Lots of focus in today’s NFL is devoted to personnel groupings, often referred to with a two-digit number. The first digit identifies the number of running backs on the field, and the second digit identifies the number of tight ends on the field. For example, 12 personnel describes a personnel grouping with one running back and two tight ends.
This approach can usually help count the number of receivers on the field as well by subtracting the offensive linemen, quarterback, running backs, and tight ends from the 11 total players on offense. Thus, 12 personnel would yield two wide receivers as 11 - 5 - 1 - 1 - 2 = 2.
In the plot below, there is a positive relationship between having 3+ receivers on the field and averaging more yards per game. Of the teams below the trend line, just the #steelers made the playoffs in 2021. Every team above the trend line also won at least 8 games last season pic.twitter.com/7jb9gcjSBs
— Ethan Useloff (@ethanuseloff) March 29, 2022
The proportion of plays run with three or more wide receivers is studied. Excluding four teams, three or more receiver sets were run over 50% of the time by each NFL team in 2021. To study how well this can be associated with offensive production, the proportion of these plays was compared to yards per game.
The trend line is relatively informative here, somewhat separating strong teams from the rest. Every team below the trend line, except for Pittsburgh, failed to make the playoffs last season. Also, every team above the trend line won at least eight games. This appears to be important as the offseason continues as teams shape their roster through the NFL Draft later this month.
Teams Using '11 Personnel' The Most
Los Angeles Rams
During their recent Super Bowl season, the Rams finished as the team with the highest percentage of plays with at least three wide receivers - over 84% of their offensive plays came from 11 personnel. Their success was in large part due to star receiver and 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp. The Eastern Washington product played the fourth-most offensive snaps on the Rams in 2021, and he topped it off by earning Super Bowl LVI MVP. Kupp became the leagues first triple crown winner since Steve Smith in 2005, leading the NFL in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2021.
Another receiver the Rams utilized often was Van Jefferson, playing over 80% of the Rams’ snaps and finishing with 802 receiving yards. Until he tore his ACL midseason, Robert Woods played the majority of offensive snaps for LA. Other receivers who played a portion of the Rams’ regular season include Odell Beckham Jr. and DeSean Jackson.
LA now gets Allen Robinson at the position while Woods and possibly Beckham Jr. join Jackson as players no longer a part of the team. The plethora of receivers in 2021 helped the Rams run their preferred and league-leading rate for 11 personnel, keeping three receivers on the field to lead their high-powered offense.
The Bills have a great nucleus intact, so much so that they have the shortest odds to win Super Bowl LVII, according to most sportsbooks. Buffalo ranked in the top five in offensive yards per game in 2021 with star quarterback Josh Allen passing the football. On the receiving end of 103 of these Allen passes was Stefon Diggs.
There have been rumors the former Maryland Terrapin could get traded this offseason as his contract only runs through the 2023 season, potentially following a similar path to Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill in the past few weeks. Making only $14.4M on his current contract, Diggs has added to these trade talks, tweeting “It’s always business… never personal.”
If Diggs were to leave, there would be a looming hole in the receiving room in Buffalo as their second-leading receiver in 2021 was Cole Beasley, finishing with more than 500 fewer yards. Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis were two more constants in the Bills offense last season, with the latter having a stellar performance in the AFC Divisional matchup.
Rotating these four options makes sense why Buffalo ranked third in the percentage of plays with three or more receivers. The versatile receiver Isaiah McKenzie also helped these numbers in 2021 despite lining up in the backfield and even at quarterback, potentially inflating the personnel rates marginally as he’s listed solely as a receiver. The Bills also ran 11 personnel a large amount, accounting for around 71% of their offensive snaps.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Tom Brady returning to Tampa for 2022, the Bucs are hoping for more of the same from last season offensively. They finished with the second-most yards per game and ranked in the top ten for the percentage of plays with three or more wide receivers.
Led by a duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers had one of the best-receiving tandems in football last season. They were one of the three pairs of wide receiver teammates to each have at least 1,000 receiving yards in 2021. These two led Tampa in offensive snaps, excluding Brady and the offensive linemen.
The next-leading wide receiver for the Bucs last season was Antonio Brown despite playing less than 23% of their offensive snaps. Their typical third wide receiver based on snap volume was Tyler Johnson. With Godwin’s extension being given this offseason, Evans and Johnson will also be under contract next year, giving Brady familiar wide receivers. Byron Leftwich’s offense utilized 11 personnel at the fifth-highest rate in 2021, following the trend of the aforementioned successful three-plus receiver-driven offenses.
Teams Using '11 Personnel' The Least
At 29.2%, Miami had the lowest rate of three or more receivers personnel groupings in the NFL last season. Given the highest 3+ receiver rates section above, it checks out that the Dolphins finished in the bottom eight in yards per game. Their leading receiver was rookie Jaylen Waddle, setting the record for the most rookie receptions in NFL history. Following Waddle at the wide receiver position was DeVante Parker, who had around half of Waddle’s receiving yards. This, however, was where most of their receiver production came from, at least from a position designation standpoint.
Tight end Mike Gesicki has not been listed as a wide receiver by PFF despite his rates of where he lines up. The former Penn State Nittany Lion had the majority of his snaps in 2021 come from the slot, followed by out wide, and his third-most-common position lined up at was inline, the typical tight end position. Using this logic, there is an argument to be made that Gesicki should have been listed as a receiver for personnel groupings, but this was not the case.
Durham Smythe was the primary tight end in Miami’s offense since he primarily lined up inline. Miami led the NFL in 12 personnel in 2021, but as it has been stated, this is somewhat misleading since Gesicki has played a lot of receiver based on alignment. With Tyreek Hill being traded to the Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa should have a good opportunity to showcase his skills in 2022 and elevate the Miami offense.
Just ahead of the Dolphins for the percentage of plays with at least three wide receivers were the Falcons, slotting their clip as the second-lowest in 2021. Their leading wide receiver last season was Russell Gage, who racked up 770 receiving yards. Behind him was Olamide Zaccheaus, totaling 406 yards.
However, similar to Miami, looking just at wide receivers for Atlanta’s offense is somewhat misleading based on their positional makeup of pass catchers. Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts led the team in receiving yards with over 1,000 and Cordarrelle Patterson, listed by PFF as a running back, was their third-leading receiver with 548 receiving yards.
Since these two players are not considered wide receivers, Atlanta’s proportion of plays with three or more wide receivers on the field will not fully represent the style of the players on the field. Pitts spent more time lined up at a typical receiver spot than inline, just like Gesicki did. Patterson saw the majority of his snaps beginning with him in the backfield, but he was utilized as a pass-catcher quite often, specifically to the tune of third on Atlanta in targets. The team’s third-leading wide receiver was Calvin Ridley, who missed a portion of last season.
Given Ridley’s looming suspension in 2022 and the lack of top-tier talent at the wide receiver position, expect Atlanta to attempt to acquire a player at the position before next season. The Falcons ran 11 personnel the most last season, but 12, 21, and 22 personnel were not too far behind, which makes sense given their position versatility. While Marcus Mariota will be reuniting with Arthur Smith in Atlanta, the Falcons will try to improve upon their bottom-four offense based on yards per game from 2021.
Unlike the previous two teams in this section, the Texans ran 11 personnel for a significant majority of their plays in 2021. Their five leading pass catchers last season were all listed as wide receivers, but most of their efforts were underwhelming. First on the team in receiving yards was Brandin Cooks with 1,037, having his sixth 1,000-yard receiving season in his eight total.
However, there was a large drop in production following Cooks. Second on Houston was Nico Collins, picking up 446 receiving yards in his rookie season. Next were Chris Conley, Danny Amendola, and Chris Moore, totaling fewer than 800 receiving yards combined.
Despite running a near-average proportion of plays with three or more receivers, Houston was unable to muster much offense as a unit, finishing with more than 65 yards per game fewer than the average NFL team in 2021. The Texans finished with the third-fewest offensive snaps last season, giving the team less of an opportunity to pick up yards, but not by a significant enough margin to justify having the offense with the fewest yards per game.
Part of this, though, should be expected with rookie quarterback Davis Mills having to play after Tyrod Taylor and Deshaun Watson each missed at least part or all of last season. Houston will look to draft young talent that can help them on the offensive side of the ball, but Lovie Smith and Nick Caserio have some work to do to reinvigorate the Texans.
All information provided by TruMedia and PFF