There has, in recent times, been an increase in subscribers to the school of thought that the NFL is on the verge of enjoying a quarterback surplus, with the college game consistently churning out starting-caliber signal-callers and sending them to a league where only 32 spots under center are available. Yet, given the collective lack of enthusiasm for this year’s class at the position and the Washington Commanders’ apparent desperation in trading for Carson Wentz, that case is currently a difficult one to make.
However, in the wake of an NFL Scouting Combine in which wide receivers lit up the track in Indianapolis, the league may soon have a surplus on the offensive side ball, albeit in a different area.
Indeed, rather than being at the quarterback position, the plethora of stunning performances at the Combine suggested a possible overabundance of explosive playmakers at a time when several teams are still searching for the man to get the ball in the hands of the remarkable athletes that continue to pour into the pros from the college game.
The 2021 NFL season was one that saw the emergence of a host of new playmakers on the offensive side of the ball with coaches who excel at getting such players in space going deepest into a postseason that will live long in the memory. Judging by the physical attributes of this year’s draft class at the offensive skill positions, the NFL’s most creative minds will likely have more firepower with which to work in 2022.
A plethora of big plays
In terms of explosive plays in the receiving game, there was a dip in the number of players delivering them consistently in 2021, albeit only a slight one.
Last season, 54 players registered at least 10 receptions of 20 yards or more, down from 58 in both 2019 and 2020.
That could well be reflective of the rise in receivers becoming the focal point of their passing attack. Ten receivers finished the 2021 season with 100 or more receptions, up from seven in 2020 and just five in 2019.
Yet with the number of 1,100-yard receivers increasing from 14 in 2020 to 16 in 2021, even a cursory glance at the statistics provides an illustration of a league teeming with explosive players in the passing game.
And it is a similar story on the ground.
Fifty-nine players produced a minimum of 10 rushes of 10 yards or more in 2021, sustaining a 2020 leap that saw the number rise to 60 after 52 achieved the feat in 2019.
The quality of the athletes on show at the Combine across the offensive skill positions and even at quarterback hinted at a class more than capable of ensuring a 2022 bump in explosives.
Receivers crush Combine
The merits of the 40-yard dash remain a topic of intense debate but the performance of the wide receivers on the track left no doubt as to the level of speed in the class.
Eight wideouts posted 40 times of 4.4 seconds or faster, though the overall athleticism of the class is better encapsulated by its performance in Relative Athletic Score (RAS).
RAS takes player measurements and puts them on a 0 to 10 scale compared to their position group. A final score is then produced, which is also on a 0 to 10 score to show overall athleticism for a draft prospect.
Eight receivers ended the Combine with an RAS of at least 8 out of 10. Five tight ends also achieved that feat along with 12 running backs.
Of course, athleticism is no guarantee of success at the highest level. There are a multitude of examples of players who excelled in their athletic testing only to fail to make the grade in the pros. By the same token, underwhelming Combine or pro day displays have consistently been overcome by players with the skill set and the football intelligence to transcend their perceived athletic shortcomings.
But, as Mike Tannenbaum explains, those with that extra gear in their locker do carry additional value to teams as the college game continues to have a sizeable influence on the progression of offense at the NFL level.
“There are more explosive players in the league because of the style that is being played at the college level,” Tannenbaum said. “More spread out passing games will lead to players who dominate in space. As the college game continues to evolve its impact will be felt on the pro game. We will continue to see a premium placed on speed.”
And with so many skill position players demonstrating their physical upside and Desmond Ridder’s 4.52 40-yard dash shining a spotlight on his dual-threat potential in a draft featuring an elite quarterback runner in Malik Willis, offenses around the league will soon have more explosive cards in their deck.
But enough athletes are finding their way to the defensive side to suggest a possible leveling of the playing field.
The defense strikes back?
Regardless of the era of football, the challenge for defenses has remained largely the same. By their nature, they must be reactive to what the offense presents them.
The rise of pass-heavy offenses has led defenses to lean on smaller linebackers with the athletic ability to hold up in coverage against tight ends and wide receivers, creating opportunities for teams with strong ground attacks who thrive using heavy personnel formations that can take advantage of lighter defenders at the second level.
Of course, the obvious answer to that problem of having to deal with both spread-out passing attacks and domineering run games is to unearth players with a blend of size and speed who can excel against both.
Tannenbaum adds: “Similarly on defense, there is a premium placed on players who play with speed and can be productive in space. While there is still a role for size/stoutness on defense, there’s an increasing need for players who are effective in space that have effective play speed.”
There is not, however, always an evident route to acquiring such defensive chess pieces, which is why there is significant attention on two prospects with the profile to meet the conundrums posed by modern offenses: Kyle Hamilton and Jordan Davis.
The prototypical do-it-all safety, Hamilton posted a RAS of 9.02 despite some viewing his 40 time of 4.59 seconds as disappointing.
Davis, meanwhile, was the star of the show with his incredible 40 of 4.78 seconds at 341 pounds. He earned a perfect 10 in RAS, raising hopes he can develop into an elite two-gapping defensive tackle who can mitigate the impact of putting two safeties deep by clogging run lanes but also penetrate and have an influence on passing downs.
It is these multi-faceted players who represent the best weapons for defenses aiming to slow offenses that are benefiting from having an expanding menu of explosive playmakers. And, with a record 16 defensive backs running the 40 in sub 4.4 times, defensive coordinators across the NFL will get to work with an array of rookie secondary defenders who at least possess the physical attributes to marginally tilt the balance of power in their direction.
Athleticism and speed, while important, are not the be-all and end-all for an NFL player but, in a league where a substantial part of the battle is the fight to both engineer and restrict space, players with that athletic edge have arguably never been more important. As a litany of prospects on both sides of the ball whose testing scores indicate they may offer that advantage prepare to turn pro, the constantly evolving chess match between offense and defense could be about to get even more fascinating.