It's a good time to be an NFL quarterback. It's a passing league, there are seemingly more great pass-catchers than at any time in recent memory, offensive coordinators are getting more and more creative in scheming their players open, and the league has pretty much mandated bone-crushing hits out of the game where QBs are concerned.
The baseline for league-average play has accordingly been raised, but there are still plenty of players who are clearing it with a whole lot of room to spare. Today, we're going to look at the guys who are playing the best this season, and what one thing they are doing that separates them from the rest.
In no particular order (apologies to Russell Wilson, who isn't featured due to injury)...
Kyler Murray: Playmaking under pressure
Every NFL quarterback performs worse in a muddy pocket. That's just how it is. It's more difficult to throw the ball with defenders in your face, for obvious reasons. The best quarterbacks minimize the degree to which their performance drops off, either by getting rid of the ball quickly and with pinpoint accuracy, or by using their athleticism to make plays outside of structure. Murray does both.
He is 19 of 33 for 336 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and a league-best 110.2 passer rating when under pressure so far this season, according to Tru Media. The man is just so slippery. You cannot take him down with one free rusher, because he will make that guy miss. He has to immediately step into the waiting arms of another defender when he starts to move around, or else he's going to make you pay, whether by taking off downfield himself (six scrambles for 42 yards) or finding one of his many weapons in a developing hole in the secondary.
It's notable that he's hitting an incredible amount of big plays down the field in these situations, with throws of 20-plus air yards accounting for 27.3% of his attempts under pressure. He has added more EPA than any quarterback in the league on deep throws, according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats model, so it seems like a pretty good strategy.
Justin Herbert: Attacking boundaries with lasers
Herbert is making a second-year leap to superstardom, and he's doing it by routinely making some of the most difficult throws in all of football. He has a league-high 24 completions of 15 or more yards on throws outside the numbers, which means he's hitting the most hard-to-access spots on the field with more regularity than anybody in the game.
He's 91 of 124 for 983 yards and eight touchdowns on outside-the-numbers throws overall, giving him the most completions and third-most touchdowns in the league on these plays. The arm strength and touch it takes to make throws like this is just outrageous, but Herbert is out here making it look easy. And he's making defensive backs look ridiculous (and lose their minds) in the process.
Herbert has an incredible amount of trust in all of his pass-catchers, counting on them coming down with the ball if he tries to fit it into contested coverage. But he's also capable of getting the ball through tight windows and into the arms of a waiting receiver who didn't appear to be open, but actually was because of the way Herbert's physical gifts allow him to make throws that aren't available to other players.
Dak Prescott: Taking what the defense gives you
No quarterback in the NFL has been more content to let the defense dictate his plan of attack than Prescott. If opponents want to sit back with two deep safeties and dare him to either check to a run play or hit a checkdown option for a short-to-medium gain, Dak will just keep doing exactly that over and over again.
Dallas is averaging 6.1 yards per carry against light boxes, per Tru Media, and 5.9 per carry on first down. A league-best 58.8% of those carries have gone for five yards or more. Sit back and this offensive line and run game will eat you alive. Dak is also perfectly content to rip off short completions to his underneath targets. He's 97 of 122 for 812 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception on throws inside of 10 yards, with the league's sixth-best passer rating and second-best EPA per pass average on those plays.
But as soon as defenses shift into man coverage, Dak is SLAYING them. His numbers are outrageous. On throws against Cover-1, Prescott is 15 of 21 for 260 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's a 152.8 passer rating, which is easily the best in the league. And he is absolutely attacking with these throws, averaging 11.5 air yards per attempt, compared with 6.68 against all other coverages.
When you have CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper to roast man-to-man defenses, along with Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin over the middle, why not just let it rip? When Dallas gets Michael Gallup (the team's best perimeter ball-winner on downfield throws) back in the lineup, look out for even more of this.
Josh Allen: The deepest possible throws
Most NFL tracking services consider "deep" throws to be those that travel 20 or more yards down the field in the air. Allen excels on those throws, but what he really excels on are the even deeper throws.
Nobody in the league has attempted more throws of 30-plus air yards than Allen, who has lofted 14 of them. On those 14 plays, he has nine completions, which have accounted for 375 yards and two touchdowns. That's a 147.3 passer rating. (Only Prescott's is higher (149.3), and he's attempted less than half as many throws as Allen, going 4 of 6 for 163 yards and two touchdowns.) Allen completed four of these passes against the Chiefs alone. Only four other players have more than four of these completions on the entire season.
Just look at some of these bombs. It seems like he's barely putting any air under the ball, instead just ripping it downfield like he's throwing a 10-yard out. It's more than a little bit ridiculous.
Tom Brady: Quick-strike (vertical) passes
As we wrote in our "Thursday Night Football" preview:
Brady is throwing the ball within 2.5 seconds of the snap on more than 60 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and he is PFF's highest-graded passer on those plays. Ready for these figures? He's 106 of 142 for 1,095 yards, 13 touchdowns, one interception, and a 124.0 passer rating when throwing within 2.5 seconds. That is, frankly, disgusting and should be outlawed.
But he's not just getting rid of the ball quickly. He's getting it rid of the ball quickly and pushing it down the field, which makes no sense. Deeper throws take longer to develop. That's just, like, how time and space work. But Brady is breaking it. He has a league-high 43 completions of 10 or more air yards and he's taking an average of only 2.86 seconds to throw them, which means he's getting the ball out more than two-tenths of a second faster than the average NFL quarterback on those plays.
What's most incredible is how many of these quick-strike throws are also coming off of play-action fakes. When a quarterback has to fake the run before throwing a pass, that takes time. When the play-action fake is coming from under center, it also requires the quarterback to turn his back to the defense, which both takes more time and allows for the defense to change the picture from what it looked like pre-snap. That means the QB has to know what he saw and what he's about to see, before he sees it, in order to get the ball out as quickly as Brady does. The man has seen everything, and the way he's operating right now shows it.
Note: All Brady statistics are prior to Thursday's game against Philadelphia, during which he just added to the ridiculous numbers.
Lamar Jackson: Dominating from the pocket
Remember the "Lamar can't win as a passer from the pocket" discussions? Yeah, go turn on the film from his destruction of the Colts on Monday night. In that game alone, Jackson was 36 of 41 for 434 yards, four touchdowns and no picks on inside-the-pocket throws.
Here's a sampling of throws just from the second half, during which he was (I swear) 28 of 30 for 327 yards and all four scores from inside the pocket:
When Jackson is beating teams like this, without really unlocking himself as a scrambler (largely because the Colts play a zone-heavy defense that allows them to keep eyes on the QB at all times and limit quarterback runs), and without both first-round pick Rashod Bateman and No. 2 wideout Sammy Watkins (who left the game with an injury), there's not really much that opposing defenses can do but pray. And even that might not work all that well.
Patrick Mahomes: Dominating outside the pocket
Mahomes leads the NFL with 41 throws from outside the pocket, 29 completions from outside the pocket, 406 yards on throws from outside the pocket, and seven touchdowns from outside the pocket. The next-closest players in each category, respectively, have 34 throws, 21 completions, 268 yards, and five touchdowns. He is blowing away the field.
Kansas City's offense had some trouble against the Bills last week, but that is not typical of how they or Mahomes have played so far this season, no matter what you've heard. He's made more bad decisions than usual (likely spurred by needing to score on every drive due to the team's horrendous defense), but he's still operating at an extremely high level.
Aaron Rodgers: Just throwing to Davante Adams
When you have the best wide receiver in the game, why make things complicated?
Rodgers is 42 of 69 for 579 yards and two touchdowns when targeting Adams, who is lapping the entire field in PFF's yards per route run (3.49; the next-closest player is Deebo Samuel and 3.2 and Cooper Kupp is the only other player in the league over 3.0). Adams has the NFL's most receiving first downs (28), most explosive plays through the air (14), and by far the league's highest targets per route run average, seeing the ball on 36.7% of his routes. The chemistry these two have is unmatched.
I'm not entirely sure how you're supposed to defend some of this stuff. I've always been particularly fond of their work on back-shoulder throws and low red zone routes, but they can still hook up on the deep ball with the best of them as well.
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