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By the Numbers

Who Are The NFL's True Gunslinger QBs?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: April 9, 2020, 1:46 pm ET

The limitless possibilities that exist during any given play of football has led to a plethora of different player types emerging over the years. So far there's little evidence that there's a better way of entertaining the masses than by having a gunslinger QB that declines to give a single f*ck about silly things like 'taking care of the football' during more plays than not.

Wikipedia defines a gunslinger as ...

"Term for a quarterback who plays in an aggressive and decisive manner by throwing deep, risky passes. These quarterbacks usually possess the strong arm needed to throw deep effectively."

I've always loved this QB archetype because these players are almost always fun to watch. Few moments are more enjoyable when watching football than when a ball is thrown so far that it briefly leaves the television screen. We've seen all-time greats such as Brett Favre literally make a career out of playing like a maniac, while busts like Johnny Manziel still at least provided a few moments of off-script goodness along the way.

You see, being a gunslinger QB doesn't necessarily have anything to do with being good.

We'll use the following five statistics to help define the league's "best" gunslinger QBs from 2019:

  • Average target depth (PFF): The number of yards downfield a QB throws on average, whether complete or incomplete.
  • Deep-ball rate (PFF): Percentage of passes that a QB attempts a throw of at least 20 yards downfield.
  • Aggressiveness rate (Next-Gen Stats): Tracks the amount of pass attempts a QB makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. Basically percentage of attempts into tight windows over all passing attempts.
  • Non-throwaway rate (Pro Football Reference): Percentage of pass attempts that don't end in the QB throwing the ball away out of bounds.
  • Combined Money Throws and Danger Plays (Player Profiler): Money Throws are, "A pass requiring exceptional skill or athleticism as well as critical throws executed in clutch moments." Danger Plays are, "Any play in which the QB lacked awareness or took an unnecessary risk that could have resulted in a turnover."

Our list includes the 39 QBs that had at least 150 dropbacks last season.

Top Gunslinger QBs from 2019

1. Matthew Stafford

Stafford absolutely soared in his first year with Darrell Bevell calling plays, as he put together arguably the finest eight-game stretch of his career before missing the second half of the season with a broken back.

It's amazing what an offense that doesn't almost purely consist of check-downs to Theo Riddick and Golden Tate can do for a guy.

Overall, Stafford led all QBs in average target depth, deep-ball rate and aggressiveness. The Lions were 3-4-1 in Stafford's eight starts with one extremely fluky loss against the Chiefs, and one borderline robbery vs. the Packers.

Don't sleep on Detroit making some noise in the NFC North in 2020 *if* Stafford can continue to efficiently shred defenses with downfield dimes to his various (talented) weapons all over the field. I love Stafford's +6600 MVP odds.

2. Jameis Winston

I described the essence of what makes Winston great in my breakdown of the 2019 Jameis Winston All-Star Team:

"Watching Jameis Winston play football always brings out a roller coaster of emotions, regardless of whether you're rooting for or against the 26-year-old QB.

This is because Winston is essentially the NFL's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One play will showcase the former No. 1 overall pick's rare willingness to sit in the pocket amidst chaos before unleashing and completing a rocket downfield into tight coverage. The next play could very well be an absurd pick-six that even rookies would be ashamed of.

Winston's masterpiece occurred in 2019, when he threw a pick-six on the last play of the season to register the first 30 TD/30 INT season in NFL history. It probably could've been even worse; he arguably had another 20 interceptions dropped.

And yet, Winston isn't exactly bad. His career average of 7.75 yards per attempt ranks 10th among 48 QBs to start at least 16 games since 2015. Winston is also No. 10 in passing touchdowns and No. 7 in passing yards during this stretch. Sure, Winston is 29th in QB Rating, dead last in interceptions, and tied for last in fumbles ... but he's also been the QB18 in fantasy points per game during his five-year career. Winston finished the 2019 season as fantasy's fifth-highest scoring QB.

Say what you will about the man's 28-42 record and consistent penchant for bone-headed turnovers, but he's as entertaining as any QB in the league for better and for worse."

Winston's 66 Danger Plays in 2019 were at least 15 more than any other QB. Here's to hoping that Jameis finds a way to start for someone in 2020.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick

Once Winston's "mentor", Fitzpatrick has made a career out of completing 50/50 bombs to talented big-bodied WRs. Just look at the seasons he's helped enable at the WR position over the years when given the chance to start even eight games:

  • 2019 DeVante Parker: 72 receptions-1,202 yards-9 TDs
  • 2015 Brandon Marshall: 109-1,502-14
  • 2015 Eric Decker: 80-1,027-12
  • 2014 DeAndre Hopkins: 76-1,210-6
  • 2014 Andre Johnson: 85-936-3
  • 2013 Kendall Wright: 94-1,079-2
  • 2013 Nate Washington: 58-919-3
  • 2012 Steve Johnson: 79-1,046-6
  • 2011 Johnson: 76-1,004-7
  • 2010 Johnson: 82-1,073-10
  • 2009 Terrell Owens: 55-829-5
  • 2008 T.J. Houshmandzadeh: 92-904-4

Adding to the legend of FitzMagic is his willingness to run. The man somehow led the Dolphins in rushing last season with 243 yards and four scores, racking up a notable highlight-worthy truck-stick along the way.

Fitzpatrick threw the ball away on just 7-of-502 pass attempts last season. No play is ever over in his mind. This has led to a boom-or-bust career in terms of production as well as wins and losses, but the 15-year veteran has also managed to stay plenty relevant deep into his 30s.

I don't think anybody will be disappointed about more FitzMagic in 2020 and beyond.

4. Russell Wilson

There aren't five better QBs than Wilson in today's NFL.

Sadly, the Seahawks have consistently limited Wilson both in terms of offensive line performance ...

  • 2019: 24th in adjusted sack rate; 22nd in dollars spent on the offensive line
  • 2018: 30th; 21st
  • 2017: 25th; 16th
  • 2016: 25th; 31st
  • 2015: 30th; 26th

... as well as passing volume. Overall, the Seahawks have ranked No. 3 and No. 2 in rushing attempts over the past two seasons since hiring much-maligned OC Brian Schottenheimer.

The only plausible reason why a team wouldn't let Wilson – one of six QBs ever to average at least eight adjusted yards per attempt – throw more often is because they're fearful for his health. While Wilson's never-say-quit style of play does lead to plenty of sacks ... but the man has never missed a game during his eight-year career.

I don't get it either.

Only Stafford attempted passes at least 20 yards downfield at a higher rate than Wilson last season. Unfortunately, we likely won't see Russ rank among the league's most pass-happy QBs anytime soon, but at least he has a habit of making nearly every dropback extremely enjoyable (and almost-always effective).

T5. Dak Prescott

Prescott has never seen a first-down line that he didn't believe he was capable of reaching, regardless of how big the defender in his path happens to be. This athleticism and general tackle-breaking ability has helped lead to the majority of Prescott's highlight plays and big moments. Cowboys fans surely remember him diving head over heels for the goal line on his way to converting a massive 3rd-and-14 in his only playoff win over the Seahawks back in 2018.

Dallas asked Dak to be a game-manager in his first few seasons under center, but 2019 saw Prescott largely replace Ezekiel Elliott as the engine of the offense. He presents a high floor and has flashed a tantalizing ceiling when everything is going right, which has basically been whenever the Cowboys have blessed him with a true No. 1 WR.

The Cowboys' franchise QB posted top-10 marks in average target depth (No. 5), non-throwaway rate (No. 7) as well as combined Money Throws and Danger Plays (No. 9) on his way to leading the NFL's most-efficient offense on a yards per play basis. The ceiling is the roof in 2020 with more than enough talent on offense for Prescott to make a legit MVP-type run if things click for long enough.

T5. Baker Mayfield

Only Winston (44) has more interceptions than Mayfield (35) over the past two seasons. Of course, the interceptions were less of an issue in 2018 when the former No. 1 overall pick was also pulling a rabbit or two out of his hat on a near-weekly basis.

The 2020 season featured more bad than good from Mayfield, but this didn't stop him from continuing his quest to be the millennial Favre. Overall, Mayfield posted top-10 marks in average target depth (No. 10), deep-ball rate (No. 8), aggressiveness (No. 9) as well as combined Money Throws and Danger Plays (No. 4).

The 2020 Browns' kryptonite was porous pass protection that seemed to eventually spook Mayfield out of his once-great poise under duress. Continued failure to build a competent group of big uglies won't be ideal, but fixing this offensive line could help spurn an offensive turnaround in a hurry.

Mayfield joins Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson as the only rookie QBs to throw at least 25 touchdowns. The Browns have arguably the best WR-WR-RB-RB-TE punch in the league. Don't sleep on this offense entering 2020 and looking like what we thought they'd look like in 2019.

Honorable Mention

  • Philip Rivers: He still managed to post a top-12 deep-ball rate, though most of those targets seemed to be questionable decisions given they were often haphazardly lofted into tight coverage. Rivers' 45 Danger Plays were tied for fifth among all QBs in 2019.
  • Daniel Jones: He had *18* fumbles in just 12 starts as a rookie. And yet, Jones was incredibly fun. Only Lamar Jackson (7) had more games with at least 30 fantasy points than Jones (3) at the QB position.
  • Carson Wentz: He tied with Rivers as the league's fifth-worst QB in terms of total Danger Plays in 2019. Wentz still flashes plenty of the same sort of off-script magic that made him the MVP-frontrunner in 2017 before getting injured, but more (any?) capable WRs are needed.
  • Deshaun Watson: He ranked fifth in Money Throws … and 12th in Danger Plays in 2019. The play is truly never dead with Watson under center. Still, it remains to be seen how productive the Texans Offense will be without the luxury of having DeAndre Hopkins on the other end of Watson's frequent downfield heaves.
  • Ryan Tannehill: He posted top-six marks in average target depth (No. 3), aggressiveness (No. 6) and non-throwaway rate (No. 6) in his first season with the Titans. TanneThrill worked as the league's most-efficient passer in virtually every-meaningful metric.

Best of the Rest

Dwayne Haskins (No. 12) was the league's second-most aggressive QB at throwing into tight windows ... Mitchell Trubisky (No. 14) had the lowest non-throwaway rate in the league ... Lamar Jackson (No. 15) was a top-10 passer in both average target depth and deep-ball rate ... Aaron Rodgers (No. 17) and Josh Allen (No. 18) join Jackson as high-volume downfield passers, but both ranked among the league's bottom-six QBs in non-throwaway rate ... Jared Goff (No. 23) was largely reluctant to throw downfield and/or into tight windows last season ... Patrick Mahomes (No. 25) can make pretty much any throw imaginable, but the Chiefs' combination of brilliant scheme and speedy play-makers resulted in Mahomes posting a bottom-four rate in tight-window throws ... Nobody threw downfield less often than Jimmy Garoppolo (No. 28) last season ... Kyler Murray (No. 30) needs better protection in order to get his deep-ball rate up in the Cardinals' quick-hitting passing game ... Tom Brady (No. 33) trailed only Devlin Hodges (No. 34) in non-throwaway rate ... Marcus Mariota (No. 37), Derek Carr (No. 38) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 39) finished as 2019's QBs that least represented what it means to be a gunslinger.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.