With the NFL season nearly upon us, every player in football is out to prove something. Some are battling for starting jobs or trying to validate the hype around their potential; others merely want to show they belong. With that in mind, here are three player storylines we’re watching with the preseason in full swing.
Can Daniel Jones Become Good?
New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones starts the year under considerable pressure. Playing on the last year of his rookie contract and coming off a season in which he ranked 22nd in Total QBR, Jones has ample motivation to both earn a lucrative new deal and silence his critics.
Meanwhile, the Giants have rebooted their entire organization in an attempt to give Jones the best chance to succeed. New York hired a new general manager and head coach this year, and it appears the top priority for Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll is to figure out just what they have with Jones. A holdover from the Dave Gettleman era in East Rutherford, the 25-year-old QB will try to prove he still has the talent that made him the sixth overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft.
One reason for optimism is the expectation that Daboll will import an offense similar to the one he ran in Buffalo with Josh Allen in 2020 and 2021. The Bills emphasized pass-friendly concepts like play action and pre-snap motion those years, both of which are a sort of “easy button” for the QB. Each tactic depends on fooling the opposing team instead of requiring the quarterback to be a hero.
Play action in particular appears to have aided Allen’s remarkable turnaround. After struggling early in his career, Allen’s ascent to become one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks coincided with Daboll’s increased usage of play action. After using the run fake slightly less often than league average in Allen’s rookie year, Daboll called play action on 32.8 percent of offensive plays in 2020, 8.1 percentage points over league average. And those plays provided an outsized return for the Bills, accounting for 39.1 percent of the team’s yardage. Then in 2021, the Bills again relied heavily on faking a handoff to gain yards, running “action” on 31.7 percent of plays and gaining nearly 40 percent of their yards on those plays.
Both marks would be massive improvements for New York. In 2021, the Giants were 16th in play action rate and failed to make the plays count: The share of yards New York gained off those plays ranked 21st in the NFL. That means there’s room for growth in both volume and efficiency under Daboll.
While it’s unreasonable to expect Jones to make the kind of performance leap Allen made — Allen’s jump came in Year 3 and Jones is entering his fourth NFL season, as just one example — a modest uptick in performance seems likely. And if Daboll decides to mash the easy buttons even more often than he has in the past, perhaps there’s reason to hope for even more.
Who Will Be The Lead RB In The Broncos Backfield?
The stars seemed aligned for a breakout season from Broncos running back Javonte WIlliams at the start of the offseason. Veteran starter Melvin Gordon was allowed to test free agency by the Broncos, and Williams appeared to have ascended to the once-common but now-rare role of bell cow running back. And it wasn’t hard to see why people were optimistic about Williams’s future. Take, for example, a Week 13 performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in which he rushed for 102 yards and added another 76 yards receiving and a touchdown on nine targets while filling in for Gordon.1
But after Gordon got only tepid interest from teams in the free agent market, he re-signed with the Broncos on a one-year deal in April. Now, offensive coordinator Justin Outten is saying that the backfield will revert to a timeshare.
“It’s going to be a pitch count throughout the season,” Outten said. “There is not one guy that we are going to lean on. I feel like we can put multiple guys out there. It just depends on the game plan itself.”
Splitting things between Gordon and Williams would seem to make sense, too, as the duo had strikingly similar seasons last year by most statistical measures. Gordon ran for 4.52 yards per carry; Williams for 4.45. Gordon averaged 12.7 runs per game for 57.4 yards; Williams 11.9 for 53.1. Gordon went for 10 yards or more on 11.3 percent of his runs; Williams was a point higher at 12.3 percent. Gordon averaged 3.0 rushes for a first down per game, while Williams notched 3.1.
In the passing game, Gordon (14.4) and Williams (14.5) ran nearly the same number of routes per game. Williams was targeted more often (21.1 percent of routes, compared to 16.5 percent for Gordon), but most were lower-value targets that were caught in the backfield. Though you wouldn’t call either back a downfield threat, Williams’s average depth of target was negative on the season (-0.04), while Gordon’s was positive (0.39). Meanwhile, Williams averaged more targets per game (3.1) than Gordon (2.4), more receptions per game (2.5 vs. 1.8 for Gordon), and more receiving yards per game (18.6 vs. 13.3).
Yet despite this, Gordon holds one important edge over his teammate: Denver was a much better passing offense with him on the field.
Given his youth (Williams is 22, Gordon is 29), it’s likely that Williams has more juice in his legs, and Gordon has all but admitted that Williams will begin the season as the starter. But if the Denver offense continues to be better passing the ball with Gordon in the backfield, new Broncos QB Russell Wilson and head coach Nathaniel Hackett will likely lean toward Gordon in high-leverage situations. Production tends to follow opportunity, making Gordon a smart bet to win the battle for backfield supremacy in Denver.
Is Trey Lance Actually A Dangerous Dual-Threat QB?
When the 49ers traded up for the third pick of the 2021 draft to select quarterback Trey Lance, a large part of the excitement inside of the Niners brain trust revolved around Lance’s running ability. It certainly wasn’t based on experience or high-level competition: Sporting a one-year college resume at North Dakota State in the Football Championship Subdivision, Lance was an incredibly green prospect whose projection was based almost entirely on physical traits — and optimism that Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan could craft an offensive environment in which he could thrive.
After a year of mostly sitting behind veteran starter Jimmy Garoppolo, we still know little about Lance’s passing proficiency. But while the sample size is extremely small at just 24 regular-season carries, we do have some clues as to what type of runner he’ll turn out to be. And the early returns are surprisingly uninspiring.
Among quarterbacks selected in the first round since 2010 who were widely considered to be “dual threats” — including another mobile QB from a Shanahan system in Robert Griffin III – Lance was the least explosive rookie. His longest run of 15 yards last year ranked last among this cohort, as did his share of carries that went for 10 or more yards. He also placed last in the metrics that measure a player’s ability to move the chains, first downs per carry and third-down conversion rate.
In some instances, Lance just looked a bit lost running the ball, like on this third-down run in the second of his two starts in 2021, against the Houston Texans.
On a play that depends on the rusher beating his man to the outside, Lance seems tentative, unsure of either what he’s seeing or his ability to outrun the defenders to the corner. Zone read is an important part of Shanahan’s offense, dating back to his days as offensive coordinator for Washington with RG3. When asked in 2018 if defenses had figured out the zone read, Shanahan explained that a lot depends on the quarterback.
“It’s a very sound scheme,” Shanahan said. “Is your quarterback good enough at running with the football to make them commit to stop it? And once they do, is he good enough to make the passes that he has to that they just opened up? And if he is, that’s a huge issue … It’s tough to find always, that guy.”
On zone-read plays in 2021, Lance averaged an anemic 2.4 yards per carry.2 This means that either defenses were committing to stop him or he was just not good enough at executing the play.
Perhaps Lance will make massive strides in the passing game this year, punishing defenses that sell out to take away an important part of the Niners’ scheme. But if his arm still needs time to mature, Lance’s explosiveness and ability to threaten the defense with his legs will need to improve for the 49ers to avoid a lost season.