The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project (Part 3/3)

Section A-L                                       Section M-R                                    Section S-Z

Trevor Siemian (Denver Broncos)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 53.1% (12th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 38.2% (25th)

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Trevor Siemian is interesting. He is by no means good, but he’s not as terrible as people make him out to be.

Ok, his accuracy downfield (well, 20+ passes) is bad, with misses abound, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Actually, there are some fantastic throws and throws that his receivers screwed him over on.

This is really a limited quarterback trying to get the most out of his skill set, and I can admire that. If it came down to Paxton Lynch and Siemian, I’d roll with Siemian, because he’s been more consistent and even more promising than Lynch.

It kind of sucks, but Siemian’s season is also a guilty pleasure.

FINAL GRADE: D+

Alex Smith (Kansas City Chiefs)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 48.2% (20th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 47.6% (12th)

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“Alex Smith” is also a synonym for “enigma.” Infamous for being “Captain Checkdown” and for playing a short, hesitant playing style that tries to reduce turnovers, Smith is the perfect “Win and Lose With Him” quarterback.

His downfield passing is a reflection of what happens when he actually plays with aggression, and truth be told, I enjoyed what I was seeing. Smith has never really been half bad as a deep passer, and like previous seasons, here there are some legitimately impressive dimes and stretches of continuous accuracy.

The problem is the Deep Ball Project does not chart plays that could be downfield throws, and maybe for future editions I’ll change that. But Smith’s hesitance kills a lot of plays and makes games closer than they should be.

The accuracy isn’t top tier (the miss to Spencer Ware against the Falcons as shown above was brutal), but Smith is a decent downfield passer. I just wish he’d be more consistently aggressive, because he’d be much more fun to watch.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 41.2% (28th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 46.4% (14th)

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I don’t consider Matthew Stafford a good downfield passer, but is there more to him than meets the eye?

Stafford’s never been an accurate downfield passer, but in a season considered MVP caliber…..yeah that still didn’t change. The same erratic accuracy from years prior was shown, with a primary difference being there were more inaccurate completions (3rd GIF above) and dropped picks (2nd GIF above)

Fortunately for Stafford, a couple of things save his grade from dropping to the bottom. First, in a rare instance, his accuracy on 20+ throws actually fared better than 16+ throws (14th in accuracy percentage on 20+ compared to 28th on 16+). Second, he had several otherworldly plays (see the 4th GIF above) that few quarterbacks can dream of making.

Stafford’s overall deep ball was rough, sloppy, inconsistent, erratic, and at times irrational. But, strangely enough, at the same time, it also makes him fun to watch in a weird sort of way. It doesn’t make him or his deep ball good, but it makes him entertaining enough to keep us intrigued on every play.

FINAL GRADE: D+

Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 64.1% (4th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 61.0% (2nd)

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The progression of Ryan Tannehill has been wonderful to watch for those who look deeper. In the last two seasons, his deep ball has become one of the league’s best, so it should be no surprise he’s become a downfield master under Adam Gase.

With better defined routes, Tannehill’s accuracy soared. His overall accuracy of 64.1% was 4th in 2016, and his accuracy on throws of 20+ was 61.0%, The 2nd highest (only behind Derek Carr). 

Despite suffering from some receiver drops, Tannehill’s accuracy and placement were astonishingly good. We’re talking throws that rival the ones Aaron Rodgers makes on a daily basis!

Ryan Tannehill is a really good quarterback, and though his deep passing lacks quantity, it easily makes up for it in quality. Dolphins fans should be highly pleased with the results their quarterback is producing, and in 2016 his downfield passing was one of the year’s absolute best.

FINAL GRADE: A

Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo Bills)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 52.0% (14th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 43.6% (19th)

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The Buffalo Bills-Tyrod Taylor saga in the offseason dragged on farther than it needed to. While not a great quarterback, Taylor is average/above average, with a big arm and the mobility of a god helping maximize plays.

Taylor’s accuracy definitely isn’t consistent, but the sheer quality of his best throws makes up for the ones he misses. For example, the 4th quarter throw at Seattle (above) is one of the best plays you’ll ever see a quarterback make.

Taylor ended up being graded with the same results as his 2015-16 deep ball season. Not great, but definitely worth watching. I think that describes the QB in a nutshell.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 41.5% (27th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 37.7% (26th)

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Carson Wentz’s rookie season would be an A+ if the NFL only had 3 games. But after a great start in his first 3 games, Wentz’s play, mechanics, and accuracy all took a deep downward spiral to the point where the potential is there (First GIF), but it’s hidden under severely flawed play.

In the last 13 games, Wentz’s downfield accuracy was terribleeven with drops factored in. His passes float way too high and the lack of hands on defense shows that Eagles’ wide receivers aren’t the only ones dropping #11’s passes.

There are some good plays in there, but they’re suffocated by too many awful ones. Carson Wentz has to go back to the drawing board if he wants to get graded higher or develop in his 2nd season. This isn’t Jared Goff bad, but I’d prefer my QBs not be near that level anyway.

FINAL GRADE: D

Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 58.7% (9th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 57.8% (4th)

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Russell Wilson is a joy to watch, and this was true in 2016.

One of the league’s top deep ball throwers, Wilson’s touch and mobility make him an exciting dynamic player. The accuracy actually fared better than his 2015 season. His accuracy on 16+ throws was 9th in the league, while his 20+ accuracy was 4th. 

So what gives with the B+ grade? Well, the 2nd half of 2016 saw his accuracy drop a bit in terms of consistency, with several awful throws put in the mix. If the consistency was more like the first half, Wilson would have an A+. This can be blamed on his health throughout the season, and he never looked consistently comfortable in the pocket.

Still, all things considered, Wilson still had a hell of a deep ball season. The quality throws are a treat to watch, and the precision and mobility are icing on the cake.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 46.6% (22nd)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 32.8% (28th)

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I’m confused.

In 2015, Jameis Winston’s deep ball was a pleasant surprise. In 2016 his deep ball was unpleasant torture. To say his placement was on a different planet from the one his receivers were living on is a vast understatement. How can you overthrow Mike Evans, a 6 ft 5 ball magnet? Apparently Winston figured it out.

The inaccuracy is inexcusable, and only a few throws of excellence save Winston from an F-. I’m still having a hard time believing he threw 28 touchdowns in 2016, because without looking at stats alone I could never tell. I’d go on about dropped picks, catches that bailed out ball placement, and missed opportunities, but the Deep Ball Project is generally three pages long.

Frankly, I don’t know what happened. Sure, Winston’s rookie season displayed erratic downfield accuracy, but there was no preparation for this. Winston had the fourth worst accuracy on throws of 20+ last year, and considering how badly he missed on these throws, I’m amazed it wasn’t the worst.

And consider that Winston threw the most downfield attempts of any QB in 2016 with 116 deep throws. When you throw that much yet can’t even be accurate on 33% of your throws, your deep ball is not strong then. Make no mistake, Jameis Winston’s downfield accuracy was atrocious last year.

FINAL GRADE: F

FINAL RANKINGS

Now we come to the fun part of the Deep Ball Project; for this year’s edition, I made two charts instead of just one.

The first chart shows the results of all throws of 16 air yards or more, while the 2nd chart shows the results of all throws of 20 air yards or more. Both charts rank each QB on their overall grade.

With that said, here are the results. Here’s all throws of 16+ air yards.

16+

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And here’s the chart for all throws of 20+ air yards.

20+

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Next, here is the total Accuracy Percentage on all throws of 16+ air yards.

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And here’s the accuracy percentage for all throws of 20+.

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Now let’s reveal which QBs led the league in statistics.

League Leading Stats

Completions

16+:-Matt Ryan led the league in overall deep ball completions with 56.

20+:-Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins tied for the most completions on 20+ passes with 35.

Attempts

16+:-Jameis Winston threw the most downfield attempts with 116.

20+:-Ben Roethlisberger led in attempts with 82.

Completion Percentage

16+:-Matt Ryan led 2016 in overall completion percentage (61.5%)

20+:-Matt Ryan also led on throws of 20+ (53.8%).

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT the same as accuracy percentage.

Accurate Passes

16+:-Aaron Rodgers led the league in overall accurate passes with 68.

20+:-Aaron Rodgers also threw the most accurate passes with 41 accurate passes on 20+ throws.

Accuracy Percentage:-The most important statistic on the Deep Ball Project.

16+:-On all throws, Sam Bradford led the way in accuracy percentage (66.7%).

20+:-Derek Carr led the way in accuracy percentage (62.9%).

Passing Yards and Yards Per Game

16+:-Matt Ryan led the NFL in overall deep passing yards (1,647) and yards per game (102.9).

20+:-Kirk Cousins led everyone in downfield yards on 20+ throws (1,268) and yards per game (79.3).

Touchdowns

16+:-Ben Roethlisberger led the league in overall deep touchdowns (14).

20+:-Ben Roethlisberger also led on deep touchdowns of 20+ air yards (13).

Interceptions

16+:-Philip Rivers led the league in interceptions with 11 picks.

20+:-On throws of 20+, it was a tie between Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz (6).

Touchdown Percentage

16+:-Ryan Tannehill had the highest touchdown percentage on overall deep passing (17.0%).

20+:-Ryan Tannehill also led in TD% on throws of 20+ (17.1%).

Interception Percentage

16+:-Matt Ryan had the lowest interception percentage on all downfield throws (1.1%).

20+:-Matt Ryan was the only QB to avoid throwing a single interception on throws of 20+ air yards, so by default, his 0.0 interception percentage is the lowest on 20+ throws.

Best Deep Ball Quarterback of 2016

Sam Bradford was the highest rated downfield passer, so he gets the vote. His precision was more consistent and sharp than the other 30 passers on this year’s project.

Thanks to you all for reading this article, and I’ll see you next year for the 2017-18 Deep Ball Project. If you have any questions, submit them to me @Brickwallblitz on Twitter.

Section A-L                                       Section M-R                                    Section S-Z

2014-15 Deep Ball Project              2015-16 Deep Ball Project          2016-17 Deep Ball Project

The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project (Part 2/3)

Section A-L                                       Section M-R                                    Section S-Z

Eli Manning (New York Giants)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 44.6% (24th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 45.3% (17th)

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What happened here? Eli Manning’s 2015-16 downfield season was full of quality throws, yet here it’s a huge downgrade.

While not terrible, the accuracy is inconsistent to a fault. There are brilliant throws and some really dumb ones. The arm strength looks to be faltering, and after a brilliant 2-game start the overall quality just diminished.

I’ve always thought Manning has been a good quarterback unfairly saddled with the “mediocre” label. In 2016, however, he was mediocre, and at times downright bad. More or less, his downfield passing validated this, as I never knew what to expect next.

There are enough moments of what I consider “vintage Eli Manning”, with dimes that need to be seen to be believed, so it stays afloat, but really offers the best and worst from the Giants veteran.

FINAL GRADE: C

Marcus Mariota (Tennessee Titans)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 43.6% (26th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 42.9% (21st)

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Marcus Mariota is already a great quarterback. His pocket movement, snappy fast throwing motion, ability to create throwing lanes and uncanny ability to use his eyes to manipulate the secondary have ascended him into a borderline top 10 quarterback.

However, one area where he shows weaknesses in is the deep ball. So why do the Titans pass downfield so much? That is an area where head coach Mike Mularkey is too overtly ambitious in. The route combinations and lack of separation do in a chunk of the incompletions, and there’s not as much intermediate routes as I would like to have.

That said, there’s some stuff to like from Mariota’s deep passing. While it’s around the same quality as his rookie downfield passing, there’s more touchdowns and some real pristine throws in the mix. The receiving group experienced less miscommunication this time around, helping ease Mariota a bit.

Still, several inaccurate completions reached the surface, hurting Mariota’s accuracy percentage. The arm strength is best suited for shorter throws, and these factor into why I believe there’s too much downfield passing in Tennessee’s offense. Not bad, but Mariota is definitely at his best in the intermediate range of passing.

FINAL GRADE: C

Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 60.5% (8th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 53.3% (8th)

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With the lowest completion percentage in the league, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, Cam Newton experienced a large statistical regression from his MVP season a year prior. But was his 2016 really that bad, or was it a victim of box score scouting?

Well, let me put it this way; Not only was Newton great on downfield passing, I thought it was better than his 2015 season in that area. The Panthers offensive line allows heinous amounts of pressure like it’s a job, and combined with the large amount of drops, miscues and lack of separation and it’s a miracle Cam posted a 60.5 accuracy percentage.

There was definitely a dropoff in the last couple of games, but Newton was constantly making outstanding throws under pressure. Many of these completions I question if another QB could do them in the same style, and I’m not sure that’ll ever happen. With otherworldly arm strength and ball control, Newton was able to fit tight passes to receivers that should not have been open.

All in all, I found Cam’s deep ball to be high quality in 2016, far better than public perception gives him credit for and far more frequent in accuracy.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Brock Osweiler (Houston Texans, now Cleveland Browns???)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 27.6% (31st)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 25.8% (31st)

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If you thought Blake Bortles was awful in 2016, Brock Osweiler won’t change your mind, but he’ll be just as miserable to sit through.

It’s hard to imagine in retrospect any team spending $72M on a quarterback that played 8 games in four seasons prior, but then again, this was baffling back when it happened a year ago. 

Osweiler posted the worst accuracy percentage for passes of both 16+ air yards and 20+ air yards. When you’re less accurate than a quarterback that can’t throw the football with an actual motion, that’s saying a lot. While he didn’t miss his receivers as hilariously bad as Bortles, there were more inaccurate throws from Osweiler, which is freaking awesome.

This is a quarterback so bad he managed to make Deandre Hopkins irrelevant. This is a quarterback so bad the Cleveland Browns traded for him just so they could get the 2nd round pick that came with him. You have to wonder what the Texans were thinking when they signed Osweiler.

The best part about going through his deep ball is being able to experience the same amount of pain Texans fans had just watching Osweiler play. Osweiler did not qualify for the 2015-16 Deep Ball Project because he did not start a minimum of 8 games the DBP requires. After sitting through whatever the hell he was doing last year, I am eternally grateful I didn’t chart him for 2015-16.

FINAL GRADE: F-

Carson Palmer (Arizona Cardinals)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 61.4% (6th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 52.5% (9th)

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You might be thinking Carson Palmer is washed, but there’s more to his 2016 than you’d expect. In 2015, Palmer was a certified MVP candidate, having a career year highlighted by unreal downfield accuracy and a Cardinals’ franchise record 35 touchdown passes.

Palmer’s first half of 2016 was full of misses that prevent it from competing with 2015, but the 2nd half offered the high quality he did the previous season. We’re talking tight passes over defender’s heads, spectacular placement and dimes you’d rarely expect most passers to make.

The offensive line and receivers, however, took a drastic step down in quality, often putting their quarterback in uncomfortable situations where he was asked to do more than the previous year. With constant pressure and drops, this is why the difference between Palmer’s completion percentage and accuracy percentage is staggering.

It’s not as good as 2015, but Palmer’s 2016 deep ball was still great. The accuracy was in the ballpark, and outside of a slow start and some bad misses, this is exactly the kind of quality you’d expect from a QB like Palmer.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 54.3% (11th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 47.6% (11th)

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By now, everyone knows the Dak Prescott story. Drafted in the fourth round, he came in for an injured Tony Romo and never let go of the starting role, surprising everyone and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in the process.

All things considered, Prescott was not bad at all. The downfield passing can’t compare to Romo in his prime, but for a rookie it’s a good start! There really isn’t anything amazing or abysmal, but there’s more good than bad in this situation.

The Week 16 matchup against Detroit showcased superb downfield accuracy, but otherwise this was pretty standard stuff. Nevertheless, Prescott showcased quality in his first season, and a fine stepping stone for the potential in years to come.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers, now Los Angeles Chargers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 50.6% (17th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 46.3% (15th)

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With the most downfield interceptions of any quarterback on the Deep Ball Project, Rivers had a season below lofty expectations, but one that when added up really isn’t all that bad.

Like Eli Manning, Rivers’ arm strength deteriorated at the end of the season, though to his credit he was more consistent this season than his peer. You can expect the usual needle threading pleasure Rivers has had us come to expect, while also featuring passes that died or didn’t reach the intended target.

A probable Hall of Famer, Philip Rivers’ last season in San Diego (the team is now in Los Angeles) was a bit of a mixed bag, but not terrible. Combining the interceptions and bad misses, Rivers can do much better, but there’s enough quality that it doesn’t sink below some of the competitors.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 61.3% (7th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 55.4% (7th)

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Nothing is more fun than watching Aaron Rodgers play football, and it’s even more fun watching him sling the ball downfield. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that his downfield passing in 2016 was of the same awesome quality he’s been able to provide.

In spite of a limited receiving group and lack of creativity in play calling, Rodgers’ pocket patience and transcendental accuracy were able to carry the Packers into another NFC North title as they rode to the NFC Championship game after a 4-6 start.

In many respects, you can argue 2016 was Rodgers’ most valuable season, and it’s a season where I’d argue he should’ve won MVP. I was never sold on Matt Ryan as MVP because I felt he got lucky with turnovers in a few games, and I thought Rodgers’ played consistently better than any other QB in the MVP race.

Both halves of 2016 were saddled with receivers failing to get open, but Rodgers was playing at his usual quality in the first half. It was the 2nd half of the season where he was really playing at a level unequalled by anyone. As such, the accuracy percentage skyrocketed despite the scheme and receiver quality barely changing.

Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league, offering an unheard of display of aggressive, accurate passing while being able to minimize the amount of mistakes being made. Nothing he does in his prime gets old, and you can guarantee the same for his deep ball.

FINAL GRADE: A

Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 51.8% (15th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 46.3% (16th)

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Generally, Roethlisberger is one of the best downfield passers in the game, but injuries halted an outstanding first half and made him pedestrian in comparison to previous years.

For one thing, the accuracy is much more erratic than previous years, and the difference between before and after the Miami regular season game where he got injured is big. The first five games were vintage Big Ben, offering the same exciting downfield display. After the Miami game, however, you saw the quality go down. He was also fortunate to get away with plenty of dropped picks as well.

Still, with 14 touchdowns, Ben offered plenty of scoring opportunities. Injuries hamper a disappointing year in comparison to 2014 and 2015, but deep down the quality was still there.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 56.0% (10th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 52.3% (10th)

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Matt Ryan won MVP in 2016 and led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance, but was the perception of his season taken a bit too far?

Ryan has always been a very good quarterback. Previous seasons’ failures were unfairly squared at him despite performing with flawed supporting casts. In 2016, he got a really good supporting cast (coaching maximized it) and the result was what is considered one of the best passing seasons ever.

I wouldn’t really go that far. While good, Ryan’s production was maximized by Kyle Shanahan’s system, where receivers were constantly open and bailing out inaccurate throws. Ryan was fortunate to escape from some terrible passes, and his record setting YPA owes Shanahan to an extent.

That said, Ryan’s deep passing was still damn good in 2016. The TD-INT ratio was a step up from previous years, and while Shanahan’s scheme aided his production, Ryan put up his fair share of rainbows. He was also the only quarterback to post at least 100 downfield yards per game (102.9) in 2016.

I don’t necessarily think it was the best display of 2016, but all things considered Matt Ryan still had a quality year.

FINAL GRADE: B

Section A-L                                       Section M-R                                    Section S-Z

The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project (Part 1/3)

Section A-L                              Section M-R                                 Section S-Z

Welcome to the 2016-17 edition of the Deep Ball Project. For three years and counting, I’ve researched quarterbacks throwing the long ball, watching thousands of passes to determine which QBs could throw and which could not.

The result is the 2014-15 Deep Ball Project, the 2015-16 Deep Ball Project, and this, the 2016-17 Deep Ball Project.

With each new edition, I like to add new features that spice up the articles. For this year’s project, I included throws of both 16+ air yards (anything 16 yards or more) and 20+ air yards due to demand. Also, each quarterback now has 3-4 GIFs in each entry illustrating several of their deep throws from 2016.

With that in mind, here are some notes you’ll want to keep track of when reading this article.

Notes

-The minimum requirement for a quarterback to be on the Deep Ball Project is to have started at least 8 games. Quarterbacks that played in 8 games but started in less than 8 do not count.

-The following passes were excluded from the Deep Ball Project: 1) passes on plays that resulted in pass interference (except for ones that were declined WITHOUT another penalty existing), 2) passes that were tipped before they reach 16 air yards, 3) passes intentionally thrown away, and 4) passes where there was a miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver.

-The Chicago Bears are the only team to not have a QB on the list, as it requires a minimum of 8 games started. This is for the best though, as I did not have to deal with the All-22 camera angle Soldier Field provides. Otherwise, every other team qualified.

-The key stat to note is NOT yards or touchdowns, but rather accuracy percentage. Where as completion percentage recognized the percentage of passes completed, accuracy percentage recognizes the amount of passes that were accurate regardless if they were complete or incomplete.

-Ultimately, while accuracy percentage is THE most crucial stat on the Deep Ball Project, the eye test is what matters most. The quality of the misses and makes count when charting.

-The highest graded QBs are generally the ones with the highest accuracy percentage. Vice versa for the lowest graded.

-QBs will be presented by their teams (or the teams they were on in 2016), the charts signifying their stats and grade, where their accuracy ranked, and a brief summary of their season. At the end of Part 3 (section S-Z), I will reveal the overall charts and the best deep passer of 2016.

With that said, after months of research, charts, and grading, I am ready to present a combination of 2,494 downfield passes, 114 GIFs, and nearly 6,000 words of writing into one 3-part article. Or, in other words, The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project.

So let’s get this started. This is section A through L (going by last name) of the 2016-17 Deep Ball Project. To get to parts 2 and 3, click on Section M-R (part 2) and Section S-Z (part 3).

Blake Bortles (Jacksonville Jaguars)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 33.0% (30th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 27.7% (29th)

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We start off the 2016-17 Deep Ball Project at the absolute lowest.

There’s bad, there’s really bad, and then there’s Blake Bortles. Usually the lowest grade I give is an F, and that’s because the worst QBs at least have some good throws. Bortles found a way to bypass that and is the first quarterback to receive an F- in the history of the Deep Ball Project.

You have to try to be as bad as Bortles was. The throwing motion was completely broken and passes arrived late in the process. The passes themselves were often nowhere near the same area code as the intended receiver. The pocket movement and process went straight down the toilet.

So was there anything to like about Bortles’ 2016 season? Who cares? It was astounding seeing how badly Bortles could miss his targets. It’s like a Playstation controller with a broken analog stick. The difference is it costs a lot less to fix the Playstation controller and it can actually be done. 

In conclusion, Blake Bortles managed to find a way to lower expectations for how badly a downfield passer can **** **** up. The result was a season that was less bad and more hysterical.

FINAL GRADE: F-

Sam Bradford (Minnesota Vikings)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 66.7% (1st)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 59.1% (3rd)

When the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford to backup the injured Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season began, it was met with a polarized reception. The tide of that changed when the Vikings started 5-0, but came back when they finished the season 8-8, with much of the criticism coming at the front office for trading for Bradford.

All things considered, however, you just may be surprised by Bradford’s downfield passing. His reputation is that of a short passer, but that’s unearned. Playing behind the worst offensive line in the league, little time is given for Bradford to develop his reads or the receivers to progress on their routes, leading to missed opportunities and sacks.

But when Bradford was able to release the ball, he did it with extreme efficiency. If you’re aware of my past work, you’ll know Bradford was graded highly in the 2015-16 DBP. Usually, there’s nowhere to go but down, but Bradford found a way to go up, further increasing his accuracy with tight, precise downfield bombs hitting receivers in stride and away from defenders. He finished with the highest overall downfield accuracy in 2016, with 66.7% of his passes being accurate.

Bradford’s downfield passing isn’t just underrated, good, very good, really good, or great. It’s sensational. Look for yourself and see a quarterback with tremendous deep passing ability.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Tom Brady (New England Patriots)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 51.5% (16th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 44.7% (18th)

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Tom Brady has never been a great downfield passer, but in 2016 he showed a bit of improvement.

There were more passes made in stride than what was shown in previous years. This consistency allowed Brady to throw for 9 touchdowns as opposed to one interception. However, compared to his peers, Brady just isn’t as good. The accuracy just isn’t consistently there in comparison, so he pales on that front.

Brady didn’t do enough to establish himself as a downfield passer, but as a future HOF QB, and perhaps the most accomplished passer ever, it doesn’t really matter.

FINAL GRADE: C

Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 61.9% (5th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 56.3% (6th)

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After taking a slight detour in 2015, Drew Brees rebounded his game with another excellent deep passing season in 2016.

Playing with the fastest and smoothest mechanics is a luxury for a top quarterback, and it helps make Brees’ accuracy that much easier. 5th in overall downfield accuracy, he consistently put excellent placement on the ball regardless if his receivers caught it or dropped it.

The future Hall of Famer is still a top 5 quarterback in my eyes. Where as 2015 was a quality year, it still felt like a step down. Brees made amends in 2016 and delivered the goods on the deep ball.

He may be a small quarterback, but in 2016 Drew Brees was constantly making big plays.

FINAL GRADE: A

Derek Carr (Oakland Raiders)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 64.3% (3rd)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 62.9% (1st)

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Derek Carr has come a long way.

2015 was an improvement over 2014, but a 2nd half decline kept Carr from competing with the grades of the elite QBs. In 2016, he stepped up his consistency and gave one of the best deep ball performances of the year.

We’re talking consistent placement and terrific arm talent. Carr finished 3rd in overall accuracy (64.3%) and finished first in accuracy on throws of 20+ air yards (62.9%). His success on the deep ball was a primary reason why he’s been able to cement his status as the Raiders’ franchise QB.

Only a few poor throws kept Derek Carr from reaching an A+. If his downfield passing is an indication, this is the beginning of great things to come. The Fresno State alumni has become a good QB in the NFL with a master touch on the downfield bomb.

FINAL GRADE: A

Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 48.4% (19th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 43.2% (20th)

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Kirk Cousins had great downfield stats in 2016, but the overall eye test was a different story.

The quality was certainly a step up from 2015, with several nice throws that led to touchdowns. Cousins was able to lead 2016 in 20+ yards as well.

But even then, there’s just too many bad throws and misses for the deep ball season not to reek of mediocrity. Despite playing with DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garçon and Jordan Reed, Cousins still managed to overthrow his set of toys without providing routine accuracy.

So really, if you like stats, you’ll like Kirk Cousins’ 2016 season. If you like the eye test, you’ll probably be underwhelmed like I was. Take what you will from his season.

FINAL GRADE: C

Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 44.7% (23rd)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 39.7% (24th)

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Remember when Andy Dalton broke out in 2015? Good times.

Actually, I never thought Dalton broke out so much as benefit from an amazing receiving group. With AJ Green and Tyler Eifert hurt, Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones, and Mohamad Sanu gone, Dalton was who we thought he was in 2016; a step below mediocre.

There are some good stretches of deep passes, but the overall quality is vintage Dalton; missing open receivers and forcing the passes that are caught to be hard to catch.

I don’t have anything else to say. Dalton’s 2016 season was just there.

FINAL GRADE: C-

Ryan Fitzpatrick (New York Jets, now a free agent)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 47.5% (21st)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 40.8% (22nd)

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By throwing for more than 30 touchdowns in 2015, Ryan Fitzpatrick created the greatest scam in the NFL since, well, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Despite that fact, he sucked in 2015, and he sucked in 2016.

The accuracy percentage is a bit misleading, since a majority of Fitzpatrick’s completions were on easy throws. The misses, on the other hand, were a special kind of bad, and every bit as deliciously bad as you’d imagine.

I don’t even care that he managed to grade a bit better than his 2015 season, it’s still Ryan Fitzpatrick, and I feel like moving on. Next.

FINAL GRADE: D-

Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 36.0% (3rd)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 26.3% (2nd)

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How can you say Joe Flacco is elite if he wasn’t close to being average for the last 2 years?

Let’s talk about 2016. Flacco was easily one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last year. Come to think of it, he’s been one of the worst quarterbacks since after he won Super Bowl MVP. He’s just given up on his mechanics, accuracy, and train of thought in the pocket. The result is a careless mess.

Ranking in the bottom 3 in accuracy on both 16+ and 20+ throws while serving up plenty of turnovers and dropped picks, it’s a shame Joe Flacco’s level of badness never gets talked about, because it makes for great conversation. This is a guy that has gotten passes with being bad for a while, and it’s about time we started talking about it.

Only the presence of Blake Bortles and some good throws managed to save Flacco from grading out with an F-. If you had never watched him play before 2013, you’d probably wonder how he has a Super Bowl ring too.

FINAL GRADE: F

Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 43.8% (25th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 35.5% (27th)

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While no masterpiece, Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 season had some good stuff. I thought his overall season was good, though his deep ball season was a bit sub-par.

This is the kind of season where I don’t have much to say, but while the accuracy sucked, the completions were really damn good. That’s why despite the low accuracy rankings, Kaepernick is at a D+ grade. There are some really good stretches of pocket movement and mobility that remind me of 2012 Kaepernick, but also moments where his receivers, bad as they are, bailed him out on accuracy.

Like I said, it’s not great, but there are some throws that are worth looking at, and by God, Colin Kaepernick needs a job.

FINAL GRADE: D+

Case Keenum (Los Angeles Rams)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 52.4% (13th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 46.7% (13th)

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After experiencing Case Keenum’s deep throws in 2016, I entered a state of shock, like in the movie Amadeus.

This was a bad quarterback making good throws. This was a bad quarterback with the 13th most accurate overall deep ball and the 13th highest accuracy percentage on 20+ throws. Why him, though? Why not better passers like Tom Brady or Marcus Mariota? Why was Case Keenum so blessed?

Sure, there’s some trash, but I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nothing was painful, and I actually enjoyed what I was seeing. Not great, but not bad either. And now that you’ve looked at this entry, you’ll be just as confused as I am.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Cody Kessler (Cleveland Browns)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 50.0% (18th)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 40.0% (23rd)

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Cody Kessler is interesting. He’s not a good quarterback, but he might be a good backup.

In his first season, the Cleveland Browns QB actually faired well in deep passing compared to previous QBs, though when those QBs were Brian Hoyer (2014) and Josh McCown (2015) toddlers could look pretty favorable too. There’s a couple of great play extensions, but the overall tape is limited and meh in general.

There’s not much else for me to talk about, so this is a season that  just serves its purpose and not much else.

FINAL GRADE: C-

Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts)

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Accuracy Percentage On 16+ Throws: 66.3% (2nd)

Accuracy Percentage on 20+ Throws: 57.4% (5th)

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After missing the 2015-16 Deep Ball Project due to injuries, Andrew Luck rebounded in a big way, bigger than I had given him credit for.

Andrew Luck has always been a great quarterback, but in 2016 he took his game to a new level, minimizing mistakes while making more jaw dropping plays than ever before. His overall accuracy of 66.3% was only ranked 2nd to Sam Bradford, and this came despite playing with poor coaching and a weak (though slightly improved) offensive line.

What Luck’s been able to do in 2016 was astounding. He was legitimately bad in 2015, but made sure that season was an outlier for good, delivering top notch passes upon top notch passes, often making his next throw his best one.

With yards and touchdowns galore, and supreme accuracy, Andrew Luck’s 2016 season was an otherworldly one.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Section A-L                                     Section M-R                                   Section S-Z

2016-17 Deep Ball Project Sample: Sam Bradford

Hello, friends.

The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project (DBP) isn’t finished yet, but it is more than halfway complete as of this writing. I’m currently busy writing in the entries of the quarterbacks I have watched (the ones that started a minimum requirement of 8 games), and so you can get an idea of what the DBP will look like, this article features a sample of Sam Bradford’s downfield passing log.

I will try to complete and release the article as soon as next month, maybe earlier if things are ahead of schedule, but for the meantime, enjoy this sample.

Sam Bradford (Minnesota Vikings)

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When the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford to backup the injured Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season began, it was met with a polarized reception. The tide of that changed when the Vikings started 5-0, but came back when they finished the season 8-8, with much of the criticism coming at the front office for trading for Bradford.

All things considered, however, you just may be surprised by Bradford’s downfield passing. His reputation is that of a short passer, but that’s unearned. Playing behind the worst offensive line in the league, little time is given for Bradford to develop his reads or the receivers to progress on their routes, leading to missed opportunities and sacks.

But when Bradford was able to release the ball, he did it with extreme efficiency. If you’re aware of my past work, you’ll know Bradford was graded highly in the 2015-16 DBP. Usually, there’s nowhere to go but down, but Bradford found a way to go up, further increasing his accuracy with tight, precise downfield bombs hitting receivers in stride and away from defenders. His arm talent and velocity control are both sublime, and compared to the rest of the league, threw him on a pedestal.

Bradford’s downfield passing isn’t just underrated, good, very good, really good, or great. It’s sensational. Look for yourself and see a quarterback with tremendous deep passing ability.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Kenny Britt Offers The Ideal Free Agent WR

The 2017 wide receiver free agency class is deep. DeSean Jackson, Kenny Britt, Alshon Jeffery, Terrelle Pryor, Pierre Garçon, Kenny Stills, Robert Woods, Terrance Williams, and Cordarelle Patterson are some of the big names this class has to offer, so there’s plenty of toys for teams to choose from.

Kenny Britt is one of the bigger names. With the Los Angeles Rams likely to let him walk in free agency, teams such as the Redskins and Eagles have been connected to him since the offseason began as possible landing spots.

In the league since 2009 (with the Titans and Rams), Britt came off a career year in 2016. He caught 68 passes for 1,002 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 14.7 yards per reception. He was also the Rams’ first 1,000 yard receiver since legend Torry Holt in 2007.

These stats may not be anything to sneeze at, but this is not indicative of Britt’s quality of play. This more describes the offenses he was on and the quarterbacks he played with. Between Vince Young, Case Keenum, Kerry Collins, old Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Jared Goff, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, and Nick Foles, none of these quarterbacks have given Britt a chance to thrive and put up blockbuster numbers.

That could change in 2017 with a different team. Not to say there’s anything wrong with the Rams keeping one of their actual skill players on a team lacking them, but teams in need of a WR would benefit from adding Britt to their rosters. Entering 29 years of age in September, Britt will be a benefit to a team looking to compete for several years for several different reasons.

 

First, Britt’s ball skills are really good. I won’t go into great detail on what’s happening in these GIFs because they’re all pretty similar, but Britt’s always been a really talented player. He has the ability to turn inaccurate throws into spectacular plays because of his natural grip on the ball.

All 3 of these GIFs are one handed catches in the same ballpark as Odell Beckham’s. The 3rd GIF is an accurate pass, but Britt’s concentration to haul in the pass is extremely impressive.

Next, Britt’s awareness and ability to adjust his route on the fly is exceptional. When going behind the scenes to look at a receiver, it’s important to note the design of the route as well as what the WR can do about it. The Rams offense is poorly coached, often doing nothing to help the QB or the WRs and instead trapping them in a claustrophobic offense.

Britt bails out the coordinator on each of these two plays. In the first GIF, #18 makes the defender adjacent to him run further than he should, allowing Britt to stop and have plenty of space for Case Keenum to throw him the ball. Because of the awareness and self created space, Britt is able to immediately adjust to YAC mode, making an ordinary play turn into a big gain.

In the 2nd GIF, Britt stops his route and sees an opening for his quarterback to throw him the ball to. His patience and awareness of the situation stand out, and he grabs the pass and uses his strength to pinball away from defenders and into the end zone for the touchdown.

 

Size Matchup

 

Speaking of strength, that’s what’s up next. Britt’s size and frame are perhaps what stands out about him the most. At 6 ft 3 and 223 lb, Britt is a huge receiver with a big window to throw the ball to. He has some of the tools of a receiving tight end such as the ability to box out, so he’s a favorable target on 3rd down conversions.

In the first GIF, Britt’s frame is able to create space as he uses tight footwork to make an impressive touchdown catch. In the 2nd GIF, #18 boxes out Revis Island, allowing for the easy pass completion and the first down conversion.

(This particular trait is a must for WR needy teams. A big, efficient WR not only allows for big plays downfield and first down conversions, it also allows for a change in gameplan as teams with talented receivers will be able to get more opportunities because of the defense’s distractions to the big WR. Though, this is important regardless if you’re big or not, as DeSean Jackson’s impact in Washington will tell you. Teams have been so occupied with covering Jackson that it was only when the 2nd half of 2016 came out that his numbers exploded.)

With a team like Carolina is where Britt would fit perfectly, mainly because of his tendency to have big downfield plays and his frame.

 

Route Running

Finally, Britt’s route running deserves more credit. Frame can only get you so far in the world of pass catching;  you also need to refine the art of creating separation.

Fortunately, Britt does that and then some. The first GIF displays an excellent jab move to get open for the deep connection. The 2nd GIF shows off the double move for another deep connection, while the 3rd GIF shows Britt burning one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Richard Sherman. The pass is overthrown, but Britt does an outstanding job of creating separation and giving his quarterback a chance.

Further examining the art of separation, it’s important you have a laundry list of ways to create separation. Defenses will figure you out if you only have one way to separate, so widening your skill set in this particular area is key. Not to sound cliche, but Britt understands the approach and technique needed for each play. In the GIF above, Britt pulls off the stop and go technique, allowing him to get easy separation and provides his quarterback a nice open cushion to throw the ball to.

 

Conclusion

Kenny Britt is a really good wide receiver and the ideal free agency target. As previously stated, his pedestrian career numbers are an indication of the quality of the teams he’s played for. For a competitive team hungry for a wide receiver, he offers great ball skills, exceptional awareness, a consistent matchup winner, and diverse and refined route running.

Britt is acquainted with all the necessary tools for a great WR to thrive in the league. With an actual team, he can get the credit and huge numbers he has always deserved.

(Featured image via blacksportsonline.com)

Jalen Richard Brings A New Dimension To Explosive Raiders Offense

Stories can come from anywhere at any angle. That’s what’s so great about them. They can come through the straightforward “as we expected” route or through the underdog rags to riches route.

For Oakland Raiders running back Jalen Richard, his story comes as an underdog. Undrafted out of Southern Mississippi, Richard had to participate in a 3 day tryout just to even make it to Raiders training camp. All of this while competing with Dwayne Washington, Oakland’s 5th round pick.

Despite going through the preseason injured, #30 made enough of an impression that he had made the team. A terrific achievement, but how long would it last?

The unthinkable happened. Not only did it last the entire season, but Richard’s addition to the Raiders has actually made the offense better.

Despite being undrafted, he already looks like a high quality back after 1 year, and on an offense rich with talent. Mostly used as the return guy, Richard’s role was used increasingly as both a running and receiving back, And he quickly caught the attention of analysts such as Jon Gruden, Dan Fouts and Cris Collinsworth once his role was increased.

As a result of his breakthrough, the Raiders showed unbelievable depth at both the run and receiving game, helping them make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Richard finished his rookie season with 491 rushing yards (5.9 YPC) and a touchdown while putting up 29 receptions for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns. Richard is only the fourth player in NFL history (and the first since 1979) to rush for a 75-yard touchdown or longer in his first career game, running for an 84 yard touchdown on his first career carry.

It’s this kind of impressive play that has allowed the Raiders to explore new dimensions with an already explosive offense.

Richard’s size and play has given him comparisons to famed small back Darren Sproles, and in respect he does represent that role. Where as Latavius Murray is tall and sturdy, making him the workhorse back, Richard is small and nimble. He is also an intelligent player, allowing him to have a wide skill set for the Raiders to use him as an offensive weapon.

Richard’s nimbleness makes him an alarming threat in the running and receiving games. He is difficult to grasp not just because of his size, but also his athleticism. In the first GIF, He jumps on the screen pass from Derek Carr, and uses that jump to get a quick burst of acceleration. In the 2nd GIF, Richard shows outstanding vision and dodges an incoming tackler, creating space ahead of him to turn nothing into a 6 yard gain. The same field awareness is used in the 3rd GIF, where #30 uses an excellent outside jump cut to gain 7 yards while helping the offense move the chains.

These 3 GIFs are perfect for showing off how wide Jalen Richard’s skill set is because his thought process is prepared meticulously beforehand. He’s able to survey the field and instantly decide how to approach tacklers, angles and gaps, the sign of a quality back. So it goes without saying that Richard has this in spades.

In perhaps his best career game yet against the Colts, Richard showed outstanding vision and patience, helping him get 66 yards on 6 carries. In the first GIF, Richard makes an amazing cut across the field at the line of scrimmage for a massive gain. The Le’Veon Bell esque patience is shown in the 2nd GIF, where Richard is able to manage a claustrophobic gap to get a 9-yard gain out of it.

 

These next set of GIFs show Richard’s sturdiness despite his size. Here, he bursts through a small hole while jabbing his way from a tackler, who gets hands on him but can’t bring him down. The result is a 22-yard gain. The 2nd GIF shows Richard breaking 2 tackles, one with an up the middle jump cut and an outside cut.

Despite his small size, Richard is surprisingly tough to take down. It’s one thing to even get to him, but to wrap him up and take him down is another story. His burst and strength allow him to slip through tackles and go for longer gains after contact.

In this GIF from the playoff game against the Texans, not only did Richard (somehow) survived this hit, he also avoided getting brought down, bouncing off the tackle like a pinball and running for the races, giving Oakland excellent field position on the eventual scoring drive.

Conclusion

Football audiences gawk at flashy stats and performances, but to me, the ability to know how to approach the football and a situation is more impressive. This may seem obvious, it’s a trait certain players in the league lack. You’ll see guys lose precious yards in situational play because they’ll jump to conclusions and look to get more yards, or fail to see openings and useful opportunities.

For a player who had to participate in a 3-day tryout just to make it to training camp, much less go undrafted, to show off these traits and then some is sensational. The work Jalen Richard has put into his craft has made him a really good back, and his emergence has not only given the Raiders further depth at the running back position, but also another way to approach the field.

It’s difficult to conclude how Jalen Richard went undrafted, because his talent and football smarts indicate he’s a high quality starter and will be one for years to come.

(Featured image via justblogbaby.com)

Just How Good Was The 2016 Atlanta Falcons Offense?

The 2016 Falcons have been the biggest surprise team of the season. Expected to finish at the bottom of the NFC South, the team not only won the division at 11-5, but clinched the #2 seed and a first round bye despite a tough schedule. In their playoff games at home, they wiped out Seattle and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998, facing the Patriots.

The question is, why didn’t this happen the previous year when expectations were high? The team was expected to win the division in 2015, and started out 5-0 before losing 8 of the next 11 games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. What caused it? Red zone problems and offensive line struggles proved nails in the coffin for the team.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the key behind Atlanta’s success in 2016 has been the offense playing at a higher level. Boasting the #1 scoring offense in the league, the team ripped apart defenses equally on the air and ground. With Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme realizing its potential and Matt Ryan playing more efficiently under it, the offense thrived.

With 540 points, the offense easily led 2016 in scoring, with 71 points ahead of the 2nd place New Orleans Saints; This was the 9th highest scoring differential from first to second place since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.

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As you can see, the 2013 Broncos and 2007 Patriots were historically explosive, The 49ers were on fire in the 90s, and the Rams had that historic Greatest Show on Turf run during the turn of the new millennium. So are the 2016 Falcons historic? Well, in comparison to some of teams mentioned, not quite as much. However, they are one of the best offenses in recent memory, as shown by several statistics that are worthy of being mentioned.

-The Falcons have scored a TD on their opening drive in each of their last 8 games prior to the Super Bowl matchup against New England. 

-In 14 of 18 games played prior to the Super Bowl, the Falcons have scored on their opening drive. In those 14 games, the team is 12-2.

-Matt Ryan’s 9.3 Yards Per Attempt are the most from any qualifying QB since Kurt Warner’s 9.9 in 2,000.

-With 1,409 receiving yards in 14 games (100.6 YPG), not only has Julio Jones put up a record 4 consecutive seasons with 100 yards per game or more, this is also the most seasons of this kind in NFL history, as no other receiver has more than 3. It should be noted Jones only played 5 games in 2013, but this is still a tremendous achievement.

-On their 6 game winning streak extending into the postseason, the Falcons have scored 39.0 points per game. In 3 of those last 6 games, they’ve put up at least 40 points.

-The offense has scored 30 points or more in 11 games this season, the 5th highest mark in NFL history (This does NOT include postseason games).

-Matt Ryan has set single season franchise records for passing yards (4,944), completion percentage (69.9%), touchdowns (38), and passer rating (117.1, which is also the fifth highest mark in NFL history)

The team’s offense finished first in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, a stat that judges team efficiency while adjusting a team’s schedule.

Special Thanks to @Topher_Doll for helping out with some of the stats.

We’ve broken down the team statistically, but what caused these statistics to appear against teams like the Packers, Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Buccaneers, Eagles, Panthers and Cardinals?

To help, Atlanta got heavily involved during the offseason. The team signed former Cleveland Browns Alex Mack (center) and Taylor Gabriel (WR), who previously played under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when he was in Cleveland in 2014. Bengals receiver Mohamad Sanu was signed as well.

The development of key players was also a huge plus. Devonta Freeman cemented himself in the top 10 running back conversation, while Tevin Coleman broke out and established himself as the team’s #1 receiving back. Gabriel, Jones, and Sanu ended up being perfect players for the kind of offense Shanahan was calling, and Ryan, the presumable MVP, was able to overcome his red zone struggles from the previous season to help elevate Atlanta’s passing game.

With a quality offensive line, great running game, explosive passing game enhanced by Shanahan’s excellent scheme, and Matt Ryan putting up giant numbers, the Falcons offense thrived.

But it doesn’t do any justice to just talk about the players without showing visual imagery. These are the standout keys to Atlanta’s offense with some of their best plays GIF’d.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan has had a career year statistically. As well as likely winning the MVP award, Ryan was elected First Team All Pro as a QB, the first Falcons QB to have said honor. While he’s never been the flashiest passer, Ryan has always been really good, even great at times. He’s also a smart QB, able to make up for a lack of great arm strength or standout mobility by being accurate and executing Kyle Shanahan’s offense much more efficiently than 2015.

Julio Jones

Julio Jones is one of the best receivers in the game. He is up there guys like Odell Beckham, AJ Green, or Antonio Brown, and at his peak he’s near unstoppable. His ability at the catch point combined with his size and frame has made him a one man wrecking crew at times, and his explosiveness after the catch, including his ease at creating separation, has helped him rack up massive numbers.

Devonta Freeman

Much like Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman broke out in his sophomore season and took a huge step forward, and continued his progression with a terrific 2016 season. Exceptional as both a runner and a receiver (his 437 YAC were the 4th most among receiving backs in 2016, only behind Bell, David Johnson, and James White), Freeman offers smooth cuts, impressive turns to the other side of the field, great vision in tight gaps, and a nice burst after contact. His development has not only been a surprise, but also welcomed in a league currently rich with running back talent.

Tevin Coleman

Tevin Coleman is Plan B for the Falcons run game, and a really good plan B at that. Coleman’s skill set is just in the ballpark as Freeman’s, but he’s also faster and less hesitant, and has more of a pinball burst than Freeman. Like Freeman, Coleman was a question mark his rookie season before taking a big leap forward, not only giving Freeman rest, but also quality depth at the running back position. With Freeman and Coleman, Atlanta has had one of the most explosive run games in the league.

Kyle Shanahan’s Gameplan

Finally, we take a look at the true heart of the Falcons offense: coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan had already proven himself as a coordinator in roles with Washington and Cleveland. In Cleveland he was able to get the most out of Brian Hoyer and elevate the team to a 7-4 start. 2015 did not finish as was expected, but 2016’s results cemented his status as the best offensive coordinator in the league.

Shanahan is an excellent playcaller because of his creativity and intelligence. He understands how to scheme players open, how to negate weaknesses on offense and how to exploit weaknesses on the other side of the ball, and gets the most out of limited players. All of this is done with play calling that is not only fresh and diverse, but also makes sense and has thought put into it (something certain coaches in the league lack).

In the GIF above, from the divisional game against the Seahawks, the Falcons run a slant designed to get in the hands of Julio Jones immediately. Ryan is supposed to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he does. This stuns Seattle’s defense, who is playing back expecting longer developing routes. With the receiver next to Julio becoming a blocker, Shanahan’s play call exposes the coverage, resulting in an easy touchdown for the dirty birds.

In the GIFs above, Shanahan provides free lessons on how to create space in routes. In the first GIF, on the left side, the routes of the two receivers intersect, allowing Coleman to get open on the shallow cross route allowing for an easy first down. In the 2nd GIF, the offensive line is schemed intentionally to bring “pressure” on Ryan, allowing him to dump the ball off to a wide open Taylor Gabriel, with blockers in front of him. This is a great play call and the execution is just as good.

Another thing shown from the 2 GIFs is the Falcons are very well coached and disciplined. This sounds like a given, but certain teams have hotheads that can’t keep their cool or approach the ball or a route the wrong way. Pretty much all of Atlanta’s skill players have strong technique to approaching the ball and route, and in doing so make the end results much better. This not only can be credited to head coach Dan Quinn, but Shanahan’s offensive scheme as well.

Lastly, as previously stated, Kyle Shanahan knows how to get the most out of limited players. Mohamad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are not outstanding players, but are good fits under Shanahan’s offense. Gabriel was a former Brown who previously had experience with Shanahan in 2014. In 2015, Gabriel had drop and route issues, leading to Cleveland releasing him.

While Gabriel has a limited skill set, Shanahan’s been able to put him in places where he is best suited in. In the end around above, Gabriel is the perfect fit for the play call because of his speed. The blocking is outstanding, so Gabriel doesn’t need to rely on fancy moves, just speed.

Conclusion

The 2016 Atlanta Falcons’ offense was excellent. No one will probably say they were on the level of the 2007 Patriots or 1999 Rams in terms of talent, but in terms of refinement, technique, and execution, they just might be up there with those teams. They’ve offered a consistent level of explosive field opening play that we’ve seen before, just not done this well.

Regardless of the end result of the Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots, the team’s offense has cemented itself as one of the greats. If it’s not an all time great, it’s at the very least one of the best of the 21st century. For a city that has had very limited postseason success, the Falcons offense, and the team as a whole, has given Atlanta sports fans something to remember and hold on to for a very long time.

(Stats via pro-football-reference, sportingcharts, and ESPN.)