Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford head top deep-ball throwers of '17

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With each new season, the NFL passing game becomes more about up-tempo, quick-strike attacks to increase efficiency. Yet, no fan can deny the attraction of the deep ball.

A vertical strike thrown down the field can turn the tide of a game in mere seconds. The best quarterbacks in the NFL know how to attack those areas of the field -- not just with raw arm strength, but with anticipation, accuracy and a fortitude that is required to fit the ball into tight spaces.

With the help of Next Gen Stats data collected via the chips in every player's shoulder pads, we can now quantify some of those skills to learn who are the best deep passers in the NFL. Using a composite score of several passing stats accumulated on deep attempts, we'll spotlight the top 10 quarterbacks from the 2017 season.

Here are the qualifiers for these rankings:

» Only quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2017 qualified for the list (34 total players).

» Next Gen Stats defines a "deep pass" as a throw that traveled 20-plus air yards.

» The final ranking was established by the quarterbacks who had the best scores in the following four categories:

-- Passer rating on deep throws.

-- Completion rate on deep throws.

-- Percentage of total passing yards accumulated on deep throws.

-- Touchdowns rate on deep throws (touchdowns per pass attempt).

» A composite score of the best players in all four categories was used, so that the rankings provided a balanced view of how the subjects performed this past season. The lowest total score signified the top performer.

1
Alex Smith
QB
Chiefs

Passer rating: 134.7 (first).
Completion rate: 54.2 percent (first).
Percentage of yards: 30 percent (first).
Touchdown rate: 18.6 percent (second).

Score: 5.

One of the more shocking developments of the 2017 season was the statistical heights Alex Smith, regarded as a mere game manager for years, reached as a passer for the Chiefs. It was a year on par with Matt Ryan's 2016 MVP season from an efficiency standpoint. His most notable improvement came as a downfield passer. Smith attempted 4.2 deep passes per game (10th-most among qualifying quarterbacks) this past season to just 2.9 the year prior. His deep-passing effectiveness was not just markedly better, it was at league-best levels, as he ranked first in long-ball passer rating, deep completion rate and percentage of overall yards coming on deep throws. Smith didn't rank higher than 20th in any of those categories in 2016. The influence of having the NFL's best deep threat as your No. 1 wideout in Tyreek Hill was real and noticeable. Smith will now take his talents to Washington in an effort to show 2017 was the start of a new trend in his career, not just a glaring outlier.

2
Matthew Stafford
QB
Lions

Passer rating: 127.2 (second).
Completion rate: 43.8 percent (third).
Percentage of yards: 23.7 percent (fourth).
Touchdown rate: 15.6 percent (fourth).

Score: 13.

Stafford appears at the No. 2 spot in yet another Next Gen Stats quarterback ranking, as he was also the silver medalist in tight-window passing for 2017. Highlight-reel plays were plentiful in the Lions' offense, especially when Stafford threw to Marvin Jones, who ranked second on this series' lists for both tight-window wide receivers and deep threats. In their second year together, Stafford and Jones became an unstoppable duo on deep contested passes.

Jim Bob Cooter gets plenty of credit for reigning in Stafford's most reckless tendencies and installing a quick-strike passing game. However, there's still no doubting Stafford's arm talent and ability to fit the ball in areas where no one else can when he does uncork a vertical pass.

3
Josh McCown
QB
Jets

Passer rating: 108.3 (fourth).
Completion rate: 42.5 percent (fourth).
Percentage of yards: 20.1 percent (sixth).
Touchdown rate: 22.5 percent (first).

Score: 15.

Less than a calendar year ago, all corners of the universe rang in unison with cries of harsh predictions for a sure-to-be-woeful Jets offense. The only household that sang a different tune was that of the McCowns. The veteran QB ended up not only being exactly the stabilizing force New York needed under center, but a legitimate asset. McCown and Robby Anderson sliced through defense after defense with the deep ball. The quarterback threw a touchdown on 22.5 percent of pass attempts that traveled 20-plus air yards, finding the end zone at a league-high rate. McCown eventually succumbed to the weight of injuries, as has been the case for most of his career, and was forced to bow out of the 2017 season early. Nevertheless, McCown proved to be an ideal bridge quarterback who can play at a starting-caliber level for a young team -- and consequently, the Jets just retained him on a one-year, $10 million deal.

4
Deshaun Watson
QB
Texans

Passer rating: 88.4 (14th).
Completion rate: 41 percent (fifth).
Percentage of yards: 29.7 percent (second).
Touchdown rate: 17.9 percent (third).

Score: 24.

The rookie quarterback who was routinely questioned during the leadup to the 2017 NFL Draft, especially after his ball velocity clocked at just 49 MPH on the radar gun at the NFL Scouting Combine, quickly silenced doubters with a magical seven-game run before tearing his ACL in practice. Watson cranked out deep passes at a rate (19.1 percent of his attempts) no qualifying quarterback matched this year or in 2016. With the help of DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, Watson finished with top-five efficiency figures in completion percentage and touchdown rate on deep throws. The trio is all set to return for the 2018 season in an attempt to reprise one of the best big-play offenses in the NFL. We only hope to see their powers combine for a full 16-game season.

5
Russell Wilson
QB
Seahawks

Passer rating: 103.0 (sixth).
Completion rate: 35.8 percent (eighth).
Percentage of yards: 26.4 percent (third).
Touchdown rate: 13.6 percent (eighth).

Score: 25.

Plenty of items were broken in the Seahawks' offense last year, but Wilson's ability to hit big plays was better than ever. Wilson and Doug Baldwin were again one of the top connections in the vertical game in 2017. Over the past two seasons, Wilson boasts passer ratings of 93.6 and 97.0 when targeting Baldwin on throws of 20-plus air yards. With Tyler Lockett recovering from a broken leg, Wilson made it work with a new starting deep threat -- Paul Richardson -- in his stead. After accumulating 28.4 percent of his yards on deep passers (first among qualifying quarterbacks) in 2016, Wilson finished third this season with 26.4 percent. That speaks to his excellence as a vertical thrower. This offseason, the Seahawks should look for ways to make their passing offense a bit steadier, rather than relying on their quarterback to carry them with the deep game.

6
Carson Wentz
QB
Eagles

Passer rating: 94.9 (eighth).
Completion rate: 28.3 percent (17th).
Percentage of yards: 20 percent (seventh).
Touchdown rate: 15.1 percent (fifth).

Score: 37.

No quarterback improved more as a deep passer from 2016 to '17 than Carson Wentz. As a rookie, Wentz completed just 25 percent of his throws traveling 20-plus air yards for a passer rating of 45.8 (ranking 31st out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks). He was aggressive in attacking defenses vertically with 4.5 deep throws per game, but it amounted to little production with a wildly underwhelming group of wideouts. Armed with a revamped and strong supporting cast in 2017, Wentz vaulted up the board. His 94.9 deep passer rating ranked eighth among qualifying quarterbacks, and he chucked eight deep touchdowns in just 13 games. After seeing Wentz take such a massive leap in just his second NFL season, we should not put any limits on what type of player he can be if he makes a full recovery from his season-ending knee injury.

7
Drew Brees
QB
Saints

Passer rating: 94.2 (ninth).
Completion rate: 46 percent (second).
Percentage of yards: 18 percent (11th).
Touchdown rate: 8.0 percent (19th).

Score: 41.

Brees has been one of the best and most consistent deep passers since he arrived in New Orleans. His 94.2 passer rating on deep balls was almost identical to his 94.5 from 2016. With running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara asserting themselves as a dominant duo, Brees didn't have to shoulder as heavy a burden in carrying the offense. Yet, he still threw deep at a similar rate, with 9.3 percent of his passes traveling 20-plus air yards -- in 2016, that figure was at 9.5 percent. It's clear the masterful Brees, who turned 39 in January, hasn't lost a bit of arm talent as his career wears on.

8
Aaron Rodgers
QB
Packers

Passer rating: 84.5 (18th).
Completion rate: 36.4 percent (seventh).
Percentage of yards: 17.7 percent (12th).
Touchdown rate: 13.6 percent (seventh).

Score: 44.

We didn't get a full season's worth of mastery from Aaron Rodgers, but he was just as dazzling as ever during his brief appearance on the 2017 stage. Rodgers completed 36.4 percent of his deep throws last season, with the seventh-highest touchdown rate among qualifying quarterbacks. The Packers will joyfully open arms to welcome back a healthy Rodgers for 2018, but this organization needs to explore adding more juice to the downfield passing game. Jordy Nelson's passer rating when targeted on deep throws fell from 111.8 in 2016 to 38.1 this past season. Of course, playing with Hundley is a factor, but the veteran receiver didn't produce in the deep game, even when his long-time quarterback played. Nelson caught just two deep passes all year. And that helps explain why the Packers sent him packing this offseason.

9
Kirk Cousins
QB
Redskins

Passer rating: 93.8 (10th).
Completion rate: 31 percent (14th).
Percentage of yards: 29.6 percent (15th).
Touchdown rate: 13.8 percent (sixth).

Score: 45.

The Washington offense butters its bread with middle-of-the-field passing -- Kirk Cousins threw 30.4 percent of his passes in that region this past season. But the freshly minted Viking was always an effective deep passer. Despite the offseason exodus of his top two receivers from 2016 and layers of injuries this past season, Cousins still ranked 10th in deep passer rating. He threw eight touchdowns of 20-plus air yards in 2017. Back in 2016, when he was surrounded by even more playmakers, Cousins ranked top three in deep passer rating, completion rate and percentage of yards gained. Minnesota justly opened up its checkbook for a quarterback who isn't just a precise underneath point guard, but one of the top vertical passers in the league.

10
Tom Brady
QB
Patriots

Passer rating: 85.7 (16th).
Completion rate: 37.8 percent (sixth).
Percentage of yards: 20.8 percent (fifth).
Touchdown rate: 6.8 percent (23rd).

Score: 50.

In an effort to poke holes in the resume of the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, a narrative occasionally emerges that the Patriots' offense only calls for Brady to complete checkdown throws. The objective Next Gen Stats show that to be a falsity. After throwing 11.1 percent of his of passes 20-plus air yards in 2016, Brady bumped up to 12.7 percent this past season, ranking seventh-highest among qualifying quarterbacks. With the arrival of Brandin Cooks and the absence of Julian Edelman, the Patriots and Brady did what they do best; adjust their approach to the talent on the roster. Finishing 10th on this list, Brady showed that -- even at 40 -- he was up to the task, surprising no one.

BONUS NOTES

The Carolina Panthers desperately need to pump life back into their deep passing game. Once-dominant downfield thrower Cam Newton saw his passer rating on throws of 20-plus air yards crater from 92.3 in 2016 to 44.5 this past season. While his completion percentage on deep throws will never be among the league leaders, the big plays that were once a staple of the Newton-led aerial attack were too rare in 2017. The Panthers traded for Torrey Smith, but much more needs to be done.

Jared Goff narrowly missed the list, finishing 11th among qualifying quarterbacks. The second-year pro boasted a 95.8 passer rating and 35.4 percent completion rate on deep throws, but threw just three touchdown passes of this sort. The Rams are committed to surrounding Goff with playmakers on offense, but they'll need to find a replacement for departed deep-throw weapon Sammy Watkins.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.

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