We always reminisce fondly on childhood memories of Christmas morning, waking up early and eagerly opening the gifts we had been anticipating for weeks as they stared at us from under the tree. But as a kid, I always loved Christmas afternoon, when we would all take the new toys out of the box and play with them all day.
As the dust settles from the 2019 draft, fans finally got to see their teams unwrap shiny new toys that they had been eagerly awaiting for months. Now the real fun begins as we (vicariously) get to go play with them.
Here at Mile High Report, we’ll be digging deep into these prospects over the next few months, until some real football starts, and talking about how Denver can best utilize each of their new draft picks, and what we can expect to see from the team as a whole as both the offensive and defensive coaching staffs roll out new systems.
First up is Denver’s first round pick, tight end Noah Fant. We have already talked about what Fant brings to the table athletically, as he was one of the elite athletes at his position in this draft.
That athleticism is a perfect fit for Rich Scangarello, who can deploy him in a myriad of ways to take advantage of it. When asked after the draft how Fant fits into the offense, Elway replied, “I think obviously with the success that [49ers TE George] Kittle had in San Francisco with [Offensive Coordinator] Rich [Scangarello] being out there last year, speed tight ends can be very effective in his offense. He was a good fit for us.”
So let’s take a look at one of the main ways Kyle Shanahan and Rich Scangarello used George Kittle last year to get a feel for Fant’s potential here in Denver.
Where Kittle had the most impact in Shanahan’s offense last year was in yards after the catch. Kittle led all pass catchers in YAC last year with 870. 63% of his 1377 receiving yards came after the catch, which is extremely impressive for a tight end to edge out YAC monsters like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley.
Kittle averaged over 10 yards of YAC per reception, which also led the league and was a full yard higher than the next closest in the rankings.
While there are plenty of other pieces of Kittle’s game to examine, today we’ll specifically dig into how Kyle Shanahan got him open in space to pick up massive chunks of yardage after the catch.
The main premise of the Shanahan/Scangarello offense is based around misdirection, specifically off of a zone running attack mixed with play action. Plays look the same pre-snap and the first few seconds post-snap, then morph into a variety of combinations meant to get the defense flowing one way, while the big play happens the other way.
Check out the play above. Simple outside zone from shotgun with the tight end coming back across the formation to the left.
Now look at the play below. Exact same formation and personnel, with the same run action to the left and the tight end coming across the formation.
Except this time, it is a play action and the tight end, Kittle is going to leak out into the flat on the field side (wide side).
Check out the second level defenders at the mesh point. Everyone is keying run and flowing along with the offensive line to the offense’s left.
The slot receiver is going to run a deep post to occupy the deep safety and corner to that side, and the closest defender with his eyes on the play is five steps behind Kittle who has nothing but grass in front of him.
Same idea here. Check out this zone run below, this time from under center.
Tight end comes across the formation blocking the backside for the run. (It’s actually a slightly different variant with the RT jumping out on the OLB, but it’s close enough for example’s sake.)
Now check out this one pre-snap. Everyone flows right, except the quarterback and Kittle.
Every defender has their hips turned towards the sideline and are chasing the play frontside. The receiver on the backside, again, runs a deep post which occupies the deep safety and corner.
Leaving Kittle with more green grass and everyone five steps behind him.
Same idea but a little different look at the snap. This time Kittle comes out frontside to block, then using his speed and agility, turns on a dime and runs the crossing to the backside. I can just see Fant and his 4.5 40 and elite 3-cone time feasting on plays like this.
So we’ve seen the backside leak out and the routes designed to take advantage of the defense pursuing the run. What happens when defenses get wise and begin countering this and staying home on the backside?
Consider this the counter to the counter.
The previous plays all took place on the backside of the play action. But this one is actually on the frontside, in the same direction as the flowing offensive line and run fake.
Kittle will skirt down the line as if blocking, then turn it straight upfield.
Check out these defenders once they see the play action. They’re not dummies. They’ve been burned by the backside play action twice already, so they’re ready for it this time.
Both linebackers and the safety start moving with the quarterback to cut off the backside, while Kittle goes unnoticed.
You don’t get more wide open than this in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, the throw was a little too far in front, and slipped through Kittle’s hands, but it was still a brilliant play and should have been an easy score.
The beauty of all these plays is they don’t ask a lot of the receiver or the quarterback. Kittle is a good route runner and separator against man coverage, but he barely had to on these plays, he was so wide open. This is a great example of coaches putting their guys in great positions to succeed.
I hope this gets you excited about how Rich Scangarello can use Noah Fant’s speed and athleticism to scheme him open, and let him do the rest. I’m certainly excited about his potential after this quick glance into the offense.
Now this is just scratching the surface of Shanahan’s offense, and the ways the Broncos can utilize their weapons, but suffice it to say, Fant is in for a bright future here in Denver.