NFL Analysis

6/12/24

9 min read

Ranking NFL's Best Rookie Wide Receiver Seasons Since 2000

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) gestures after a first down catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It's a golden age of rookie wide receiver play. More than ever, rookies are coming in at high volume and producing immediately. We just had a 2024 rookie class that could easily continue that trend.

Like we did with quarterbacks, let's look at the best rookie wide receiver seasons since 2000. As we can see below, a great rookie season does not guarantee a great career, and not having a top-10 rookie season does not take away from the careers of other great receivers.

All data is provided by TruMedia unless noted otherwise.

Best Rookie WR Seasons Since 2000

10. Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2004)

He accounted for 24.3 percent of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ targets that season, and it’s arguable Tampa Bay didn’t go to Clayton enough. The next leading receiver was Joey Galloway, with 451 yards.

Clayton was the 15th overall pick in the 2004 draft and was the fifth receiver taken after Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, and Lee Evans. Clayton’s rookie season was impressive as he finished 13th in receiving yards (1,193) and tied for ninth with 19 receptions of 20 or more yards.

After Clayton’s rookie season, he had knee surgery and was never the same player. He did not top 500 yards after his first season while he battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career. 


Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) warms up before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports.

9. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers (2013)

As a third-round pick, Keenan Allen was the seventh receiver taken in his 2013 draft class. He did not play his first game and only entered the Week 2 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when Malcolm Floyd was injured and lost for the season in the second half after putting up 102 yards in the first half.

Allen’s first catch was for 18 yards on a third-and-8, though he only finished with 34 yards on the day. He had -4 in his next game.

But Allen had 80 yards in the game after that and then had a stretch of five 100-yard games in eight weeks. He didn’t immediately become the go-to receiver and saw under 20 percent of the team targets. Still, he was the most efficient option and the leading receiver (1,046 yards) on a team with Antonio Gates, Eddie Royal, and Danny Woodhead.


8. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (2011)

It might be easy to forget how good peak A.J. Green was, given that we’re not too far removed from his lackluster final seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But the former fourth-overall pick’s peak started in his rookie season. Green was the fourth pick in a draft that saw Julio Jones taken two picks later.

Green’s first reception was a 41-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Week 1 game from Bruce Gradkowski after fellow rookie Andy Dalton left due to injury.

In Green’s rookie season, he had four 100-yard games and tied for ninth with 19 receptions of 20 or more yards. His size and speed made him a difficult cover right from the start. His rookie year (1,057 yards) was his first of five straight 1,000-yard seasons, and he was just 36 yards short of making it seven straight in 2016.


New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) catches a pass over Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sport.

7. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (2016)

Michael Thomas had a specific role as a leading receiver that did not look like the typical No. 1 receiver.

He excelled at working in the middle of the field in the short area, especially on slants. While “Slant Boy” was framed in a derogatory way to comment on how he earned his targets, he was great at what he did.

During Thomas’s rookie season, he had 1,137 receiving yards and picked up 62 first downs on receptions, which was sixth among all receivers in 2016. He only had a 7.94-yard aDOT, but 64.5 percent of his targets earned successful EPA, the second-most among rookie receivers since 2000 with at least 50 targets. Tyler Lockett is the leader at 66.7 percent on 69 targets.

In the following years, Thomas evolved into the fully-formed high-volume, low-aDOT target that led him to lead the league in receptions twice and yards once. 


6. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014)

The 2014 season was in the middle of the NFL's passing boom, at least for individual receivers. That season, 21 wide receivers had at least 1,000 receiving yards. It was the second year of four in a row with at least 20 receivers hitting that mark. The 2013-2016 stretch is the only time since 2000 with four years in a row (we’re on three now since 2021).

That 2014 rookie class was part of the reason (more on that in a bit). Mike Evans was the second receiver taken (seventh overall) behind only Sammy Watkins (fourth). In his first season, Evans had 1,051 receiving yards, and his 12 touchdowns tied for fourth among receivers. That came while catching passes from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon on a 2-14 Buccaneers team.

Evans had Vincent Jackson as a teammate, who out-targeted the rookie and had a 1,000-yard season, but Evans was better at converting big plays and getting into the end zone.

This is also a rookie season that ages quite well, as Evans has never recorded less than 1,000 receiving yards in a season.


Ja'Marr Chase vs. Jaguars
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) runs the ball against Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams (31) in extra time at EverBank Stadium. Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports.

5. Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals (2021)

There was a Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell debate for the Cincinnati Bengals with the fifth overall pick in 2021. Cincinnati took Chase, but it’s a pick that worked out for the Bengals and the Lions, who took Sewell with the next pick.

Chase was electric as the lead piece in a receiving corps that already had Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. He had 1,455 receiving yards, which ranked fourth among receivers. His 13 touchdowns were third, and his 22 receptions of 20 or more yards were tied for fourth.

Chase could create a big play out of anything with the ball in his hands. His 8.0 yards after the catch per reception were second only to Deebo Samuel that season, but Samuel’s aDOT was more than three yards shorter than Chase’s. 


4. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (2014)

Odell Beckham's season got off to a rough start. A hamstring injury limited his time in preseason, and he missed the first four games of the regular season, to the ire of coach Tom Coughlin.

But once Beckham got on the field… whew. Beckham finished the year with 1,305 receiving yards and a 21.7 percent target share, despite seeing no targets for the first four games. If we go from Week 5 on, he was second in receiving yards with a 28.5 percent target share.

Beckham had seven games with at least 100 yards, tied for the most among rookies, including four in a row to end the season. His 2.75 yards per route run is also a rookie record since TruMedia started keeping track of routes. 

His rookie season also included the famous one-handed catch on Sunday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys.


Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) had nine receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions. (David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (2023)

Puka Nacua was a fifth-round pick out of BYU who had three 100-yard receiving games in his final college season. In his first NFL game, he had 10 catches on 15 targets for 119 yards. In his second game, he recorded 147 yards on 15 catches and 20 targets. His third 100-yard game happened in Week 4.

The Los Angeles Rams found the perfect role for Nacua, who was seventh in the league in target share (28.8 percent) and finished the season with a rookie-record 105 catches and 1,486 receiving yards. Nacua was explosive with 25 receptions of 20 or more yards, which ranked fourth. He was the perfect fill-in while Cooper Kupp was out to start the season, but the two coexisted seamlessly upon Kupp’s return.

Nacua, with his ability to play inside and outside and his versatility with motion, was a key piece to helping the Rams reinvent their offense.


2. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings (2020)

Justin Jefferson was the fifth receiver selected in the 2020 draft. It was clear from the beginning he was the best of the bunch, and he’s now cemented himself as the league's best receiver.

Jefferson did not start the first two games of his rookie season, but when he got the start in Week 3, he went off for 175 yards on seven catches. He finished the year with seven 100-yard games, which tied Beckham for the rookie record.

His full season numbers were 1,400 yards (third among receivers) with seven touchdowns. His 2.66 yards per route run was second to Davante Adams, and he tied for the league lead with 23 receptions of 20 or more yards.  

>> READ: Jefferson Could Be All-Time Great


Arizona Cardinals wide receiver (81) Anquan Boldin against the Minnesota Vikings at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 30-17. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

1. Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals (2003)

In 2003, just 14 wide receivers had at least 1,000 receiving yards. Anquan Boldin, the 54th overall pick and sixth receiver taken in the draft, was one of them.

Boldin’s 1,377 receiving yards were third among receivers that year behind Tory Holt and Randy Moss. He had a 31.6 percent target share, second only to Moss, which has not been topped by a rookie since. Boldin’s quarterbacks that season were 33-year-old Jeff Blake and 24-year-old Josh McCown.

His 150 targets are second only to Nacua’s 160 (with an extra game), and his 101 receptions are third behind Nacua (105) and Jaylen Waddle (104).

If you want to see a player completely take over a game, look at some highlights from Boldin’s first NFL game — a 10-catch, 217-yard performance with two touchdowns.

NFL Analysis

6/12/24

8 min read

Ranking the Top 10 NFL Rookie Defensive Seasons of All Time

An upper body image of Sauce Garner as he gets ready to take the field
New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) walks onto the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has been filled with incredible individual seasons. Standing out as a defensive player can be especially hard, considering statistics never fully capture a defender's true impact. However, some rookie defenders exceeded all expectations and set a new standard for future generations through measured and immeasurable outcomes.

We're ranking the top 10 NFL rookie defensive seasons of all time. Recent years have brought several new faces to a long-standing list of stars.

We'll aim to answer the question: Who is the greatest rookie defensive player ever?

Top 10 NFL Rookie Defenders of All Time

We have to set some ground rules before diving in. First, we're only counting seasons produced after the 1966 NFL merger. This removes some incredible seasons, including Night Train Lane, Dick Butkus, and Paul Krause, but the change in competition and lack of counting stats make it hard to contextualize their play. 

We also favor some more recent seasons as statistics and rules have changed. Coverage penalties changed after Lem Barney and Mike Haynes set the NFL ablaze with their physical styles, so it's more impressive for modern defenders to succeed when they can barely get away with contact. 

10. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers

The player who usurped the title of best linebacker from Ray Lewis rapidly became a dominant force, leading the NFL with a remarkable 174 tackles.

No defender could match the first-round draft pick's prowess in tackling, with Patrick Willis' 136 solo tackles coming in at least 30 more than any of his peers. He added four sacks, two forced fumbles, and five pass breakups.

Despite the San Francisco 49ers' disappointing 5-11 record and being years away from their resurgence under coach Jim Harbaugh, their do-everything middle linebacker was an immediate standout.

Willis quickly became the defense's linchpin during their rise in the early 2010s, distinguishing himself as a rare rookie to be named a first-team All-Pro, an accolade he would achieve four more times in the following five years.


9. Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets

There have been many tremendous rookie cornerbacks throughout the last 57 seasons, but the advancement of player tracking and contextualized performance has made it easier to see how well individuals perform beyond interceptions.

While Marcus Peters, Marshon Lattimore, and Darrell Revis were fantastic in their rookie campaigns, Sauce Gardner was more dominant on a play-by-play basis in 2022.

Gardner became the first rookie corner to make first-team All-Pro since Ronnie Lott in 1981. He allowed only 54 yards in man coverage in 18 games, led the NFL with 20 pass breakups, totaled 75 tackles and two interceptions. His blend of length, physicality, and ball skills immediately translated from college, and his 62.3 quarterback rating allowed (1,115 snaps) put him in all-time consideration for single-season impact.


8. Mark Carrier, SAF, Chicago Bears

Landing with the Chicago Bears as the sixth selection in the 1990 NFL Draft out of USC, Mark Carrier immediately became a difference-maker for a team that quickly returned to the playoffs upon his addition.

The safety led the NFL with 10 interceptions, five forced fumbles, and 122 combined tackles. Mike Ditka's defense rose from the 20th-best scoring unit in 1989 to the ninth-best, largely thanks to Carrier's forced turnovers.

He added an 11th interception in their wild card round win against Steve Walsh's New Orleans Saints. Carrier finished his career with 32 picks, 16 forced fumbles, and 863 tackles in 11 seasons. Though he was known for delivering punishing hits, his knack for finding the ball was just as important and impressive.


Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws the football against the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Adding Micah Parsons over Julius Peppers, Nick Bosa, and Aldon Smith might be surprising at first glance, given that Peppers averaged one sack per game and Smith outproduced Parsons in sack total.

However, Peppers only played in 12 games as a rookie, and both Bosa's and Smith's production outside of sacks was lacking in comparison. Parsons gets the nod.

With 13 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, 30 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles, historians can't forget that Parsons was playing as a standup linebacker for chunks of his rookie season. His stats were ridiculous, even without the fact he wasn't a full-time edge rusher yet. The eye test was even better, as Parsons regularly flew to the ball and disrupted plays.

He's a huge reason Dallas jumped from the 28th-best scoring unit to the seventh in one year.

>> READ: Where Parsons Ranks Among All Rookies


6. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

Often maligned for his on-field antics, teams continued to deal with Ndamukong Suh's occasional outbursts because he was a generational talent at defensive tackle. He racked up a career-best 10 sacks as a rookie and added an interception, forced fumble, 13 tackles for loss, and 17 QB hits.

Suh earned first-team All-Pro honors on the 6-10 Detroit Lions over in-prime versions of Kyle Williams, Vince Wilfork, and budding star B.J. Raji.

Jim Schwartz's defense lept from 32nd in the NFL to 19th. The only real notable players under 32 years old on the unit were Chris Avril and Louis Delmas, so Suh was clearly the driving force in getting the unit to a more respectable level.

He continued to play at a high level throughout the rest of his career, even if he didn't make another Pro Bowl or All-Pro team after turning 30. 


Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse (90) acknowledged fans in the stadium moments after teammate Eddie George scored on a touchdown.

5. Jevon Kearse, EDGE, Tennessee Titans

One doesn't earn the nickname "The Freak" without incredible accomplishments.

Javon Kearse owns the NFL rookie sack record with 14.5 since the charting era began in 1982. He forced eight fumbles, broke up nine passes, and added 49 solo tackles. The Titans made their way to the Super Bowl, riding the rookie's back, and nearly won.

In that run was a legendary performance against the Buffalo Bills in the "Music City Miracle" game. Kearse sacked Bills QB Rob Johnson twice, forced two fumbles, and logged a safety. His sack against Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XXXIV was nearly enough to secure the franchise's historic run after moving from Houston in the offseason. 


4. Al Baker, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Before the NFL sack record was established in 1982, Al Baker's remarkable total of 23 sacks was the league's gold standard. It's even more incredible that his 23 sacks in 1978 came in his rookie campaign. Baker's early career highlights how the lack of recorded defensive statistics disadvantaged players from previous times.

In his rookie season, he was named a first-team All-Pro, lapping the second-best pass-rusher by 5.5 sacks. By the end of his third season in 1980, Baker had 56.5 unofficial takedowns. 


3. Ronnie Lott, CB, San Francisco 49ers

Not only did Ronnie Lott log a historic rookie season, but he did it at a position he's not even best known for. In his first year, the 49ers placed Lott at cornerback before switching him to safety in 1985.

Despite this, the first-round selection excelled, grabbing nine interceptions (including two during a divisional-round victory against the Giants) and running back four of those interceptions for touchdowns. 

The USC prodigy transformed the 49ers' defense, which leaped from 26th place in 1980 to second in 1981. Although the 49ers' secondary featured several impactful rookies, Lott's blend of physical play and keen sense for coverage played a pivotal role in leading the team to its first Super Bowl title.


2. Reggie White, EDGE, Philadelphia Eagles

Some don't count Reggie White's NFL debut as his actual first professional since he played two seasons in the UFL, but he was still considered an NFL rookie. The greatest pass-rusher of all time began his career with a bang, totaling 100 tackles and 13 sacks in only 13 games.

He finished behind Indianapolis' Duane Bickett in the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1985.

White's unblockable nature got the best out of his teammates as well. Greg Brown, who averaged 6.5 sacks per season before White joined the Philadelphia Eagles, totaled 38 sacks in his next three years across from the future Hall of Famer.

White's rookie season was the start of a run with nine straight double-digit sack seasons and an amazing career that featured 198 sacks. 


New York Giants Linebacker (56) LAWRENCE TAYLOR tackles Cincinnati Bengals Receiver (80) Cris Collinsworth at Riverfront Stadium. Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK.

1. Lawrence Taylor, EDGE, New York Giants

Despite Lott's exceptional performance in 1981, he did not receive the Defensive Rookie of the Year title. Instead, Lawrence Taylor, acclaimed as the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, overshadowed Lott and Joe Klecko's impressive season, which featured 20.5 sacks. 

Retroactively, Taylor's recorded sacks stand at 9.5, with an additional two in postseason play, yet his revolutionary approach to the linebacker position set him apart. Dubbed a size-speed phenomenon akin to future generations, Taylor's debut season is credited with reshaping the NFL.

Dominating against running backs and tight ends, his contributions as an outside linebacker significantly improved the Giants' defense, elevating it from 27th to third between 1980 and 1981. 

Taylor's influence necessitated pivotal changes in blocking strategies and propelled the Giants to their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

NFL Analysis

6/12/24

8 min read

NFL Quarterbacks Who Must Avoid Being One-Hit Wonders During 2024 Season

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) warms up before a 2024 AFC divisional round game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports.

Houston Texans QB C.J. Stroud was a big success in his rookie season after being drafted second overall in 2023. He was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and led the Texans on a surprising turnaround from 3-13-1 to AFC South champs with a playoff victory against Cleveland.

Is Stroud a one-hit wonder, or will he continue to ascend? You could ask the same of Jordan Love after a terrific second half of the season and playoff run for the Green Bay Packers. And for Brock Purdy, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first full season as the starter.

These three players lead my list of five signal-callers who recently had great seasons and are now under pressure to prove themselves as elite-level quarterbacks. 

QBs Who Must Avoid Being One-Hit Wonders

C.J. STROUD, HOUSTON TEXANS

The six first-round quarterbacks in the most recent draft will attempt to follow in Stroud's footsteps. He statistically had a fantastic rookie season and led his team to the playoffs.

Stroud was so poised and confident. He went 9-6 in his 15 regular season starts, ranking sixth in passer rating (100.8) and eighth in passing yards (4,108), while his five interceptions were the fewest by a quarterback with more than eight starts. 

Stroud then exploded for 274 yards passing and three touchdowns with a near-perfect passer rating as the Texans throttled the Browns’ top-ranked defense 45-14 in the wild card round. A 34-10 loss followed that in the divisional round at Baltimore, but Stroud had no turnovers in that game.

Stroud was selected to the Pro Bowl, a rare achievement for a rookie quarterback.

Houston has improved Stroud’s supporting cast by adding four-time Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs to create a dynamic trio of receivers in Diggs, Nico Collins, and Tank Dell. They also have Joe Mixon in the backfield, Dalton Schultz at tight end, and a solid offensive line.

Now, Stroud and the Texans have high expectations to win another division title and earn a higher playoff seed. Some might have visions of the team’s first Super Bowl trip despite playing in the stacked AFC. 

Pressure indeed for a second-year quarterback.


Jordan Love throws a pass (in a green jersey and yellow pants/helmet)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) drops back to pass against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of the 2024 NFC wild card game at AT&T Stadium. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

JORDAN LOVE, GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers traded four-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers to clear the way for Love — their 2020 first-round pick — to finally take over after three years as a backup. 

At midseason, when Green Bay was 3-6, things were not going well.

Then, Love caught fire with 18 touchdown passes and only one interception in the final eight regular season games, leading the Packers to a 6-2 record (including upset victories against Kansas City and Detroit) to earn a wild card spot.

Love then led a huge road win in Dallas in the wild-card round. He passed for 272 yards and three touchdowns in a game the Packers led 27-0 in the second quarter. Love and the Packers pushed the 49ers to the brink in the divisional round before falling 24-21.

Love, 25, ranked second in the league with 32 touchdown passes and seventh in passing yards (4,159). He’s signed for $13.5 million this season but should be extended before training camp as this is the final year of his contract. 

Regardless of whether his contract is settled, there will be pressure on Love to prove his strong finish last season wasn’t a fluke. He’ll be competing in the tough NFC North and trying to follow his predecessors — Rodgers and Brett Favre — in leading the Packers to a Super Bowl triumph.  


San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) holds the George Halas Trophy after winning the NFC Championship football game. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports.

BROCK PURDY, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

As the last pick in the 2022 draft, Purdy burst on the scene by winning his first seven starts, including two playoff games before a severe elbow injury in the NFC title game ended his rookie season. 

He’s on my list this year since 2023 was his first full season as the 49ers’ starter.

And what a great season it was for Purdy. He led the league in passer rating (113.0) with 31 touchdowns (third-most), 11 interceptions, a 69.4 percent completion rate (fifth-best), and 4,280 passing yards (fifth-most). Those numbers led the 49ers to 12 wins and the NFC West crown. 

In the playoffs, he beat Green Bay and Detroit before losing in overtime to Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Purdy showed good scrambling ability in addition to his passing skills last season, earning a Pro Bowl selection.

Purdy is one of the NFL’s best bargains, with a $985,000 base salary in 2024. After this season, he’ll have one year left on his rookie deal. He will surely receive a lucrative extension in 2025 if he continues to produce at a high level and has a great supporting cast to help his cause.

With a new contract on the line and as the quarterback for a Super Bowl contender, this shapes up as a pressure-filled season for the former Mr. Irrelevant.  


Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) on the field in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports.

BAKER MAYFIELD, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

It may seem odd to include a seventh-year quarterback who was the first overall pick in 2018 and led the Browns to the playoffs in 2020 with an 11-5 record before directing a road playoff victory against the arch-rival Steelers.

However, Baker Mayfield’s career plummeted after that 2020 season. He struggled (with injuries a factor) in 2021. Then, he was traded to Carolina in 2022 and finished that year with the Rams. 

He signed a bargain one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season and threw for career-highs of 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns. That helped the Buccaneers win the NFC South title with four wins in their final five games. 

Mayfield played well in the playoffs, recording 337 passing yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 32-9 wild-card round blowout against the Eagles. Then, the Buccaneers lost 31-23 to the Lions the following week. Mayfield had 349 passing yards and three touchdown tosses in that game but was intercepted twice. He made his first Pro Bowl last season.

He signed a new three-year, $100 million deal (plus $15 million in incentives) with the Buccaneers before free agency. The Buccaneers also re-signed Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans, which was good news for Mayfield. 

Now he has to prove that his 2023 version is the real deal compared to his 2021 and 2022 seasons, or the Buccaneers could consider drafting his successor as soon as next April.  


DANIEL JONES, NEW YORK GIANTS

Daniel Jones is another former first-round quarterback (from 2019) who made this list last season after his career-best year of 2022. 

But in his six 2023 starts, he had a sub-par season, with a dismal 70.6 passer rating (two touchdowns, six interceptions, 1-5 record). He played behind the league’s worst pass-protecting offensive line. He was sacked 30 times before his season ended with a torn ACL.

There were rumblings that the New York Giants tried to trade up from No. 6 in this year’s draft to take Drake Maye due to their concern about Jones’ ability to return to his 2022 form. 

In 2022, Jones went 9-6-1 as the starter, leading the Giants to a wild-card spot and a road playoff win in Minnesota (with 301 passing yards, two touchdown tosses, and 78 rushing yards).

In the regular season, Jones had 15 TD passes, only five picks, and threw for 3,205 yards with a 92.5 passer rating. He also showcased his running ability, recording 708 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

Jones’ fine 2022 season in the final year of his rookie deal (after the Giants had declined his fifth-year option) set him up for a four-year, $160 million pre-free agency contract last year. 

But if he doesn’t return to his 2022 form, the Giants can cut or trade Jones next March and take a tough but manageable dead money hit of $22.2 million while gaining $19.4 million in cap room. 

There’s tremendous pressure this season on the 27-year-old Jones, who was not drafted by the current football leadership of general manager Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll.

The good news for Jones is he has been participating in the Giants’ OTA sessions as he continues his ACL recovery. Also, the Giants drafted WR Malik Nabers sixth overall, giving Jones the best receiving weapon he’s had in New York. 

But he’ll miss the production of retired TE Darren Waller and Pro Bowl RB Saquon Barkley, who Devin Singletary is replacing. And the Giants' offensive line is still a question mark.

NFL Analysis

6/11/24

8 min read

Ranking the Top 10 NFL Playoff Moments in History

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the thrilling world of NFL playoff history, where magic unfolds before our eyes every postseason. The NFL playoffs always keep us entertained, from jaw-dropping catches to improbable defensive plays.

So, sit back, relax, and dive into the best moments from NFL playoff history. For this piece, we are focusing on singular plays that everyone remembers. The greater the stage, the higher the ranking.

Lasting impact matters, too, so expect plays that alter NFL history to appear higher on the list. So without further ado, here are the top 10 NFL playoff moments:

Ranking Top 10 NFL Playoff Moments

10. Demaryius Thomas Touchdown vs. Steelers

The Denver Broncos were 7.5-point home underdogs against the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. With Tim Tebow at quarterback, it was nearly a given the Broncos would be one-and-done in Round 1 of the 2011 NFL playoffs.

However, after a 366-yard performance by Tebow, the Broncos got the game to overtime. And on the first play in overtime, Demaryius Thomas took a dig route 80 yards to the house to knock off Pittsburgh in Round 1.

The image of Thomas running away from the entire Pittsburgh defense in overtime will live on as one of the best moments in playoff history. This play (and game) was among the most surprising because it happened in the Wild Card Round.

Still, the Broncos were knocked out of the playoffs the following week, so it’ll stay at No. 10.


9. Beast Quake Run vs. Saints

Do you remember where you were during the greatest single run in postseason history?

Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run helped seal a massive upset for the Seattle Seahawks in Round 1 of the 2010 playoffs. After sneaking into the playoffs at 7-9, the Seahawks were 10-point home underdogs against the 11-5 Saints with Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run, which featured nine broken tackles, helped the Seahawks take a 41-30 lead with less than two minutes remaining on the clock. The crowd noise during that run was loud enough to register on a seismic station, hence the name “beat quake.”


8. James Harrison Pick-Six vs. Cardinals

There are only a few defensive plays on this list, but you knew we had to include James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Right before halftime, Harrison dropped into coverage and picked off Kurt Warner, and the rest is history. His 100-yard return seemed to take forever, but he eventually made his way to the end zone in what turned out to be a potential 14-point swing.

The only reason this play isn’t higher is that it took place in the second quarter. Every other game on this list had its best moment in the fourth quarter or overtime.


7. The Minneapolis Miracle

It might have only been the Divisional Round, but Stefon Diggs’ walkoff touchdown against the Saints remains one of the most improbable plays in NFL history.

With the Vikings down by one with just 10 seconds remaining, they held the ball at their 39-yard line with no timeouts left. And on third and 10, Case Keenum found Diggs down the left sideline. Diggs caught the pass, turned upfield, and ran the rest of the way to the end zone untouched.

That play allowed the Vikings to return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the Brett Favre era and remains one of the best game-ending plays in NFL history. You'll probably never hear a stadium louder than when Diggs turned upfield with no one else in sight. It was quite the moment.


6. Immaculate Reception

Trailing by one on fourth and 10 from their own 22-yard line, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed a miracle to beat the Oakland Raiders during the 1972 playoffs. Terry Bradshaw threw a pass over the middle to John "Frenchy" Fuqua, but he was hit at the moment the ball arrived by Jack Tatum.

The ball ricocheted into the hands of Franco Harris, who took the ball into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. This is one of the best plays in playoff history, but it isn’t higher because it took place in the divisional round, and Pittsburgh lost to Miami the following week.

This play did help the Steelers win their first-ever playoff game so that counts for something.


5. The First Hail Mary

Down by four with just 32 seconds left, the Dallas Cowboys' championship hopes and dreams were on the line. Roger Staubach heaved a pass down the right sideline to Drew Pearson, hoping for a wild completion.

Pearson made the catch and got into the end zone, and the Cowboys took a 17-14 lead against the Vikings in the NFC Divisional Round. Staubach coined the phrase "Hail Mary” as the Cowboys advanced to the NFC Championship Game and eventually the Super Bowl.


4. The Music City Miracle

Of all the plays listed here, the most improbable was the Music City Miracle.

The Tennessee Titans trailed the Bills by one in the 1999 playoffs and had just 16 seconds left to save their season. Rather than trying a Hail Mary or something else on offense, the Titans devised a brilliant plan on the kickoff return.

The entire special teams unit ran to the right side with Frank Wycheck, who proceeded to throw the ball all the way across the field to Kevin Dyson. Was the lateral legal? That question haunts Bills fans to this day, but Dyson took the ball 75 yards and into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

The Titans would continue that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl and nearly beat the “Greatest Show on Turf” that year. The Music City Miracle remains one of the wildest plays in NFL history and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.


3. David Tyree’s Helmet Catch

Just how important was David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII? If that play never happened and Eli Manning’s third-and-5 pass was incomplete, the Patriots become the first team in NFL history to go 19-0, giving Tom Brady his fourth Super Bowl win in seven seasons.

Instead, the New York Giants knocked off one of the greatest teams in NFL history, all because Tyree secured a 32-yard pass to the side of his helmet. We still aren't sure to this day how Tyree managed to catch that pass, but this play remains one of the greatest in Super Bowl history.


2. “The Catch” By 49ers TE Dwight Clark

You can make a strong case this should be No. 1 because it helped the San Francisco 49ers win their first Super Bowl and launched one of the greatest dynasties in sports history.

Joe Montana and the 49ers faced a third-and-3 from the Cowboys' 6-yard line, down by six with under a minute remaining in the NFC Championship Game.

Montana rolled to his right, and his pump fake got several defenders to leave their feet, including Ed “Too Tall” Jones, the NFL's tallest player. Everyone in the stadium and watching at home thought Montana was throwing the ball out of the end zone to avoid a sack.

Instead, Dwight Clark snagged the pass in the back of the end zone, giving the 49ers a one-point lead. Montana became the face of the NFL after the 49ers beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl, and the rest is history.


1. Malcolm Butler's Interception vs. Seahawks

No play in a Super Bowl was as dramatic or impactful as Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The Seahawks were just one yard away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls and taking down Brady and the Patriots.

With just 23 seconds left, Russell Wilson threw a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette, which was picked off by Butler at the goal line. The Patriots kneeled out the clock, sending the Seahawks' potential dynasty into a tailspin.

Without Butler's play, the Seahawks might have been the team of the 2010s, and Wilson still might be the quarterback in Seattle. The Patriots won their first Super Bowl since 2004 and reignited New England's dynasty.

NFL Analysis

6/10/24

7 min read

6 Most Important NFL Observations From Latest Offseason Workouts

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow makes a throw during OTAs on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, at the Kettering Health Practice Fields outside of Paycor Stadium.

Most NFL teams are off for the rest of the summer and will report for training camp in late July.

However, a few teams across the league recently held offseason workouts. Here are the six biggest stories coming out of those offseason practices this week:

6 Important OTA Takeaways

1. Bengals Using Extreme Caution with QB Joe Burrow

Joe Burrow needs no introduction. He is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks and is one of the few who can go toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes in big games. However, his injuries are starting to pile up, and now he is dealing with a hand injury that had to be surgically repaired this offseason.

The Cincinnati Bengals gave Burrow a rest day once a week during OTAs, but eyebrows were raised when the star quarterback did not practice on Tuesday or Wednesday last week. While there is nothing to suggest that a setback has occurred, it is evident the Bengals are being cautious with their star quarterback.

The NFL season is three months away, and there is no need to overwork Burrow during voluntary OTAs. However, it's clear the Bengals will have to carefully manage Burrow's workload for the remainder of the year, even into the season.


Zack Martin prepares to block Fred Warner
Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin (70) during the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports.

2. Cowboys' Zack Martin Teases Retirement After 2024 Season

Zack Martin is set to enter his 11th NFL season, and the All-Pro guard hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. But that doesn't mean he isn't thinking about the future. Ahead of mandatory minicamp, Martin discussed that the 2024 season could be his last.

Martin's contract expires after the year, and he'll turn 34 in November. While he could easily play another three to four seasons at a high level, it's clear Martin doesn't want to overstay his welcome. At this point, it would be a minor shock if he played beyond the 2024 season.


3. Saints Planning To Use Taysom Hill Even More This Season

If you thought the Taysom Hill experiment was finished, think again. Not only are the New Orleans Saints planning to keep Hill's role in the offense, but it seems like they expect to feature him more than ever.

In a recent article by John Hendrix of SaintsNow, the Saints are using Hill even more in the backfield, giving him traditional running back touches:

Folks. I don't know how else to put this, but the Taysom Hill element to this Saints offense has major potential. Today we saw him being used as a halfback more and more. He had three plays where he was the running back and took tosses to the left and right…He was even a singleback on one of the reps. New Orleans is using a lot of motion involving Hill, including that speed motion that will surely confuse some defenses. This could get really fun really fast.

John Hendrix, SaintsNow

Hill saw the most touches of his career in 2023, racking up 33 receptions and 81 carries for a combined 692 yards and six touchdowns. While it's tough to envision Hill getting more work in 2024 at age 34, that appears to be the plan in New Orleans.

Can the Saints find a way to make him even more effective? At what point does it not make sense to feature an older player at this career stage? Time will tell, but the Saints appear to be leaning into making Hill a featured part of their offense again this season.


Treylon Burks
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Treylon Burks (16) catches a pass against Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (9) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.

4. Two Former First-Round Wide Receivers Find New Roles

It's never great for a former first-round wide receiver to see a significant change in their role early in their career. But sometimes, that can help save a career.

Look no further than Darrius Hewyard-Bey, who transitioned from a top-10 pick at wide receiver to a special teams ace. Heyward-Bey flamed out at wide receiver but ended up playing 10 years in the NFL because he was an exceptional gunner.

Treylon Burks could be the latest first-round pick to have a similar transition. After two disappointing seasons at wide receiver, the Tennessee Titans are using him more on special teams as a gunner during OTAs. While it isn't ideal for his long-term outlook at receiver, it's a move that could help him get a helmet on gamedays.

Another receiver making some noise is N'Keal Harry, who is transitioning to tight end with the Minnesota Vikings. Harry is a former first-round pick by the Patriots (2019 NFL Draft) and has combined to catch 19 passes since the start of the 2021 season.

It's clear Harry doesn't have the twitch and route-running ability to win at wide receiver, but the Vikings believe he could make their 53-man roster as a tight end. He's turned some heads during OTAs and could be the next wide receiver to transition to tight end.


5. Eagles Installing New Offense Under OC Kellen Moore

The Philadelphia Eagles needed to change their offense, which is why Kellen Moore was brought in this offseason. Rather than just tweaking the offense, Moore is installing a brand-new system. According to Jalen Hurts, the offense is "95 percent" new, emphasizing more timing-based routes for the wide receivers.

The Eagles finished seventh in points per game last year (25.5 PPG), but the offense tanked starting in December. They averaged just 18.8 points per game in the season's final seven games (including playoffs), and Hurts saw a major decrease in his production and efficiency.

The plan for Moore's offense is to get Hurts under center more and emphasize the run game. When Moore was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, Dallas was near the top of the league in first down run rate. Expect some early struggles for the Eagles' offense, but it will be more balanced than in previous seasons.


San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) gestures at the line of scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports.

6. Two Star Wide Receivers Miss Mandatory Minicamp

Now that Justin Jefferson has signed a mega deal with the Vikings, CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk are the next in line. However, Lamb and Aiyuk were selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft and are set to play on the fifth-year options.

Both star receivers missed their team's respective minicamps and are subject to significant fines.

Lamb and Aiyuk both hope to sign deals for more than $30 million per year, but neither player has had much traction. Lamb is likelier to sign a deal right away. His numbers are close to Jefferson's, and the Cowboys have no one else on offense who can handle his workload. While a deal might not be imminent, there is no real concern that it won't get done eventually.

>> READ: In-Depth Look At Lamb's Potential Extension

Aiyuk's situation is a little different and much more complicated. The 49ers are already paying a huge contract to Deebo Samuel and just signed Jauan Jennings to a nice deal. It's also interesting that the 49ers spent their first-round pick on Ricky Pearsall, which could indicate their eventual plans for Aiyuk.

There have been plenty of trade rumors surrounding Aiyuk this offseason, and those won't go away until he signs a new contract or is dealt. Still, expect these negotiations to carry through the summer and for things to get messy if neither player is signed before training camp starts.

NFL Analysis

6/10/24

6 min read

2025 NFL Draft QB Study: Should Carson Beck Be in Pole Position for No. 1 Pick?

The 2025 quarterback isn't as cut-and-dry as the 2024 class was at the top. Caleb Williams went wire-to-wire as the top prospect, whereas this year's crop has room for movement based on what happens this fall and throughout the draft process.

We don't have an elite athlete like Williams, Jayden Daniels, or Drake Maye looming at the forefront of our minds.

One player who created a lot of momentum in his first season as a starter in 2023 is Carson Beck. The Georgia Bulldogs star proved to be a tremendous talent after spending the majority of his previous three seasons as a backup.

But should he be the early favorite to be the top pick in 2025?

>> QB Film Room: Shedeur Sanders Breakdown

Carson Beck 2025 NFL Draft Outlook

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Beck is the definition of a late bloomer despite coming to Georgia as a high-end four-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Florida.

Stuck behind Stetson Bennett until his fourth year on campus, Beck immediately gave the Bulldogs a different aptitude from the pocket. Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo suddenly had a tall, stronger-armed, and consistently accurate option to build his offense around.

The unit immediately benefitted from Beck's high floor and pocket-passing acumen. Despite the program building a generational reputation from its immense running game success, Bobo and Beck combined to redefine the unit's operation. Georgia's passing offense finished 2023 with elite marks in explosiveness, success rate on passing downs, and predicted points added. 

Often, Beck lifted a unit that was good at running but was far more efficient and explosive when throwing the ball. They ranked as the country's fourth-most effective passing game and the second-most explosive unit. Beck's ridiculous raw numbers reflected this.


Rising To The Top

Only Bo Nix (77.4 percent), Jacob Zeno (73.6 percent), and Graham Mertz (72.9 percent) finished ahead of Beck's 72.4 percent completion rate. Daniels (11.7 yards per attempt), Jalen Milroe (10), and Kaidon Salter (9.9) were the only quarterbacks to finish with a higher YPA average, which accounts for yards after the catch as well as air yards. He was third in yards, trailing Michael Penix Jr. and Nix.

Just isolating Beck's in-pocket performance makes him even more impressive. He led all Power 5 quarterbacks in completion rate, YPA, on-target rate, EPA per attempt, and points above average per attempt on three, five, and seven-step dropbacks. That's a dominant set of numbers.

It was close to a perfect season for someone seeing his first significant time on the field in 2023.

His consistency was especially remarkable.

In comparing his passing efficiency to 2024 first-rounders, he saw little variation in his performance after his 52nd pass attempt in 2023. Williams, Nix, and Penix were consistently higher than Beck but were also historically good with their output.

Maye and McCarthy were in a similar range, but this metric immediately shows why Beck was trending toward being in the first-round conversation had he declared after 2023.


Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) throws a pass during the G-Day spring football game in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

Can Carson Beck Be The No. 1 Pick in 2025?

Putting the numbers aside, Beck has an intriguing skill set that seems to be coming back into style. Everyone wants a dynamic dual-threat with 4.4 speed, a cannon for an arm, and the precision to make any throw regardless of pressure or launch angle. But that player doesn't seem to exist in the 2025 class and is historically rare. 

Teams unable to find their own Williams or Josh Allen have found enough success with guys like Jared Goff and Tua Tagovailoa that someone like Beck can conceivably be a realistic No. 1 pick. Especially comparing Beck to Shedeur Sanders, who struggles more in a timing-based, rhythmic passing game but is dominant on extended plays, teams may opt for the higher-floor approach.

Beck struck me as more similar to Goff than I expected. Neither creates a ton with their legs but can buy time in the pocket or take off for an occasional scramble. Both rely more on their plus touch and ability to layer the ball between defenders instead of overly strong arms that can push the ball into non-existent windows.

Each also panics under pressure more than top-end peers, which is a concern. Beck is prone to standing still and is either late seeing free defenders, or late in reacting and unable to escape. He doesn't have the tools to overcome loose rushers, and his arm strength doesn't generate enough velocity to be unbalanced and still avoid dangerous throws. 

Sometimes he has to swallow a sack or throw into a defender's body to avoid the negative play. Goff has always been a more aggressive vertical thrower in comparison, but his issues with turnovers while under pressure have been notable throughout his career. Beck seems to have the same limitation.

Beck played a screen-heavy game with many easy check-downs and quick throws, overinflating his completion rate compared to his actual pinpoint throwing ability. While he throws a catchable ball, he sometimes struggles to rifle in a pass that maximizes the yards gained after the catch.

Growing into his body more and continuing to improve the consistency of his weight transfer could help, but he plays into his strengths enough to believe he won't have trouble bringing his quick-game success to the NFL.

He has better physical traits than Mac Jones, so he should be able to evolve more than the former Alabama star who busted with the New England Patriots. But Jones' struggles aren't something to completely wipe away when projecting Beck. Beck has a better arm, but there's a looming question entering this fall about how much heavy lifting Beck did in 2023. 

Jones also orchestrated a super-efficient offense with even better playmakers than Georgia's last year, showing off better touch but more point-guard skills than someone creating a lot on his own.

Georgia's scheme wasn't the sole reason for Beck's success, and injuries to Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey forced Beck to utilize fringe NFL talents. There was little to no drop-off when dealing with those factors.

Can Beck become the top overall pick in 2025? Yes, he can, but players like Milroe, Cameron Ward, and Garrett Nussmeier have better tools and the ability to rise to a level that Beck physically can't reach.

NFL Analysis

6/7/24

11 min read

7 Potential Breakout Players for 2024 NFL Season

Indianapolis Colts QB Anthony Richardson (5) works through passing drills duing mandatory minicamp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in Indianapolis.

It’s always easy to focus on rookies this time of year. The draft was just completed, and the new team fits are fresh on the mind. It’s fun to imagine and talk about what’s new. 

But let’s not forget the players already on rosters who can bring something new, whether a more significant role or increased production.

Considering that, we will look at a few players who could break out during the 2024 season. There will be no rookies on this list, but there will be plenty of promising young players.

2024 Breakout Candidates

Khalil Shakir, WR, Buffalo Bills

Khalil Shakir led Buffalo Bills’ receivers in yards per route run after Joe Brady became the offensive coordinator. Shakir was on the field for 75 percent of the team’s dropbacks after the change (though he only saw 11.6 percent of the team’s targets), and he should have a more prominent role in the offense following the trade of Stefon Diggs.

The Bills had a few plays with Shakir to create explosives, both near the line of scrimmage and down the field.

Shakir killed zone coverage (2.54 yards per route run with Brady) and did some of his best work from the slot. Since Shakir, Curtis Samuel and Keon Coleman might all be at their best from the slot, Buffalo could have a bit of a logjam inside. We could also include TE Dalton Kincaid there.

When lined up outside, Shakir had just one target on 46 routes under Brady. That’s less than ideal if you’re trying to project him as a top option in a passing game, but those snaps were often designed to go somewhere else. 

Shakir has the traits to win outside; he just wasn’t asked to do so during his two NFL seasons. If he can consistently win there, Shakir could emerge as a high-volume target for a Buffalo offense that desperately needs one.


Seattle Seahawks CB Devon Witherspoon (21) celebrates after the defense made a play against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at Lumen Field. (Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Devon Witherspoon, DB, Seattle Seahawks

A Devon Witherspoon “breakout” is about going from good to great. That’s in the realistic range of outcomes for the second-year defensive back in his first year under Mike Macdonald.

As a rookie, Witherspoon was an immediate impact player. He played corner on 87 percent of his defensive snaps — 47 percent in the slot and 40 percent outside. As a cornerback, Witherspoon was 36th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap among 150 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps. He added 16 passes defensed, tied for first among rookies.

While his coverage was a plus, his work moving around the defensive formation was some of his most fun. Witherspoon had 10 pressures and three sacks while as a dynamic blitzer. He should get those opportunities under Macdonald, with the added layer of being a pass rusher on simulated pressures.

We can look at Kyle Hamilton’s usage last season with Macdonald in Baltimore. Hamilton and Witherspoon play different primary positions, but they were in coverage at about the same rate, around 94 percent of their pass snaps. 

They both moved around near the line of scrimmage and had similar pressure rates when rushing the passer. Hamilton had a few more opportunities as part of a four-man rush, which created some free rushes for the defensive back. If Witherspoon’s pass rush effectiveness gets a boost on top of his coverage, watch out.


Indianapolis Colts QB Anthony Richardson
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson (5) runs with the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts

Anthony Richardson is almost a rookie because his 2023 season lasted just 98 dropbacks. Two separate injuries forced Richardson to miss time: a concussion in Week 3 and a shoulder injury in Week 5 that required surgery and knocked him out for the season.

When on the field, there were some ups and downs in consistency. His accuracy remained a relative weakness, and there were some misses sprayed among his throws. He could also run himself into pressure, but many of his dropbacks appeared to be in control — rarely rattled by pressure.

There were also some special throws throughout Richardson’s small sample, including a wild deep pass against the Rams with Aaron Donald in his face.

His injuries came on two run plays, which could be a concern, but they were more freak accidents than Richardson putting himself in danger. He was electric as a runner with four rushing touchdowns.

Richardson will return to an offense formed by coach Shane Steichen to fit the skill set of Gardner Minshew in Richardson’s absence. That highlighted Steichen’s ability to morph his style and play-calling to the quarterback. 

That should continue with an offense molded to Richardson. The unit has more speed with rookie WR Adoani Mitchell and will get a full season of development from Josh Downs.


Los Angeles Rams LB Ernest Jones (53) reacts after a defensive play against the Washington Commanders during the second half at SoFi Stadium. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Ernest Jones, LB, Los Angeles Rams

If you pay close attention to the Los Angeles Rams’ defense, Ernest Jones is hard to miss. He’s everywhere. 

If you wanted to suggest Jones’s third season was already a breakout, you probably could. The 2021 third-round pick started 15 games, had 145 tackles (14 for loss) and made a tackle on an insane 27.9 percent of his run defense snaps. Only one other player of the 62 with at least 100 tackles had more than 25 percent (Azeez Al-Shaair at 25.9 percent).

After those numbers, the fourth-year “breakout” might be more about the general public knowing who he is.

There’s a chance Jones’ game has another level, and he’ll be in a perfect defense to get there. New Rams DC Chris Shula was the linebackers coach in 2021 when Jones was drafted. Shula also played a part in the scouting and drafting process for Jones. He’s been a significant piece in Jones’s development throughout his career.

Jones added something to his game each season. He became a tackling machine at the second level and near the line of scrimmage. He’s been a plus in coverage, ranking 19th among linebackers in yards allowed per coverage snap last season.

His most recent addition was as a pass rusher. In his three seasons, Jones's pass rush rate has gone from 9.5 percent to 6.6 percent to 22.6 percent in 2023. On those plays last season, he had 33 pressures and 4.5 sacks. 

If Jones continues to build his repertoire, he could break through into the top tier of linebackers — or at least get a Pro Bowl nod. 


Denver Broncos EDGE Nik Bonitto (42) celebrates after getting a sack against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second quarter at Allegiant Stadium. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Denver Broncos

In his second year, Nik Bonitto played 46 percent of the Denver Broncos’ defensive snaps. That includes a missed two-game stretch near the end of the season. But his performance should be worthy of a play-time increase in Year 3.

Bonitto was one of the league’s most productive pass rushers on a per-snap basis. However, he only had 261 pass rush snaps on the year. Among players with at least 250 pass rush snaps, only Micah Parsons, Bryce Huff, Myles Garrett and Josh Allen had a higher pressure rate than Bonitto’s 18.0 percent. 

Every other pass rusher in the top seven of pressure rate had at least 10 sacks — Bonitto had eight.

No pass rusher had a higher rate of quarterback hits on pass rush snaps than Bonitto at 7.7 percent. Allen, Huff and T.J. Watt were the only players to hit at least 7.0 percent. Overall, Bonitto tied for 30th in quarterback hits with 20.

The Broncos intended to have a veteran pass rush last season, with Randy Gregory and Frank Clark penciled in as starters. Gregory was in the second year of a five-year contract but was traded to the 49ers after four games and one sack. Clark appeared in two games and was released after two tackles and no sacks.

That led to a need for younger pass rushers, including Bonitto, Jonathan Cooper and Baron Browning, to step into bigger roles. The Broncos are rolling with that group as the outside rushers heading into the season. 

If Bonitto stays at his pace of getting to the quarterback, it will be hard to keep him off the field. 


Green Bay Packers WR Jayden Reed (11) motions during a game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Jayden Reed, WR, Green Bay Packers

When the Green Bay Packers offense found its groove during the second half of the season, Jayden Reed was its best receiving option. The second-round pick was a big-play threat and one of the best vertical options from the slot. 

His 18 targets and 361 yards from the slot on throws of 20 or more air yards were the most in the league.

Reed started as the jet guy in Green Bay’s offense, and he grew in that role, making it a more dynamic position. By the end of the season, the Packers were taking traditional jet plays — like the jet wheel teams are featuring heavily since Tyreek Hill and the Kansas City Chiefs used it to get more momentum for his speed — and breaking them off into the middle of the field.

From Week 10 on, Reed was 19th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.43) — though two teammates, Bo Melton, and Dontayvion Wicks, were above during that span. However, 116 receivers had at least 100 routes in that span, and Reed was one of 12 to eclipse 2.0 yards per route run against man and zone coverage. Overall, he was 24th in yards per route run on the season.

Reed could become the most versatile option in the Green Bay passing game, which could take another step forward with Jordan Love. 

If that’s the case, Reed should blow past his 94 targets and 793 yards as a rookie.


Pittsburgh Steelers CB Joey Porter Jr. (24) reacts against the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 34-11. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Joey Porter Jr., CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers slow-played their second-round pick in 2023. Joey Porter Jr. played seven snaps in Week 1. He didn’t play more than 25 defensive snaps until Week 7. Once he got on the field in a full-time capacity, he was an instant game-changer.

While he only made one interception, he had 10 pass breakups and allowed 46.4 percent of targets against him to be completed, the third-lowest rate in the league.

During the season's first six weeks, the Steelers had one of the highest rates of man coverage at 28 percent. That bumped up to 30 percent once Porter began starting in Week 7.

If there’s one way to respect a cornerback, it’s to avoid him in coverage. Porter had the seventh-lowest rate of targets per coverage snap among corners, which is partly why his raw production numbers aren’t awe-inspiring. It’s a sign of good coverage, not a lack of production.

Porter will go into Year 2 as the clear top corner for the Steelers' defense on a pass-coverage unit that was improved this offseason. 

>>READ MORE: 2024 Breakout Running Backs

Analysis

6/7/24

8 min read

The Blitz Package That Terrorizes Modern NFL Offenses

If you watched the Cowboys beat the Colts last Sunday, you saw Colts’ quarterback Matt Ryan pressured by a furious pass rush. Sometimes it came off the edge. Sometimes it came from the inside. More than once, it came via the Double-A Gap blitz.

It’s a term not commonly known to NFL fans, but it was to Matt Ryan last weekend.

The Double-A Gap Blitz is a defensive maneuver where two defenders blitz through gaps between the center and the two guards – areas referred to as A gaps. You saw examples of it in play twice in the second quarter of the Cowboys-Colts game, and in both instances it worked to perfection.

The first occurred early in the period, when Dallas safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Anthony Barr lined up on opposite sides of center Ryan Kelly on a third-and-5 at the Colts’ 25.

When the ball was snapped. Kelly immediately turned to his right to pick up Barr.

But that left Wilson, lined up to Kelly’s left, free to rush the quarterback unimpeded—and he did. He shot through the gap and sacked Ryan.

Later in the second quarter, with the Colts sitting on a third and 5 at the Dallas 43 yard line, linebacker Micah Parsons and safety Jayron Kearse tried another Double A Gap Blitz. Only this time the Colts’ offensive line shifted right to block each of them before they could break the protection.

 

That left Barr, lined up in the B gap between left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Bernhard Raimaan, unblocked; and you can imagine what happened next.

Barr breezed past running back Jonathan Taylor, lined up to Ryan’s right, and dropped the beleaguered quarterback for another sack.

It was the beginning of a long evening for Ryan and the Colts. Ryan was sacked three times, pressured seven times, threw three interceptions and fumbled once. The result? The Colts were outscored 33-0 in the fourth quarter and suffered a 54-19 defeat. Matt Ryan learned a hard lesson that day. The Double-A Gap Blitz can be effective.

But how did the Double-A Gap Blitz get it's start? It goes back to my days in Dallas, when I was working as the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells. One day Bill came up to me in practice and said, “Hey, do you ever change this one blitz?’’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Well, If the center’s going this way,” he said, pointing in one direction,” do you ever replace the guy he’s supposed to block with another defender and let him rush?” I had never heard of that. So I told him, “No, we haven’t done that." But when I went to Cincinnati several years later as the defensive coordinator, I sat in a room with head coach Marvin Lewis and Paul Guenther—who was an ex-offensive coach and knew protections—and we talked about how we could get to a running back quickly; just as Barr did with the Colts’ Taylor.

We already had our blitzes in, so we said, “Let’s walk both linebackers up in the A gaps and see what happens.” What happened was that the center would point one way or the other, which told us just what we wanted to know. If he pointed left, then our left linebacker could come through the gap to his right and get right to the running back. Remember, the thrust of this package was to get one linebacker on a running back and the other into coverage. Once the offensive line showed where it was going, we knew what to do.

There were all sorts of variations of this blitz. Sometimes we would walk up the free safety and put him to the weak side of the formation. Then we had the nickel back on the other side. We didn’t want to tip the blitz. We wanted an even triangle. The safety who was in the middle of the field–that would be the strong safety–would line up directly over the ball, with the weak safety on one side and the nickel back on the other.

When I was the head coach in Minnesota, it got to the point where we’d change the blitz sometimes based on the offensive lines we faced. I had seen a number of teams try to emulate us on defense by having defenders in the A gap read the center after the snap. But that’s not what we did. We just listened to what the offensive line was telling us because it was quicker.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Listening to the offensive line? Correct. If, say, the center yelled out “Rip,” that would tell us he was going to his right. If the quarterback called out, “The Mike is 55,” as he stood ready to take the snap, it told the center to look for the middle linebacker.

There were always clues. But that doesn’t mean they always worked.

When you’re playing Tom Brady, for instance, he knows where he has to get the ball. He’s going to get it out quickly, and he’s not going to take the sack. He’s smart enough to know where to go as soon as the ball is snapped. So we had to plan a different blitz when we played him a couple of years ago.

With a scrambling quarterback, it’s different because I didn’t want the end to drop into coverage. If the quarterback gets out of pocket and starts to run, it could be bad news–as you’ve seen when Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields get loose. So we tried to keep them guessing by sometimes having both ends rush.

Over the years the Double-A Gap Blitz evolved. Initially, it was a nickel back and a linebacker or safety and an additional linebacker that we brought. But it became so sophisticated that we’d say, “Let’s back down and go pick the center or go pick the guard and run a loop with the defensive end who wasn’t dropping.”

Sometimes we’d just bring the nickel back and play Cover-2. When the two tackles would go to three techniques, we’d walk our linebackers up in the A gaps and have that exact same look. But we could bring a linebacker or whoever was going to be on the running back and line him up there, drop him out and play some form of Three Deep or Two Deep coverage.

I remember using it in Cincinnati once when we played Minnesota. On the first third down of the game it caused a red-zone fumble. Later, when I went to Minnesota, the first time we used it, Harrison Smith intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

What we’d try to do early in games is what we called “Split Bluff,” where we’d bring the linebackers up, see what our opponent was going to do, and then drop everybody out on the snap to figure out how they were going to play us that day.

After a while offenses starting saying, “OK, how are we going to adjust?” The first thing we saw was that they brought extra guys inside to protect, usually a tight end. Then they started moving backs into the A gap to narrow the space between the guard and center, which made us check to a two-man coverage defense. But that actually made it easier for us. It told us which way the center and back were going.

Eventually, it got to the point where we’d change coverages based on where the tight end would go. One time when we played the Giants, as soon as we lined up guys in the A gap they motioned the tight end to the other side and ran a toss sweep. It worked, which meant we had to adjust. The next time we saw them motion the tight end, we told our guys to back out and play normal.

There was a lot of cat and mouse going on.

When we first talked about this, the whole idea was to get to a running back as fast as we could. We knew the fastest way to get in the quarterback’s lap was to get in his face immediately. So when you have a guy like Barr, who’s 6-4 or 6-5, and he’s on a small running back trying to protect a quarterback who’s 6-2, it becomes pretty effective.

Now, of course, offenses seem to feel more comfortable vs. the blitz than they did. Where once they were trying to block a bunch of hybrid guys, everybody now lines people up and down the line of scrimmage. It’s kind of like Buddy Ryan’s “46” defense in Chicago where they had all these players up near the line of scrimmage. Because of the looks we’re getting from offenses today, when you get to third downs everyone has hybrid guys up on the line trying to do what we did with linebackers in A gaps – create confusion for the offenses in protections and misery for the quarterbacks.

Does it work? I‘ll let Matt Ryan answer.

As told to Clark Judge

Analysis

6/7/24

4 min read

Bill Belichick: Who I Would Like to Coach With

This is the fourth piece from Bill Belichick’s sit-down interview with The 33rd Team’s Mike Tannenbaum, who worked in the front office of the New York Jets while the iconic New England Patriots’ coach was a member of the Jets’ coaching staff.

Others in the series: Coaching Beginnings | How Football Has Evolved | His Best Players

Name any NFL coach in history you would like to match your X-and-O prowess against.

Bill Belichick pondered the scenario that The 33rd Team’s Mike Tannenbaum presented.

“I don’t know about coach against,” the New England Patriots’ coach said. “How about coaching with?”

For Belichick, the choice was easy.

“Put Paul Brown at the top of the list,” he said. “I would have loved to have done that.”

Belichick recalled spending time around Brown years ago, going all the way back to Belichick’s teenage years at “summer camps and stuff.”

“I think he really took the West Coast offense, and it was so far ahead of its time with the West Coast principles that Bill Walsh took and turned it into the West Coast offense,” Belichick said. “But, you know, Coach Brown also was so innovative in so many other ways, whether it was the play-calling, whether it was the cab squad, the screen and draw plays that evidently he kind of stumbled into. But that was kind of the creative way that he worked was to see things and figure out how it would disrupt the defense. I know Coach (Tom) Landry was like that, too.”

Belichick also admired Brown’s emphasis on discipline and fundamentals. Much of what Belichick learned about Brown came from Jim Brown, with whom Belichick spent time while Belichick was Cleveland’s head coach and the legendary running back was in the team’s front office.

“When I worked with Jim, and we’d have a lot of conversations, Jim would refer to Paul Brown very frequently,” Belichick said. “(Jim Brown would say), ‘This is the way Paul did it.’ Or, ‘Paul did it a little bit differently.’ Or, ‘Here's why Paul did it this way or that way.’ And it really gave me a lot of insight from a player’s perspective into the way that Paul coached the team.”

George Halas and Vince Lombardi are also on the list of coaches with whom Belichick would like to work. So is Al Davis, whose coaching background Belichick holds in high regard despite Davis being better known as the managing general partner of the Raiders.

There are several other coaching greats whose careers have overlapped with Belichick’s that make his list. “Obviously, coaching for Bill Parcells was a huge impact on my life and my career,” he said.

Belichick was Parcells’ defensive coordinator with the New York Giants. During that time, Belichick matched wits with Landry and with “great offensive minds” such as Walsh and Joe Gibbs.

“Mike Shanahan, we always had a lot of trouble with him,” Belichick said. “And, you know, on the defensive side of the ball … I had a ton of respect for Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer. Of course, they’re kind of from the same tree.

“And honestly, I put Jimmy Johnson up there probably at the top of the list, just what he did defensively at Dallas and then at Miami. And then, you know, Dave Wannstedt kind of followed that a little bit. When I think back about how much I learned in preparing for them and getting ready to play them, they had a lot to do with making me work harder and be better.”


Vic Carucci has been a national editor for NFL.com and a contributor to NFL Network, a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns and an NFL writer and columnist for the Buffalo News. Follow him on Twitter at @viccarucci.

Analysis

6/7/24

6 min read

'Hidden Yardage' a Difference-Maker in Close Games

Bill Parcells

Early in my coaching career, I learned a lesson, passed down from Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman, that yardage differential usually equates to points. I call it “hidden yardage.”

My initial understanding of this concept began with a conversation with Dan Henning, who is one of my best friends in life. Henning coached the Atlanta Falcons and the San Diego Chargers, as well as Boston College. For a short time, he quarterbacked the Chargers when Gillman was their head coach. Henning and I coached together at a young age at Florida State, and that was when he talked with me about field position and yardage, which Henning learned from Gillman.

The premise is that 100 yards of field position should equate to seven points. The more I thought about it, the more I asked myself, “If this yardage is so important, where is it coming from? Let’s take the entire scope of the yardage and evaluate it.” So, I did.

To explain what I found, we’re going to start with the obvious: total offense and total defense. So, let’s say a team has 350 yards of offense in a game. According to that premise, it should have 24 points. Let’s say that same team’s defense gives up 300 total yards. Based on that premise, the opponent should have 21 points.

Now, here is how the hidden yardage affects the outcome, especially when you consider half the games are decided by seven points or less, and a quarter are decided by three points or less. People don’t look at the penalty differential or the net-punting differential. People don’t look at the average start of possession either.

Those are hidden yards, and they all equate to points.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll say each team has 12 possessions, and Team A has an average start of possession on its own 22-yard line, while Team B has an average start of possession on its own 26. On 12 possessions, that’s a difference of roughly 50 yards.

Next, we’ll look at the penalty differential. Let’s say Team A has 40 yards in penalties, while Team B has only 20 yards in penalties. That’s another 20 yards added to Team B’s total, which brings it to 70.

Now, we’ll go to net punting. Let’s say Team A has six punts that average 35 yards, and Team B has six punts that average 38. That gives Team B 18 more yards.

Back in the day, when I was coaching the Giants, we had a year where we were very poor on net punting, averaging only 31 or 32 yards. Then, we signed a free agent from the Dolphins named Reyna Thompson, who became the best special-teams player I ever had.

Largely because of Thompson, our net punting went up almost 7 yards a punt on 70 punts, which comes to 480 yards. Divide that by 16 games, and that’s 30 yards — three first downs — a game. Using the hidden yardage premise, you’re talking about two-and-a-half points just in that one category.

We don’t count kickoffs in our calculations because they go into the average start of possession category and because kickoffs are deceiving; the more points you give up, the more yardage you have in kickoff returns. That doesn’t do you any good because you’ve given up points to get those yards.

The last category involves the most significant statistic in football — turnovers. It’s the most significant because you don’t get to punt the ball. That can be 40 yards in hidden yardage right there. Let’s assume Team B is plus-1 in turnovers and is plus roughly 50 yards in average start of possession on 12 punts.

Because of the penalty differential of 20 yards, that gives them 70. The net punting differential is only 3 yards because there are six punts, and that’s 18. Now, we’re at 88 yards and plus-1 turnover would be another 40, so we’re at 128 yards. That gives Team B a nine-and-a-half point advantage based on the hidden-yardage formula that 100 yards equal seven points. And we didn’t even count the difference in total offense and defense.

All the teams I ever coached are familiar with this hidden yardage. I would preach it to the players, and the assistant coaches would also be there to hear it. If you ask Sean Payton, “What’s the hidden yardage?” he’ll know. If you ask Mike Zimmer, he’ll know. Bill Belichick knows too.

I used to show examples to the team during the week, saying, “Okay, look what happened to this opponent just on this one play. This one turnover gave them 40 yards of field position. Those 40 yards in field position equates to points and games are often tight. So, all these different aspects that we’re talking about, when you look at them cumulatively, have a significant impact on the outcome.”

Any team I ever coached knew when we were pinned back inside our 5-yard line, where you have about a 7% or 8% chance to score, our objective was to make two first downs. So, we were generally between the 25 and the 30-yard line. That way we could punt them back to neutral field position.

Some people may not accept the 100-yards-equates-to-seven-points premise. I did. I’d say, “If you move the ball 100 yards, you probably have at least one touchdown. Right?” But, when you can go into that film room on Monday after winning a game by three or six points, it’s not just your field goal kicker that won the game. It’s the field position you had that allowed you to get those extra three points or get that extra touchdown.

You must show your team where that came from. You don’t just say, “Look, fellas, they made more yards than we did on offense.” A good coach points out, “We had a big edge in penalty differential. Our net punting was better, and we got two turnovers, and they didn’t get any, so they didn’t get to punt it twice. That’s 80 yards, and that’s almost worth a touchdown.”

With games as close as they are in the NFL, I found it very easy to embrace the value of those hidden yards.

As told to Vic Carucci