With the 2016 NFL season kickoff quickly approaching, Senior Analyst Sam Monson recently dug through the Pro Football Focus database to bring you the 50 pieces of data you need to know.
1. Jabaal Sheard earned the highest grade of any Patriots defender in 2015.
In mid-March, the New England Patriots traded Chandler Jones for a second-round pick and Jonathan Cooper. Jones’ contract was due up at the end of the season, but he was deemed expendable due to the play of Jabaal Sheard. Sheard’s grade (88.0) on the 2015 season was significantly higher than Jones' (77.5) in over 300 fewer snaps. Sheard also owned the top run-defense and pass-rush grades for the Patriots' defense, and graded seventh overall in the NFL among edge defenders.
2. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor struggled mightily on short throws last season.
Taylor had a breakout season in 2015, grading out among the top 10 overall in the league at the quarterback position. Despite his high grade, Taylor does show weakness in his short-passing game. Of all starting QBs, Taylor had the second-worst passing grade on passes less than 10 yards downfield. But on throws of 20 yards or more in the air, Taylor ranked fifth in passing yards and tied for the second-most touchdowns in the league.
3. Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh posted the highest grade of his career in 2015.
Early in the 2015 season, there was a strong narrative going around Miami that Ndamukong Suh was at the center of the Dolphins' defensive struggles, and he was woefully underperforming in relation to his immense contract. In reality, Suh earned the highest grade of his career (91.2), topping 90.0 for the first time while posting the highest pass-rush and run-defense grades of his NFL tenure. He also recorded the second-highest percentage of pressures per pass-rushing snap he has managed in any single season.
4. Jets CB Darelle Revis posted the worst overall grade of his career in 2015 (78.4).
Now 31 years old, Revis' physical skills have dropped off to the point where he is no longer a top-notch athlete at his position, but his technique and experience still make him a formidable option at corner. The Jets played more cover-0 (man coverage with no safety help) than any other team in the league, and still asked him to match up with No. 1 receivers. If the Jets give Revis more safety help over the top this season, or relax how often they ask him to track players, they can alleviate some of his diminished athleticism and take advantage of his great technique; if not, he may continue to struggle relative to what we have come to expect from the future Hall of Famer.
5. Joe Haden allowed a passer rating of 153.7 last season, highest among CBs who played at least 50 snaps in coverage.
Browns CB Joe Haden has been considered to be a solid player throughout his career; however, his game fell off a cliff last year. While injuries played a role in his overall grade diving from 78.4 to 33.1, Browns fans have to be concerned about whether or not Haden can get back to his old form.
6. Le’Veon Bell led all NFL RBs with 3.41 yards after contact per attempt last year.
One of the major reasons Bell is listed among the top running backs in the league is his ability to make things happen beyond what his offensive line gives him. Consequently, he was one of only three players to average more than 3 yards after contact last year. Pittsburgh’s offense will surely be more dangerous once Bell gets back from his three-game suspension.
7. Ravens WR Steve Smith recorded 2.90 yards per route run in 2015, tied for second in the league.
Although Smith turned 37 this offseason, he did not show any signs of slowing down before his injury last year. An Achilles injury is a major obstacle to overcome, but Steve Smith has been overcoming the odds throughout his career, and was still ludicrously productive before going down hurt. With major question marks throughout the Baltimore receiving corps, the team will be hoping he can defy the odds one more time and go out with a final good season.
8. Bengals DT Geno Atkins recorded 82 total pressures in 2015, the most at his position.
In 2014, it was uncertain whether Atkins could ever get back to his pre-injury form. He was good, but not dominant that year. However, in 2015, the Cincinnati DT was back to his old self, and was the only player at his position to rank among the top three in run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity. It would be a huge surprise if Atkins was not one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive tackles in 2016 once again.
9. 17.1 percent of DeAndre Hopkins' targets in 2015 missed him completely (the NFL average is 11.2 percent).
This means that on 32 of Hopkins’ targets, he had no chance of ever catching the ball thrown to him. Now, the Houston Texans' wideout may run a more difficult route tree for quarterbacks to throw accurately to than the average NFL receiver, but that number is still significant. The good news is that Brock Osweiler was off-target on only nine percent of his throws in 2015.
10. Andrew Luck went from sixth in big-time throw rate (passes earning +1 grades or higher) in 2014 to 24th in 2015.
It was obvious to anyone watching Colts QB Andrew Luck’s performance last year that he was putting the ball in harms’ way more than ever, but he’s always been a guy who will force throws downfield. The difference was that he wasn’t hitting those tight windows, and as such, couldn’t counteract those mistakes with big plays.
11. No NFL linebacker duo allowed more yards in coverage than Jacksonville's Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny (1,178) last season.
Enter Myles Jack. The linebacker with safety-type athleticism had the highest coverage grade in the country when healthy as a sophomore at UCLA. That season, he had a ridiculous seven pass breakups while often times playing a slot corner-type role. The Jaguars' third-down package figures to be a completely different animal this season.
12. The Titans finished 26th in the league with 731 yards after contact from their running backs last year.
While DeMarco Murray obviously struggled a season ago, back in 2014 he totaled 998 yards after contact on his own. Similarly, rookie running back Derrick Henry led the entire FBS with 1,339 yards after contact in 2015, outpacing second-place Leonard Fournette by 245 yards. It’s a safe bet that the Titans' overall total will see a considerable bump in 2016.
13. Rookie WR Amari Cooper led the NFL in dropped passes last season, with 18 drops on 90 catchable targets.
While Oakland’s top-10 draft selection looked dynamic and extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, his shockingly large amount of drops saw him grade lower than many expected (72.7). Raiders fans expect big things coming from the former Alabama star, and he could take a big step in the right direction this year by becoming more consistent in catching the football.
14. Chiefs CB Marcus Peters was the most-targeted cornerback in football last season.
While the Chiefs' rookie led the NFL with eight interceptions and did make several impressive plays, some of his takeaways were the result of horrendous throws, and he simply saw more targets (137) come his way than any other CB. Although he broke up another 17 passes besides his interceptions, he also surrendered 939 yards and eight touchdowns. Peters’ 2015 season was certainly promising for a rookie; however, it was not as outstanding as the number of interceptions would suggest.
15. Paxton Lynch recorded the highest adjusted completion percentage under pressure in college football last season.
Counting drops as completions, the former Memphis signal caller was accurate on 70.3 percent of his passes when he was moved off his spot. Last year, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning ranked 18th in the NFL in this category, with an adjusted completion percentage of 65.6 percent, while Brock Osweiler was one spot ahead of him at 65.8 percent.
16. Chargers LB Denzel Perryman had the highest run-stop percentage among all inside linebackers in 2015, at 18.3 percent.
Once given a bigger role on the defense, Perryman was excellent against the run in 2015 and earned the highest PFF run-defense grade at his position in the second half of the season. On 169 run snaps, he recorded 31 defensive stops. The second-year player could quickly become one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL if he can duplicate his late-season form for an entire year.
17. Dallas rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott ranked first in the 2016 draft class in yards after contact per rush.
Our draft analysts marveled at Elliott’s ability to extend runs after first contact at Ohio State, and that figures to be a huge asset when combined with the Cowboys' top-ranked run-blocking line. He also allowed just one pressure in pass protection all season, meaning he can stay on the field for all three downs.
18. Kirk Cousins earned a negative grade when throwing deep last season.
Washington Redskins QB Cousins was just 25 of 67—with three interceptions and six touchdowns—on passes that traveled 20+ yards downfield last season. Where he really excelled was at the intermediate depth of 10 to 19 yards. When healthy, perhaps the arrival of first-round rookie and jump-ball expert Josh Doctson (No. 3 nationally in deep-ball catch rate last year at TCU) will help Cousins on his deep shots?
19. Over his last eight games, new Giants pass-rusher Olivier Vernon ranked first in PFF’s edge defender grades; over his first eight, he ranked 53rd.
In other words, the Giants paid elite defensive-player money for a guy who has only performed at an elite level for one eight-game stretch of his NFL career. They better hope that translates to a full 16-game schedule this season, as New York has gone all-in with Vernon and other big-money defensive signings.
20. Carson Wentz completed only 42.6 percent of his passes under pressure his final season at North Dakota State.
When he was kept clean in the pocket, he was completing 70.1 percent of his throws for an NFL passer rating of 114.3, but his completion percentage dropped almost 30 percentage points and his passer rating tumbled by over 30 points when the heat was applied. As a rookie thrown in earlier than planned with the Sam Bradford trade, he will likely see plenty of pressure, including some of his own making as he struggles to speed up his progressions and reads. The Eagles need those numbers to improve for him to have early success.
21. Matthew Stafford greatly improved in 2015 after the offensive coaching changes made midseason.
Through the first seven weeks of 2015, Lions QB Matthew Stafford was the lowest-graded quarterback in the NFL. After the team’s Week 9 bye and post-coaching changes, however, Stafford improved to rank as the seventh-best quarterback over the final eight weeks. His drop-adjusted completion percentage also rose from a 17th-ranked 74.9 percent to a sixth-ranked 78.4 percent over the same time periods.
22. Packers DE Mike Daniels had the sixth-most total pressures among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015.
Daniels rarely gets mentioned among the top 3-4 DEs in the league, but he has consistently been more productive with each passing season. He’s not of the caliber of someone like J.J. Watt, and hasn’t been able convert hurries into sacks as well as some others, but Daniels had the third-highest overall grade at his position in 2015, and ranked in the top five as both a pass-rusher and in run defense.
23. Vikings DT Linval Joseph earned the sixth-highest overall grade among NFL interior defenders in 2015.
Joseph's best work came in run defense, where he had the fourth-highest grade and recorded a run stop greater than once every 10 run plays, one of the highest rates at his position. Even though his total pressure numbers were not that exciting (25), when factoring in having fewer opportunities than others due to Minnesota's defensive-line rotation and injury-forced missed time, he was a top-15 pass-rusher on a per-snap basis.
24. Bears WR Alshon Jeffery had the third-highest receiving grade among wide receivers last year.
That may come as a surprise for a player who missed almost half a season with injuries. However, when on the field, Jeffery was one of the most productive receivers in the league. He still managed over 800 receiving yards, 34th-most in the league, and his 2.87 receiving yards per route run was fourth-highest, behind only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Steve Smith.
25. Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston finished his rookie year ranked fourth in turnover-worthy throws.
Winston recorded 27 passes graded -1 or lower last season (turnover-worthy throws), while his 35 big-time throws—graded +1 or above—tied Tom Brady for seventh-most. That ratio marked an improvement over his final college season, which he finished with more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws. His 78.3 overall grade ranked 20th for the season, although from Weeks 11 to 16, only four QBs graded better passing the ball.
26. In 2015, only one WR (Antonio Brown) saw a higher share of his team’s targets than Julio Jones, who was targeted on 32.6 percent of Atlanta’s aimed passes.
Jones saw the ball go his way on 31.2 percent of his routes, which also ranked second in the league (minimum of 200 routes). Don’t expect that to change much in 2016, given that Jones was PFF’s second-ranked WR overall last season with a grade of 94.4, while the team’s second-highest graded WR (Justin Hardy) ranked 80th.
27. Last season, Luke Kuechly was the highest-graded player across all positions, with an overall PFF grade of 98.1.
On 34 run stops, Kuechly's average first contact with the rusher occurred 0.50 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the fourth-best mark among linebackers (minimum 20 stops), and only games missed due to concussion kept him behind Aaron Donald in PFF’s Defensive Player of the Year and Dwight Stephenson awards.
28. No cornerback was more adept at getting his hand on the ball than Saints CB Delvin Breaux.
An NFL-high 22.0 percent of passes thrown into Breaux's coverage resulted in either a pass defense or interception. Otherwise, it was an up-and-down first NFL season for Breaux; he surrendered a position-high 10 touchdowns, while only two corners were flagged more times (one of them was teammate Brandon Browner, who was called for a league-leading 23 penalties).
29. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s passing grade has declined in each of the past four seasons.
While Kaepernick is currently competing with Blaine Gabbert for the 49ers' starting job, his athleticism and open-field running ability are his best attributes, and likely his best path to playing time. Eagles quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford combined for just 73 rushing yards on 15 attempts last season in Chip Kelly’s system (three rushes for 14 yards on designed QB runs). Kaepernick ran for 129 yards on 34 attempts on designed runs in his last full season (2014), and added 509 yards on 48 scrambles (10.6 yards per carry). He forced 14 missed tackles on his 82 combined attempts, and represents the best running option that Chip Kelly has had since Michael Vick was injured early in the 2013 season.
30. Defensive end Frank Clark will be the third pass-rusher for the Seahawks in 2016.
Clark has earned positive run-defense grades in each of the first two 2016 preseason games, and ranks 10th among all NFL 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing production. He won’t pass starting defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on the depth chart this season, but he is the most-likely candidate to fill Bruce Irvin’s designated pass-rushing role on the right side of the defense. In 2015, 309 of Irvin’s 327 pass-rush attempts came from the right side, giving Bennett the flexibility to move around the defensive line, especially on third downs. This preseason, 34 of Clark’s 38 pass-rushes have come from the right side, and his production makes him Seattle’s best option to replace Irvin (who signed with Oakland this offseason).
31. Cardinals RB David Johnson is in line for a huge season.
After he took over the starting job in Week 13 of the 2015 season, Johnson trailed only Rams RB Todd Gurley in elusive rating from Weeks 13–17. Johnson forced 15 missed tackles on 90 rushing attempts, and nine more on his 17 receptions over that stretch, while also averaging 3.02 yards after contact. Arizona ranked third in the NFL in run-blocking grade last season, and added guard Evan Mathis (positive run-blocking grade in every season since 2009) to the mix this offseason to help pave the way for big gains.
32. The Los Angeles Rams have the deepest defensive line in the NFL.
Projected backup DEs Matt Longacre, Quinton Coples, and Ian Seau have all earned above-average grades for pass-rushing so far this preseason. Longacre and Seau rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in pass-rushing grade among all NFL edge defenders, and Longacre leads all edge defenders in overall grade, thanks to his strong performance in the run game. Former Patriots’ first-round pick Dominique Easley and DE Ethan Westbrooks have also graded well against the run for the Rams, who will have some difficult decisions to make at roster cutdown time.
33. Nickel is the new base.
Last season, on a league-wide basis, teams had five or more defensive backs on the field for 63.4 percent of all defensive snaps. Base defense might be what we all think of when we list starters, but nickel defenders are playing almost two-thirds of all defensive snaps, and any “two-down” player is in fact likely only playing around a third of his team's defensive snaps. The Patriots led the league last season with 83.6 percent of their defensive snaps featuring five or more defensive backs.
34. Teams run with three or more WRs on the field on 61.4 percent of offensive snaps.
Hand in hand with the arms race on defense, teams are running with more wideouts on the field on offense, deploying three or more receivers on almost two-thirds of snaps. The Green Bay Packers last season, despite losing their best receiver to injury, ran with three or more on the field on 87.5 percent of their snaps.
35. The average depth of target in the NFL is 9.0 yards downfield.
While this statistic varies widely depending on a team's offensive scheme, on a league-wide basis, QBs average a depth of 9.0 yards from the line of scrimmage per pass attempt. However, QBs around the league can be as far as 4 yards on either side of that mark—Carson Palmer led the league with 11.3 yards on average last season, while Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford brought up the other end of the table with just 6.8 yards on average. Those numbers, combined with rising completion percentages, help explain why the NFL is more of a passing league today.
36. Speaking of being a passing league, teams now pass on 61.2 percent of their plays.
The entire NFL has become more pass-happy as the years have gone by, and last season, even the most run-heavy team in the league (Carolina) passed on 54.2 percent of their offensive snaps. The most pass-happy team in the league was Jacksonville, who took to the air on 68.6 percent of its snaps, more than two-thirds of the time.
37. Usage of the fullback has heavily declined over the past decade.
In 2006, teams had fullbacks on the field for 39.8 percent of their offensive snaps. In 2007, that number was 38.0 percent, but last year, the mark had reached 14.7 percent, having been in steady decline over the decade. The league has become more spread in scheme at the expense of power football, and the first player to be sacrificed when that happens is the fullback.
38. Teams used option mechanics on run plays on 13.6 percent of attempts in 2015.
Unlike the wildcat formation, which has already burned out by now, the rebirth of option football in the NFL isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. Some teams are obviously more heavily-invested in it than others, but league-wide, teams used option mechanics on more than 10 percent of their handoffs last season; the reason they did is simply because it works. Plays using the option last year averaged 4.61 yards per carry, compared to 4.07 without.
39. The most common personnel package in the league is 11-personnel.
Teams use 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) on 45.4 percent of their offensive snaps, making it by far the most common personnel package on offense, explaining in large part why nickel defense has become such a common and important defensive package. More passing has meant more wide receivers and pass-catchers on the field at once.
40. Arizona is the NFL's most blitz-happy team, coming after teams with the blitz on more than half (50.2 percent) of their defensive snaps last season.
The Cardinals are generally the league’s most aggressive team from a schematic point of view, attacking deep more than any other team on offense and blitzing more than any other on defense. At the other end of the scale are the Dallas Cowboys, who only blitzed on 18.0 percent of defensive snaps in 2015.
41. The most commonly run route in the NFL is a hitch.
In 2015, receivers combined to run 9,502 hitch routes. Hitch routes, sometimes called stop or hook routes, are short vertical routes where the receiver hooks up and turns back to the quarterback looking for the ball. They work against man or zone coverage, and can be worked with angled releases off the line to find space laterally in the defense, not just vertically. It is the utility route for the modern passing game.
42. On average, QBs are pressured on 36.6 percent of their dropbacks.
When we talk about how a quarterback performs under pressure, it’s important to understand just how big a part of his game that is—likely around a third of his dropbacks. QBs that can’t perform when the heat is applied are a liability around a third of the time they are trying to pass the ball, and those that excel in those situations have a massive advantage over their competition.
43. QBs kept clean have an average passer rating of 97.7.
If a team's pass protection can keep the QB free of pressure and doesn’t force him to move from his spot, even an average NFL QB looks like a Pro-Bowler, completing 68.6 percent of his passes and throwing for better than a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Every snap on which a team's pass-blocking unit buys a quarterback a clean pocket is a play that QB should be making count, and usually is.
44. Pass-rushing isn’t about sacks, it’s about affecting the QB.
Including the playoffs in 2015, QBs were sacked 1,316 times, or just 5.9 percent of their dropbacks on passing plays. Sacks are obviously the goal of a pass-rush, but just by moving a QB off his spot, his passer rating drops to 78.4, and when attempting a pass under pressure, the average NFL QB’s rating drops to 71.6. His completion percentage drops under 50.0 (48.6 percent) and that touchdown-to-interception ratio is far closer to 1:1. The percentage of snaps when that pressure occurs is more than four times higher than sacks alone.
45. Teams lined up with only 10 players on the field 69 times in 2015.
You’d think that getting 11 guys on the field—the most basic step of any one play—is simple. However, there were 69 snaps last season where a team fielded just 10 guys, and 13 teams did it more than once, including the Cardinals, who made the goof on a farcical 16 occasions.
46. The most common coverage shell in the league right now is cover-3.
NFL teams ran cover-3 on 32.4 percent of defensive snaps in 2015. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks have made that kind of shell the fashionable scheme on defense today, in a way the Tampa 2 was a decade ago, and as that coaching tree continues to expand, it is likely to become more common over the coming seasons.
47. The average tight end still stays in to pass protect on 26.4 percent of passing downs.
With the move towards TEs that are more wideouts than blocking players, you’d think that the average TE would have seen a massive drop in the number of snaps he is asked to stay at home and pass block, but in truth, it hasn’t moved much over the past decade. In 2006, the average TE was pass blocking on 28.0 percent of his passing snaps, just a little more than today’s NFL. The athlete may have changed, but that responsibility is still there.
48. Teams rush only three players on 8.0 percent of all defensive snaps.
Most of these are third/fourth-and-long situations, with a major chunk of yardage still needed to convert the first down, but QBs still have a 65.5 percent completion rate on those plays, gaining 7.1 yards per attempt. New England did it on 15.9 percent of their defensive snaps, preferring to get as many bodies into coverage as they could to shut down the passing windows, while Green Bay did it a league-low 4.2 percent of the time last season.
49. The average time to throw in the NFL is 2.67 seconds.
The fastest players in the league at getting rid of the ball average just 2.2 seconds from the snap to the ball leaving their hands, and the guys that like to extend plays the most are pushing 3 seconds. That’s the amount of time pass-rushers typically have to affect the throw in today’s NFL. If you’re not getting there until 3 or more seconds have passed, chances are you’re not getting there, period.
50. The most common run concept in the NFL is outside zone, run on 20.1 percent of plays in 2015.
The NFL has become more of a zone-blocking league, with outside- and inside-zone concepts run by almost everybody on a regular basis, but there is still some gap-scheme and power man blocking out there. The Minnesota Vikings, in particular, used a lot of this blocking a year ago, and Adrian Peterson was able to rack up yardage behind it.