NFL News & Analysis

Examining the relationship between dropped passes and quarterback performance

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) throws the ball against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing the game of football is a constant exercise in trying to untangle intrinsically interconnected things — separating player performance from the effects of other players, scheme and situations. It’s an impossible task, but the deeper you can get, the closer to true conclusions you can reach.

When we evaluate quarterback performance, one of the biggest influencing factors is supporting cast. This broad term encompasses things like receivers and pass protection, along with scheme and the rest of the roster. For the purposes of this article we will look at just the receiving corps.

It’s easy to look at how many passes a quarterback lost to receiver drops, but at PFF we collect a wide variety of incompletion types and separate them into buckets of “fault.” We have six additional receiver fault incompletion types, in addition to dropped passes, each of which can cost the quarterback a completion and the corresponding yardage and potential score.

So let’s take a look at which quarterbacks were harmed the most by these incompletions in 2022.

Name ATT INC/ATT REC INCs
Zach Wilson 383 9.7% 37
Mike Glennon 167 7.8% 13
Daniel Jones 361 7.8% 28
Jimmy Garoppolo 441 7.5% 33
Sam Darnold 406 7.1% 29
Jacoby Brissett 225 7.1% 16
Justin Herbert 672 7.0% 47
Baker Mayfield 418 6.9% 29
Tyler Huntley 188 6.9% 13
Andy Dalton 236 6.8% 16
Tom Brady 719 6.7% 48
Matthew Stafford 601 6.7% 40
Trevor Lawrence 602 6.6% 40
Ben Roethlisberger 605 6.4% 39
Justin Fields 270 6.3% 17

No quarterback saw a greater percentage of his attempts fall incomplete due to some kind of receiver error than Zach Wilson during his rookie season. Almost 10% of his attempts fell into this category, a couple of percentage points higher than any other quarterback. This was part of the reason the Jets were so keen to attack receiver again this offseason and ensure that Wilson’s supporting cast is as strong as it can be.

Rookie Garrett Wilson was added to the mix, and the team added yet more reinforcements to his protection along the offensive line. They will be hoping and expecting that this rate falls for Wilson next year. 

Both Giants quarterbacks last season are next up in the list, showing the kind of disappointment that their receiving corps was despite considerable investment in the offseason a year ago. Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney represent a huge free agent contract and a first-round pick in respective investment, but injuries limited both players, and the overall group just couldn’t stop making mistakes. 

The San Francisco 49ers have an excellent group of receivers. They rank sixth in the NFL in our rankings of receiving corps as we head toward the new season. Jimmy Garoppolo was outside the top 10 in terms of passes dropped by his receivers last season, but when you add in all of the other receiver-error incompletion types, Garoppolo jumps to the very top of the league in terms of the percentage of his incompletions that were the fault of his receivers.

As much as we would like this data point to be completely independent of quarterback play, it would be misleading to suggest that it is entirely uninfluenced by the passer. Inaccurate quarterbacks will throw more passes that are more difficult to catch, increasing the chances of some kind of receiver error on the other end. We know drops are influenced by quarterbacks in the same way — you are less likely to drop a perfect throw or accurate pass than you are one that requires some kind of adjustment to be hauled in — and the same thing is true for the sum of receiver-error incompletions.

Many of the passers at the top of this list are not good quarterbacks, and that’s a notable takeaway in and of itself. 

There are exceptions to that trend, however. Tom Brady narrowly missed finishing the season as PFF’s No. 1-graded quarterback in the league, but he lost the 11th-highest percentage of attempts to incompletions from receivers errors. Matthew Stafford was just behind him despite a Super Bowl winning season for the Rams.

Justin Herbert also appeared inside the top 10 despite a phenomenal second season.

Name ATT INC/ATT REC INCs
Russell Wilson 400 3.8% 15
Mac Jones 521 3.8% 20
Trevor Siemian 188 4.3% 8
Jared Goff 494 4.5% 22
Davis Mills 394 4.6% 18
Kyler Murray 481 4.6% 22
Tua Tagovailoa 388 4.9% 19
Lamar Jackson 382 5.0% 19
Kirk Cousins 561 5.0% 28
Matt Ryan 560 5.0% 28
Dak Prescott 596 5.0% 30
Taylor Heinicke 494 5.1% 25
Aaron Rodgers 531 5.1% 27
Derek Carr 626 5.1% 32
Patrick Mahomes 658 5.2% 34

At the other end of the scale, nobody lost less production to receiver error incompletions than Russell Wilson, despite an ugly year for him personally and one in which he suffered his first significant injury as a professional.  Wilson saw just 3.8% of his attempts fall incomplete due to an error by one of his receivers, one of only two quarterbacks below 4.0%. 

Wilson now moves to Denver, whose receivers will hope to replicate that kind of reliability and forge a strong connection with their new quarterback as soon as possible.

Mac Jones was the other passer under 4.0%, as his rookie season in New England showed the kind of impact that a smart, accurate quarterback can have even if he doesn’t have a howitzer for an arm and the rushing ability of a running back. Jones was the best rookie quarterback in 2021 and played at a high level for the Patriots, coaxing a solid level of production from a receiving corps that wasn’t elite on paper. 

Interestingly, weak receiving groups like those in Detroit and Houston didn’t show up particularly poorly in this data point. Each group had a player or two who performed well, but overall the group was a problem. Those issues manifested in simply not getting open and giving their quarterback a consistent place to go with the football more than they showed up in mistakes once the ball was on its way to them. 

The same thing is true in New Orleans, where the lack of impact receivers for the Saints was a constant problem — but one that showed up far more before the ball was thrown than once it was in the air.

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