5 NFL Teams That Could See Big Changes in Personnel Usage
As coaches and players change in the NFL each year, we get excited about the new names but don’t always dig much deeper than the surface level for each move. In reality, some of these changes can drastically impact how a team approaches a scheme or game plan for a given season.
Now with personnel usage stats becoming more common and available to the public, we can really see which teams could be shifting their philosophies from 2016 to 2017.
So which teams could see some tweaks in usage, based on their offseason moves? (Note: All personnel usage included here comes from Sharp Football Stats.)
Green Bay Packers: More Tight Ends
No one thinks of the Green Bay Packers as a spread offense, but last season, few spread the field more than the Pack. They were one of three teams to use four or more wide receivers on over 30 percent of their offensive snaps. The team who did it at the fourth-most frequent rate did so on just 15 percent of their plays.
To a degree, this makes some sense -- when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback, you’d like to give him as many options to throw the ball to as possible. Those also help when the general offensive philosophy for the team all year was the football equivalent of a shrug emoji.
But in the offseason, the Packers added a little more bulk for the passing game, so they signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. In 2016 with the New England Patriots, Bennett had the fifth-best Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target among 32 tight ends with at least 50 targets, and in Green Bay, he'll play a big role as both a receiver and blocker. Kendricks was nowhere near as good -- he was 29th among those 32 tight ends -- but he’s still likely to see the field quite often.
The Packers were just one of two teams to have two or more tight ends on the field on less than 10 percent of their offensive plays. That should change in 2017.
Tennessee Titans: More Wide Receivers
The Tennessee Titans were just about the complete opposite of the Packers in 2016. Under the exotic smashmouth design, no team had a higher percentage of plays with two or more tight ends on the field (40.3 percent), or with two or fewer wide receivers on the field (55 percent).
None of this really deterred the Tennessee passing offense, though. Marcus Mariota truly transcended a scheme that might not have been as friendly for other young quarterbacks in the league. Mariota ranked 11th in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks, and the pass offense as a whole ranked 11th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play.
But the percentages above don’t exactly mesh with what the Titans did during the offseason. They did draft tight end Jonnu Smith, who could get on the field in two tight end sets with Delanie Walker, but a majority of Tennessee’s focus was upgrading at wide receiver.
The Titans drafted Corey Davis fifth overall and then selected Taywan Taylor in the third round back in April. When Eric Decker was released by the New York Jets, Tennessee signed him to a one-year deal. And let's not forget Rishard Matthews, who was the seventh-most efficient wide receiver by Reception NEP per target last season among 41 receivers with 100 or more passes thrown their way.
With that much invested in the position, it will be hard to imagine the team going with two or fewer receivers as often as 2016.
New York Jets: Fewer Wide Receivers
It may come as a surprise, but the Jets had the second-highest percentage of plays with four or more wide receivers on the field (33.2 percent) last season. It didn’t really matter all that much because the offense was terrible -- 30th by Adjusted Passing NEP per play -- no matter who was lined up where.
Heading into 2017, it’s hard to figure the Jets can replicate those receiver heavy looks, mostly because they don’t have the receivers to do so. Decker and Brandon Marshall were released, which leaves the following names on top of Gang Green’s receiving depth chart: Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson, and Charone Peake. The Jets also have rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for the team in 2017, lining four of those players up on over 30 percent of the offensive snaps isn’t going to help anyone. Though with the Jets, maybe that’s the plan.
New York Giants: More Tight Ends
By now you probably know about the New York Giants and how often they ran out three wide receivers (11 personnel) on the field, but in case you missed the meeting, we're talking 92 percent of the time. It’s a staggering number, but there were few other options.
The running game wasn’t great -- 27th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play -- and throwing to the tight ends was a bad idea. Will Tye was 31st among the 32 tight ends with 50-plus targetss in Reception NEP per target. Larry Donnell was one of 7 tight ends among 115 to see at least one target to have negative Reception NEP per target. There’s a reason the offensive gameplan was throw a slant to Odell Beckham and hope he breaks one.
The Giants still have three strong receivers in Beckham, Sterling Shepard, and Brandon Marshall, but they spent a first-round pick on tight end Evan Engram. Engram is mostly a receiving tight end and could see the field as a de facto wide receiver along with free agent signee Rhett Ellison who has mostly been a blocking tight end with the Minnesota Vikings -- playing a more traditional tight end role. There could also be increased usage for last year’s sixth-round pick, tight end, Jerell Adams.
In 2017, the Giants could decrease their use of 11 personnel by 15 percent and still lead the league in plays with three receivers on the field.
San Francisco 49ers: More Running Backs, Fewer Wide Receivers
There might not be a bigger transition in personnel philosophy than the shift from from Chip Kelly's to Kyle Shanahan's. As proficient as the 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense was in the modern NFL -- first in Adjusted NEP per play by a wide margin -- it’s incredible how traditional the personnel usage was. Atlanta was second behind Tennessee in percentage of plays with two or fewer wide receivers (54.5 percent) and third behind the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots in percentage of plays with two or more running backs (30.3 percent). It wasn’t a spread it out and sling it team.
Last year’s Falcons had the fourth-fewest plays in 11 personnel last season, while the San Francisco 49ers had the third-most. This year’s Niners have Pierre Garcon and not much else at receiver. Meanwhile, they spent a boatload of money to bring in Kyle Juszczyk as a fullback. Shanahan also loves tight ends and might be the most creative coach in utilizing the position, which could be good news for Vance McDonald (if he's still on the roster) and rookie George Kittle.
They won’t match the 2016 Falcons in production, but they should look close in personnel.