Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford among top 10 tight-window QBs

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The quarterback position sits on a well-deserved pedestal as the most critical position in sports. Having a franchise quarterback is the ultimate shortcut for teams to vault into the ranks of Super Bowl contenders. The "haves" of the league sit pretty with the hope they can compete for the playoffs on an annual basis, while the "have-nots" are forced to do whatever possible to give chase to the quarterback Holy Grail.

For years, we've heard scouting terms tossed around when discussing the worth of NFL signal-callers, but new advanced analytics are now able to quantify the concepts that have just been anecdotally assessed in the past. With the help of Next Gen Stats data brought to us by chips in every player's shoulder pads, we can now measure the best tight-window passers in the NFL. Using a composite score of several tight-window passing stats, we'll examine the top 10 players at the position when making such throws.

Here are the qualifiers for the rankings:

» Next Gen Stats defines a "tight-window throw" as a throw where the intended receiver had less than a yard of separation from the defender.

» The average quarterback threw 18.6 percent of his passes into a tight window over the last two seasons.

» Only quarterbacks with over 200 pass attempts and seven-plus games played in 2017 qualified for the list (35 total players).

» The ranking was established by the quarterbacks among the 35 qualifiers who had the best rankings in the following three categories:

-- Completion rate on tight-window throws.
-- Passer rating on tight-window throws.
-- Adjusted yards per attempt on tight-window throws.

Adjusted yards per attempt is an efficiency metric that takes the traditional yards-per-attempt model a step further by rewarding the passer for touchdowns and heavily penalizing for interceptions. It also correlates with wins on the team level.

The rankings were added together to create the composite score -- for example, a player who ranked second in completion rate, fifth in passer rating and first in adjusted yards per attempt would have a composite score of 8 -- with a lower score indicating better performance. It's impossible for any stat to completely negate the influence of a quarterback's surrounding cast and measure his pure ability, but using a composite score helped alleviate those issues to a manageable degree.

1
Dak Prescott
QB
Cowboys

Completion pct.: 45.8 (first). Passer rating: 82.1 (first). Adjusted YPA: 6.23 (fourth).

Score: 6.

The Cowboys floundered to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs one year after looking like a franchise on the brink of sustained greatness. A pair of rookies were the catalyst to Dallas' 13-3 run in 2016. While one of those players (running back Ezekiel Elliott) lost six games to suspension, the other (Prescott) took a step back on the field after a marvelously efficient inaugural NFL campaign. However, Prescott's placement at the top of these rankings should help the Cowboys faithful retain some optimism. He was hyper-accurate when throwing into tight windows in 2017, leading qualifying passers in completion percentage and passer rating. Prescott actually improved his completion rate from his rookie year (42.7 percent) on a similar number of attempts (90 to 96).

2
Matthew Stafford
QB
Lions

Completion pct.: 43.2 (fourth). Passer rating: 80.8 (second). Adjusted YPA: 7.41 (first).

Score: 7.

The Lions couldn't manage an encore to their 2016 playoff run, ultimately leading to a change at head coach. However, in the meantime, Stafford only further solidified his standing in the pantheon of NFL signal-callers. The veteran led all qualifying quarterbacks with 7.41 adjusted yards per attempt on his tight-window throws; in fact, he was the only one to clear 7.0. His 2017 season was no fluke, either. Stafford is the lone player to rank inside the top five in tight-window completion rate in each of the last two seasons. As the Lions look to retool the franchise under Matt Patricia, they'll do so with one of the more underrated players behind center.

3
Case Keenum
QB
Vikings

Completion pct.: 43.6 (third). Passer rating: 72.2 (fourth). Adjusted YPA: 6.45 (third).

Score: 10.

Keenum was one of the stories of the NFL this season, enjoying a magical ride to the NFC Championship Game as the unlikely starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. He was one of the best tight-window passers in the game this year, finishing inside the top four in all three statistical categories among qualifying quarterbacks. While the temptation exists to write off this year's data as the result of a fluke season facilitated by a pair of excellent wideouts, the truth is, Keenum has always been a willing gunslinger. Notably, he finished with the sixth-best passer rating on tight-window throws (74.3) back in 2016, as well. A more stable environment helped alleviate the need for Keenum to force the issue as often. He threw just 16.2 percent of his passes into tight windows with the Vikings (falling under the league average), compared to 23 percent with the Rams. This proved to be the difference between 2017 and the years prior, helping him avoid the epic meltdown moments that plagued him up to this season.

4
Alex Smith
QB
Chiefs

Completion pct.: 42.2 (fifth). Passer rating: 67.6 (sixth). Adjusted YPA: 5.27 (10th).

Score: 21.

Smith turned in a career year in what turned out to be his final season with the Chiefs. He was remarkably efficient when throwing to confined spaces in 2017, ranking among the best quarterbacks in completion percentage and passer rating. Smith was still as cautious as ever, throwing just 12.7 percent of his overall passes to a receiver with less than a yard of separation, the second-lowest rate among all quarterbacks. Yet, when he took those chances, he made them count. His 2017 output was a far cry from his expected results, however, as the veteran ranked 25th with a 42.4 tight-window passer rating back in 2016. The Washington Redskins have to hope they get a player closer to the 2017 version after agreeing in principle to a trade that will bring them Smith's services at the start of the new league year.

5
Ben Roethlisberger
QB
Steelers

Completion pct.: 38.9 (ninth). Passer rating: 66.9 (seventh). Adjusted YPA: 5.28 (eighth).

Score: 24.

After hinting at retirement in the offseason and looking like he was near the end of the line to start off 2017, Roethlisberger was white-hot to finish the regular season. Big Ben led all quarterbacks this past year with 10 tight-window touchdown passes. He was more aggressive this season, as well, chucking 19.4 percent of his throws to receivers with less than a yard of separation, after doing so on just 14.7 percent of his throws (29th-most) in 2016. Despite already ranking inside the top 10 in all tested measurements, Roethlisberger could have rated even better -- had he not thrown four of his six tight-window interceptions in a Week 5 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

6
Deshaun Watson
QB
Texans

Completion pct.: 34.3 (18th). Passer rating: 68.0 (fifth). Adjusted YPA: 6.97 (second).

Score: 25.

In case you forgot, there was a time in the 2017 season when it looked like the league's next transformative star resided in Houston. Watson burned bright for seven games before tearing his ACL in November. While he couldn't match the completion rate of the passers preceding him on this list, Watson more than made up for it with big plays. The rookie threw downfield more than any other qualifying quarterback, leading the crop with 7.83 yards per attempt on tight-window throws. His 8.6 percent touchdown rate trailed only Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. It's tough to overstate how exciting Watson's potential is. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport recently reported that Watson is expected to be able to take part in OTAs. As long as he makes a full recovery, he could vault up to the top tier of NFL quarterbacks.

7
Russell Wilson
QB
Seahawks

Completion pct.: 33.7 (20th). Passer rating: 74.4 (third). Adjusted YPA: 5.83 (fifth).

Score: 28.

The Seahawks appear to be at an inflection point in the Pete Carroll era after missing the playoffs, and they face many difficult personnel decisions in the offseason. However, they still have a top-flight franchise quarterback in place with Wilson, which will keep the margin for error wider than that of most organizations. Wilson is coming off one of his best seasons and had to shoulder an inordinate amount of the load for an offense that couldn't pass-protect or run the ball with routine success. His chaotic and improvisational style of play can, at times, create issues for the scoring attack, but Wilson remains one of the league's best passers. He finished with a top-three passer rating on tight-window throws for the second straight year, following up his 83.9 in 2016 with a 74.4 this past season.

8
Carson Wentz
QB
Eagles

Completion pct.: 38.1 (10th). Passer rating: 66.8 (eighth). Adjusted YPA: 5.23 (11th).

Score: 29.

The second-year sensation was the odds-on favorite for league MVP before exiting the 2017 season early with a torn ACL in Week 14. Wentz's outstanding play this past season almost seemed to make us forget what a massive leap he took from Year 1 to Year 2, as we quickly grew accustomed to him being one of the league's elite passers. As a rookie operating with a woefully subpar group of receivers in 2016, Wentz struggled mightily fitting the ball in close quarters. He posted a 0:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio on his tight-window throws that season. Everything came together this year, as his tight-window passer rating jumped up 45.3 points, more than any other quarterback to throw more than 200 passes in each of the last two seasons. It's all the more impressive that he made this leap despite being the most aggressive quarterback in the league. Wentz threw a league-high 25.7 percent of his passes into tight windows.

9
Carson Palmer
QB
Cardinals

Completion pct.: 37.1 (14th). Passer rating: 60.1 (11th). Adjusted YPA: 5.47 (seventh).

Score: 32.

Palmer retired from the NFL at the conclusion of the 2017 season, following his head coach, Bruce Arians, into the sunset. The Cardinals were ultimately a disappointment even before Palmer's season-ending broken arm, but the 38-year-old quarterback offered up a last glimpse of some of the pristine throws that once made him a No. 1 overall pick before exiting the NFL stage for good. Palmer tossed just one interception on tight-window throws this past season after throwing five back in 2016. Ultimately, the Cardinals missed their brief Super Bowl window with Palmer and Arians and will now be tasked with finding a fresh solution at the quarterback position under the watch of general manager Steve Keim and new head coach Steve Wilks.

10
Tyrod Taylor
QB
Bills

Completion pct.: 34.9 (17th). Passer rating: 62.9 (10th). Adjusted YPA: 5.7 (sixth).

Score: 33.

Benched by his own team amid a playoff run and constantly heckled by a vocal group of fans on the interwebs, Taylor may well be the most underappreciated player in the league. The Bills receivers do Taylor no favors, averaging fewer yards of separation on their routes than any group in the league.

While he's a flawed player in some respects and doesn't fit the cookie-cutter mold most conservative coaches desire from their signal-callers, there's no denying Taylor is capable of making difficult throws. His 5.7 adjusted yards per attempt on tight-window passes ranked sixth among qualifying quarterbacks and showed how efficient he can be when fitting the ball in to well-covered receivers. If Taylor deserves any criticism, it's that he should take more chances. He threw just 15 percent of his passes into tight windows this past season and 14.1 percent back in 2016, ranking him among the most cautious quarterbacks in both years.

BONUS NOTES:

-- Aaron Rodgers didn't finish higher than 23rd in any of the tight-window passing statistics this past season. That certainly goes down as a shock, but it's hard to draw a real conclusion from that statistic, given we saw the Packers QB operate at full strength for such a brief period, thanks to a broken collarbone. We know Rodgers is one of the best throwers of the football we've ever seen, and the Next Gen Stats do help hammer that point home. Back in 2016, Rodgers posted an eye-popping 100.9 passer rating on tight-window throws. It's far and away the best mark over the last two seasons.

-- As the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady's absence from the top 10 will certainly come as a surprise to some fans. However, Brady's best skill is the ability to consistently make the right read while operating the Patriots' offense like a well-oiled machine. Brady has thrown fewer than 18 percent of his passes into tight windows in each of the last two seasons, quantifiably demonstrating his elite decision-making.

-- Jared Goff was one of the most improved players in the NFL this past season, bouncing back from a nightmare rookie season. New Rams head coach Sean McVay proved to be one of the best play-callers and offensive minds in the game. McVay's scheme helps facilitate space and lay-up completions for his quarterback to help him get into a rhythm and move the ball. Goff threw an NFL-high 25.9 percent of his passes into tight windows in 2016, but that rate fell down to 14.3 percent under McVay, ranking 31st among qualifying quarterbacks.

-- Cam Newton's tight-window passer rating fell 24.2 points from 2016 to 2017, and his 2.07 adjusted yards per attempt ranked 26th among qualifying quarterbacks this past season. The Panthers set out to evolve their offense heading into 2017 and help eliminate the high-degree-of-difficulty throws far too often assigned to Newton throughout his career. In early November, it looked like that plan was working, as his tight-window percentage was way down from the 24.5 percent he carried in 2016. However, as injuries mounted in the Carolina receiving corps, the plan dissolved, and he ended up throwing 20 percent of his overall passes into tight windows, fifth-highest among qualifying quarterbacks.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.

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