NFL News & Analysis

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

Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) reacts on the sidelines during the second half against the Denver Broncos at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the NFL’s “Captain Checkdown” when it comes to quarterback play? There’s nothing inherently wrong with checkdown passes — the best quarterbacks in the league employ them regularly, and they can be vital to an offense's success and efficiency — but quarterbacks shouldn’t be too keen on them.

Checkdowns are designed to generate a positive play out of a negative situation. Elite coverage or unexpected pressure can disrupt a passing play's timing and take away the bigger play a quarterback wants to make, but checkdowns allow signal-callers to still generate a positive play rather than throw the ball away or take a sack.

The problems arise when quarterbacks are too quick to hit their checkdown options, which never gives bigger plays an opportunity to develop. With that in mind, which NFL quarterbacks fall into which categories? I looked at the last two years of data in an effort to update my 2020 article on the same subject.

Highest checkdown rate

Rank Name Dropback Checkdown Att. Pct.
1 Trevor Lawrence 668 68 11.3%
2 Mike Glennon 373 34 9.8%
3 Derek Carr 1252 109 9.5%
4 Matt Ryan 1300 110 9.3%
5 Teddy Bridgewater 1032 82 8.9%
6 Gardner Minshew 448 34 8.8%
7 Taylor Heinicke 598 43 8.4%
8 Mac Jones 566 43 8.3%
9 Jared Goff 1138 85 8.1%
10 Cam Newton 561 40 8.1%
11 Philip Rivers 564 44 8.1%
12 Drew Brees 405 31 7.9%
13 Daniel Jones 923 63 7.8%
14 Ryan Tannehill 1126 78 7.7%
15 Dak Prescott 891 63 7.7%

No quarterback in the league was as quick or keen to turn to their checkdown as Trevor Lawrence was during his rookie season, as he checked the ball down on 11.3% of his dropbacks and was the only passer in the league who generated over a 10 percent mark.

Lawrence's situation in Jacksonville was ugly, as he was working under a head coach with a toxic environment and had little in the way of receivers to help elevate his play. Those receivers were working within a scheme that wasn’t helping them get open while the offensive line ranked as a below-average unit. A lot of factors beyond Lawrence went into this number, but it still illustrates some of the issues he had as a rookie.

Derek Carr has remarkably maintained his No. 3 ranking from two years ago. Carr has always been quick to take checkdowns, but he has rediscovered his aggressiveness with the deep ball — at least, as long as he has a receiver that can win down the field. One other aspect of his play that has changed is how quick he throws the checkdown. Carr once averaged 2.6 seconds to throw on checkdowns, but over the last two seasons, that number has jumped up to 2.98 seconds, which is much more in line with the league average.

Matt Ryan‘s decline also shows up in his checkdown statistics. The decline in his receiving corps is doubtless a factor, but Ryan has also become a more conservative quarterback as he has aged.

Mac Jones was another young passer who showed up on the list, which further highlights the kind of subtle improvement he needs to make in Year 2 and beyond. Jones can run an NFL offense and deliver the football accurately at an extremely high level, but his ceiling as a player will be determined by whether he can turn his checkdowns into explosive results. 

Lowest checkdown rate

Rank Name Dropbacks Checkdown Att. Pct.
1 Jalen Hurts 695 19 3.3%
2 Tua Tagovailoa 754 27 4.0%
3 Nick Mullens 378 15 4.2%
4 Mitchell Trubisky 343 14 4.6%
5 Josh Allen 1352 56 4.6%
6 Baker Mayfield 1024 42 4.6%
7 Patrick Mahomes 1388 58 4.7%
8 Ryan Fitzpatrick 307 13 4.8%
9 Nick Foles 375 17 4.9%
10 Ben Roethlisberger 1272 61 5.0%
11 Joe Burrow 1045 49 5.3%
12 Matthew Stafford 1223 60 5.3%
13 Lamar Jackson 927 42 5.5%
14 Andy Dalton 643 33 5.8%
15 Jimmy Garoppolo 631 34 5.9%

Two years ago, Josh Allen was off the charts in terms of how infrequently he threw checkdown passes, as Allen attempted a checkdown on just 2.3% of his dropbacks — a full percentage point lower than any other passer. Fast forward through his best two years in the league, and we find a player who still ranks inside the lowest 10 checkdown rates; however, he throws a checkdown at double the rate that did two years ago. Allen is still a very aggressive passer, but he has a better understanding of when to take a positive play rather than always waiting for the hero result.

Allen's position in this table is now occupied by Jalen Hurts, who has attempted a checkdown on just 3.3% of his pass attempts over the last two seasons. Hurts has the lowest checkdown rate of any quarterback by a distance. Therefore, similar to Allen, this could be another area where he can improve.

Interestingly, Tua Tagovailoa — who has a relatively weak NFL arm and whose average depth of target ranks amongst the lowest in the NFL — does not throw a lot of checkdowns. When Tagovailoa throws short, it’s a designed part of the passing game or a tendency to err on the side of caution within the play concept, but he doesn’t typically dump it off to his checkdown option at the frequency you might be led to believe.

Similarly, Ben Roethlisberger — even though his average time to throw and average depth of target drastically changed as he reached the end of his career — didn’t attempt checkdowns very often. 

Third down

Of course, third down changes 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. How much does that change our player lists?

Highest checkdown rate

Rank Name DB Checkdown Att Pct.
1 Mason Rudolph 34 6 18.8%
2 Teddy Bridgewater 281 30 12.4%
3 Taylor Heinicke 157 13 10.0%
4 Justin Fields 100 7 9.5%
5 Andy Dalton 165 13 9.4%
6 Philip Rivers 143 12 8.9%
7 Dak Prescott 212 16 8.6%
8 Deshaun Watson 163 11 8.6%
9 Gardner Minshew 116 8 8.5%
10 Mike Glennon 106 8 8.5%
11 Trevor Lawrence 177 12 7.8%
12 Mike White 27 2 7.7%
13 Matt Ryan 357 23 7.6%
14 Davis Mills 128 8 7.3%
15 Alex Smith 70 4 7.3%

Why did the Steelers not believe that Mason Rudolph could be the guy in a post-Roethlisberger landscape? Well, in part, because of stats like this. Rudolph checked the ball down on third down almost 20% of the time — the most in the league by a significant margin.

Lawrence — the leader in overall checkdown rate — was a little better when the stakes were raised on third down. Lawrence posted the 11th-highest rate, a significantly lower percentage than his overall rate of checkdowns.

Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson are two curious names to find on this list, as both are seen as elite-level quarterbacks at their best. Watson’s data set comes from his career year in 2020, when he became one of the rare quarterbacks playing truly elite football for a very bad team that didn’t win a lot of games. 

Justin Fields is working from a very small sample size, but it’s an interesting data point for a player with the second-highest average depth of target and one of the highest big-time throw rates in the league as a rookie. Fields was making a lot of big plays but was also apparently unusually ready to check it down on third down.

Teddy Bridgewater again shows up with one of the highest checkdown rates, so he truly may be the league’s true “Captain Checkdown” — a reality that has cost him a real chance to be a long-term starter in the league after a few bites at the apple. 

Lowest checkdown rate

Rank Name DB Checkdown Att Pct.
1 Joe Flacco 58 0 0.0%
2 Phillip Walker 33 0 0.0%
3 Tyrod Taylor 82 1 1.4%
4 Dwayne Haskins 76 1 1.5%
5 Ryan Fitzpatrick 74 1 1.6%
6 Tua Tagovailoa 203 3 1.8%
7 Jalen Hurts 184 3 2.0%
8 Jameis Winston 58 1 2.1%
9 Nick Mullens 98 2 2.2%
10 Matthew Stafford 316 6 2.2%
11 Tyler Huntley 53 1 2.2%
12 Josh Allen 317 7 2.6%
13 Taysom Hill 91 2 2.7%
14 Mitchell Trubisky 84 2 2.8%
15 Mac Jones 151 4 3.0%

They barely played, but neither Joe Flacco nor P.J. Walker attempted a checkdown on third down over the last two seasons on 58 and 33 third-down dropbacks, respectively. Several more players, including Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, attempted just one.

The most checkdown-averse passers on third down (who also recorded a good number of dropbacks) were the two most checkdown-averse quarterbacks overall — Tagovailoa and Hurts. Each player can be criticized for their play as passers in a variety of ways, but being too ready to throw checkdowns is not one of them.

Matthew Stafford was also excellent at limiting the times he had to checkdown on third downs across the last two seasons. Part of the draw for the Rams in trading for Stafford was his ability to make plays late in the down and outside of the offense's structure. Whether late in the game, in the postseason or just on third downs, Stafford will hang in the pocket and try to make a play rather than checking it down. 

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