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  • Baltimore is up to 64% usage of 11 personnel, and that’s without Odell Beckham or Rashod Bateman taking a single snap.
  • Through two preseason games, Buffalo has used 12 personnel at a 35% rate on early downs in the first half. That is over 29 percentage points higher than the 5.6% rate they used in 2022.
  • On 90.9% of early downs in the first half, the Panthers have been in 11 personnel. That’s well above the NFL average of 60.8%.

When quarterbacks are barely taking reps and most coaches don’t care about winning, what can we take out of preseason games?

To answer that question, we must put ourselves in the position of the coaches.

What are they trying to accomplish?

First and foremost, they are trying to determine who will make the final 53-man roster and practice squad.

Second, and 1A, is to arrive in Week 1 with a healthy roster of starters.

Many key players are taking the preseason off, not just quarterbacks, because of the second point above.

Let’s jump to the offensive side of the ball. If the primary goal of preseason games is to evaluate the roster, odds are the coach is looking to watch what guys on their roster could do for them in the season.

So it’s important to put them in a similar position to what they’d be asked to do during the season.

Coaches will hide plays, sure. They’ll hide strategy, absolutely.

But try as they might to disguise their objectives, play-callers might have to tell on themselves with personnel groupings in the preseason.

While it’s far from the perfect tool, I’d argue that one of the most likely things to carry over from the preseason to the regular season is personnel groupings.

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Understanding NFL Personnel Groupings by name:

The personnel number system is used to identify the number of running backs and tight ends in the game.

  • 10 Personnel = 1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WRs
  • 11 Personnel = 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs
  • 12 Personnel = 1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs
  • 13 Personnel = 1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR
  • 21 Personnel = 2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs
  • 22 Personnel = 2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR

I tracked all early down personnel groupings so far this preseason for each of the new play-callers and will compare them to what their team used last year.

This information is just another tool to better understand coaching philosophy, and it is useful for fantasy projections as well as for betting.

League-wide so far this preseason, here is the current personnel grouping distribution on early downs in the first half of games.

First Half Personnel Usage NFL Preseason:

  • 11 personnel: 61% (55% last year)
  • 12 personnel: 27% (22% last year)
  • 21 personnel: 7% (11% last year)
  • 13 personnel: 2% (4% last year)
  • 22 personnel: 1% (3% last year)
  • All others: 2%

Let’s talk about a handful of teams whose preseason personnel groupings might give us a good understanding of in-season strategy.

Baltimore Ravens Personnel Usage

This NFL preseason, the Ravens personnel grouping usage has been:

  • 64% – 11 personnel (9.8% last year)
  • 14% – 21 personnel (36% last year)
  • 11% – 20 personnel (1% last year)
  • 11% – 12 personnel (22% last year)

Last year, the Ravens used 11 personnel on first half early downs just 9.8% of the time. That was the lowest rate for any NFL offense in a decade.

This year, they have made the single highest shift towards using 11 personnel for any offense.

Baltimore is up to 64% usage of 11 personnel, and that’s without Odell Beckham or Rashod Bateman taking a single snap.

Baltimore is settling into their personnel grouping of choice under new OC Todd Monken.

The NFL average last regular season on these early downs in the first half was 54%. Certain teams were much higher, however, such as the Bengals (90%) and Rams (89%).

The Ravens’ increase of 54 percentage points is the highest increase of any team in the NFL. The next closest is the Panthers at 32 percentage points.

Once the regular season starts, I certainly expect a bump in 12 personnel compared to preseason rates as Mark Andrews hasn’t played at all thus far. But we will see way more 11 personnel than Baltimore has ever used since Lamar Jackson became a starter.

Also noteworthy is the Ravens have the NFL’s #1 highest dropback rate from 11 personnel on early downs so far this preseason.

When in 11 personnel, they are dropping back to pass 75% of the time, well above the preseason average of 63%. Last year’s regular season average league-wide was also 63%, and the Ravens were at 65%.

So not only are the Ravens looking to pivot majorly towards three wide receiver sets of 11 personnel, they may be passing more frequently from these sets as well. Directionally this isn’t a surprise, but seeing the degree of shift does stand out.

This is naturally great news for Zay Flowers.

Among first-round WRs drafted this past year, we had Jaxon Smith-Njigba go to Seattle, Quentin Johnston go to the LA Chargers, Jordan Addison to the Vikings, and Flowers to the Ravens.

Looking at usage rates of 11 personnel of these teams this preseason, the Ravens are #1, Chargers are #2, Vikings are #3, and Seahawks are #4. But the Vikings and Seahawks are both below average usage of 11.

I used this to assist in a longshot player future: Zay Flowers most rookie receiving yards at +800 last week.

With JSN already dinged, there is no doubt Addison will get plenty of run, but the role Flowers could step into might be great and there was simply too much value to pass up at +800.

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Miami Dolphins Personnel Usage

While studying personnel usage is important, you have to know what to look for and what to ignore.

Last preseason, the Dolphins used 12 personnel on 50% of their early down snaps in the first half of games. That was the second-highest rate of any team in the NFL.

But when the regular season started, they dropped down to just 13% usage of 12 personnel, which was fifth-lowest of any team in the NFL.

This preseason, the Dolphins have used 12 personnel at a 57% clip. That’s the #1 highest rate in the NFL (average 27%).

But I don’t expect that to continue into the regular season.

Mike McDaniel is holding his cards close. We haven’t seen a single snap from Jaylen Waddle. Tyreek Hill has run only 5 routes. Instead, the Dolphins seem to be testing out receivers to use in the regular season who are new.

The player with the most routes run for the Dolphins this preseason? New WR Braxton Berrios. The next player with the most routes after Berrios? Their 2022 fourth-round draft pick Erik Ezukanma, who ran a total of 3 routes in 2022.

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Buffalo Bills Personnel Usage

Unlike the Dolphins, who have rested their top receivers, the Bills got 23 routes out of WR1 Stefon Diggs in their most recent preseason game. He was targeted five times and caught two of them.

Gabe Davis also got some run, but significantly less than Diggs (10 routes).

But the key for the Bills is their transition to 12 personnel. Which, unlike the Dolphins, I believe will stick.

Buffalo drafted Dalton Kincaid, and he ran 18 routes in their most recent game. And this is where they really showed us who they will be in 2023.

Through two preseason games, Buffalo has used 12 personnel at a 35% rate on early downs in the first half.

That is over 29 percentage points higher than the 5.6% rate they used in 2022, which was the lowest rate of 12 personnel in the NFL.

The jump of 29 percentage points is the second-highest jump for any team as compared to 2022.

There is a slight reason to pause on the 12 personnel party. When Josh Allen was on the field in his only game this preseason, the Bills used 12 personnel on 16.7% of early down dropbacks, which is half what they used preseason to date (35%).

For context, only two teams last year used 12 personnel above a 35% clip on early downs in 2022. So if Buffalo used it at that rate in 2023, it would likely be in the range of top-3 usage.

However, a 16.7% usage rate (as the Bills used when Allen played this preseason) would rank 25th.

I believe the Bills’ likely usage of 12 personnel in 2023 on early downs will be north of 16.7%, although it might not be 35% barring WR injuries. It will likely be a huge step above their 2022 usage.

Also noteworthy is the Bills run rate out of 12 personnel.

On early downs this preseason, Buffalo ran the ball on 68% of snaps in 12 personnel, which was #6 highest.

Historically the last several years, Buffalo has been one of the most pass-heavy offenses. I don’t expect them to be so predictably run-focused when in 12 personnel during the regular season as they have been in the preseason.

New Orleans Saints Personnel Usage

No team this preseason has increased their usage of 21 personnel more than the Saints.

New Orleans is up to 32% usage on first half early downs, which is an increase of 27% over 2022

The Saints have run the ball on 68% of these snaps.

And it’s thanks to FB Adam Prentice.

But with Derek Carr on the field, the usage of 21 is down to 18%, so it’s unlikely the Saints will be up above 30% from 21 during the regular season.

Especially considering this note: last preseason, the Saints used 21 personnel at a 19% clip and dropped down to 5% during the regular season.

It’s interesting to note the Raiders (Carr’s last team) used 21 personnel at a 25% rate on first half early downs last year, which was fourth-highest in the NFL.

Perhaps he would like to see a fullback on the field more than the 5% usage rate from the 2022 Saints.

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Carolina Panthers Personnel Usage

New coach, new quarterback, new offense. Frank Reich’s Panthers have used 11 personnel at the NFL’s #1 highest rate this preseason.

On 90.9% of early downs in the first half, the Panthers have been in 11 personnel. That’s well above the NFL average of 60.8%.

They’ve used 12 personnel on the other 9.1% of snaps (well belove the NFL average of 27%).

By far, their primary personnel deployment when in 11 personnel has been Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark, Jonathan Mingo, Hayden Hurst, and Chuba Hubbard.

With Bryce Young on the field in Week 1, they had a more balanced early down split:

  • 75% 11 personnel
  • 25% 12 personnel.

However, with Young on the field in the second preseason game, the Panthers used 93% 11 personnel and only 7% 12 personnel.

Introducing a young QB does not allow for a lot of experimentation. If the Panthers stick with a high usage of 11 personnel in Week 3 it’s extremely likely they will be among the league leaders in 11 personnel in 2023, and that bodes well for Mingo’s playing time.

Panthers WR Preseason Snaps:

  • Chark: 12 snaps wide right, 8 snaps wide left, 2 snaps in the slot
  • Mingo: 10 snaps wide left, 6 snaps wide right, 8 snaps in the slot
  • Thielen: 18 snaps in the slot, 4 snaps wide left, 3 snaps wide right

Chicago Bears Personnel Usage

In the 2022 regular season, the Bears used the 6th-highest rate of two-back sets and the 11th-lowest rate of 11 personnel (47%) on early downs in the first half of games.

But this preseason, the Bears have increased their usage of 11 personnel by 24 percentage points, the third-largest jump behind only the Ravens and Panthers.

Chicago has used 11 personnel at a 71% clip on these downs (7th-highest).

With the acquisition of D.J. Moore, might the Bears be looking to play more out of 11 personnel?

While I hope that to be the case, we must watch closely in the final preseason game.

That is because on Justin Fields‘ seven snaps thus far this preseason, they’ve been quite creative with groupings and have only used 11 on two of six (33%) early downs. Instead, they had one snap from 12, one from 13, one from 21 and one from 22.

Chicago has used much more 11 in general this preseason, but the first-team offense has not (yet). Let’s watch their final preseason game closely.

Washington Commanders Personnel Usage

With Eric Bienemy’s offense now in town, fresh off ending the Ravens’ 24-game preseason winning streak, we can see that the team clearly intends on using a lot more 11 personnel this season.

They are up over 20 percentage points on snaps so far this year, to 78% 11 personnel, which is #4 highest in the NFL.

They’ve largely pushed 12 personnel to the side, dropping from 33% (#4 highest in 2022) down to just 19% this preseason.

We will see how the final preseason game goes given Terry McLaurin’s toe injury. But we should anticipate a lot more 11 personnel in DC in 2022.

San Francisco 49ers Personnel Usage

The 49ers dropped their usage of 21 personnel by 32%, from 47% to 15%.

This is entirely Kyle Juszczyk based. Once the regular season begins, it will return to the highest rate in the NFL.

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