Evolution is constant. So goes the NFL in all its intricate parts.
NFL offenses generally evolve by recycling old concepts. The West Coast offense as we know it was built on the Air Coryell concept. Teams are no longer employ one-dimensional, smash-mouth running offense.
Which modern offensive systems are the most difficult to play within, and which 2013 draft prospects fit in them?
Bill Belichick's Balefire
Aaron Hernandez is about to score an easy touchdown in the picture above. You will note that nobody is covering him as the Patriots approach the line of scrimmage. Danieal Manning notices this lapse and sprints toward the open tight end, but his fate is sealed.
The Patriots scored. The rout was on.
Of course, there is a reason why Hernandez is wide open and scores an easy touchdown. New England ran an up-tempo offense in 2012, wreaking havoc on opposing defenses as a result. The Texans were simply its latest victim here.
Specifically, the Patriots ran a modified version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense. Chris Brown, the author of The Essential Smart Football, does his typically excellent job in describing the Patriots offense for Grantland. Here is an excerpt:
The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays — pass plays in particular — are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver's route, but by what coaches refer to as "concepts." Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set.
The beauty of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme lies in its simplicity, specifically when it comes to terminology. It also puts a premium on versatility. As Mr. Brown points out, the Patriots took things up a notch by adding the no-huddle component to that system.
No-huddle offenses are nothing new, but combining a frenetic pace with the Erhardt-Perkins principles led to a thing of beauty for the Patriots last season. A guy like Shane Vereen could line up outside for two plays, then take a handoff. Or vice versa for Hernandez.
That is where guys like Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson come in. Austin in particular would be trinitrotoluene—that is, TNT—for the Patriots. He is a wealthy man's Danny Woodhead coming out of the draft, a Swiss Army knife.
One player out of left field who would be perfect in this offense is tight end Vance McDonald, at least if he could fix his drop issues. The athletic tight end is a bigger version of Hernandez, able to line up anywhere with ease.
Of course, Rob Gronkowski is more of a traditional tight end, and he is a monster. Tyler Eifert might see similar success.
Naturally, McDonald and Eifert are moot. The Patriots might be stockpiling tight ends, but it is unlikely they spend another high draft pick on a loaded position.
At any rate, inserting another dynamic, versatile player into that offense would be just plain unfair.
West Coast Offensive
While simple enough in concept, the West Coast offense is not an easy system to master.
The modern-day iteration of the WCO stems from Bill Walsh's re-imagination of the system Don Coryell created in the late '70s to maximize the potential Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner had with the Chargers.
West Coast offenses are predicated on the short-to-intermediate passing game, built to gash defenses and pile up first downs.
It takes a certain kind of quarterback to thrive in the scheme. Quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Rich Gannon and Aaron Rodgers have thrived in the system thanks largely in part to deadly accuracy.
Matt Barkley actually ran a version of the West Coast offense for Southern California. For all the flak he has caught, Barkley is quite NFL-ready and well-suited to run such an offense.
Unfortunately for him, all of the teams that run that sort of offense in the NFL have an established quarterback.
That is all of the offenses except the New York Jets, who will be implementing the WCO this season under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. They seem bent on riding or dying with Mark Sanchez piloting the ship. Plus, their fans might not be able to stomach selecting another quarterback out of USC with a first-round pick.
Ryan Nassib has also played in a West Coast offense with Syracuse, though completing just 62 percent of his passes last season is a bit of a red flag. Though he did not play in a WCO, Geno Smith is the draft's other good candidate for a role in that type of offense.
As for other positions in this offense, guys with big route trees who run crisp routes and are adept at running after the catch will thrive. Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Markus Wheaton and Quinton Patton all come to mind as good fits in this sort of offense.
Good pass-catching running backs work better than traditional power backs in the WCO as well. Geovani Bernard and Andre Ellington fit that bill more than most others in this draft class.
Pistoleros and the Read-Option
The read-option is not a new concept. However, the pistol, an idea popularized by Chris Ault at Nevada in the mid-aughts, is.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com explains it in a nutshell:
It combines elements of the downhill running game from the I-formation with the zone-read option package of the shotgun formation -- and everything begins with a unique alignment, in which the quarterback is positioned 4 yards behind center, with the tailback directly behind him at 7 yards. In addition, the downhill nature of the running game creates big-play opportunities in the passing game, following strong play-action fakes.
When executed properly, the multi-dimensional offense puts defenders in a quandary at the point of attack, leading defensive play callers to scramble for effective solutions.
Colin Kaepernick was an Ault disciple in Nevada, and that is a big reason why the 49ers ran more plays out of that formation than any other team last season. It is a big reason why the read-option was met with so much success in 2012.
Thanks to two incredible rookie quarterbacks—and two special sophomores—the read-option took the NFL by storm. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Kaepernick ushered in a new era—or the latest fad, depending on which side of the aisle you fall into—tearing opposing defenses to shreds using the college staple.
It is self-evident that it requires a mobile quarterback. There is a reason we have never seen Tom Brady run this sort of offense.
More importantly, however, it requires discipline all around. The quarterback has to be disciplined enough to make the right read, while everyone else must stick to their assignment.
Running backs must be able to sell the fake just as well as the quarterbacks and hit the hole when the ball sticks with them. Much like the West Coast offense, receivers with ability after the catch work well in this sort of offense.
Pierre Garçon took a few short passes to the house for Washington because he is so good after the catch. Michael Crabtree has blossomed with his ability to get loose in the secondary.
The read-option may or may not be a fad, but it is certainly on the upswing.
It's gotten to the point where teams that have no business running the read-option are talking about implementing it in their offense. The Bears say they can run it with Jay Cutler, while the Bengals might put Josh Johnson into games to run special read-option plays.
Perhaps the only player that could fit this sort of offense from this year's class might not be drafted in the first two rounds. Then again, neither was Russell Wilson.
E.J. Manuel out of Florida State is that player, though some have tabbed the speedy Matt Scott as well.
Will EJ Manuel + Matt Scott be drafted higher because they're capable of running read option? Will that factor into draft evaluation?
— Greg Cosell (@gregcosell) March 1, 2013
Manuel ran an option attack at Florida State, so he is already used to that offense. He is certainly athletic enough, and he might have the size to withstand the toll from taking those extra hits.
Though only a few teams currently employ the read option or the pistol, it is bound to spread until defenses learn to stop it. The Redskins, Panthers, 49ers and Seahawks all happen to have fantastic quarterbacks that do not need to be replaced.
The wide receiver position is filled with players that would thrive in this sort of system. There are the explosive guys like Austin and Patterson, but Woods, Allen and Patton could just as easily do well.
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