2017 Offensive NFL Watch List
Welcome to the 2017 NFL watch list. Here, I’ll be breaking down some of the best NFL players in specific skill categories and why you should be paying close attention to them this year.
Don’t worry, this isn’t gonna be just some cliche list of super star players accompanied by some boring traditional statistics. Here, I want to really dive into some of the nuances of each position for your educational purposes. Learning the small details is something I believe is important for any fan. Not only does it give you a different, more sophisticated understanding of the game, but it really allows you to truly appreciate the greatness you’re seeing. The average viewer is going to be wowed by the obvious “highlight reel” plays, but there are a ton of incredible plays in between that go unnoticed simply because the viewer doesn’t actually grasp the complexity of the game. Let’s get started.
Ball skills are so important in today’s NFL. With the league being the pass happy bonanza it is today, ball skills are a difference maker. In today’s NFL, saying a team has a “balanced” offense does not mean they split plays between runs and passes evenly at 50–50. A “balanced” offense in today’s game is more like a 60–40 split between passing and running plays. This is why a player’s ball skills are so important. To clarify, the term “ball skills” does comes with some contributing factors, such as great body control and field awareness.
First up is Julio Jones. When we’re talking about everything that comes with and contributes to great ball skills, Julio checks every box and than some. He has incredible body control and field awareness. First, let’s talk about his body control. Julio’s premier body control allows him to catch basically any type of ball. Doesn’t matter if its a jump ball, over the shoulder, behind him, in front of him or at his shoelaces he can go get it. Perhaps the best and most insane showcase of his ball skills and body control are on this insane catch vs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Only a handful of players in the entire world can make this catch. Actually, forget that, its probably less than a handful that could make this catch. Most mere mortals looking for the ball over their shoulder simply cannot make that kind of adjustment at full speed when the ball is placed over the other shoulder. Julio tracks the ball all the way to the point where he’s looking straight up running at full speed and tracks it all the way over his outside shoulder while staying upright and staying in bounds. Absolutely ridiculous.
Next, let’s talk about his field awareness. Julio is a master at dragging those toes to stay in bounds no matter where he is on the field. As long as Matty Ice keeps the ball in bounds and catchable, Julio is coming down with it. Although Julio has made arguably more impressive catches in terms of “wow” factor, this catch in the playoffs against San Francisco is my all time favorite catch of his. If you looked up the term “field awareness” or “ball skills”, this should be the only search result.
Oh my, this catch has me feeling all types of ways. First of all, the jump ball ability to attack the ball at it’s highest point and just flat out beat perfect coverage. Then, the wherewithal to turn around and secure the ball away from the defender in his outside hand. This part is very important. If Julio held the ball out to the side or in his other hand, the defender would’ve had an easy time swiping the ball out. Instead, by securing the ball and then bringing it close to his body, he effectively boxes out the defender from making any type of play on the ball. Now that the defender can’t make a play on the ball, his only option is to make a play on the body. To try and force Julio out of bounds. But with a man draped all over him, he still manages to get both feet in bounds. For my money, Julio is the best receiver in the league when healthy and it isn’t that close.
Next up, let’s talk about David Johnson. Johnson is the best receiving running back in the league and it isn’t close. The difference between Johnson and other great receiving backs like Le’veon Bell is how he does it. Other backs such as Bell rely on short screens, check downs or mismatches in the slot against bigger and much slower linebackers. Johnson doesn’t need to line up in the slot or just be a check down option out of the backfield. He can legitimately line up out wide as a true wide receiver and play in 2 or 3 wide receiver packages. He’s a running back who can run a pretty comprehensive route tree, no other running back is doing that. Johnson did play receiver in college so his versatility should come as no surprise. The average running back is targeted less than 1 yard downfield. Johnson’s average depth of target was almost 5 yards downfield. Check out this catch as it is a great example of his ball skills and body control all wrapped into one play.
Just look at this adjustment he makes facing man coverage from Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor. Name another running back catching essentially a back shoulder pass 30 yards downfield against a safety. Yeah, thought so. Don’t be surprised if Johnson becomes just the 3rd player in NFL history to go for 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards. With the receiving skills he has, 90+ catches and 1,000+ receiving yards are very possible.
Let’s start off with what I think is one the most underrated parts of football, route running. Sure, if you’re that good, the quarterback will probably throw you the football anyways despite being covered. However, a lot of the time, it’s the route running that leads to the biggest plays. The plays where the average viewer goes ‘yeah, he was wide open’. Well, there is a reason he was that wide open. He probably ran an impeccable route and burned his defender.
Route running contains a lot of subtleties that an average football fan probably wouldn’t notice. Once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to appreciate those subtleties more thoroughly.
The first guy I want to mention is Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper. Despite being just 23 years old, the former Crimson Tide standout runs his routes with elite precision and it’s an absolute joy to watch. Cooper’s routes combine his attention to detail and his absurd acceleration to make him almost unarguable at times. Here are a couple of routes that perfectly showcase his combination of acceleration from a stop and attention to detail.
The key here is in Cooper’s release off the line of scrimmage and then his hips in selling the fake. Kevon Seymour is playing off the line of scrimmage and allows Cooper to get a clean release off the line. Cooper takes a quick stutter step and pushes hard to the inside. With Cooper’s great acceleration, Seymour instantly starts to panic. Instead of holding ground and playing Cooper to the inside, he pushes off and starts making a bee line towards Cooper in an attempt to cut him off. Yeah, biiiiig mistake. Cooper then plants his left foot and accelerates to the outside. This all works because of Cooper’s hips after his stutter step. By completely turning his hips inside, Seymour buys the underneath route and abandons his coverage technique in an attempt to cutoff the short route. You can see that Seymour actually has to turn the wrong way in order to follow Cooper downfield. This is a result of him losing his footwork and getting caught with his hips facing directly towards the middle of the field, a position you should not find yourself in as a corner. If his hips were still facing towards Cooper, he could’ve pivoted, turned the correct direction and at least attempted to make a play. Instead, Cooper caused him to panic and prematurely turn his hips towards the middle of the field. As soon as any good receiver sees this, its over.
In this play, Cooper is at the top of the screen and runs a post pattern route in man coverage against Jimmy Smith. Again, the key here is in Cooper’s hips. Notice how right before Cooper breaks back towards the outside, he looks over his right shoulder and simultaneously pushes his hips inside as if he were about to break inside and over the middle (Gronkowski is also a master at this extremely subtle fake). This incredibly subtle move makes all the difference. Assuming Cooper is going to break inside and over the middle, Smith immediately starts panicking and tries to recover. Then, in a split second, Cooper plants his right foot and accelerates to the outside. By selling the route until the very last second with his head and his hips, it makes it incredibly difficult to read because he gives no tells. Some receivers are lazier and will make a rounder cut to the outside allowing backs to recover or read the move before it even happens. With Cooper, there’s just absolutely no way to tell he’s about to cut back outside until he actually does it. At that point, you’re already beat and praying you have safety help over the top.
Next, we get to tight end Jordan Reed. While Gronkowski is undeniably the best overall tight end in the game and possibly ever (when healthy), Reed is the best “move” tight end in the NFL. What makes Reed’s route running so special is he plays and moves more like a receiver. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you were watching a Redskins game and actually thought he was a receiver. For his size, he’s as fluid and explosive as it can get. Reed has a knack for creating insane amounts of separation at the top of his routes. Not many players in the game do it better at the top of their routes. Take a look at the next couple of routes and just look at the separation he gets at the top of his routes.
Just take a look at the speed and fluidity that he runs this route with. Right before the snap, Reed motioned over from the right and set himself up in an one on one situation. From there, it was over. Reed is simply too fast and too big to lose this battle. Reed runs about five yards deep, plants on his right foot, shifts his weight and then plants with his left and shifts his weight back again all so fast the defender can’t react. The defender doesn’t even push back towards the middle of the field until Reed has already made two full strides away from him as he drifts the wrong direction. Talk about a shimmy shake.
Next up is this incredible pivot route against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For a big guy and a tight end, watch how low he gets to not only stop on a dime, but explode in the other direction. Reed essentially compresses his body down like a spring to reverse field and leave his defender in the dust. Again, no one is better at separating at the top of their routes than Jordan Reed.
Now, let’s get into the running skills you should be watching for this season. First up is the art of patience in the run game. Modern NFL defenses almost exclusively employ more aggressive defensive schemes in order to force more errant throws or to blow up the run. However, a couple backs have found a way to exploit these over-aggressive defensive fronts and turn over zealous rushers into simple practice pylons.
Yeah, you guessed it, Le’veon Bell is up first. This should be a surprise to absolutely no one. When it comes to just running, Bell is the best pure runner in the NFL and it isn’t even remotely close. Bell is an absolute master at setting up his blocks through his patience. He is the master of the counterattack and as a defender, if you don’t play him perfectly, you have no chance. The margin for error against Bell is basically zero. Bell absolutely punishes any mistakes made from defensive linemen and linebackers.
In this play, the Steelers run a nice play meant to give them a numbers advantage on the strong side. They bait both linebackers into big holes on the playside A gap and backside B gap and then let Bell do his thing. Remember when I said Bell just punishes any mistakes made by defensive linemen and linebackers? Well, that’s exactly what he does here. Watch how he slowly hops up to the line of scrimmage and surveys the available holes. He quickly sees how the outside linebacker, Donald Butler (#56, his number is kind of covered from the blockers arm), engages in the block waaaaaaay too early. As soon as Butler peaks through the once seemingly gaping hole, Bell simply stutter steps and then jump cuts to the other side of his blocker. This simple readjustment by Bell gives his blocker leverage on the over zealous Butler and allows him to easily get by. For Bell, this is easy money. Butler got too aggressive and Bell made him pay for a big gain.
In this play, its linebacker Preston Brown (#52) who blows his assignment and gets way too aggressive. As the mike linebacker here, his sole job on the play is to stop the run. To do that, he is supposed to mirror the lead blocker, in this case, the full back (#45) who runs to the hole where Bell eventually ends up. Instead of staying on his assignment and following the lead blocker, he gets greedy when he sees Bell through a small hole and rushes through instantly getting leveraged out of the play when Bell recognizes this and cuts left. So, instead of staying on assignment and stopping the run, Brown made a mistake and Bell made him pay.
The next player I want to talk about will probably be a surprise to a lot of people. However, he’s the most Le’veon like running back we’ve seen since, well, Le’veon. It’s the former star and highly controversial Oklahoma Sooner, Joe Mixon. Let’s dive straight into one of his most patient plays from this preseason.
Here, Mixon straight up stops for a split second at the line of scrimmage and finds a massive hole in the play’s backside. Mixon takes the ball right and completely baits about half the Buccaneer’s defense into pushing outside on their blocks. Then, Mixon stops and cuts inside. Similar to Bell, this is masterfully setting up your blocks with patience. This change in direction gives all of his blockers leverage on their defenders. Notice how all 5 linemen have their backs facing the middle of the field. This shows you just how well Mixon setup all of these blocks for himself. Mixon doesn’t have a ton of NFL film yet, having yet to play a single regular season game, but so far he’s showed glimpses of elite running back patience and an ability to setup his blocks well.
Before everyone starts complaining about how vision and patience should be the same category, let me explain the difference as I see it. Yes, patience and vision do tend to go hand in hand but here I’m looking at some of the best zone runners in the NFL. This guy doesn’t necessarily show the ridiculous turtle-paced patience of guys like Le’veon but he does show incredible vision and awareness on when and where to cut back and find their creases in these zone running schemes.
In case you don’t know how a zone running scheme works, I’ll go over a quick overview. Not to go too in depth, a zone running scheme ditches the idea of a individual blocking assignments. Essentially, the concept is for the offensive line to work together in unison rather than have individualized assignments such as in a power run scheme. Whereas in power running schemes, you have lead blockers, pulling guards and many one on one blocks. At the beginning of a zone running play, you’ll almost always see all the offensive linemen take a synchronized first step towards one direction. In addition, you’ll see a ton of double team blocks at the point of attack. One main attraction of a zone running scheme is the simplicity. Zone running schemes do not have to change based on different defensive fronts and looks. The idea is to create at least one running lane on the play side which is then subject to the running back’s vision to hit the hole or crease.
Zone running schemes allow physically inferior backs to put up monster numbers as long as they have great vision. To give you just a few examples, Terrell Davis, Alfred Morris, CJ Anderson and Arian Foster were all incredible zone runners. You don’t have to be that big, that fast or that explosive to run in a zone scheme effectively. One back who fits this mold very well is Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard. Howard isn’t that fast, he doesn’t have incredible feet and he doesn’t have the elite quickness other great backs do. However, he’s does possess elite vision that allows him to find his creases and cutback lanes.
Really not too much to break down in these plays. All there is to watch is just how effective Howard is at finding the holes and creases at the line of scrimmage.
Okay, so I know I didn’t include any passing skill categories. I did this because passing in the NFL is in of itself so sophisticated and complex I could do an entire post just on passing. However, I am working on a defensive post before I consider the passing article depending on demand from this and the next post.