How Big-Receiver Bias is Changing Shape of Modern NFL Offense

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How Big-Receiver Bias is Changing Shape of Modern NFL Offense
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The shape of the NFL is changing. Shotgun-heavy, multi-receiver spread offenses aren’t rare exceptions anymore—they’re the rule. Defenses have evolved to keep up, hybridizing traditional concepts of man and zone, inside and outside, even base alignment.

If offenses don’t have automatic numbers advantages, they need to win their one-on-one matchups.

The cutting edge of the NFL arms race, then, is at the edges: physical dominance in space. There’s been a recent shift toward big, physical cornerbacks (see: Sherman, Richard) that can deny receivers the ball. This offseason, there’s been a noticeable response: Teams are trying to get more verticality at receiver, even teams that already have a dominant No. 1.

The pairing of height with height is something few defenses can stop—so teams that have a one-two punch of big targets will have a big advantage in 2014.

 

The Trendsetters

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The fad arguably started with Anquan Boldin. Long one of the most physical receivers in the NFL, Boldin's power and veteran savvy helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII. Still, in March 2013, the cap-strapped Ravens dealt Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for just a sixth-round pick.

As Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun explained at the time: "[Boldin's] production simply did not match" his $6 million 2013 cap number. "In three seasons in Baltimore," Vensel said, "Boldin averaged 62 receptions for 882 yards and five touchdowns in regular-season play."

Boldin was to fill in for the 49ers' injured No. 1, Michael Crabtree. Both receivers are 6'1". Crabtree is listed at 214 pounds, and Boldin at 220. It was hard to imagine Boldin replacing Crabtree as a do-everything playmaker, though; Crabtree's young legs and leaping ability made him a much better deep threat.

Then, in the opening week of 2013, Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards, including a touchdown and a 43-yard reception. Whatever he lacked in speed or quickness, he more than made up for with route running, upper-body strength and developed receiving craft.

When Crabtree returned, he caught a 60-yarder of his own but didn't impact Boldin's production. As Boldin told The Associated Press, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "That was the vision going in. Him on one side, me on the other, Vernon working the middle of the field. It’s tough on defenses when you have two guys outside capable of having big games, and then you have Vernon inside matched up with linebackers. So, it gives defenses fits."

The 49ers weren't the only team giving defenses fits with tough physical matchups.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In 2012, the Chicago Bears used a second-round draft pick on 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery, pairing him with 6'4", 230-pound No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall. In Jeffery's sophomore 2013 season, he blew up: The two combined for a ridiculous 189 catches, 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference. That doesn't even include free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett's 65 catches, 759 yards and five scores.

Atlanta Falcons fans might point out that the best receiving duo in football is their own, the pairing of receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

The Falcons made a bold trade-up in the 2011 draft to get Jones, giving up two first-round picks, a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks. The dangerous potential of the pair was obvious. Jones saw it right away, according to SportingNews.com. Said Jones: "They can't double me. They can't double Roddy White. You got to pick your poison."

With tight end Tony Gonzalez already in the fold, the three powered a passing offense in 2012 that finished fourth in the NFL in completions (on the eighth-most attempts), sixth in yards and fifth in touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference.

 

A Copycat League

The NFL is a copycat league, and the trend toward verticality and power was evident this offseason.

A plethora of big receivers went early in the draft. The Buffalo Bills made a surprising, blockbuster trade to move up to No. 4 overall and select 6'1", 205-pound Sammy Watkins—a trade compared to the Falcons' move for Jones by just about everyone.

The Bills then jettisoned longtime star receiver Stevie Johnson—who, while one inch taller than Watkins, has always been better as a slot receiver. Watkins will pair with 6'0", 190-pound second-year wideout Robert Woods.

6'5", 225-pound Mike Evans went just three picks later, giving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a formidable one-two punch with 6'5", 230-pound Vincent Jackson. The Carolina Panthers, who lost almost their entire receiver corps in free agency, drafted 6'5", 235-pound Kelvin Benjamin at No. 28 overall. As Bleacher Report NFL analyst Gary Davenport wrote, the Panthers are relying on Benjamin to make an instant impact with his mammoth frame.

There were plenty of big 6-footers taken in the second round: 6'3", 209-pound Jordan Matthews by the Philadelphia Eagles, 6'0", 195-pound Marqise Lee and 6'3", 210-pound Allen Robinson by the Jacksonville Jaguars and 6'2", 216-pound Davante Adams by the Green Bay Packers.

Charles Cherney/Associated Press

One of the biggest stories of the draft-evaluation cycle was the amazing rise of Cody Latimer, an "afterthought" whose incredible pro-day numbers had NFL teams flocking, per Bleacher Report NFC East lead writer Brad Gagnon. The 6'2", 215-pound Latimer was drafted in the second round by the Denver Broncos—who just had 6'3", 214-pound Eric Decker poached from them in free agency.

The Miami Dolphins nabbed 6'0", 195-pound Jarvis Landry, possibly due to the disappointment of Mike Wallace, 2013's highest-paid free-agent receiver, per Spotrac.com. Wallace signed a massive five-year, $60 million contract, much bigger than the $45 million Greg Jennings received, or the $28.5 million Danny Amendola got.

What do those three receivers have in common? None of them are very big (each tips the scale at just 195 pounds, with Wallace and Jennings both 6'0" and Amendola an inch shorter), and none of them had successful 2013 campaigns. NFL teams seemed to notice this when doling out dollars in 2014.

2014's free-agent crop wasn't nearly as rich in big receivers as the draft class, and they were paid accordingly. Decker, the biggest, got paid the most: $36.3 million over five years. Even so, there were questions about whether Decker was physically dominant enough to be a No. 1 receiver!

DeSean Jackson, Golden Tate, Julian Edelman, Andre Roberts, Emmanuel Sanders, Steve Smith: all of them proven veterans under six feet tall, and none got free-agent contracts nearly as big as Jennings' 2012 deal. Outside of Jackson (four years, $32 million) and Tate (five years, $31 million), per Spotrac.com, none even approached half of Jennings' deal—let alone Wallace's massive haul.

 

Fashionably Late

There are a few teams right on the heels of the trendsetters, ready to debut big-receiver pairings in 2014.

David Kohl/Associated Press

In 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted 6'2", 195-pound Marvin Jones in the fifth round; in 2013 he was apparently outplaying designated No. 2 Mohamed Sanu but couldn't win over offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

New Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, though, told Geoff Hobson of the team's official website he sees big things in Jones' near future: "Marvin Jones came on like gangbusters and he’s got to go chase A.J. Why not knock A.J. off the pedestal?" A.J., of course, is A.J. Green, the 6'4", 207-pound dynamo who'll line up across from Jones in 2014.

The Houston Texans have been trying to give 6'3", 230-pound stud receiver Andre Johnson a worthy complement for his entire career. When they drafted 6'1", 218-pound DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of the 2013 draft, it looked like they'd finally done it.

Despite disastrous problems at quarterback, Hopkins flashed plenty of talent, catching 52 passes for 802 yards and two touchdowns. Though the Texans didn't bring in a surefire solution at quarterback, Hopkins could easily make journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick look good—just like Marshall and Jeffery made Josh McCown look good in 2013.

Another pair in development: the Dallas Cowboys' 6'2", 222-pound beast Dez Bryant and 6'2", 200-pound Terrance Williams. The Cowboys "have no reservations" about the latter, their 2013 third-round pick, taking over the starting No. 2 spot, per ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer.

 

On the Bandwagon

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

There have been quite a few teams jumping on the bandwagon in 2014.

Besides the Buccaneers' towering receiver pair of Jackson and Evans, the Eagles jettisoned 5'10" speedster Jackson in favor of 6'3" Matthews; he'll combine with 6'0" Jeremy Maclin and 6'3" Riley Cooper this season.

The New York Jets, while adding tons of backfield speed in quarterback Michael Vick and tailback Chris Johnson, also added Decker to complement the talented, but struggling Stephen Hill. The 2012 second-round pick checks in at 6'4", 215 and might benefit greatly from Decker's presence on the other side.

The Broncos, flush with big targets, refused to get smaller when Decker left for New York. Not only did they draft Latimer to take Decker's place, but they also signed the 5'11" Sanders to eventually replace 5'9" Wes Welker, per Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post. They also, of course, have 6'5", 250-pound tight end Julius Thomas, who dominated the red zone on the way to a 65-catch, 788-yard, 12-touchdown Pro Bowl season.

The Detroit Lions have boasted the NFL's most physically dominant receiver, 6'5", 236-pound All-Pro Calvin Johnson, since 2007. Yet the partners the Lions have spent big money and high draft picks on (Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Titus Young) have all been of the small-and-shifty type. Throughout that lot's production, injury and mental health problems, 6'6" skyscraper Kris Durham, who joined the Lions practice squad in 2012 after being cut by the Seahawks, kept bubbling up to the top of the depth chart.

After jettisoning Burleson, Broyles and Young and signing Tate, himself just 5'10" and 202 pounds, the Lions added receiving tight end Eric Ebron: a 6'4", 245-pound human mismatch with 33.3" arms and 4.6-second 40-yard-dash time, per NFL.com. Together with tight end Joseph Fauria (6'7", 255), the Lions could put out a two-receiver, two-tight-end red-zone set with Ebron the shortest receiver on the field!

 

So Five Minutes Ago

Of course, as soon as there's a trend in the NFL, there's a countertrend. Just like the "world theory" stopped the proliferation of Steelers-style 3-4 defenses in the 1990s (there are only so many 3-4 nose tackles in the world), there are only so many massive receivers with NFL tools and talent. This 2014 draft trend was partly due to an unusually rich talent pool.

It may well be that teams reshuffle their draft boards and free-agent dollars to prioritize taller prospects, but there'll only be so many to choose from. Some teams whose systems don't emphasize height, like the New Orleans Saints, may exploit this by picking up the unwanted speedsters—indeed, they drafted 5'10", 186-pound fireball Brandin Cooks in the first round this year.

Moreover, the emphasis on winning physical matchups occurred because the systematic innovation of shotgun-based spread offenses had permeated the entire league. The next chalkboard breakthrough might change everything, again reducing the premium on individual brilliance. Is that the pistol? A return to the traditional downhill running game? Who knows?

For the 2014 season, though, teams that followed the trend are set up for big success.

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