The NFL doesn’t always make sense. That can be taken in a number of directions, but for now we’ll stick with player usage on the field. Players aren’t always optimally used, whether it be by scheme or situation. Sometimes a coaching change helps. Other times, we can hope common sense wins out. With that in mind, we can take a look at a few players who could see their usage and production improve in the 2021 season.
Henry Ruggs, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
One would imagine a team that took Ruggs as the first receiver off the board in the 2020 draft would have had a specific plan in mind for the player. Instead, the Raiders saw a player who ran a 4.27 40-yard dash and wanted him to run real fast straight down the field.
Despite Ruggs’s speed, he wasn’t completely a deep threat during his time at Alabama. During the 2019 season, just 33% of Ruggs’s routes were deep, according to Sports Info Solutions, and his 11.1-yard average depth of target was around average for the 2020 draft class. During Ruggs’s rookie season in Las Vegas, his 18.2-yard aDOT was the highest among players with at least 40 targets.
At Alabama, Ruggs was best used in space on short and intermediate targets. In 2019, 56.5% of his receiving yards came after the catch. In 2018, that was 63%. That figure was 31.2% in 2020 with the Raiders.
For the troubles Jon Gruden may have as an overall head coach and roster builder, he’s still a pretty good play designer. The Raiders used a ton of motion in 2020 (52%, which ranked seventh) and one of their best wrinkles was using motion before a whip route, adding an extra layer of misdirection. Against the Buccaneers, the Raiders used Ruggs on one that opened up the entire side of the field.
During minicamp, Gruden expressed the desire to design more plays to get the ball in Ruggs’s hands instead of pigeonholing him as a lid-lifter to clear space for other players.
Derek Carr threw the ball deep more often in 2020 but throughout his career, he’s been hesitant to push the ball down the field. Even with those deep passes, Nelson Agholor filled a similar role. With that roster competition now clear, Ruggs can be the top deep option while the short and intermediate passes get sprinkled in at a higher rate.
Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants
Engram had the opposite issue of Ruggs and has for most of his career. In college, Engram was part of the new wave of speedy slot tight ends. But since he came to the NFL, Engram has mostly been saddled with coaches who believe their tight ends should run four-yard drags. On a mostly stale Giants offense under coordinator Jason Garrett in 2020, Engram spent a lot of time turning around as soon as he got off the line.
His 7.4-yard aDOT was actually the second-highest of his NFL career behind his rookie season but his deeper targets were mostly forced down the sideline, where the margin for error is smaller, rather than the seams and deeper routes over the middle of the field. Here’s a look at Engram’s target heatmap from the 2020 season:
There is success up that right seam, but it wasn’t thrown very often. Engram only had three targets on deep crossers — one reception and two thrown late into tight coverage. A lack of targets deep down the field was a problem all across the Giants offense. Only 28.8% of Daniel Jones’s pass attempts traveled 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, which was the ninth-lowest rate among quarterbacks in 2020.
That disconnect was on display throughout the season. Engram was charted with the fourth-most routes run combined between seams and deep crossers according to Sports Info Solutions (71, behind Rob Gronkowksi, Mike Gesicki, and Hunter Henry), but there were only eight total targets with those routes rarely early in the progression.
Engram wasn’t perfect and drops were an issue but those could also be viewed as a product of the situation. With so many targets short and over the middle, those passes came in an area where drops have the highest frequency.
Where do pass drops occur most frequently on the field?
Drop rate is at it’s highest short over the middle of the field, where defenders in the box are most concentrated and in a position to hit the receiver. pic.twitter.com/PqZknvDbWF
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 9, 2020
Given the poor spacing of the offense, many of Engram’s short targets were made in traffic or at a distance where the defense knew a quick pass was coming. With more creativity, better spacing, and a bigger effort to get the ball down the field, the Giants could lessen the likelihood for drops while upping the efficiency of Engram’s targets at the same time.
It’s also possible with Garrett still as the offensive coordinator, nothing changes at all.
Jerry Tillery, iDL, Los Angeles Chargers
The hire of Brandon Staley as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers brought a lot of optimism about what the defense could look like after he helped transform the Rams into one of the best defensive units in the league last season. Much of that has surrounded the two biggest stars, Derwin James and Joey Bosa. An underrated beneficiary could be third-year defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Tillery is a former first-round pick who was selected because of the pass rush potential he brought from the interior. Through about a year and a half, that potential hadn’t consistently shown. On 103 pass rush snaps as a 3-technique in 2020, Tillery only tallied three pressures per SIS. He was more reliable late in the season as a Wide 9 rusher off the edge while the Chargers sorted their way through injuries along the line.
But with some of the alignments Staley plays, especially Tite Fronts, Tillery could more often be in a position to play to his strengths. In those three-man fronts, the ends typically line up as a 4i, inside the tackle, instead of as a 5-technique (outside the tackle). Pass rushing from a 4i isn’t usually a high pressure position, but there are players who can have a significant advantage with the ability to create a consistent pass rush from that spot. Last season with the Rams, Aaron Donald lined up at 4i for 96 pass rush snaps (his second-highest alignment after a traditional 3-tech) and had 16 pressures, a 16.7% pressure rate. This was also Tillery’s best spot on the line with the Chargers, 10 pressures on 72 pass rush snaps (13.9%).
Jerry Tillery Pressures by Alignment, 2020 (per Sports Info Solutions)
|Alignment||Pass Rush Snaps||Pressures|
From that alignment, both from Tite and a 3-4 Eagle front, Tillery has the power to push through the pocket and get straight to the quarterback or loop around on a stunt working with the edge rusher on the same side.
Tillery, of course, isn’t Donald but he has the traits to win in an area that could potentially open up a big piece of a Chargers pass rush that might need it, given the current depth chart. Last season, Tillery had 14 quarterback hits but only three sacks — just a 21.4% conversion rate. That’s a rate that’s likely to improve (the league average is around 40%) while Tillery should be in the position to get to the quarterback more often in this new defense.
Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots
Newton is probably somewhere between the quarterbacks we saw throughout the 2020 season. The Patriots aren’t going to want to run him 15 times per game as they did early in the season. He’s also not as bad a passer that we saw late in the season.
A shoulder issue has held Newton back over the past few years and the narrative surrounding the injury is that it sapped any effectiveness on his deep ball. That wasn’t really the case in 2020. Among 27 quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, Newton ranked third in on-target percentage, third in rate of catchable passes, and fourth in completion percentage. Only 30.7% of Newton’s passes traveled at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, below the league average of 32.2%.
New England’s offense wasn’t exactly designed to push the ball down the field. The Patriots’ leading targets on throws of at least 10 air yards were Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, and N’Keal Harry. It’s worth repeating, with that leading trio, Newton was fourth in completion percentage on passes to that depth.
On throws of at least 20 air yards, Newton was first in on-target rate and fourth in completion percentage.
Where things fell apart was in the short and quick game. Among 38 quarterbacks with at least 100 passes under 10 air yards, Newton ranked 38th in on-target percentage, 38th in catchable target rate, and 33rd in completion percentage. Much of that had to do with poor performance on throws behind the line of scrimmage. 24.1% of Newton’s throws didn’t pass the line, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
During the offseason, the Patriots added a completely new receiving corps that should help in that short area, specifically the tight end additions in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. The New England offense has historically been able to take advantage of throws to the tight end, but that just wasn’t really an option in 2020. Newton only had 29 passes to tight ends last season. His completion percentage of 58.6% on those passes ranked 41st of 44 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts but his 9.2 ANY/A ranked eighth. With Henry and Smith, the short middle of the field should be targeted more frequently and efficiently.
There should also be more open deep throws. For however much of an overpay Nelson Agholor might have been as a free agent signing, he showed the ability to get down the field last season with the Raiders.
The offense could potentially shape up to help Newton in both where he struggled and where he found success in 2020.