by Scott Kacsmar
In Part I of our look at data on 12 of the most common pass routes in the NFL, we focused on the production of individual receivers. Today, we are looking at 2016's quarterbacks, which increases the sample size a bit, though only so much -- we are still dealing with one year of data and chopping it into bits. Joe Flacco threw 108 curl routes last year, the only player to break 100 throws on any one type of route. (That is another stat to show that the 2016 Ravens, featuring Flacco's pursuit of smashing the failed completions record, were not a fun passing offense to watch.)
Each table below includes the 34 qualified quarterbacks from last year with at least 200 passes. We are going to focus on the same 12 routes from Part I, ignoring the running back-heavy throws such as flats, running back screens, and swing passes. I pulled the data on those and found that the completion rates were all very high as expected, but there was no correlation between the DVOA or DYAR on these plays. For example, Ryan Tannehill had a league-high 95 DYAR when throwing to the flat, but -19 DYAR on screens, and 18 DYAR on six swing passes. Eli Manning had a league-high 36 RB screens for 51 DYAR, but had -38 DYAR on 39 flat passes. Carson Palmer had shockingly bad numbers on RB screens (-34 DYAR and -108.6% DVOA), but that was just nine plays, including six screens to David Johnson. Finally, Flacco also led the league with 22 swing passes, so that is not a very common play for any offense.
It must be noted that because of how we had our data, the following numbers represent receiving DYAR and DVOA, not passing DYAR and DVOA. That means that sacks obviously aren't included, but also that interceptions are not penalized any more than other incomplete passes. The number of passes includes defensive pass interference penalties. Each table is sorted by descending DYAR.
Route data is courtesy of our friends at Sports Info Solutions and was first introduced in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (available here).
The curl route was the league's most common throw last year, with 2,615 attempts according to SIS.
If you read Part I, you may have expected Drew Brees to do well here given that rookie Michael Thomas led all wide receivers with 121 DYAR on curls, catching 26-of-28 passes. Brees was third in DYAR, but Thomas accounted for 121 of his 141 DYAR on curls. Brees also threw 28 curls combined to Coby Fleener and Brandin Cooks, but those plays lost 32 DYAR, with Cooks having -26 DYAR on 16 curls. Brees threw his curls to almost identical lengths to his three primary wideouts: Thomas (5.9), Cooks (5.8), and Willie Snead (5.8). The difference was in the YAC those receivers produced: Thomas (3.8) and Snead (3.5) were much better than Cooks (0.3).
Kirk Cousins was the most proficient quarterback on curl routes last year with the most DYAR and highest DVOA. Only Russell Wilson (83.9 percent) had a higher completion percentage on curls. The Rams' duo of Jared Goff (60.6 percent) and Case Keenum (60.4 percent) had the lowest completion percentages on curls last year. Matt Barkley (61.3 percent) was close to that, but he also threw the deepest curls in the league at 9.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (league average: 6.7). Cousins' average curl was 5.6 yards, longer than only -- you guessed it -- Sam Bradford at 5.2 yards. There was only a very minor correlation (-0.20) between average pass depth and completion percentage here.
Tom Brady actually had one of the lowest completion rates (64.0 percent) on curls, but his completions gained the highest YAC (5.6) on average. Matthew Stafford (4.3), Cousins (4.0), and Brian Hoyer (4.0) were the only other quarterbacks above 4.0 YAC on curls.
Rookie Dak Prescott excelled on curls, ranking fourth in both DYAR and DVOA. He also threw some of the deepest curls (8.2), but had the third-least YAC (2.0) on these plays. The only players with less YAC were Eli Manning (1.7) and Jameis Winston (1.5).
We mentioned Manning's struggles with curls in Part I. He had four receivers with at least 10 curl targets last year and they each had lower than -10.0% DVOA. Like Brees, Manning's curls to his wideouts were all at a very similar depth: Odell Beckham Jr. (7.2), Victor Cruz (7.4), and Sterling Shepard (7.5). But none of those players broke even 2.0 YAC when they did catch the ball. In the end, Manning's -137 DYAR was easily the worst in the league, which might make one question why he had 95 such throws (third in the league) last year.
The out, or quick out, had 2,075 attempts last season.
Two routes in and again we see a Rams quarterback (Goff) last in DVOA and Manning last in DYAR. Goff and Keenum were collectively worse on out routes than Manning, but the latter played the whole season again, hence a league-low -74 DYAR. Manning even threw the shortest quick outs in the league at 5.7 yards. The curl and out are the two most common throws in the game, so it will be interesting to see if Manning's struggles continue here in 2017. He has a very talented receiving corps, especially with the additions of Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram. Manning threw 20 of his 62 outs to tight end Will Tye last year, so maybe a more athletic player in Engram could lead to better success this year.
Colin Kaepernick completed a league-low 46.2 percent of his outs with no drops charted. He also threw the deepest out routes in the league at 10.9 yards. San Francisco's new quarterback Brian Hoyer (82.6 percent) was the only quarterback to complete more than 80 percent of his out routes. Matt Ryan ranked second at 78.9 percent in Kyle Shanahan's offense, which is going to try to operate in San Francisco without anywhere near the same personnel that Atlanta had.
Cleveland rookie Cody Kessler had 5.3 YAC, but he only had 14 out routes last season, the fewest in the table. Cousins had the most out routes with 98. Keenum (3.9) and Goff (3.7) actually had the next best YAC on out routes, but again, completing the passes were difficult enough for them. Alex Smith brought up the rear with just 0.9 YAC on his out routes, but still ranked fifth in DYAR and DVOA.
Prescott was the most efficient on out routes with the highest DVOA and most DYAR. Cole Beasley's league-high 119 DYAR helped a lot, but Prescott still had 123 DYAR to other receivers. The five other receivers he targeted at least three times all had at least 18 DYAR, led by Jason Witten's 48 DYAR on 26 targets. This is largely a Beasley or Witten play for Dallas, but Prescott was very effective regardless.
The dig route is a little deeper than the curl or out, but generally produces better offense (9.2% DVOA). Only six of our 34 passers had negative DYAR on dig routes, but you may be surprised to see who ranked last.
Brady finished last in DYAR and DVOA. In four fewer games, he had only one fewer dig route than Cousins (37), who finished No. 1 in DYAR and second in DVOA. We mentioned in Part I that Brandin Cooks could help New England in this department. He had 52 DYAR on 10 dig routes compared to -27 DYAR on 25 dig routes to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan combined. Brady threw 19 of his dig routes to Edelman last year, but Cooks would seem like a more logical choice of target. Brady's average dig was thrown 8.0 yards; only Goff (6.7) was shorter. Andrew Luck (13.5) and Kessler (13.9) were the only quarterbacks to average more than 12.0 yards on their dig routes, though again with Kessler, we're only talking about eight plays.
Cam Newton ranked next to last in DVOA and DYAR. He would seem to have the right skill set for dig routes, but accuracy is a factor. Newton only completed 42.9 percent of his digs (including two drops), the lowest in the NFL. Newton fared adequately when targeting Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, but was 2-of-13 on dig routes to other Panthers. Ted Ginn Jr. (-18 DYAR) went to New Orleans, which seems like a bad tradeoff for Brees after losing Cooks.
Alex Smith completed a league-best 77.3 percent of his dig routes, though he only threw them 23 times. He was 7-for-7 with a defensive pass interference penalty on eight dig routes to the now departed Jeremy Maclin (50 DYAR).
Jameis Winston (62) and Carson Palmer (57) led all quarterbacks in dig routes. They were also two of the three quarterbacks (Luck the other) to be knocked down at least 120 times last year. Sometimes that's the price you pay for better offense.
Cousins, the No. 1 passer in two of our first three routes, lost 86 DYAR on dig routes with the departures of DeSean Jackson (30 DYAR) and Pierre Garcon (56 DYAR). He still has Jordan Reed (47 DYAR) and was generally productive with everyone he targeted on digs last year.
Why don't we see slants more often in the NFL? There were 1,259 attempts last year, but that's still less than half of the number of curls (2,615). Both throws had an average distance of 6.7 yards, but the slant produces 5.0 YAC on average compared to 2.8 YAC for the curl. Imagine that, a receiver turning his back to the defense does less with the ball in his hands than someone who is running with forward momentum.
You know the slant is a helpful play when Flacco and Manning rank in the top five in DYAR and DVOA. Ryan completed a league-best 83.0 percent of his slants for a league-high 270 DYAR. Having Julio Jones helped (54.3% DVOA and 114 DYAR on 23 slants), but Ryan was still very efficient in DVOA on slants to Aldrick Robinson (106.6% DVOA), Mohamed Sanu (68.8%), and Justin Hardy (54.6%) as well. His 116 DYAR on 17 slants to those players alone would have ranked sixth in the league.
However, Ryan did not rank first in DVOA. That was Aaron Rodgers, but he only threw 32 slants to Ryan's 54 (Derek Carr led the NFL with 60 slants). How does an offense with a passer like Rodgers wind up with so many broken plays (foreshadowing!) and so few slants? If you are looking for criticism of Mike McCarthy's offense, this would be one piece of evidence.
We could not tell you if Brees threw the "quickest" slants, but he certainly threw the shortest at 5.1 yards, and there likely is strong correlation between air yards and snap-to-release time on these slants. Kessler (9.6) and Kaepernick (9.2) had the deepest slants. Kessler had 8.9 YAC on his 14 slants, best in the league. Matt Barkley also threw one of the deeper slants in the league (7.9), but had the lowest YAC (1.0).
Then there is the case of Goff. It was only 21 slants, but his -87 DYAR was by far the worst in the league. His 42.9 completion rate was also the worst. Even with giving him credit on two drops, his 52.3 percent would still be well below the league average of 67.4 percent. Like with all Goff talk this offseason, we want to stress that he was only a rookie and it was only seven starts with an offensively challenged franchise, but man, he sure did not leave any breadcrumbs to lead to optimism.
The drag route produces the most YAC (5.9) on average among the five most common routes in the NFL, beating out the curl (2.8), out (2.5), dig (3.4), and slant (5.0).
After we called Tyrell Williams "The Drag King" with 29 drag routes for 103 DYAR to lead the league, you may have guessed that Philip Rivers would be on top here. Only Flacco (66) threw more drag routes than Rivers (64), though Baltimore's plays were not nearly as successful. Rivers-to-Williams drove the success, but the Chargers did not fare well on drag routes to Antonio Gates and Dontrelle Inman. Those players combined for -41 DYAR on 15 drag routes.
Prescott (8.1) and Rodgers (8.0) threw the deepest drag routes, while Newton (2.5) and Bradford (3.0) had the shallowest. Bradford completed the highest rate (87.9 percent) of drag routes with Stefon Diggs as a big factor, but Newton had the league's lowest completion rate at 52.4 percent. We'll see if rookie running back Christian McCaffrey becomes a factor here for Newton this season. Newton actually had a league-high 10.2 YAC on his drag routes, but the problem was that low completion rate on throws the rest of the league hit more than 70 percent of the time. Prescott had the lowest YAC (2.9), but was still second in DYAR.
Brock Osweiler was dead last in DVOA and DYAR. His completion percentage (56.3 percent) was next to last. Houston did not have a designated "drag receiver" last year, but all five players Osweiler threw at least four drags to had negative DYAR.
The drag was a favorite route of DeSean Jackson in 2013 with the Eagles and Chip Kelly. He only had five such plays last year, but gained 23 DYAR. Cousins had -5 DYAR on his 35 other drag routes. While everyone will expect the deep ball to come from Winston to Jackson in Tampa Bay, this is an area where Jackson could also help the Buccaneers. Winston ranked third in DYAR and second in DVOA on drag routes last year. Mike Evans had 60 of the 66 DYAR, but has real help now.
We are now moving into routes that had fewer than 1,000 attempts last season. There were 934 of these go/fly routes last season, but this is probably one of the more interesting tables to look over for the quarterbacks. Fire off the Sex Cannons.
Ryan Fitzpatrick wins the "gunslinger" award with a league-high 46 go routes. He did not fail miserably with his shots, but 24th in DVOA is not very good either. Fitzpatrick completed 2-of-14 go routes to Robby Anderson, who will have to do much more for the Jets this season without Quincy Enunwa. It was Enunwa who led the team with 63 DYAR on go routes from Fitzpatrick.
Goff only threw six go routes, putting him last in yet another column. However, we actually found a column where Goff ranks first, even if it could be viewed as a backhanded compliment. Goff's 27.0 YAC on go routes was by far the best in the league (next closest: Tyrod Taylor at 15.0). Of course, this is what happens when we are literally talking about a single play, as Goff went 1-of-6 on his go routes (all to Kenny Britt). Goff completed a 39-yard bomb to Britt on fourth-and-11 that turned into a 66-yard gain with 27 YAC. I should mention that this play came at the two-minute warning with the Rams trailing 26-3 in New England.
Prescott only attempted 15 go routes all season, but 12 of them went to Dez Bryant, who led the league with 140 DYAR. Brice Butler, who NBC's Cris Collinsworth called a "star" in this year's Hall of Fame game, had the other three attempts, but only had 9 DYAR.
Russell Wilson led all passers with 182 DYAR and 614 yards on go routes, built on the strength of Tyler Lockett (106 DYAR) and Doug Baldwin (64 DYAR). Andrew Luck had the highest DVOA (126.3%) and was the only quarterback to complete more than half (54.5 percent) of his go routes. Surprisingly, he had just 13 attempts in 15 games. T.Y. Hilton (76 DYAR) and Phillip Dorsett (56 DYAR) provided most of the damage there.
Unexpectedly, Carson Wentz threw the deepest go routes at 36.8 yards, but only had 15 such throws in a season where he attempted 607 passes. Kaepernick threw the shortest go routes (24.3 yards), but had the lowest completion rate (12.5 percent), albeit he only threw eight such plays. Blake Bortles threw 42 go routes, second to only Fitzpatrick, but completed just 13.5 percent of them (two drops) to rank last in DYAR (-88).
Wide Receiver Screen
In terms of skill-based throws, wide receiver screens would have to be at the bottom of the list. Quarterbacks completed 89.3 percent of them last year, and that's not even accounting for drops. The -24.9% DVOA produced on these plays is suboptimal, but that's not going to stop teams from trying them out every week. It's an easy completion, and once in a blue moon, they break for big gains. Let's see which quarterbacks benefitted from a few more blue moons than their peers.
|NFL WR Screens||-||-709||-||-24.9%||-||797||4,567||89.3%||-1.7||8.1|
I had to double check our numbers, but yes, Andrew Luck threw just one wide receiver screen in 2016, and it must have happened by accident in Week 1. The play gained no yards, and the bubble popped on screens for the 2016 Colts. They attempted five tight end screens on the season, but just one to a wideout is a staggeringly low total for a pass-heavy offense in today's NFL.
Not surprisingly, Alex Smith led the NFL with 47 wide receiver screens, but as we mentioned in Part I, the lack of success to Tyreek Hill (-58 DYAR) was surprising, and possibly troubling for 2017 if he is to be relied on more in such a predictable manner. The good news was that tight end Travis Kelce (49 DYAR) and running back Spencer Ware (31 DYAR) stepped up on these screens to show their versatility. Only four wide receiver screens gained at least 45 yards last season. Kelce (80 yards vs. Denver) and Ware (46 yards vs. Saints) had two of those four plays. In the end, Smith finished with 35 DYAR, second only to Ryan, who had good success throwing to Taylor Gabriel (31 DYAR) on these plays. Julio Jones only had one screen for -9 DYAR, but there are far better ways to utilize his talent. Ryan actually threw the shortest screens in the league, 3.2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Barkley had the lowest completion percentage on wide receiver screens, but even he was 3-of-4.
The bottom five quarterbacks in DYAR (Tannehill, Flacco, Bradford, Brady, and Wentz) all have reputations for and/or play in a system that prefers screens and dink-and-dunk passing. All of their completed screens produced a below-average amount of YAC. Osweiler's 12 wide receiver screens had the most YAC (13.7), which is an aberration in the grand scheme of Houston's YAC-lacking passing game. Osweiler was one of only four quarterbacks with a positive DVOA on wide receiver screens, and Trevor Siemian (20.7%) had the highest DVOA. That fact alone should tell you that success on these plays is less about the quarterback, and more about the matchup, timing, blocking, and receiver's skill.
The post route is another longer throw in the game (average: 21.6 yards). No route produced more DYAR (2,470) in the NFL last year.
The post was one of the signature plays for Ryan and Jones last year in Atlanta, so it is not surprising to see Ryan do well here (second in DVOA). Cousins has now led a third route in DYAR, but as we mentioned in Part I, Jackson and Garcon racked up 155 DYAR on post routes and helped contribute to Cousins having the highest YAC (9.6). He'll have to adjust without those receivers in Washington this year. Brady may have struggled with dig routes, but he enjoyed the post routes, producing the second-highest DVOA and completing 12-of-13 passes to a variety of targets.
Brady (16.6), Smith (16.2), and Kessler (14.5) threw the shortest post routes, though Kessler had just two plays, completing neither to Terrelle Pryor. Goff actually threw the deepest post routes (28.8), but was only able to draw a pass interference flag on four throws with one drop.
As we mentioned earlier, Palmer, Winston, and Luck were the three most hit quarterbacks last season. They also were the only three quarterbacks with at least 35 post routes. We'll need to see a few seasons of data to know if throwing digs and posts lead to the quarterback getting hit more. It makes sense in theory, but even then we're still talking about a small chunk of the quarterback's passes over the season.
Ben Roethlisberger (25.0 percent) was the only quarterback to complete fewer than 35.0 percent of his post routes with at least 10 attempts. He had 10 passes defensed (tied for the most on post routes with Ryan), two dropped, and was 0-for-6 on throws to Ladarius Green and Markus Wheaton. Neither player is still with the Steelers. Martavis Bryant should also be an upgrade over Sammie Coates, who had as many drops (one) as catches on his six post routes.
Comebacks have the lowest average YAC (1.3) of any route type with at least 50 attempts, but when the play is well timed and the pass is accurate, it is nearly impossible to defend. There were 582 comeback targets last year.
At the very least, this data provides some interesting notes on playing styles. Rodgers and Taylor led the NFL with 29 comeback routes each, while Brady (two), Kaepernick (three), Roethlisberger (six), and Smith (eight) combined for 19 such throws. Neither Kaepernick nor Brady completed a single comeback pass, so they finish at the bottom in DVOA. Roethlisberger hit all three of his comebacks to Antonio Brown to score the highest DVOA, but again, he only had six attempts total.
It takes a small sample size stat like this one to rank Rodgers and Trevor Siemian together at the top, but here we are with a hat tip to Jordy Nelson and Demaryius Thomas on the receiving end.
Bortles struggled the most out of anyone with at least 10 attempts on comebacks. He completed 33.3 percent of his comebacks for the least DYAR (-53).
These are not broken plays like aborted snaps, but plays where the quarterback scrambles and the receivers break their original routes. This is backyard/sandlot football in number format. We know Green Bay led the league in these plays last year, but was Rodgers the best at fixing a broken play?
|NFL Broken Plays||-||-467||-||-23.5%||-||567||3,190||41.1%||11.1||3.8|
Matthew Stafford was actually the Mad Scramblin' King of the NFC North last year, with the highest DVOA and most DYAR on broken plays. His 34 plays were second to only Rodgers' 52, but Stafford found a way to make more plays. Rodgers only completed 39.2 percent of his passes on broken plays, so it really was not a sound offensive strategy for the Packers to improvise last season. When the Packers started 4-6, Rodgers had 31 broken plays with -33 DYAR and -27.6% DVOA. During the 6-0 finish, Rodgers had 21 broken plays with 11 DYAR and -6.7% DVOA. (Note that this is only for passes, and we are not considering Rodgers' rushing or sacks since this is a study about pass routes.) So the improv routine did improve down that six-game stretch too, but it still wasn't something the Packers should have been relying on so much. The highlight-worthy throws to someone like Geronimo Allison were memorable, but everyone forgets the 15 times where Rodgers ended up just throwing the ball away after scrambling.
Besides Rodgers and Stafford, the other quarterbacks with more than 20 broken plays were quite predictably Taylor (31), Winston (30), Wilson (29), Luck (21), and Roethlisberger (21). Luck managed to complete an impressive 71.4 percent of his broken plays. Wilson was dead last in DYAR (-96), but I have little doubt that his leg injuries last season limited how often he did this and his effectiveness. I bet we'll see much stronger numbers from him in this department next year, even if broken plays can be highly unpredictable in outcome.
Brady wins the award for "F*ck it, I'm throwing deep" when improvising. His 18.4 air yards per throw was the highest on this table, and he ranked second in DVOA and DYAR thanks largely to this touchdown to Malcolm Mitchell that we covered in Part I. Brees actually threw the shortest passes (4.3) on broken plays. Bradford (4.8) was the only other passer under 6.0 yards.
With 478 fades, we run into our first route where not every quarterback had at least one attempt last year. Kaepernick did not throw a fade route last season, so we have removed him from this table. He is still welcome to join our other tables though.
This study is somehow making me lose what little respect for Bortles I had going in. We're talking about 70 throws out of more than 600 for his season, but he had the second-most go routes (42) and the most fade routes (28), which speaks to an oversimplified quarterbacking style of "chuck it deep or just chuck it up." He at least completed a higher fade rate (35.7 percent) than the league average (33.0 percent) last year, but still ranked 29th in DYAR. Carr and Stafford also had 25 fades each with below-average completion rates, so this might be a preferred route for the "arm talent" quarterbacks. Roethlisberger and Brees were the only other quarterbacks with more than 20 fades (22 each), but those future Hall of Famers completed at least half of their attempts, and Brees had the most DYAR (113) by a wide margin.
Newton would seemingly be in an ideal offense for fades with tree trunks at receiver in Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, and Devin Funchess, but you still have to be accurate. Newton was last in DYAR (-74) since he completed only 2-of-17 fades with one drop. Perhaps another part of the problem is that Newton tries to go too deep on his fades. His average fade traveled a league-high 22.9 yards. At that point, you might as well try a traditional go route or a post.
Finally, we look at the effective seam route. Kaepernick returns to the table, but Goff is removed after not throwing any seam routes. Perhaps 2017 is when Goff discovers where the sun rises and where the seam is.
Brady on seam routes was very difficult for defenses last season. He only threw 17 of them, but still had 207 DYAR and 163.4% DVOA. Rob Gronkowski had 93 DYAR there, but Brady also had at least 18 DYAR to every receiver he targeted down the seam except for Edelman (-1). Wilson was also effective with Jimmy Graham in Seattle, as this is often a route exploited by a good tight end.
Alex Smith ranked last in DYAR, as Kelce (8 DYAR) was the only target with positive DYAR among the six players Smith targeted in the seam.
Among our qualified group of 34 quarterbacks, Tannehill threw the second-fewest fades (three) and second-fewest seam routes (one). Unfortunately, it appears he won't throw any passes in 2017 after another knee injury.
The NFC South loved the seam route. Newton (25), Brees (24), and Winston (23, tied with Wilson and Andy Dalton) led the league in seam routes, while Ryan also had 16 of them with good efficiency numbers. Among 16-game starters, Rodgers had the fewest seam routes (four) in the league. How about more slants and seams than broken plays this year, Green Bay?
Finally, here is a table that shows the average rank for DYAR and DVOA among these 12 routes for our 34 quarterbacks. As you might expect, Ryan is on top and Goff is last.
|2016 Pass Routes: Average Rank in DYAR and DVOA|
|Player||Team||DYAR Rk||Rk||DVOA Rk||Rk|
|Player||Team||DYAR Rk||Rk||DVOA Rk||Rk|
(Ed. Note: One other thing I noticed here while editing. When we're looking only at receiving numbers on the top routes, we can clearly see the quarterbacks whose DVOA is heavily dependent on the ability to avoid sacks and interceptions. Tom Brady and Dak Prescott, for example, are lower on this list. Meanwhile, the gunslingers such as Philip Rivers end up higher here than they do in passing DVOA/DYAR. -- Aaron Schatz)
In our third and final part next week, we'll look at defenses against these routes, as well as the frequency of interceptions and touchdown passes by route.