Let’s start with a wild stat from ESPN’s Field Yates.
Zach Wilson on throws that traveled 30+ air yards in 2020: 20-of-27, a 74.1% completion percentage.
That’s the best by any FCS QB since 2012. He can grip it and rip it downfield. pic.twitter.com/0Wniy8Xjbh
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 4, 2021
First, we can note the tweet was supposed to say “FBS” instead of “FCS.” Second, that’s pretty good! The special-ness of Zach Wilson’s arm can be debated. There have been some generous Patrick Mahomes comparison’s but regardless of how strong the arm is, there is no question Wilson has shown the ability to push the ball downfield accurately at a high and consistent volume.
The takeaway from that stat could end there, but it doesn’t. Of course not, that’s why there is an article about it. 2020 Zach Wilson leads that group, but it’s also worth pointing out the quarterback who sits second, just behind Wilson: 2020 Justin Fields (68.8%).
Yates’s group takes all quarterbacks going back to 2012, but using Sports Info Solutions data, which goes back to 2016, there have been 478 individual college quarterback seasons with at least 15 attempts of 30 or more air yards. Wilson and Fields sit atop that list as the only quarterbacks to eclipse a 65% completion percentage and two of four to be over 60%.
It also doesn’t just stop with Wilson and Fields. 2020 Mac Jones ranks eighth on that list (58.8%). 2020 Kyle Trask ranks 28th!
Trevor Lawrence’s 2020 season comes in 280th (29.2%) but he didn’t get much help from his receivers on those throws, since his on-target percentage ranked 24th in that group at 69.6%.
Completion percentage was a good enough starting place, but for the rest of this article we’ll focus on on-target percentage because it gives a better representation of the quarterback’s overall accuracy and mostly leaves out what the receivers brought to the table.
As we look at that, there is the possibility that the 2021 quarterback class is the best group of deep passers we’ve seen, especially at the top.
If we look at passes that traveled at least 20 air yards — the common threshold for a “deep” pass — the 2021 class has four of the top six on-target percentages among quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2017. This also doesn’t include Trey Lance, whose FCS data isn’t there but might have the strongest raw arm in the class.
Top Final College Season Deep Passing On-Target% For First-Round Quarterbacks, 2016-2020
Does This Translate To The NFL?
A high on-target rate doesn’t necessarily translate to great deep production in the NFL as both Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield struggled some on deep passes early on in their careers. But with both Burrow and Mayfield the arm strength wasn’t necessarily the big selling point for either. Their arms were good but they were supremely accurate college passers who were also helped out by open schemed deep passes. They were accurate enough to take advantage, but some adjustment was needed at the level. The top quarterbacks in this class are all billed with plus arm strength, which can certainly help matters, but there are still ways the deep passing will have to adjust in the NFL.
Let’s start with a quarterback we can take from the most recent example of school-to-pros transition with Jones and Tua Tagovailoa. Knocks on both of these players as prospects include the supporting cast they got to throw to with wide-open windows that won’t exist as often in the pros.
That was absolutely the case with Tagovailoa in Miami this past season. During his final year at Alabama, Tagovailoa had an on-target rate of 64.9% on passes of at least 20 air yards, which was the second-best rate in last year’s draft class and would slot in just behind Fields’s 2020 in the table above.
But in a Miami offense that struggled along the offensive line and without a group of receivers who could naturally separate, Tagovailoa forced a lot of throws and his pin-point college accuracy wasn’t on display. Tagovailia’s on-target percentage on deep passes was 48.1%, which ranked 28th among 36 quarterbacks with at least 20 deep attempts last season. He was also one of six quarterbacks to throw at least 20% of his pass attempts into tight windows, according to Next Gen Stats, something he didn’t need to do much of at Alabama. (It should also be noted that rookies tend to overthrow into tight windows and Burrow was another one of the six at 21.5% in 2020.)
For Jones, perhaps more so than Tagovaolia, the impact of the players around him could impact how well his accuracy plays. Without the safety net of high-level mobility, Jones’s processing will need to be trusted for that accuracy, at all levels, to show.
The other quarterbacks in this class could potentially benefit from the structure of NFL offenses. Fields and Wilson were both asked to push the ball down the field at a high rate and carry the offenses through their arms, without much set up for yards after the catch.
Among 134 FBS quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in 2020, Fields had the 12th-highest air yards per completion (8.64) and the 10th-lowest percentage of passing yards that came after the catch (35%). Wilson’s air yards per completion ranked as the ninth-highest (8.85) with the 28th-lowest percentage of yards after the catch (40.8%), per SIS.
There are so few purely vertical offenses in the NFL now that both Fields and Wilson won’t be asked to rely on those deep passes so often. Their air yards per completion averages from this past season would have been first in the NFL by over a yard (7.57). The league averages for air yards per completion and percentage of passing yards after the catch were 5.82 and 47.4% among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
In 2020, the NFL saw its lowest percentage of passes travel at least 20 air yards over the past five years, but the efficiency was at its highest. That could help accurate deep passers like Fields and Wilson, who are also plus intermediate throwers (Fields’s 75% completion rate from 11-19 air yards is tops in the class).
By throwing deep less often but making those throws in smarter situations, both quarterbacks could be better positioned to pick their shots on deep throws while more short and intermediate passes are schemed open with opportunities for receivers to run. Wilson got some of that in the BYU wide zone play-action scheme, but Fields could benefit from a friendlier design on shorter passes, which could make his deep throws more effective.
Lawrence, on the other hand, could be able to capitalize on the opposite. There were times in early 2019 when Lawrence was bailed out by his receivers at Clemson — Tee Higgins deserves a lot of credit in that area — but the opposite was true in 2020.
As mentioned above, there was a huge gap between Lawrence’s on-target percentage and completion percentage on deep throws this past season. There was nearly a 30% difference in how accurate Lawrence was down the field (69.9% on-target rate) and how often he completed a pass (40.4%). Only five of 36 NFL quarterbacks with at least 20 deep attempts had more than a 20% difference between their on-target percentage and completion percentage. Only Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson had on-target rates over 50% with the other three mostly bad deep passers anyway with bad on-target rates turned into even worse completion percentages.
But as Lawrence already thrived in short and intermediate passes, he should get an added benefit from pro receivers down the field. If we can safely assume he ends up in Jacksonville, D.J. Chark could be a reliable target. In 2019 with steady quarterback play from Gardner Minshew, Chark had the fourth-highest completion percentage on catchable passes over 20 air yards among 28 receivers with at least 20 deep targets.
No success is guaranteed but the top of this quarterback class collectively has shown an ability to accurately throw deep that previous quarterback classes have seen with one or maybe two quarterbacks at a time. How those arms are complemented by the scheme, surrounding talent, and other responsibilities will be the key, but there might not be many limitations if these passers are asked to come in and sling it.