Team identity is, believe it or not, more than just a mantra that gets written on the chalkboard or at the top of the opening page of the playbook.
When teams decide at their core who they actually want to be, good things tend to happen. And for as easy as it might be to assume each of the NFL's 32 teams have their own unique identities, too many teams have too many powerful figures pulling or tugging them to their own desired vision in the name of job security. Teams who offer organizational clarity and structure are the ones who typically find themselves atop the standings year after year.
The Steelers, Packers, Ravens, Saints and Patriots don't routinely challenge the postseason's top seed just because they have an elite player at a critical position. There's stability; with stability comes identity.
Stable organizations have less chance for upheaval and coaching changes to drastically shift the who, what and where on the field and in football operations.
If teams don't have an identity, they better find one because a directionless franchise without team success is a first-class ticket to the unemployment line. So, which NFL franchises did well to establish their identity in the 2020 NFL Draft? Team success hasn't found these three franchises yet — they've combined for eight losing seasons over the last three years — but the draft at least offers a step in the right direction.
A step towards a clear identity as a team.
Identity: speed kills
The Broncos added three wide receivers to their 2020 roster via the draft, and each of the three has a little bit of zip to them — pairing well with their existing offensive weapons in what has clearly become an arms race in the AFC West. Between the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders and Broncos, the division is racing to assemble optimal supporting casts for young quarterbacks.
The Chiefs have it mastered. But the Broncos have made the most progress over the last year. Denver, in 11 personnel, can boast the following skill group:
- WR (X): Courtland Sutton (4.54-second 40-yard time)
- WR (Slot): K.J. Hamler (projected 4.28-second 40)
- WR (Z): Jerry Jeudy (4.45-second 40)
- TE: Noah Fant (4.50-second 40) or Albert Okwuegbunam (4.49-second 40)
- RB: Melvin Gordon (4.52-second 40) or Phillip Lindsay (4.39-second 40)
This team can fly! With a young quarterback in Drew Lock showing ample promise over five starts as a rookie, the Broncos have swiftly (pun intended) attacked getting dynamic weapons around him. Lock’s supporting cast can take advantage of his big arm and ability push the ball down the field. Denver might not win its track meets against Kansas City, but the Broncos are well-positioned to race down the field in bunches against the competition.
Identity: bully ball
Detroit found out the hard way how bad life can be when teams don't have a capable backup quarterback. The Lions started 2-0-1 before narrow losses to the Chiefs (by four points) and Packers (by one) cast them into a tailspin. Detroit lost its final nine games of the season and was forced to start Jeff Driskel (0-3) and David Blough (0-5) throughout the back eight games. Matthew Stafford, to his credit, was on pace for a 5,000-yard season before his year was cut short. But the Lions can't afford to have a backup plan for if things go south with Stafford yet again.
They have some promising young weapons — most notable among them is receiver Kenny Golladay. But Golladay, Marvin Jones, 2019 first-round pick T.J. Hockenson and company can only do so much if the offense is watered down my poor quarterback play, which is why Detroit seemed to gravitate towards "bully ball" this year. The Lions surprised some with their addition of running back D'Andre Swift with the 35th-overall pick. But when you pair him with offensive guards Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg, plus the free-agent addition of tackle Halapoulivaati "Big V" Vaitai, it isn't hard to imagine what the Lions are hoping to do.
If the going gets tough offensively, Detroit is going to look to turn things ugly, slow down the game and run the football; such an approach will help keep the pressure off whoever is under center whether that’s a healthy Stafford or anyone else.
This move has the potential to be bittersweet. If the Lions falter again in 2020 and make some coaching changes, a new leader may bring a new philosophy and render this team-building approach null and void. No pressure, Detroit.
Identity: "Roll Tide!"
The Dolphins fired offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea at the end of the season in a surprising move and replaced him with Chan Gailey. Why? Look no further than the team's selection with No. 5 pick: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Miami’s offensive identity in 2019 was "survive if you can." But the Dolphins have rolled out the red carpet for big, nasty maulers up front and complemented that with a play-caller and passer with plenty of experience executing run/pass option concepts. The team's new primary ball carrier is a downhill runner in Jordan Howard. Miami's five newly acquired offensive linemen between free agency and draft average 323.8 pounds.
Do you want to know what the Dolphins’ offensive attack will ideally look like? Look to Tagovailoa's college offense at Alabama.
The Dolphins, with Tagovailoa as the trigger man, are going to physically challenge opponents by running power concepts into stretched boxes. Gailey has shown tendencies in the past of implementing a lot of 11 personnel and stretching the field horizontally. By doing so, Miami can gain advantageous numbers in the box and look to blow defenses off the ball. And, as an extension off of that, is likely to package its pass options onto those same power, lead and dive concepts and give Tagovailoa the opportunity to make defenders wrong — just as he did at Alabama in 2019.
It's an ambitious approach. But it's also one that we should have faith in after seeing so many college concepts thrive at the professional level in recent years. Most importantly of all? It's taking a great player in Tagovailoa and replicating what made him so good to begin with instead of putting a square peg into a round hole.