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 2017's quarterbacks. This increases the data pool for each player, though we are still generally dealing with small sample sizes. The curl is the only route where any quarterback attempted at least 75 passes last year. Eli Manning (117) edged out Joe Flacco (100) and Alex Smith (100) for the most curl attempts. The least frequent route in our study was the singular comeback route attempted by Aaron Rodgers in his shortened 2017 season. This may in part be explained by a new category for back-shoulder throws, which we'll get into again later.
Each table below includes the 35 quarterbacks with at least 200 passes last year. The last row in each table shows the league-wide totals and averages. We are going to focus on the same 12 routes we analyzed in Part I, ignoring the running back-heavy throws such as flats, RB screens, and swing passes. It should probably come as no surprise that Jared Goff (125 DYAR), Kirk Cousins (111 DYAR), and Drew Brees (98 DYAR) led the way in value on running back screens after huge seasons from Todd Gurley, Chris Thompson, and the duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Goff also led the league with 49 DYAR on flat passes, which was largely accomplished by Gurley's 41 DYAR.
It must be noted that the following data is still receiving DYAR and DVOA rather than passing. Since it is receiving, sacks obviously aren't included, and 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.
The curl route was the league's most common throw last year with 2,630 attempts according to SIS.
|Curl Route Leaders, 2017|
One of the surprising things about Matt Ryan's 2016 MVP season was that he had 0 DYAR on 54 curl routes. In 2017, he led the league with 199 DYAR and a 23.7% DVOA on curl routes. Julio Jones helped a lot with 78 DYAR, but Ryan also had good contributions from his other receivers, including a couple of plays by running back Devonta Freeman (37 DYAR) in December. Only Brian Hoyer (5.0) and Blake Bortles (4.2) had more YAC on curl routes than Ryan (4.1).
Likewise, this wasn't a route with which Alex Smith excelled in Kansas City in 2016, when he had 2 DYAR on 86 curls. That shot up to 168 DYAR in 2017, second in the league, after the trio of Tyreek Hill (49 DYAR), Travis Kelce (41 DYAR), and Kareem Hunt (28 DYAR) was very good with Smith. Meanwhile, Drew Brees finished third in curl DYAR for the second year in a row; he was joined by Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, and Trevor Siemian as quarterbacks to repeat in the top 10 in DYAR from 2016. Yes, the game's most common route was the one thing for which we can compliment Siemian in his time in Denver.
Struggling with the game's most common route is not a good thing, but it may not be a huge red flag that your quarterback needs to be replaced either. Case Keenum and Jared Goff had awful numbers on curls with the 2016 Rams, but at least improved to mediocrity in this area under better circumstances in 2017. Eli Manning was dead last with -137 DYAR on curls in 2016, but was a respectable 13th in 2017 with 71 DYAR on the route he threw more than anyone. That also led to the most dropped curl routes (11) in the league, with a variety of players contributing there.
Out of the bottom nine quarterbacks in curl DYAR in 2017, two retired (Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer), and five more should not be 2018 starters (Jacoby Brissett, Josh McCown, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, and C.J. Beathard). That just leaves Cam Newton and Mitchell Trubisky as Week 1 starters this year. The latter was dead last in DYAR and DVOA, but he also was a rookie, and Trubisky should have better options this year than Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, and Dion Sims for these plays.
We mentioned last year that the quarterbacks with the least YAC on curl routes were Dak Prescott (2.0), Eli Manning (1.7), and Jameis Winston (1.5). Well, fast-forward another season and the quarterbacks with the least YAC on curl routes in 2017 were Eli Manning (1.9), Dak Prescott, (1.8), and Jameis Winston (1.7). Dallas may have the best shot at improving that aspect in 2018 after Jason Witten (1.1 YAC and 7 DYAR on 29 targets) retired. The departed Dez Bryant also had 0 DYAR on his 18 curl routes.
The out, or quick out, had 1,816 attempts last season.
|Out Route Leaders, 2017|
As a rookie, Goff had the worst DVOA (-42.5%) on out routes, but no one threw more of them (67) than he did in 2017. Fortunately, they worked much better under Sean McVay, as Goff finished 14th in DVOA (-2.8%). Stafford and Ryan were the only quarterbacks to repeat in the top five in DYAR from 2016. Philip Rivers really enjoyed the out route last year, with the NFL's highest DYAR, DVOA, and YAC. The out route was especially money for the Chargers when Rivers threw it to Keenan Allen (106 DYAR). Hunter Henry (26 DYAR on nine targets) was Rivers' next favorite target on out routes, but the tight end will miss all of the 2018 season with a torn ACL.
C.J. Beathard (1.2) and Brian Hoyer (1.2) had identical YAC averages -- the lowest in the league too -- on out routes while starting for the 49ers last year. You knew we would have to work Jimmy Garoppolo in here at some point, and sure enough his YAC number was better at 6.0, though it was only on 14 attempts. Still, it's just another testament to how Kyle Shanahan's offense functioned so much more smoothly under Garoppolo.
Alex Smith is an interesting case here. He finished fifth in DYAR and DVOA for out routes in 2016 even though he had the lowest YAC (0.9) on them. But in 2017 he was last in DYAR, and only Siemian had a lower DVOA. The YAC was still lacking as his 1.3 average was the third lowest in the league, but again, they overcame that the previous year. Smith threw out routes to 11 different players and everyone but Chris Conley (35.7%) had negative DVOA, so it's not like a couple of players were dragging the numbers down. The four drops weren't as big of a problem as the nine overthrows by Smith, a total that only trailed Prescott (10) and Trubisky (11). Speaking of Prescott, he was No. 1 in DYAR and DVOA on out routes in 2016, but definitely struggled with them in 2017.
It was concerning that Manning finished last in DYAR in 2016 on out routes. He threw the shortest quick outs in the league at 5.7 yards, a number he repeated in 2017, but at least the success was a little better this time around.
The dig route is a little deeper than the curl or out, but produces better offense generally (7.6% DVOA). Only six of our 35 passers had negative DYAR on dig routes; two of the six actually met in the playoffs.
|Dig Route Leaders, 2017|
Alex Smith completed a league-best 77.3 percent of his dig routes in 2016, but he was down to 47.1 percent in 2017. Jeremy Maclin was great for him on that route in 2016, but Maclin played for Baltimore last year, where Joe Flacco actually had some of his better numbers on this route. However, it wasn't Maclin helping in that area, as Maclin only accounted for 4 of Flacco's 58 DYAR on dig routes. Mike Wallace led the way for Baltimore with 28 DYAR on dig routes.
Stafford (63) and Brady (54) were the only quarterbacks with at least 50 dig routes. Stafford led in DYAR, but Blake Bortles actually led the league in passing yards gained on dig routes (502); the dig was easily Bortles' best route last year. Brady was actually dead last in DYAR and DVOA on dig routes in 2016. We thought that Brandin Cooks would help here, but Cooks only had 13 DYAR on 14 dig routes for Brady. The surprising leader for New England was running back Rex Burkhead, who had 31 DYAR on five dig routes. He accounted for just over half of Brady's total DYAR on digs.
Rodgers finished second with 143 DYAR on dig routes in 2016, but he only threw three of them (all completions) in 2017. Even with projecting for a full season of play, he would have had single-digit digs after throwing 49 of them the previous year. Brett Hundley threw seven digs in Rodgers' place, and had an absurd 11.3 YAC on them thanks to a 31-yard effort by Randall Cobb on one play. This data supports the argument that Mike McCarthy's offense has lost a lot of route variability and imagination, and we have further evidence in the sections to come.
Why don't we see slants more often in the NFL? There were 1,327 slant attempts last year, barely half as many attempts as we saw on curls. Both throws had a similar aDOT, but the slant produced 5.2 YAC on average compared to 2.9 YAC for the curl. Imagine that, a receiver turning his back to the defense isn't as effective as one who is running with forward momentum.
|Slant Route Leaders, 2017|
Slants were a nightmare for Goff as a rookie. Keep in mind we are talking about 21 plays, but his -87 DYAR and 42.9 percent completion rate were the worst in the league. Last year, he still didn't use slants that often (only 29 throws in 15 games), but had a league-high 150 DYAR on them. Only Deshaun Watson had a higher DVOA in his sample of 6.5 games. Sammy Watkins was money on slants, with 101 DYAR on 12 targets, but he's in Kansas City now.
Even without Odell Beckham Jr. for 12 games, Manning loved slants in 2017 after it was arguably his best route of 2016, when he finished third with 188 DYAR. Manning's 74 slants were 27 more than the next closest quarterbacks (Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins, and Ben Roethlisberger each had 47 slants). This was a big route in the NFC East, with Manning, Cousins, and Prescott finishing in the top four in DYAR.
Only four quarterbacks had negative DYAR on slants: Matthew Stafford (-12 DYAR), Jacoby Brissett (-12 DYAR), Marcus Mariota (-18 DYAR), and Tyrod Taylor (-21 DYAR). Stafford was the surprising name in that group, because this seems like a perfect play for Golden Tate's skill set. Tate led Detroit with just 13 DYAR on seven slants. He was actually targeted less often on them than Marvin Jones, who had 11 slants, but for -39 DYAR. So many passes to Jones are contested, but quick slants were not plays where he often won, as he had five of them defensed. Another slant to Jones was batted down and intercepted for a touchdown in a whacky game against New Orleans. Mariota was also surprising to see far down on this list given his reputation for the quick, rhythm passing game. But aside from Eric Decker (21 DYAR on eight slants), the slants weren't working in Tennessee last year.
A year ago we asked why there weren't more slants in Green Bay as Rodgers led the league in slant DVOA, but only on 32 passes. He had 28 slants in barely seven games in 2017, but the success was much closer to league average this time. Even Hundley pitched in with 32 slants in his playing time, and it's one of the only routes where Hundley matched or arguably surpassed Rodgers' effectiveness in 2017.
For our final Garoppolo mention, we'll just note that the slant was one of his very best routes last season. Garoppolo had 128 DYAR on 26 slants, which would have ranked fifth in the league if we included him in this table. His 54.2% DVOA would have only trailed Watson, the other star quarterback with a short 2017 resume whom we just cannot wait to watch in 2018.
The drag route produces the most YAC (5.8) on average among the five most common routes in the NFL, beating out the curl (2.9), out (2.6), dig (3.6), and slant (5.2).
|Drag Route Leaders, 2017|
The drag route was not very successful in 2017. It's the first route we've gone through where most passers had negative DYAR. Roethlisberger, Ryan, Rodgers, Brees, and Brady all ranked in the top seven in DYAR, so that's still a good sign that it can be an effective play when used properly. It's just that using it properly may sometimes involve getting away with a pick across the middle.
With the way we highlighted Jacksonville's receivers in Part I, it is not surprising to see that Bortles led the way with 54 drag routes in 2017. His numbers were below average on these plays, but it was Marqise Lee with whom he found some success rather than Dede Westbrook or Keelan Cole.
Last year, we thought that the addition of DeSean Jackson could help on drag routes for Jameis Winston, who had a really good 2016 with these plays. As it turns out, Winston never targeted Jackson on a drag route and only threw nine total after having 28 in 2016. Jackson's role is a bit up in the air in 2018 after the emergence of Chris Godwin, but our next route will present the case that Tampa Bay needs to rethink its strategy with its wide receivers.
This would be Al Davis' favorite section. Who liked to air the ball out deep and outside the numbers last year? The average go route traveled 32.9 yards and was only completed 25.2 percent of the time.
|Go/Fly Route Leaders, 2017|
In 2016, Ryan Fitzpatrick led all passers with 46 go routes for the Jets. Amusingly enough, Josh McCown was the only quarterback last year to hit 50 percent of his deep balls, which helped him to the highest DVOA, also for the Jets. However, Stafford was the DYAR leader after a great year of connecting with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Those two receivers accounted for 25 of Stafford's 30 deep balls. Dalton attempted 30 for the Bengals; the only other quarterback to surpass 30 go routes was the league leader, Roethlisberger (41).
Cousins was one of the best on go routes last year despite losing his top wideouts from 2016, when he ranked eighth in DYAR. This could be good news for the Vikings (and bad news for Denver) after Keenum completed a league-low 8.3 percent of his go routes last year. As for Washington's stake in this, Smith was actually quite accurate on his deep balls last year, but no one on the Redskins can outrace the field the way Tyreek Hill can in Kansas City. In fact, there's a great chance that we will be talking about Patrick Mahomes with the most attempts and DYAR on go routes in 2018 with Kansas City.
Rivers may be a surprising name near the bottom here, but the Chargers don't really have a great go route receiver unless you count Travis Benjamin, who did lead the team with eight attempts (but only 7 DYAR). Keenan Allen is better suited for the underneath and intermediate routes, while we call Tyrell Williams The Drag King after he loaded up on that route for two years.
The troubling name here is Winston at the very bottom in DYAR and DVOA. He loves the deep ball, and when you have Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, it makes perfect sense to throw go routes. However, Winston was 31st in DYAR and 28th in DVOA on go routes in 2016, because his accuracy just has not been up to par on those plays. Last season, it was even worse as he connected on just 13.6 percent of his 23 go routes. Winston was just 1-for-6 with a seventh play generating a pass interference flag on go routes to Jackson. The bigger issue was the 0-for-8 to Evans, which only featured one drop. Winston hit Chris Godwin on a go route for a 39-yard touchdown to beat the Saints in Week 17. With the way Godwin finished the season, it may be a good idea to use him out wide more in 2018 with Jackson allowed to do more drag routes, and for Evans to use his size advantage on more intermediate throws. It's an interesting offense to look at on paper, but if Winston can't start hitting the broad side of a barn with these deep throws, then it's going to be a disappointing offense again.
In terms of skill-based throws, WR screens would have to be at the bottom of the list. Quarterbacks completed 88.4 percent of them last year -- eight players were at 100 percent -- and that's not even accounting for drops. The -27.5% 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.
|WR Screen Route Leaders, 2017|
|NFL WR Screens||TOT||-720||-||-27.5%||-||706||3,859||88.4%||-1.8||8.1|
The players you're throwing to obviously mean a lot here because of the YAC. The correlation between YAC and DVOA was 0.86 for WR screens last year, which was much higher than on other routes. It also might be the route with the most consistency from 2016. The DYAR leaders in 2016 were the same as the DYAR leaders in 2017: Ryan and Smith. Meanwhile, Flacco finished next to last in DYAR on WR screens for the second year in a row. It's hard to believe that Baltimore's revamped receiving corps (Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead) is really set to improve on those numbers. In fact, Flacco joins Roethlisberger, Brady, Carson Wentz, and Russell Wilson as quarterbacks to rank in the bottom eight in DYAR on WR screens in 2016 and 2017.
Smith (43), Stafford (38), and Cutler (36) attempted the most WR screens, because Andy Reid, Jim Bob Cooter, and Adam Gase are all about that bubble-screen life. They actually worked pretty well for Smith again (second in DYAR, fourth in DVOA), but we'll see how Albert Wilson does on them in Miami this season with Ryan Tannehill back. After Andrew Luck threw one screen in 2016, the Colts were again pretty disinterested in the play, with Brissett attempting only seven last year. Only Siemian (six) and Taylor (six) had fewer attempts. Watson also only threw seven for Houston, but had the highest DVOA after completing all of them with impressive YAC (20.3). It's crazy to think that Watson could rank third in DYAR (43) despite only attempting seven of these screens. We'll see if Bill O'Brien explores that more this year.
The post route is another longer throw in the game (average: 21.3 yards). No route produced more DYAR (2,097) in the NFL last year.
|Post Route Leaders, 2017|
Here is another vertical route where Roethlisberger had the most attempts (34), but he improved his completion rate from 25.0 percent in 2016 to 53.1 percent last year. This is the third route (dig, drag, and post) where Rodgers finished first in DVOA, but he had six or fewer attempts on each of those three routes. He didn't finish higher than 12th in DVOA on any of the other nine routes. Winston struggled on go routes, but the post route was very good for him, with the most DYAR in the league. That's where Evans really comes in handy; he accounted for 83 of Winston's 159 DYAR. The post route has also been good for the other quarterback taken at the top of the 2015 draft. Winston and Mariota have ranked in the top five in post DYAR in 2016 and 2017. This was also the only route where Derek Carr ranked higher than 12th in DYAR or DVOA last year.
Cousins led the NFL with 199 DYAR on post routes in 2016, but he fell to 0 DYAR on 13 post routes in 2017. Interestingly enough, Keenum had 4 DYAR on 12 post routes for the Vikings last season, and Siemian (now Cousins' backup in Minnesota) had -4 DYAR on 13 post routes for Denver. Not that we would count on this repeating itself in 2018, but that's three connected players who each had 12 or 13 post routes for between -4 and 4 DYAR last year. Neat.
Comebacks have the lowest average YAC (0.9) of any route type with at least 100 attempts, but when the play is well timed and the pass is accurate, it is nearly impossible to defend. There were 376 comeback targets last year.
|Comeback Route Leaders, 2017|
Thinking about "DeShone Kizer comeback attempts" would usually bring up images of crippling turnovers that killed Cleveland's chances of covering the spread, but we found a different meaning for that expression here. Kizer led all passers with 22 comeback routes; that might make him a good fit for Green Bay's offense, in which Rodgers led the NFL with 29 such plays and 78 DYAR in 2016. We charted Rodgers with just one such play in 2017. The only other quarterback with no completions on comebacks was Trubisky (0-for-5). As for Kizer, the results weren't particularly good, but at least he drew three pass interference flags. The rest of the league only drew eight flags on comeback routes.
Besides Kizer, three quarterbacks tied for second place with 16 comeback throws. Marcus Mariota was excellent, especially to Eric Decker, with a league-high 55 DYAR. Brady could make that a preferred route with Decker this season. But Prescott may want to dial this one back as he had a league-low -47 DYAR. That wasn't just a matter of forcing the ball to Dez Bryant either; Prescott threw six comebacks to Terrance Williams compared to four for Bryant. Overall, these 16 plays produced three first downs and one interception for Prescott.
This is backyard/sandlot football in number format. We know Seattle led the league in these plays last year, but was Wilson the best at fixing a broken play? As a reminder, he was dead last in DYAR (-96) on broken plays in 2016.
|Broken Play Route Leaders, 2017|
|NFL Broken Plays||TOT||-23||-||-12.6%||-||593||3,814||42.5%||12.1||3.1|
Wilson's 41 broken plays easily led the league. The next closest player was Tyrod Taylor (28), whom I have referred to as East Coast Russell Wilson for the similar magic shows he once held in Buffalo. The two had very similar DYAR on broken plays, but neither ranked in the top five. That was reserved for two old pros (Brady and Roethlisberger), the two 2016 rookies who will be compared to each other for years (Prescott and Wentz), and an overlooked amateur magician in Stafford. It was in 2016 when Stafford had the highest DVOA and most DYAR on broken plays. He wasn't quite that effective in 2017, but still finished second in DYAR. Prescott led in DYAR in a sophomore season that wasn't nearly as bad as it looked in November.
Wentz wins the 2017 award for "F*ck it, I'm throwing deep" when improvising. His 20.8 aDOT on broken plays was the highest in the league, and he ranked fifth in DYAR and DVOA after a much improved season. Wentz's aDOT on broken plays as a rookie was 11.9, which was about league average (11.1).
The quarterbacks at the bottom in DYAR (Kizer and Hundley) include Rodgers' current backup in Green Bay, and his old one. As you can see, Rodgers had 15 of these throws in his seven games, which would have put him up there again with Wilson had he played a full season. Rodgers and Wilson certainly love to extend the play more than anyone in the game today, but as the numbers from the last two seasons have shown, it's generally not a great thing for their offenses when you focus on the throws that come out of those scrambles. It's often the avoided sacks that turn into rushing yards that are more effective, but that's not included in this study since there was no throw involved on those plays.
Our 427 fades for 2017 do not include any back-shoulder throws. Mitchell Trubisky doesn't have a completion percentage listed, because both of his fade attempts drew pass interference flags. We'll actually applaud John Fox and the Bears for not getting into the fade trap, avoiding a low-percentage play with a lousy -12.5% DVOA last season.
|Fade Route Leaders, 2017|
Naturally, the Raiders with Carr (22) and Cowboys with Prescott (20) were the two biggest users of this play. Dallas is a given because of Dez Bryant, who insisted that the team's play-calling was garbage. Carr was second with 25 fades in 2016, but was again below average in completing these throws, finishing 32nd in DYAR. Carr lost 23 DYAR on fades to Michael Crabtree, a phrase that could trigger PTSD in San Francisco when that other quarterback tried one at the end of Super Bowl XLVII. Crabtree is gone in Oakland; will Jon Gruden keep the fade in style?
Stafford saw his fades drop from 25 to 11, but he had the most DYAR on them after a couple of touchdowns to Jones, a reasonable red zone fade target. Roethlisberger, Ryan, Brady, and Brees were the only quarterbacks to gain at least 15 DYAR on fades in consecutive seasons, so maybe there's still something to be said about this route for the very best in the league. But generally, the fade produced negative DVOA for 20 of the 35 quarterbacks last season. The bottom three quarterbacks in DYAR were all from the AFC North, so we'll have to see next time if that helped out Pittsburgh's defensive stats against fade passes.
As we did with receivers, we also looked at the data for 202 plays marked as back-shoulder throws, which were much more effective with 12.3% DVOA. The leaders in back-shoulder fade attempts were Carr (13), Wilson (12), Brady (10), and Prescott (10). So we still see the fade influence in Dallas and Oakland, but Carr was much better with these throws, creating 43 DYAR. Only Stafford had more DYAR (47), but that was on just four plays. Carr could definitely continue using the back-shoulder fade now that he has Jordy Nelson, but it needs to be that kind of timing play rather than a straight up lob into the end zone like the team was trying to little avail last year.
For our final route, we'll look at the effective seam route, which is primarily just a vertical route ran from a player lined up in the slot. This can be an effective way to attack the area in the defense between the safeties and linebackers.
|Seam Route Leaders, 2017|
Wilson (29), Brady (28), and Roethlisberger (20) were the only passers to throw at least 20 seam routes last year. Wilson threw 10 seam passes to Jimmy Graham alone. That's notable since Rodgers only has thrown nine seam routes since 2016. He was the only quarterback out of the 35 to not complete a seam route last year, so that's just not something the Packers have been into lately. Hopefully that changes with the addition of Graham at tight end, because these can be very effective plays as the numbers show with 27.0% DVOA across the league.
The NFC South wasn't as seam-crazy as it had been in 2016, but Winston had good numbers here. Newton finished last in DYAR in a tough year where tight end Greg Olsen was so often playing injured or out of the lineup. That element was definitely lacking in the offense, but the Panthers are much deeper this season.
Finally, here is a table that shows the average rank for DYAR and DVOA among these 12 routes for our 35 quarterbacks. As you might expect, MVP Brady is on top and handsomely paid Flacco is at the bottom.
|2017 Pass Routes: Average Rank in DYAR and DVOA|
|Player||Team||Avg. DYAR Rk||Rk||Avg. DVOA Rk||Rk|
|Player||Team||Avg. DYAR Rk||Rk||Avg. DVOA Rk||Rk|
Most players have pretty similar slotting in their rankings between DYAR and DVOA. Watson is someone who fared much better in DVOA than DYAR, which is to be expected since he only played 6.5 games. He had the average highest finish in DVOA, but a lot of his routes didn't even break 10 attempts. It will be very interesting to see how he does over a full season. Meanwhile, Mariota trended the other way. His average rank in DYAR was the 19th-highest since he started 15 games, but he was just 29th in DVOA rank. That's mostly because Mariota had few standout routes, and he had five less common routes where he ranked 30th or worse in DVOA. So his "problem areas" are more due to small sample size than a real concern, but we would like to see much better results in Year 4 from Mariota.
In our third and final part later this week, we'll look at defenses against these routes, as well as the frequency of interceptions and touchdown passes by route.