Predicting the Next Big Trends in the NFL

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMay 17, 2012

Predicting the Next Big Trends in the NFL

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    NFL fans always want to know what's going to happen next. Like, immediately.

    Months of draft analysis led up to the big weekend, but afterwards, everyone wants to know who's coming to rookie minicamps. Rookie minicamps are over and everyone's thinking OTAs. Before OTAs have ended, people are making plans to attend training camp. During training camp, there's endless anticipation for that first preseason game, and long before the preseason's over, people are salivating for Week 1.

    But we rarely take time to pull back, even to look at the medium-term future. What's happening in the NFL? How is the game we love changing? What trends and cycles are at work? How can our favorite teams get ahead of the curve?

    On the field, there's the eternal cat-and-mouse game between offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators. Offenses are passing more and more, and defenses are responding by rushing the passer however they can. How will that play out over the next few years?

    Moreover, what's following the game going to be like? What will the game look like on TV? What will the players and coaches look like—two years from now? Three years? Five? Ten?

    The following are the next top trends in the NFL. You can see the seeds of them sprouting now, but they will be coming to fruition before you know it. 

The Shotgun Formation

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    As college quarterbacks are assessed for their NFL readiness, an issue that's constantly brought up is whether they can take snaps under center.

    Increasingly, that doesn't matter. Per The New York Times' Fifth Down blog, NFL teams lined up in the shotgun an average of 40.1 percent of their offensive plays (and as high as 68 percent).

    Teams like the Packers and Saints dominate with their franchise quarterbacks and pass-first offenses, and they want to maximize that advantage. On the other end, teams that want to mimic that success but don't have quarterbacks with otherworldly skills can buy time with the shotgun.

    Further, quarterbacks can do a much better job breaking down coverage pre-snap—and identifying which of their four or five wideouts will be open—when they line up several steps behind the center.

The Rise of the Back Eight

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    As the game moves toward high-velocity passing attacks, defenses are trying desperately to rush the passer without exposing their secondary. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have kicked off a trend—what some are calling the "amoeba defense."

    Most teams rely on a three-man or four-man front when the offense is equally likely to run or pass. But in obvious passing downs, teams are starting to break free of their base alignment and play with their linebackers, defensive backs and even defensive linemen standing up and floating in zones.

    Last winter, I broke down a single play where the Detroit Lions, normally a strict 4-3 team with a traditional 4-2-5 nickel, used a 3-3-5 look against the Green Bay Packers. It gave them the flexibility to rush or cover based on the offense's plan.

    Defense used to be about putting eight men "in the box" to stop the run. Soon, it will be about putting eight men "in the amoeba."

Improved Helmets, Mouthguards and Chinstraps

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    As player safety—and concussions—continue to make big news in the NFL, the front line of defense needs reinforcements.

    Since the '70s, helmets have been designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions. The hard shell and soft padding is intended to distribute energy across the whole head, not absorb or dissipate it.

    The NFL took a great first step in protecting youth players with a program that will replace outdated and overused helmets in four areas around the country. But to better protect today's professionals, new impact-absorbing helmet technology will have to be developed, perhaps along the lines of the old urethane helmet caps.

    Those things were ugly and didn't stay on well, but were a start down a road the NFL stopped taking. But that does not mean they will not go back down it. 

    The underrated part of concussions is the lower jaw hitting the skull. Hardy Brown made a living popping guys under their chin with his shoulder and knocking them out cold. Advancements in mouthpieces could help cut down on concussions.

    There's already been an advancement in chinstrap technology: the Battle Sports Science indicator chinstrap. It has a sensor that glows red when it exceeds a certain threshold of violent movement, indicating that the wearer should be evaluated by trainers.

The No-Huddle Offense

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    Though it's been a long time since an offense has run a full-time no-huddle, it's been cropping up more and more often. The Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning is known for practically drawing up plays from scratch while under center, and he's bringing that on-the-fly passing attack out west.

    Not only does the no-huddle keep defenses guessing as to what's coming next, when combined with a hurry-up pace it keeps tired defensive legs on the field.

    Better yet, as defenses increase rotation, specialization and shapeshifting amoeba looks, they need to change personnel. A no-huddle, hurry-up offense keeps defenses honest and preserves offensive advantages.

Inside-Out Wideouts

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    As offenses continue to use four- and five-receiver sets and defenses continue to defend them with wide, deep zones, the roles of receivers are changing.

    The "True No. 1" wideout every team covets, the 6'2"-and-taller touchdown machine who catches passes short, medium and long, is going away.

    It's becoming more important to have explosive targets who run great routes on the outside, slicing up zone coverage deep. Meanwhile, taller receivers (and athletic tight ends) create mismatch problems on the inside, exposing smaller slot corners and slower outside linebackers.

    The Saints' 5'11" Devery Henderson and 5'9" Lance Moore burn defenses deep on the outside, while 6'5" Marques Colston and 6'6" TE Jimmy Graham catch third-down (and touchdown) passes from the inside.

Hydration and Nutrition

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    New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano has installed a "two-drink minimum" for team meetings. No, not alcohol—water and sports drinks.

    Schiano is trying to get ahead of the curve, making sure his athletes are fully hydrated before they need to be. If you feel quite thirsty, you're already low on H2O. Pro athletes in the middle of strenuous work shouldn't be trying to take on a bunch of water during drills.

    Another area the NFL could advance on is nutrition. Though an NFL training table is already a delicious affair, teams could, and should, put more emphasis on teaching their players to optimize their diets away from the facility, too.

    There are an awful lot of linemen who experience extreme weight fluctuation in the few months a year the team isn't feeding them. 

Scouting Departments

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    Current and NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah used to be known to draftniks everywhere by his Twitter handle, "MovetheSticks." Fans and media alike eagerly dipped into his wisdom, as a former scout for the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns.

    One day, MovetheSticks shut down because Jeremiah had accepted a scouting position with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Two years later, MovetheSticks started back up because Jeremiah had left the Eagles to pursue a "media opportunity," surely his current gig.

    As the cottage industry around the NFL draft continues its exponential growth, more and more fans and members of the media are educating themselves on player evaluation. More and more TV and online media jobs are opening up for what can be called "media scouts."

    When the media is actually drawing scouting talent away from the NFL, something is broken with the way the NFL is hiring and employing scouts. NFL teams may have to start paying their scouts dramatically more—or making the long, thankless hours more attractive.

Tablets on the Sideline

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    The old days of a quarterback calling up to the coordinator's box while flipping through printed-off pictures of game film are gone.

    Well, they will be soon.

    There's absolutely no reason why NFL teams shouldn't be using tablet computers and other mobile devices on the sideline. They should be sharing stills—and video—telestrating plays and sending uninterceptable messages back and forth.

    In an age where everything is wireless, there should be a lot fewer guys on the sideline whose sole job is to carry spools of wire.

Smaller Linemen

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    See that guy up there? That's terrifying 3-4 DE Howie Long. His combination of size, speed and tenaciousness helped him take down quarterbacks 84 times from 1981 to 1993.

    He was listed at 6'5", 265 pounds.

    Not only is that way too skinny to play 3-4 DE these days, that's too small to be anything but a 4-3 pass-rusher, or even a 3-4 ROLB. He weighed the same then as Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley does now.

    Maybe that's as it should be.

    Linemen are getting unhealthily large. Baltimore Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie got signed when his former team cut him for showing up to camp at 400 pounds. Despite Minnesota Vikings team doctors saying his cholesterol was too high and he had to cut weight before being cleared to play, the Ravens signed him within weeks and installed him at left tackle.

    At some point, NFL linemen are going to be too huge to safely play their positions anymore. If the NFL is serious about player safety, they will look at player size and the vitals that come with it. 

Stadium/TV Interaction

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    What's the NFL's biggest problem? That the in-home watching experience is so good that the stadium experience isn't worth the skyrocketing cost of a ticket. Solution? Bring the TV advantages into the stadium.

    Everyone loves the first-down line, and the virtual first-down marker that lets fans know exactly how far their favorite players have to go to move the chains.

    Well, what if that line were actually on the field? Meet First Down Laser, a product that would save TV crews the trouble of ginning up a virtual line. Better yet, players could see it too. That could actually improve safety, as players won't sacrifice their bodies to get an extra six inches they don't need.

    There are other ways to bridge the gap between stadium and home, like Cowboys Stadium's massive HD video board and 3,000 HD displays scattered throughout the halls, concourses and luxury suites.

    TV highlights from other games are already played at the quarter breaks, but the production values rarely match TV channels like NFL RedZone. These could be greatly improved if more in-stadium displays were used to keep a constant ticker of other action.

    More ideas? Mic'd up players could be wired through the stadium's sound system. Cameras could go into the locker room at halftime and show the crowd the home team's motivational speech. Use technology to bridge the gap between crowd, TV and the team on the field.