How does one judge the effectiveness of an offense? The Jaguars finished sixth -- above the Super Bowl champion Eagles -- in total yards last season. On the other hand, Jacksonville placed 19th in Football Outsiders' weighted offense metric and 14th in drive success rate, which measures the percentage of possessions that resulted in a first down or touchdown.
When the Jags jumped out to an early lead, hammered Leonard Fournette at the opposing defense and bolstered Blake Bortles with a dangerous play-action attack, they were a force to be reckoned with. Bortles averaged a sterling 8.0 yards per attempt with a 107.3 passer rating and a 12:1 TD-to-INT ratio when asked to nurse a lead last season.
When the Jaguars were tied or losing last year, conversely, Bortles' numbers plummeted to 6.5 yards per attempt, with a passer rating below 75.0 and nine touchdowns versus 12 interceptions.
Conventional team stats suggest Jacksonville's offense was on par with those in Kansas City, Atlanta and Philadelphia. The game film and advanced metrics refute that notion, poking holes in a limited attack.
If the quarterback is running a truly dominant offense, he moves the chains with consistency in all situations, rather than requiring a strict formula for success. It's no surprise that the list below reads like a who's who of superstar quarterbacks, many enjoying a symbiotic relationship with a top-notch offensive mind dialing up the plays.
Now that free agency and the draft are giving way to OTAs and minicamps, let's examine the hierarchy of NFL offenses.
THE TOP FIVE
1) New Orleans Saints
The scouting report suggests Brees' declining arm strength is an issue downfield, yet he continues to be one of the most effective deep passers in the league. Buoyed by an explosive ground attack, he's a perennial MVP candidate until we see evidence to the contrary.
If there's a weakness on Sean Payton's offense, it's the depth chart at quarterback. After Deshaun Watson directed Houston to a five-game stretch as the highest-scoring unit in the league last October, Savage's offense finished 30th in Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA, a metric that reflects how the team was playing later in the season. If Brees goes down, the Saints can kiss their Super Bowl hopes goodbye.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was published before Mark Ingram was suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Unseating Atlanta's Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as the NFL's most productive and well-rounded backfield tandem, Ingram and Kamara combined for more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 25 touchdowns last year. Unlike previous iterations in New Orleans, there's no telegraphing of plays due to niche skill sets. A tackle-breaking inside runner, Ingram has improved his receiving ability enough to remain in the game on key passing downs. Although it's hard to find a bigger mismatch than Kamara in the receiving game, he's also a strong enough runner to move the chains against base defenses on early downs.
Thomas is a prototypical No. 1 "X" receiver, capable of drawing and beating double teams. He does his best work on third downs as Brees' go-to target. Even at age 33, Ginn has the rare speed to take the top off a defense as a deep threat. Signed away from the Bears, Meredith is a wild card returning from ACL surgery. If he regains 2016 form, this could be one of the best wide-receiver groups of the Payton-Brees era.
Kamara and the wideouts are strong enough to compensate for a lackluster cast of characters at tight end. The Saints made it a priority to upgrade on free-agent bust Coby Fleener, only to settle for the homecoming of Watson. Once among the most athletic tight ends in football, the 37-year-old is no longer a playmaking threat after the catch.
More ink is spilled on the Cowboys' celebrated offensive line than all other blocking units combined. When this unit is healthy, though, it takes a back seat to no one. It all came together last season, with Peat moving inside to guard, Warford arriving to jump-start the running game and Ramczyk solidifying the pass protection at right tackle. Armstead has All-Pro potential on Brees' blind side.
2) New England Patriots
The 2017 Patriots finished No. 1 across the board in weighted DVOA, drive success rate, yards per drive, points per drive and total offense. After placing second in the 2016 MVP race, Brady won the award last year, capping off an age-defying campaign with an incredible postseason run that featured the most passing yards in Super Bowl history.
To the surprise of the entire football cognoscenti, however, the draft came and went without an early-round replacement for traded wunderkind Jimmy Garoppolo. At this time a year ago, it was easy to believe the Patriots would remain a Super Bowl contender even if Brady went down with a major injury. The same can't be said with Hoyer holding the clipboard.
Michel replaces Dion Lewis, who was the offensive focal point in 2017 as one of the league's most efficient backs down the stretch. After falling out of favor late last season, White is a good bet to resurface as Brady's security blanket on passing downs. Burkhead is a handy backup, capable of handling any running or receiving role in addition to special teams duty. Is Hill the latest Bengals castoff to find new life in New England's backfield?
Gone are deep threat Brandin Cooks and playoff hero Danny Amendola, replaced by physical slot receiver Matthews and gadget weapon Patterson. Expect a greater impact from Edelman and Mitchell, a pair of Super Bowl LI stars who lost the 2017 season to knee injuries. Even if Cooks' presence outside the numbers and downfield is missed, this appears to be one of the league's deepest units, bolstered by Gronkowski's behemoth presence as the greatest tight end of all time.
The question is who replaces Nate Solder, overpaid to stand guard on Eli Manning's blind side. If first-round pick Wynn isn't ready to step in, Cannon might have to flip sides, with former 49ers right tackle Brown joining the starting lineup. A 2017 third-round pick who missed his rookie season due to blood clots in his lungs, Garcia could be a dark-horse candidate at left tackle.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
After contemplating retirement last offseason, Roethlisberger questioned his own future on the heels of a five-interception performance in early October. Just when it appeared that his career might be winding down, he turned his season around and played as well as any quarterback in December and January. It's fair to wonder if that hot streak will continue with Randy Fichtner calling plays for the first time.
How does a third-round rookie quarterback help Pittsburgh win now? Roethlisberger ought to know better than anyone, considering he's played a full 16-game season just three times in his 14-year career. If Rudolph can unseat Jones for the backup job, the Steelers are better prepared to withstand an injury to Roethlisberger.
Bell carried the offense through Roethlisberger's early-season slump last fall, but suffered a drop-off in efficiency from the heights of his magical 2016 season. While his Pittsburgh future is in question, he should provide All-Pro production for at least one more year. The Steelers have selected Conner and Samuels in back-to-back drafts, leaving them in better position to survive an injury or suspension.
Brown is the rare receiver dominant enough to make a legitimate run at MVP honors. The emergence of Smith-Schuster enabled the Steelers to trade malcontent deep threat Martavis Bryant, who has been replaced by second-round rookie James Washington. Don't sleep on McDonald, who bypassed James in the pecking order and hauled in 10 passes for 112 yards in the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
Who can boast a more stable offensive line than Pittsburgh? The starting five have played together for three seasons, excelling in pass protection and establishing rare synchronicity with Bell's trademark running style.
4) Atlanta Falcons
For all of the consternation over Steve Sarkisian's play-calling, Ryan's offense finished second in drive success rate and yards per drive last season. With better interception luck and improvement in the red zone, the NFL's highest-paid player could find himself back in the MVP race. Schaub's physical skills began to deteriorate a half-decade ago. It's hard to believe he's still hanging on to the No. 2 job in Atlanta.
Ryan wasn't the only one missing Kyle Shanahan's mastery last season. Freeman and Coleman were relative afterthoughts in the passing game, as Sarkisian failed to take advantage of mismatches in space. Falcons fans might have just one more year to appreciate this talented tandem, with Coleman poised to reach free agency in 2019.
It's just as well that big-play threat Taylor Gabriel departed for Chicago. Sarkisian never could figure out how to maximize his speed the way Shanahan did in both Cleveland and Atlanta. Billed by many as the best receiver in the draft, rookie Ridley represents the potential for a major upgrade alongside Jones and Sanu. By the end of the 2018 season, this might be the consensus pick as the top receiving corps in football.
Guard play was an issue last year, as Levitre missed three games and Schweitzer flunked his starting audition. Fusco's arrival should solidify the line, with Matthews and Schraeder holding down the bookends and Mack excelling in the pivot.
5) Los Angeles Chargers
Rivers' MVP campaign was gaining steam until a three-interception performance halted the Bolts' AFC West hopes in Week 15. He played some of the best ball of his career down the stretch, leading the Chargers to six wins in the final seven weeks. Rivers hasn't missed a game in 12 years, hopefully rendering Geno Smith's presence irrelevant.
Gordon rushed for a career-high 1,105 yards, but managed to reach the century mark just twice behind an offensive line that didn't gel until late in the season. Although the undrafted Ekeler emerged as a weapon in the passing game, the Chargers don't have a proven three-down backup behind Gordon.
It's no coincidence that Rivers' aerial attack hit its stride once Henry replaced a declining Antonio Gates in the starting lineup. Heading into his third season, Henry has emerged as a top-five tight end. With Allen playing the lead role as the quintessential chain-mover, the collection of wideouts is deep, diverse and talented. Last year's No. 7 overall pick, Mike Williams, is a breakout candidate after a back issue limited him to just 11 receptions as a rookie.
The Chargers allowed the fewest sacks in the league last season, due in large part to Rivers' pre-snap wizardry. If the pass protection was solid, the run blocking left a lot to be desired. The coaches expect that to change this year, with Pouncey solidifying the interior between promising second-year guards Feeney and Lamp.
THE NEXT FIVE
6) Green Bay Packers
7) Philadelphia Eagles
8) Los Angeles Rams
9) Minnesota Vikings
10) Detroit Lions
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