The NFL is embracing Big Boy Football again and it’s beautiful

The NFL is cyclical, that’s just the nature of the beast. Everyone tries to solve the league, only to have new thinking and fresh approaches change once a team finds a new winning formula. After over a decade of “pass first, rushing doesn’t matter” it now feels like the pendulum is swinging the other way.

Yes, Big Boy Football might truly be back.

The flurry of free agent announcements over the weekend and into Monday made it clear that teams all over the league are looking to go BIG in 2024. While Kirk Cousins and Brian Burns made all the headlines, there was a persistent undercurrent around the league of teams looking to solidify their interior offensive line, rather than their tackles — get big-bodied defensive tackles to shore up the middle, and find a top-tier running back to put it all together.

As it stands on Tuesday afternoon there is a profound drop from interior to exterior signings.

  • Three of 42 available offensive tackles have been signed (7 percent of the market)
  • Seven of 56 available offensive guards have been signed (12.5 percent of the market)
  • Six of 32 available centers have been signed (19 percent of the market)
  • The AAV of EDGE rushers signed so far is $8.4M
  • The AAV of defensive tackles signed is $14.7M

What we’re seeing is not only are teams rushing to sign interior linemen on both sides of the ball, but they’re paying more to make these deals happen. If you look around the league there are two big case studies of teams who are going all-in on making their Big Boy dreams Big Boy reality.

Case A: The Carolina Panthers

We kick off with the worst team in the league because they’re aiming to make the most profound change to their football ideology. From the second Dave Canales arrived in Carolina as the new head coach he made it clear he wanted to return the Panthers to physical football with the run, and use that to make Bryce Young’s life easier in his second season.

“You have to be able to run the ball to go where we want to go, ultimately, which is number one, to win the division in the NFC South, and then to win deep in the playoffs. And if you watch the teams that go far, it’s the teams that can run because I promise you, the pass rush gets better every week you advance in the playoffs. So, it’s something that I’m going to be stubborn about. It’s something that I’m going to be committed to.”

The Panthers put their money where their mouths were on Monday, spending a total of $153M on guards (Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis) to fix the biggest problems on their offensive line. This all came at the expense of letting go their best pass rusher in Brian Burns, who was traded to the Giants.

The average weight of the new Panthers line: 327 pounds. Just a big old wall of meat.

Case B: The Washington Commanders

While the big question swirling in Washington is what the team will do at quarterback in the 2024 NFL Draft, but in free agency it’s been all about solidifying their interior and establishing themselves as a hard-nosed football team.

On Monday the team agreed to terms with C Tyler Biadasz ($30), OG Nick Allegretti ($16M), and RB Austin Ekeler ($8.3M). It immediately asserts the team as strong interior football team, that will branch the pass off the run as well.

Keep in mind: They learned from doing things the wrong way in 2023. The team was 1st in the NFL in passing attempts, but 23rd in rushing attempts. Overall they had the No. 24 ranked offense as a result and it all crumbled.

These bad teams are chasing the Chiefs

If you’ve been watching the league closely you’ve seen the shift to Big Bog Football start already. Before last season our own JP Acosta and Mark Schofield broke down the shift in the NFL and outlined how it’s the Chiefs and their back-to-back Super Bowl wins that helped change this thinking.

Patrick Mahomes led the NFL in passing attempts out of 13 personnel — offensive formations that utilize one running back, one wide receiver, and three tight ends — a year ago, attempting 46 passes last season of 13 personnel according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions.

How did he fare on those plays? He completed 33 of those passes for 545 yards and 7 touchdowns, without an interception. Mahomes posted a Total Expected Points Added (EPA) of 24.09 on those attempts, the best by a QB last year.

The misconception about Kansas City is that they are a pass-only, air-it-out style team. In reality they run the majority of their offense out of bigger personnel packages. While much of the league looked to move into 11 personnel (copying the Rams’ Super Bowl team), the Chiefs went a different direction by getting bigger.

The three most important people on their offensive line: Creed Humphrey, Joe Thuney, and Trey — their center and two guards. The reasons for this investment in their offensive line is that Patrick Mahomes, like most quarterbacks in the current NFL, struggles more with pressure in his face than off the edge.

EDGE rushers still get the lion’s share of sacks, but interior pressure is what disrupts plays. It’s for this reason Mahomes struggled so much against the Buccaneers interior pass rush in his last Super Bowl loss. It’s also what prompted the Chiefs to overhaul their middle, with all three of that interior line no longer with the team.

Then on the other side of the ball they understand the importance of interior pressure as well, which is why they inked Chris Jones to the mammoth extension he deserves. It’s not easy to find elite, disruptive interior pass rushers — and when you get one, you hold onto them.

Brace yourselves, because old school is becoming new again

The days of pass-first are far from dead, but we’re going to see more teams continue to pivot to working from the inside out, rather than vice-versa. If Sean McVay altered offensive thinking years ago, now Kyle Shanahan and the Chiefs are doing it in a swing back to older school sensibilities.

We’re learning that pass-heavy spread is great for winning the regular season, but it struggles in the playoffs. The challenge is mixing offensive concepts to keep countering what defenses throw at you.

Meat is back on the menu.

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