Grading 2020 NFL offenses: Nine below-average teams that aren’t set up for success

More and more in recent seasons, it’s become clear that the most important thing in the modern NFL is offensive infrastructure. Offense has been more important than defense for a while now, and the personnel involved in crafting that offense matters a great deal when it comes to determining its success. 

Who is your quarterback? Who is protecting him? Who does he throw to? Who does he have next to him in the backfield? Who’s scheming those players open? All the pieces matter. The degree to which they matter varies greatly, of course, but each plays a role in making an offense hum at peak efficiency. 

All of this brings us to the following project: ranking the offensive infrastructure of all 32 NFL teams. To go about this, we used a weighted grading system where each team was given a 1-5 ranking (1 = terrible, 5 = elite) in the following areas: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Pass-Catchers (WR/TE), Running Backs, and Play-Caller (head coach or offensive coordinator). 

Those scores were then weighted so that quarterback was the most important component of the offense, followed by offensive line, play-caller, pass-catchers, and then finally running backs, so that the weights reflected as closely as possible the reality of the way modern NFL offenses really work. We’ll run through these rankings in this space over the next few days, beginning here with the lowest-ranking tier in the NFL, and continuing below with the teams that need major improvements to reach their potential. 

26. Chicago Bears (3.00)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 3, Play-Caller: 4, WR/TE: 2, RB: 2, Total: 14

The quarterback grade assumes that Nick Foles beats out Mitchell Trubisky for the starting job in Chicago. And why wouldn’t he? Trubisky has not consistently shown anything resembling long-term starter-level play during his three NFL seasons. He is generally inaccurate. He does not handle pressure well. His throws rarely turn into touchdowns and are intercepted more often than the average passer. He does not push the ball downfield. And last season, he showed an aversion to doing the one thing that was propping up the rest of his skill set (running the ball when things break down). Foles has his faults as well, but we at least have seen him succeed in a system that looks a whole lot like the one run by Matt Nagy. He hasn’t shown the ability to last a full season without getting injured and he runs extremely hot and cold, but he is far more likely to make the Bears’ offense run the way it is supposed to run than is Trubisky. 

Nagy showed an ability to scheme players into position to succeed during his first year in Chicago, as well as during his brief stint calling plays in Kansas City. The Andy Reid-style offense he runs depends on the quarterback being able to distribute on-time and on-target passes, and with a QB more suited for that type of offense he should get back to being one of the better designers in the league.

One issue facing him here is that he’s still working with sub-par personnel. A few of the free agents Ryan Pace sprang for a few years ago are now either gone (like Taylor Gabriel) or replaced (like Trey Burton), and it’s still likely that the Bears have a below-average group of pass-catchers. Allen Robinson is incredible, but Anthony Miller did not take the step forward many expected in his second season, Riley Ridley is almost a complete unknown, Burton has done next to nothing, Jimmy Graham was washed up several years ago, and Adam Shaheen looks like a wasted draft pick. Throw in Tarik Cohen’s strange backslide last season and David Montgomery’s sudden inability to make defenders miss at the NFL level after leading the nation in broken tackles in 2018, and, well, this is not an inspiring group. 

The Bears also still could use upgrades along the offensive line, where even their most reliable starters are plagued by bouts of inconsistency. If they can get that group working well all at the same time, like they did at times in 2018, then the offense can sing. If not, things could get ugly.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (3.07)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 3, Play-Caller: 3, WR/TE: 4, RB: 4, Total: 15

Remember all the kind things we said about Foles above? They’re only really true because he’s being compared to Trubisky. He looked like a clearly and vastly inferior option to Gardner Minshew last season, and the Jags cast him aside pretty easily after just one year in town. Minshew-Mania was a little bit overhyped, but getting league average-ish QB play from a late-round rookie is practically a Godsend in the modern NFL. Minshew isn’t yet a top half of the league starting quarterback, but he should be given a chance to develop into one.

Jay Gruden’s offenses in Washington kind of fell apart after Kirk Cousins left town, but he was a good play-caller during his time in Cincinnati, and that earned him the Washington job in the first place. He’s decent enough and should be able to help Minshew grow into his role. The Jags have about three-fifths of a good offensive line, but there is an issue at tackle that needs to be solved. Still, the protection up the middle, led by center Brandon Linder, is pretty strong and should help put Minshew in pretty good position to succeed. 

The pass-catching group is an underrated one. D.J. Chark’s breakout sophomore season came as a relative surprise given his lack of involvement as a rookie, but it’s clear he and Minshew developed nice chemistry. Chark showed the ability to beat even the best corners in the league during his first season in a No. 1 role. The Jags also have decent complementary weapons in Dede Westbrook, Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and Chris Conley, and if they can find a way to keep Tyler Eifert healthier than the Bengals did, they’ll have another strong red zone weapon.

It was still a mistake to take Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, but he’s a good running back who can break big plays and last year showed he can be a threat in the passing game as well. The draft capital they spent on him makes the Jags pretty likely to mistakenly center their offense around handing the ball to Fournette, but he had a nice year running it last season, taking a step forward from his poor 2018 campaign.

24. Arizona Cardinals (3.13)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 2, Play-Caller: 4, WR/TE: 4, RB: 4, Total: 17

It’s very easy to see this ranking being far higher a year from now, after Kyler Murray takes the next step in his development. He had a solid enough rookie year, but did not push the ball downfield enough to be considered an above-average option under center just yet. He’s on the right track, though, and clearly has a ton of talent.

Similarly, Kliff Kingsbury got off to what looked like a pretty bad start to his rookie season as a head coach, but by the end of the year he really found a rhythm. His spread-field offense led to wide running lanes for the likes of Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, and the Cards ranked as one of the most efficient running teams in the league because of it. Throw in Murray’s ability to make plays with his legs and his accuracy on intermediate throws, and the Cardinals were one of the most improved offenses in the NFL last year. 

They should be even better in 2020, with DeAndre Hopkins now in town to anchor the pass-catching group. Arizona rarely tested defenses outside the numbers last year, and Kingsbury eventually had to move Christian Kirk out of the slot just to have somebody capable of threatening the defense on the perimeter. With Hopkins in town, Kirk can move back inside and work the middle of the field with Larry Fitzgerald. If Andy Isabella can tap into some of the big-play potential he showed in the second half of the season, this group looks even better. 

The offensive line was an absolute disaster last season, though, and needs dramatic improvements for any of the previously-mentioned facets of the offense to really shine. Arizona should be taking a long look at offensive linemen in the draft. 

T-22. New England Patriots (3.20)

Grades: QB: 2, OL: 4, Play-Caller: 5, WR/TE: 2, RB: 3, Total: 16

With Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady still in place, the Patriots should be able to reclaim their spot among the league’s top oops sorry Brady is gone, let’s re-do this. 

For the first time in 20 years, there is uncertainty in New England at the game’s most important position. Who is going to be under center for the Patriots in 2020? Jarrett Stidham? Brian Hoyer? Someone who is not yet on the roster, whether it be a draft pick like Jordan Love or a free agent like Cam Newton? It seems safe to say that right now, we have absolutely no idea who it’ll be. Stidham seems like the in-house favorite, even if only because they have been talking him up for a while, but he did not exactly light things up in college and he obviously did not do much of anything last year. It’s hard to have much confidence in him reaching average, let alone piloting a top offense. 

Stidham (or Hoyer, or whoever) should at least benefit from a solid offensive line in front of him, assuming David Andrews can get back on the field and Isaiah Wynn can remain healthy for longer than five minutes. The New England line struggled last year, but much of that was due to a rash of injuries. At full healthy, it’s an above-average unit. That said, the line did backslide the last time legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired, and he won’t be there to coach them up in 2020 now that he’s called it quits for a second time.

Josh McDaniels is widely considered one of the league’s brightest offensive minds and we gave him the benefit of the doubt in our rankings, but we’re about to see him working with a far different set of tools than he’s used to for the first time in a while. It’d be nice if the Patriots had the kind of weaponry that could prop up a quarterback, but if that were the case, Brady probably wouldn’t have left. This is a team that badly needs to add talent at receiver and tight end, and could probably use an infusion at running back as well, given Sony Michel’s horrible 2019 season, James White’s dependence on Brady’s timing and decision-making, Rex Burkhead’s age, and the fact that Damien Harris couldn’t get on the field as a rookie.

T-22. Cleveland Browns (3.20)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 2, Play-Caller: 4, WR/TE: 4, RB: 5, Total: 18

This time last year, the Browns might have ranked inside the top 10 on a list like this. Then 2019 happened. John Dorsey neglected the offensive line, which resulted in Baker Mayfield being under constant pressure every week. Mayfield’s confidence tanked and he started getting skittish, and Freddie Kitchens couldn’t find a way to scheme him into success with quick-strike throws that took advantage of his best skills and allowed players like Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry to make plays. Kitchens for some reason abandoned the kinds of things that worked in 2018 and got him the head coaching gig, like play-action passing and working out of 12 personnel. He also refused to hand off play-calling duties to Todd Monken, who at least had a wealth of experience coordinating an offense hampered by poor line play. As a result, the Browns were arguably the league’s most disappointing team last season. 

Now, though, Kitchens and Dorsey are gone. Their replacements are Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski, who have already set in motion a plan to get back to what made Mayfield successful two years ago. They brought in Jack Conklin to upgrade one spot on the offensive line. They will presumably find themselves a left tackle early in the draft, perhaps as soon as pick No. 10. They brought in Austin Hooper to work alongside David Njoku in dual-tight end sets, which again should bring Mayfield back into his comfort zone. They can now operate out of 12 personnel as their base package, rotating Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in and out and occasionally using them on the field together as they did down the stretch of last season. 

The question mark at left tackle is enough to ding the Browns on the offensive line grade, though, and we probably need to see Mayfield actually make good decisions and deliver the ball quickly before we bump him up to above-average again. It is entirely possible that when we do this list next year, the Browns are back where we thought they’d be a year ago, as opposed to where they are right now. 

21. Carolina Panthers (3.27)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 3, Play-Caller: 3, WR/TE: 4, RB: 5, Total: 18

Teddy Bridgewater acquitted himself nicely enough in relief of Drew Brees last season, but his 5-0 record as a starter oversells how well he actually played. Bridgewater is an extremely conservative passer whose average throw traveled only 6.2 yards in the air last season — last among qualified quarterbacks. He was lucky to have Sean Payton scheming things up for him, which afforded wide throwing windows to pop the ball to Michael Thomas over and over. Bridgewater did that well, and he does a good job of taking care of the ball due to his conservative nature, which raises the floor of a team’s offense. It just doesn’t raise the ceiling all that much. 

In Carolina, he will be afforded the help of a play-caller who just coordinated perhaps the most explosive offense in college football history. Joe Brady came from LSU to join Matt Rhule with the Panthers, and he actually has an underrated crew of pass-catchers to work with here. D.J. Moore had a true second-year breakout despite working with Kyle Allen under center for the majority of the season, and that breakout was presaged by his posting rookie numbers that placed him among rare company. Curtis Samuel never really managed to get untracked last year, but with a better (and more accurate) passer under center he should get back to making plays. And the Cats added the explosive Robby Anderson on a steal of a contract, worth $20 million over two years. Greg Olsen was let go and is now in Seattle, but Ian Thomas has flashed playmaking upside filling in for Olsen during injury spells over the past two seasons. 

And it’s entirely possible none of those guys is even Bridgewater’s top target, because he has the best pass-catching back in the league in Christian McCaffrey. There is no route McCaffrey cannot run out of the backfield or split out wide or in the slot, and he is a dynamic threat who can score from absolutely anywhere. That’s an incredibly valuable piece for a quarterback to have, especially when he checks down as often as Bridgewater. 

The Panthers still need to make some upgrades along the offensive line, and they’re not off to a great start after swapping out Trai Turner for Russell Okung and letting Greg Van Roten walk. Perhaps Rhule wants something else from his linemen, but the team took a downgrade in the trade and still has needs elsewhere on the line.

T-19. Las Vegas Raiders (3.40)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 4, Play-Caller: 4, WR/TE: 2, RB: 4, Total: 17

Can anybody explain why the Raiders think they need so many tight ends? They already had one of the league’s better one-two punches with Darren Waller and Foster Moreau, but they for some reason signed Jason Witten (who could barely move even at his peak and looked dreadful in his return to Dallas last season) and Nick O’Leary. What’s up with that? Mike Mayock and company tried to upgrade Derek Carr’s weaponry last offseason by bringing in Tyrell Williams and Antonio Brown, and we all know how the second part of that equation worked out. Williams was miscast in the No. 1 role for most of the season, and he only really got help in the form of Hunter Renfrow later in the year. The Raiders badly need to add one of the top receivers in this year’s draft class. 

Despite their lack of punch on the outside and Derek Carr’s general aversion to testing defenses down the field, though, the Raiders still managed an average-ish offense in 2019. That’s because for all his faults, Jon Gruden is actually a pretty good play-caller, and he knows how to get guys open. He’s just working from behind when it comes to players who don’t need to be schemed into space, and with a quarterback who is unwilling to throw the ball all that far beyond the line of scrimmage. 

The Raiders’ offensive line played extremely well last season, in what had to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. It helped that they stayed fairly healthy up front, but they also coaxed better-than-expected seasons out of guys like Kolton Miller and Trent Brown, the latter of whom people expected to drop off precipitously after leaving New England. Brown only played about 60 percent of the team’s snaps in 2019, but he was good when he was out there. I’m somewhat skeptical the line can repeat last year’s performance given issues like age (Richie Incognito), prior track record (Miller), and coaching (Tom Cable), but they get an above-average grade for now. 

The same is true of Josh Jacobs, who could be a much more valuable player for the Raiders if they’d throw him the ball instead of giving all the passing-down work to the likes of Jalen Richard. Jacobs flashed some decent receiving skills at Alabama and looked good when he got the rock thrown his way last year. He can do more than he was given the opportunity to do last season. 

T-19. Houston Texans (3.40)

Grades: QB: 5, OL: 2, Play-Caller: 3, WR/TE: 3, RB: 2, Total: 16

The way the Texans have handled Deshaun Watson’s career should be considered criminal negligence.

18. Los Angeles Chargers (3.47)

Grades: QB: 3, OL: 4, Play-Caller: 3, WR/TE: 4, RB: 4, Total: 18

For the first time in forever, Philip Rivers won’t be the quarterback of the Chargers. The team insists it is moving forward with Tyrod Taylor, though there are near-daily rumors about their interest in Tua Tagovailoa and/or Justin Herbert. Taylor is an underrated passer who has the ability to make things happen outside of structure by using his legs, and he is one of the least turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league. All of that makes him much different than Rivers, who became more and more willing to throw picks in an effort to make splash plays in recent seasons. 

It’s difficult to say with much confidence what Shane Steichen brings to the table as a play-caller, but he has a strong group of pass-catchers to work with, including dynamic running back Austin Ekeler. Taylor will also have Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the outside and Hunter Henry over the middle, giving him threats at all three levels as well as the ability to test defenses horizontally and force them to cover every blade of grass. If he can be a bit more aggressive than he was during his time as the starter in Buffalo (which he should, given the quality of weapons afforded to him), he should be just fine as a starter. 

The Chargers already made one upgrade by swapping Okung for Turner in the trade with the Panthers, but bringing in Bryan Bulaga on an affordable deal was a nice move as well. Things are at least moving in the right direction here. 

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