The NFL doesn't come up with new ideas, it just gets really good at recycling old ones.
Think about it: All of the big new ideas we've seen in the NFL over the years are just rehashing of things we've seen before.
Air Raid principles and no-huddle offenses are nothing but a call back to the "K-Gun" led by quarterback Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills. Read-option? That's little different than offenses any team with a mobile QB was running before the NFL's passing explosion.
There's nothing new to invent in the NFL. The packages and packaging are just different than before—different groupings and pretty little bows on concepts older than the players running them.
Had this column been written a few years ago, we might have included the Wildcat formation, bigger wide receivers like A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery or maybe even portended the onslaught of dual-threat passers that everyone is so wild about.
What's the next big trend in the NFL?
Bigger Cornerbacks...and Smaller Wide Receivers
This one is cheating a little bit, because it's no surprise to anyone that the league is moving to bigger cornerbacks and defensive backs overall. Heck, ask Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning about it. He still probably has a few scars from the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom."
Yet, because of the Seahawks' success—not only in one isolated Super Bowl, but a few seasons of building a great defense—teams are increasingly professing their love for corners in the 6'2" to 6'3" range and around 200 pounds.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions and others are known to be in the bigger corner market, while some of the best corners in free agency were bigger players: Aqib Talib (6'1") and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6'2"), to name a couple.
Receivers have been getting bigger over the past decade. Although he's certainly an outlier, Calvin Johnson is 6'5" and runs as fast as anyone in the league. How do you press that if you're 5'9"? In short, you don't (pun intended).
Now, not every receiver is Calvin Johnson, but there are plenty of back-shoulder fades to be had in a league full of players with similar frames.
OK, so if the NFL is filling up with bigger cornerbacks, how does a team combat that?
The receivers can only get so big and so fast. While I'm sure some scout would love to find a nice 6'7" speedster out there, that scenario might make a better Disney movie than real life. Instead, teams are finding ways to get guys open in the slot where those bigger cornerbacks can't contain them.
Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Davante Adams are all receivers who could go in the first round even though they're not tall. These are guys who excel after the catch and find themselves open based on extreme lateral athleticism.
These are the players whom colleges are going to send to the NFL in the college-style offenses that are permeating the nation. Will there still be guys like Mike Evans and Allen Robinson? Sure. But don't be surprised when smaller receivers start making their comeback.
Double Free Safeties
In an NFL where everyone is consistently in nickel and dime packages with an extra receiver or three on the field, what good is an in-the-box strong safety?
Teams might still play Cover 1 with a safety in the deep middle third, and they still might like their safeties to be able to tackle and otherwise support in the run game. Still, if a defensive back gets lost in coverage, there just isn't a lot of room for him in today's NFL.
Yes, they might still use the free safety and strong safety labels, but more and more teams are using left and right safeties interchangeably.
Moreover, a lot of teams are drafting safeties and treating them more like slot cornerbacks. Connect that with teams using two free safety types, and all of a sudden the opponent's nickel package is facing a bunch of guys who can cover them and lay the wood.
The best-possible scenario is two safeties who play a whole lot like former Washington safety Sean Taylor. Of course, Taylor was a once-in-a-lifetime player, so that kind of situation isn't happening very often, but it's what just about every team is looking for.
A step below that is a safety who can cover and might have slight deficiencies against the run. That is far better than a guy who can defend the run but might not be able to cover the Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski tight ends of the world—not to mention the smaller receivers mentioned above.
Having versatile safeties also helps in a world where snap counts are getting higher and the time between plays is shrinking. Being able to mix up personnel packages simply with most of the same guys on the field between base and nickel packages is a boon to any team that ever wants to have a chance at beating Chip Kelly, especially if he's putting Darren Sproles in the slot.
The way the NFL is going, defenses just don't have much of a choice anymore.
College-Style Offenses (Read: Crutches for Quarterbacks)
In 2012, Washington ran a hybrid of its own West Coast-style passing scheme and a set of Air Raid principles that was directly from the Baylor playbook that Robert Griffin III was running in the years prior.
When Griffin was at his best in his rookie season, it was when he was most comfortable.
The train came off the rails in 2013 when head coach Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator/son Kyle decided to throw RGIII into the deep end of the West Coast offense. Now, before anyone gets too hard on the quarterback, realize that this was after an offseason where Griffin was focused on rehabbing from injury.
He was thrown into the fire, and the whole team got burned.
There's a bit of a misconception that college players aren't ready for "pro-level" concepts. In many ways, that's anachronistic to the NFL today, which runs a lot of the same concepts as spread, Air Raid or other "collegiate" offenses.
The real learning curve comes from the terminology—which is just as much of a problem with NFL players moving between systems—and from the sheer size of most NFL playbooks. In many situations, NFL playbooks may not be inherently more complicated, but there's simply more to learn in a 16-game season when the players don't also need to be studying trigonometry.
Where's the fine line? What's the level of confidence a team can have in a rookie quarterback?
Honestly, it's different for every team based on their offensive expectations and the capability of the quarterback himself. However, it's worthwhile to note that teams like Miami and Indianapolis have joined quarterbacks with college coaches who ran their system for ease of transition.
By the same token, Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton are all at their best when they're running sets they've been familiar with for a while.
Jimmy Garoppolo had an offense with little nuance, essentially catch the snap and throw to predetermined WR, most throws close to LOS— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) April 14, 2014
There's little reason to doubt that an influx of new passing talent is hitting the league this upcoming season. Many of those quarterbacks—including Blake Bortles (Central Florida), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois) and Derek Carr (Fresno State)—come from systems that are very simplistic or singularly focused by NFL standards.
If a team near you picks up one of those quarterbacks, or any rookie passer for that matter, don't be surprised if the head coach is caught at the copy machine with the quarterback's old playbook.