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Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson headline NFL's top 10 deep passers

Everybody loves the deep ball.

Nothing else in sport is quite as beautiful as a quarterback dropping back, stepping up into the pocket and launching a high-arcing gift of a pass to an intended target well down the field. The completion is a work of art -- the product of 11 players working together, with two of those 11 so in sync that they make an unlikely event a reality.

The NFL game itself has evolved from one that depended on the run as its primary means of achievement, to one that used the run to set up the pass, to one that uses short passes (and some runs) to set up the deep strike. Quarterbacks in today's league are quite prolific when it comes to connecting with downfield targets. Who's the best? We dove into the Next Gen Stats searching for an answer to that question.

Much like the first piece in this series, the main metric we'll use for this exercise is completion percentage above expectation, which is the difference between a quarterback's actual completion percentage and expected completion percentage. A positive difference indicates performance above expectation, while a negative difference indicates performance below expectation. We added a wrinkle to narrow the window down to deep passes, eliminating all attempts below 20 air yards.

As a result, the total attempts for each passer are below 100. It's a smaller sample size, but if quarterbacks attempted deep passes 300 times a season, their teams wouldn't move the ball with any consistency. They'd be boom-or-bust to a staggering degree.

Let's get to the numbers to fill out the top 10:

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

Comp pct: 44.4. Expected comp pct: 31. Difference: +13.4 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 6:2. Passer rating: 109.7.

Surprised? Cowboys fans might not be, but I'm sure plenty of you are. This will be an interesting exercise because plenty of those reading will be upset by Dak's No. 1 ranking. But look: This is what the numbers say. No one was better at exceeding passing expectations on deep balls in 2019 than Prescott.

The fine folks embedded in the Next Gen Stats bunker took the time to poke their heads above the blinking lights and buttons to tell me this metric was designed to best capture how well a quarterback is playing when also considering the surrounding circumstances. Even with their amount of talent, the Cowboys weren't a great team in 2019. Prescott's receiving corps relied mostly on Amari Cooper -- who was very efficient on deep targets, catching 12 passes for 386 yards and two touchdowns -- Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb, with a very rare contribution from Tavon Austin. First-round pick CeeDee Lamb should make life better for Prescott in 2020, and if he can continue to complete unlikely deep passes better than most, this Dallas offense might become really explosive. But again, this is also about making the most of surrounding circumstances, and Prescott excelled in that department in 2019.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

Comp pct: 42.7. Expected comp pct: 29.9. Difference: +12.8 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 11:2. Passer rating: 119.2.

The league's most productive deep passer from 2016 through '18 (in terms of touchdowns, of which he threw 32) continues to flourish near the top of the league's rankings. Wilson has made a career out of extending plays and putting dimes on his receivers, even when it seemed all but impossible to do so. Wilson's teammate, Tyler Lockett, appeared on our list of the top 10 best pass catchers, which used a similar receiving metric, so it comes as no surprise that Wilson is also high up on this list. Those two baffled defenses more often than most tandems in 2019. Wilson also benefited last season from the quick development of big-bodied rookie D.K. Metcalf, who increased the quarterback's chances for completed passes above expectation because he could win the majority of physical battles for passes.

Here's a mind-blowing stat that might have been better to lead with than close, but hey, we're already here: Wilson averaged a minuscule 1.5 yards of target separation on deep passes in 2019, the lowest in the NFL. Seahawks receivers recorded 32 deep receptions in 2019, the most in the NFL. Russ, who also led all of these QBs in DIMES (30-plus air yards and a tight window resulting in a completion) with nine, doing the most with the least, per usual.

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

Comp pct: 45.5. Expected comp pct: 36.5. Difference: +9.0 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 12:2. Passer rating: 119.0.

Sometimes, this exercise can be clouded slightly by those with whom these quarterbacks are playing. Wilson and Prescott don't have Tyreek Hill at their disposal, and since Mahomes does, sometimes those deep passes intended for Hill are expected to be caught because Hill has run himself open by a significant enough margin for the pass to no longer be considered difficult to complete. Evidence of this effectiveness: Hill has 18 touchdowns on deep targets since 2016, which is the second-most in the NFL in that span of time. (Antonio Brown, despite playing just one game last season, still ranks first with 19 -- a testament to his prolific production in Pittsburgh.)

That alone is the best explanation for why Mahomes has a nearly identical TD-to-INT ratio and passer rating as Wilson, yet his expectation difference is a decent amount lower than Wilson's mark. Mahomes' guys are open on deep passes more often than Wilson's -- and everyone else's, for that matter -- as evidenced by his 30.3 percent rate of targets considered to be open on deep passes (the next-closest QB in this measurement was Kirk Cousins at 25.9 percent). For comparison's sake, the two most prolific deep-ball games of 2019 were enjoyed by Wilson and Mahomes, with Mahomes completing 7 of 11 deep passes for 257 yards and four touchdowns in Week 2 against Oakland, and Wilson completing 6 of 11 passes for 204 yards and no touchdowns in Week 3 against New Orleans. In Mahomes' outing, his receivers were open on 27.3 percent of those 11 deep pass attempts. Wilson's receivers were open on just 18.2 percent of his 11 attempts, and their average target separation was half a yard (1 1/2 feet). That's all we can really say about it.

Mahomes is obviously an incredibly gifted passer who just led his team to a Super Bowl title. His 12 deep-ball touchdowns are the most of any passer on this list. He's just not No. 1 because he's also playing with better surrounding circumstances, which is, again, typical of a team that just won the Super Bowl.

A parting gift: Mahomes leads the NFL in deep-pass TDs since 2018 with 25. Stick that on your Super Bowl LIV fridge.

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

Comp pct: 38.9. Expected comp pct: 31.4. Difference: +7.5 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 7:2. Passer rating: 107.6.

Now this one flies in the face of doubters who claim Brady doesn't have it anymore. Brady was the league's fourth-best deep passer in 2019. He threw for seven touchdowns -- against only two interceptions -- on deep balls. He did so with Julian Edelman as his top target, and appeared to have done so out of necessity more than anything. His time to throw (3.24 seconds on average) was faster than just two of the quarterbacks left on this list (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Ryan), his pressure rate was higher than anyone else on this list (40.7 percent) and his open-target percentage was third-lowest on this list behind only Prescott and Wilson. Brady's best deep-passing game came in a Week 1 obliteration of the Steelers, and two of his three best deep completions went to Phillip Dorsett, whom most everyone left in the abyss when complaining about Brady's targets. The other productive hookup went to Josh Gordon, who didn't last even half of a season with the Patriots.

So with more pressure in his face than most and a revolving cast of characters at receiver, Brady still posted the fourth-best expectation difference. Not bad for a 42-year-old.

Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · QB

Comp pct: 41.0. Expected comp pct: 34.4. Difference: +6.6 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 6:3. Passer rating: 100.6.

Murray was the beneficiary of open receivers (third-highest rate in this group of QBs) and a very low pressure rate (13.1 percent, by far the lowest of these QBs) in launching his deep passes, but that's not to diminish what the No. 1 overall pick did as a rookie. His total number of DIMES (six) rivaled the rest of those passers on this list, and he often benefitted from defenses who respected his ability to run enough to avoid rushing him with full intensity, instead protecting against the big run and also allowing him to read defenses. The quarterback often exited the tackle box to make his throws, helping him fire his deep strikes. There's not much else to glean here other than, well, watching Murray is exciting. Cardinals fans should be looking forward to the future.

Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans · QB

Comp pct: 41.2. Expected comp pct: 34.6. Difference: +6.6 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 7:5. Passer rating: 92.2.

Might we introduce you to Will Fuller? Watson really enjoyed going deep in 2019, so much that he attempted a deep pass on 14 percent of his throws in 2019 (fifth-highest in the NFL). With Fuller on the field, he has attempted a deep pass on 17 percent of his throws since 2017 (as opposed to 11 percent with Fuller off of it). He's also completed 43.2 percent of deep passes with Fuller on the field since 2017 (as opposed to 34.3 percent with Fuller off it). Watson enjoyed playing with DeAndre Hopkins, but he really needed Fuller to blow the top off the defense. Unfortunately, he only had Fuller for 11 games in 2019, meaning his tendency to air it out had to be directed toward someone else. That didn't limit Watson, who still let it fly with more ambition than any other passer on this list, dropping seven DIMES while finishing as the only quarterback in this group to break the average air yards mark of 30 (30.4). It will be interesting to see how Hopkins' departure affects this output in 2020.

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · QB

Comp pct: 42.6. Expected comp pct: 36.2. Difference: +6.4 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 9:1. Passer rating: 121.5.

Long a Next Gen Stats hero, Cousins returns with a sterling 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio on deep passes and the highest passer rating on deep throws of this entire group, but he lands at seventh because, well, his receivers were open a lot. Cousins' deep passes weren't nearly as risky as some others', as the quarterback attempted such throws into tight windows just 20.4 percent of the time, by far the lowest of any of these guys. His receivers were open on 25.9 percent of deep pass attempts and averaged target separation of 2.2 yards. Ever calm under pressure, Cousins posted his deep-passing numbers while pressured on 31.5 percent of attempts, meaning he took his shots when he needed, but mostly when he knew it was more likely than not to produce a positive outcome. Isn't that right in line with the tale of his career?

Ryan Fitzpatrick
Miami Dolphins · QB

Comp pct: 35.8. Expected comp pct: 30.4. Difference: +5.4 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 6:2. Passer rating: 100.8.

This is the outlier. Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins in rushing. He shouldn't be here, right? Well, Fitzpatrick got here by being the daring risk-taker he's long been, sending more of his deep passes into tight windows than not (56.6 percent of his 53 deep pass attempts were into tight windows). That type of loose play produced six touchdowns for the Dolphins, who rode Fitzpatrick's efforts and energy to a handful of respectable wins, enough to keep them from drafting in the top three. So much for Tanking for Tua, whom they still got at No. 5 overall. Ryan Fitzpatrick is on this list. Seriously. What a funny, strange game this is.

Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons · QB

Comp pct: 41.8. Expected comp pct: 36.5. Difference: +5.3 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 3:5. Passer rating: 69.3.

Welcome to the weeds. Some quarterbacks had higher passer ratings on deep passes, but the completion percentage above expectation still reigns supreme here, despite Ryan's negative TD-to-INT ratio. Look, it wasn't the best campaign for the Falcons, but Ryan still gave it his best, dropping six DIMES while throwing into tight windows on 34.5 percent of his deep attempts. That might have been what produced his five interceptions, of course, but the positive completion percentage means he was still more effective going deep than he wasn't, even when incomplete stats like interceptions tell a different story. Don't overlook his pressure percentage of 32.7, either.

Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns · QB

Comp pct: 35.9. Expected comp pct: 32.0. Difference: +3.9 percentage points.
TD-to-INT ratio: 6:6. Passer rating: 72.9.

Jameis Winston truthers are shouting in dismay at this placement, but again, this is what the numbers tell us. Interestingly, Mayfield's deep-ball passer rating was significantly worse than his rookie season (as was much of his game from Year 1 to Year 2), dropping from 106 to 72.9. The heaves for big plays turned into heaves for big turnovers in 2019 for Mayfield, who was one of two quarterbacks on this list to post an even or worse TD-to-INT ratio on deep passes. Having said all of that, Mayfield still found a way to squeeze passes into places they shouldn't fit, attempting tight-window throws on 40.6 percent of deep attempts while enjoying the luxury of open receivers on just 14.1 percent of such attempts. An offseason for his star receivers to get healthy should boost these numbers in 2020.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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