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New trend alert for NFL offenses; ranking top five pass-catching groups

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, the offensive personnel grouping that might be having a moment ...

As the NFL evolves into a passing league built around three-receiver sets, some team builders are looking to zig while the rest of the league zags. Instead of trotting out 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) to spread out defenses stocked with extra defensive backs and hybrid linebackers, shrewd schemers are utilizing old-school formations from 12 personnel packages (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB) to create and exploit mismatches all over the field.

During my time with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, I watched head coach Mike Holmgren feature two tight ends with Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson positioned as the Y (traditional tight end) and H (move tight end), respectively. The Pro Bowl tandem caused headaches for defensive coordinators tasked with developing a game plan to handle a pair of big-bodied pass catchers with outstanding ball skills. Moreover, the duo helped Brett Favre claim multiple MVP awards while the Packers emerged as a perennial contender and eventual Super Bowl champion (1996 season).

While I don't expect a tight end tandem to directly lead a team to a title in 2024, the recent increase in 12 personnel usage could be an indicator that more squads will employ a throwback approach during the upcoming season.

Last season, teams utilized 12 personnel on 19.3 percent of offensive snaps, ranking behind only 11 personnel (62.1%) for the most common usage. That ranked as the second-highest rate of 12 personnel deployment in a single season during the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). While it's not a drastic leap from the previous season's rate (18.4%), teams like Green Bay could be jump-starting a 12 personnel trend.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur dialed up two tight end packages on 32.9 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season, with a pair of rookie TEs playing significant roles. Luke Musgrave (Round 2, No. 42 overall) and Tucker Kraft (Round 3, No. 78 overall) combined for 65 catches, 707 receiving yards and three scores in 2023, posting nearly identical individual stat lines. In a copycat league, watching Jordan Love shine as a first-time starter without an elite WR1 might persuade more teams to turn to 12 personnel packages in an effort to maximize their offensive potential.

Two tight end formations force the opposition to defend an extra gap while negating the advantages of an eight-man front. The grouping also limits coverage selection due to the four verticals threat that can emerge. With the offense also capable of setting up mismatches by forcing linebackers to handle the quickness of a Flex tight end and pitting overwhelmed defensive backs against the physicality of a Y tight end, I believe the increased use of 12 personnel should be a no-brainer for play-callers.

Perhaps that is why the Buffalo Bills often leaned into the tactic to take advantage of Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox as a dynamic duo. Joe Brady went a step further after replacing Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator at midseason, mixing in some heavy formations with exotic empty sets to test the defense. The combination of personnel and concepts put defenders in constant conflict with a quarterback who loves throwing to targets who can expand the strike zone with their size and athleticism. Buffalo could ramp up its 12 usage even more, with rookie Keon Coleman lining up at wide receiver and giving Josh Allen three big-bodied pass catchers to target.

We could see the 12 personnel crowd grow in 2024, with the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders featuring an intriguing collection of tight ends. Ravens tight end Isaiah Likely seemed to endorse the idea when he discussed the team's potential to use two tight end formations with the third-year pro joining Mark Andrews on the field, flanked by Zay Flowers and Rashod Bateman at receiver, with Derrick Henry at running back and Lamar Jackson under center.

"It's electric," Likely told host Kay Adams on a recent episode of Up & Adams. "Not only do you have Lamar in the backfield. You have Derrick Henry in the backfield, where you also have to worry about our run game. And then you have All-Pro Mark Andrews, where you obviously have to give credit where credit is due. Then you also have our great receivers like Zay and Bateman, and you also have me. You have to worry about anybody at any point in time in the offense going the distance."

The confident playmaker certainly has a point. Baltimore will be able to line up in a multiple tight end set complemented by an explosive backfield pairing of a two-time NFL MVP and a two-time NFL rushing champ. Few opponents will possess the size, strength and physicality to deal with the Ravens' running game while also having enough athletes on the field to cover the team's dynamic pass catchers on the perimeter. The combination of personnel and tactics should keep defensive coordinators up at night when building a game plan to slow down the perennial title contenders.

As for a team looking to find its way back into the postseason, the Raiders are a work in progress under head coach Antonio Pierce. However, it is telling that the team's first draft selection under the former Pro Bowl linebacker was 13th overall pick Brock Bowers, who could help create an explosive two tight end attack in Las Vegas. As a former defender, Pierce knows the challenge of defending multi-tight end sets, and the complementary games of Bowers and Michael Mayer will put defensive coordinators in a bind when deciding whether to stay in their base defense or turn to a nickel package to match up with the grouping. With the opposition also tasked with defending Davante Adams on the outside, the clever acquisition gives the Raiders a chance to help whoever starts at quarterback with schemes and tactics built around two tight ends.

As more teams discover the advantages of utilizing multi-tight end sets, the rise of 12 personnel packages could coincide with more wins for creative play-callers.

Top five pass-catching groups

The NFL's shift to a pass-centric approach has made wide receivers and tight ends premium players in the team-building process. Though it typically takes an elite quarterback for an aerial attack to spark a deep playoff run, the playmakers on the perimeter are critical parts of a championship puzzle in today's game.

With that in mind, this is the perfect time to assess the top pass-catching groups in the NFL. After reviewing the offseason moves conducted during free agency, the draft and the trade market, here are my top five:

The Dolphins' WR corps scares the bejesus out of defensive coordinators, thanks to the explosive potential of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The duo has combined for 87 pass plays of 20-plus yards since Hill arrived in Miami in 2022, with each player separately posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in that span. Few defensive backfields possess the depth and talent to defend Hill or Waddle with single coverage; the simplistic double-team schemes utilized by most defensive play callers create more big-play opportunities for Hill or Waddle to torch opponents on the back side. 

Then there's the recent signing of Odell Beckham Jr., who gives Mike McDaniel another weapon to incorporate into an attack-stye offense that features a mix of catch-and-run concepts and vertical throws to put defenders on their heels. The league already struggled to slow down the Dolphins' original dynamic duo before this offseason; adding a seasoned playmaker like Beckham as a WR3 could make their offense unstoppable in 2024. 

Credit general manager Howie Roseman for assembling a pass-catching duo featuring complementary games that mesh like the ingredients in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The mix of salty (A.J. Brown) and sweet (DeVonta Smith) makes for a mouthwatering combination when it comes to challenging defenders on the perimeter. In Brown, opponents must deal with an ultra-physical pass catcher with outstanding strength, power and ball skills. Since arriving in Philadelphia in 2022, the five-year veteran has bullied his way to 18 scores and nearly 3,000 yards as the WR1 on the perimeter. 

Smith has been just as impressive, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on the back side of the formation as a silky-smooth complement to Brown. Despite his slender frame, the 6-foot, 170-pounder has torched opponents for 14 scores and 32 catches of 20-plus yards over the past two seasons, exhibiting patient and polished route-running skills that lull defenders to sleep on the perimeter. 

With Dallas Goedert quietly torching opponents as a designated seam runner from his Y/Flex position, the Eagles have assembled an impressive collection of pass catchers to threaten defenses from every angle. 

The Texans' pass-catching group was already on the verge of cracking the top five -- and then Houston traded for Stefon Diggs, who pushes the unit into the ranks of the elite. As the youngest player to enter the 800-catch club, Diggs gives the Texans a reliable option as a potential WR1 on the perimeter. Though his production dipped near the end of 2023, the veteran broke the 1,000-yard mark for a sixth straight season, exhibiting his trademark quickness and burst, separating from defenders at the top of his routes. 

Nico Collins will share top billing in the passing game as a big-bodied playmaker coming off a breakout season. The 6-4, 215-pounder logged 25 catches of 20-plus yards in 2023, tied for fourth most in the NFL, while posting the first 1,000-yard season of his career. He's a vertical threat and jump-ball specialist, and defensive coordinators must consider the fourth-year pro as an explosive dimension to the offense when game-planning against C.J. Stroud

If Tank Dell can return from his season-ending injury to reprise his role as a big play weapon (he logged 15.1 yards per catch average and seven scores in 11 games in 2023) from multiple alignments, with Dalton Schultz in place as the dependable chain-mover, the Texans' pass-catching crew could swipe the No. 1 spot as the best unit in the league. 

Chicago Bears

Bears GM Ryan Poles has assembled a rugged WR corps that should help Caleb Williams hit the ground running as a franchise quarterback. The No. 1 overall pick will toss to a three-headed monster at wideout with the collective size, strength, route-running ability and ball skills to help him put up a 4,000-yard season in Year 1. DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze display complementary superpowers that fit together like Voltron.

Unlike Voltron, though, there is nothing robotic about the games of Moore, Allen and Odunze, who each possess different skills as playmakers that will test opposing defensive backfields. As a catch-and-run specialist with big-play potential, Moore is at his best catching the ball on the move on underneath routes. He ranked 11th in in the NFL in yards after the catch (539) while accounting for the sixth-most receiving first downs (64) and logging the fourth 1,000-yard season of his career. 

Allen remains an unstoppable force on the perimeter as a premier route runner with a crafty game. The veteran dazzles as a creative possession receiver with a bag of tricks that keeps defenders guessing on critical downs. He has topped the 100-catch mark in five of the last seven seasons and averaged six touchdowns per season during that span. 

As the seasoned pros impart their knowledge and wisdom on Odunze, the rookie with a polished game could quickly emerge as a dominant WR3 with the potential to make his mark as a chameleon (serving as a chain mover or big-play specialist) on the perimeter based on matchups. Add in Cole Kmet, who caught 81.1 percent of the balls thrown his way (73 receptions on 90 targets) for a career-high 719 yards with six TDs last season, and it's clear Williams will be working with a pass-catching crew most rookie QBs could only dream of.

The electric pass-catching trio in the Pacific Northwest does not receive enough attention as one of the best units in the league. And now, the group is working with new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, whose creative scheme could truly unleash the 'Hawks' playmakers on overmatched defensive backfields. The unit's combination of speed (D.K. Metcalf), skill (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) and savvy (Tyler Lockett) will test the schemes and tactics of opposing defensive play-callers. 

Metcalf remains an imposing threat on the perimeter, a big-bodied pass catcher with home run speed. The 6-4, 235-pounder quietly averaged 16-plus yards per catch (16.9) while posting the third 1,000-yard season of his career in 2023. With the deep ball expected to return to the Seattle offense in 2024, the veteran's speed could force opponents to back off in coverage on the outside. 

Lockett and Smith-Njigba are a crafty pair of receivers with interchangeable games. The duo can win with speed or skill, and their creative route-running ability routinely leaves defenders twisted in knots on the perimeter. Though Lockett's production dipped in 2023 and Smith-Njigba is still carving out his role as a WR3, the Seahawks trio has the potential to wreak havoc on opponents in a newly designed offense poised to light up scoreboards around the league.

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