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Quarterbacks who convert on third down (and those who don’t)

Even with an injured finger Russell Wilson was still great at moving the chains in 2021

NFL: Denver Broncos Training Camp Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Recently I was looking at the QB depth charts for the league and noticed that the Texans have seemingly no talent at quarterback. They have Davis Mills (3rd round pick who started eleven games for them last season), Kyle Allen (former UDFA who started for the Panthers at one point - 17 career starts) and Jeff Driskel (a 6th round pick with nine career starts).

Taylor Kothe mentioned to me that Davis Mills is not that bad and he could turn into something akin to Kirk Cousins. So I dug into Davis Mills looking at his results from last season to find that he had a really high completion percentage for a rookie starter. Among rookie starting QBs this century (minimum five starts) his completion is third behind Dak Prescott (67.8 in 2016) and Mac Jones (67.6 in 2021). Mills completed 66.8 percent of his passes as a rookie.

That got me thinking about the value of completions, particularly on third down. How many of Mills’ completions on third down were short of the chains and resulted in a punt? I used to jokingly refer to this as an Orton - a useless completion on third down that led to a punt. How many Ortons did Mills have in 2021 and how did he compare to other starters in his “Orton Rate”?

To evaluate this I looked at third down passing in 2021. There were 35 QBs who threw a minimum of 50 passes on third down in 2021 (essentially three per game - which some QBs do on their opening drive).

Just looking at third down completion percentage, Mills had a respectable 63.6 on third down. However, of his 70 third down completions only 40 resulted in a first down - He dropped back to pass 131 times on third down and only 43 of those plays resulted in a first down (40 by pass, three on scrambles). His 32.8 percent conversion rate on third down dropbacks was one of the worst in the league among starters (min 50 third down attempts) - 30th of 35. Only Sam Darnold, Taylor Heinicke, Jared Goff, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields were worse. It should be noted that Wilson and Fields were drafted much higher than Mills in 2021. Patrick Mahomes was the best in the league with almost half (49.4 percent) of his third down dropbacks resulting in a first down (75 by pass and 10 on scrambles).

Relative to Mills, both of the quarterbacks fighting for the Seahawks starting job in 2022 were worse at converting on 3rd down in 2021, in case you care. Neither had the required 50 passing attempts on 3rd down, though.

Rank Player 3rd Downs Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A 1D Rate 1d% TDCP% R. Att R. Yds Y/A TD 1D
1 Matthew Stafford 162 91 141 64.5 1379 12 7 14 -123 9.8 74 104.3 47.5% 81.3% 7 25 3.6 0 3
2 Josh Allen 199 86 155 55.5 1008 15 6 11 -69 6.5 69 91.5 46.2% 80.2% 33 269 8.2 3 23
3 Tyrod Taylor 69 34 60 56.7 477 3 2 2 -29 8 27 85.2 44.9% 79.4% 7 72 10.3 2 4
4 Russell Wilson 134 53 103 51.5 800 8 3 16 -127 7.8 41 91.1 38.1% 77.4% 15 79 5.3 1 10
5 Patrick Mahomes 172 97 147 66.0 1259 13 8 12 -83 8.6 75 99.6 49.4% 77.3% 13 111 8.5 0 10
6 Tua Tagovailoa 128 59 99 59.6 626 6 4 12 -109 6.3 45 81.5 40.6% 76.3% 17 79 4.7 0 7
7 Justin Herbert 200 105 169 62.1 1357 13 5 10 -67 8 79 100.6 46.0% 75.2% 21 149 7.1 0 13
8 Jacoby Brissett 74 34 59 57.6 282 1 1 8 -41 4.8 25 68.6 40.5% 73.5% 7 26 3.7 0 5
9 Tom Brady 184 100 163 61.3 1196 17 3 10 -71 7.3 73 110.9 43.5% 73.0% 11 42 3.8 0 7
10 Jimmy Garoppolo 135 69 108 63.9 983 6 4 12 -87 9.1 49 96.3 44.4% 71.0% 15 29 1.9 1 11
11 Jalen Hurts 153 58 108 53.7 792 5 3 12 -80 7.3 41 81.3 41.2% 70.7% 33 223 6.8 2 22
12 Trevor Lawrence 187 78 153 51.0 848 2 3 12 -100 5.5 55 63.8 34.8% 70.5% 22 113 5.1 1 10
13 Aaron Rodgers 153 84 135 62.2 1049 13 2 12 -92 7.8 59 112.2 41.2% 70.2% 6 32 5.3 1 4
14 Dak Prescott 168 90 145 62.1 1068 12 2 12 -64 7.4 63 106.3 38.7% 70.0% 11 43 3.9 0 2
15 Mac Jones 162 85 133 63.9 949 8 5 13 -121 7.1 59 89.5 41.4% 69.4% 16 46 2.9 0 8
16 Baker Mayfield 132 50 99 50.5 571 3 5 17 -114 5.8 34 57.3 34.8% 68.0% 16 94 5.9 1 12
17 Kyler Murray 139 71 112 63.4 1029 11 2 11 -102 9.2 48 118.5 40.3% 67.6% 16 103 6.4 1 8
18 Carson Wentz 165 77 137 56.2 994 10 1 14 -111 7.3 52 100.4 35.8% 67.5% 14 66 4.7 1 7
19 Matt Ryan 186 101 155 65.2 1117 8 3 17 -119 7.2 67 95.6 38.2% 66.3% 14 27 1.9 0 4
20 Kirk Cousins 181 100 163 61.3 1267 13 3 14 -110 7.8 66 104.5 37.0% 66.0% 4 20 5.0 0 1
21 Derek Carr 172 87 143 60.8 1232 7 6 18 -128 8.6 57 87.5 36.6% 65.5% 11 38 3.5 0 6
22 Zach Wilson 132 52 100 52.0 553 3 3 23 -205 5.5 34 66 28.8% 65.4% 9 85 9.4 1 4
23 Joe Burrow 162 95 131 72.5 1332 8 5 21 -149 10.2 61 109.3 42.0% 64.2% 10 59 5.9 0 7
24 Daniel Jones 117 55 97 56.7 733 2 0 9 -79 7.6 35 87.7 33.3% 63.6% 11 49 4.5 0 4
25 Lamar Jackson 126 49 86 57.0 558 5 6 14 -87 6.5 31 66.9 34.9% 63.3% 26 141 5.4 1 13
26 Taylor Heinicke 154 71 128 55.5 750 6 6 12 -113 5.9 44 68.8 31.8% 62.0% 14 73 5.2 0 5
27 Andy Dalton 71 41 64 64.1 358 3 4 3 -31 5.6 25 68.4 35.2% 61.0% 4 13 3.3 0 0
28 Trevor Siemian 59 33 57 57.9 370 5 0 1 -9 6.5 20 106.6 33.9% 60.6% 1 2 2.0 0 0
29 Ryan Tannehill 197 109 161 67.7 1145 7 10 19 -147 7.1 66 76.7 40.6% 60.6% 17 85 5.0 3 14
30 Ben Roethlisberger 195 117 181 64.6 1167 8 4 11 -68 6.4 70 88.3 36.9% 59.8% 3 7 2.3 1 2
31 Sam Darnold 138 62 108 57.4 522 2 3 15 -90 4.8 36 64.7 31.9% 58.1% 15 60 4.0 2 8
32 Davis Mills 131 70 110 63.6 749 6 5 15 -105 6.8 40 82.7 32.8% 57.1% 6 23 3.8 0 3
33 Justin Fields 105 38 74 51.4 465 1 6 12 -92 6.3 21 41.8 28.6% 55.3% 19 134 7.1 0 9
34 Jared Goff 133 72 113 63.7 720 4 3 16 -141 6.4 38 82.5 29.3% 52.8% 4 20 5.0 0 1
35 Teddy Bridgewater 140 80 121 66.1 802 6 2 9 -72 6.6 42 94.4 35.7% 52.5% 10 53 5.3 1 8

The other way to view this is to look at how often QBs converted by pass on all third down completions. In other words, how often did you get a Mahomes on a third down pass? The reason I’m calling a conversion by pass on third down a Mahomes will be obvious later. A QB’s Mahomes rate is what I have called Third Down Conversion by Pass percentage (TDCP%) and it is how the table above is sorted. This penalizes guys like Mills, who completed plenty of passes on third down that resulted in punts. The best in the league among starters was Matthew Stafford in 2021 with an TDCP of 81.3 percent, meaning that 81.3 percent of his completions on third down resulted in a first down. Stafford had a much better year in terms of TDCP% than the rest of his career.

The worst in the league in 2021 was Teddy Bridgewater at 52.5 percent, but the QB that the Rams swapped for Stafford, Goff, was second to last at 52.8 percent. Russell Wilson was fourth in TDCP, but he was significantly lower ranked in overall first down percentage on third down dropbacks (38.1 which was 18th).

A big reason for this 18th ranking was Wilson’s sack rate on third down. He was sacked sixteen times on 134 dropbacks for a sack rate of 11.9 percent. That was fifth worst among starters. Only Goff (12.0), Baker Mayfield (12.9), Joe Burrow (13.0) and Zach Wilson (17.4) were higher in 2021. This high sack rate on third down was a result two things - poor pass protection and Russ’ desire to extend plays a bit too long which led to sacks. The other starting QB with the last name Wilson took 23 sacks on third down. More than half of his 44 sacks came on third down. 44 total sacks was the third highest in the league in 2021. Only Burrow (51) and Ryan Tannehill (47) were sacked more.

Even with 52 percent of his sacks on third down, Zach Wilson was not the highest starter in that category in 2021. That “honor” goes to Tua Tagovailoa. Sixty percent of his sacks (12 of 20) came on third down. He was good at avoiding sacks in general, but when he was sacked it happened most often on third down. His sack sack of 4.9 percent overall was one of the better values in the league among starters (8th best - Tom Brady was best at 3.0 percent).

I was not content to look at this just for 2021. I wanted to see if there are starting QBs who have made careers out of “empty” completions on third (completions that lead to a punt). I used stathead to pull third down passing data from 1994 to 2021 (the entire timespan available). With a minimum of 50 completed passes on third down there were 232 qualifying quarterbacks. I looked at TDCP% for all of them. The best value for the past 28 seasons combined is Patrick Mahomes at 78.5 percent (so a Mahomes is the opposite of an Orton). It’s pretty crazy to think that if Mahomes completes a pass on third down during his career it’s going for a first down on almost four out of five catches. It was cool to see John Elway at #3 on this list (75.6), but remember that this data only encompasses the last five seasons of his career. This was ostensibly in the height of the Shanahan offense in Denver.

Below is the top 20 1994-2021 in career TDCP%

Rank Player Completions Yds TD Y/A 1D TDCP%
1 Patrick Mahomes 331 4793 45 14.5 260 78.5%
2 Matt Barkley 52 671 2 12.9 40 76.9%
3 John Elway 340 4674 32 13.7 257 75.6%
4 Andrew Luck 473 6167 51 13.0 355 75.1%
5 Jameis Winston 420 5206 42 12.4 315 75.0%
6 Drew Stanton 100 1323 7 13.2 75 75.0%
7 Frank Reich 96 1285 5 13.4 72 75.0%
8 Randall Cunningham 255 3244 25 12.7 191 74.9%
9 Justin Herbert 203 2521 27 12.4 152 74.9%
10 Josh Johnson 55 694 3 12.6 41 74.5%
11 Scott Mitchell 307 3769 23 12.3 228 74.3%
12 Josh Allen 272 3178 31 11.7 202 74.3%
13 Craig Erickson 100 1381 9 13.8 74 74.0%
14 Mike McMahon 76 1095 6 14.4 56 73.7%
15 Stan Humphries 258 3279 23 12.7 190 73.6%
16 Sage Rosenfels 83 1106 9 13.3 61 73.5%
17 Dave Brown 230 2679 15 11.6 169 73.5%
18 Warren Moon 361 4469 36 12.4 265 73.4%
19 Jeff George 345 4561 36 13.2 253 73.3%
20 Dan Orlovsky 75 933 5 12.4 55 73.3%

Many of the names in the top 20 should not surprise you, but there were a few that made me do a double-take: Drew Stanton, Josh Johnson, Mike McMahon, Sage Rosenfels, Dave Brown and Dan Orlovsky. Remember that this is just looking at completed passes on third down. If that number is low overall (third down completion percentage) it’s possible to have a high percentage of those that are completed going for first downs. This is actually the case with current Bronco QB2, Josh Johnson.

Johnson has had the ball on 137 third downs in his career and has only completed 55.0 percent of his throws on third down, but of his 55 completions on third down, 41 of them went for first downs. Compare this to Justin Herbert who is right above Johnson on this top 20 list. Herbert has completed 62.5 percent of his throws on third down in his young career. The takeaway is that Herbert has done a much better job of avoiding punts in his career than Johnson, which is a reason why Herbert is still a starter and Johnson is a career backup.

If we look at the bottom 20 we find many of the names that we might expect, some of whom are still playing in the NFL (Driskel, Brett Hundley, and Blaine Gabbert).

Rank Player Completions Yds TD Y/A 1D TDCP%
212 Jeff Driskel 63 642 2 10.2 35 55.6%
213 Doug Pederson 75 752 2 10.0 41 54.7%
214 Eric Zeier 79 935 5 11.8 43 54.4%
215 Danny Kanell 149 1440 9 9.7 81 54.4%
216 Bubby Brister 61 558 5 9.1 33 54.1%
217 Tim Couch 324 3316 14 10.2 175 54.0%
218 Brett Hundley 52 578 4 11.1 28 53.8%
219 Brandon Weeden 173 1912 10 11.1 93 53.8%
220 Chad Hutchinson 54 590 3 10.9 29 53.7%
221 Trent Edwards 164 1728 3 10.5 88 53.7%
222 John Skelton 84 918 3 10.9 45 53.6%
223 Brady Quinn 99 1082 6 10.9 53 53.5%
224 Cade McNown 73 830 5 11.4 39 53.4%
225 Doug Johnson 60 697 3 11.6 32 53.3%
226 Luke McCown 62 688 5 11.1 33 53.2%
227 Ken Dorsey 70 687 4 9.8 37 52.9%
228 Blaine Gabbert 265 2596 11 9.8 139 52.5%
229 Jimmy Clausen 78 833 3 10.7 40 51.3%
230 JaMarcus Russell 110 1163 4 10.6 56 50.9%
231 Koy Detmer 52 576 4 11.1 26 50.0%
232 Zach Mettenberger 50 515 3 10.3 22 44.0%

It’s noteworthy that of the 232 qualifying QBs, only two had fifty percent or more of their third down completions NOT gain a first down - Koy Detmer and Zach Metterberger. JaMarcus Russell just missed making that duo a trio.

Some notable rankings for current and past Bronco QBs who were neither in the top or the bottom 20 (ranking shown after their name).

  • Peyton Manning - 47
  • Russell Wilson - 77
  • Jake Plummer - 122
  • Joe Flacco - 141
  • Kyle Orton - 146
  • Jay Cutler - 152
  • Trevor Siemian - 159
  • Brian Griese - 160
  • Case Keenum - 169
  • Brock Osweiler - 170
  • Drew Lock - 188
  • Teddy Bridgewater - 204

Poll

What information in this article was the most interesting to you?

  • 31%
    Patrick Mahomes is deadly on 3rd down
    (132 votes)
  • 15%
    John Elway was great on 3rd down 1994-1998)
    (66 votes)
  • 3%
    Josh Johnson doesn’t complete a high rate of passes on third but when he does they go for first downs
    (14 votes)
  • 29%
    Despite a finger injury, Russell Wilson was still one of the best QBs in the league at TDCP% in 2021
    (121 votes)
  • 19%
    Teddy Bridgewater was the worst QB in the league in 2021 in terms of TDCP%
    (82 votes)
415 votes total Vote Now