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The NFL’s Pass-Catching Arms Race

Teams like the Titans, Bucs, Patriots, and Giants spent this spring adding to their playmaking arsenal. Will the moves lift their offenses to another level?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

When Jon Robinson was hired as the Titans general manager in January 2016, Tennessee was coming off a season in which it had gone 3–13 — the worst record in the league — with an offense that ranked 28th in scoring (18.7 points per game) and dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Most teams that bottom out to that extent are forced to tear everything down and start from scratch, but Robinson arrived to find the Titans amid a rebuilding process that had started long before he got to town.

After finishing 2–14 in the 2014 season, Tennessee had secured the second pick in a draft that featured two clear-cut, franchise-saving quarterbacks. The Titans came away with Heisman Trophy–winner Marcus Mariota, who put Robinson in the rare position of taking over a downtrodden franchise that had its most important piece in place. Mariota allowed Robinson to deal the no. 1 selection in the 2016 draft to the Rams for a hefty package of picks, a move made with the goal of building a support system around the team’s promising young quarterback.

Last year, that goal meant assembling a bruising offensive line and soul-crushing running game as a means of insulating the second-year passer who’d taken a beating as a rookie. Mariota was sacked 38 times in only 12 games in 2015, and a right-knee injury cost him the final two weeks of that season. Enter center Ben Jones, right tackle Jack Conklin, running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and an offense using heavier sets than just about any other in the league.

The plan was a rousing success. Tennessee jumped from 32nd to ninth in offensive DVOA, in large part due to its ability to crush opponents on the ground and hurt them with play action as an extension of that approach. Even after the team made a massive leap forward, though, it was clear what the offense still lacked. The Titans were without receiving threats who could actively make their quarterback more efficient, even with Delanie Walker serving as a viable tight end and Rishard Matthews — in his first season with the team — posting the best stats of his career (65 catches for 945 yards with nine touchdowns). Mariota’s deep-ball accuracy is among his (relative) weaknesses, and in a system predicated on shots down the field, he was limited by not having a weapon who could turn bad throws into good ones.

Corey Davis (AP Images)
Corey Davis (AP Images)

That’s where Corey Davis comes in. Owners of the fifth pick in the 2017 draft (acquired in that 2016 trade with the Rams), the Titans snatched the Western Michigan product to inject life into their receiving corps. They didn’t stop there. Tennessee grabbed Western Kentucky receiver Taywan Taylor and Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith in the third round, and then signed Eric Decker after he was released by the Jets less than a month ago. That’s one hell of a playmaking overhaul for a roster to experience in a single offseason.

"Marcus has been growing as a passer, but he’s been in a situation where they haven’t asked him to do nearly as much as some of these teams," says Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner. "Now you bring in these pieces; does this help Marcus take the next step?"

In striving to surround their quarterback with game-changing talent, the Titans weren’t alone. Teams all over the NFL spent this spring loading up on skill-position players. The Patriots, Panthers, Giants, and Buccaneers all made substantive changes, adding at least two pass catchers in an effort to revamp their offensive approach. For some teams (i.e., New England), this type of retooling is a strategy we’ve come to expect. For others, it’s a shift toward embracing a new identity and introducing a different — and more dangerous — dimension.

Warner knows the benefits that come with playing in a stacked offense. When he starred for the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams at the turn of the millennium, he lined up alongside one of the best receiving corps in NFL history and a running back who caught at least 80 passes in five straight seasons. In describing how that arsenal of playmakers aided him at quarterback, Warner points to the implicit trust it instilled, allowing him to execute within the constraints of the scheme. "It just becomes easier to say, ‘OK, the defense is telling me to go here, I’m going here,’" Warner says. "I don’t have to start second guessing where I’m going with the football."

With all the additions they’ve made this offseason, the Bucs are banking on Jameis Winston coming to a similar realization. Winston’s ugly collegiate habit of throwing the ball to the opposition persisted in his first two years in the NFL. Only Philip Rivers tossed more interceptions (21) than Winston’s 18 last season, and according to Cian Fahey’s Pre-Snap Reads quarterback catalogue, only Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matt Barkley threw interceptable passes at a higher rate. That’s a brutal list.

Tampa Bay bringing DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard into the fold should theoretically help Winston take better care of the ball. No receiver in the league saw more targets last season than Mike Evans’s 173; with superior options at his disposal, Winston should have less incentive to force the ball to his supernatural but overworked no. 1 receiver. Jackson, in particular, could represent the key that unlocks both Winston’s potential and that of the entire Bucs offense. Warner says the success of the "Greatest Show on Turf" went beyond simply accruing skilled players. Those offenses thrived because players’ specific skill sets differed from and complemented one another. "You feel like you have an advantage in every scenario," Warner says.

By using Jackson to take the top off defenses on one side of the field, Winston should have more room to operate virtually everywhere. While head coach Dirk Koetter’s approach will always emphasize pushing the ball downfield (only Cam Newton had a deeper average depth of target than Winston’s 10.19 last season), Jackson’s presence alone should give Winston simpler decisions and cleaner windows underneath, not to mention more two-high coverage looks that are easier to spot before a play begins.

Last season, when the Falcons were raining fire on the rest of the league, Julio Jones identified free-agent acquisition Taylor Gabriel as one of the central catalysts. With Gabriel tearing down the sideline, Jones was free to wreak havoc from all over the formation, working toward various depths in the defensive backfield. Surrounding a star receiver with an improved supporting cast is all but guaranteed to make that wideout more effective, even if it reduces his volume of targets. That’s the hope Tampa Bay has for Evans. It’s the same one the Giants — who in the past five months have brought in Brandon Marshall and spent their first-round pick on pass-catching tight end Evan Engram — have for Odell Beckham Jr.

"[Adding complementary pieces] allows players to do what they do well rather than everything," Warner says. "It gives you more freedom to piece those other guys in and makes you really, really potent."

In theory, transforming an offense by increasing a team’s firepower sounds simple. Get a bunch of big, fast, talented guys, and the rest will take care of itself. In reality, that’s not the way it works. "Even after you’re able to pinpoint all these different guys, then you have to have a coordinator and a system that’s able to place those guys in positions to excel," Warner says, pointing to Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta last season as a prime example of a coach who had both the pieces and the plan.

Cam Newton (Getty Images)
Cam Newton (Getty Images)

Of all the teams that underwent a receiving-corps face-lift this spring, none will require a plan as imaginative as the one in Carolina. The Panthers used the eighth pick in the 2017 draft on running back/slot receiver/defense ruiner Christian McCaffrey. According to Warren Sharp’s 2017 Football Preview, they gave just 13 percent of their targets last season to running backs, a mark that ranked 31st in the league. In his 2017 edition of Pre-Snap Reads, Fahey noted that Newton was dead last among 33 qualified quarterbacks in the percentage of his throws that traveled 1–5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Carolina wouldn’t have taken McCaffrey so high in the draft if it didn’t intend to make him a focal point of its offense and passing game, but we’ve still never seen a Newton-led and Mike Shula–coordinated unit utilize — let alone succeed with — a bevy of short routes. While the prospect of a more nuanced, malleable Panthers offense is cause for excitement, it also leaves Warner with questions. "How does Cam Newton see the game from that perspective? What’s his accuracy like on these short passes? Does that part of the game make it simpler or more complicated?"

In New England, envisioning how the moving parts fit together isn’t nearly as difficult. By acquiring speedster Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, the Patriots should add specific, useful elements to their existing approach. Cooks joins Chris Hogan to give New England a pair of vertical threats who can consistently threaten and stretch defenses; Burkhead offers another adept pass catcher out of the backfield who will present nightmares for opposing coordinators tasked with handling New England’s myriad personnel packages.

Bill Belichick’s decision to stockpile more offensive weaponry should allow the Patriots to maximize the final few seasons of Tom Brady’s career, and in many ways, it’s just another reinvention in what’s become a long recent history of them. Even if the iterations of New England’s offense are founded on similar principles, the group is born anew nearly every offseason. By choosing to surround their quarterbacks with deep, varied collections of pass-catching talent, teams like the Titans, Bucs, and Panthers are hoping the seismic changes they’ve made represent the start of a similar pattern.

"[Those teams are saying] we need to get as much firepower as possible," Warner says, "and hope our young quarterback can step into that role and go swing for swing with the best."