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Opening Drive: Sunday Morning NFL Thoughts

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A few random musings as the Chiefs roll into town to take on the Patriots

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

  1. As new, fresh-faced star quarterback Patrick Mahomes brings the AFC’s top ranked scoring offense into Foxborough this weekend, the term that is seemingly on the tip of everybody’s tongue is “RPO” — run-pass-options. While the oft misidentified concept has been in existence for quite some time, its recognition as a paradigm-shifter in today’s NFL hadn’t truly gained steam nationally until the EaglesSuper Bowl run last winter. This season, teams like the Rams and Chiefs — each with an innovative play caller and a section of their offensive scheme dedicated to a collection of creative RPO installations — have exploded out of the gates, keeping these versatile, defense-dismantlers at the forefront of strategic football conversation.

When it comes to the Chiefs and their RPO usage, Bill Belichick told WEEI this week that he’s preparing for a completely different offense than the one that defeated the Patriots in last season’s opener.

“We played them opening day, and then we got ready for them at the end of the season last year . . . But they didn’t have the RPO system like they have it now. I’d say that’s a pretty significant change. They have a number of ways to do it.”

However, as eager as Belichick has been to discuss the new wrinkles in the Kansas City’s attack, it feels almost as if the wily old coach is simply using the media’s excitement over their favorite new buzz word as a means to hit his content quota for the week. As detailed quite well (and passionately) by CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar, in comparison to the Chief’s personnel packages, formations, use of motion, route concepts, spacing, and just plain talent, their RPO package represents just a small piece of the the Chief’s offensive puzzle.

2. Largely overlooked in the national media’s doling out of credit for the Chiefs’ torrid start is the job done by general manager Brett Veach, who became the NFL’s youngest GM last June when the organization decided to part ways with John Dorsey.

Veach is Kansas City’s version of Nick Caserio; young and enthusiastic with a track record of quickly rising through the scouting ranks. He began his tenure in Kansas City in 2013 as a College and Pro Personnel Analyst before being promoted to Co-Director of Player Personnel just two seasons later. Following Dorsey’s departure, many assumed the Chiefs’ GM role would be filled by scarecrow in a pastel-colored dress shirt while Andy Reid pulled strings behind the scenes.

That has not been the case.

In a Belichickian fashion, Veach hit the ground running last season by acquiring two under-performing players on affordable rookie deals, Cam Erving and Reggie Ragland, via trade. Both now start and are producing on their respective units. Next, after reportedly being a major voice in the decision to move up in the 2017 Draft and select Patrick Mahomes, he shipped veteran Alex Smith to Washington and managed to acquire talented corner Kendall Fuller in the process. He also kicked off the official start of the league year in March by trading star corner Marcus Peters to Los Angeles in what has unofficially been labeled as a move to improve the culture of the team.

These major efforts, along with the splashy free agency signings of Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens, are all part of Veach’s organizational directive to get younger — specifically on the defensive side of the football.

Veach decided it was time to move on from longtime Chiefs veteran defenders Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. He then spent the first team’s first five draft picks on defensive players. According to The Kansas City Star’s Lynn Worthy, the average age of the Chiefs’ 2017 defensive starters was 27.1 years old. In the aftermath of Veach’s overhaul this offseason, the average age of the defensive starters from Kansas City’s first official depth chart release during the preseason was 23.6.

3. As Kansas City’s third general manager of the 2011 CBA era, Veach certainly owes a tip of the cap to his predecessor John Dorsey, as the state of the team’s on-field product that he inherited couldn’t possibly differ further from the mess that former Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli left behind following a disastrous 2-14 season in 2012.

The turnaround implemented by Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid was truly astonishing.

Scott Pioli and Todd Haley from 2009-2012

Average wins: 5.75

Average Losses: 10.25

Average overall team DVOA ranking: 26th

John Dorsey and Andy Reid from 2013-2016

Average wins: 10.6

Average Losses: 5.4

Average overall team DVOA ranking: 7th

4. In a piece written this week, the The Ringer’s Kevin Clark contends that it has never been easier to play quarterback in the NFL. In addition to components such as an increase in seven-on-seven leagues that young quarterbacks are now exposed to early on in their development, the evolution of the RPO was specified as a major factor in the NFL’s inching inevitably closer towards its first 6,000-yard passing season. But one factor still reigns supreme in terms of impact on the NFL’s on-field product: rule changes.

The new rules that were enacted in the wake of the 2004 AFC Championship Game governing illegal contact of wide receivers outside of five yards have merged with regulations created in 2011 to eliminate hits on defenseless players, resulting in the entire field becoming available for offenses — including the middle, which for decades had been controlled by merciless headhunters.

“You can still get hit—and get hit pretty hard—it’s just a different type of contact,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told Kevin Clark, referencing the mindset of today’s wide receivers when they go over the middle for a pass. “You’re maybe a hair slower in triggering [a hit] and that’s when it all happens.”

5. Without getting into too much detail, I began utilizing data from overthecap.com and spotrac.com to chart every team’s salary cap history dating back to 2011, with the goal of trying to see how teams are spending their cap resources and to diagnose trends in how teams are acquiring their talent. When I refer to “homegrown” players, I’m specifically talking about players drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by a club at the beginning of their careers. These players have spent no time with any other clubs, and they are not on drafted rookie contracts (including fifth year team options). They are either playing on contract extensions, franchise tags, undrafted rookie contracts, street free agent deals, exclusive rights free agent tenders, or restricted free agent tenders.

To diagnose the NFL’s true middle, upper, and elite classes, these players’ cap hits have been categorized into tiers based on their size in comparison to that year’s league cap, displayed as a percentage.

Middle Class

Tier 1: 1-2.5% of that year’s league cap

Tier 2: 2.5-5%

Upper Class

Tier 3: 5-7.5%

Tier 4: 7.5-10%

Elite Class

Tier 5: 10-12.5%

Tier 6: 12.5-15%

Tier 7: 15%+

Here’s an example of a “homegrown” middle class player.

James White: 2018 cap hit of $2,444,595 - 1.38% of 2018’s $177.2M league cap — Tier: 1

What this charting does is identify which team’s are drafting and developing their own in-house talent without having to resort to the inefficiencies of the free agent market. And by layering in data from past seasons like team DVOA performance and individual snap percentages, some really interesting trends have emerged.

There will be plenty more to come on this front throughout the season, but for now, here’s a quick breakdown of the Patriots and Chiefs’ rosters in terms of how many “homegrown” players each has in their middle class, upper class, and elite tiers vs. the the number of non-“homegrown”, non-rookie contract players they have from those same tiers.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter @BPhillips_SB