Complaining about NFL teams’ decision-making is a time-honored American tradition. From a general manager’s draft picks and free-agency spending to a coach’s play-calling and playing-time splits, we love to scrutinize every choice. In some cases, an appeal to authority can be valid; NFL coaches can have more information about a player’s health, attitude, or practice performance, variables that explain their seemingly incomprehensible schematic tendencies or personnel biases. But NFL decision-makers screw things up all the time, too, and the solution to a team’s biggest problems often should be as obvious to its coaches as it is to everyone else.
We’re six weeks into the season, and a handful of teams have already employed head-scratching strategies or deployed their best or most promising offensive players in inexplicable ways. Here’s a few of the early winners for most strangely used or underutilized offensive players in the NFL.
WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
Early in his career, Beckham emerged as one of the league’s elite deep threats; in 2015, he reeled in 96 catches for 1,450 yards while averaging 15.1 yards per catch, with six of his 13 touchdowns coming on passes of 20-plus yards (tied for third most, per Pro Football Focus). After inking Beckham to a five-year extension worth up to $90 million this offseason, the expectation was that the Giants made him the highest-paid receiver ever with that type of field-stretching, touchdown-scoring role in mind. That hasn’t panned out. Two weeks have passed since Big Blue View writer Dan Pizzuta put together this montage of the mostly ugly, inaccurate, and low-percentage deep shots Eli Manning has thrown to Beckham this year, and, well, there’s probably no need to update it because things haven’t gotten any better since.
A full collection of 2018 Odell Beckham "deep" targets (16+ yards the field) pic.twitter.com/Nc3KKcRwym— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) October 1, 2018
Beckham has caught just three of his 10 targets of 20-plus yards this year for a grand total of 78 yards (43rd leaguewide) and one score. His longest reception is 33 yards; he’s averaging a career-low 11.2 yards per reception (85th); and his average air yards per target is just 9.8 (64th)—behind, notably, Colts tight end Eric Ebron (10.0) and just ahead of Jarvis Landry (9.6), per NFL Next Gen Stats. A smattering of his targeted routes this year paints a picture of how the team has deployed its all-world receiver (green represents yards after the catch):
It may not have been the most tactful thing to do, but it’s not surprising that Beckham told ESPN he’s not happy about how he’s been used this season. “Can [Manning] still throw it? Yeah,” he said, “but [the throws have all] been pretty safe and … I want to go over the top of somebody.”
Beckham pointed to the way teams have shifted to more Cover-2 looks to keep him under wraps and avoid getting beaten deep, but that’s not the only reason he’s not catching many downfield targets. Manning simply hasn’t been accurate down the field, either: The veteran signal-caller has completed just nine of his 30 deep pass attempts for a 30.0 accuracy rate this year, 31st out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, per PFF. That’s worse than even Josh Allen (30.4). His efficiency numbers look strong—with a 90.9 passer rating and 68.7 percent completion rate—but the Giants lack balance in the passing attack, with the vast majority of throws going to receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Giants head coach and play-caller Pat Shurmur must unlock deeper-developing routes for Beckham (and the team’s other receivers). Hell, he needs to figure out how to get more out of Beckham on intermediate passes, too. The lack of protection from the offensive line has been a problem, but the heavy doses of play-action passes that I expected when Shurmur made the move from Minnesota to New York (and which we saw in the preseason) haven’t materialized. Those plays are designed to deceive defenses, get them out of position, and take advantage of overzealous linebackers geared up to stop running back Saquon Barkley. But Manning has thrown off play-action just 18.2 percent of the time (27th), per PFF, and hasn’t fared well, completing 60 percent of his passes for 338 yards, one touchdown, and two picks.
The bottom line is that Manning and Shurmur have one of the league’s most explosive, versatile, and talented offensive players at their disposal—and they’re holding him back by scheme. Beckham is essentially an underneath catch-and-run option at this point, and it’s hard to see that changing without major shifts.
Beckham has run 30 percent of his routes out of the slot this year; that’s up from last year, but I’d like to see him get more snaps on the inside, where he can run a wider variety of routes, challenge defenders up the seam, and find exploitable mismatches against the Cover-2 and quarters coverages that teams are throwing at New York. It wouldn’t hurt if Shurmur got Barkley more involved in the passing game, too; we’ve already seen what the second-overall pick can do when he gets the ball in the open field. The Giants need more plays that get Barkley into space, whether that’s in the screen game or by lining him up as a de facto receiver in the slot. That could stress the defense, shift their focus, and help unlock Beckham downfield.
RB David Johnson, Cardinals
In 2016, Johnson broke out as the league’s premier do-it-all hybrid playmaker, a 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back with soft hands and the ability to run crisp, vertical routes downfield. In Bruce Arians’s aggressive scheme, Johnson rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 80 passes for 879 yards and four scores through the air. Johnson was the ultimate field tilter that year for the Arizona offense—the one player opposing defenses had to account for on every snap.
After missing most of 2017 with a broken wrist, the hope was that Johnson would pick up where he left off in new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s offensive scheme. That hasn’t happened. The futuristic, post-position playmaker is being used like a traditional back, relegated to running simple swing-pass and dump-off routes out of the backfield.
David Johnson's usage as a receiver has somehow gotten worse. Per @NextGenStats, Arizona has split DJ out as a receiver (or in the slot) on just 3.5% of his routes this season. Pitiful. Was 20% in 2016.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) October 15, 2018
As for the ground game, Johnson has failed to find his footing there, too, on pace for just 792 yards on the year. Part of the problem there is that the basic plan seems to be to smash Johnson right into the meat of the defense over and over and over again. The Cardinals are 29th in total rush attempts, yet rank first in rush attempts right up the middle per NFL GSIS tracking (63 percent of their total run plays, a huge jump from the 42 percent rate in 2016).
Johnson’s Week 2 run chart would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
Now, the Cardinals have injury issues on the offensive line and the average yards per carry on runs to the outside aren’t any better—but Arizona’s offense has become far too predictable. Johnson’s gone up against opposing fronts manned by eight-plus defenders on 31.5 percent of his runs this year, 10th most leaguewide. Teams know what is coming, so they load the box and sell out to stop Johnson in his tracks.
The lack of offensive scheming we’ve seen in Arizona this year is a disservice to one of the best backs in the game, and it hurts rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, who’d surely benefit from the types of things Johnson can do in the passing game. This is already a lost season for the 1-5 Cardinals, but by getting Johnson back to what he does best—a little of everything—it could be a huge boon for Rosen and help give this team a much-needed confidence boost down the stretch.
RB Aaron Jones, Packers
We could make this section about Aaron Rodgers, but my colleague Robert Mays covered the Packers’ misuse of him in detail last week. So let’s focus on the criminal neglect of the team’s most dynamic running back instead. After missing the first two games of the season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, Jones hit the ground running in Week 3, carrying the ball six times for 42 yards (7.0 yards per carry) in the team’s loss to Washington. That performance got Rodgers’s attention: “When you bring 33 back on the field … you kind of forget the type of dynamic abilities he can bring to a game with his running style,” Rodgers said. “He’s a different type of runner than we’ve had here in awhile. You’ve gotta find ways to get him the ball.”
Jones showcased those dynamic abilities in the next three games, too. The 5-foot-9, 208-pound back has proved he can stretch a defense in the run game like none of his teammates can, quickly getting to the outside and up the field.
He’s also more explosive than either Ty Montgomery or Jamaal Williams as a north-south runner, and when he plants his foot, it looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon.
He gives the Packers an element of toughness in his running style, too. The way he fights for yards, bowls over defenders, and bounces off tackle attempts seems to resonate with the rest of the offense.
Also, none of this is new.
Last year, Aaron Jones led all #Packers RBs in: yards after contact, success rate, missed tackles forced per carry (PFF), percentage of carries to gain 5+ yards, YPC on non-short yardage attempts, and YPC from both under center and in shotgun.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) July 2, 2018
Yet Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has refused to make Jones (5.9 yards per carry) the lead back in the offense, instead leaning on what’s been a pretty static three-man rotation with Williams (3.8 YPC) and Montgomery (4.1 YPC). In the team’s win over the 49ers, Jones started the game, but then played just 19 snaps, with Williams (27) and Montgomery (26) leading the way for big chunks of action. McCarthy has defended his strategy, noting that “there’s more to playing the position than just running the football.” If he’s trying to say Jones isn’t a reliable pass protector, the obvious reply might be:
Aaron Jones must be the worst blocker in the world.— Joe Dolan (@FG_Dolan) October 16, 2018
In 2017, Jones was the team’s least efficient pass blocker, allowing four pressures on 31 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. This year, though, he’s yet to give up a pressure on his four pass-blocking snaps. Protecting Rodgers is clearly an important role, but the way Jones changes the dynamic of the Packers run game should carry weight for a team that’s struggled on offense for most of the year.
The Packers offense has been wildly inconsistent, and through six weeks that’s shown up in one important statistic: Only the Browns have faced more third-and-long (7 or more yards) situations than the Packers (53), who’ve converted those looks at just a 22.6 percent clip (21st). Green Bay is averaging 9.12 yards to go on its 83 third-down plays, easily the worst in the league. Much of that is due to the issues the team has had passing the ball, clearly—and Rodgers has already thrown the ball away 30 times this season, on pace to shatter PFF’s record in that category—but they’ve also struggled to stay on schedule and give themselves more manageable third-down situations because of their inability to run the ball on second down. The Packers average just 3.24 yards per carry this season on that down―second worst―but Jones averages over a full yard more per second-down rush (4.89 YPC) than Williams (3.67), and nearly 3 yards more than Montgomery (2.0). Jones, who’s broken a team-high nine tackles on 32 rush attempts, has simply done more with his carries than his two backfield mates. He deserves a bigger role in the offense.
WR Albert Wilson, Dolphins
Dolphins head coach and play-caller Adam Gase needs to feed Wilson the ball. The 26-year-old receiver signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Dolphins over the offseason—a deal viewed by some as one of the worst in free agency considering he was penciled in as the third, maybe even fourth receiver in the Miami pass-catching corps behind Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, and DeVante Parker. But the 5-foot-9, 186-pound dynamo—who came into the year ranked first among all wide receivers in missed tackles forced per reception since he came into the NFL in 2014—has quickly earned a chance for a bigger piece of the pie.
In Sunday’s big upset win over the Bears, Wilson caught six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, including 43- and 75-yard catch-and-run touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The first (along with a PAT) tied the game at 21-21:
And the second tied it up at 28-28. Miami went on to win 31-28 in OT.
Wilson’s nine-target day pushed him into the team lead (32 targets) in that category, which is promising, but he’s still lagging in snaps played, well behind both Stills and Amendola. He played 50 snaps vs. Chicago (64 percent), and on the year he’s at a 61 percent snap rate. That should go up. Wilson is a big-play creator:
Albert Wilson is responsible for the two biggest plays after the catch this season according to the #NextGenStats Expected YAC model.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 14, 2018
• Week 3 vs OAK (74-yd TD): 78 YAC, +73 Above Exp (xYAC = 5)
• Today vs CHI (75-yd TD): 71 YAC, +70 Above Exp (xYAC = 1)#CHIvsMIA #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/HM1r5nrD90
That, crucially, also makes him a quarterback’s best friend. Miami’s QB situation remains in limbo, and if Ryan Tannehill’s shoulder injury keeps him out long term, the team will have to turn to Brock Osweiler. The Dolphins posted a season-high 541 yards against the Bears on Sunday, but it wasn’t like the veteran backup was attacking the Chicago defense downfield. Whether it’s been Tannehill or Osweiler, Wilson has been a part of the Dolphins’ ability to create big plays and score points. The fifth-year vet now ranks third in Pro Football Focus’s yards per route run metric, a predictive stat routinely dominated by the league’s best receivers. And while the Dolphins can’t rely on Wilson creating 75-yard touchdowns on screens and slants every game―he’s averaging 14.6 yards after the catch per reception, with an unbelievable 93 percent of his receiving yards coming after the catch, both metrics that are sure to regress toward the mean―he does give them big-play potential every time he touches the ball. Oh, and on the subject of score-from-anywhere-potential, the Dolphins might want to get Jakeem Grant more touches, too.
RB Duke Johnson, Browns
This Browns team has a lot of promise, with a good young defense behind Myles Garrett and a potentially explosive offense under Baker Mayfield. But they sure aren’t good enough to keep one of their most talented playmakers on the sideline.
After handing versatile running back Duke Johnson a three-year, $15.6 million extension in June, the Browns’ offensive brain trust seems to have forgotten he’s on the roster. The veteran has been an afterthought in new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s scheme, and after leading all running backs in yards per touch during his first three seasons, he has gotten the ball just 33 times in six games―or 5.5 times per game. Johnson’s been one of the league’s better pass-catching backs during his career, and the Browns have only scratched the surface of what they could do with him this year, whether that’s on simple dump-offs and screens …
... or wheel routes up the sideline …
... even on de facto receiver routes, either in the slot or lined up outside:
The Browns’ depleted receiver corps needs help, so finding ways to get Johnson more involved as a pass catcher could help alleviate those concerns. They could also probably throw explosive rookie running back Nick Chubb, who’s already broken off a few huge touchdown runs on just 16 carries this year, a few more looks.
RB Kerryon Johnson, Lions
The rookie back out of Auburn has established himself as the standout in the Lions backfield, holding a strong 5.7 yards per carry average on 50 totes with 13 catches for 68 yards in the passing game. Johnson’s been incredibly efficient—he ranks first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and ninth in success rate (52 percent), but is stuck in a timeshare with veteran back LeGarrette Blount, who’s been useful in short-yardage and goal-line situations but sluggish everywhere else, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry. I should note: Johnson could also be useful in short yardage and/or goal-line situations.
Through six weeks, Johnson has averaged 12.6 touches a game to Blount’s 10. Lions head coach Matt Patricia has said he doesn’t want to wear his rookie back down, which makes some sense, but for a team that’s finally established some semblance of a ground game this year, Johnson should be seeing more like 20 touches per game. He’s the spark plug Detroit’s been looking for in its backfield for years—why keep him on the bench?