The NFL’s best third-down QBs

Oct 1, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) passes in the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

 

Crunch time is where a player’s legacy is defined, and it’s where quarterbacks make their money. Whether it’s in the postseason, fourth quarter or third down, guys who consistently make plays that extend drives, pick up points and win games find themselves mentioned most frequently among the greats.

Here’s a look at the quarterbacks who most consistently got it done on third down during the 2017 season:

Carson Wentz – Philadelphia Eagles (Third-down rating: 123.7)

No quarterback had a higher third-down rating in 2017 than Wentz, as only four quarterbacks total were over 100 and none were within 10 points of the Philadelphia signal caller. Wentz threw 14 touchdown passes with three interceptions on third-down plays, and took just seven sacks. Only one quarterback — Chargers veteran Philip Rivers (six) — took fewer among qualified quarterbacks.

Wentz didn’t wait long to show off his third-down proclivity, as he found tight end Zach Ertz on a Week 1 play where he had to avoid an unblocked blitzer and roll out to his left (non-throwing) side. This is a really impressive play:

Matthew Stafford – Detroit Lions (Third-down rating: 110.7)

Just one quarterback had a higher rating on third down than Stafford, and only one (Rivers) had more yards than Stafford’s 1,227. The Lions put the ball in Stafford’s hands plenty on third down, and he delivered with a sterling 13:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This is, however, a good opportunity to contrast him as a pocket passer to the more fleet afoot Wentz. 

While Stafford threw fewer picks, he also took 21 sacks — only Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (22) took more on third downs — so there was some boom-or-bust potential when Detroit sent its quarterback on a deep drop while searching for the sticks. The Lions having no running game didn’t help matters on third downs.

Stafford isn’t known as the most mobile quarterback, but he did a nice job to evade oncoming pressure from Jason Pierre-Paul by stepping up into the pocket, rolling out to his right as he fired a strike to Eric Ebron in the play below:

Jared Goff – Los Angeles Rams (Third-down rating: 106.9)

Goff took an incredible step forward in 2017, leading the NFL with 12.9 yards per completion while throwing for 3,804 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. After the team lost all seven of his starts in 2016, Goff commandeered the Rams to an 11-4 record before taking a seat in the final game of the season. 

On third down last season, Goff threw for 11 touchdowns and two picks and completed 64.8 percent of his passes. He took just eight sacks — tied for fifth-fewest among 31 qualified quarterbacks with Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees — and was picked off on just 1.4 percent of his third-down attempts.

Here, it appears Goff took a bigger chance than one might like from a second-year quarterback making just his eighth career start. He found Cooper Kupp — in the midst of his NFL debut — for a 28-yard reception on third and 3 with the Rams converging on midfield midway through the fourth quarter.

Sure, some of the pressure was off because the Rams led the Colts 39-9 at the time, but here’s what Goff saw. The defense was thinking short, and for good reason. Why would a quarterback who is basically a rookie and is nursing a big lead late think too far downfield on third and short?

But all Goff’s early/short reads are covered and the second-level defense of the Colts is set up to take away and passes at or near the sticks. Kupp breaks free of his cornerback Quincy Wilson, and Goff’s pass perfectly anticipated this.

It was not a perfect throw, to be sure, but Kupp bailed him out, and even the best quarterbacks need a little help from their friends:

Josh McCown – New York Jets (Third-down rating: 101)

McCown’s 2017 season might be one of the most serendipitous in recent memory. The 15th-year journeyman came into the season with 60 career starts and a record of 18-42 in them, more interceptions (80) than touchdown passes (79) and a rating of 78.2.

But while the Jets were terrible last season — 5-8 in McCown’s starts — and took quarterback Sam Darnold to represent the future at the position, McCown was quietly really, really good. He threw for a career-high 2,926 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine picks — good for a 94.5 rating.

And on third downs, he was even better.

On this play — third-and-7, 11:21 to go, Jets leading Jacksonville by 10 points — Robby Anderson motioned left and cornerback A.J. Bouye followed. That gave McCown a read of man coverage, and with a single-high safety — Barry Church is playing back, Tashaun Gipson is on the line, showing blitz — he has some options downfield if his line can protect him.

For the most part, the line does its job, and when McCown went back to pass, he saw that Church has stayed closer to the sticks to ward off a potential pass to Jeremy Kerley for a first down. That left the Jaguars completely vulnerable up top, and McCown sees that with Anderson having outside leverage, plus a step on Bouye.

McCown unleashed the bomb, and Anderson came up with the catch to put the Jets offense into the red zone:

Alex Smith – Washington Redskins (Third-down rating: 94.5) 

Smith also had a late-career breakout in his 13th NFL season, as he crossed the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career with 26 touchdowns, five picks and an NFL-best rating of 104.7 in 2017.

And while his third-down production didn’t quite match up to that rating, it was still among the five best marks from qualified signal callers. Only Stafford (0.7 percent) threw third-down interceptions less frequently than Smith (0.8 percent), as the latter had a 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio when the dial-a-down said 3. 

This play is wild, as to the untrained eye it appears rookie dynamo Kareem Hunt does most, if not all the work.

While that’s true from a yardage standpoint, Smith avoids a jailbreak blitz from the right side, which prevents him from seeing Hunt open right away. Somehow Smith avoided two defenders with clean paths to him in the backfield, and also a third as he scurried back up into the pocket before lobbing the ball to Hunt with a ton of open field ahead of him:

By: Brandon Warne 
Follow Brandon on Twitter @Brandon_Warne