PFF writer and editor Alex Miglio unveiled at roster with promising offensive skill players, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties under 26 years of age. This is a young and physically talented team. What intrigues me most about this team is that Andrew Luck has been compared often to Peyton Manning, but unlike the Colts or Broncos, Miglio is going to give Luck and his young squad a complex offense with a variety of personnel sets and formation shifts.
While Luck may be up to the task, the question might be whether the rest of his team is up to the scheme complexities that Miglio wants to employ on each side of the ball. I wish I had more time to ask Miglio questions about his team. Maybe you can help me out and ask him questions at the end of this post. I’m sure he’ll be willing to share his thoughts in more detail.
This offense was built to be dangerous in multiple ways, and it all starts with the quarterback.
While Luck may be a rookie, he will eventually develop into an elite quarterback. He will have the weaponry here to do that sooner than later. One of his strengths is his intelligence—no surprise as he hails from Stanford (although he seems like a pretty smart guy regardless). He should also be ready to roll with a complex offensive system because he ran a pro-style offense in college. And a complex system is indeed in store for the rookie, as I wanted to create an offense that could kill you with a traditional running game utilizing play action or by spreading out—and everything in between.
While it was vital to select a quality quarterback, the offense will be predicated on a good running game. At $7 million, Jonathan Stewart is the right man for the job. Stewart is the perfect back for this system in part because he is a fantastic runner and pass-catcher. You may not realize how good Pierre Thomas is in New Orleans, but Stewart is sort of a rich man’s version of “PT Bruiser.” Stewart is still relatively young at 25, and he has low mileage on those legs thanks to being stuck behind DeAngelo Williams in Carolina.
In terms of personnel packages, I will utilize 12 personnel with Demaryius Thomas and Leonard Hankerson on the outside or one tight end and three receivers (11 personnel), adding Emmanuel Sanders to the mix in the slot. The variety with within each package will be the key to this Pandora’s Box we have intend to create. There will be plenty of two-tight sets, but on many of those occasions one or both of the tight ends will be aligned in the slot or out wide.
The Patriots call this the “Hybrid 12,” and it should come as no surprise that we want to emulate a great offense in certain ways. Our offense will occasionally roll out an “empty” 12 personnel set as well. Stewart will either motion from the back field or start in the slot to present an empty backfield look. Occasionally one of the tight ends—typically Coby Fleener or Charles Clay, who is listed as a fullback, but will be utilized as an H-back—will be in the backfield alongside the running back in a split-back formation, the fullback in the ‘I’ or offset ‘I,’ as well was flanking the quarterback in the shotgun.
Similar formation variety will be available within the 11 personnel sets. Fleener will be inline or in the slot with Sanders in the slot on the other side. This will force the defense into tipping its hand. Disguising defensive intentions when a super tight end is lined outside is not easy and it gives the quarterback an easy read. Whatever the offensive coordinator dreams up is probably possible here. There are a multitude of ways this offense will kill your defense.
This offense is versatile enough to roll out four-wide (10); three-tight end (13); two-back, one-tight end (21); or two-back, two-tight end (22) personnel packages effectively as well and get creative with how the players line up. One thing is clear, we do not employ a traditional fullback, although Clay or Dan Grownkowski will fill that role when needed in short-yardage situations.
You have Fleener, Clay, Dreesen, D.J. Williams and Dan Gronkowski as your H-Backs and Tight ends. Dreesen is the only established in-line blocker at the position and he’s not considered an A-list threat as a receiver. How do you keep your offensive system from becoming predictable in Hybrid 12 sets where you have two players in Fleener and Clay that lack that inline versatility that Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Gates has? It would seem to me that a defense will see Fleener and not take him seriously as a run blocker until he proves he is one at this level. Conversely, when Dreesen is in the game defenses will be more likely to play the run. If you have to keep an extra blocker on pass plays to help your line, who is it going to be and how do you combat the predictability factor that I mentioned with the first question? Who personnel wise isn’t going to be a weakness as that extra blocker, but still pose a threat that defenses will account for in the passing game?
This team will employ a zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) designed to maximize Stewart’s potential. His vision and elusiveness will wreak havoc on defenses. The line was built with the ZBS in mind, and Joel Dreessen was a selection at tight end for his blocking ability and familiarity with the ZBS over in Houston. The right side might be better-suited for the ZBS with Amini Silatolu and Jonathan Martin, two athletic rookies.
Bread and Butter Plays
The inside and wide zone runs will be a staple in this offense. Jonathan Stewart is a perfect running back to utilize here. He has the instincts and the skill to find space in the zone running scheme and gash the defense. This will open up our next bread and butter play: the play action pass.
With the running game being dominant as we expect, Andrew Luck will be able to utilize the play action pass with lethal results. On inside zone fakes, Luck will be able to turn and fire. On outsize zone fakes, the Luck will be able to bootleg left or right. Luck’s superior athleticism at the position will prove useful here, though hopefully he will not have to do much running.
One play I am excited to utilize is a “flood/mesh” concept from an “empty” 11 or 12 personnel set. The empty 12 is one of my favorite formations the Patriots ran, only they utilized BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the outside. Ours will be more dangerous with a legitimate threat on the outside.
Our receivers—the two wideouts, two tight ends, and a running back —will run patterns that either stretch the defense vertically or horizontally depending on the defensive formation. If the defense shows blitz, Luck will audible to the mesh, and vice versa if they are playing straight up.
This will, of course, require an intelligent quarterback, which we have.
The complex scheme is why Sean Payton is my choice to run the team and the offense—New Orleans has been ruinous to opposing defenses in a variety of ways, and he will be able to maximize the capabilities of the personnel here.
Will Sean Payton be your head coach or offensive coordinator? Or both? Who will be handling these duties now that Payton is serving a year suspension for his part in the bounty scandal?
Versatility is the name of the game on defense. This looks like a traditional 3-4 defense on paper, but I want this defense to be able to line up in multiple formations with ease. In other words, I want a true hybrid defense. It should be predicated on the zone blitz with the ability to get to the quarterback from anywhere without giving up the big play.
It all starts up front with guys that can play in multiple fronts in one- or two-gap assignments. Paul Soliai has been a nose tackle his whole career, but he will be able to line up as a three-technique defensive tackle alongside Red Bryant—a great 3-4 defensive end—when the defensive switches to a four-man front. Randy Starks can also move inside if necessary, but he will likely slide outside on rushing downs in four-man fronts. Most of the defensive linemen can play multiple positions on the line well, which means defensive formations can change without substitutions. This will be key in allowing flexibility with defensive play calls and combating no-huddle offenses.
What qualities make Paul Solai a three-technique alongside Bryant in a 4-3 and a great 3-4 end?
The linebackers need to be versatile as well if the defense will be shifting formations often, and this group is up to the task. Brian Cushing can play inside in 3-4 or 4-3 fronts and thrive—his ability to rush the passer makes him valuable in this scheme. Sean Spence is an intelligent rookie with great instincts, making him a good candidate to play inside with Cushing in 3-4 fronts and slide over to the weak side when needed.
One thing I wanted to create with this defense was an excellent pass rush without having to compromise the defense by blitzing too often. Note: the zone blitz scheme may seem counter intuitive to this philosophy, but it is more about intelligent blitzing with as few players as necessary than simply rushing extra guys every other down. Aldon Smith and Whitney Mercilus are great for this scheme as multifaceted pass rushers, assuming Mercilus can live up to his potential. Both [editor’s note: in theory]can drop into zone coverage if necessary, although it will be interesting to see if Mercilus is up to the task.
The defense will also be able to feature a 46 front because of a man named Kam Chancellor, who will be the lynchpin of the defensive backfield. The stud safety is coming into his own as an elite defensive back heading into his third season. Employing him closer to the line will allow the defense to be aggressive against the run while still protecting against the pass.
One defensive formation we hope to employ when appropriate is the “big nickel,” where an extra safety is brought in to combat bigger, badder receiving threats like Rob Gronkowski. Chancellor would likely fill the role of the “big nickel” with another safety filling in deeper. Ideally we would like George Iloka to be that man, but it may have to wait until the rookie develops.
I look at your defense and see some big, strong linemen with some versatility, and linebackers capable of rushing the passer. However, I look at your linebackers and secondary and think that if I were an offensive coordinator, I’m spreading you out and throwing at will. Especially with Chancellor. He’s great against the run, but still somewhat weak against the pass. Lowery seems to be the “bargain” of this exercise, but asking him to cover sideline to sideline and show the savvy to read the offense as the 46 last line of defense seems like a major test for a converted cornerback with one year of free safety experience. How good are your corners at bump and run? It seems they will need to be stellar for Lowery not to get exposed.
Rex Ryan is the perfect defensive coordinator for the job—particularly considering his penchant for the 46 defense—but Dom Capers will make an excellent consolation if Ryan is stuck on being a head coach.
Initially, the biggest vulnerability will come from the lack of experience at quarterback. This is part of the reason why Stewart was brought in—he is an excellent running back that will take some of the pressure off Luck, both figuratively and literally in pass protection.
The main issue here is the offensive line. Though it has been built as a ZBS, the personnel is not entirely ideal across the board. Pass protection is not a major strength along the line, particularly on the interior. Payton may need to help them by bringing an extra blocker or keeping the running back in for protection more often than ideal. The youth on the right side of the line could also be a problem in the short term.
The biggest concern on defense is outside linebacker. Though there is a plan in place to mitigate the coverage issues Smith and Mercilus have, opposing offenses may be able to exploit them when they are on the field. The hope is that Mercilus will develop decent enough skills at linebacker so that Ryan/Capers will not have to cover up for his deficiencies terribly often.
Because you mentioned Smith and Mercilus as potential weaknesses at linebacker, it seems like you’re placing a lot of faith in athleticism over conceptual skill at the key positions where a west coast offense or offenses with timing concepts that horizontally stretch the field will thrive. What makes you think Smith and Mercilus have the promise to learn these positions on the fly?
Stars on the Squad
Big-name players are few and far between on this team, and that is by design. In an effort to create balance around the roster, I had to stay away from the expensive players. As such, the biggest stars on this team are Andrew Luck ($12.5 million) and Aldon Smith ($9.5 million).
Though he may not cost the same as Aaron Rodgers, everyone knows Luck’s name and that he will be a force in the league soon. Smith is one star whose price tag I could live with because he is so adept at getting to the opposing quarterback. One thing I really wanted on the defense was a versatile pass-rusher, and I believe Smith fits that bill nicely.
Role Players Who Can Turn Into Studs
Because much of my team is young, many of them can develop into stars.
Demaryius Thomas is a budding stud at receiver, and Leonard Hankerson has a chance to develop into a force as well. Coby Fleener may not be Rob Gronkowski, but he could have a similar impact down the line. Taiwan Jones is another role player who could develop into a demon for opposing defenses if coaches can harness his sheer speed.
Defensively, Sean Spence could turn out to be a special player at linebacker; he is one of my favorite pieces on this defense. He has a nose for the play and for the ball, and he has the athleticism to do something about it. In the defensive backfield, I feel that George Iloka could develop into a hybrid defender for the defense. He has great size at 6’2”, and guys like him can be utilized to mitigate the growing number of troublesome tight ends around the league.
Why are Phillip Wheeler and Mike Adams underrated?
On the Roster Bubble
I hate to put any of the significant players on bubble watch, particularly because this team is built for a bigger future, but Martez Wilson is my choice here. I put him on this team for his upside, but he should be a big contributor. If he falters, he could be replaced in 2013. The same could be said of Larry English, though his role will not be as significant in the near future.
Difficulties During Selection
Aside from staying within budget, the most difficult thing for me was finding quality offensive line at those prices. I did not want to compromise too much elsewhere, so I had to find a way to trim the fat without severely compromising the line altogether.
Ideal Playing Facility
I love the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium. It is an indoor facility that retains outdoor qualities with the natural grass.
If I had to pick a stadium to play in to give my team an advantage, however, I would say Joe Robbie Pro Player LandShark Dolphin Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Aside from being my home park (this is a Miami team, of course), the Dolphins enjoy a nice home field advantage during the hot months. The athleticism on this team could wear down opponents quickly in that humidity.
Offensive risks: Demaryius Thomas (health, football IQ), Andrew Luck (rookie), and Taiwan Jones (health).
Defensive risks: Whitney Mercilus (rookie, one-year wonder, imperfect fit), Martez Wilson (performance), and Sean Spence (size).
Naturally, there are a ton of players I would have loved on this team that could not fit due to budgetary concerns. Aaron Rodgers was high on my list because he is football’s best quarterback and he is in his prime. The offensive line could be much better, particularly at the guard position, but budget concerns stopped me. I also would have loved Darrelle Revis at cornerback—it is difficult to argue with a shutdown corner like that.
Players Selected at Any Cost
I actually do not think there are many players whom I would have added at any cost. A big consideration for me as I chose this roster was budget; if I had to cut Rodgers because of it, I would have had no qualms cutting someone else if they were more expensive.
Going Against Conventional Wisdom
This roster is devoid of superstars, perhaps going against the grain when it comes to marketability. There are certainly players on this team who can grow into superstars, but the lack of any real big names could be a bit unconventional. It is difficult to say that my philosophies or personnel selections are unconventional otherwise considering the NFL is evolving into a diverse beast.