Third down is widely regarded as the money down for quarterbacks. The time of the game where, when the ball is in their hands, they're expected to continue the drive for their team by pushing the ball down the field past the yard to gain.
However, every Sunday it feels that we constantly bemoan the quarterbacks who are throwing short of the sticks. Next Gen Stats has developed a metric with their tracking data called "Average Air Yards to Sticks" to measure which quarterbacks are pushing the ball past the first down marker and those who consistently throw short of it.
"Average Air Yards to Sticks" is defined as the difference between the air yards and the first down marker on a quarterback's completions. A positive number represents someone throwing past the first down marker, while a negative number represents throwing short of the sticks. Here we'll look at the top 10 performing quarterbacks at completing passes beyond the sticks on third down.
Note: This list only includes quarterbacks who threw more than 40 passes on third-down this season.
1) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (2.69 Air Yards to Sticks)
Roethlisberger's third down completions traveled an average of 2.69 yards past the yard to gain. He led the NFL in this metric. When it's time to convert on third down, the Steelers' Pro Bowl passer isn't just looking to just get enough to continue the drive, he's looking to hit the big play to put an exclamation point on the series.
2) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2.1 Air Yards to Sticks)
It wasn't a major leap for Winston from his first to second season, but he did show some slight progress. His passer rating went from 84.2 to 86.1 and his completion percentage climbed up more than two points. However, Winston's interception rate did rise from 2.8 to 3.2 (fourth-highest) in 2016. By nature, Winston is a gambler. While that will result in him extending drives by consistently throwing beyond the sticks, it will also result in big plays for the defense. You take the good and the bad with the 2015 No. 1 overall pick and hope he learns to pick his spots better as he grows.
3) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (1.92 Air Yards to Sticks)
Despite a slower start to the season as the offense settled into itself, Aaron Rodgers finished the season on a tremendous tear that will likely get him a few MVP votes. One attribute that he showed all season was the ability to convert third downs by attacking the marker. Rodgers' third-down passes traveled an average of 1.92 yards past the sticks.
Something that Rodgers does perhaps better than anyone else is improvise and hold onto the ball waiting for something to develop down the field. Rodgers' 2.87-second time to throw placed him fourth-highest among quarterbacks with 200 attempts this year. With a set of receivers that have their strengths but are not necessarily elite man coverage beaters, the offense relies on Rodgers' ability to create. His ability to hold onto the ball behind the line and make defenders miss helps him take the time needed for a receiver to break open on third downs. When they do, Rodgers consistently chucks the ball past the yard to gain marker.
4) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (1.48 Air Yards to Sticks)
Cam Newton threw into tight windows more than any other quarterback in the NFL this season and posted the worst completion percentage (52.9) of his career. Yet, when he did hit on his passes, more often than not they were big plays. Newton's 8.46 air yards per completion ranked second among quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts. The same reality held true on his third down passes, as his throws on the money down traveled an average of 1.48 air yards past the sticks.
Both media members and the coaching staff alike agreed of late that there need to be changes made within the structure of the Carolina Panthers offense. However, one item that doesn't need to change is Newton's willingness to attack on third down. The route concepts and personnel could change to create more high-percentage passing options. Yet, there's no need to alter Newton's mindset.
5) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (1.36 Air Yards to Sticks)
It was another remarkable season for the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Despite only completing 24 passes to star tight end Rob Gronkowski this season, Brady ran anything but a dink-and-dunk attack when his offense needed a first down. Brady's third-down passes traveled an average of 1.36 air yards past the first down marker this year.
Brady rarely throws into tight windows with just 17.6 percent of his passes going to a wide receiver with less than one yard of separation (24th). There are not many quarterbacks who are better at finding the open man. Clearly, it helps make him one of the NFL's most efficient third-down passers. Brady's 10.6 yards per attempt on third down led all quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts this season.
6) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (0.69 Air Yards to Sticks)
Not many quarterbacks play with the aggression that Andrew Luck possesses. One could even call it recklessness. There's a debate to be had whether most of that is drawn from an overwhelming belief in himself that he can make any throw, or if it's brought on by the fact that his poor protection and overrated supporting roster ties one hand behind his back. Luck's completions on third down traveled 0.69 air yards past the sticks this season, showing his willingness to take chances to push the ball beyond just what heeds for a first down.
7) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (0.62 Air Yards to Sticks)
In his second NFL season we saw Marcus Mariota develop into much more of a downfield passer who was willing to take chances when the moment called for it. Mariota's third-down passes went 0.62 air yards beyond the yard to go marker this season. He threw 11 touchdowns on third down as well, tied for third-highest in the NFL.
There was some minor worry with Mariota as a draft prospect a year and a half ago regarding his ability to take chances or play within the context of a traditional NFL offense. His third-down data from the Next Gen Stats, along with 33 career passing touchdowns in the red zone, show that he's more than excelled in two of the most important situations for a pro quarterback.
8) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (0.41 Air Yards to Sticks)
You can criticize some parts of Kirk Cousins' game, but one portion you can't talk down is his fortitude. He takes chances even if he doesn't have the same overwhelming skill set to match other top-tier quarterbacks. With great weapons in tow, Cousins can feel confident in his ability to convert on passes beyond the first-down marker. His third-down throws have gone 0.41 air yards past the sticks this season. Washington has constructed a pristine system and supporting cast for him to succeed, and Cousins has shown to be a more than fine point guard for the group.
9) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (0.27 Air Yards to Sticks)
We know that the Lions ran an offense that's based on short-area quick passes for Matthew Stafford to move the ball down the field. However, one situation where he's still willing to pull the trigger past just what he needs to get is on third downs. Stafford's third-down passes have traveled an average of 0.27 air yards past the first down marker this season.
10) Eli Manning, New York Giants (0.19 Air Yards to Sticks)
Eli Manning has taken his fair share of warranted criticism from analysts who are paying attention for his poor play this season. He's been unable to match his output of years past and has mostly been dragged to the playoffs by a stellar defense and the All-World play of Odell Beckham. However, we need to give Eli Manning credit for his play on third down this season.
Ranking third in the NFL in third-down pass attempts behind Joe Flacco and Blake Bortles, Manning was willing all year to push the ball beyond the sticks. Manning's 0.19 air yards to the sticks displays his confidence in Odell Beckham and his two wide receiver mates to make plays beyond the yard to gain. It's one of the few positives from Manning's 2016 season, but that willingness to attack in critical moments could be an asset to the Giants in the playoffs, especially if Manning goes on another nuclear postseason run.
Four bonus notes:
Jared Goff ranked dead last out of the 33 quarterbacks with 40-plus third down attempts with a -3.74 air yards to the sticks. That means the rookie threw his average pass on third-down almost a full four yards short of the yard to gain. The Rams need to do major work to insure Goff improves, starting with having him push farther downfield in crucial moments.
Sam Bradford was 31st with a -2.99 air yards to the sticks differential. There were moments this season where Bradford put better play on film than given credit for, but many were right to point out that he didn't go past the first down marker on third down enough. The question is whether that's a product of the player or the system the team put in place when its offensive line fell apart.
Tyrod Taylor's 2.71 intended air yards to the sticks actually placed him inside the top 10 at sixth overall. The trouble is that his -0.26 completed air yards to the sticks saw him drop to 13th in that category. He was the only player who was not in the top 10 of both metrics. The mentality and intent is there for Taylor on third down, but whether by his own misses or the failings of his pass-catchers, the results weren't there.
Alex Smith ranked 29th with a -2.27 air yards to the sticks and no one was shocked. After all, there's a reason Football Outsiders coined a similar metric ALEX several years ago. We cannot give enough credit to Andy Reid for the offense he's constructed in Kansas City with a quarterback in place who doesn't truly threaten defenses. Say what you will, but the team just continues to win on their own script.