Large-Scale Trends and the 2018 Season (part 2)

(part 1 of this two-part season review can be found here)

While anterior-dominant wide receivers such as Emmanuel Sanders, Corey Davis, and Tyler Boyd bounced back from injury-induced inefficiency in recent seasons (and pretty much every anterior-dominant WR saw at least some boost in productivity), arguably the biggest beneficiary of recent rules changes has been pass-catching anterior-dominant RBs.  The combination of the rule banning tackling defenseless receivers with the rule removing the helmet tackle has made stopping these RBs (the most dominant being Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley) extremely difficult. In previous eras, these two RBs would likely have been confined to 3rd downs- their lacking posterior lumbar efficiency (run power) makes them ineffective at pushing the pile, and on short catches they would have absorbed many damaging hits.  However, first the removal of hits to defenseless receivers, and now the removal of the helmet tackle, has made these types of players extremely productive every-down players (and able to sustain the hits). While they may not push the pile or grind out consistent 4 yds gains, their short-area quickness and pass-catching versatility make them indispensable offensive playmakers in the post-2017 era.

Other examples of anterior-dominant pass-catching RBs who saw notable 2018 increases in efficiency include Joe Mixon, Joe Connor, Matt Breida, Austin Ekeler, and David Johnson.  Older anterior-dominant runners such as Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson also likely stayed healthy longer given the removal of the helmet tackle. As the position which absorbs by far the highest number of tackles, it stands to reason that RBs (particularly anterior-dominant ones) would see the biggest boost by the removal of the helmet tackle.  Observations strongly support this hypothesis.

Interestingly, although anterior-dominant QBs saw not one but two new rules intended to preserve their health (the second being the rule disallowing defensive players from landing with their full weight on the QB during a sack), anterior dominant QBs saw a boost to production, but not necessarily to health.  This stands to reason, however, since the main impediment to anterior-dominant QBs maintaining their health (other than direct trauma) is the sustainability of their mechanics- as was argued last offseason. So anterior-dominant QBs with unsustainable throwing mechanics (the most notable being Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson) continued to see their production/ playing time impacted by injury.

So what about posterior-dominant players?  How were they impacted by the new rules? For a window into those trends, it’s worth examining arguably the most effective offensive systems in the post-2017 rules-changes era: the offenses of Andy Reid and his disciples.

Andy Reid has, for many years, showed a clear biomechanical inclination with his personnel; he pairs anterior-dominant QBs with posterior-dominant skill-position players.  The anterior-dominant QB places the ball with specific timing to a spot on the field where a posterior-dominant WR/TE/RB is schematically isolated and in motion. The receiver catches the ball while running in space and quickly moves up the field.  Anterior-dominant QBs generally show better timing/ short-area command than posterior-dominant QBs, and so better fit the needs of this offensive system. And posterior-dominant WRs/RBs/TEs are generally very powerful runners who are extremely difficult to tackle in the open field.  

With the helpless receiver/ helmet tackle rules now in place, it is far harder than ever before to tackle these posterior-dominant players once they have the ball in their hands.  This makes Reid’s system more potent now than at any time in NFL history. The specific players involved become stars. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt are all posterior-dominant, and all are extremely difficult to tackle in the open field (KC also signed Hyde this offseason, who is posterior-dominant).  Moving to the most successful of Reid’s disciples (Pederson in Philly), Agholor, Jeffrey, and now Desean Jackson (who enjoyed his best seasons with Reid previously) and newly-added Jordan Howard are all posterior-dominant and very hard to tackle in the open field (Ertz is anterior-dominant, but shows high levels of posterior efficiency, while Tate is posterior-dominant but no longer on the team).  The skill position players are extremely productive in this system, and the QBs accrue massive stats getting these posterior-dominant players the ball isolated in space.

In Chicago, Nagy traded for Allen Robinson and signed Cordarrelle Patterson (both posterior-dominant), but has otherwise utilized an inverted approach, pairing a posterior-dominant QB (Trubisky) with anterior-dominant speedsters Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel.  Although Gabriel and Cohen clearly benefited from the removal of the helmet tackle (showing far higher levels of efficiency in 2018 than in 2017), time will tell if this approach is as successful (or consistent) as Reid and Pederson’s.

However, there is one man who is seemingly prioritizing posterior-dominant players more than any other (and is showing tremendous success in the process)- John Dorsey. While with KC, Dorsey drafted Kelce, Hill, and Hunt- all posterior-dominant playmakers. With the Browns this offseason, Dorsey imported Hunt and traded for Odell Beckham Jr (who is posterior-dominant, and an obvious playmaker).  Going back to 2018, Dorsey drafted four players in the first 4 rounds of the 2018 draft who all profile as posterior-dominant playmakers- Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, and Antonio Callaway (who struggled with route running in 2018, but shows tremendous potential for growth into an impact playmaker). The only anterior-dominant offensive player that Dorsey has acquired (besides Tyrod Taylor, who was a clear bridge option) is Jarvis Landry- who profiles perfectly for the slot position where he will now return (and the slot position generally benefits from anterior-dominant player’s increased short-area quickness/ response time).  

In other words, despite a single-season reversal of the decline of anterior-dominant players in the NFL, the most successful coaches/ GMs are still prioritizing posterior-dominant offensive players.  And despite this enormous reversal of efficiency losses by anterior-dominant players in 2018, many of the above-listed anterior-dominant players still nevertheless missed time due to injury: Emmanuel Sanders, Tyler Boyd, Corey Davis, Marshawn Lynch, Joe Connor, Matt Breida, Joe Mixon, and Austin Ekeler may have all seen their biomechanical efficiency bounce back in 2018, but all of them still missed games this season, with several ending on injured reserve.  So while anterior-dominant players have seen their recent fortunes improve (with scatbacks being the biggest beneficiary), the smart long-term money still goes to posterior-dominant players dominating in the end.

Stray 2018 observations:

  • Emmanuel Sanders’ season-ending injury didn’t just cripple the passing game in Denver; his loss on end arounds/ jet sweeps severely crippled Denver’s run-game.  One successful aspect of Musgrave’s 2018 offense was continually threatening defenses with Sanders on jet-sweeps/ end arounds- Sanders’ quickness to the outside kept defensive linebackers safeties stretched wide and unable to crash down on Denver’s guards.  Once Sanders went down, defenses were free to focus entirely on stopping Lindsay up the middle, which crippled both Lindsay’s productivity and the offense’s ability to produce big plays in the run game.
  • Ezekiel Elliott is the last of a dying breed- the only RB left in the NFL who shows full efficiency in both anterior and posterior lumbar areas.  While Barkley and McCaffrey may have generated the most 2018 buzz, if I were starting an offense from scratch, I’d take Elliott first every time. He’s one of the only RBs left in the NFL who can put an entire offense on his back, churning out tough yards while also generating big plays (and staying healthy in the process).  McCaffrey and Barkley may produce sensational plays on the regular, but to my mind, it’s even more valuable to be able to churn out the tough yards and keep an offense on schedule.
  • Dak Prescott is a limited QB in certain ways- his ability to elude pressure in the pocket is compromised by his lacking anterior efficiency, and his accuracy on touch throws (particularly far down-field) is similarly compromised.  Timing is also not his strong suit. But his accuracy/ power/ quick release on throws 10-25 yards out is remarkable (due to his high levels of medial posterior thoracic efficiency). And now paired with a legit WR (Amari Cooper) Prescott seems very likely to continue his late-2018 resurgence in 2019.