While the quarterback is widely regarded as the most important position in the NFL, those tasked with the job of signal-caller largely approach the game in different fashions. Some passers play it safe and throw to the open player in an attempt to pick apart the defense. Other players are fearless and don't have much regard for the defense's presence or coverage.
Here we're going to look at players who take the latter approach and unveil the Top-10 most aggressive quarterbacks in the NFL. The Next Gen Stats metric we're using to compile this ranking is "percentage of passes thrown into tight windows." The Next Gen Stats tracking data defines a tight window as one where the quarterback's targeted wide receiver has less than a yard of separation from the nearest defender. A wide variety of quarterbacks find themselves on this list for different reasons. There's a mix of young and veteran passers, while some find themselves here as a result of their offense or surrounding talent, for others, it reveals something about their own individual play.
Note: This list only includes quarterbacks who threw more than 250 passes this season.
1) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (24.9 percent of his passes)
No starting quarterback threw into tight windows more than Cam Newton in 2016, as 24.9 percent of his pass attempts went to a receiver who had less than one yard of separation. Perhaps this stat can help explain what thwarted any attempt at an encore from the PanthersPro Bowl quarterback. After an MVP season in 2015 where his Panthers team went to the Super Bowl, Newton came crashing back to earth to have the worst statistical season of his career. His 7.1 NFL-high touchdown rate from 2015 regressed to a career-worst 3.7 mark. The reigning MVP went through a ghastly stretch from Weeks 11 to 16 where he completed just 45.3 percent of his passes, which was the third-lowest by any quarterback in a six-game span since 1991. Newton's yards per attempt came under 7.0 for the first time in his career and the offense itself scored just 369 points compared to their league-leading 500 from the 2015 season. Newton completed just 30.9 percent of his passes into tight coverage, which was the second-worst mark in the NFL.
What this stat provides us is a reminder that few quarterbacks operate in an environment that creates a higher degree of difficulty. The Panthers offensive design requires Newton to hit high-degree of difficulty passes both deep and outside the numbers. Even his 20.3 tight window percentage on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards in the air trailed only the Rams' quarterbacks. Additionally, Newton has had issues with bouts of inaccuracy, although as Eric Stoner of Big Cat Country asserts, there's a big difference between being an inaccurate passer (which Newton is not) and not being consistently accurate.
In recent years we've seen the Carolina front office almost overcorrect in an attempt to rectify this issue by drafting behemoth receivers like Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. The trouble with that approach is that they only serve to extrapolate the high-degree of difficulty for their quarterback. Benjamin checked in with the lowest average separation on his targets (1.8 yards) and Funchess, who barely got on the field anyway, came in with the fourth lowest (2.0) among receivers who saw 20 or more targets. Again, some of that comes back to the scheme Carolina runs and Benjamin has shown some prowess winning at the catch point. Still, the Panthers would be wise to alter their approach with Newton in the same way the Steelers once did with Ben Roethlisberger, as Around the NFL's Chris Wesseling suggests. This also suggests that the Panthers need to explore acquiring another receiver who can quickly separate in their routes to provide Newton an easier target for easier completions, rather than constantly asking him to rifle passes into the tight windows provided by his current mammoth wideouts.
2) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (24.4 percent of his passes)
Much like Cam Newton, Blake Bortles took one of the sharpest declines of any player from 2015 to 2016 and threw 24.4 percent of his passes into tight coverage this year. Bortles crashed down to earth in his third season by throwing just 23 touchdowns after dropping 35 into the end zone last year. In a similar fashion to the Panthers offense, the Jaguars scoring attack doesn't offer their quarterback many high-percentage passes for easy completions. While Bortles and receivers like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns appeared to be on the complete positive side of variance on those plays in 2015, they thoroughly tilted to the other side of the scale this year. There's no better example of that regression than on their deep passes. Bortles attempted 37 percent of his passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air into tight coverage (eighth-most) but ranked just 27th in his completion rate on those throws.
Most of all, Bortles' coming in with the second-highest percentage of passes thrown into tight windows represents a failure on his part to read defenses and progress in the mental side of the game. Consistently forcing passes when they just aren't there presented a "live by the sword, die by the sword" proposition for the Jaguars quarterback, which played out on both ends of the spectrum in his last two seasons. He threw six interceptions on his attempts in tight coverage this year, which was tied for third-most. Bortles will almost certainly face competition for his starting job this offseason, and he is no lock to retain it if he can't progress past these issues.
3) Case Keenum, Los Angeles Rams (23.2 percent of his passes)
Jared Goff actually ranked higher than even Cam Newton with 25.4 percent of his passes going into tight windows, but he fell below the minimum attempt threshold. Case Keenum, on the other hand, ranked third with 23.2 percent. The Rams offense was an utter disaster in their first season in Los Angeles, ranking 32nd in points scored, total yards and first downs gained. Much of that failing can be traced back to ineffective quarterback play, especially with both playing so aggressively. Interestingly enough, Keenum was actually quite effective at throwing into tight windows. His 45.2 percent completion rate when his targeted receiver had less than one yard of separation was the ninth-highest in the NFL. Keenum has long been the type of gunslinger quarterback who is content to play outside of his skillset. While his play left much to be desired, he and Kenny Britt at least made plenty of dazzling plays together, as the receiver enjoyed a career-best year.
What has to worry the Rams is that the quarterback they took No. 1 overall was far less effective at throwing into tight windows, despite being more aggressive than the passer he replaced. Jared Goff's completion percentage when targeting a pass-catcher with less than a yard of separation ranked 30th. Of course, you can point to an all-around dysfunctional offensive environment that Goff was placed in clearly before he was ready, but what these numbers prove is that he failed to even be as successful as Keenum in an identical environment. There are little to no positives to take away from the 2016 No. 1 overall pick's rookie season.
4) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston has long been lauded as an aggressive, gunslinger type at the quarterback position. As such it's no surprise to see him pop up with 22.4 percent of his passes thrown into tight coverage. It's easy to see when watching Winston that the 2015 No. 1 overall pick has a mountain of confidence in his own skillset. However, he was not too effective throwing into tight windows, as his 38.4 completion percentage ranked just 21st in the NFL. Likely extrapolating Winston's need to throw into tight coverage was the lack of ancillary threats on the Buccaneers offense. Tampa's No. 1 wide receiver Mike Evans owned a 42.1 percent share of Winston's air yards, which was the most of any receiver in the league this year. Tight end Cameron Brate emerged as a solid player, but outside of those two, Winston had little to work with. The Buccaneers would be wise to follow the example set by the Falcons within their own division, who found much more offensive success this year by adding a litany of complements to Julio Jones.
5) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (21.4 percent of his passes)
Even as he gets set to start his first playoff game for the Houston Texans, we can already confidently say that the signing of Brock Osweiler in free agency was a massive failure. Osweiler held a passing game which featured one of 2015's best wide receivers, DeAndre Hopkins, hostage throughout his 14-game stretch as the starter. He eventually lost his job to a Day 3 NFL Draft pick, Tom Savage from the 2014 class. His appearance on the list is without a doubt a reflection on the quarterback himself, not the receivers who he played with. The free agent flop consistently failed to hit Hopkins and others at the proper breaking point in routes, when he even attempted to target his dynamic receiver. Perhaps nothing better illustrates Osweiler's struggles than the disparity between his short and deep throws into tight windows. Osweiler actually completed 64.4 percent of his tight window throws that traveled less than 10 air yards, which ranked second among starting quarterbacks. However, his 10 percent completion rate on passes that traveled over 20 air yards ranked 30th among starting quarterbacks and his 17.9 completion rate on passes between 10 and 20 air yards ranked 31st. If an Osweiler throw was heading down the field and into tight coverage, you needed more than a wing and prayer to hope it ended completed. Osweiler's eight interceptions thrown into tight coverage was tied with Carson Wentz for the league-lead.
6) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (21.3 percent of his passes)
The roller coaster ride of the Ryan Fitzpatrick experience all comes back to his refusal to play within himself. Fitzpatrick doesn't possess an All-Pro arm but has never been afraid to play like a quarterback who does. The Jets passing game was an utter mess in 2016, just one year after Fitzpatrick broke several franchise records last season. Fitzpatrick was still just as aggressive, ranking sixth with 21.3 percent of his passes traveling into tight windows, but far less effective than his 2015 self. This iteration of the Jets season gave us a view into the other side of variance when Fitzpatrick consistently tests coverage, as his 4.2 interception rate led the NFL. Six of his interceptions came when throwing into tight coverage.
7) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (21.2 percent of his passes)
You can look at Carson Wentz's rookie season from a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty approach and probably be fair in your assessment. Wentz showed plenty of talent and went on a hot start that caused plenty of analysts and fans alike to fall all over themselves with over exuberant praise. However, after that first month the Eagles offense largely operated in a conservative fashion. Wentz was taken to task in some outlets for a dink-and-dunk approach, as his air yards per completion ranked 38th among quarterbacks this season. Of course, much of the blame was rightly placed at the feet of a wide receiver corps that collectively failed to live up to their pre-NFL Draft expectations. The trio of Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham combined for just 1,561 yards.
Perhaps Wentz's high-ranking on this list is due in part to constantly needing to throw into tight coverage, as his wide receiver group offered little separation ability. It's also true that Wentz is by nature a fearless quarterback who has no issues attempting to place the ball in tight coverage. Yet, that did not go so well for him as a rookie and he checked in with the 18th ranked completion rate (40.2 percent) when throwing into tight windows overall. He was particularly ineffective when throwing into tight windows on passes that traveled more than 20 air yards, as he completed just three of 21 attempts for the 24th-ranked completion rate on such throws. Some of that may certainly come back to his poor wide receiver group, but Wentz's mechanics also noticeably eroded as the season wore on.
8) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (21.1 percent of his passes)
As Matthew Stafford's career goes on, the Lions continue to alter his style to fit a more quick-striking offensive attack. However, there's still some of that old big-armed gunslinger in there, as well. Stafford attempted 21.1 percent of his passes into tight windows, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL, and there's little question he can still make those throws. Stafford's 49.2 percent completion rate on tight window throws ranked 4th among all quarterbacks with more than 250 pass attempts. With a closer look, you can still see some of the compromise developed between Stafford and the Lions coaching staff. Despite his high overall attempts into tight coverage, he ranked 19th in percentage of passes 20 air yards down the field going into tight windows.
9) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (21.1 percent of his passes)
Considered by many to be an MVP favorite after a wildly successful statistical season, Matt Ryan's placement here among the Top-10 most aggressive quarterbacks only adds credence to his case. Ryan attempted 21.1 percent of his passes into tight coverage during the regular season and came away with great results. His 49.5 completion rate on such throws only trailed Aaron Rodgers and Russel Wilson among quarterbacks who threw more than 200 passes. Ryan was absolutely lethal at deconstruction defenses in the short areas, as his 60.9 completion percentage ranked third-best. Yet, one of the most striking stats from Ryan's potential MVP campaign was his NFL-high 135.4 passer rating on deep passes (20-plus air yards). It's even more impressive when you note that he was still regularly testing deep coverage on deep throws. Ryan attempted 31.1 percent of those passes into tight windows and never threw an interception. If the Falcons quarterback walks away with MVP honors to commemorate what was a remarkable bounce-back season, it will be well-deserved.
10) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (20.8 percent of his passes)
Trevor Siemian's name appearing at the tail end of this list is likely a surprise for most. However, this should go to show just how much more was asked of Siemian in 2016 than the Broncos could have ever possibly hoped for, as they likely never envisioned a scenario where they would need him to throw 20.8 percent of his passes into tight coverage. With the collapse of both Denver's running game after C.J. Anderson's injury and the overall woes of the pass protection, Siemian needed to make more difficult throws in aggressive situations than originally anticipated. To his credit, he responded well and his 48 completion percentage on tight window throws was the sixth-best among starting quarterbacks. Even the short throws became high-degree of difficulty ones for the Broncos quarterback. His 18.4 tight window percentage on passes that traveled less than 10 air yards was the eight-highest, but again, his 58.9 completion rate on those throws ranked inside the top-five. Siemian has some flaws in his game, there's no doubt about that, but you can take many positives from his time as the starter which saw more on his plate than originally planned for. The next head coach in Denver has to at least wonder if Siemian's 2017 season will be even better if the offense is stabilized around him, and perhaps a big move for a Tony Romo-type player is not necessary.
Four bonus notes:
Kirk Cousins rarely throws into tight windows. Cousins threw just 14.3 percent of his passes to a targeted receiver who had less than a yard of separation in 2016, the second-lowest among starting quarterbacks. Only 7.8 percent of his throws that traveled 20-plus air yards went into tight windows. General manager Scott McCloughan told Cousins he was going to "going to build this roster to where you can be average and still be good," and it appears that plan worked this season.
Ben Roethlisberger is going deep when he throws into tight windows. The SteelersPro Bowl quarterback ranks dead last in tight window percentage throws. However, 32.1 percent of his passes that traveled 20-plus air yards went into tight coverage, more than at any other distance of the field. Roethlisberger had the 8th-highest completion rate on such throws (29.6%).
Aaron Rodgers is a master at finding the open player and defeating tight coverage. The MVP candidate ranked 26th in percentage of passes thrown in tight windows. Rodgers has historically avoided testing top corners and rather picks on defenses where they are weakest. However, if he chooses to rifle a ball into tight coverage, the defender ought to be worried. Rodgers' 53 percent completion rate on tight window passes led all quarterbacks this season.
Dak Prescott was one of the best deep ball passers in tight windows. A whopping 39.5 percent of Dak Prescott's passes that traveled further than 20 yards in the air went into tight coverage. The rookie's 29.4 percent completion rate was the ninth-best mark on such throws and he never recorded an interception.