Which QBs Make the Most on-Target and Least Pickable Throws?
Because stats like completion percentage and QB rating don’t tell the whole story, we examine what well-thrown and pickable pass percentages tell us about which quarterbacks make the most on-target throws and which are best at avoiding pickable passes.
Not only is quarterback considered to be the most valuable position in the NFL, some believe it’s the most important in all of sports.
As with most traditional counting stats, there can be a number of factors that make it difficult to compare players. The most notable ones being a team’s offensive system and the talent surrounding the quarterback on the field. Now it’s possible to remove all extraneous factors and use event-based analysis to evaluate a player’s skill and performance.
In this case, there are two primary metrics that evaluate a quarterback’s arm talent. The first measures how well he can make on-target throws and the second assesses how effective he is at keeping the ball out of the hands of defenders.
One of the most revealing QB metrics is well-thrown percentage (WT%), which uses extensive data to measure how often quarterbacks make an on-target throw. WT% is completely independent of the result of the play and doesn’t consider the decision-making ability of the quarterback at all.
In other words, a QB can throw an interception on a well-thrown ball that was placed into heavy coverage, just as the QB can pick up a completion on a poorly thrown ball that forced his receiver to make a one-handed catch.
Philip Rivers and Drew Brees announced their retirements after ranking in the top five in WT%. Brees is widely considered the most accurate passer in NFL history, and an 81.0 WT% proved he hadn’t lost his touch.
So which NFL rookies might excel in this area? Well, top overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence, who is expected to start for Jacksonville Jaguars from Day 1, led all Power Five (including BYU) quarterbacks with a WT% of 84.3 in 2020. Former Alabama QB Mac Jones, who is competing with Cam Newton for the New England Patriots starting job, ranked second at 83.2.
Justin Fields isn’t expected to start right away for the Chicago Bears after finishing ninth among Power Five QBs with at least 200 pass attempts with a WT% of 80.2. Zach Wilson, though, is set to take over under center for the New York Jets after ranking 13th at 78.7. Sam Ehlinger is battling to replace the injured Carson Wentz in Indianapolis after he didn’t fare well in making on-target throws for Texas last year, ending up below the Power Five average (75.4) at 73.6.
Much like WT%, pickable pass percentage (PKP%) removes the result of the play and only looks at how often a QB throws a pass that could be intercepted. Passes are considered “pickable” any time a quarterback makes a throw that could or should have been intercepted by the defense, regardless of if it was actually intercepted, incomplete, or caught by the receiver.
Note that this does NOT count throws that are deflected, dropped, or could otherwise lead to an interception that isn’t the quarterback’s fault.
It’s interesting to note that Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins were the only quarterbacks in the top five in both categories last season. And it’s probably not a surprise to see Tom Brady on this list after a resurgent first season in Tampa Bay in which he led the Buccaneers to an upset win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
Rodgers, who was named NFL MVP, enjoyed one of his best seasons with career highs in completion percentage (70.7) and touchdowns (48) while only throwing five interceptions.
A year after he had 26 TDs and six picks while posting a career-high 107.4 passer rating, Cousins finished with a career-best 35 passing scores and 13 picks on the way to a 105.0 passer rating in 2020. It’s the first time he’s had passer ratings over 100 in back-to-back seasons.
At the college level, Zach Wilson may have not have been elite in making on-target throws but he led all Power Five QBs with at least 200 attempts with a sparkling 1.2 PKP%. Ehlinger similarly finished seventh at 2.2, while Mac Jones ranked 10th (2.5), Lawrence was 14th (3.4) and Fields was 19th (3.7). The league average for Power Five QBs was 4.2.