Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Passing Offenses Heading into the 2020 Season
The NFL is a passing league. That remains true even as dual-threat quarterbacks and run-heavy offenses continue to rise in popularity. A team that can reliably strike deep and do so quickly is always going to have a chance to win on game day.
The Kansas City Chiefs proved this in 2019, staging comebacks in all three of their postseason games. There's no denying the Chiefs became Super Bowl champions on the strength of Patrick Mahomes and their passing attack.
The NFL is also a copycat league, meaning several teams will undoubtedly try to emulate Kansas City's open and uptempo passing philosophy.
Which ones will succeed? Will the Chiefs remain kings of the proverbial passing mountain? Using factors like past production, player potential, quarterback performance and play-calling as guidelines, we'll try to answer these questions and more.
These are the projected top seven passing attacks of 2020.
7. Cleveland Browns
Though they were the "winners" of last year's offseason, the Cleveland Browns failed to live up to expectations and field one of the league's more threatening passing attacks in 2019. However, much of the blame can be placed on ill-equipped head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was replaced by former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski in January.
If Stefanski and his new offensive coordinator, esteemed quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, can return Baker Mayfield to his rookie form, Cleveland could conceivably have a top-five passing offense. In terms of receiving weapons, it's difficult to top the collection of Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, David Njoku, Kareem Hunt and Rashard Higgins.
Correcting mistakes and picking up Stefanski's offense will be critical for Mayfield.
"He knows that he has to improve off of last year, and that message of improvement is the same for every single one of our players," Stefanski told SiriusXM NFL Radio. "We want to get guys that are eager to take a step forward, and Baker completely understands that."
The Browns should expect a more efficient Mayfield in 2020. Last year under Stefanski, Kirk Cousins passed for 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
As is the case with Cleveland, there's a bit of a caveat with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Everything is going to hinge on the health of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben missed most of 2019 with an elbow injury, and there's no guarantee that he can return to pre-injury form.
If he does, though, watch out. In 2018, Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards.
While the Steelers have since lost standout receiver Antonio Brown, their current collection of pass-catchers is nothing to scoff at. JuJu Smith-Schuster is an established star at this point, while Diontae Johnson—who had 680 yards and five touchdowns last season—appears well on his way. James Washington is also on the rise, and the Steelers have a promising rookie in Notre Dame product Chase Claypool.
Pittsburgh's new tight end tandem of Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron is also formidable.
Again, Roethlisberger's health is key, but the six-time Pro Bowler is already throwing again, and in impressive fashion.
"Man, he let it rip," wideout Ryan Switzer told The Athletic's Mark Kaboly.
5. Dallas Cowboys
Yet again, we have somewhat of a caveat here. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has yet to sign his franchise tender and could potentially hold out into the regular season. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Dallas is looking for a longer deal, while Prescott wants a shorter one.
If the Cowboys have to rely on Andy Dalton, they'll still be competitive, but they won't have a top-seven passing attack. If Prescott is in the fold, they will.
Though Dallas has a reputation as a run-first team due to the presence of Ezekiel Elliott, it actually finished the 2019 season ranked third in passing yards. Now, yardage isn't everything, but it does showcase the talent level on Dallas' offense.
Elliott is a fine pass-catcher out of the backfield—he has 189 receptions in four seasons—and the Cowboys have two 1,000-yard receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Dallas also drafted another No. 1-type receiver in Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb in April.
Any one of Dallas' three top wideouts could go for 1,000-plus yards this season.
The Cowboys retained offensive coordinator Kellen Moore when they hired Mike McCarthy as head coach. This should maintain the potency of Dallas' passing attack. The one thing keeping the team from being higher on the list is the lack of a high-level tight end after Jason Witten left for the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What do you get the passing attack that has everything? How about the greatest quarterback to ever play the game?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked first in passing yards a year ago, but they also had to deal with human turnover machine Jameis Winston—he tossed 30 picks and fumbled the ball away three times. So, the Buccaneers went out and signed six-time champ Tom Brady in the offseason.
Adding Brady to an offense that includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski almost doesn't seem fair. With savvy play-caller Bruce Arians running the show, the Buccaneers could again have the most prolific passing attack in the league this season.
So why is Tampa only No. 4 on this list? Because chemistry could be a significant issue. Brady is a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback joining a new team and learning a new offense during the most unusual offseason of the modern era—and yes, it does appear Brady is adapting to Arians' offense and not the other way around.
"We are kind of teaching [Brady] the offense, which is a little weird," Brate told SiriusXM NFL Radio.
This appears to be a dream scenario, but there's no guarantee Brady and his new teammates are on the same page early, or at all, in 2020.
3. Atlanta Falcons
You know who is almost always on the same page? Quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Julio Jones. Because the Atlanta Falcons haven't been playoff relevant over the past couple seasons, it's been easy to forget just how dominant this duo can be.
Jones racked up 1,394 yards and six touchdowns last season, while Ryan passed for 4,466 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Only the Buccaneers had more team passing yards than the Falcons in 2019.
Atlanta doesn't lack other weapons either. New running back Todd Gurley is an underrated pass-catcher—he has 218 receptions in five seasons—and wideout Calvin Ridley is a rising star. The Falcons would probably be even higher on this list if they still had third wideout Mohamed Sanu and Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper.
The Falcons did trade for tight end Hayden Hurst, though, and he's already been working with Ryan.
"That's really going to pay off during training camp," Hurst told ESPN's Mina Kimes (h/t ESPN's Vaughn McClure).
Whether the Falcons can be playoff contenders remains to be seen, but they're going to field one of the most dangerous passing offenses regardless.
2. New Orleans Saints
When your offense is centered around the most prolific passer in league history, you're going to rank highly on lists like this. That's where the New Orleans Saints find themselves with all-time passing leader (yards and touchdowns) Drew Brees.
Though Brees missed five games due to injury last season, the Saints still ranked seventh in passing yardage for the year.
Now, things don't begin and end with Brees in New Orleans. The Saints also have the top receiver in the game in Michael Thomas and an incredible receiving back in Alvin Kamara. They also have a capable tight end in Jared Cook and a spicy new addition in No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
"That was just adding another great piece to the puzzle and I can't wait to see how it enhances our offense," Thomas said of the team adding Sanders, per the team's official website.
What puts the Saints just ahead of teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay is the chemistry that exists between head coach and play-caller Sean Payton and Brees. The two have been working together since 2006 and practically have a hive mind when it comes to running the offense.
Teams that plan to win games via shootout don't want to be matched up against New Orleans.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Are the Chiefs still kings of the passing game? Yes. Yes, they are, and it all starts with Mahomes.
With all due respect to Brees and Brady, this is Mahomes' league now. At just 24 years old, the Texas Tech product has already been named league MVP and Super Bowl MVP and has delivered the long-desired Lombardi Trophy to head coach Andy Reid.
"Mahomes already is one of the game's all-time greats, and he's only getting better," ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio tweeted.
In just over two seasons as a starter, Mahomes has thrown for 9,412 yards with 76 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
While it starts with Mahomes, it doesn't end there. Kansas City has a creative play-caller in Reid and one of the best collections of receivers that the NFL has seen in recent years. Between Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Mahomes doesn't want for prime targets, even when the injury bug bites his receiving corps.
Until another team resets expectations, the Chiefs will remain the standard when it comes to modern NFL passing.