Creativity is king in the NFL. Coaches, on both sides of the ball, are doing their best to find the next niche of the game, the next strategy or implementation no one or not many are doing and using that to their competitive advantage.
When Matt Nagy was offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs under head coach Andy Reid, this is the kind of offensive mind he became. It was that creativity and reputation for thinking outside the box that made him the choice as head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2018.
Since then, Nagy has won a division title and made the playoffs with a 12-4 season in 2018, but 2019 wasn’t as successful. The Bears finished last season 8-8 with struggles on both sides of the ball.
Going into 2020, Nagy is in a bit of a hot seat year. He likely won’t be fired after this next season, even with a sub-.500 record. But his seat is heating up, and the pressure on Nagy to prove the worth of his hiring in the form of creative and competitive advantages on offense is building.
Whether it’s desperation, big-time outside-the-box thinking, or maybe just having some fun with the media, we’ve heard Nagy throw out some interesting ideas for this upcoming season. One of those ideas that was said out loud is that of All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson playing some wide receiver this upcoming season.
"He's going to play the Zebra receiver, and we're just going to let teams prepare for him there."
Now, how serious was Nagy with his words there? Likely not as serious as Jackson being a potential receiving threat week-in and week-out. But there could be some threat of Jackson playing the “Zebra” (slot) receiver in Nagy’s system at advantageous times as a back pocket move in the ever-evolving mental chess game of offense versus defense.
“Usually being able to play in the slot, so that’s that third receiver who can go inside and run different,” Nagy said. “We’ll move you around, sometimes we’ll get you on the ball, off the ball, we’ll put you in motion, but that third guy normally plays in the slot.”
The Zebra position in Nagy’s offense is definitely one that he likes to get creative with to manufacture mismatches. This is what Nagy had to say about wide receiver Taylor Gabriel playing the Zebra position prior to the 2018 season.
“So the things we do with getting guys the ball quick, RPO stuff, but getting [Gabriel] the ball, you see what he can do with screens, he can catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage and take it for a touchdown really on any given play,” Nagy said back in 2018. “Now a lot of that goes with regards to blocking that goes on with wide receivers and that, but he’s not just that quote-un-quote gadget guy. He can be a true receiver and really do well and excel, and he’s proven that.”
Jackson wouldn’t be playing in that same kind of role, but after hearing how Nagy talked about the potential versatility of the role with Gabriel in there, having Jackson as a potential Zebra player (or even just a threat, even if that’s all it is) is something that may have to be accounted for, and that, in and of itself, could be an advantage.
The notion of Jackson playing wide receiver isn’t totally out of the blue, either. Jackson was a wide receiver in high school. In his senior season, Jackson had 37 receptions for 792 receiving yards while playing as a two-way player in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida.
In an interview with Good Morning Football, Jackson said he would love the chance to get to play some offense.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I think Coach Nagy knows that already,” Jacksons said with a laugh. “All I need is two or three plays, coach! [We] can get a little disguise in there.”
Naturally, I went back and found some old high school film of Jackson playing wide receiver, and the highlights are fun.
Jackson, clearly a more superior athlete than the kids he was going up against, was quick off the line of scrimmage, smooth in his moves and in his strides, and could find soft spots in coverage as an outside receiver.
Look at those yards after the catch!
That’s the sort of route we could see from Jackson as a Zebra receiver in a specialized package situation; a little slant route that Jackson can then take for extra yards after the catch in space. And he clearly doesn’t go down on first contact if the contact isn’t strong enough. We could also see some screen opportunities or jet sweep play-action with him as a motion player.
I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.
Where it’s not totally something to brush off, Nagy will likely want to have Jackson keep all his energy and focus into being the best safety he can be for their defense—we’ve seen how much of an impact he can have for them when he does. But Jackson wasn’t the only position-versatile player whose name came up for Chicago this season. According to reports, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson has been meeting with the running backs, not the wide receivers.
"Patterson has been in meetings with the running backs -- not with the wide receivers,” said Mike Garafolo of NFL Network. “When they signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal before last season, they really had visions of using him creatively. In fact, when he went to actually sign the contract he walked in and actually saw on the board, Nagy had written up on the board plays and creative ways to use Patterson. They didn't get around to it last year, expect them to get around to it this year. Again, he is in with the running backs to learn everything about the position, the protections and everything. So, when he's lined up back there you don't necessarily know if he's going to get the football... Could be an interesting year for him and an interesting year for this Bears offense in general."
Now, this is something that could have some steam. While with the Patriots, Patterson carried the ball 42 times for 228 rushing yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Those numbers aren’t too shabby for a rotational/trick player out of the backfield.
Nagy even took that blueprint of Patterson and put it to use last season while Patterson was with Chicago. Patterson has made the Pro Bowl before as a returner, and when you can get him the ball in space using tosses like the play above, you’re essentially creating a similar look of a punt return or a kick return for Patterson—which has clearly been an area that gets the most of his athletic skill set.
Perhaps we see a lot more of that, and maybe some other tricks up Nagy’s sleeve, in a very crucial 2020 season.
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