre-snap and post-snap advantages and disadvantages.
When I first put together a list of the best quarterbacks for every type of throw last year using the Sports Info Solutions database, there were a number of different quarterbacks who showed up in a positive sense — everyone from Drew Brees and Russell Wilson to Ryan Tannehill (who hit the list more than any other quarterback, and we should stop assuming that Tannehill isn’t up to the Julio Jones addition).
In the sequel to that exercise for the 2020 season, one quarterback stood out above all: Aaron Charles Rodgers. The reigning NFL MVP, and a guy who has made it very clear that he no longer wants to be a part of the Green Bay Packers, had an insanely great season that looks even better when you go beyond the traditional numbers.
There are other quarterbacks on this list, but Rodgers proved as few other quarterbacks can in any one season that no matter what he did, or what defenses did against him, he was going to blow up those defenses in every way possible. If the Packers can’t work this out, someone’s going to get an all-timer at the top of his game. It should also be said that, based on a lot of these numbers, Rodgers may not do quite as well in any system that isn’t authored by Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur.
That marriage counseling aside, here are the best quarterbacks for every type of throw for the 2020 season.
For all of Brady’s big-play prowess in 2020 — he was renewed as a deep thrower in Bruce Arians’ “grip it and rip it” offense and with a much better group of targets than he’d had with the Patriots over the last couple of seasons — Brady was also the king of the short-drop throw. When taking no drops or a one-stepper either under center or from pistol or shotgun, Brady completed 153 of 215 passes for 1,200 yards, 573 air yards, a league-high 15 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. “1A” status goes to Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who completed 206 of 274 passes on zero- to one-step drop throws for 1,899 yards, 1,033 air yards, 14 touchdowns, and four picks.
Murray showed more improvement than he was generally given credit for in his second NFL season, showing upticks in completion rate, touchdown percentage, Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt, and a serious decline in sacks. Murray learned to a point to let the play play out before getting frenetic in the pocket, which certainly helped. Something else that helped was his efficiency on three-step drop throws — he completed 122 of 174 such throws for 1,426 yards, 912 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions, and just seven sacks. Murray’s 114.3 quarterback rating on three-step throws was the league’s highest, which put him first here over Ben Roethlisberger, who led the league with 331 three-step drops and threw 23 touchdown passes, but also had six interceptions.
This is about to become the Aaron Rodgers Show, so we might as well start here. The five-step drop is where we start to get into the intermediate and deep concepts, and no other quarterback was nearly as efficient on five-step throws as Rodgers was. Not even close. Rodgers completed 78 of 127 passes for 1,120 yards, 724 air yards, 12 touchdowns, and one interception. And on five-step throws of 20 or more air yards, Rodgers completed 10 of 29 for 378 yards, 316 air yards, five touchdowns, and one interception.
Honorable mention here goes to Chargers rookie Justin Herbert (more on him in a minute), who completed 75 of 115 five-step throws for 1,136 yards, 758 air yards, nine touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating just north of Rodgers’s (120.1 to 118.2).
The seven-step drop is a bit of an old-school construct as teams go more to the quick game, but Brady had no issue dropping back deep and throwing the fastball, Ken Stabler-style. Brady had 54 seven-step attempts last season, completing 37 passes for 716 yards, 531 air yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. Aaron Rodgers had five touchdowns and no interceptions on seven-step throws, putting him in the running, but Brady was just that much more efficient — especially on deep throws, where he completed 10 of 16 attempts for 293 yards, 262 air yards, and three touchdowns.
Rodgers has long been tremendously efficient when on the move, and he has a special gift for making near-impossible throws from areas of the field where other, lesser quarterbacks should fear to tread. So it should come as no surprise that he was lights-out on designed rollouts last season, completing 52 of 67 passes for 531 yards, 210 air yards, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Rodgers’ passer rating of 139.3 was by far the NFL’s highest on designed rollout throws, though it should also be mentioned that Baker Mayfield — who was the best rollout thrower on last year’s list — was the most explosive on such throws in 2020, completing eight of 12 designed boot throws of 20 or more air yards for 324 yards, 249 air yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
The Packers have been using RPO concepts and pop passes since the Mike McCarthy days, and more expansively so in the Matt LaFleur era. Last season, Rodgers had the NFL’s most passing attempts on RPOs with 76, completing 69 of those passes for 458 yards, minus-55 air yards (yeah, a lot of short stuff here), six touchdowns, and no interceptions. Between Green Bay’s expansive run game throwing linebackers into conflict, LaFleur’s ability to scheme receivers open in short spaces, and Rodgers’ obvious on-field acumen, the Packers’ RPO concepts present defenses with a lot of big problems.
Who had the highest passer rating last season on RPO throws, though? Your first guess is probably the right one: Mitchell Trubisky! The former Bears disappointment and current Bills backup quarterback had a passer rating of 139.4, completing 14 of 18 passes for 143 yards, 11 air yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Go figure.
Pre-snap motion can be a total cheat code for quarterbacks for all kinds of reasons — discerning man or zone coverage, isolating defensive matchups, and aligning route concepts to a defensive disadvantage — but it took a while for Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur to get on the same page with it. Rodgers had been used to a fairly static offense under Mike McCarthy in which he was identifying the matchup wins post-snap, and he balked at the loss of that freedom. But once Rodgers came on board… well, the results were Not Good for any defense dealing with the Packers.
Last season, Rodgers was the most productive and efficient quarterback with pre-snap motion, and it wasn’t particularly close. He completed 224 of 315 passes for 2,493 yards, 1,028 air yards, 37 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 128.2.
Now, what you might want to watch in the 2021 season is the advent of Tom Brady and Bruce Arians getting on the same page with pre-snap motion — in that case, it was the quarterback who was used to it, and the coach who took a minute to get on board. But once that happened, Brady completed 243 of 351 passes with pre-snap motion for 3,088 yards, 1,748 air yards, 30 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.8.
Taking Watson’s off-field issues off the table — and at this point, we have no idea what his NFL future will be in 2021 and beyond — it could be argued that no NFL quarterback did more in 2020 with less schematic help than Watson did. He benefited from pre-snap motion on 226 dropbacks, which ranked 17th in the league among starting quarterbacks, completing 136 of 190 passes for 1,527 yards, 767 air yards, 10 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Only Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray had more dropbacks without pre-snap motion than Watson’s 429, and on those dropbacks, he completed 246 of 354 passes for 3,296 yards, 2,019 air yards, 23 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. Watson’s passer rating of 116.9 without pre-snap motion was by far the league’s best — Aaron Rodgers finished second at 109.5.
If you fall for the banana in the tailpipe against the Packers’ play-action concepts, and you leave holes in coverage for Rodgers, it will not go well for your defense. Like, really not well. Play-action is a cheat code for most quarterbacks, but in Rodgers’ case, it gave him all the answers to the test. Only Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes had more play-action dropbacks than Rodgers’ 227, and on those dropbacks, Rodgers completed 164 of 247 passes for 2,088 1,194 air yards, 26 touchdowns… and no interceptions. Basically, if Rodgers was running play-action in 2020, you were his Huckleberry. His play-action passer rating of 138.7 was the NFL’s best, with Tom Brady finishing second at 131.8, and Deshaun Watson third at 131.6.
Of course, if you have a quarterback who puts up a passer rating of 131.6 with play-action, you might want to have him use it a lot. Not so with the Texans, who called it for Watson on just 130 of his dropbacks, where he completed 82 of 118 passes for 1,206 yards, 730 air yards, 15 touchdowns, and three interceptions. The good news, we guess, is that Watson was just as ridiculous without play-action, completing 300 of 426 passes on 463 dropbacks for 3,617 yards, 2,058 air yards, 18 touchdowns, and four interceptions. As we’ve said, there’s no way to know what Watson’s NFL future is due to all the off-field stuff, but on the field in 2020, he did as much with less as any quarterback in the league.
2020 was Josh Allen’s breakout season, as the third-year man got part his issues with disguised coverages and became a full-field reader. What Allen also did in the 2020 season — from Week 1 through the AFC Championship game — was to prove to opponents that you do not, under any circumstances, want to blitz him. Against five or more pass-rushers in 2020, Allen completed 150 of 226 passes for 1,791 yards, 884 air yards, 21 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. High-volume numbers to be sure.
The one other quarterback who was in Allen’s vicinity as a nightmare to blitz was Patrick Mahomes, who didn’t see anywhere near the number of blitzes as Allen did (138 dropbacks to Allen’s 247), but when he was blitzed, Mahomes completed 88 of 129 passes for 1,178 yards, 585 air yards, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a league-high passer rating of 133.2.
Another guy you didn’t want to blitz last season? Kirk Cousins, who threw 15 touchdowns and no interceptions when blitzed, and amassed a 119.9 passer rating.
Green Bay’s opponents gave Aaron Rodgers pass-rushing fronts of four or fewer defenders on 486 dropbacks in 2020 — ostensibly to give them more options in coverage, because blitzing Aaron Rodgers is generally a fool’s errand — but allowing him to scan the field without having to deal with additional pass-rushers didn’t work out so well for them, either. With four or fewer pass-rushers, Rodgers completed 323 of 425 passes for 3,728 yards, 1,772 air yards, 38 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. Good enough for a 124.1 passer rating, by far the NFL’s best — Deshaun Watson finished second at 114.2.
It’s rare for a rookie quarterback to define for defenses what they can and can’t do against him, but Herbert managed to do this in a couple areas. Playing man coverage against Herbert provided diminishing returns (he threw 12 touchdowns and just three picks against man coverage), and Herbert also proved that if you worked to pressure him, it was not going to go well for you. When pressured in 2020, Herbert completed 121 of 206 passes for 1,505 yards, 875 air yards, 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a league-high passer rating of 96.4. Matthew Stafford finished second with a 94.7 passer rating against pressure, so the moral of the story for 2021 appears to be that you don’t want to exert pressure against either of the Los Angeles quarterbacks.
Yes, it’s That Guy again. We already know that not blitzing Aaron Rodgers tends to lead to defensive collapse, and it’s pretty similar when Rodgers faces no pressure at all before he throws the ball. On 483 dropbacks without pressure, Rodgers completed 362 of 469 passes for 4,060 yards, 1,765 air yards, 44 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 129.3 — quite a bit ahead of Deshaun Watson, who finished second at 121.1.
Should we have just made this an Aaron Rodgers listicle? Well, that’s the way it turned out. When throwing from the pocket on 522 dropbacks in 2020, Rodgers completed 367 of 507 passes for 4,280 yards, 1,960 air yards, 44 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 121.7 — again, a fair distance ahead of No. 2, who was Kirk Cousins with a 113.3 passer rating on throws from the pocket.
It’s not surprising at all that Mahomes would be the most efficient quarterback outside the pocket, because that’s where he does alien things. In the 2020 regular season, Mahomes completed 74 of 132 passes outside the pocket for 938 yards, 632 air yards, 16 touchdowns, and no interceptions. No other quarterback managed more than 12 touchdowns (Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson), only Baker Mayfield had more out-of-pocket yards and air yards than Mahomes did (958 and 658, respectively), and no other quarterback threw nearly as many passes outside the pocket without an interception.
There was a rather serious regression in Super Bowl LV against the Buccaneers as Mahomes threw two picks, and both were outside the pocket, but that wasn’t all on the quarterback — Kansas City was dealing with all kinds of offensive line issues, and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles went Full Metal Einstein with his brilliant game plans.