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Ranking the NFL's best quarterbacks on first- and second-read throws: Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers dominate

Last week we looked at which quarterbacks throughout the league leaned on checkdowns, so this article is going to look at the earlier throws in a quarterback’s progression.

Often, what differentiates quarterbacks in the NFL is the ability to work through reads and make plays after that first look is taken away. The best players in the league can always find somewhere to go with the football, while some quarterbacks who are excellent with their first read struggle when forced to progress beyond that initial look.

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Highest-graded quarterbacks on first-read throws (2018-19, regular season only, min. 100 attempts)
Rank Name Grade Att. Comp. Yards YPA Comp % Rating ADOT
1 Drew Brees 95.1 610 440 5,409 8.9 72.1% 121.4 9.95
2 Patrick Mahomes 91.8 723 450 6,317 8.7 62.2% 105.3 11.45
3 Andrew Luck 90.9 460 294 3,493 7.6 63.9% 99.5 10.55
4 Jared Goff 90.3 854 521 7,186 8.4 61.0% 93.6 11.55
5 Aaron Rodgers 90.2 727 437 5,622 7.7 60.1% 96.5 11.17
6 Philip Rivers 89.3 833 532 6,888 8.3 63.9% 94.7 11.06
7 Kirk Cousins 89.2 767 506 5,884 7.7 66.0% 102.0 10.51
8 Russell Wilson 88.8 648 408 5,185 8.0 63.0% 101.5 11.52
9 Tom Brady 88.7 860 513 6,306 7.3 59.7% 88.3 9.86
10 Deshaun Watson 86.6 682 446 5,791 8.5 65.4% 101.4 10.98

Looking first at how quarterbacks fared on just “first read” plays, it isn’t simply a list of flawed quarterbacks who can’t thrive in more complete passing offenses — elite quarterbacks are also elite throwing to their first reads. Over the past two seasons of play, Drew Brees (comfortably) and Patrick Mahomes lead the pack in terms of PFF grade on those first-read plays.

Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Kirk Cousins also feature highly in this list. Thirteen different quarterbacks have a passer rating north of 100 when targeting their first read, and the average depth of target (ADOT) on these plays is significantly further downfield than all throws combined, thanks in large part to a lack of checkdown passes pulling that number down.

Lowest-graded quarterbacks on first-read throws (2018-19, regular season only, min. 100 attempts)
Rank Name Grade Att. Comp. Yards YPA Comp % Rating ADOT
42 David Blough 61.6 130 67 873 6.7 51.5% 61.5 10.96
43 Kyler Murray 58.9 341 197 2410 7.1 57.8% 82.1 10.99
44 Mason Rudolph 56.4 200 107 1315 6.6 53.5% 75.7 12.37
45 Brock Osweiler 54.8 116 65 774 6.7 56.0% 76.6 10.81
46 Jacoby Brissett 54.5 288 157 1864 6.5 54.5% 81.1 11.15
47 Kyle Allen 54.3 398 238 2884 7.3 59.8% 82.3 10.51
48 Drew Lock 54.2 113 64 755 6.7 56.6% 83.8 9.59
49 Devlin Hodges 49.6 115 65 794 6.9 56.5% 70.7 11.21
50 Jeff Driskel 45.8 205 107 1269 6.2 52.2% 66.9 11.42
51 Josh Rosen 45.4 332 162 1784 5.4 48.8% 52.8 11.81

The other end of the scale gives us a group of sub-standard passers across the board. Josh Rosen, Jeff Driskell and Devlin Hodges have the lowest three grades on those throws, and even Brock Osweiler features in the bottom 10.

Two interesting players to feature here are current flavor of the month Drew Lock, who threw just 113 first-read attempts last year, and former first overall pick Kyler Murray, who was curiously poor on his first-read attempts as a rookie.

Josh Allen had the 11th-worst grade over two seasons, and Buffalo Bills fans would likely feel cheated if we passed up the opportunity to point out a poor Allen data point. And while they might immediately fire back that he had a huge improvement in his play in Year 2, he actually slipped further down the ranking (seventh-worst) looking at 2019 alone.

So, which players suffer a significant drop in their PFF passing grade when they are forced to move from their first read to their next?

Biggest drop-offs from first-read grade to non-first-read grade (QBs with 50 or more attempts on each, 2018-19, regular season only)
Player Grade on first read throws Grade on non-first-read throws Difference
Jared Goff 90.3 47.1 43.2
Ryan Tannehill 79.6 41.9 37.7
Joe Flacco 77.9 43.4 34.5
Dak Prescott 83.9 54.1 29.8
Mitchell Trubisky 65.8 38.5 27.3
Derek Carr 84.5 59.7 24.8
Nick Mullens 72.9 48.5 24.4
Daniel Jones 72.2 48.5 23.7
Philip Rivers 89.3 66.2 23.1
Gardner Minshew 77.0 54.3 22.7

While Jared Goff has a PFF grade above 90.0 on his first-read throws and ranks inside the top 10 when it comes to the last two seasons’ worth of attempts, he has the single biggest drop-off in grade when forced to progress beyond that first read — his grade plunges over 40 points to just 47.1 when he has to get to his second look. Goff ranks among the best 10 quarterbacks on first-read throws and ranks among the bottom 10 once he has to move beyond that.

Ryan Tannehill has the next most significant drop in PFF grade from first reads to any throw beyond that, with his grade plummeting from 79.6 to 41.9, another sure sign that some kind of regression is inevitable for him in 2020.

It won’t be a surprise to anybody to learn that Mitchell Trubisky owns the lowest PFF passing grade in football over the past two seasons when it comes to throws beyond his first read, at just 38.5. He is the only player who has graded below 40.0, and there is no variety of throw after his first read that he has been consistently good at. Whether it was the next receiver in his progression, checkdowns or all other late-in-the-play passing options, Trubisky has struggled and struggled badly.

Trubisky also progresses beyond his first read at the second-lowest rate in the league. Since 2018, only Ryan Fitzpatrick has made it beyond his first read at a lower rate. Trubisky has become the definition of the one-read-then-run quarterback.

Lowest and highest first-read percentages among quarterbacks
Top-10  in first-read rate Bottom-10 in first-read rate
Ryan Fitzpatrick 84.7% Gardner Minshew 69.1%
Mitchell Trubisky 84.6% Ben Roethlisberger 69.8%
Cam Newton 84.5% Jacoby Brissett 71.1%
Andy Dalton 82.4% Blake Bortles 71.2%
Kyle Allen 82.1% Aaron Rodgers 71.8%
Jeff Driskel 81.0% Sam Darnold 72.1%
Jimmy Garoppolo 80.9% Teddy Bridgewater 72.6%
Dwayne Haskins 80.5% Case Keenum 73.6%
Josh Rosen 79.5% Lamar Jackson 73.9%
Jameis Winston 79.1% Derek Carr 74.4%

Notably, Lamar Jackson continues to break the (false) narrative that he can't read through his progression as a passer. Since coming into the league, Jackson ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of percentage of first-read throws. And if we were to confine ourselves to just his MVP season, the number gets even better and places him in the top five, one spot better than Aaron Rodgers.

Jackson has always worked through his progression well, and he grades pretty well when he does so, and that is entirely independent of any value he adds with his legs.

Highest-graded quarterbacks on non-first-read throws (2018-19, regular season only, min. 100 attempts)
Rank Name Grade Att. Comp. Yards YPA Comp % Rating ADOT
1 Russell Wilson 90.6 282 166 2135 7.57 58.9% 103.7 11.18
2 Patrick Mahomes 86.8 279 154 2237 8.02 55.2% 89 11.91
3 Drew Brees 82.4 202 133 1273 6.3 65.8% 88.2 6.31
4 Carson Wentz 77.8 232 134 1551 6.69 57.8% 93.5 10.19
5 Jimmy Garoppolo 77.3 112 75 908 8.11 67.0% 102.1 8.51
6 Ryan Fitzpatrick 73.9 132 84 905 6.86 63.6% 83 7.16
7 Aaron Rodgers 72.7 347 161 2081 6 46.4% 74.9 13.04
8 Andy Dalton 72.3 165 96 1041 6.31 58.2% 72.8 7.46
9 Tom Brady 71.6 261 149 1611 6.17 57.1% 81.1 9.47
10 Andrew Luck 69.2 146 95 950 6.51 65.1% 90.3 6.56

Russell Wilson leads the league in PFF passing grade on plays that were forced beyond the first read; he is the only passer with a grade still above 90.0, and he has a passer rating of 103.7 on those plays. If you take away Wilson’s first read, he has still thrown 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions over the past two seasons, further adding to the notion that he is playing as well as any quarterback in the league right now.

This data point is another that is led by the game’s best passers, with Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees following closely behind Wilson. However, after that top-three, the list gets interesting, with Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo next up.

Garoppolo, in particular, appearing this high goes some way towards busting the narrative that all he does is take advantage of throws that Kyle Shanahan schemes up for him, as Garoppolo’s PFF grade over the past two seasons actually gets better when forced beyond his first read.

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