Interceptions happen. They happen to even the best quarterbacks. And every season, some poor quarterback is unfortunate enough to lead the league in interceptions, and it’s not always who you think. Last year it was Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
So who will it be this year? Lucky for us, so we can bet on it.
Let’s take a look at this list of the interception leaders from the past decade, courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
2018 – Ben Roethlisberger PIT – 16
2017 – DeShone Kizer CLE – 22
2016 – Philip Rivers SD – 21
2015 – Blake Bortles JAX – 18
2014 – Jay Cutler CHI, Philip Rivers SD – 18
2013 – Eli Manning NYG – 27
2012 – Drew Brees NO, Tony Romo DAL – 19
2011 – Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF – 23
2010 – Eli Manning NYG – 25
So what do you notice about that list from this past decade?
First, check out the number of interceptions each season. Last year’s interceptions leader, Ben Roethlisberger, threw “only’ 16 picks. That was the lowest total this decade to lead the league in interceptions. Not only that, 16 actually tied the lowest most-INT number in NFL history, matching some Buffalo Bills dude named Joe Ferguson in 1982.
Every other season, the leading interceptions numbers have been at least 18 That doesn’t quite match up historically. Four of the last nine years, no quarterback in the NFL hit 20 interceptions. Before 2012, the last time that had happened was in 1992 when Buffalo’s Jim Kelly led the league with 19. Ferguson was the last one before that, and they’re the only two other interceptions leaders in NFL history that were under 20.
Quarterbacks are getting more accurate, and coaching schemes are getting better for passers. That and coaches have a quicker hook than ever for poor quarterback play. What that means for us is that we are likely looking for a quarterback in the 18-to-19 interceptions range.
Is that meaningful? Yes, it is. A lower interceptions total means more variance. Recent history says we’re probably not going to see some runaway interceptions leader with 20, 22, 25 picks. With no obvious favorite and a lot of variances, that means there’s more room for us to pick a mid- to long shot and get a bigger payoff. That’s all good news.
There’s a second thing you should notice: almost no repeats. Ben Roethlisberger led the league in interceptions last year and also did it in 2006, but that’s a long time in between for a quarterback with a long career. The only names on the list twice are Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, both of whom are only there twice because they tied for the lead one time. Most of the time, a quarterback this decade that hits a really high interception number, 20 or higher, they don’t keep their job – unless of course, they’re Eli Manning, who’s led the league with 20 in 2007, 25 in 2010, and 27 in 2013 and still somehow has a starting job. For now.
So what does that mean? Again: variance and randomness. That makes this race less predictable, but it also means a better chance of a longer shot winning. Ben Roethlisberger led the league in interceptions last year and opened this year as the favorite, but history says he’s very unlikely to lead the league again. Only two players in NFL history have led the league in interceptions in back-to-back seasons: Vinny Testaverde in 1988–89, and Joe Namath in 1966–67 and in 1974–75. Hall of Fame!
There’s one other more subtle thing we should notice. Any guesses?
If you had to instinctively pick a quarterback to lead the league in interceptions, wouldn’t you pick some young whippersnapper that gets the reins as a rookie or sophomore and just can’t keep the ball? I would. But that’s not the case. Look back through that list of interception leaders this decade. Every quarterback on the list was at least 28 years old except for two, Kizer (21) and Bortles (23).
It’s not so much rookie or sophomore quarterbacks leading the league in interceptions. Usually, it’s a more established veteran. Why is that? Well, perhaps if a young QB is throwing so many interceptions early on, the coach pulls the plug on them. Every quarterback has a backup, and no matter what your pedigree is, if you go out and throw three picks a game as a 24-year-old, you’re getting the hook. But if you’re 28 or 30 or 32 and on a fat extension? You’re not getting benched. It’s not happening.
Don’t forget, to lead the league in interceptions, a quarterback has to throw a lot of bad balls – but, like, they also have to throw a lot, period. They have to play. They have to be on the field. That means staying healthy enough and it means not getting benched.
This is a numbers game after all. A good quarterback hopes to keep his interception rate (interceptions divided by pass attempts) around 2% or lower. The best are closer to 1%. Anything toward 3% is not great, and anything higher than that is terrible. The margins are razor-thin.
And that’s why volume really matters. A quarterback that throws interceptions on 5% of his passes is way worse than one at 2%. But the 5% dude got benched after 200 throws, and the 2% guy played 16 games and threw it 600 times. Which one had more interceptions? The 5% guy had 10 in eight games, but the 2% guy “beat’ him with 12. Numbers matter. Volume matters.
So what have we learned?
We’re looking for a QB with as many of the following traits as possible:
- They need to play a lot. We want to avoid injuries or benching.
- They need to throw a lot. Volume is king.
- They need to throw a lot of interceptions, probably at least 18.
- They are more likely to be a veteran QB, age 28 or later.
- Expect a lot of variances and a tight race, so be open to long shots.
Okay, whew, that’s a lot. Let’s run through all the options.
Nope, no way, not gonna happen
We might as well consider all 32 teams, but we can rule a bunch of them out right away. Remember, we need someone with at least a realistic shot of getting to 18 interceptions. Here are a few easy outs:
Russell Wilson SEA +6600
Wilson has never missed a game and yet has never thrown more than 11 interceptions, with a 2% INT rate or lower five straight seasons.
Kirk Cousins MIN +5000
Cousins has played 16 games four years in a row with 10 to 13 interceptions and a 2% INT rate during that stretch.
Carson Wentz PHI +3300
Wentz has a career 1.9% INT rate and has thrown only 7 each of the past two seasons, plus he is an injury risk.
Dak Prescott DAL +6600
Prescott has a career 1.7% INT rate in 48 starts and has never thrown more than 13 picks in a season.
Matt Stafford DET +3300
Stafford threw 16+ interceptions each of his first four full seasons. He’s been at 13 or less the last five seasons with a 1.9% INT rate and has steadily decreasing volume in a more run-oriented offense.
Jared Goff LAR +2800
Goff has a career 2.1% INT rate with a career-high of 12. Even with a Super Bowl losing hangover, he should be safe.
Derek Carr OAK +2800
Carr has a career 1.9% INT rate and has never thrown more than 13 picks in a season despite always starting at least 15 games.
Nick Foles JAX +3300
Foles has a safe 2.1% INT rate and has never thrown more than 10 picks in a season. He also never manages to stay healthy enough to play the whole season anyway.
Aaron Rodgers GB
Tom Brady NE
Matt Ryan ATL
Drew Brees NO
This quartet is so unlikely to lead the league in interceptions that Bovada doesn’t even have odds for them. Oh well – four teams off our list.
Okay, so that’s 12 teams we can rule out. That leaves 20 to go. Who else doesn’t make sense?
They’d get benched before they threw enough interceptions
For some QBs, it’s easy to see them throwing a lot of interceptions, but it’s much harder to see them having 16 games to do it. That’s because these guys have a capable backup waiting behind them, someone that would get a shot if things start to go really south. For some, it’s a rookie waiting in line. For others, it’s one of the league’s better backups. Either way, it ain’t happening, and we’re about to rule out some of the bigger betting favorites.
Andy Dalton CIN +2500
Dalton at a career 2.7% INT rate feels juuust close enough to consider, but that number is down to 2.1% the last four years. The bigger problem here is a new coaching regime in Cincinnati that has no ties to Dalton. If Andy is giving the ball away to the other team too often, the coaches will just bench him and cut ties.
Marcus Mariota TEN +3300
Mariota’s 2.6% INT rate is just high enough to consider him, but not for long. Mariota has missed time injured every season, he doesn’t pass for a high volume, and he has one of the league’s most capable backups waiting behind him in Ryan Tannehill. The math just doesn’t quite add up for Mariota.
Eli Manning NYG +1800 and Daniel Jones NYG +3300
Manning has led the league in interceptions three times and has a poor career INT rate of 3.0%. He’s thrown double-digit interceptions in 14 straight seasons. We would think of Eli Manning a lot differently if not for two Super Bowl upsets. But Eli is 38 now and the Giants spent a high first-round pick on Duke’s Daniel Jones. It’s a matter if, not when, for Jones. Manning will never get the opportunity to make enough mistakes before he team turns things over to Jones, and Jones probably won’t have enough games left by then to lead the league in picks either.
Dwayne Haskins WAS +1600 and Case Keenum WAS +6600
Haskins has the eight best odds, but he may not even start the season. He still has to beat out veterans Case Keenum and Colt McCoy. Washington has three capable guys, and both Keenum and McCoy would rate among the league’s better backups. You figure Haskins will play at some point, but if he struggles so much that he’s scattering interceptions all over the place, he’ll probably get to sit and watch awhile behind a veteran – and if a veteran is throwing picks, they’ll make a change there too. Not enough volume for any one candidate.
Joe Flacco DEN +3300 and Drew Lock DEN +4000
The Broncos want to win, so don’t expect them to bench Flacco unless he’s hurt or truly awful. Flacco has a career 2.4% INT rate and went over 15 picks only once in a weird 22-interception year when he spiked to 3.6%. That’s not going to happen again, and if it does, he’ll be benched for the rookie. Lock could have some accuracy issues but it’s hard to see him getting enough playing time, and even if he does, he may not get to air it out a ton.
Jimmy Garoppolo SF +3000
Garoppolo has a 3.0% INT rate with the 49ers, and San Francisco will probably throw the ball quite a bit under Kyle Shanahan. That would seem to make Garoppolo a sneaky candidate here. But behind Jimmy G is Nick Mullens, perhaps the best backup in the league, and there are already whispers that Mullens ought to be considered as a starter. If Garoppolo starts racking up turnovers when the games matter, San Francisco will have to give Mullens a shot at some point.
Josh Rosen MIA +1600 and Ryan Fitzpatrick MIA +2500
Rosen was a turnover machine as a rookie, sporting an ugly 3.6% INT rate with 14 interceptions in 13 starts, just two picks away from leading the league. Fitzpatrick is a turnover machine too, somehow spraying a 3.5% INT rate across over a decade in the league and still sticking around to see it. We know by now that Fitzmagic only lasts a couple of games before expiring, so bad Fitz will get benched quickly. We also know the Dolphins haven’t invested a ton into Rosen, so if he looks embarrassing, they’ll probably just let Fitzpatrick finish the season. These two could easily combine for 25+ interceptions, but they’re going to cannibalize each other’s numbers.
We’re down to 12 names, with 5 of the top 14 odds on the board eliminated.
The injury risk on top of everything else is too much
Lamar Jackson BAL +5000
Jackson is young and that can mean mistakes, but Jackson’s always taken care of the ball and had only a 1.8% INT rate as a rookie. Even worse, he only averaged 22.5 pass attempts per start. Project that over a 16-game season and Jackson would need something close to a 5% INT rate to be in range. Plus, as a runner, he’s always an injury threat. Don’t bite on the long odds.
Deshaun Watson HOU +2200
Watson had 8 picks in 6 starts as a rookie but saw his INT rate drop to 1.8% last year with just 9 in 16 games. Watson sits at 2.4% for his career. Houston has a bad offensive line so Watson could be under duress a lot, but he’s not a high volume guy and has some injury threat too with his running style. It looks like the rookie year was the anomaly, and Watson is taking care of the ball now. He should be safe.
Cam Newton CAR +1400
Newton has thrown double-digit interceptions every year of his NFL career, with 17 in his rookie year as a career-worst. Newton’s 2.7% INT rate is not terrible, but it’s certainly not good. Still, Newton doesn’t have huge volume. He also runs the ball a ton and is almost always dealing with an injury, including recovering now from offseason shoulder surgery. There are too many avenues for Newton to avoid racking up big interception numbers.
Josh Allen BUF +1200
Allen struggled with accuracy and turnovers in college and again as a rookie, throwing 12 picks in 11 games last year, an ugly 3.8% INT rate. Buffalo plans to have Allen throw safer check-down passes this year, so that should help cut the turnovers. They’re also a run-heavy team, with Allen averaging only 27.7 pass attempts per start as a rookie. Add in Allen’s running ability – which means fewer passes and also makes him an injury risk – and there’s just not quite enough volume there for the numbers to add up.
Andrew Luck IND +3300
Luck throws more interceptions than you think. He averages 13.8 a season, and he missed nine games in one of those seasons. Luck’s 2.5% INT rate is just okay, and he typically has massive volume. Give Luck 600+ passes at 2.5% and that’s 15 interceptions. It’s close enough to give him a shot at 18 for sure. But Luck may not even be healthy enough to start the season, and if he struggles, you have to imagine the injury is a convenient excuse to shut it down early. Can you really see Luck throwing 18+ interceptions?
4 big favorites with a shot but a path to safety
Baker Mayfield CLE +1600
The Browns are league darlings right now, everyone’s favorite sleeper and Mayfield is a lot of the reason why. But Cleveland looks like they’ll have a ton of passing volume, and Baker had a 2.9% INT rate as a rookie, so couldn’t he rack up a ton of turnovers? That makes sense in theory, but 2.9% is actually pretty good for a rookie, and it would’ve been even better if not for two 3-interception games in December. Mayfield took care of the ball in college too, with a 1.8% INT rate at Oklahoma. His interception rate should fall, not rise, and most sophomores improve. He feels pretty safe.
Sam Darnold NYJ +1100
Darnold had a lot of turnovers as a rookie as many quarterbacks do. He threw 15 interceptions in 13 starts, a 3.6% INT rate. That was up from Darnold’s 2.6% at USC, not bad, but not great either. But look a little closer. Darnold threw only one interception in 125 passes his final four games after returning from injury. He was much improved and looked like the game had slowed down. Darnold probably won’t get benched and should have solid volume, but it looks like he curbed the turnovers and is ready to turn a corner.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT +800
Roethlisberger opened as the betting favorite after leading the league in picks last season. Big Ben’s 2.7% career INT rate is not very good, and unlike many of the older veterans, his rate has gone up, not down, late in his career. Roethlisberger has 13+ picks four straight seasons. But Big Ben also saw a huge spike in volume last year, leading the league with 675 passes, only his second time ever over 600. He hasn’t cleared 16 interceptions since 2006 either, so even though he’s likely to be in the 12-to-15 range, remember that he led the league last year in part because of a historically low winner’s total. There’s also the annual injury scare. Ben will throw a bunch of picks. Someone else will just throw more.
Jameis Winston TB +750
Winston is the betting favorite. And Jameis is a turnover machine. He’s thrown 58 interceptions in 54 starts, a robust 3.0% INT rate. Winston was only two picks away from leading the league last year, and he only started nine games! Still, this bet doesn’t make a ton of sense. Tampa has no attachment to Winston, and Blaine Gabbert is a more than capable backup who will surely play at some point. New Bucs coach Bruce Arians has also been quite successful with quarterbacks in the past. Winston isn’t good, but these odds require him to lead the league in picks 13.3% of the time to be a good bet. If he makes enough mistakes, he simply won’t get the chance for more.
* * *
The 4 best bets on the board
Mitchell Trubisky CHI +3300
Trubisky might be the best long-shot bet on the board. He has a 2.5% INT rate and actually jumped to 2.8% as a sophomore last year. Trubisky had 12 picks in 14 starts last fall, and advanced metrics show that he had as many as five more potential interceptions dropped by defenders. That’s potentially 17, which passes to 19+ in a full 16-game slate. On top of that, Trubisky’s volume is slowly creeping up as the Bears begin to pass the ball more. Chicago can’t really bench Trubisky, so he’s going to have to play through the mistakes. He could be the long shot you’re looking for to win this thing.
Patrick Mahomes KC +2000
Mahomes is a sneaky pick. His 2.1% INT rate certainly appears safe, but that’s from one magical year and not enough to feel certain, and Mahomes benefited from a number of dropped interceptions last year. Mahomes has a ton of volume, and the MVP is not exactly going to get benched. He also tries all sorts of wonky plays, throwing with his off-hand and apparently working on a behind-the-back pass in practice. Mahomes should throw 600+ passes, so if he gets to a 3% INT rate, he’d be in range. Could a player really go from MVP to leading the league in interceptions the next? It’s in play.
Kyler Murray ARI +1000
Murray seems like an obvious candidate for a lot of good reasons. He’s a rookie, and rookies often struggle with picks, even if they settle down later, as they adjust to the game. Murray is also running a complex Kliff Klingsbury system, and it’s one in which he should have massive volume and could be among the league leaders in passes. Murray is the #1 pick and a surefire starter with no real depth behind him. The volume will be there. But Murray was historically accurate at Oklahoma, completing 69.8% of his passes with an elite 1.7% INT rate. The narrative makes sense, but this is not a guy with a history of turning it over. Maybe that will change as a rookie making a ton of passes, but the numbers don’t fit the narrative as well as you’d hope.
Philip Rivers LAC +1400
Rivers threw just 10 and 12 interceptions the last two seasons, but that was down from an average of 17 the previous three years. Rivers has seasons of 18, 20, and 21 interceptions and four years over 3% INT rate. He’s also 38 and maybe without left tackle Russell Okung and/or running back Melvin Gordon much of the season. There’s an avenue here to things falling apart, and even so, Rivers won’t be getting benched. He doesn’t have huge volume, but he could, if his star RB holds out much of the year. There’s a real path here.
So that’s it! We did the math. Give me Trubisky, Mahomes, Murray, and Rivers against the field. A $100 bet on all four costs you $400 but pays out between $1000 and $3300 as long as one of our four wins. Happy betting!