We’re living in the golden age of NFL statistical analysis. The sheer amount of data out there on players, teams, and the league at large is exciting … but also a little overwhelming. Whether you’re perusing the various databases at Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference, Sharp Football Stats, or NFL Next Gen Stats, or trying to keep up with the never-ending flow of information promulgated on your Twitter timeline, it’s easy to miss the most interesting or important statistical nuggets. But we’ve got your back: We’ve sifted through the spreadsheets and bookmarked the best tweets. In no particular order, here are 10 of the most intriguing, strangest, or most surprising numbers from 2016—and what they can tell us about 2017.
1. Offenses featured three-plus receivers on 66 percent of all plays.
The evolution of the pro game toward a more college-spread style system isn’t slowing down. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, NFL teams ran 66 percent of their total plays with three or more receivers on the field, up 6 percentage points from 2015 and 15 percentage points from 2010. “11 personnel” (three receivers, one tight end, one back) remains far and away the favorite personnel grouping leaguewide, and as FO’s Brian Knowles wrote in June, “If you don't have a third receiver who you trust to play 400 snaps, you're not playing modern football.”
With three (or more) receivers on the field, offenses can stretch the field both horizontally and vertically, which spreads a defense thin. It’s hugely beneficial for the passing game, of course, as more pass-catching options allow the quarterback to quickly and efficiently identify coverage and get rid of the ball. The extra space this creates helps in the run game, too. Defenses are not only more spread out, but they must send out smaller, quicker defensive backs to account for those third and fourth receivers in coverage, which gives offensive linemen and tight ends smaller targets to block.
This sea change isn’t happening just because coaches think the college game is fun or cool—teams are spreading the field more because, well, it works. Per Knowles, 30 of the league’s 32 teams had a higher play-to-play efficiency (as measured by DVOA) in 11 personnel than they did (on average) overall. “It's not just slight increases, either,” he said. “Twenty-three of them saw their DVOA go up five or more points when they went three wide.”
As long as they keep working so well, don’t expect three-receiver sets to go anywhere. It won’t happen everywhere, but we could start to see more teams take after last year’s Giants offense, which ran 11 personnel on more than 90 percent of its plays.
2. Defenses averaged a decade-low 4.24 pass rushers per dropback.
The evolution toward more three-, four-, and five-wide looks has changed the calculus on defense. Instead of stacking the box and sending all-out blitzes at the quarterback, defensive schemes have been forced to drop more and more players into coverage to account for the increase in targets downfield. In 2010, defenses blitzed (defined as five or more defenders rushing at the quarterback) 33.2 percent of the time, per the Football Outsiders Almanac. By 2016, that number had dropped to 27.4 percent. As ESPN’s Mike Clay noted recently, “NFL quarterbacks faced [a] decade-low 4.24 pass rushers per drop back last year.”
The new normal for defensive coordinators is to try to get pressure with just four pass rushers. But that strategy hasn’t created a huge dropoff in their ability to apply pressure; per Clay, despite staring down a decade-low number of pass rushers, quarterbacks faced pressure on a decade-high 20.3 percent of their dropbacks last year.
There are a few ideas for why that’s happened: First, teams are increasingly creative in bringing pressure with linebacker/defensive back zone rushes (when a linebacker or corner rushes in while a defensive lineman drops into a passing lane), which is a great way to create pressure without sacrificing coverage downfield. Second, there’s been a big dropoff in offensive line talent over the past six or seven years. The NFL has changed, sure, but it hasn’t completely turned into the college game; offenses still run plenty of “pro-style” concepts, many of which are foreign to college players. Rookie linemen must learn how to sustain blocks, and must often learn how to start from a three-point stance from scratch. It has meant that there just aren’t many high-quality pass-protecting offensive lines left. Expect teams to keep sending four, dropping seven, and still managing to get pressure in 2017.
3. The Bills averaged 2.88 yards before contact per rush.
Buffalo’s rushing attack was really, really good last year—better, surprisingly, than the much-ballyhooed Cowboys ground game. In fact, Buffalo finished the season ahead of Dallas (and the rest of the NFL) in yards per game (164.4), yards per carry (5.3), rushing touchdowns (29), and rush DVOA. It didn’t hurt that LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee were both elusive and explosive runners, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s mobility put a lot of stress on opposing defenses. But Buffalo’s incredible success in the run game all started with a talented and physical offensive line.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Bills led the NFL in yards before contact per rush attempt (2.88), a metric that suggests the unsung heroes in the trenches were doing plenty of work at the snap to give the ball carriers behind them a chance to get downhill—first by generating push up front and getting defensive linemen off their spots, then by pulling, trapping, and moving to the second level to take on and seal off tackle attempts. Think about it: Giving your running back an average of 2.88 yards of green to build up a head of steam is going to create plenty of big gains.
The pieces are all still in place for Buffalo’s rushing success to continue in 2017: The offensive line remains mostly intact (with rookie tackle Dion Dawkins potentially providing a boost), and while Gillislee is gone, McCoy is still one of the best backs in the league. There are bound to be some new concepts in the passing game under brand-new head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison—but there’s no need for the new regime to change too much in the run game. We should expect the Bills to pick up where they left off, building an offensive foundation on the run—starting with the offensive line opening up plenty of running lanes for the talented backfield.
4. Carlos Hyde averaged 3.0 yards after contact per rush.
The 49ers finished in the middle of the pack in yards before contact per rush last year (1.64, 16th), but with the help of running back Carlos Hyde and his fifth-best 3.0 yards after contact per rush (per Football Outsiders), they finished fourth in rushing yards per game (126.2) and tied for 10th in yards per attempt (4.4). Hyde broke a tackle on 20.9 percent of his touches—for 51 total—with 48 of those broken tackles coming on run plays (fourth in the league). The Niners’ new regime under John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan may have publicly hinted that they wouldn't renew Hyde's contract this summer, but my guess is that was just a motivational ploy—and if Hyde can stay healthy this year, the tackle-breaking fourth-year back has the chance to be a big-time producer in Shanahan’s scheme.
5. Houston ball carriers broke a tackle on just 7.5 percent of all plays.
On the other end of the broken-tackles spectrum we had the Texans. Houston left far too many potential yards on the field in 2016, and per Football Outsiders, the team combined to break just 90 tackles, averaging a broken tackle on an NFL-worst 7.5 percent of their 1,023 plays last season. And guess what. The Texans finished dead last in the same category in 2015, too, breaking a tackle on just 5.8 percent of their offensive plays. For reference, the league-best Redskins lapped Houston in this category last year, breaking a tackle on 12.8 percent of their plays.
A pair of former third-round picks could help the Texans get out of the cellar in this category this season: Receiver Braxton Miller is battling an ankle injury but has the potential for a breakout campaign, and running back D’Onta Foreman has looked spritely and elusive in preseason action thus far. Houston’s offense is going to need that boost in elusiveness from their skill position players to make up for what I expect will be less-than-stellar play from quarterback Tom Savage.
6. Chargers players lost a combined 127.8 adjusted games to injury.
The Chargers are regular standouts in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, which measures the cost of injuries, accounting for both missed games and games in which players played through injuries. Last year, San Diego’s AGL of 127.8 was second-worst in the league, in part due to season-ending injuries to receivers Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson, corners Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers, running backs Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver, linebackers Manti Te’o and Jeremiah Attaochu, and defensive linemen Brandon Mebane and Caraun Reid, to name just a few. The Chargers were a balanced injury collector on both sides of the ball, with 61.7 adjusted games lost on offense and 66 on defense. Twenty-one Chargers players ended the year on the injured reserve.
That could bode well for a big bounceback for Los Angeles this season. With the return of a healthy Allen and Oliver, the offense could be a little more dangerous, and with Verrett, Attaochu, Reid, and Mebane all back out there, an already good defense could approach great. It can’t be that bad again this year, right? Well, yeah, maybe, because like I said, the injury bug seems to hit the Chargers every year: They’ve finished near the league’s worst in each of the last four seasons, ranking 26th in 2015, 31st in 2014, and 28th in 2013. It’s already started in 2017, and we’re not even to the regular season—rookie receiver Mike Williams, the team’s first-round pick, might miss this year with a back injury, and the team’s second-rounder and projected starting guard, Forrest Lamp, is out with an ACL tear.
7. Sam Bradford completed 57.4 percent of his deep passes.
Despite an NFL-record 71.6 percent completion percentage last year, Bradford has failed to shake his reputation as a lower-tier passer. He did set that record, of course, by being one of the league’s most egregious check-down artists, finishing with an NFL-low average for air yards per completion (5.4), intended air yards per attempt (7.1), and air yards to the sticks on third downs (negative-1.7). In other words, he rarely chucked the ball deep, and he hardly ever threw past the sticks on third down.
Still, per Pro Football Focus, Bradford finished last year with an adjusted completion percentage of 57.4 percent on passes of 20 or more yards downfield, best in the NFL. Jonathan Kinsley’s Deep Ball Project expands the range to anything 16-plus yards downfield, and in this study, Bradford again comes out on top: The Vikings signal-caller was accurate on 66.7 percent of those passes, totaling 1,002 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception on 66 attempts last year.
So what’s that mean for 2017? Well, considering Bradford was incredibly good when he actually did throw the ball downfield last year, it could mean that the Vikings will ask Bradford to ratchet up the aggressiveness now that he’s more comfortable in the scheme and has developed better chemistry with his receiving corps. Minnesota was forced to trade for the veteran quarterback just before the start of the regular season last year after Teddy Bridgewater went down with a knee injury, and the former Rams and Eagles passer had to pick up a brand-new offense on the fly. There’s little surprise the Vikings went with a conservative, simplified version of their offense, and didn’t ask him to do a whole lot downfield. This year, expect things to change, and with an already good defense, a more aggressive vertical passing attack could help Minnesota surprise some people.
8. The Titans scored a touchdown on 72 percent of their red zone trips.
Tennessee was solid offensively last year, riding a slow-paced, run-heavy scheme to an average of 5.7 yards per play (11th), 358 yards per game (11th), and a 14th-ranked 23.8 points per game. But while it’d be a stretch to call that offense one of the league’s best, the Titans were elite inside the 20-yard line: Once into the red zone, the team was a machine, scoring a touchdown a league-high 72 percent of the time.
That success was driven by a balanced attack, some clever scheming, and most of all, the cool efficiency of quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Titans’ franchise signal-caller has been surgical in that area of the field in his career, with 33 touchdown passes to zero interceptions, and last year he threw 18 touchdowns and no picks, with a 113.5 passer rating.
Normally, I’d caution that fans should expect some pretty serious regression back to the mean in the red zone, which could lead to fewer points and, in turn, a few more losses in close games. But with the addition of Eric Decker in free agency and Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the draft, I’m expecting Mariota and the Titans to continue tearing it up inside the 20.
9. Tyreek Hill scored a touchdown on 10.6 percent of his offensive touches.
Hill broke out as a rookie last year, ending the season with 61 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns, adding 24 rushes for 267 yards and three touchdowns (nine scores on 85 touches). He added another three scores on return duties. A big part of Hill’s success was his ability to elude tackles, and per the Football Outsiders Almanac, his 30.6 percent broken-tackle rate (26 total on 85 touches) was second among all qualified offensive players last year (behind Odell Beckham Jr.). Hill combined pure speed (he registered the two fastest on-field speeds last year, topping out at 23.2 miles per hour) with explosive acceleration, and the Chiefs utilized him just about everywhere they could.
But in year two, Kansas City is trying to turn him into a more prototypical wide receiver. He’ll see less action on kickoffs, and considering the majority of his routes last year were screens, quick curls, and go-routes up the sideline, he must start to put together a more complete route tree in order to graduate from gadget player to go-to guy. So far, it’s a work in progress: Hill dropped three passes on four targets last week against the Seahawks, and he’s been relatively quiet this preseason, with three catches for 52 yards in three games.
Still, Hill will get plenty of looks as the Chiefs’ no. 1 receiver this year after the departure of Jeremy Maclin, and he’s got the athleticism and talent to turn those opportunities into production. But don’t expect the second-year pro to come close to matching his outrageous rookie touchdown-to-touches rate this season.
10. The Browns racked up 54 rushes of 10-plus yards.
Don’t sleep on the Browns this year. Sure, they’re trying to get younger by offloading or trading away their overpriced veterans, and yeah, the offense will be run through a rookie signal-caller in DeShone Kizer, but the 21-year-old passer should have one of the best ground games in the NFL to lean on for support. Cleveland quietly finished second in the league in yards per rush last year (4.9) while ranking a respectable 12th in rush DVOA. And, surprisingly, Cleveland ended the year with 54 explosive run plays (rushes of 10-plus yards), per Sharp Football Stats. That number, which was good for 10th, is particularly impressive considering the team finished tied for last in rush attempts with just 21.9 per game. On a per-rush basis, Cleveland ranked second in explosive runs (15 percent).
With the addition of center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson look poised to produce big numbers in 2017—especially if an improved defense can keep games closer in the early going and prevent Cleveland from having to go right into “comeback mode” and abandon the run game. Because they trailed so early and often, the Browns finished fourth in pass rate last year, throwing the ball on 64 percent of all their snaps. You can bet that head coach and play-caller Hue Jackson is going to try to get that number back down into the mid-50s somewhere with a renewed emphasis on running the ball in 2017.