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Captain Checkdown: The quarterbacks who most and least rely on checkdown passes

Checkdown passes are not inherently bad — in many cases, they can be very useful. If nothing is open downfield and the pocket starts to collapse, checkdown passes allow a quarterback to turn a busted play into something positive.

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The issues arise — and where the label “Captain Checkdown” begins to be thrown around as a pejorative — when quarterbacks start to lean too heavily into that easy way out, eschewing difficult passes into tight coverage in favor of taking the safe but toothless option.

Let's look at the quarterbacks who lean heavily on the checkdown in favor of plays that would have a far greater impact on moving the chains.

To get a large enough sample size, we’re going to look at two years worth of PFF data.

Highest Two-Year Checkdown Rates | 2018-19
Rank Player Tot. Attempts Checkdowns Checkdown %
1 Blake Bortles 421 56 13.3%
2 Mason Rudolph 305 32 10.5%
3 Derek Carr 1119 115 10.3%
4 Gardner Minshew 506 51 10.1%
5 Philip Rivers 1266 121 9.6%
6 Eli Manning 759 72 9.5%
7 Deshaun Watson 1201 107 8.9%
8 Alex Smith 345 30 8.7%
9 Case Keenum 899 75 8.3%
10 Andrew Luck 748 61 8.2%

The NFL’s reigning checkdown king is Blake Bortles, whose stint as a starter devolved into him throwing a checkdown on 13.3% of his pass attempts by the time he lost his job. Bortles earned just a 64.7 overall PFF grade over the past two seasons, plying his trade as a backup for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.

Elsewhere, the above group consists primarily of below-average quarterbacks, but there are interesting exceptions. Deshaun Watson has the seventh-highest checkdown rate of any quarterback in the league over the past two seasons, perhaps contrary to his overall perception. Over the same time span, he also has the 12th-highest big-time throw rate (PFF’s highest-graded throws) and one of the best PFF grades in the league in key situations — such as the fourth quarter, close games and third downs. Watson is a big-time playmaker for the Houston Texans, but he also has a tendency to throw checkdowns at a higher rate than most quarterbacks.

Derek Carr has long been criticized as Captain Checkdown, and the numbers back that up. Only two quarterbacks — both of whom are deemed backup-caliber at best right now — have thrown checkdowns at a higher rate than Carr over the past two seasons. Carr has also taken those checkdown options quicker than any other passer who has topped a 10% checkdown rate, averaging just 2.6 seconds before throwing on those plays compared to as high as a 2.93-second average for Gardner Minshew.

As for Minshew, his rookie season was impressive and certainly reset expectations for the sixth-round draft pick going forward. He could still improve his processing speed and the number of plays in which he gets himself into trouble, though. He has among the highest checkdown rates in the league but took his time before doing so — among the 10 highest checkdown rates, only Watson took longer to throw on those plays. That’s a good sign because it means that as much as Minshew has been checking down a lot, it has been very much a last resort after giving the rest of the play a chance to unfold. Whether that option was actually there and Minshew didn’t progress quick enough is a separate issue, but this dynamic is better than if he had just been relentlessly targeting those checkdowns without allowing the deeper patterns to develop.

Lowest Two-Year Checkdown Rates | 2018-19
Rank Player Tot. Attempts Checkdowns Checkdown %
1 Josh Allen 880 20 2.3%
2 Patrick Mahomes 1360 45 3.3%
3 Mitchell Trubisky 1065 37 3.5%
4 Kyler Murray 575 22 3.8%
5 Sam Darnold 903 37 4.1%
6 Carson Wentz 1073 45 4.2%
7 Daniel Jones 493 21 4.3%
8 Jimmy Garoppolo 667 30 4.5%
9 Lamar Jackson 695 32 4.6%
10 Baker Mayfield 1104 53 4.8%

While the highest checkdown rates belong to a collection of questionable passers with the occasional exception, the list of lowest rates is a more interesting distribution. Josh Allen leads the way (2.3%) and Mitchell Trubisky is in third (3.5%), but they sandwich the best passer in the game in Patrick Mahomes (3.3%). This end of the list seems to contain both players whose fatal flaw is lacking the filter that tells them when to live to fight another day and those whose calling card is big plays in key moments.

Jimmy Garoppolo is in many ways on the game-managing spectrum of quarterbacks but has rarely taken checkdowns over the past two seasons, representing another way in which he doesn’t fit into the typical game-manager mold.

THIRD DOWNS

What if we change the stakes a little bit? Not all checkdowns are created equal — a checkdown on first down is a different thing entirely to one on third and long – so let’s dial in on just those plays where a failure to convert likely leads to a change in possession.

Highest Two-Year Checkdown Rates on Third Down | 2018-19
Rank Player Tot. Attempts Checkdowns Checkdown %
1 Gardner Minshew 128 14 10.9%
2 Eli Manning 202 22 10.9%
3 Deshaun Watson 323 34 10.5%
4 Jeff Driskel 96 8 8.3%
5 Case Keenum 222 18 8.1%
6 Blake Bortles 117 9 7.7%
7 Dak Prescott 335 23 6.9%
8 Alex Smith 102 7 6.9%
9 Drew Brees 237 16 6.8%
10 Nick Foles 108 7 6.5%

Many of the same names appear with the highest checkdown rates on third down as did on our overall list, but Watson jumps even higher, with just Minshew and Eli Manning taking checkdowns at a higher rate. Watson threw 11 more third-down checkdowns than any other player in the league over the past two years but averaged 3.15 seconds per play — an eternity. Thus, he was giving these plays every chance in the world to succeed before he cut his losses.

Dak Prescott and Drew Brees also appear on the list this time among notable quality quarterbacks. Only Nick Foles threw his third-down checkdowns earlier in the play on average than Brees did, dumping the ball off after an average of 2.52 seconds despite having above-average pass protection. Brees threw short of the sticks at a league-high rate of 43.4%, and on third downs, few players were less aggressive overall. But Brees did offset that conservative streak with impressive accuracy and some big-time throws.

Lowest Two-Year Checkdown Rates on Third Down | 2018-19
Rank Player Tot. Attempts Checkdowns Checkdown %
1 Josh Allen 245 1 0.4%
2 Ben Roethlisberger 183 2 1.1%
3 Patrick Mahomes 309 4 1.3%
4 Sam Darnold 254 5 2.0%
5 Baker Mayfield 282 7 2.5%
6 Carson Wentz 272 7 2.6%
7 Matthew Stafford 251 7 2.8%
8 Lamar Jackson 177 5 2.8%
9 Andy Dalton 244 7 2.9%
10 Cam Newton 131 4 3.1%

On the low-end of the third-down list, Josh Allen once again has the lowest checkdown rate in the league. Over two seasons, he has thrown just one checkdown on third downs, maintaining a pathological determination not to let the play die. That checkdown didn’t come until 3.24 seconds into the play. About 63% of his throws on third down were past the first down marker, the fifth-highest rate in the league, but that aggressive nature has generated seven interceptions and one of the highest turnover-worthy play rates in the league (7.4%, seventh-highest).

The players with the lowest checkdown rates here clearly avoid these plays at all costs, as the lowest three in the league over two years have combined for just seven checkdowns on third down. Mahomes again maintains an incredibly low checkdown rate without a corresponding drop in PFF grade. While Allen’s grade is just 52.1 on third downs, and even Ben Roethlisberger is at 63.1, Mahomes' grade is more than 20 points higher than anybody else in the top five and 10 points higher than anyone else in the top 10. In this, as in seemingly all other data points, Mahomes is in his own special category of greatness that nobody else can come close to rivaling.

Russell Wilson owns the only other PFF grade above 80.0 among the 15 players with the lowest checkdown rates on third down, and Wilson settled for a checkdown pass on just 3.3% of his third-down attempts.

Kirk Cousins — often lambasted as a checkdown quarterback — threw a checkdown pass on just 3.8% of his third-down pass attempts, ranking 16th lowest among 41 qualifiers. Cousins evidently hasn’t been quite as conservative and risk-averse as some people like to suggest.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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