5 NFL Things To Study This Offseason

Photo: © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It's summer!

For me, that means fishing trips, long bike rides, and football learning. Between August and May, I won't have the time to sit down and rip through film with the pure objective of learning, investigating, and experimenting. So this is the time to strike.

For anyone watching college football players and evaluating them for the NFL Draft, watching modern NFL schemes and All-Pros is critical for recalibrating your eyes and mental expectations for college players. But it can go even deeper than that.

NFL schemes are evolving weekly; personnel deployment changes throughout the season; players just straight get better at football. As the league changes, I want to keep pace, so that I'm always ready to project players to specific teams and deployments. These are a big five of the teams, schemes, and techniques I want to watch this summer, as I prepare for the 2020 class.

1) Is the Chargers model sustainable?

Gus Bradley and the Los Angeles Chargers defense led the country in dime deployment in 2017 and, while I can't find the numbers for their 2018 personnel deployment anywhere, they were somewhere near the top of the league again last season. They famously emptied the defensive back benches late in the season, with their top 7 defenders (by snap count) against the Ravens all playing in the defensive backfield.

Of course, that worked against Baltimore, suffocating a quick-hitting and flashy option running game. Against New England (6 defensive backs took 59+ snaps), it struggled against size and downhill power.

The NFL is looking for the solution to the spread offenses, and there are some interesting resources that focus on the high school and college level for defensive scheming and solutions. With the caliber of athletes at the NFL level, however, there's a chance that these mega-safeties like Derwin James and Kyzir White are enough to tag RPOs and chase down scramble QBs.

2) How the h*ck did George Kittle just do that?

88 catches (Niners single-season record). 1,377 yards (NFL single-season record). Led the country in YAC (among all players, not just TEs!), DPIs drawn (that's TEs), and yards/route run (TEs).

So 2018 treated George Kittle nice.

I have a couple of questions. The first: how again did George Kittle get drafted in the fifth round? And what was it that led to his incredible rise? Coaching, athletic ability, uncovered potential due to poor usage in Iowa?

Kittle is an important case study for the tight end position, which is something Trevor and I discussed on the Locked On NFL Draft podcast as we roll through Summer Scouting on the 2020 TE class. Kittle is decidedly not in the mold that tight ends have recently followed, in that he is often in-line and has size and power. He can flex out and the Niners do use him that way, but that isn't -- from what I understand thus far -- his primary deployment.

Also: what has Shanahan changed? His offenses have never been super tight end friendly. What's new? And will some of that opportunity go away now that they've added to the WR room?

3) How old can QBs be?

Quick, gut reaction: when do QBs tail off?

If you said mid-30s, I think there's a big survivor bias you have to careful of. The only players who make it there, as starters, are the already good players -- Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers. Oh, and Tommy -- but he's already in his 40s.

A different, and perhaps more appropriate way to phrase the question: how long can the good QBs play for? Bad QBs don't really make it to 30+ in the league -- by that point, they're long-term backups. Nick Foles getting a starting job at 29 is a huge abberation, as most guys around the young 30s who were once bad starters (Ryan Tannehill, Case Keenum, Chase Daniel, and even Chad Henne) are now long-term backups.

So if only the good QBs make it beyond 30 years old...how long can they last? Once you clear that 30-year-old threshold -- lets say, as Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford just did -- what becomes the physical threshold for arm strength, mobility, and durability? Brady and Brees have always been healthy and they're still top QBs at 41 and 39, respectively -- Roethlisberger and Rodgers have struggled to stay healthy, and they *might* (?) be tailing off at 36 and 35, respectively.

If you get a franchise QB, you lucky duck -- you draft him, and you second-contract him, and you third-contract him -- how long can you expect to be competitive with him? That's a huge question facing the Chargers (ready to compete), Packers (maybe ready to compete), and Steelers (retooling/unknown) as they write contracts for the next few years.

4) What are the Colts doing right in the defensive backfield?

At this time last year, if you asked me what team Kenny Moore played for, I would not know even who we were talking about. Same goes for Pierre Desir.

These were both starting-caliber -- and high-impact! -- corners for the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts in 2018. Desir gave DeAndre Hopkins problems, for heaven's sake!

And here's the real kicker: from what I know of the Colts defense, and what I've seen from their early-season stuff, they are running Tampa-2 stuff -- that's supposed to be a dead defense, team! A changeup, a gimmick -- not a long-term solution!

I can't express to you how hard the Colts zigged relative to the league's zag to MOFC (Middle Of the Field Closed) defenses in recent years. It's a huge part of DROY LB Darius Leonard's high-stat output, and a defense into which he fits very snugly. My head tells me a team can't play Tampa-2 as a base in 2019, but I wouldn't be shocked to see the Colts try.

At best, I was totally unaware of Desir, Moore, and Leonard at this time last year -- DC Matt Eberflus seems to have made them good. I want to figure out how and why.

5) Patrick Mahomes

Patrick Mahomes' 2018 MVP season is an absolute must-watch -- and I'm talking all 18 games -- for anyone who tries to cover the NFL Draft, or the NFL from a scheme perspective. There are 5 reasons why:

1) fun

2) We have to figure out what changed for Mahomes, if anything. I thought he was a high-risk player coming out, I still think he's a high-risk player, but his Year 1 interception numbers are down, and the Chiefs rarely went 3-and-out last year. Statistical aberration that's regressing back to the mean? Most likely, but the difference between Mahomes' play style and risk management from TTU 2016 to KC 2018 could tell us a lot about draft QB maturation and Andy Reid's tutelage.

That brings us to:

3) What Andy Reid is doing offensively. The 2018 Chiefs offense had so much speed, and accordingly, so many easy throws -- more than you'd expect for a player with Mahomes' highlight reel of hero throws. Reid is a master of making explosive plays out of easy stuff, which is the most important thing an offense can do in the 21st century.

4) What defenses were successful against KC (New England? Los Angeles? Baltimore?) and how they were so. Matching up against Mahomes was the most daunting task of the 2018 NFL season, so how did defenses grow against him and his tendencies, and what should we subsequently expect from guys like Vic Fangio and Gus Bradley, who will be seeing Mahomes twice annually.

5) Understanding how Mahomes wins outside of structure could have solved problems for us in Lamar Jackson's eval and Kyler Murray's eval. We're learning how to better integrate running QBs into consistent offenses by creating opportunities for them to run, but also valuing the ability to escape from pressure. Mahomes' example could help us evaluate players like a Tua Tagovailoa, D'Eriq King (Houston), and Khalil Tate (Arizona). None of these players are on his talent level, but play style wise, Mahomes challenges preconceptions and adjusts our paradigm.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.