Everyone knows the Kansas City Chiefs are terrifyingly good at scoring the football. And it’s no secret that the Los Angeles Rams are an offensive monster. But what if you were to break the NFL down into position groups and attempt to find the best units within the league’s top overall teams?
With Halloween fast approaching, let’s take a look at three position groups that are scary good — and three more that are scary bad — through Week 7 of the 2018 NFL season.
1) Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams. While you’re being dazzled by the Chiefs’ prodigious offense, don’t forget about the unit that is responsible for roughly 30 percent of this team’s success. According to Football Outsiders, Kansas City ranks second in the NFL in starting field position after kickoffs, while Chiefs opponents post the fifth-worst starting field position after kickoffs. In other words, special teams not only gives the offense a leg-up, but it also helps ease the burden on the league’s 32nd-ranked defense. With the potent Tyreek Hill fielding punts, the Chiefs rank first in punt-return average (18.9 yards) and are tied for fourth in kick-return average (28.2 yards), with Tremon Smith (40.6 yards per kick return) handling the bulk of those duties. Behind veteran punter Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City also ranks first in net punting average (45.5 yards), while opponents have attempted to return just six punts for a league-low total of 10 yards. Kicker Harrison Butker has missed just one of 13 field-goal tries and is perfect on extra points.
Special teams coach Dave Toub reminds one of John Harbaugh, who was the special teams coach in Philadelphia before becoming the Ravens’ head coach in 2008. Toub is a creative, innovative coach who has received head-coaching interviews in the past and should be in the mix again this year — especially if his unit continues to be such an important part of Kansas City’s success this season.
2) Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line. Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay get all the headlines, but if it weren’t for the big uglies, the Rams wouldn’t be leading the NFL in rushing yards, rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns. A big part of the unit’s success is continuity among the starting five. Ageless left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan and right tackle Rob Havenstein have started 22 of 23 games over the past two seasons, while Austin Blythe has stepped in without missing a beat at right guard this season. Meanwhile, Jamon Brown (who started last year but hasn’t been able to reclaim his job from Blythe after missing the first two weeks of the 2018 season with a suspension) and Joseph Noteboom stand in the wings, meaning this unit essentially has seven strong quality players. The Rams are Pro Football Focus’ top-graded run-blocking team this season and its second-best pass-blocking team, and the line is paving the way for Gurley’s MVP-caliber season.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pass catchers. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin comprise the best trio of receivers in the NFL — which is saying something in these pass-happy times. Despite having to play with two different quarterbacks and getting extremely little help from the Bucs’ run game this season, Evans (98.5 yards per game) and Jackson (87.7) have produced consistently for Tampa Bay’s top-ranked passing attack. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken deserves plenty of credit. While Godwin can’t, of course, match Evans and Jackson in terms of numbers, he’s a great No. 3. Tight ends O.J. Howard (who has improved significantly from his rookie year) and Cameron Brate are the icing on the cake. Crucially, both Howard and Brate are standout pass-catchers and blockers, making it difficult for defenses to key on one or the other in passing situations.
1) Oakland Raiders’ pass rush. As the Raiders sink further into a cloud of trades-for-picks and whispers of locker-room turmoil, don’t forget the move that quickly came to dominate their season: the dealing away of elite pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Bears. It really seemed like the Raiders surrendered on defense when they made that hard-to-understand decision. Through seven weeks, Oakland has just seven sacks — a total that has been matched or exceeded by five different NFL players individually. As a result, the defense ranks 26th overall and has yielded almost 400 yards per game, while opposing passers have rocked the Raiders to the tune of a 106.6 passer rating and 13:4 TD-to-INT ratio.
2) Buffalo Bills’ wide receivers. Which came first, bad quarterback play or bad receiver play? It can be tough to separate the two factors. Setting aside the rough mix of inexperience and extreme ineffectiveness under center, let’s turn our gaze toward a receiving corps that has been unhelpful, to say the least. While the rest of the NFL regularly puts up mind-numbing passing numbers, the Bills are averaging a league-worst 129 passing yards per game. According to Next Gen Stats, Kelvin Benjamin has been open for 13.5 percent of his 37 targets, third-worst among players with 20-plus targets this season, and he’s averaging 1.7 yards of separation per target, tied for the worst mark, with a catch rate of 37.8 percent, which is second worst. Benjamin’s performance makes Buffalo’s trade for him last season look curious. 2017 second-round pick Zay Jones, meanwhile, is managing to lead the team in receptions with just 19 and yards with a paltry 226, while chipping in one of the Bills’ three receiving touchdowns. (Benjamin and Jason Croom each have one, as well.)
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3) New York Giants’ offensive line. Eli Manning’s limited mobility requires that he have time in the pocket to operate — time that the Giants’ line is incapable of providing. Manning has been sacked 24 times, second-most in the NFL. Left tackle Nate Solder is either injured or on the downslope of his career; both scenarios make the contract New York handed him last offseason look like a potential mistake. Rookie Will Hernandez looks good as a run-blocker but hasn’t played very well in pass protection; he’s still learning the pro game. The decision to trade Brett Jones to the Vikings at the end of the preseason, combined with the season-ending injury to Jon Halapio, put the Giants in a bad spot at center. Right guard, meanwhile, has been a mess, with Patrick Omameh being benched for Spencer Pulley (who shifted to center, with center John Greco moving to guard) while Chad Wheeler continues to fill in at right tackle, where he replaced former first-round pick Ereck Flowers last month. The less said about the ignominious end of Flowers’ Giants career, the better.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.
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