by Scott Kacsmar
This is the second year that we had data from our friends at Sports Info Solutions on where receivers were lined up on the field for their targets. The charting notes where the receiver lined up at the snap of the ball: out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, or at a standard tight end position. If the player was in "jet" motion, then that was charted as the spot they originated from, which was usually in the slot. Much of this data appears in the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 (available here), and this is the second of a four-part study on the numbers from the 2017 season. You can read last year's study here.
Earlier this week we looked at wide receivers, and today we will look at quarterbacks. The following table shows the data for the 35 qualified passers with at least 200 passes in 2017. Each player's DYAR, DVOA, and number of targets are shown for both the slot and split wide. The table is sorted by descending Slot%, which is passes thrown to players who were lined up in the slot as a percentage of passes thrown to players at receiver positions (i.e. slot and wide are included, but not tight or backfield). Finally, the difference in DVOA from wide to slot is shown.
|Quarterbacks, Slot vs. Wide, 2017|
|Minimum 200 passes|
Some Wide Consistency
For the second year in a row, only six quarterbacks threw more wide passes than they did slot passes. Three of those were repeats from last year: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Trevor Siemian. There was also a fourth offense to repeat, with Cleveland doing it with Cody Kessler in 2016 and DeShone Kizer in 2017. There is a good chance we see Tyrod Taylor do this in Hue Jackson's offense in 2018, assuming he holds off Baker Mayfield. The two newcomers to Team Wide were Brett Hundley (replacing Aaron Rodgers) and Deshaun Watson in his short-lived rookie season in Houston.
Obligatory Deshaun Watson Mention
Our first obligatory mention is about rookie phenom Deshaun Watson. Rookie or not, Watson's 2017 should go down as one of the most unfortunate seasons cut short to injury in NFL history. Once again we are doing a stat study where his sample of 6.5 games provides some fascinating results. Watson's 37.1 percent Slot% is the lowest of any quarterback in the last two seasons, which may continue this year with an offense set to feature DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Watson finished No. 1 in both slot DVOA and wide DVOA, which probably makes you wonder why he was only No. 7 in overall passing DVOA. Well, his high sack rate (8.5 percent) and the tight ends were largely responsible for that. Watson's DVOA to players lined up at tight end was just 1.0%, and it's not a position the team has strengthened this offseason. NFL fans should be really excited to see what Watson can do for an encore.
Obligatory Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky Mentions
Our next obligatory mention is to check in just how much 2016's worst quarterback improved under Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Jared Goff's wide DVOA was -50.8% in 2016, so maybe it wasn't a surprise to see him use the slot much more. In fact, Goff's 75.5 percent Slot% was the highest by any quarterback in the last two seasons, but he was still second in wide DVOA (20.8%) with plenty of success to Sammy Watkins. The Rams have swapped Watkins for Brandin Cooks, but it will be interesting to see if the Rams are still so slot-heavy in the second year of McVay's offense.
The Chicago Bears, now under Matt Nagy, keep getting a lot of McVay comparisons this offseason, but as we detailed in FOA 2018, that's a monumental improvement to expect from Mitchell Trubisky and company. Last year, Trubisky used the slot the third most. That's good since he had better numbers there than out wide, where he only bested Joe Flacco in DVOA. The Bears should have plenty of slot options this year with Taylor Gabriel, rookie Anthony Miller, and tight end Trey Burton. Perhaps upping Trubisky's Slot% is not only the expected move, but the right one for this offense.
Obligatory Jimmy Garoppolo Mention
Our last obligatory mention is for the quarterback not featured in the table, but who still showed enough last year that we always have to mention him in these articles. Once again, Jimmy Garoppolo raises eyebrows and delivers numbers that have us seeing stars. His 38.8% slot DVOA would have been tops in the league, and his 8.1% wide DVOA would have ranked 11th. Garoppolo's Slot% (60.5 percent) was almost identical to Brian Hoyer's (60.1 percent), but once again the results of their throws were way different last season. Between Watson and Garoppolo, these are some highly anticipated seasons from two young quarterbacks.
Sometimes a quarterback relies too heavily on one receiver. In his final NFL season, Arizona's Carson Palmer finished sixth in slot DVOA, but was 32nd in wide DVOA, giving him the biggest drop in the league at 37.1 percentage points. Half of Palmer's slot targets, and 115 of his 224 slot DYAR, came on throws to Larry Fitzgerald.
On the opposite end of things, Tom Savage managed to finish last in slot DVOA, but seventh in wide DVOA for the biggest gap in the league going that direction. This was largely thanks to the skills of DeAndre Hopkins, who had 53 of Savage's 68 wide targets, and was responsible for 105 of Savage's 136 wide DYAR. So it would not be very accurate to say that Savage was actually good at throwing to wide targets, unless you specifically name Hopkins as the target.
Slot vs. Wide: The Tipping Point
We like to find quarterback stats where the cream rises to the top, and it's important to highlight when a quarterback might be showing he's not cut out for starting in this league. DVOA without pressure has been a pretty good indicator of that over the years, but what about for slot vs. wide? So far, two years of data are showing that negative slot DVOA may cast a bleak outlook for a quarterback's starting career, especially if he's a veteran.
Tom Savage was one of 10 quarterbacks with negative slot DVOA in 2017, and after going to New Orleans to back up Drew Brees, he is one of eight players in that group not expected to be a starter in 2018. Trevor Siemian (traded to Minnesota), C.J. Beathard, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer (traded to Green Bay), Jacoby Brissett, and Brian Hoyer are all definite backups. Jay Cutler retired for good this time. That just leaves Dak Prescott and Eli Manning in the NFC East. Prescott is still very young, but this could be another sign that the NFL is Not For much Longer for Archie's other son.
Meanwhile, a dozen quarterbacks had -10.0% DVOA or lower for wide passes. Manning, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor (traded to Cleveland), Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, and Mitchell Trubisky are all still expected to have starting jobs in Week 1. Joe Flacco is probably another name for that list, but early reports have been good for rookie Lamar Jackson, and Flacco was dead last in wide DYAR and DVOA last year. It seems that missed passes on wide throws are forgiven more often, but there's no reason the leash shouldn't start to get much shorter on many of the players listed.
We mentioned Corey Davis having poor numbers out wide last year, but what if Mariota just isn't as skilled as perceived on those throws? Mariota finished 31st in wide DVOA, but the common excuse has been the play calling by fired head coach Mike Mularkey. However, when Mariota had his breakout season in 2016, he was still 29th in wide DVOA, compared to third in the slot.
We can look into which routes specifically have hung up the Tennessee passing game, but that's a different study. First, we will look at slot vs. wide for running backs and tight ends next week, before closing with a look at defenses.