Each year there are one or two NFL teams who show up and surprise everyone with offenses that break through in a big way. The Buccaneers and Chiefs come to mind from last year; even if you were buying into Andy Reid’s ability to coach offense, there were only a few people preaching the idea of Patrick Mahomes turning the Chiefs offense into some kind of Death Star for defenses. Tampa had a ton of players but it wasn’t a guarantee they would be good — and they weren’t as a team, but the offense certainly produced.
Remember, this is not a team taking a huge leap forward. It’s a somewhat surprising offensive explosion. If the Falcons had the best offense in football this year, no one would blink. Same goes for the Steelers, although they arguably could meet the criteria with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell departing.
We broke these teams, along with the Cardinals and a few other squads who could qualify, on the latest edition of the Pick Six Podcast, which you can hear below. Make sure to bang that subscribe button too and send your favorite breakout picks to me on Twitter @WillBrinson.
On the podcast, Brady Quinn called me out for choosing the Panthers because they ranked 10th in offensive yards per game last year. That’s fair, but I stand by the pick for two reasons. One, they ranked 14th in points per game last year and two, their quarterback just had a shoulder surgery this offseason. The Panthers are also 60-1 to win the Super Bowl; they’re not some behemoth people are scared about at the moment.
Maybe they should be. Cam Newton won’t play in Thursday’s preseason game, which is a shame because everyone wanted to see his new throwing motion. I think it’s just more compact, with the ball closer to his head, and I would be willing to venture it becomes a little more loose as each game/the full season moves along. See below for some screencapped examples from Panthers.com.
Ron Rivera promised “it’s just to be careful” and that everything “has been mapped out and everything is fine.” I see no reason not to believe him based on what’s happened so far this offseason with Newton.
As to how this offense breaks out in 2018, the path isn’t that difficult, but it does involve a healthy Newton. Last year, Norv Turner’s arrival resulted in skepticism because it felt like a retread hire and Norv promised to get Cam over 60 percent completions. Anyone who criticized the move should be roundly criticized themselves. Turner and his son/QB coach Scott Turner did an outstanding job with Newton, minimizing the hits he took and cranking his completion percentage a stunning 67.9 percent. This was largely achieved by utilizing their best weapons — Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore — in space, giving Cam shorter throws and easier completions, while minimizing the amount of times he held the ball. The offense baffled people in the red zone, with tons of option looks, plenty of motion/fakes and an array of formations.
Put those two into the mix and Carolina has four wildly unpredictable ball carriers in CMC, Moore, Samuel and Newton. Maybe Cam isn’t breaking off a 90-yard run, but the other three are home run hitters.
These weapons will keep defenses honest and give the Turners the sort of versatility with their scheme that creative offensive coordinators dream about.
Mix in perhaps the best offensive line Newton has worked behind with a healthy Cam and it’s possible the Panthers break out in a massive way on offense this year.
Perhaps the most underrated addition of the entire NFL offseason? Gary Kubiak, who is now something along the lines of “offensive czar” for the Vikings. Technically he’s the Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor, but you get the point: he’ll be overseeing the implementation of his offense, which will likely be called by Kevin Stefanski, who replaced John DeFillipo when the current Jags coordinator was fired midseason. Go look at Kubiak’s history as an offensive coordinator and head coach, essentially since 1995, and it’s loaded with examples of him producing a top-10 offense, whether it’s in points or yardage. It took him a while to get things going in Houston when he arrived as the head coach and his final years in Denver weren’t spectacular offensively, though they did result in a Super Bowl.
The reasons to really be bullish on this change in Minnesota is the personnel present. For starters, the decision to draft Garrett Bradbury with a first-round pick out of NC State was keyed in on providing Kubiak the type of linemen he needs to run his scheme. More than 90 percent of Bradbury’s snaps last year came in a zone-blocking scheme with the Wolfpack, and his presence allows Pat Eflein to shift back to guard, where he’s more comfortable. Dalvin Cook spent his entire college career playing in a zone-blocking scheme, so he should be extremely comfortable running behind this new setup. And Kirk Cousins came into the league with Mike Shanahan as his coach. Shanahan, of course, was Kubiak’s mentor in Denver during the 90s. Cousins operating a bootleg play-action offense with great route runners like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph flooding to one side? I can get behind this potential explosion.
Blending the rushing attack will make Mike Zimmer happy, it will give Cousins better/easier reads and it will allow the Vikings to have more balance while maintaining their explosion in the passing game.
Everything hinges on two guys in San Francisco: Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo. We saw what Shanahan was able to drag out of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens during the course of the season. We also saw how Jimmy G and the offense looked when it was operating late in 2017. It’s what made Garoppolo a (very misguided) MVP pick for some, with many projecting a leap forward for the 49ers in the standings. Garoppolo recovering from an ACL injury is still a concern, but there is reason to believe this could be a top tier unit this season.
Shanahan’s schemes worked wonders with George Kittle last year, as he by a tight end in a single season with 1,377. Expecting THAT again might be asking too much, but if he’s got Jimmy G out there, Kittle isn’t going to be snuffed out by defenses. The passing game will go through him.
Receiver is far more concerning, with Marquise Goodwin leapfrogging Dante Pettis this offseason, only to suffer an injury this week. His timetable/status is TBD, but Goodwin was developing a legit rapport with Garoppolo late in 2017 and never got things going last year. Deebo Samuel is a dangerous weapon all over the field and Jordan Matthews provides a veteran presence, but this is a thin team at wideout. It might take a big year from the running backs to overcome that deficiency, but that’s doable.
Tevin Coleman was a standout for Shanahan in his system during a big 2015 season in Atlanta. Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL last year as well; his explosion and passing game presence would open up tons of holes for the wideouts and Kittle. Everyone just keeps sleeping on Matt Breida. The offensive line has been developed enough it should be a strength of this team.
If Garoppolo can stay on the field and show the promise he flashed late in 2017, the 49ers could explode offensively.