Passing in the NFL is increasingly becoming more important and more efficient. Completion percentages continue to rise thanks to an emphasis on shorter passes. Deep passes are now more valuable than ever with EPA on a per attempt basis at an all-time high.
Where quarterbacks can really make a difference, though, is in the intermediate area. Passes thrown between 11-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage produce around the same EPA per attempt of deep passes and combine that with a similar success rate of shorter passes.
Passing Value by Depth, 2019
|Pass Depth||Att%||EPA/Att||Positive Play%|
This has been the case over the past few years, where the most efficient area of the field by EPA has been on those intermediate passes:
Of course, a number of caveats apply. While deep and intermediate passes have similar EPA per attempt, those deep passes have much higher EPA when they do connect, which brings a much higher ceiling. There is also significantly more that has to go right for an intermediate attempt to work compared to getting the ball out quickly for a short pass, even though the success rates are similar. However, we can all agree passes behind the line of scrimmage need to stop at the rate they are called.
Among 35 quarterbacks with at least 30 intermediate pass attempts outside of the red zone last season, only one had negative EPA per attempt. Throws to that area of the field are inherently positive and quarterbacks who can excel on those throws have the ability to lift the ceilings of their offenses.
*All data here provided by Sports Info Solutions
How Much Will Ryan Tannehill Regress?
Look no further than Ryan Tannehill’s production on intermediate throws last season. We looked at this back in November and one of the biggest questions for the Titans this year will be how much regression will come in this area. Tannehill completed a league-leading 75% of his intermediate passes outside of the red zone last season and was one on three quarterbacks to complete over 70% of such passes.
That 75% mark is the highest of any quarterback with at least 30 intermediate attempts since 2015. Only Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins have multiple seasons with at least a 70% completion rate on those throws. Quarterbacks like Brees and, yes, Cousins have been known as good intermediate passers throughout their careers. The issue with Tannehill repeating this success is that he never completed more than 57% of his passes with the Miami Dolphins, at least since 2015. Tannehill once came close to his 2019 on-target rate in 2016 but his completion rate and yards per attempt were still in-line with what he had done during the other years of his career.
Ryan Tannehill Intermediate Passing, 2015-2019
In addition to such a high completion rate, Tannehill was aided by great receiving production after the catch. Intermediate throws are not exactly built to take advantage of yards after the catch, but the Titans were able to do it with 31.5% of Tannehill’s yards on those throws coming after the catch, the third-highest YAC% in the league, above the 22.8% average of the 35 quarterback sample. There is something to be said about Tennessee’s scheme and receivers because Marcus Mariota had the fourth-highest YAC% (30.8%) during his time as the starter.
Can Lamar Jackson Keep Improving?
Lamar Jackson also had help from his scheme and receivers on intermediate passes. Jackson was around average in on-target rate (69.4%, 19th) with an above-average completion rate (61.2%, 14th). He led the league in YAC% at 36.8% and his touchdown rate (6.1%) was third behind Tannehill and Brees — remember these are throws outside of the red zone. All of those factors combined for Jackson to finish as the No. 2 quarterback by EPA/att on these throws at 0.84, just behind Tannehill’s 0.87.
Here are the top-15 from 2019:
While some of those numbers are bound to regress, Jackson can still increase his accuracy (unlike Tannehill, who already maxed out that area). The question will be how much growth there can be. Accuracy is not something that typically improves at a significant rate, but Jackson already upped his on-target rate from a poor 63.2% during his rookie season. With better receiving talent and more playing time for tight end Mark Andrews, there is still potential for Jackson to be one of the most productive quarterbacks to the intermediate area.
Throughout Dak Prescott’s career, he has been a consistent intermediate passer. His on-target rate has never dropped below 76% in his four seasons and, in fact, his 2019 on-target rate was actually the lowest of his career. But he had his best production thanks to an increase in targets to that area and more open space from a scheme that actually worked to get more out of those throws.
Dak Prescott Intermediate Passing, 2016-2019
The Cowboys will now be replacing Randall Cobb with CeeDee Lamb and will have three legitimate weapons at receiver in 11 personnel with Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper. Blake Jarwin up the seams will also be an upgrade over what was left from Jason Witten.
With an emphasis on more early-down passing and another year of growth with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore calling plays, Prescott could be looking at another top season in this range, which would be great for the 2020 Cowboys and Prescott’s 2021 bank account.
Derek Carr vs Jon Gruden
The closest any other quarterback came to Tannehill’s last season was actually Derek Carr. Intermediate passes are Carr’s deep shots and he saw career-high production in that area in 2019. However, like some of the other aggressiveness in his game, Carr has thrown to the intermediate area less often than he did earlier in his career. Carr has always been among the most accurate quarterbacks in that area, but he hasn’t always been able to connect there like other quarterbacks like Brees and Cousins. Last year his completion rate jumped to an impressive 71%, but well above his career norms.
Derek Carr Intermediate Passing, 2015-2019
Carr was fourth in EPA per attempt and the Raiders were surprisingly efficient in offense overall (ninth in DVOA). This goes to both Jon Gruden’s ability to scheme up an offense but also Carr’s insistence on not throwing anything unless it’s open. Last year, more throws were open for the Raiders at the intermediate area and Carr was able to take advantage of what was there.
With the additions of Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards plus another season of Darren Waller, the Raiders have loaded up on players who can potentially win in that area and keep it open for Carr.
Baker’s Biggest Issue
Intermediate throws are where Baker Mayfield has struggled the most during his NFL career. Mayfield finished 25th in EPA per attempt and 32nd in completion percentage on these throws in 2019. As a bigger concern, his on-target rate was the lowest of all qualified quarterbacks. Even during Mayfield’s impressive rookie season, he struggled on passes to the intermediate area. Part of this is where Mayfield can be late on some timing and also be baited into some bad decisions by defenders.
Baker Mayfield Intermediate Passing, 2018-2019
If there is hope, it’s that Kevin Stefanski has been part of offenses that have been able to scheme open those intermediate and middle of the field throws during his time with the Vikings. As mentioned above, Kirk Cousins has consistently been one of the more productive quarterbacks on intermediate routes. A lot of that comes with the help of play-action, which should be increased in Cleveland this season. 12 personnel with Austin Hooper and David Njoku should open up the middle of the field and a healthy Odell Beckham, who was already one of the league’s best intermediate separators last season should also be a plus.
There’s also a chance this is a fatal flaw in Mayfield’s game.
We discussed what rookie quarterbacks needed to do in order to make a Year 2 leap last week. As a group, all of them can improve in the intermediate range. These throws are some of the hardest to adjust to at the NFL level and there was some level of struggle for the entire 2019 rookie class. Those who can grasp the timing of intermediate passing in their second season will have a leg up on taking that step forward.
Kyler Murray’s on-target rate was above only Mayfield. Gardner Minshew was 31st in on-target rate, 33rd in completion rate, and 29th in EPA per attempt.
Daniel Jones had a good on-target rate (75%) but like passes to other areas of the field, there is a disconnect between his on-target rate and the actual catchability of those throws. He finished 31st in completion percentage and 30th in EPA per attempt. His 10.0% interception rate was also the third-highest among quarterbacks on those throws.
The one quarterback to have negative EPA to the intermediate area? That was Dwayne Haskins. Haskins wasn’t unbelievably bad in either on-target rate (27th) or completion percentage (21st), but his 14.3% interception rate was easily the worst of all quarterbacks.