Much has been said, written, and tweeted about Denver’s offensive overhaul this off-season. The team will potentially have four or five new starters on offense, which includes a brand new quarterback.
There have also been a heavy amount of buzzwords, talk of “catering to players strengths,” “simplifying the offense,” and “playing fast,” but what does all that tangibly look like on the field? We heard most of those buzzwords last year from Mike McCoy and we all saw how that turned out.
My goal over the next few weeks is to really cut through all the noise and begin to gain a clearer picture of what Denver’s offense will look like and how it will run, so I hope you’ll stay with me over the next few posts.
While there’s been a lot of talk about who will be on offense, there hasn’t been much clarity on what they’ll be doing on offense.
However, if we look a little closer, I believe we can make some assumptions about Denver’s offensive strategy and their potential identity based on who they’ve brought onto the team. The encouraging thing is, it seems that there is a cohesive plan, whereas the past two years have felt anything but strategic or calculated.
As we dig into this, I think you’ll agree that Denver has made some strategic choices on personnel that lends itself to a particular style of play.
So what is the style of play they are going for?
Let’s start with the pass catchers, as these guys are the most telling part of Denver’s plans; we’ll take a deep dive into other aspects as well in later posts, but this is where I want to park for a little bit.
The word so far in OTAs is that rookie wide receivers Cortland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton have impressed and are in line to play some significant snaps this year. Denver also has red-shirt rookie, Carlos Henderson, whom they drafted in the 3rd round last year.
As I began digging into each of these guys, I noticed a startling trend.
NFL NextGen stats guru, Matt Harmon, has created a tool called the Reception Perception. Using this tool, he breaks down wide receivers’ stats, both veterans and rookies coming into the NFL, by a variety of metrics gleaned from charting every snap.
Here’s a line from his breakdown on DaeSean Hamilton that stopped me in my tracks (emphasis added):
The Penn State receiver broke two-plus tackles on 30.8 percent of his in-space attempts. Only the after-the-catch dynamo, Carlos Henderson, from the 2017 class and the stunningly athletic, Courtland Sutton of this year, posted higher multiple broken tackle rates.
Now, this was written before the draft, before all three of the most dynamic after-the-catch wide receivers of the last several years were drafted by one team—the Denver Broncos.
It is unfortunate that he was sidelined with injury last year, but even though he isn’t getting the hype that the two new guys are, Carlos Henderson is a dangerous weapon with an elite after-the-catch skillset.
Highlight Handful: LaTech WR Carlos Henderson pic.twitter.com/77mV0gjjdv— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) April 11, 2017
Harmon also broke down Henderson in 2017, heading into the draft.
Of his 202 routes charted, Henderson was out “in space” with the opportunity to break a tackle on 13.9 percent of them. He was only brought down on first contact on 21.4 percent of those attempts, the lowest rate of the 40-plus prospects charted over the last two seasons. Conversely, his astronomical multiple broken tackle rate of 39.3 percent was the best score recorded. To put that into context, Corey Davis has the second highest rate at 22.6 percent and Corey Coleman led the 2016 class with 17.4 percent.
Pro Football Focus also charted Henderson’s data in his 2016 season and saw that he had the highest rate of forced missed tackles per reception with 0.59; essentially, every other catch, Henderson was making someone miss. He not only led the league that year, but he “victory lapped” his opponents according to PFF.
2016 WR Leaders in Missed Tackled forced per Reception (min. 75 receptions) pic.twitter.com/Ag6eETE5Qi— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) March 26, 2017
Here is the last chart I’ll share on Carlos Henderson, in case you aren’t convinced yet.
Henderson is at the very top of the pack for YAC per reception and just blows everyone away in missed tackles forced.
With his massive frame and 30+ receiving touchdowns in college, it’s easy to bill Sutton as just a jump ball/red zone threat guy, which is true, but he is also very dangerous after the catch.
Here’s Matt Harmon again, weighing in with his metrics.
The most interesting part of Sutton’s game was his ability in space. When he builds up a head of steam and gets his strides rolling in the open field, Sutton is capable of shedding defenders’ tackle attempts with ease. Sutton was out “in space” with a chance to break a tackle after the catch on 6.8 percent of his routes. He went down on first contact on just 21.4 percent of those plays. The prospect average is 49 percent. Sutton broke multiple tackles on a whopping 35.7 percent of his in-space attempts, putting him second over the last three classes, behind only YAC-dynamo Carlos Henderson (39.6 percent).
Going down on first contact on only 21% of plays in space, albeit on a small sample, is right up there with Carlos Henderson’s numbers on that particular metric.
Additionally, his routes where he was most successful (first image in the tweet above) had an element of “in space” or YAC potential since he posted the highest numbers on screens, flats, slants, and digs.
This is very similar to Demaryius Thomas’ route tree success breakdown as well, but we’ll get to that later.
I have been pretty vocal about my crush on DaeSean Hamilton since he was drafted. While, like Sutton, his primary calling card isn’t after-the-catch skills, he is one of the elite performers in that category by the numbers.
Hamilton also boasts a very high success rate on screens, slants and flat routes. He also, as was mentioned at the beginning of this article, ranked 3rd only to his two other Bronco teammates in multiple broken tackles forced in space.
With such high success rates on routes with a sharp in-breaking stem like the slant and post, it was good to see Hamilton make plays with the ball in his hands. The Penn State receiver broke two-plus tackles on 30.8 percent of his in-space attempts.
And that was just the three new guys!
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have long been a lethal after-the-catch duo.
According to Harmon’s data, in 2014 Thomas was brought down on first contact in space only 34% of the time, which was the lowest rate in the entire league.
We all know the danger Thomas poses after the catch, just ask Ike Taylor.
Back when Denver had a functioning offense, screens to Demaryius Thomas were a staple in Denver’s playbook as he made the most of his opportunities in space.
Even with the poor quarterback play of the last few years, Thomas and Sanders have consistently ranked in the top of the league in missed tackles forced, according to data from Pro Football Focus.
This is a better metric to observe at the NFL level than pure YAC, as YAC is often as much a function of offensive design and quarterback accuracy/efficiency as it is of a wide receiver’s abilities in space.
Here are the league rankings for the last five years of missed tackles forced among wide receivers:
2017: Thomas 11th
2016: Sanders 13th
2015: Thomas 5th
2014: Thomas 15th
2013: Sanders 4th | Thomas 20th
For the last five years, one of either Thomas or Sanders has been top 20 in the league in forcing missed tackles.
If you want to talk about tailoring an offense to fit your players’ skillsets, Denver has a golden opportunity staring them in the face, one which they seem to have orchestrated with strategic drafting.
Thus, I expect to see a concerted effort to give each of these play-makers opportunities with the ball in their hands. The goal should be to get the ball out of Case Keenum’s hands as quickly as possible and into the hands of these weapons in space.
What does that require? It looks like most plays will take creative scheming to get guys open at the snap, make formations that create mismatches, and get a quarterback who knows where to go pre-snap who can accurately get his guys the ball on time for them to go make a play.
Fortunately, I believe Denver has those things present in both Case Keenum and Bill Musgrave. I’ll be digging into this idea in separate articles.
Look for Denver to utilize a quick passing game. They could potentially even mix in some RPOs to get Keenum some “layup” throws to these receivers. It fits well with what Keenum was successful at in Minnesota, which we’ll cover later.
On a related note, 50% of Minnesota's (Keenum's) passing yards came after the catch— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) May 1, 2018
For now I’ll leave you with this teaser and ask you to sound off in the comments with your thoughts.