Dwain McFarland’s RSP Film and Data: The Rule of Three

Dwain McFarland introduces his RSP readers to “The Rule of Three’s,” impact on the NFL passing game in this installment of Film And Data.

In a recent discussion with a colleague who has served as a consultant to NFL teams, he mentioned the concept he’s heard in NFL circles called the “rule of three.” Essentially, the premise is in order to consistently beat quality defenses an offense needs to have three solid receiving targets on the field at all times.

In this case, a solid receiving threat can be thought of as a player who has a diverse route tree and excels versus both man and zone coverage.  If you only have one, they will be focused on and often taken away by better defenses. If you only have two, that will be taken away by upper tier defenses.  If you have three, it becomes hard to schematically match up in all instances. Offensive coordinators utilize formations and motion, thus increasing the likelihood of consistent success.

Mathematically, this makes sense given that on average NFL teams run upwards of 54% of passing plays through three receiving targets.  Over the past five years that distribution looks like this:

The versatility of these three threats is often at the crux of the rule as well.  Having three players with a similarly limited application is not ideal.  The best scenario is having three options that can work all three areas of the field beating man and zone coverages.  What is more realistic is having one or two options that can work all areas and another one or two specialists who can either push the vertical boundary or thrive underneath.

With that in mind, I have put together an overview of which teams could improve their passing attacks based on the quality and versatility of their 2019 receiving options versus 2018.  For each team, I provide a median and aggressive estimated impact.  This projection model is built off of roster construction, league trends, player efficiency traits, coaching tendencies, anticipated game flow, and a few other factors.

For context here are the NFL three year averages for the statistics we will be discussing:

  • Yards Per Attempt (YPA):  7.2
  • Touchdowns Per Attempt (TDPA):  4.4%
  • Passing Yards Per Season:  3,988
  • TD Passes Per Season:  25

Feel free reach out to me @dwainmcfarland on Twitter or in the comments section below if you want to better understand these components.

In-Depth Looks


Tennessee Titans

New Faces:  Adam Humphries, A.J. Brown

Returning to Health:  Delanie Walker

On paper, the Titans are better than ever in Marcus Mariota’s tenure.  Last season they lost tight end Delanie Walker after week one and Taywan Taylor struggled to find consistency.  Now, they can line up strong route runners at all three receiver positions.  Adam Humpries will work from the slot to provide Mariota with quick reads underneath.  A.J. Brown will likely start outside at flanker serving as another short to intermediate option who also has some after the catch wiggle.

Add these components to Corey Davis plus the receiving versatility of running back Dion Lewis and you have a team that can beat win in multiple ways.  The Titans are much more likely to find consistent mismatches in the passing game in 2019 with this roster construction.

  • Median Projected Efficiency Impact:  Mariota increases his YPA to 7.75 and his TDPA from 3.5% to 4.5%
  • Median Team Passing Totals:  3,975 Yards and 23 Touchdowns
  • Aggressive Projected Efficiency Impact:  Mariota increases his YPA to 8.25 and his TDPA to 5.5%
  • Aggressive Projected Team Passing Totals:  4,230 Yards and 28 TDs

The one concern I have is the lack of a true vertical element.  Having that would open up additional space for the underneath routes.

San Francisco 49ers

New Faces:  Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd, Tevin Coleman

Returning to Health:  Jerrick McKinnon, Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin

Arguably no other offense in the league faced more bad injury luck than the 49ers.  Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the season after week three.  Running back, Jerrick McKinnon was lost for the year in the preseason.  Dante Pettis (four games) and Marquise Goodwin (four games) battled injuries through the season too.

Now they get those players back plus the additions listed above.  This is another offense that can attack defenses in a multitude of ways based on where the best matchups present themselves.  Pettis is an elite separation specialist who can attack all areas of the field.  He averaged an astonishing 3.4 yards of separation at the time time of catch or incompletion according to Next Gen Stats.  That is one of the highest marks in the league for a receiver who lined up in the slot less than or equal to 40% of the time.

Goodwin has shown great downfield rapport with Garopollo and the current word is Shanahan will scale his usage back to protect his health.  Think back to Taylor Gabriel in the explosive Atlanta Falcons attack in 2016.  Tevin Coleman served as a chess piece in the passing game for Shanahan that season too.

  • Median Projected Efficiency Impact:  Increased YPA from 8 to 8.25 and TDPA from 4.9% to 5%
  • Median Team Passing Totals:  4,300 Yards and 26 Touchdowns
  • Aggressive Projected Efficiency Impact:  Increased YPA from 8 to 8.75 and TDPA from 4.9% to 6%
  • Aggressive Team Passing Totals:  4,575 Yards and 31 TDs

Add in the run after catch ability of Deebo Samuel and the versatility of Jalen Hurd who lined up at tight end, running back, and receiver in college at Baylor.  I think you are starting to get the picture and we haven’t even discussed the best offensive weapon on the team – George Kittle.

At A Glance


Philadelphia Eagles

New Faces:  DeSean Jackson (missing vertical element), J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Miles Sanders

Returning to Health:  Carson Wentz

Expected Growth:  Dallas Goedert

Existing:  Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor

  • Median Projected Efficiency Impact:  7.6 YPA to 7.75 and 4.8% TDPA to 5.25%
  • Median Team Passing Totals:  4,625 Yards and 31 TDs
  • Aggressive Projected Efficiency Impact:  YPA 8; TDPA 6%
  • Aggressive Team Passing Totals:  4,800 Yards and 36 TDs
Oakland Raiders

New Faces:  Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, Hunter Renfrow

Existing:  Jalen Richard

  • Median Projected Efficiency Impact:  7.3 YPA remains even and 3.4% TDPA to 4.5%
  • Median Team Passing Totals:  3,950 Yards and 25 TDs
  • Aggressive Projected Efficiency Impact:  7.5 YPA; TDPA 5.5%
  • Aggressive Team Passing Totals:  4,100 Yards and 30 TDs
Cleveland Browns

New Faces:  Odell Beckham Jr., Kareem Hunt

Expected Growth:  Antonio Callaway

Existing:  Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Duke Johnson

  • Median Projected Efficiency Impact:  7.4 YPA to 7.75; 5.1% TDPA to 5.5%
  • Median Team Passing Totals:  4,425 Yards and 31 TDs
  • Aggressive Projected Efficiency Impact:  8.5 YPA; 6.5% TDPA
  • Aggressive Team Passing Totals:  4,700 Yards and 37 TDs

Honorable Mentions

Atlanta Falcons: Maturation of Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper, and the return of Devontae Freeman to go with superstar Julio Jones.

Carolina Panthers: Maturation of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel added to Christian McCaffrey.

Houston Texans: Maturation and possibility of healthy seasons for Will Fuller IV and KeKe Coutee added to DeAndre Hopkins.

New York Jets: Addition of Jamison Crowder to go with Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, and Chris Herndon.

Indianapolis Colts: Addition of Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell to go with T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron and passing back Nyheim Hines.  Frank Reich’s roster is looking eerily similar to Doug Pederson’s.

For the most in-depth analysis of offensive skill players available (QB, RB, WR, and TE), get the 2019  Rookie Scouting Portfolio. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge.

Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP now (available for download April 1).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: