Browns, Cowboys among clubs set to thrive with new offensive minds

As training camps get underway every year, new offensive play-callers begin to get acclimated with their new weapons, installing strategies for besting opposing defenses. This offseason presents some unique challenges, but the overall goal is the same: create the best strategy to win once the regular season starts.

What can we expect from this season's new offensive play-callers? I decided to use my models to identify trends and potential opportunities in front of some of the teams that will have new offensive minds powering their attacks in 2020. The goal was to isolate problem areas from 2019 that the new regimes could help solve, based on the clues (resume, coaching lineage and personnel) we have at this point.

Here's what stood out about the six teams that caught my eye:

Carolina Panthers
New head coach: Matt Rhule · New offensive coordinator: Joe Brady

Next Gen Stats shows that the Panthers' offense had the second-lowest passer rating in the NFL last season on passes of 10-plus air yards (60.5) and also posted 13 interceptions (tied for fourth-most) on such passes. Carolina wide receivers averaged just 1.2 receiving yards per route run on all passes, which also ranked second-worst in the league, per NGS. 

The acquisition of veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater early in free agency gives us clues as to how Rhule and Brady are likely to run the Panthers' 2020 offense. Rhule's Baylor and Temple resume and Brady's LSU experiences strongly indicate that creative use of RPOs, especially on first down and third-and-medium, will be a key element of their strategy, along with the use of blocking concepts that create big opportunities for pass-catchers lined up in the slot and out wide.  

During Brady's time at LSU last season, there were two types of passes that netted a near-perfect passer rating for eventual No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow: deeper passes that traveled across the field (the horizontal elements of the route tree) and strategic deep vertical passes. On horizontal attempts of 15-plus yards, Burrow went 27-for-36, averaged 21 yards per completed pass and earned five touchdowns. On vertical deep attempts, he connected for 11 touchdowns on only 25 such attempts (per Pro Football Focus). The bottom line is, strategic deeper passing projects to be a strength for the Panthers in 2020. Value quality over quantity here, and expect many different skill players to be involved.

Cleveland Browns
New head coach: Kevin Stefanski · New offensive coordinator: Alex Van Pelt

Next Gen Stats show that no team in 2019 had a lower passer rating when not using play-action than the Browns (69.1). Meanwhile, Mayfield's play-action vs. non-play-action splits looked like this:

Table inside Article
Completion % Y/A TDs INTs Passer rating
Play-action 64.7 8.9 9 3 106.2
No play-action 57.5 6.6 13 18 69.4

To round this out, Mayfield used play-action on 25.3 percent of dropbacks, which was just the 11th-highest rate in the NFL -- surprisingly low, considering how significant the drop-off in production was without play-action.

A deep dive into Stefanski and Van Pelt's resumes suggests their use of zone-blocking will pair well with an improved Browns O-line (with the bookend additions of rookie Jedrick Wills and veteran Jack Conklin) and Mayfield's strengths. The principles Stefanski relied on during his time as offensive coordinator in Minnesota leveraged zone-blocking and tight end use (Stefanski used two tight ends, or 12 personnel, at the second-highest rate in the NFL last season, and just one tight end, or 11 personnel, at the lowest rate, despite 11 personnel being the most common type in the NFL, per NGS) to enhance the efficiency of the run game and play-action passing. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins benefited greatly from Stefanski's play-action expertise, earning PFF's highest grade on both play-action (among those with at least 100 such attempts) and designed rollouts in 2019. The increased efficiency of the Vikings' run game led opponents to expect the pass less, meaning the fake-out aspect of play-action worked well, with defenses biting on the run and giving Cousins the space and time he needed to pass.

So even while my model projects more run-pass balance for the Browns offense in 2020, Mayfield's efficiency and numbers are projected to increase, with Mayfield ranking QB No. 16 in my fantasy model. And his upside is significantly higher than that, based on his supporting cast, Van Pelt's deep experience (as a former Bills, Packers and Bengals QB coach) and the fact that my models indicate Mayfield's play-action potential is far greater than Cousins' due to Mayfield's demonstrated mobility.

Dallas Cowboys
New head coach: Mike McCarthy

New Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy is stepping into a situation that was already pretty good overall, taking over a Cowboys team that ranked first in total yards per game (431) in 2019. However, one area where McCarthy's influence and architecting forecasts to boost efficiency is in the red zone. The 2019 Cowboys were tied for the second-best third-down conversion rate (47.1), but when they came within 20 yards of an opponent's end zone, their third-down efficiency decreased significantly (to 33.3 percent, tied for 21st). So despite ranking sixth in points per game (27.1), Dallas has room to improve in terms of scoring efficiency in the red area, with their 2019 red-zone touchdown rate sitting at 57.4 percent, 15th in the NFL. 

Of all the teams with new coaches/play-callers, McCarthy's Cowboys have the best odds in my model to make the postseason. Yes, holdover offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will continue to call plays. But the conservative and often predictable (as measured by defensive formations) nature of the Jason Garrett regime in Dallas forecasts to be replaced by a West Coast style that will make better use of a talented wide receiver corps (ranked second-best in the NFL by my model) under a coach who came to embrace analytics during his season away from the game. While the ex-Packer head man's resume shows that he passed much more frequently in the red zone (on 59.7% of red-zone plays) than he ran the ball (40.3%) during his time leading Green Bay, and while he's never deployed a running back with the type of effectiveness Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott has displayed, McCarthy has logged many seasons with top-end O-lines. This leads me to increase my projection for Elliott's results, especially given the space he'll have to work with based on the spread alignment concepts. (Ahem -- don't under-value him in fantasy.) 

The takeaway here? Expect creativity and effective West Coast principles. It would be hard for the offense to top the league in yards per game again, but the thing that really matters -- win total -- forecasts to increase. Which means franchise-tagged Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott could make an even stronger case for a very lucrative long-term contract next offseason.

Miami Dolphins
New offensive coordinator: Chan Gailey

NGS has developed a great new stat called Expected Rushing Yards (ERY), which approximates how many yards a ball carrier should be able to earn in a given situation. Last season, the Dolphins tied for 26th in ERY per carry (3.95 yards), suggesting their ball-carriers faced the sixth-worst circumstances in the NFL (a clue about O-line play). That said, Miami rushers posted -0.97 yards per carry over expectation, the worst mark in the NFL by a good margin (the second-worst mark was the Falcons' -0.75), which means they underperformed relative even to their paltry projected pace. NGS back this up, as Miami ranked last in the NFL in rushes with the QB under center (2.4 yards per carry), last on rushes outside the tackles (3.5 yards) and second-to-last on rushes inside the tackles (3.4 yards).

Enter "new" coordinator Gailey, whose long resume encompasses a previous tenure as Dolphins offensive coordinator (and extensive experience coaching veteran Miami QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in both Buffalo and with the Jets). While Gailey's NFL career includes seven previous terms as an OC or HC, my models focus on his play-calling with the Bills (as their head coach from 2010 to '12) and the Jets (as their offensive coordinator in 2015 and '16) to inform predictions for the Dolphins. One thing that stands out is a projected run-game improvement, maybe not to a ground-and-pound level, but with just enough of an increase in efficiency to help the team better leverage RPOs. Acquiring Jordan Howard and Matt Breida to accompany Kalen Ballage fits with my model's indication of a split backfield. Miami's O-line ranks last in my preseason model, making it crucial to establish the run as a threat. Gailey was an early adopter of the RPO, and it stands to reason -- given both his history with Fitzpatrick and the resume of rookie Tua Tagovailoa -- that it will be a major factor in the Dolphins' game plan this season.

Minnesota Vikings
New offensive coordinator: Gary Kubiak

As mentioned in the Browns' blurb, Vikings signal-caller Kirk Cousins was one of the NFL's best play-action QBs in 2019. Ready for an avalanche of NGS stats to back this up? Cousins posted 14 touchdowns using play-action, the most in the NFL, while on rollouts to the left, he logged a 157.0 passer rating (best in the NFL) and seven scores (no other QB had more than two). Cousins was also the only QB (among those with a minimum of 200 dropbacks) with an average time-to-throw greater than 3 seconds (3.01). Then-coordinator Kevin Stefanski's system helped on deep throws, as well; Cousins earned the second-highest passer rating on deep passes (121.5), with a 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio; he also had a yards-per-attempt mark on passes of 10-plus air yards of 13.1 (second-highest in NFL). Cousins was one of only three qualified quarterbacks to not throw an interception under pressure, while netting three touchdowns. This is all strong support for the Browns' decision to hire Stefanski as their head coach. The question here, though, is, will the Vikings be able to maintain this efficiency under Gary Kubiak (and without traded-away receiver Stefon Diggs)?

Last season, Kubiak served as the Vikings' assistant head coach and offensive advisor, which, especially in the unique preseason environment teams are going through right now, should provide a level of continuity that Minnesota will benefit from. Kubiak comes from the Mike Shanahan tree (think: zone-rushing focused), and the versatility of every-down back Dalvin Cook, along with the continuity provided by their top two tight ends, will help Cousins and the passing offense adapt to life without Diggs. Look for Kubiak to leverage Cook and further develop running back Alexander Mattison, while folding rookie receiver Justin Jefferson into the passing game (once Jefferson returns from the reserve/COVID-19 list). And while I do project a decrease in efficiency for Cousins (it's hard to repeat as the best in play-action), play-action will still be a fundamental aspect of the Vikings offense. (Side note: Presuming he returns for the season, Jefferson is my WR45, but has top-35 upside.)

New York Giants
New coach: Joe Judge · New offensive coordinator: Jason Garrett

Daniel Jones' rookie season was significantly impacted by defensive pressure; NGS shows he was pressured on 37.2 percent of dropbacks in 2019, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Jones did not have enough time to allow deeper plays to develop, supported by the fact he posted the seventh-lowest completion percentage on deep passes (26.9). Having to escape pressure also played a role in Jones throwing into tight windows at the second-highest rate in the league last season (22.4 percent), on which he netted only 4.1 yards per attempt (the 10th-lowest mark). When Jones was able to target open receivers, he had a 127.3 passer rating (fourth-highest).

Jones' first-time head coach (Judge) and experienced-but-new-to-the-Giants offensive coordinator (Garrett) will have to create more time and space for the quarterback to operate if New York is going to take a big step forward this season. Adding right tackle Andrew Thomas in the first round of the draft and competition at center helps create a better opportunity for Jones to have time. Garrett's resume (which includes direct play-calling with the Cowboys from 2007 to '12, then a period in which he empowered his coordinators to use the principles he put in place on game day after being a major factor in weekly prep) suggests the game plan will likely revolve around balance (which is extremely impactful when Saquon Barkley is the running back) and increasing the vertical threat each week, akin to how Dak Prescott's attempts climbed in each of his four seasons under Garrett while the number of rushing attempts stayed similar. Deep attempts will likely start between the hashes, with Garrett adding perimeter shots as the season progresses. (This is how Prescott and Tony Romo both developed under Garrett with the Cowboys.)

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