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Making Sense of the NFL’s Five Most Unsettled Skill-Position Groups

The Patriots, Raiders, Lions, 49ers, and Cardinals all overhauled their pass-catching and rushing groups this offseason. But coming out of minicamp, there are some clues as to how those groups could sort out their structural issues this season.

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The end of NFL minicamp can feel like the last day of school. I was in Minnesota last week for the final Vikings practice ahead of training camp, and at the end of his press conference that day, offensive assistant Gary Kubiak told the assembled media to “have a nice summer.” As the league embarks on its version of sleepaway camp, it’s a good time to examine some of the more unsettled situations among skill-position groups across the league. And for some of the teams that experienced a lot of turnover in their pass-catching and rushing groups this offseason, news out of minicamp could provide insight into what to watch for when training camp opens next month.

New England Patriots

Key losses (2018 workload): TE Rob Gronkowski (72 targets), WR Josh Gordon (?) (68 targets), WR Chris Hogan (55 targets), RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson (42 carries and 28 targets)

Key additions: WR N’Keal Harry, RB Damien Harris, WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Dontrelle Inman, TE Ben Watson, TE Matt LaCosse

Trying to predict what New England’s offensive approach will be based on its offseason moves is an always fascinating (and sometimes futile) annual exercise. In 2018, the Pats drafted Georgia running back Sony Michel in the first round, and by the end of the season, their offense had become a battering ram designed to grind teams into submission. Michel averaged 23.7 carries and 112 yards per game in New England’s three playoff games and racked up six touchdowns in that span. This year, Bill Belichick used another first-round pick on Arizona St. wide receiver N’Keal Harry, and Harry could have a similar impact as a rookie.

Harry profiles as the clear-cut starter opposite Julian Edelman because Josh Gordon, who is suspended indefinitely for violating his reinstatement terms under the league’s substance abuse policy, isn’t expected to return any time soon. Harry was thrown into the deep end immediately upon arriving in New England, and he’s already earned rave reviews. He’s gotten plenty of attention from Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady in side tutorial sessions, and All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore matched up with him throughout minicamp practices last week. The Patriots are clearly trying to get Harry up to speed as quickly as possible, and he could step seamlessly into Gordon’s role within the Patriots offense.

Gordon is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash prior to the 2012 supplemental draft. Harry stands 6-foot-2-and-a-half, weighs 228 pounds, and ran a 4.53 at the combine. During Gordon’s heyday with the Browns, he was a dominant downfield threat outside the numbers, but last year with the Patriots, he got most of his targets on short and intermediate routes inside the numbers. Of Gordon’s 40 receptions with New England, 29 of them came in the middle of the field, within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage (according to Pro Football Focus). Take a look at Gordon’s Next Gen Stats route charts and you will see he ran a whole lot of slants and digs last season, which should translate beautifully to Harry’s game. What Harry lacks in top-end speed and separation ability, he makes up for with physicality and the ability to bully smaller corners in traffic. Bench press numbers rarely relate directly to a receiver’s game, but watching Harry in college, it makes sense that he had an absurd 27 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. He could be a featured member of New England’s passing game from Day 1.

After Harry and Edelman, the no. 3 WR job is Phillip Dorsett’s to lose. Dorsett came on at the end of last season, though his role was reduced upon Gordon’s arrival, and ran with Edelman on the no. 1 offense this spring. He may not have a major role this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get opportunities. New England used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, and three WRs) only 56 percent of the time in 2018 (significantly less than the league average of 65 percent), but the Patriots’ sheer volume of plays means that they use three wideouts on a similar number of snaps to most teams (about 50 fewer plays than league average). Dorsett should get a chance in those packages, especially with Demaryius Thomas’s status up in the air as he recovers from a torn Achilles. (Only $150,000 of Thomas’s 2019 contract is guaranteed, which gives the Pats some flexibility if they feel like he’s coming along slower than anticipated.)

The more intriguing battle on this offense is at running back, where the Pats added third-round pick Damien Harris to an already crowded group of players. At first glance, it might seem difficult for Harris to break into a group that includes Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, but the rookie could bring a new dynamic to New England. On Michel’s 417 snaps in 2018, the Patriots ran the ball 316 times (75.7 percent). On White’s 699 snaps, the Patriots threw 561 times (80.2 percent). Even though that distribution led to a Super Bowl win, New England will likely try to be less predictable in 2019. Enter Harris, who proved to be both a capable runner and pass catcher at Alabama. Especially with Michel still healing from an offseason knee scope, Harris should get his share of opportunities in training camp and beyond. For a team that used two backs on 307 plays last season (the second-highest total in the league behind San Francisco), all four players will see the field in some capacity.

The final remaining question is who will replace Gronkowski’s production as both a receiver and blocker in the Pats’ attack, and it will likely take a combination of players. Watson is suspended for the first four games of the season, but he’s the top option among this group. In his absence, LaCosse and Stephen Anderson should get snaps depending on the situation.

Each season, the Patriots’ goal is to collect a deep, versatile group of skill-position players that allows the team to reinvent its offense in an instant. They appear to have accomplished that once again.

Oakland Raiders

Key losses (2018 workload): TE Jared Cook (101 targets), RB Marshawn Lynch (90 carries and 20 targets), WR Jordy Nelson (88 targets), WR Seth Roberts (64 targets)

Key additions: WR Antonio Brown, WR Tyrell Williams, RB Josh Jacobs, WR J.J. Nelson, WR Ryan Grant

In a single offseason, the Raiders remade their entire starting skill-position group. Typically, that amount of turnover would make target shares and running-back touches tough to project, but the way Oakland built its roster this spring actually points to a pretty obvious hierarchy. Brown has seen more than 150 targets every year since 2013, and that isn’t likely to change in Oakland. After giving Brown an $11.2 million raise following their trade for him in March, the Raiders will make the future Hall of Famer the centerpiece of their offense. Former no. 1 receiver Amari Cooper topped 130 targets in each of his first two seasons with Derek Carr, which shows that the Raiders QB isn’t afraid to feed his top target.

Williams is locked in as the starter opposite Brown after signing a four-year, $44.3 million deal (with $22 million guaranteed) this offseason. The former Chargers deep threat has averaged a robust 16.3 yards per reception in his career and should give Oakland the sort of field-stretching presence it lacked last season. Carr threw just 9.2 percent of his passes more than 20 yards downfield in 2018, the lowest percentage in the league among 24 qualified QBs, according to Pro Football Focus. The Raiders are hoping that Williams’s presence can change that.

The competition for the no. 3 receiver role will continue into training camp, but at this point, Ryan Grant seems to have the inside track. J.J. Nelson is a burner who gives Oakland yet another dimension on the outside, and rookie receiver Hunter Renfrow had a strong spring, but Grant profiles as the initial slot option to pair with Brown and Williams.

Similar to the situation at wide receiver, the Raiders’ use of their resources this offseason indicates a clear hierarchy at running back. Jon Gruden didn’t spend the 24th overall pick on Josh Jacobs to have him split carries with Jalen Richard and Doug Martin. In fact, Gruden seems to prefer leaning on a single back: Lynch averaged 19 carries last season in games that finished within one score, and Martin logged at least 16 carries in four of his final five starts. Without Lynch in the fold this season, Jacobs should be the featured option from the start.

Detroit Lions

Key losses (2018 workload): WR Golden Tate (69 targets), LeGarrette Blount (154 carries and 15 targets)

Key additions: TE T.J. Hockenson, WR Danny Amendola, RB C.J. Anderson, TE Jesse James, TE Logan Thomas

The Lions didn’t lose many key pieces from the end of last season, as they already spent half a season without Golden Tate after dealing him to the Eagles in late October. But they’ve still remade their offense on multiple levels this offseason. That process started in January when Detroit hired Darrell Bevell as the team’s new offensive coordinator. From 2011 to 2017, Bevell oversaw Seattle’s offense, and he’ll now be tasked with bringing the type of balanced attack that second-year head coach Matt Patricia prefers to the Lions. As the team incorporates more ground-and-pound into its philosophy, Anderson will get his share of carries, but second-year back Kerryon Johnson figures to be the main beneficiary of the changes. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season and, according to Pro Football Focus, ranked 10th in yards after contact among 61 backs that got at least 20 percent of their team’s carries (3.32 yards per carry).

In the passing game, Bevell is known for emphasizing deep throws that complement his run-heavy approach. In six seasons with Bevell, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson finished among the top five passers in the league in percentage of throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air four different times, including a league-leading 16.5 percent in 2017. That mind-set pairs well with starting outside receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., both of whom can threaten defenses vertically. Danny Amendola will take over for Tate in the slot, but Golladay will likely take the largest chunk of Tate’s targets over the course of the season. Tate was the rare slot option that doubled as the team’s most important receiver, but now that he’s gone, it seems like Golladay is ready to become a true no. 1 option.

The Golladay-Jones-Amendola trio will get a majority of the work in three-receiver sets, but the most significant schematic change for Detroit in 2019 may be a move away from 11 personnel. After signing Jesse James to a four-year, $22.6 million deal (with $10.5 million guaranteed) this spring, Detroit used the eighth overall pick in the draft on Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson. Last season, the Lions used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) on just 150 total snaps. Considering the amount of money and draft capital Detroit spent on James and Hockenson, a shift is definitely coming. And that’s before you consider adding no. 3 tight end Logan Thomas into the mix. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, the former quarterback has reportedly looked impressive this spring and could be in line for snaps as a receiving tight end. After virtually ignoring the tight end position in 2018, the Lions overcorrected this offseason, and it will influence the way this offense is built. The question now is how that shift will affect target shares for players like Golladay and Jones.

San Francisco 49ers

Key losses (2018 workload): WR Pierre Garcon (46 targets), RB Alfred Morris (111 carries and 13 targets)

Key additions: WR Deebo Samuel, RB Tevin Coleman, WR/RB Jalen Hurd

I’m not even sure where to begin projecting how this year’s offense will distribute its touches. On paper it seemed as though, entering this spring, the Niners’ only significant offensive need was at wide receiver. Enter second-round pick Deebo Samuel, who should get playing time this season despite missing minicamp with a hip injury. The problem for Samuel—and anyone else trying to break into the Niners WR rotation—is that it’s a crowded group. Dante Pettis looked promising during an injury-plagued rookie season last year, and he profiles as the top option for Kyle Shanahan’s offense in 2019. The Niners head coach prioritizes receivers who can create separation and understand how he manufactures offense through route distribution, and for a young wideout, Pettis has an uncommon feel for both. Behind Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, and Samuel will all be vying for work, and it’s unclear how that logjam will resolve itself.

The same goes for the team’s group of running backs, which already had two capable options in Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida before the additions of both Coleman and Hurd. McKinnon missed the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL, but he’s still set to count for $5.7 million against the cap this season. The team’s commitment to McKinnon made the decision to sign Coleman somewhat surprising, but with only a $3.6 million cap hit in 2019 and no guaranteed money on his deal beyond this year, the price was right for Shanahan to reunite with the explosive back he worked with in Atlanta. At this point, Coleman will probably be the team’s nominal starter with McKinnon and Breida both getting a decent amount of work behind him. Breida averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season, which makes him a luxury as the team’s third option.

Hurd is one of this offseason’s most intriguing acquisitions. A former running back that moved to wide receiver late in his collegiate career, the Niners drafted him higher than expected because of his versatility, which will allow Shanahan to deploy him in several different ways. San Francisco loves using multiple, heavy personnel packages to disguise its concepts, and Hurd could give the team another layer of unpredictability.

Stacking this roster with more offensive talent may not have been the most prudent move, considering the porous state of the Niners defense, but Shanahan has one of the deepest skill-position benches in the league now. How the Niners use it will help determine how they fare in the NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals

Key losses (2018 workload): None

Key additions: WR Andy Isabella, WR Hakeem Butler

One of the biggest questions ahead of the 2019 NFL season is what the hell the Cardinals offense will look like under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Arizona didn’t lose any of its top contributors from last season, but that’s largely because the Cardinals didn’t have any top contributors. Their anemic offense was almost impossibly bad in 2018, ranking 32nd in DVOA while scoring just 14.1 points per game. The unit’s ineptitude led to the firing of coach Steve Wilks, the hiring of Kingsbury, and the subsequent decision to draft Kyler Murray with the first overall pick and trade 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen to the Dolphins for pennies on the dollar.

Both of the Cardinals’ top receivers from last season—2018 second-round pick Christian Kirk and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald—are set to return this season, along with electric dual-threat running back David Johnson, but that’s basically all we know about Arizona’s attack so far. Kingsbury famously comes from an Air Raid background at Texas Tech that melds well with Murray and the system he ran at Oklahoma, but at this point, we can only speculate about how that will translate to the NFL. Tight ends have been an afterthought for Kingsbury in the past, which means the Cardinals could run a lot of 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers), and possibly more than we’ve seen from any team in NFL history. Last season, no team used 10 personnel on more than 7 percent of its plays (that would be the Seahawks, who ran it 71 times total). Expect Kingsbury to shatter that number this fall. And if that package is used on a significant percentage of Arizona’s plays, the next question will be how those receiver snaps are distributed.

In the latter part of his career, Fitzgerald has seen a majority of his snaps come on the inside (74.7 percent of plays in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus). But both Kirk and second-round pick Andy Isabella also project as slot options for 2019. Right now, Fitzgerald, Kirk, Isabella, and fourth-round pick Hakeem Butler are slated to be the team’s top four receivers, which means if the Cardinals use four wideouts more than any other team in the NFL, Kingsbury will have to figure out how to align his best players, given their respective skill sets.

This new Air Raid–influenced offense may seem like a negative for Johnson, but his ability as a receiver could make him an integral part of what Kingsbury wants to accomplish. Kingsbury has often used running-back swing routes and other patterns to stretch defenses horizontally, and Johnson is a perfect candidate to fill that role. Everyone is waiting to see if the Cardinals will break the mold this season, and how Arizona chooses to deploy its collection of skill players is a key part of that equation.