NFL Evolution: How the future of pro football looks

April 28, 2012 by

The numbers, film and public sentiment all agree: the NFL has evolved into a passing league. Professional football as we know it is transforming before our very eyes. It’s not as simple as “more passes = greater importance of quarterback and receivers”. Each and every position is impacted multifariously. Here’s the rundown of how, and what all it means for the bigger picture.

 

Quarterback

Virtually the entire league agrees: in order to compete for a Super Bowl, you have to have a superstar quarterback. The last game-managing quarterback to win a title was Brad Johnson in 2002. Since Johnson, the list of quarterbacks who have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy reads like a roll call for future Hall of Fame inductees: Tom Brady (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning (2), Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Front offices around the league have taken note. Next Thursday, after the Colts draft Andrew Luck and the Redskins draft Robert Griffin III, 28 of the 32 starting NFL quarterbacks entering 2012 will have either been drafted in the first round or will be playing under a contract worth at least $20 million guaranteed. The only teams who won’t have first-round or $20 million signal-callers are the Dolphins (unless they draft Ryan Tannehill, which many expect they will), Bengals (they took rising star Andy Dalton early in the second round last year), Browns (who seem anxious to replace Colt McCoy) and Seahawks (who just signed free agent Matt Flynn to a contract worth $10 guaranteed).

Of course, just because 28 teams have made star-level investments in their quarterbacks doesn’t mean the league has 28 star quarterbacks. Many quarterbacks are overrated entering the league or wind up underachieving. But the results aren’t the focus here – the intentions are. Twenty eight teams have committed heavily to building primarily around their quarterback. The next time someone tells you that a team can win a title with a great defense and Trent Dilfer-esque signal-caller, tell them that seven out of eight NFL franchises think that’s nonsense.

Obviously, having a middle-tier quarterback does not instantly render you noncompetitive. The 49ers technically have a first-round quarterback in Alex Smith (the No. 1 overall pick in 2005), but the modest three-year, $24 million contract they just gave him affirms what Jim Harbaugh’s play-calling already revealed: the team considers Smith a puzzle piece, not a building block. But Smith and the Niners are the exception, not the rule. And even the Niners know that it’s difficult to sustain success while hiding your quarterback. That’s why they went after Peyton Manning this offseason.

So we agree that you need a great quarterback in today’s NFL. But what defines a great quarterback these days? Raw tools – such as size, arm strength and accuracy – are important (no matter what the Tebowites say). So is the ability to read a defense. Or, more precisely, manipulate a defense. Because the game has gotten so complex and the athletes are so much better, it’s no longer enough for a great quarterback to drop back and simply know what he’s looking at. A great quarterback now must figure out what he’s looking at before the snap. This is for two reasons: 1. with more quality pass-rushers, faster blitzes and increased complexity of defensive schemes, a quarterback doesn’t have enough time after the snap to process everything he’s seeing; 2. much of today’s offensive strategies center around making defenders guess wrong; a quarterback can’t influence a defender’s guesswork if he doesn’t begin the play with at least some idea of what the defender is first going to be guessing on his own.

The proliferation of presnap quarterbacking is one of the main reasons why completion percentages have gone up. (The creation of more anti-defensive rules and improved passer training at football’s amateur levels are probably the two other biggest reasons.) Great quarterbacks do most of their work before the snap. The really great ones can make drastic adjustments to their teammate’s assignments because of it (hence all the pointing and audibling you see from guys like Brady, Brees, Rodgers or the Manning Brothers).

Another reason presnap recognition has become vital is that in spread-oriented systems – which most quality offenses run a version of these days – the ball often comes out on a three-or five-step drop. With more action taking place earlier in the down, more of the mental legwork has to be handled before the down. More and more passes these days are quicker, shorter and more horizontal. This, of course, is another factor helping completion percentage, though in this style of offense, a catchable ball is not enough. Quarterbacks must throw a catch-and-runnable ball. You can’t just put it on the receiver, you have to put it out in front, chest-high and with the perfect amount of touch so that he can snag it without breaking stride (Rodgers with the Packers receivers or Brady with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are two great examples). Precision-accuracy has always been important – especially since the rise of Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. But in a lot of offenses nowadays, it’s mandatory.

When you think about it, all the attributes that have defined great quarterbacking over the years are still the same – the significance of those attributes has just been magnified. Greatness by NFL standards is a lot to ask of any quarterback. There are plenty of quarterbacks who can simply be “good”. The problem with having a “good” quarterback is, in order to succeed, your team has to be good at every other spot, and probably great in the run game and on defense. With the salary cap system and heightened competitiveness of the league, it’s nearly impossible to be good at 21 other positions, let alone great. A team with a great quarterback, on the other hand, can mask weaknesses (see the Patriots defense, the Packers and their so-so running backs, the Saints offensive tackles or the Manningless Colts and their “everything else” last year). Keep this in mind as we analyze the evolution of all the other positions.

 

Wide Receivers

As we examined early in free agency, no longer do teams have a No. 1, 2 and 3 wide receiver pecking order. Sure, there are still prototypical roles for receivers (Wes Welker is a consummate slot weapon, Plaxico Burress is a quintessential outside red zone target), but with elite teams being able to put so much more on their quarterback’s plates these days, offenses have become more complex in ways that has receivers lining up all over the field. Passing games have become about creating one-on-one mismatches through various formations and receiver distribution (“receiver distribution” refers to the where and who for how receivers line up).

If you have a true No. 1 receiver, things can be easy. Calvin Johnson is a one-on-one mismatch against anyone. Because of this, he almost never faces single coverage, but that means one of his teammates does. And chances are, that teammate creates a one-on-one mismatch because, as an offensive player facing a defender, he has the advantage of knowing where the next step is going.

The problem is, most teams don’t have a Calvin Johnson. In fact, only the Texans (with Andre Johnson) and Cardinals (with Larry Fitzgerald) do. Yes, there are other NFL star receivers, but they’re not megastars. Most players – and heck, even the megastars, since it doesn’t hurt – need the occasional benefit of drawing a formation-created mismatch.

Some of the best examples of formation-created mismatches: the Packers 3 x 1 receiver sets, the Saints putting Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham in the slot or tight splits, or just anything the Patriots do with their tight ends (who are often used as de facto wide receivers). These league-wide trends create value in receivers who have niche talents (mainly slot guys) and shifts some of the emphasis from a receiver’s physical talents to his coachability and fundamentals. In a vacuum, not a single wide receiver from the Packers, Saints, Giants, Patriots or Chargers is a surefire top-five talent at his position. But a lot of the wideouts on those teams have thrived because their specific abilities fit perfectly in their team’s evolving offensive structure.

 

Offensive Line

Everyone keeps talking about the declining value of the running back position. As we’ll examine soon, the running back position is not losing importance – it’s just changing. What is losing importance is the almighty left tackle position. After Michael Lewis’ bestselling book The Blind Side came out in 2006, and again after the book was made into a Hollywood blockbuster, it became chic for people to trumpet the importance of the left tackle. After all, the quarterback is the most important player on the field and the left tackle protects the quarterback’s blind side, right? Therefore, the left tackle must be the second most important player on the field.

Whether this notion was ever even true is one discussion. (It’d be interesting to see how many games starting quarterbacks have missed in recent years due to a nasty hit or even just pass-rushing pressure from their blind side; in all likelihood, it’s probably no more than they’ve missed from taking hits while scrambling or getting blitzed cleanly up the middle.) What’s not a discussion is that this notion is not true now. With so much of the passing game now predicated on quick strikes, multiple spread patterns and the shotgun, a star left tackle is not vital. Look at the last four Super Bowl winning left tackles. You have the Giant’s Dave Diehl, a natural guard who only plays outside because of personnel necessity; you have Chad Clifton of the Packers, a good-but-not-great aging veteran; then there’s Jermon Bushrod, an athletic enough player but, at the time of the Saints’ Super Bowl, arguably the poorest, shakiest pass-blocking technician in the league; before him was the mammoth but wildly inconsistent Max Starks of the Steelers.

What’s more, look at the teams that have had the top left tackles over the past five years: Cleveland Browns (Joe Thomas), Miami Dolphins (Jake Long), Denver Broncos (Ryan Clady), Tennessee Titans (Michael Roos) and Philadelphia Eagles/Buffalo Bills (Jason Peters). Any powerhouses on that list? The reality is left tackles are nice, but they don’t correlate with winning and losing.

If left tackles these days are less important, then so are right tackles. Right tackles’ value has probably declined even more considering that the proliferation of spread offenses has taken away from the traditional running game.

While edge blockers are on the down, interior blockers are on the up. With quarterbacks having so many presnap responsibilities, it doesn’t hurt if your center can help with some of the protection calls. Having quality guards is important because many teams have taken their blitzes from the outside to the inside, as that’s the fastest route to the quarterback and also creates visual congestion, which can disrupt the timing of the quick-passing game. Thus, it’s more important than ever for a guard to be consistent and smart.

Just because great quarterbacks can mask a limited offensive line, and just because fullbacks and traditional running plays are trending down, doesn’t mean offensive linemen are headed for irrelevance. In fact, they may soon be more significant than ever because, as we’ll examine next, rushing attacks are going to take on a whole new, space-oriented dimension. With more run plays destined to occur out of passing formations, offensive linemen will have to be more mobile than ever. That’s convenient because, in the meantime, the sophistication and speed of defensive blitzes has increased the athletic demands on pass-blockers.

 

Running backs and tight ends

Despite what you here, the running back position is not going anywhere. Rather, it’s just changing. In the near future, fewer and fewer running backs will look like Jerome Bettis or Adrian Peterson, while more and more will look like Jahvid Best or C.J. Spiller. The running back-by-committee trend is probably here to stay, not because running backs can’t take a physical beating like they used to but because running backs are gradually transforming into quasi-wide receivers. Instead of running between the tackles or behind blockers, running backs are doing all sorts of different things all over the field. Evolution usually leads to more versatility. Because of this, expect the value of running backs, not tight ends, to surge the most over the next 10 years.

Tight ends are experiencing a meteoric rise right now – and understandably so. The Saints offense, which ranked first in scoring last season, ran through third-year wonder Jimmy Graham. The Patriots offense, ranked second in scoring, ran through Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The league’s No. 3 scoring offense, Green Bay, boasted super athlete Jermichael Finley; the No. 5 offense, Detroit, had former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew; the No. 6 offense was San Diego, with the possibly Canton-bound Antonio Gates; the No. 7 ranked Panthers offense ran a two tight end system featuring former first-rounders Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

But look closer at some of the minute but important evidence involving these top offenses and you’ll realize that a lot more is going on than tight ends simply dominating. When the Saints played the Giants on Monday night last November, the Giants willingly accepted the mismatch of having nickel linebacker Jacquian Williams match up with Jimmy Graham. They did this so that that paean safety Antrel Rolle could match up with running back Darren Sproles. This wasn’t by accident – this was the game plan New York came up with after diligent preparation. The plan didn’t happen to work, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Giants deemed Sproles a greater threat than Graham.

If you take a step back, it’s easy to see why. A tight end has much less field to work with the running back. He lines up on one distinct side of the formation, which often limits the scope of ground he can cover. What’s more, depending on the receiver distribution, often a defense can logically surmise before the snap whether a tight end’s route is going to take him left or right. On top of a limited field, a tight end is at the mercy of another player, as he can only touch the ball if a quarterback gets it to him.

A running back is also at the mercy of the quarterback, but the delivery of the ball is much simpler. Obviously, a handoff is easy to complete. And because a running back aligns in the backfield, most passes that he catches are shorter and easier, as there’s much more natural space between a running back and defender before the snap. So it’s easier to get the ball to a running back. This point was proven when the Patriots revealed their new surprise tactic last postseason: lining up tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield. The Patriots didn’t do that to be cute or make a runner out of Hernandez (though he did prove effective on traditional carries), they did it because they wanted to find new easy ways to get their most versatile playmaker the ball.

This is where the evolution rises up: in the creative ways teams get the ball to the running back (or whichever playmaker aligns in the backfield – expect 99 percent of them to still be running backs since guys like Hernandez don’t exactly grow on trees). Players like Jahvid Best and C.J. Spiller and Maurice Jones-Drew, among others, are good enough athletes and pass-catchers to split out wide or in the slot. That’s critical because not only are they a weapon there, but they also provide formation versatility. In other words, when a defensive coordinator sees a running back and three wide receivers in the huddle, he calls a defense that he thinks will work against a three-receiver set. But if the running back splits out wide, now his three-receiver defense is facing a four-receiver offense. For the offense, this is called “creating a mismatch.”

Just because teams are spreading the field and throwing more doesn’t mean running plays will go away. Rather, it just means teams will call running plays from more passing formations. We’re seeing this already, in fact. In 2011, teams ran the ball a record 5,164 times out of three-plus receiver sets (that averages out to 10 times per game for each team). The previous record, set in ’08, had been 4,767 runs.

Running backs are taking more handoffs from shotgun formations, they’re running more draws and a lot of their would-be handoffs are being delivered in the form of a screen or swing pass. If offenses keep spreading out (and they should because of good quarterbacking and the fact that the wider you spread, the easier it is to recognize complex disguise and attacks from a defense), running out of passing formations is a trend that will only grow until it becomes the norm. It makes all the sense in the world to run out of spread sets. After all, by their very nature, they force the defense to widen. This creates wider running lanes. At the end of the day, the running backs are still running the ball, only now, instead of needing power to ram through a tight inside hole, they need more initial quickness and agility to stop-and-start and change directions in space.

As for tight ends (the sexiest offensive position in football right now), teams will surely keep looking for the next Gronkowski, Graham or Gates. Those guys are athletic freaks who can excel at anything. But really, for most intents and purposes, they’re wide receivers who occasionally block. That’s hard for defenses to match up to right now, but that will change because, as we’ll cover next, teams are going to soon adjust the way they evaluate linebackers and safeties. But in the grander scheme of things, offensive evolution will occur through the increased versatility, and thus resurrection of, one of the sport’s hallmark positions: running back.

 

Defense

The future of defense is dictated by the evolution of offense. Teams have to figure out how to combat the growing number of three-and four-receiver sets. It’s not realistic to find a bunch of quality cornerbacks and just line up and play. Very few corners are good enough to handle NFL wideouts man-to-man on an everydown basis (if they were, guys like Darrelle Revis wouldn’t make around a million bucks a game). And man-to-man cornerbacks can’t always combat things like presnap motion or intertwined route combinations – offensive tactics that are growing in union with the expanding variety of three-plus receiver formations. What’s more, as we just covered in the running back/tight end evolution analysis, defenses are going to have to find a way to stop the run out of nickel personnel anyway. The third corner has already replaced the third linebacker as a de facto starter, as a majority of NFL snaps now involve three or more wide receivers.

The easiest – and therefore most plausible – counter to the offensive evolution is to find more versatile defensive players inside. Someone has to be able to run with super athletic tight ends, handle the quickness of diminutive slot receivers and stay with a running back no matter where that running back goes. As it stands, safeties generally cover tight ends, nickel corners cover slot receivers and linebackers take responsibility for running backs. Problem is, offenses now mix things up in ways that compromise this formula. A linebacker isn’t athletic enough to provide elite pass coverage, but against a player like Darren Sproles, elite pass coverage is what’s required. So, the defense puts a safety on Sproles. Problem here is, the safety isn’t as physical as the linebacker and so he’s not as effective stopping Sproles’ runs between the tackles. And we know Sproles will run between the tackles because the Saints, like all teams, are starting to run more out of passing formations.

Again, the simple solution is to find better athletes on defense. That’s actually about as easy done as said. The reason offenses have evolved the way they have the past 10 years is because defenders kept getting more and more athletic. Unable to out-athlete the opponent, offenses had to find ways to outsmart them. Hence a new emphasis on presnap strategy and complex spread designs. Football’s evolution is like a teeter-totter. Defenses got better so offenses got trickier. Now, defenses have to get better again. It’s happened many times before. Defense requires slightly more raw athleticism than offense, so throughout history, finding defensive talent has not been an issue. It’s just a matter of how that talent is recruited and coached. A defender’s simple brute strength and speed carry less weight now; his flexibility and agility (i.e. versatility) carry more weight.

What’s most likely to happen is the linebacker and safety positions will blend into one. Linebackers will always play closer to the line of scrimmage, but with improved blitzes and certain offensive matchup scenarios, they’ll wind up playing just as much coverage as the safeties play. As important as the Giants’ pass-rush was down the stretch last season, perhaps the biggest reason why that defense got hot was safety Antrel Rolle moved to nickel corner/dime linebacker on passing downs. Rolle, a former Cardinal, was drafted high in the first round as a cornerback. He also happens to be an adept tackler. In short, he’s a safety who can truly cover man-to-man and truly play the run. That kind of versatility not only eliminated many of the matchup problems that New York’s opponents tried to create, it also allowed New York to better disguise and execute its own defensive concepts. Rolle is not a superstar but his versatile skill set gives the Giants incredible elasticity. The more elastic defensive personnel can be, the easier it is for the coaching staff to highlight the strengths of all its players.

On a similar note, the 49ers defense rose to dominance last season because both inside linebackers – Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis – were sensational against the run and the pass. There was nothing those two couldn’t do. Consequently, there was nothing opponents could do to create serious matchup problems for the Niners.

Another reason that finding versatile linebackers and safeties is vital for defensive progress is that the proliferation of shrewd presnap reads and quick passes from quarterbacks puts a hard ceiling on the impact of a pass-rush. Not even Lawrence Taylor could make a dent on a play where the quarterback throws a perfect strike 1.5 seconds after the snap. The only solution for a defense is to find open-space athletes who are good enough to combat an offense’s quick-striking advantages inside. And keep in mind, with passing games getting better, wide receivers across the board are getting better. So most cornerbacks need more help. The only players who can help them are the guys already lining up in space.

Throughout this examination of the NFL’s current evolution, it keeps being said that certain positions are just changing, not vanishing (the running back is the best example). Well, there is one position that might be vanishing: the traditional two-gap nose tackle. That may sound absurd considering more and more teams are running 3-4 schemes these days. And perhaps it is absurd considering that virtually all the film shows that nose tackles, when on the field, are still dominant forces.

The “yeah but” here is that nose tackles today aren’t on the field. With so many offenses lining up in passing formations, true nose tackles are playing fewer snaps. And most of those 3-4 schemes are actually just 4-3 schemes in disguise. No matter what the defensive front looks like, most of the execution involves one-gap attacks –a classic 4-3 principle. Very few teams still consistently run a traditional two-gap 3-4. In fact, a lot of teams run a 2-4-5, which is a response to the rise of passing formations. A 2-4-5 creates more standup players, which creates more sources of versatility and disguise. A great example is what Dom Capers has done as the defensive coordinator in Green Bay.

In short, gridiron battles are taking place less in the trenches and more in open space. That’s just the way the sport has evolved. Keep this in the back of your mind when critiquing the draft this weekend.

 

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