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Is a QB’s dropped-pass rate actually a reflection of his accuracy?

Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz
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If a QB has a high number of his passes dropped, is that actually an indictment on his own lack of accuracy?

The quality of a team’s pass-catchers is often referred to as an excuse for a quarterback’s lack of production or development. If a quarterback struggles and does not have a wide receiver duo akin to the 2015 New York Jets, or a skill position crew as explosive as the modern-day Kansas City Chiefs, many observers will give him a pass due to the lack of talent he has at his disposal on the outside.

One statistic that gives us a solid approximation of how much a quarterback is being hindered by his teammates is his dropped-pass rate: the percentage of his pass attempts that are dropped by the intended target. Pretty simple, right? How frequently is the quarterback being hung out to dry by his teammates?

On paper, this stat seems like a great tool to measure the quality of a quarterback’s support, but I’ve noticed a trend that suggests the contrary. Dropped-pass rate most certainly is a great tool – for evaluating the quarterback, not his support.

Take a look at the top-10 quarterbacks with the highest dropped-pass rates in 2020:

  1. Carson Wentz (10.7%)
  2. Daniel Jones (9.4%)
  3. Drew Lock (9.0%)
  4. Andy Dalton (8.9%)
  5. Tua Tagovailoa (8.8%)
  6. Jimmy Garoppolo (8.7%)
  7. Ben Roethlisberger (8.7%)
  8. Lamar Jackson (8.3%)
  9. Baker Mayfield (7.9%)
  10. Sam Darnold (7.7%)

That is a poor group of quarterbacks. Of the 10, only Jackson (12th) and Mayfield (17th) had a passer rating that ranked in the league’s top-20 out of 41 qualifiers. The average ranking of the group: 28.4.

If we look at the top-10 quarterbacks who most frequently suffered from drops in 2019, we notice the same trend:

  1. David Blough (13.8%)
  2. Marcus Mariota (11.2%)
  3. Josh Allen (10.0%)
  4. Dak Prescott (10.0%)
  5. Dwayne Haskins (9.2%)
  6. Ryan Fitzpatrick (9.1%)
  7. Jacoby Brissett (9.0%)
  8. Mason Rudolph (8.8%)
  9. Andy Dalton (8.7%)
  10. Tom Brady (8.4%)

Prescott (10th) and Mariota (15th) are the only players in that group who ranked among the top half in passer rating.

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Move back one more year to 2018, and it’s the same story:

  1. Blake Bortles (11.3%)
  2. Jeff Driskel (11.0%)
  3. Josh Allen (10.6%)
  4. C.J. Beathard (9.7%)
  5. Sam Darnold (9.5%)
  6. Joe Flacco (9.4%)
  7. Josh Rosen (9.2%)
  8. Case Keenum (9.2%)
  9. Cody Kessler (8.6%)
  10. Andy Dalton (8.5%)

None of those quarterbacks even ranked among the top-25 in passer rating.

Should we keep it going? Let’s head back to 2017. Get ready, there are some ugly names on here:

  1. Brock Osweiler (13.5%)
  2. Drew Stanton (13.2%)
  3. Brian Hoyer (11.5%)
  4. C.J. Beathard (11.5%)
  5. Eli Manning (10.9%)
  6. DeShone Kizer (10.5%)
  7. Blaine Gabbert (10.4%)
  8. Jacoby Brissett (10.1%)
  9. Derek Carr (9.8%)
  10. Matt Ryan (9.0%)

Once again, this is a very bad group of quarterbacks. Ryan is the only one who ranked among the top half in passer rating, and he only placed 17th that year.

So, of the 40 quarterbacks to rank top 10 in dropped-pass rate in a given season over the past four years, only five of them (12.5%) ranked among the league’s top half in passer rating. Only one (Prescott in 2019) ranked in the top 10.

Sure, you would expect a high number of dropped passes to lay a significant hit to a quarterback’s statistical production, limiting his ability to climb the passer rating leaderboard, but this trend still holds up when we look at metrics that add context.

Only nine of the 40 quarterbacks listed above (22.5%) ranked in the top half of Pro Football Focus’s passing grade, which grades the quarterback’s throwing performance individually and independent of his surroundings. Only eight of them (20.0%) ranked in the top half of adjusted completion percentage, which counts drops as completions and also removes throwaways, spikes, and batted passes.

There’s clearly a trend here. Dropped-pass rate tends to have an inverse relationship with overall performance quality. If a quarterback has a high drop rate, he most likely is not a good player.

Take a look at Josh Allen. His dropped-pass rate has directly correlated with his performance. In both 2018 and 2019, he was not a good quarterback, ranking outside the top-25 in each of net yards per pass attempt, overall PFF grade, and adjusted completion percentage. He had the league’s third-highest dropped-pass rate in both seasons. In 2020, he made the jump to superstar status. Where did he rank in dropped-pass rate? Way down at 30th out of 41, sandwiched between Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Carson Wentz is another player who has seen a correlation between his dropped-pass rate and his success. Here is how Wentz’s drop rate has compared to his performance over the years:

  • 2016: 8.7% drop rate, 79.3 passer rating, 68.3 PFF passing grade
  • 2017: 7.3% drop rate, 101.9 passer rating, 84.7 PFF passing grade
  • 2018: 7.0% drop rate, 102.2 passer rating, 78.5 PFF passing grade
  • 2019: 7.8% drop rate, 92.7 passer rating, 75.4 PFF passing grade
  • 2020: 10.7% drop rate, 72.8 passer rating, 60.0 PFF passing grade

The higher Wentz’s dropped-pass rate has gone, the worse he has played, and vice versa.

What gives? How can a high number of dropped passes be a sign that a quarterback is playing worse football on an individual level?

It comes down to this: a substantial portion of passes that are labeled as “drops” are largely the quarterback’s fault. As they are tracked by most outlets, drops are often tallied on plays in which the quarterback throws a less-than-perfect ball. So, naturally, a quarterback who throws a lot of less-than-perfect balls will have a greater percentage of his passes “dropped,” thus making his dropped-pass rate a reflection of his accuracy.

Here are a few examples of passes that were labeled as “drops” coming on inaccurate throws, exemplifying why high drop rates correlate with bad accuracy and overall performance.

Let’s take a look at Wentz, who suffered from drops more frequently than any other quarterback in 2020. This pass was tagged as a drop by tight end Dallas Goedert.

Is this a catchable ball? Yes. Should Goedert make that catch? Yes. But is this good ball placement by Wentz? No. There’s enough grass available over the middle of the field to build a three-bedroom house with a decent-sized backyard. Wentz needs to lead Goedert in-stride for an easy grab. Goedert shouldn’t have to stop and contort backward to make the catch. Both parties are at fault here.

Here’s another pass from Wentz that wasn’t very good but was labeled as a drop.

Can Alshon Jeffery make that grab? Of course. But that’s not where the ball is supposed to be on that route. Wentz needed to put that ball directly on Jeffery, either on the numbers for a body catch or up high where he could stab at it (ideally the latter). Where Wentz placed it, low-and-outside, that would have been an excellent catch by Jeffery.

Sam Darnold ranked 10th in the league with a 7.7% drop rate in 2020, which is very close to his eighth-worst ranking in overall accuracy, as he placed 34th out of 41 qualifiers with an adjusted completion percentage of 72.5%. He had his share of dropped passes that he deserved some blame for.

Darnold is late to get the ball to Jamison Crowder, buying time for the safety to break downhill and tip the pass. This ball was obviously deflected, but Crowder still got credited with a drop for some reason. Darnold should have gotten that ball out earlier to make the catch an easy one for Crowder, but instead, we get another example of the quarterback creating a “drop” by putting the receiver in a difficult situation.

Like the Wentz plays above, this throw by Darnold is an example of an instance where the receiver is certainly at fault for dropping a pass that is uncontested and hits his two hands, but the quarterback makes the catch more difficult than it has to be by throwing a less-than-ideal ball.

Would you like for Breshad Perriman to make this catch? Yes. This is routine stuff. Bad play by Perriman. But at the same time, Darnold has to be more accurate on such an easy throw. From a clean pocket (he does take a hit after the throw, but his windup and release are unhindered) and with nobody in the throwing lane, Darnold places the ball above Perriman’s head on a 10-yard curl against soft coverage.

Whenever the ball placement on a throw is imperfect, the odds of the receiver botching the play increase dramatically. This is solid “general” accuracy by Darnold (just putting the ball somewhere where the receiver can get his hands on it) but when you lack pinpoint accuracy (placing the ball in the absolute most optimal spot for the receiver’s job to be as easy as possible), missed opportunities like the one above will stack up over the course of the season at a greater rate than quarterbacks who make perfect throws more consistently.

Sure, Perriman should have made that catch. If you replayed that play a million times, he would make it most of the time.

But picture it this way: you have two quarterbacks. Quarterback A throws 10 “good enough” passes like the one above. Quarterback B throws 10 “perfect” passes. Most likely, quarterback A will get seven or eight completions. His receivers will catch passes like the one above in most situations, but due to the increased difficulty, not always. On the other hand, quarterback B will probably get nine or 10 completions. The occasional blunder will be there, but if he usually places the ball exactly where it should be, the receiver’s job is made easier and he will mess up less often.

Knocking Darnold or Wentz for one imperfect throw is silly, but there’s a reason their drop rates are so high. It’s because their accuracy is imperfect more often than most other quarterbacks. And when your accuracy is shaky, the missed opportunities add up. Even if many of those missed opportunities could often be considered “drops,” those “drops” would happen less often if the quarterback were more accurate. That’s why the quarterbacks with the highest drop rates tend to be the league’s bottom-feeders, with a few exceptions.

The final takeaway? If you ever see someone share the dropped-pass rates of a quarterback, think twice about what the number means. It absolutely could mean precisely what it looks like it means (that his team simply had bad pass-catchers), but it also could be an indictment of his own accuracy.

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3 years ago

The fundamental premise of this article is very interesting. I am sure that many people did not think of using the stat of dropped balls to evaluate the QB as much as the receiver.

That said, I think it can be taken too far.

Take Josh Allen. While the Bills, Daboll, and Josh Allen all deserve credit for the improvement in Allen’s play, part of that improvement is undoubtedly due to the addition of Stefon Diggs, who is pretty good at catching balls.

Similarly, while Darnold’s performance in 2020 was not good, it is not hard to imagine that if he was throwing to Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley while Josh Allen was throwing to Perriman and Cager then the narrative of the two QBs would be quite different.

I also think that it is unfair to completely ignore the complete decline of the Eagles WR corps when assessing Wentz. Like Darnold, Wentz deserves criticism, but he had no targets.

3 years ago

A wee bit of over analyzing. Josh Allen proves it. Last year Allen had a better receiving corps, thus fewer drops, higher passer rating! Don’t over analyze, it leads to dubious conclusions.