There’s nothing better on a football field than a deep pass that connects. Whether it’s the drama of the ball’s path slightly leaving the screen on TV or the brief moment inside the stadium when everyone in attendance holds their collective breath. The unknown of the ball in flight only adds to the anticipation and there’s no better feeling than when the ball lands safely in a receiver’s hands.
Deep passes are becoming more frequent and the best teams are taking advantage. Because of that, teams have been on the lookout for players who can win down the field and there has been a new wave of young deep threats thrust upon the league. Today we’re going to look at a few of the most valuable players in this area of the field and how they’ve been able to generate success.
D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars
A 2018 second-round pick who only saw 32 targets during his rookie season, Chark has become one of the league’s best deep threats. He’s already surpassed his production from last season just five weeks into the season and has become one of the league’s best deep threats.
Chark not only leads all receivers in Expected Points Added on targets at least 20 yards down the field, but it’s doing it with a high success rate. Per Sports Info Solutions, 72% of Chark’s 20-plus air yard targets have resulted in positive EPA. That’s an insane level of success for someone getting targeted deep down the field often.
Defenders have recognized Chark’s ability to run past corners and have already reacted by playing off him more at the line of scrimmage. Per Next Gen Stats, Chark has the seventh-highest average cushion at the line of scrimmage among receivers and tight ends with at least 15 targets. There’s also a big split between how defenses played him in Weeks 2 and 3 (cushion of 6.9 and 4.5 yards) to Weeks 4 and 5 (9.8 and 7.5 yards).
The Jaguars have also already started to adjust to that extra cushion off the line. On Chark’s 37-yard touchdown against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, the Jaguars aligned him in the slot and cornerback Ross Cockrell played nine yards off of Chark. That cushion allowed Chark to cross the field from the slot and get natural leverage on Cockrell, who was never able to catch up.
Go-to move: Fade
Per SIS charting, four of Chark’s 11 20-plus air yard targets have come on deep fades with another target on a back-shoulder fade. The success on these plays lends to Chark’s ability to get behind a defender to create a window and the trust he’s already established with quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew is sixth in on-target percentage among 29 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of 20 yards or more in the air.
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
There was an active conversation during draft season about the pro prospects of Metcalf. He was a big, strong, fast man who appeared to struggle with some of the nuances of the receiver position. A bad three-cone time didn’t help project the bend necessary to run pro-level routes. Still, Metcalf was incredibly dangerous when asked to run straight down the field. The Seahawks took Metcalf in the second round and so far have mostly asked him to run straight down the field. To this point, it’s worked out pretty well.
Metcalf is fourth in EPA on 20-plus air yard targets despite being 14th in the number of such targets. Only two receivers — DeVante Parker and Chris Conley — have been targeted at a deeper average depth than Metcalf has this season, per Next Gen Stats. He’s found himself in the perfect offense for his skillset. When Seattle isn’t running the ball on first or second down, Russell Wilson is usually bailing out those early down run decisions by chucking the ball down the field. Wilson might have the best deep ball in the league and Metcalf has already been a beneficiary of Wilson’s ability and willingness to go deep.
When paired with Tyler Lockett, who had been Seattle’s top deep threat, it makes it almost impossible for a defense to defend, especially if playing with a single-high safety. That’s what happened against the Rams this past Thursday night. The Seahawks came out in 12 personnel with Lockett on one side and Metcalf on the other. Seattle used play-action, which drew in the box safety to Metcalf’s side. Lockett’s deep route drew the attention of the deep safety while Marcus Peters expected safety help and trailed Metcalf as he crossed the field. By the time either safety reacted to Metcalf, there was no way they could catch him.
Go-to move: Being bigger, stronger, and faster than the defender
The lack of nuance at the position has definitely played out so far in Metcalf’s career, but it hasn’t mattered. Metcalf isn’t an all-world route-runner, but he’s not being asked to be. The Seahawks identified what he does well and have asked him to do it often. Metcalf is tied for the most targets on “go” routes with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans with five. So five of eight of Metcalf’s deep targets have been on straight go routes and it’s worked. Those five targets have resulted in three catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Seattle has also gotten Metcalf into better situations by matching him up against smaller slot defenders. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2, the Seahawks put Metcalf in the middle of the trips side of a 3×2 empty set from 12 personnel. Because of how the defense matched up with personnel, Metcalf was lined up against safety Terrell Edmunds, who had no shot at stopping the receiver.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Ridley is tied for seventh with 10 targets of at least 20 air yards and is tied with Chark for the league lead with three touchdowns on those passes. He has been targeted deep more often and has been more productive on those passes than teammate Julio Jones. Ridley is only fourth on the Falcons in targets, but he has carved out his role in an offense that has been much better than Atlanta’s record would suggest. Ridley, Jones, and Mohamed Sanu are all in the top-20 of receiving EPA per SIS.
Ridley is 10th among receivers in average depth of target per Next Gen Stats and, like Chark, defenses have started to plan against Ridley’s ability to get down the field. His average cushion against defenders is 7.7 yards, the fourth-highest mark in the league.
Go-to move: Playing off the cushion
What Ridley has done, especially over the past two weeks, is make defenses pay for respecting his speed. With corners playing back, Ridley has started to take advantage of the space given to him by breaking his routes off in front of the defender. He’s the only player with multiple targets and receptions on outs at least 20 yards down the field. He’s a smooth enough route runner to make the cuts and create an open window before the sideline for Matt Ryan. He’s also fast enough where if defenders start to press again, he can just run by them.
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins
McLaurin has been a do-it-all player for Washington and its passing game. Only Adam Thielen, Michael Thomas, and Robby Anderson have a higher share of their team’s air yards than McLaurin, a player who has already missed a game due to injury.
The biggest problem with McLaurin’s receiving output has been the quarterback play holding it back. McLaurin is just 60th among receivers by EPA on 20-plus air yard targets and only has a 25% positive play rate, but Sports Info Solutions tracks a stat called Points Earned, which is EPA with division of credit split between players and McLaurin is third in that stat among all receivers on deep passes. Of McLaurin’s eight deep targets, only three have been considered catchable.
The opportunities are there, but he’ll need more consistent quarterback play in order for those passes to connect.
Go-to move: Deep post
McLaurin leads the league on post targets 20 yards or more down the field and that’s where he’s done most of his damage. His 69-yard touchdown in Week 1 came on a post and he had another 27-yard catch on the route against Dallas in Week 2.