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Captain Checkdown: Examining NFL quarterbacks by their reliance on checkdown passes



Captain Checkdown: Examining NFL quarterbacks by their reliance on checkdown passes

Trevor Lawrence’s approach shifts: The Jags signal-caller produced the league’s highest checkdown rate (11.3%) after the 2021 season, but he has recorded the league’s lowest (3.7%) over the last two campaigns.

An unfamiliar environment hindered Russell Wilson’s production: In Denver, Wilson’s checkdown rate increased by more than four percentage points compared to his previous two-year sample in Seattle.

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Checkdown passes are an invaluable part of the modern passing game. 

When utilized correctly, they allow the quarterback to generate a positive play out of a negative situation. Good coverage or unexpected pressure can disrupt a play’s timing and take away the bigger play a passer wants to make, but those checkdowns allow signal-callers to make a positive play rather than throw the ball away or take a sack.

However, sometimes quarterbacks can become too keen to look toward their checkdown, rushing through progressions and failing to allow plays to develop. 

With the ever-changing landscape of passers around the league, we will explore which quarterbacks fall onto which side of the scale using a two-year sample (2022 and 2023).

Highest Checkdown Rate (Min. 300 dropbacks)

Wilson’s disappointing spell in Denver

A fresh start with a new franchise can net a wide array of results, but the outcome of Russell Wilson’s move to Denver was shocking, to say the least.

Wilson is the only quarterback in the league who exceeded a 10%-plus checkdown rate from 2022 to 2023. It was a far cry from his aggressive approach in Seattle, where he generated just a 5.8% checkdown rate through the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Derek Carr makes the list again

Every iteration of this list over the last six seasons has included Derek Carr, and this one is no different.

Carr has earned a reputation for being quick to check it down, but he has supplemented that with an aggressive approach downfield in recent years. Since 2022, 12.2% of his passes have traveled 20-plus yards downfield, and he ranks top-12 in average depth of target over that time (8.9 yards). 

Two of the league’s best

Surprisingly, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert also make this list. This presents an example of how external factors, like pass protection and separation—or lack thereof—can also affect metrics like this. 

Despite the additions along the Bengals’ offensive line, Burrow still felt the effects of poor pass protection. The Cincinnati front five surrendered a knockdown (sack or QB hit) on 9.8% of their dropbacks over the last two seasons, the ninth-highest rate in the league.

Similarly, Herbert dealt with protection breakdowns— L.A. allowed the fourth-most pressures since 2022—as well as injuries and major instability among his offensive weapons. The 2022 season was particularly tough for him, with key playmakers absent for stretches, leading to a sizable number of dump-offs to Austin Ekeler. That season, Herbert posted a rather large 10.86% checkdown rate. 

Lowest Checkdown Rate (Min. 300 dropbacks)

A shift in Lawrence’s approach

In his rookie year, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence recorded the league’s highest checkdown rate at 11.3%. His approach has shifted dramatically ever since, as he has the lowest checkdown rate in the league over the last two seasons.

Lawrence has been much more willing to look downfield since his rookie campaign, resulting in a 7.56% decrease in his checkdown percentage. Over the last two seasons, only Josh Allen has attempted more deep passes.

Jalen Hurts is still a playmaker

Jalen Hurts, who previously led the NFL with the lowest checkdown rate (3.3%) after the 2021 season, is again included in this list.

Hurts’ ability to improvise and create out of structure plays into this metric, as he often extends downs with his legs instead of taking a checkdown. Over the past two seasons, the Eagles quarterback ranks fourth in scramble attempts among players at the position, with 90 attempts.

The Falcons quarterbacks kept looking for big plays

Arthur Smith’s Falcons offenses struggled mightily to generate production despite employing a plethora of athletic playmakers. However, perhaps the lack of talent under center was the driving force behind Atlanta’s offensive struggles.

Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder both recorded sub-6.0% checkdown rates yet failed to surpass a 63.0 passing grade at the helm of Smith’s offense. From 2022 to 2023, Atlanta attempted deep passes at the seventh-highest rate in the NFL yet also ranked in the bottom 10 in off-target incompletions thrown (136).

Third Downs

Of course, third downs change a lot.

Quarterbacks can live to fight another day on first and second down, but third down is closer to a do-or-die situation, as there are significantly bigger consequences for coming up short of the sticks.

But how much does that change the rankings?

Highest Checkdown Rate (Min. 30 dropbacks)

A number of passers who didn’t reach the minimum dropback requirement for the overall lists did manage to qualify for this one, which unveiled some interesting observations. 

The Hackett effect?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this list includes several ex-Broncos and Jets signal-callers, all of whom were once coached by current Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

During Hackett’s time with Denver and New York over the last two seasons, his offenses featured six different starters under center, five of whom made this list.

While the revolving door at the game’s most important position will understandably limit cohesion, there is a clear throughline in this dataset that points to issues with scheme or approach. 

This past season, Jets quarterbacks combined for a 12.25% checkdown rate. Not one Jets passer—excluding Aaron Rodgersproduced a rate lower than 11%, with Tim Boyle leading the pack at over 15%.

A similar circumstance occurred the season before with Denver, where Brett Rypien and Russell Wilson combined for a weighty 9.6% checkdown rate.  

Lowest Checkdown Rate (Min. 30 dropbacks)

A rookie year for the history books

Metrics like this helped facilitate C.J. Stroud’s incredible Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign.

Of the nearly 70 passers to qualify for this list, Stroud stands as the only one to produce a sub-2.0% checkdown rate with over 100 third-down dropbacks.

The Texans rookie flashed his aggressiveness on late downs, targeting 63.2% of his passes beyond the sticks while earning an 84.7 passing grade on third down, second only to Patrick Mahomes during the 2023 regular season. 

A star is born

Given Jordan Love’s impressive development as a passer, it’s understandable to see him ranked highly on this list.

Matt LaFleur trusted Love on third downs, with the Packers quarterback recording the fourth-most third-down dropbacks (179) in 2023. In all, 73.0% of his total third-down yardage came via air yards, while he recorded an 11.9-yard average depth of target, both of which ranked highest among quarterbacks with at least 100 third-down dropbacks.

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