NFL's top 10 deep passers: Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers among best

On the heels of Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard's statement that he views Aaron Rodgers as the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL (and perhaps of all time), Nick Shook dives into metrics from Next Gen Stats to rank his top 10 deep passers in the league right now.

NOTE: Deep attempts include any throws that traveled 20-plus air yards. All stats are current heading into Thursday night of Week 4.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

8 of 11 on deep attempts (72.7%), 319 yards, 6:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 154.4 passer rating

No one is playing at a higher level through three weeks than Russell Wilson. He set the record for the most passing touchdowns in the first three games of a season with 14. He's outproduced all but a dozen NFL passers in total touchdowns with his deep passing TDs ALONE. Not surprisingly, Wilson's six deep-ball touchdowns lead the league. He threw 11 deep touchdowns in 2019, which ranked second in the league behind Patrick Mahomes' 12.

At his current rate, Wilson is projected to throw 32 deep passing touchdowns, which is an absurd rate given that no one has thrown more than 13 in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). He's blazed to such a fast start by taking advantage of blossoming second-year wideout DK Metcalf, whom Wilson has targeted on six of his 11 deep passes, completing five of them for 220 yards and three scores. If Metcalf hadn't pulled up before the goal line and allowed himself to be stripped of the ball against the Cowboys on Sunday, they'd have ANOTHER touchdown to add to his category, too.

Those who wanted the Seahawks to Let Russ Cook have witnessed Wilson assemble a menu that would make even the Cheesecake Factory blush.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB

9 of 23 on deep attempts (39.1%), 377 yards, 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 115.8 passer rating

Rodgers' completion percentage on deep passes isn't as stellar as some of the others on this list, but keep in mind that he's attempted five more deep balls than any other NFL QB. His sheer production elevates him to No. 2 on this list.

Rodgers' nine deep completions lead the NFL, as do his 377 yards on deep passes (no other QB has more than 319). The fashion in which he's completing these deep shots is eye-opening. After we spent months wringing our hands over Green Bay's decision to pass on drafting a wide receiver this spring, the 36-year-old has shrugged off the move by spreading the deep passes among his teammates. Three of Rodgers' nine deep completions have gone to Allen Lazard, with another three landing in the hands of Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Davante Adams, Rodgers' No. 1 weapon, accounts for two of the deep completions despite missing the Week 3 win over New Orleans with a hamstring injury, and running back Aaron Jones -- yes, a running back -- has snagged a deep ball, too.

Rodgers is thriving in typical A-Rod fashion: By throwing darts in the narrow space of field along the sideline. Seven of his nine deep completions have come on throws outside the numbers, and he's making these plays without the benefit of the run fake. Only one of Rodgers' deep completions have come on play-action passes. While the Packers have an excellent runner in Jones to bait the defense into leaving the deep shot open, Rodgers has been anything but dependent on that element.

While there was plenty of talk about how much time Rodgers had left as the Packers' QB1 after Green Bay drafted Jordan Love in April, the 16th-year veteran remains among the league's best, especially when it comes to going deep.

"I think we have the best deep ball thrower in the league, if not NFL history," Lazard told reporters on Sunday night.

Rodgers certainly has a strong case to make for that lofty billing.

Jared Goff
Los Angeles Rams · QB

5 of 5 on deep attempts (100%), 139 yards, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 158.3 passer rating

Sean McVay's offense has long capitalized on using 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) to both run the ball and set up deeper shots off play-action fakes, and while we saw less of that in a disappointing 2019 campaign, such an approach is back in Los Angeles in 2020.

Three of Goff's five deep completions came on play-action passes, accounting for 80 of Goff's 139 deep-passing yards and his lone deep touchdown. The tight end is again popular for the Rams, too, with Tyler Higbee catching two deep passes on play-action passes, including one for a score.

What's interesting is how Goff has managed to find success on deep shots without Brandin Cooks, who is now a Houston Texan, and without focusing on his top two receivers. Neither Cooper Kupp nor Robert Woods have been targeted on a deep pass this season, yet Goff is a perfect 5 for 5 on such attempts, posting a blemish-free 158.3 passer rating.

Teddy Bridgewater
Carolina Panthers · QB

5 of 8 on deep attempts (62.5%), 209 yards, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 145.8 passer rating

Bridgewater proved to be a reliable fill in for Drew Brees in New Orleans last season, but as we all saw, the Saints rarely asked him to attempt to stretch the field in an offense that traditionally favors shorter completions over the deep throw.

Now that Bridgewater is in Carolina, it's a different story. A year after completing just five deep passes in his first six outings, Bridgewater has already matched that mark through three contests with his new team. Bridgewater's 209 deep-passing yards have already exceeded his 188-yard output from 2019, and his 145.8 rating proves going deep is worth the risk for the Panthers.

He's a surprise name on this list, sure, but if Bridgewater keeps up this pace, we'll soon become acclimated to the idea of Teddy Bridgewater, deep passer.

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

6 of 12 on deep attempts (50%), 243 yards, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 123.6 passer rating

Last year's best deep passer (according to Next Gen Stats) is back for more in 2020.

Prescott is another quarterback who is finding success by not playing favorites down the field. Six of his 12 deep targets have gone to Michael Gallup, producing 133 yards and a score, while four other deep targets have been intended for Amari Cooper, resulting in two catches for 86 yards.

Their new big-play threat, rookie CeeDee Lamb, has yet to receive a deep target, which tells us the Cowboys' ceiling has yet to be reached in the passing attack.

Greater use of play-action might further unlock Dallas' offense, too. Only one of Prescott's 12 deep attempts has utilized the run fake, resulting in a 58-yard completion to Cooper.

Prescott ranks in the top five on this list even though the Cowboys still haven't quite seen the full potential of their offense. This standing might look a whole lot different by the end of December.

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

3 of 9 on deep attempts (33.3%), 123 yards, 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 121.5 passer rating

It's a surprise to see the NFL's poster child for the home run way down here at No. 6, but it's mostly a result of a low completion percentage. The touchdown total, however, is indisputable.

These numbers stem from an apparent shift in the Chiefs' offense. Mahomes hasn't been targeting receivers deep as much in 2020 as he has in the past, resulting in shorter attempts and quicker releases of passes. That's helped cut down on quarterback pressures, but it's also kept Mahomes away from the top of the statistical charts down the field. Mahomes' time to throw is currently at a career low of just 2.6 seconds per attempt, well below 2018 (2.91) and 2019 (2.82). His air-yards-per-pass mark has fallen, too, from 9.2 in 2018 and 8.6 in 2019 to just 6.7 in 2020, mirroring an approach seen more commonly in New Orleans than Kansas City.

It's producing a nearly error-free passing offense for Kansas City (when getting the ball out in less than 2.5 seconds, Mahomes' TD-to-INT ratio since 2018 is 26:1), and that furthers the Chiefs' goal of winning as many games as possible. But the stat sheet is a little less stuffed than we might be used to seeing, with Mahomes attempting deep passes on just 7.4 percent of his throws, far below his 2018 rate of 15.2. Still, when Mahomes has gone deep, it has been rewarding. Mahomes currently ranks third in the NFL in deep passing touchdowns with three, and his deep passer rating is good for eighth-best in the league.

The deep shots produce the most significant highlights, but as we know with Mahomes, he's likely to create a memorable moment (or five) on a weekly basis, even if it doesn't cover as many yards through the air.

Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons · QB

8 of 18 on deep attempts (44.4%), 262 yards, 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 128.2 passer rating

The Falcons haven't won a game -- but they have produced plenty of points and a handful of deep completions.

With the addition of Todd Gurley to Atlanta's backfield, the Falcons have rediscovered the benefits of play-action. Ryan has completed five of eight deep pass attempts off run fakes, gaining 181 yards and scoring a touchdown in the process. Plenty of credit is due to Calvin Ridley, who leads the league in deep targets with 11, with five catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. Note that Ridley accounts for six of Ryan's eight deep targets on play-action passes. New addition Hayden Hurst has accounted for the other two deep shots off the run fake, with the one touchdown going to him.

Even without a fully healthy Julio Jones, Ryan is still producing when airing it out. 

Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

8 of 13 on deep attempts (61.5%), 257 yards, 1:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 99.0 passer rating

Allen's greatest attributes coming out of Wyoming were impossible to ignore, with his big arm and blend of athleticism making it easier to overlook his accuracy inconsistencies. Well, in 2020, he's showing an unexpected improvement in accuracy, boosting his completion rate to 71.1 percent through three weeks -- but he's still using his big arm and Buffalo's threat to run to make big plays.

Allen leads the NFL with six deep completions on play-action passes, gaining 202 yards and scoring a touchdown in the process. He's another quarterback who is thriving deep by spreading the ball among both his deep threats and those who aren't typically expected to take the top off a defense. Allen has completed three deep passes to Cole Beasley, two to new addition Stefon Diggs and two to returning burner John Brown, who has seen more than twice as many deep targets (five) as Diggs (two) through three weeks.

Stopping Buffalo's air attack isn't as simple as shutting down Diggs, and forcing Allen to run will only compound the issue. Together, Allen is continuing to power Buffalo's offense at all levels of the field.

Daniel Jones
New York Giants · QB

4 of 6 on deep attempts (66.6%), 117 yards, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 149.3 passer rating

Jones has not been very good in most statistical categories in 2020, ranking 28th in completion percentage and 32nd in passer rating and tying for the second most giveaways among QBs, which makes his appearance here a surprise. But with relatively small sample sizes through three weeks, a few big plays can make a big difference when we're looking strictly at deep passes.

Jones has been effective in the deep passing game, posting a near-perfect passer rating on his six deep attempts and tossing a touchdown. Unfortunately, Jones rarely has the time needed to attempt and/or complete deep passes. He's been pressured at a higher rate than anyone else in the entire NFL (on 47.5% of dropbacks), and predictably, his statistics have suffered in those situations. When Jones hasn't been pressured, by contrast, he's been adequate, completing 67.2 percent of passes for a passer rating of 81.1 and a TD-to-INT ratio of 2:2.

If the Giants want to take further advantage of Jones' deep effectiveness, they'll need to protect him better than they have to this point. And the going will only get tougher with Saquon Barkley done for the year.

Cam Newton
New England Patriots · QB

4 of 6 on deep attempts (66.6%), 128 yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 109.7 passer rating

Only in 2020 would the 34-year-old Julian Edelman suddenly morph into a deep threat. Five of Newton's six deep targets have been intended for Edelman, who has caught three of them for 108 yards. Two of those targets came off play-action passes, with Newton completing one of them to Edelman.

The traditional statistics aren't overwhelming; Newton hasn't thrown a deep touchdown pass, for example. But the efficiency is a positive sign. More importantly, Newton has regained his ability to find a deep target accurately, which appeared to escape him in his final months in Carolina as he dealt with debilitating shoulder issues. This is encouraging for both Patriots fans and supporters of Newton, whose NFL future seemed in question not too long ago. After three weeks, his doubters have been proven foolish. New England's offense won't push the ball down the field, but when needed, the quarterback will find the open man -- just as he has for most of his career.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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