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Next Gen Stats' top 10 NFL deep passers of 2022: Geno Smith, Tua Tagovailoa excel at airing it out

The deep pass is one of the most aesthetically pleasing events in sports. A quarterback drops back while his intended target streaks down the field, awaiting a rainbow toss with the hopes of producing a game-changing play.

The appeal of the deep pass is easy to understand. Quantifying the deep pass, however, can become complicated.

Have no fear; I'm returning to do just that. My annual tradition of ranking the NFL's deep passers continues, and as I did in 2022, I'll be relying on a handful of metrics, both traditional and advanced, to sort out the best big-armed throwers of pro football.

The key metrics of this exercise -- expected completion percentage and completion percentage above expectation -- might not sound familiar. Here's a quick explainer:

  • xComp (expected completion percentage): a quarterback's average "completion probability," which represents the aggregate level of difficulty of a set of pass attempts.
  • CPOE (completion percentage above expectation): the difference between a quarterback's actual completion percentage and expected completion percentage, controlling for the level of difficulty of each pass.

These metrics and passing score (a metric that takes into account controllable factors and performance relative to league-average expectation; see an explainer here if you'd like) are the basis of my rankings. We were able to use passing score for the first time a year ago, and now that we have two seasons' worth of data at our disposal, we can gain an even better understanding of how well the league's top quarterbacks performed when throwing passes of 20-plus air yards.

Using these numbers (and minimum requirements of 15 deep attempts and a passer rating of 90 or better), let's sort out the best deep passers of 2022, presented below in reverse order:

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Mac Jones, New England Patriots; Taylor Heinicke, Washington Commanders (now with the Atlanta Falcons); Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · Age 27
  • Deep attempts: 29-of-75, 1,028 yards, 10:5 TD-INT, 98.2 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 38.7%
  • Deep xComp: 37.4%
  • Deep CPOE: +1.3%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 93

This was a close call between two quarterbacks with very different reputations. Allen tied with AFC East rival Mac Jones in deep passing score, while Jones posted a better deep CPOE (+4.6%) than Allen. 

The major difference, though, appeared in deep passing EPA, one of the most important metrics as it relates to passing score: Allen's mark (+35.9) blew Jones' (+13.9) out of the water. Anyone who watched the Bills and Patriots will surely nod in agreement with these figures, which make it clear Allen was exponentially better at producing game-changing plays on downfield throws.

Allen's numbers are also a product of persistence. He launched more deep passes than any NFL QB who qualified for this list, and he still managed to post a fairly solid EPA per dropback of +0.48. The 10 touchdowns are a product of a big-armed quarterback showing it off at a higher rate than anyone else in the league. All that leaves me wondering what his numbers might look like if Allen had an elite No. 2 receiver in Buffalo opposite Stefon Diggs.

Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals · Age 26
  • Deep attempts: 19-of-48, 668 yards, 8:1 TD-INT, 118.1 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 39.6%
  • Deep xComp: 30.3%
  • Deep CPOE: +9.3%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 96

Burrow's numbers are comparable to those of the QB at No. 8 -- they own a similar deep passing EPA per dropback, faced nearly identical pressure rates on such attempts and posted similar average gains per deep attempt. But that's where the similarities end. While Burrow's 8:1 ratio on deep attempts is sterling, it doesn't quite stack up against the 11 deep passing touchdowns recorded by the eighth-place finisher, who also separated himself with a superior passing score on deep throws. Otherwise, Burrow's deep passing stat line is very solid for a quarterback who is (rightfully) on track to be paid at an elite rate.

One surprise from Burrow's production in 2022: the player he threw to most downfield. Many might expect that to be Ja'Marr Chase, who led the Bengals in overall targets in each of the past two seasons, but it was actually Tee Higgins. Burrow and Higgins connected on 50 percent of their 18 deep attempts, accounting for 328 of Burrow's 668 deep passing yards and nearly half of Burrow's deep passing touchdowns. They were a dynamite duo, producing a passer rating of 135.4 and a CPOE of +19.5% on deep throws. In case you didn't already know, the Bengals' passing game is about more than just Burrow and Chase.

Derek Carr
New Orleans Saints (Raiders in '22) · Age 32
  • Deep attempts: 22-of-61, 799 yards, 11:4 TD-INT, 96.5 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 36.1%
  • Deep xComp: 32.6%
  • Deep CPOE: +3.5%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 98

When I first looked at these numbers, my immediate thought was overly simplistic: Davante Adams must get so open, Carr doesn't have many opportunities to complete passes that exceed expectation, leading to the relatively low CPOE figure above.

I was wrong. Carr exceeded expectation on deep passes to Adams at a rate of +11.3%. The duo was incredibly effective, accounting for 465 of Carr's 799 deep passing yards and eight of his 11 deep touchdown passes. Carr's CPOE was pulled down by attempts thrown in the direction of two other players: Hunter Renfrow (-21.7%) and Mack Hollins (-9.2%), the latter of whom caught just three of 16 deep targets on the year.

In fact, Carr's place on this list is largely owed to his work with Adams, who helped produce most of Carr's deep passing success while earning a first-team All-Pro selection thanks to a 1,516-yard, 14-touchdown season. Of Carr's +33.8 deep passing EPA, +29.2 came on targets to Adams.

In summary: Carr can produce at a high level when targeting elite receivers. He knows how to put it on them. Now, the question is whether he can replicate that success with a Saints receiving corps that features two premier pass-catchers (Chris Olave and Michael Thomas). If he can, he'll end up on this list again next summer.

Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos · Age 34
  • Deep attempts: 26-of-73, 1,008 yards, 6:2 TD-INT, 99.8 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 35.6%
  • Deep xComp: 33.7%
  • Deep CPOE: +1.9%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

This one shocked me, and I suspect it will shock others, as well. When I started this exercise, I didn't think Wilson would have much of a chance at ending up in the top 10, primarily because, well, he had a bad season. But despite the wide-ranging problems with Denver's offense in 2022, Wilson was surprisingly effective when it came to airing it out.

He finished with the second-most deep attempts and passing yards of any qualifying quarterback, with a significantly better TD-to-INT ratio than he put up on non-deep throws (10:9). Wilson deserves credit for posting these numbers despite being pressured on nearly 40 percent of deep attempts.

Of course, one of the reasons he was pressured so much when going deep is likely that he tended to hang on to the ball too long and played slower than usual in 2022. I'm not trying to rewrite history here. We all suffered enough when watching the Broncos' offense last season to know things weren't exactly great. Even when throwing deep, Wilson wasn't elite, as reflected by his CPOE on deep threats, which helped pull him into the lower half of this group. However, one cannot deny that Wilson put points and yards on the board with his passes downfield.

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Age 27
  • Deep attempts: 21-of-53, 744 yards, 1:0 TD-INT, 93.5 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 39.6%
  • Deep xComp: 35.6%
  • Deep CPOE: +4%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

In 2020, Kansas City's offense executed so effectively that Mahomes' CPOE on deep throws was not high enough for him to crack the top 10 of this ranking. That changed in 2021, when a CPOE on deep attempts of +4.2% helped land him at No. 6, the same spot he occupies here after posting a similar mark in that metric in 2022.

The Chiefs' attack went deep at a rate comparable to most other offenses, as evidenced by Mahomes' 53 downfield attempts. They just didn't score as much on such attempts as other teams, which helped keep Mahomes in the bottom five. That's surely fine with the team -- after all, deep passes alone don't win NFL MVP awards, and ranking high on the summertime list of some writer won't help secure another Lombardi Trophy.

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · Age 34
  • Deep attempts: 24-of-51, 862 yards, 5:4 TD-INT, 93.4 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 47.1%
  • Deep xComp: 38.6%
  • Deep CPOE: +8.5%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

Cousins has long been an underappreciated talent at quarterback among analysts and fans, but the Next Gen Stats have always given this advanced-metrics stud his due. Despite facing pressure on 43.1 percent of his deep attempts in 2022, Cousins racked up yardage and touchdown totals that landed him in the 99 club in terms of passing score, just like Mahomes -- and Cousins' CPOE pushed him past the reigning NFL MVP on this list.

Cousins' downfield success wasn't just about Justin Jefferson; four of his deep TD connections were with other pass-catchers. But Jefferson did a lot to get Cousins to No. 5 here, accounting for 61.7 percent of Cousins' downfield yards. The two hooked up 15 times for 532 yards and one touchdown on downfield passes, posting an incredible CPOE of +31.3%, a figure that was undoubtedly helped by Jefferson's phenomenal one-handed grab on fourth-and-18 in Week 10 against Buffalo. (That 32-yard play added 4.11 EPA and overcame a completion probability of 28.8 percent.) The CPOE mark was far and away the best in the category among qualifying quarterback-receiver duos. 

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · Age 29
  • Deep attempts: 14-of-35, 484 yards, 5:1 TD-INT, 115.2 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 40%
  • Deep xComp: 29.7%
  • Deep CPOE: +10.3%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

Last offseason, the Cowboys traded Amari Cooper to Cleveland, hurting the overall strength of their receiving corps while creating salary-cap solvency. Unsurprisingly, Prescott's numbers dipped in 2022. If you need one metric that illustrates a lack of downfield effectiveness from Dallas' passing game as a whole, look at Prescott's expected completion percentage on deep attempts, which fell short of 30. This suggests the Cowboys' lack of firepower helped opposing defenses limit Dallas' downfield opportunities.

Prescott's ability to overcome disadvantages on deep throws is a big part of what landed him at No. 4 here. Among the quarterbacks on this list, Prescott finished with the third-highest completion percentage over expected. His TD-to-INT ratio on such attempts boosted his EPA to +28.9 on deep attempts. The gross totals weren't gaudy; Prescott was the only quarterback in this ranking to fall short of 500 yards on deep attempts (keep in mind that he missed five games last season due to injury). But he was still highly productive despite having just one pass-catcher (CeeDee Lamb) log more than two deep catches last season.

Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · Age 24
  • Deep attempts: 20-of-52, 780 yards, 10:2 TD-INT, 109.8 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 38.5%
  • Deep xComp: 29.1%
  • Deep CPOE: +9.4%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

Hurts landing here shouldn't surprise anyone. As quarterback of the NFL's third-ranked offense, he accounted for a large number of Eagles highlights in 2022. He fit in seamlessly with his team's major acquisition from last offseason, receiver A.J. Brown, powering the ninth-best passing offense in the league.

Hurts was stellar in every area of the game, including throwing downfield, breaking double digits in deep touchdown passes -- an accomplishment only half of the quarterbacks on this list can claim. But he trailed Prescott in deep CPOE and passer rating. So why did Hurts end up ranked ahead of the Cowboys QB? Well, with so many players deadlocked at 99 in passing score, the best way to separate them was by diving deeper into the categories that help determine that metric. In EPA, which factors heavily into passing score, Hurts (37.3) was clearly better than Prescott (28.9), producing nearly 10 more expected points added, thanks to his 10:2 TD-INT ratio, which doubled Prescott's output with only 17 more such attempts. Hurts also gained nearly 300 more yards on deep attempts than Prescott, although that is a result of Hurts' advantage in volume.

Ultimately, points are what win you games. Hurts helped his team in that category more than Prescott, giving him a narrow edge over his Dallas counterpart after a season in which the teams split their matchups.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · Age 25
  • Deep attempts: 27-of-50, 891 yards, 10:2 TD-INT, 122.1 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 54%
  • Deep xComp: 43.6%
  • Deep CPOE: +10.4%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

The first half of Tagovailoa's season sure was special. In Weeks 1-9, Tagovailoa completed 15-of-25 deep attempts for 480 yards, a 5:2 TD-to-INT ratio, a 110.4 passer rating, a 97 passing score and a CPOE of +14.7%. His EPA per deep-pass dropback was an eye-popping +1.27. 

This is where you're expecting me to tell you everything fell apart, given the additional time Tagovailoa missed with concussion issues and Miami's reduced output over a 3-5 stretch to finish the season. But the QB's numbers don't quite fit that narrative: It turns out his performance didn't vary significantly when comparing the two halves of 2022. The biggest difference in his deep-passing stats the rest of the way ended up being in CPOE, in which Tagovailoa dropped by more than eight percentage points. Otherwise, he posted a perfect 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio from Week 10 on. In other words, he was good -- really good -- at throwing deep throughout the season, finishing as the only qualifying quarterback in the entire NFL with a deep passing EPA per dropback over 1. 

If not for the spectacular year of the top QB on this list, Tagovailoa would have been No. 1. Second place isn't too bad, either.

Geno Smith
Seattle Seahawks · Age 32
  • Deep attempts: 24-of-51, 719 yards, 13:2 TD-INT ratio, 116.6 passer rating
  • Deep comp: 47.1%
  • Deep xComp: 33.8%
  • Deep CPOE: +13.2%
  • PASSING SCORE (on deep attempts): 99

Smith certainly didn't earn 2022 Comeback Player of the Year honors by playing it safe. The veteran let it rip plenty, completing nearly 50 percent of his downfield passes for over 700 yards, a good chunk of his 4,282 yards for the season. 

These numbers are all impressive, but what vaulted Smith up to the top spot was just how productive he was when throwing deep. Nearly half of Smith's 30 touchdown passes came on deep passes, and his 13 downfield scores led all quarterbacks. This rate of success was stellar: 25.4 percent of Smith's deep attempts produced touchdowns in 2022.

With this in mind, it's easy to see how he finished with a deep passing EPA of +42.3. Going deep was highly rewarding for the Seahawks with Smith at the controls, helping him finish third in passer rating on such attempts. Add in a CPOE of +13.2% -- which leads all quarterbacks on this list -- and it's easy to see why he was the best deep passer of the season.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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