5 NFL Offenses That Will Make the Biggest Improvements in 2020
In the span of an offseason, a struggling or middling offense can turn into a powerhouse.
At times, collective growth translates into production—just look at the Dallas Cowboys, who moved from 22nd to sixth in scoring from 2018 to 2019.
In many cases, the quarterback changes a team's offensive outlook. Lamar Jackson made tremendous second-year strides, leading the Baltimore Ravens' top-scoring offense as the league MVP last season.
Health can also significantly impact results. In 2019, the San Francisco 49ers fielded a top-two ground attack, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who missed most of 2018 with a torn ACL, balanced the unit with efficiency. The club jumped from 21st to second in scoring. Of course, head coach Kyle Shanahan deserves credit for his innovative game plans as well.
Which offenses can make similar leaps in 2020?
In determining that, we placed a heavy emphasis on quarterbacks, offseason additions and play-callers. The Buffalo Bills acquired wideout Stefon Diggs this offseason, but is that enough to ignore Josh Allen's 56.3 percent career completion percentage?
Lastly, these teams are projected to make the most progress from the previous term. Even though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers upgraded at quarterback and tight end, swapping Jameis Winston for Tom Brady and adding the latter's former New England teammate Rob Gronkowski, the offense ranked third in points and yards last year, limiting its margin of overall improvement in 2020.
2019 Yards: 21st
2019 Scoring: Joint-16th
The Arizona Cardinals have two factors that will work in their favor. First, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins joins the offense as the presumable go-to target in the passing game. Secondly, he's going link up with the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year, quarterback Kyler Murray.
"I think we did come a long way," said. "To see Kyler's maturation and the way he was able to perform this year—I think it's a runaway for Rookie of the Year for him. He's Houdini back there. We have a really bright future."
In the second half of the 2019 campaign, Murray had two efficient performances against the San Francisco 49ers' vaunted defense, throwing for 391 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions while completing over 70 percent of his passes.
Murray should continue to blossom as an offensive centerpiece. He doesn't have to adjust to coaching changes and welcomes Hopkins, a three-time All-Pro wide receiver who leads the league in receiving touchdowns (31) and ranks third in yards (4,115) since 2017.
Arizona will also have a full season with running back Kenyan Drake, whom the team acquired before the 2019 trade deadline. Starting from his Week 9 debut with the Cardinals through the end of the season, he ranked sixth in rushing yards (643), averaging 5.23 yards per carry.
If the offensive line holds up and avoids the injury bug, Murray and Hopkins will become the new electrifying quarterback-wide receiver tandem. We may also finally see Drake unleashed after his three-and-a-half-year stretch as primarily a backup with the Miami Dolphins.
2019 Yards: 22nd
2019 Scoring: 22nd
After quarterback Baker Mayfield's strong rookie campaign, throwing 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, he regressed despite his connection with former head coach Freddie Kitchens, who served as the offensive coordinator in 2018.
Although the Cleveland Browns added firepower, acquiring wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants, their passing attack never hit its stride. During a segment with Rex Ryan on ESPN's Get Up (h/t ProFootballTalk's Charean Williams), Mayfield took responsibility for the team's offensive missteps.
"I've never turned the ball over so many times,” Mayfield said. "You can't win like that. That falls back on me."
In the offseason, Mayfield worked on his body, shedding pounds to regain quickness, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt has also helped Mayfield with his footwork.
In addition to Mayfield's self-improvements, the Browns should field a far better pass-blocking offensive line. The team signed Jack Conklin and selected Jedrick Wills Jr. to fill the tackle positions. They'll replace Chris Hubbard and Greg Robinson, who gave up a combined 10 sacks last year, per Pro Football Focus.
As the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, head coach Kevin Stefanski did wonders with a healthy Dalvin Cook, who became a Pro Bowler last season. Now, he has Nick Chubb, the No. 2 rusher from 2019, and Kareem Hunt, the 2017 rushing champion.
Stefanski can also attack defenses downfield with Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper—no wonder ESPN's Bill Barnwell ranked the Browns second in offensive weapons.
If a slimmer Mayfield shows smoother mechanics in a stronger pocket, watch him pick apart defenses through the air with a strong complementary ground attack.
2019 Yards: 28th
2019 Scoring: 28th
As a starter through December of last year, quarterback Drew Lock showed flashes of what he could become as a long-term solution under center. Five games isn't a large sample size, but it's enough to provide hope for the 2020 season.
Lock threw for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 64.1 percent of his passes.
NFL Network's Charley Casserly dug a little deeper than the surface statistics and studied Lock's tape. He made note of the quarterback's growing confidence in the pocket, particularly his tendency to step in and plant his foot before throws as opposed to fading on his back foot (h/t Jon Heath of Broncos Wire).
As Lock gains experience, he should become more comfortable with his pocket presence. Casserly expects Jerry Jeudy to develop into a better receiver than fellow Alabama product Amari Cooper. While that remains to be seen, the rookie first-rounder has the potential with his route-running ability and speed. The Broncos also added second-rounder KJ Hamler for slot duties.
If Jeudy and Hamler have slow starts because of an abnormal offseason with virtual spring practices, Lock can continue to develop his rapport with Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. The former had a breakout sophomore campaign (72 catches, 1,112 yards and six touchdowns) while the latter led all rookie tight ends in receptions (40) and yards (562).
Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay will pair up to form a strong duo in the backfield, too. The coaching staff could lean on the hot hand between the two or mix and match their duties between pass and run situations.
Most importantly, don't overlook Pat Shurmur's role in the Broncos offense. He's a former quarterbacks coach and fielded a top-10 scoring unit as a play-caller for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.
Las Vegas Raiders
2019 Yards: 11th
2019 Scoring: 24th
The Las Vegas Raiders racked up a good number of yards last season, but they struggled mightily in the red zone.
Rookie first-rounder Henry Ruggs III isn't just a speedster. He can run a full route tree, which will allow head coach Jon Gruden to use plays he had in store for Antonio Brown, who never saw the field for the team. Ruggs' ability to stretch short completions into big gains could push the Raiders into the top 10 in yards.
Gruden should also have more success in red-zone situations because of tight end Darren Waller's growth at the position. The addition of role players such as Jason Witten and rookie third-rounder Bryan Edwards, and running back Josh Jacobs' second-year growth, should also improve the offense's output.
Waller believes the Raiders can finish with a top-five offense, and he talked about the team's focus on red-zone efficiency during a SiriusXM NFL Radio segment (h/t NBCS Bay Area's Scott Bair).
We should expect to see quarterback Derek Carr take advantage of Waller's 6'6", 255-pound frame in close quarters near the goal line. If not, Witten knows how to find the end zone. He's scored nine touchdowns in his last two active seasons. At 6'3", 212 pounds, Edwards may also carve out a role as a pass-catcher inside the 20-yard line.
If all else fails, give the ball to Jacobs. Pro Football Focus' Ben Linsey delved into his rushing numbers, which gave an indication how difficult he's been to bring down in traffic.
"He is one of the best in the league at making defenders miss, and he put that to use against loaded fronts," Linsey wrote. "Jacobs' 29 broken tackles on 115 attempts amounted to the third-best rate among the 39 runners in this sample."
Waller's high expectation for the offense doesn't sound out of reach at all. If key parts click, the Raiders could make a massive leap in 2020.
2019 Yards: 30th
2019 Scoring: 27th
The Pittsburgh Steelers fit into this category as an easy call. They lost Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 of the previous season. He underwent elbow surgery, but the 38-year-old seems well on his way back to action for a full 2020 season.
Roethlisberger has a young wide receiver group. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson are headed into their age-24 terms, while the Steelers also selected Chase Claypool in the second round of April's draft.
Smith-Schuster has extra motivation to bounce back from a down season riddled with injuries before he hits the open market as a free agent in 2021. The Pro Bowl wideout has earned the benefit of the doubt after recording 917-plus yards and seven touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.
Although Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges struggled under center, Washington and Johnson looked impressive in stretches. The former led the team in receiving yards last year, and Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expects the latter to put up big numbers in 2020.
"I think Diontae Johnson will thrive with Ben Roethlisberger," Fittipaldo wrote. "I think he can have 70 catches and 1,000 yards."
In addition to the upside at wide receiver, tight end Eric Ebron can serve as an athletic, big-bodied (6'4", 253 lbs) target in the passing game. He's only two years removed from his best season, logging 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns to earn a Pro Bowl selection.
Pittsburgh can complement Roethlisberger with a physical ground attack. The Steelers have a committee featuring James Conner, Benny Snell Jr., rookie fourth-rounder Anthony McFarland Jr. and pass-catching back Jaylen Samuels.
Not only will Roethlisberger return, but the Steelers can beat defenses in so many ways with their collection of weapons.