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2024 NFL Draft: How three trends in pro football connect to this year's prospect class

Professional football is constantly evolving. An ongoing chess match between offensive and defensive play callers brings different schemes into and out of fashion, and as this happens, the profiles of players coming into the league morph, reflecting changes to the game at lower levels and impacting the composition of each position group.

With the 2024 NFL Draft around the corner, the Next Gen Stats team examined a few key trends that can tell us where the game is going and how teams might value prospects in this year's class.

1) Prospects are getting lighter and faster

At the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year, Texas receiver Xavier Worthy put on an electrifying display of speed, setting a new record in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.21 seconds. The exhilarating performance of the 165-pounder highlights the trend of prospects becoming lighter and faster, especially at his position.

Since 2003, wide receivers participating in the combine have run increasingly faster in the 40-yard dash, but no receiver class has been quicker than the 2024 crew, which just set the event on fire. In fact, the class clocked the fastest average 40 time (4.44) of any WR group over the last two decades. It's important to note that not every NFL hopeful participates in the combine or in every drill; this year, for example, top prospects Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Nabers both skipped testing. Only 30 receivers ran the 40 at the combine in 2024, the second fewest by any WR class since 2003. That said, nine of them (30 percent) ran it in under 4.40 seconds; that's the highest percentage by any receiver class.


When analyzing speed, it is also crucial to factor in weight. In addition to being the fastest receiver class, the 2024 crop is the second lightest, averaging 196.1 pounds -- lighter than the 2003 class by over 6 pounds. This is not just a one-year anomaly, either. The last four draft classes have featured the four lightest wide receiver groups since 2003. From 2003 to 2020, 820 wide receivers were invited to the combine. Only 25 of them (3 percent) weighed 175 pounds or less. Over these last four draft classes (including the 2024 group), the percentage of players checking in below that weight threshold has more than doubled, to 8.3 percent, with 15 total receivers weighing in at 175 pounds or less.

The trend extends well beyond the wide receiver position. The past few classes of quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, edge defenders, linebackers and safeties have all been among the lightest over the past two decades. The only positions that have bucked the trend are in the trenches: offensive linemen and defensive tackles. While lighter and faster edge defenders might be more explosive as pass rushers, they can become a liability when trying to set the edge in the run game. Similarly, new-look linebackers will be more equipped for coverage than taking on blocks and fitting the run.


The weight distributions at edge rusher and linebacker have seen a major shift since the turn of the decade, with both groups weighing nearly 5 pounds fewer on average. From 2003 to 2019, half of the linebackers entering the NFL weighed over 239 pounds. Over the last five draft classes, just a quarter of linebackers reached that threshold. The big-bodied edge rushers weighing over 265 pounds used to make up nearly half of the prospects entering the league, but they have seen a similar drop-off over the last five draft classes.

The average weight of edge defenders in this year's class is 1.7 pounds lighter than any other class since 2003, while the linebackers have the second-lightest class over that time frame. Both classes also achieved the second-fastest average 40 times at their respective positions.

The top four edge rushers in Daniel Jeremiah's latest ranking of the top 50 prospects in the 2024 class (Dallas Turner, Jared Verse, Laiatu Latu and Chop Robinson) all weighed in under 260 pounds and clocked a sub-4.65 40. Payton Wilson, who is Jeremiah's second-ranked linebacker this year, recorded a 4.43-second 40 at the combine. That places him in the top five among all linebackers to run at the combine since 2003.

2) QBs are taking longer to throw -- but throwing shorter passes

The average time to throw on non-play-action pass attempts reached a new high in 2023, marking the longest duration over the last eight seasons.

(A quick note: Measuring time to throw on play-action passes is complex, due to the unique timing and characteristics of a play fake. By excluding play-action attempts, our analysis here can offer a clearer understanding of the factors influencing the increase in time to throw.)

In 2016, Tyrod Taylor was the only quarterback to average more than 2.80 seconds on non-play-action attempts. In 2023, there were 10 QBs to top that mark, including league MVP Lamar Jackson, Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and Offensive Rookie of the Year C.J. Stroud. The group of 10 quarterbacks with a time to throw over 2.80 seconds in 2023 was the biggest in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). On the other side of the spectrum (and opposite the league trend), Tua Tagovailoa got the ball out at a rapid pace, as his time to throw on such passes this season was the quickest in the Next Gen Stats era.


Caleb Williams, who is widely presumed to be the first overall pick in this year's draft, will enter a league that is much more suited to his skill set than it would have been in years past. Williams held onto the ball for 3.16 seconds before throwing on average in his final college season, the third-longest time to throw of any Power 5 quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus. Even just a few years ago, scouting staffs across the league might have wondered whether his free-wheeling play style would translate to the pros. Any such concerns have likely been tempered by the success of quarterbacks who are comfortable playing out of structure in the modern NFL.

Aside from Tagovailoa's record-setting time to throw last season, it is easy to see why average time to throw hit an NGS-era high in 2023. Quick-pass rate (passes with a time to throw under 2.5 seconds) was down 5.6 percentage points from 2016 to this season. The decline in quick-pass rate can be partially attributed to the fact quarterbacks are extending plays more than ever before. Extended-pass rate (passes with a time to throw over 4.0 seconds) was up 3.4 percentage points over the same span.

Plays in which the QB takes even longer to throw have been on the rise, too. In 2016, there was 517 pass attempts with a time to throw over 5 seconds. Last season? 615. That's nearly 100 more attempts, playing a large factor in the inflated time to throw over the past eight seasons.

It might be reasonable to assume that, as they extend plays and hang on to the ball, quarterbacks are performing better. But this is not so, at least based on completion percentage. Looking at completion percentage on extended passes over the last six seasons, quarterbacks in 2022 and 2023 collectively posted the lowest and second-lowest marks, respectively (they did the same in yards per attempt). On the other hand, completion percentage on quick passes has stayed consistent since 2018, hovering right around 73 percent year-over-year.

While average time to throw has been steadily increasing, the league-average air-yards-per-attempt has been decreasing, a counterintuitive trend that has taken shape over the past few seasons.


When breaking down how average air yards per attempt has changed season-to-season by down, it becomes more apparent that quarterbacks have shifted their aggressiveness in certain scenarios, specifically on early downs. It is not surprising that air yards per attempt have held fairly steady on third downs from season to season, given that quarterbacks are required to be aggressive by the do-or-die nature of the situation. (Average air yards per attempt on non-play-action third-down passes remained between 8.9 and 9.1 yards in five out of six seasons since 2017.) On early downs, however, there has been a steady decline in aggressiveness. In 2017, the average air-yards-per-attempt figure was 7.6 yards on first down and 7.3 yards on second down, both of which stand as the highest single-season marks over the past seven seasons. In each of the past three seasons, though, average air yards per attempt failed to surpass the 7.0-yard threshold on first and second downs.

Some elite young quarterbacks have followed this trend. Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen have all thrown the ball roughly a yard-and-a-half closer to the line of scrimmage on average since their third seasons as starters compared to their first two. This could be a sign of maturity, that they are learning to take the checkdown for easy yardage and matriculate the ball down the field.

Table inside Article
Patrick Mahomes Joe Burrow Josh Allen
2018-19 8.9 8.5 10.1
2020-23 7.5 6.9 8.5

A few of the top quarterback prospects from this year's draft class were very aggressive pushing the ball downfield in their final collegiate season. Per PFF, Drake Maye averaged 11.0 air yards per attempt and Michael Penix Jr. averaged 10.7, both ranking in the top 10 among Power 5 quarterbacks (minimum of 200 attempts). Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels was close behind them, throwing the ball on average 10.5 yards down the field. It is reasonable to assume that aggression is likely to continue as the quarterbacks transition to the pro game, as it will take time to develop patience and be willing to take open windows underneath.

Bo Nix stands as the outlier. Nix leaned on the quick game in college, averaging the third-quickest time to throw (2.44 seconds) among Power 5 quarterbacks during his last season at Oregon. As a result, he averaged just 6.8 air yards per attempt. Only one Power 5 quarterback with at least 200 attempts (Graham Mertz) threw the ball closer to the line of scrimmage.

We don't know exactly how these prospects will fit into the trend, but we can try to connect some dots as to why NFL QBs are taking more time to make shorter throws. Let's start with some defensive changes. Likely in an effort to limit big plays, NFL defenses used zone coverage on 71.6 percent of plays this past season, the highest rate in a season since 2018. Additionally, the league-wide split-safety rate -- which was 33.7 percent in 2018 -- has increased in five consecutive seasons, all the way to 42.1 percent in 2023.


It's no surprise that as defenses implement a keep-everything-in-front-of-them strategy, average time to throw has increased. Since 2018, the league-wide average time to throw against zone coverage is 2.80 seconds, a full tenth of a second longer than the time to throw against man coverage (2.70 seconds). And this also explains the decrease in depth of target on early downs. QBs likely aren't holding on to the ball longer because they're getting time to let plays develop and rip it downfield; rather, they're reacting to defenses that sell out to limit downfield success. QBs are then likely taking checkdowns more frequently because that is what defenses are allowing for.

This counterintuitive relationship is encapsulated perfectly by none other than Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes recorded his slowest time to throw and fewest air yards per attempt in his career last season. As a result, he became the very first of 228 qualified passers since 2017 to have a time to throw over 2.90 seconds while averaging fewer than 7.0 air yards per attempt.


3) The Shanahan effect is real

The influence that Kyle Shanahan (and his father, former NFL coach Mike Shanahan) have on the NFL is often discussed. But beyond compiling a list of coaches who have worked for or with either Shanahan, is it possible to quantify their impact? What does the Shanahan effect actually look like?

To answer that question, let's start by examining shifts and motions, which are used by coaches to reveal coverage schemes, create mismatches and position offensive weapons in advantageous situations.

In 2016, most NFL offenses used shifts or motions relatively sparingly, with the league average working out to 38 percent of plays -- except for the Atlanta Falcons, who, with Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator, were a definite outlier, using shifts or motions a league-leading 61 percent of the time. Atlanta rode its top-scoring offense to the Super Bowl, and Shanahan was hired as coach of the 49ers, who went on to lead the NFL in shift/motion usage each year from 2017 to 2021, finishing second in the category in 2022 and '23. And perhaps not surprisingly, the league-wide shift/motion usage mark has jumped every year, booming all the way up to 54 percent in 2023.

Which coach bested Shanahan in shift/motion usage over the past two seasons? You guessed it: former Shanahan assistant Mike McDaniel. With McDaniel as their head coach, the Dolphins used shift/motion on 78 percent of plays in 2022 and 80 percent in 2023, with the latter figure setting a new record for a team in the NGS era (since 2016). Compare these figures to Miami's usage of shift/motion before McDaniel; in the six seasons prior to McDaniel's hiring (2016-2021), the Dolphins employed shift/motion on 44 percent of offensive plays, peaking at 56 percent in 2021.


Predictably, Miami racked up tons of yards using shift/motion, setting another NGS single-season high with 2,955 in 2023. Shanahan's 49ers followed with 2,887, while other former Shanahan associates appeared in the top 10: Sean McVay's Rams ranked fifth in yards (third in usage rate, with a mark of 71.9 percent) and Matt LaFleur's Packers ranked seventh in yards (sixth in usage rate, with a mark of 66.7 percent).

The 2024 NFL Draft will feature one of the deepest and most dynamic wide receiver classes in recent memory, and one of the top prospects in particular was featured heavily in pre-snap motion at the college level, to help get the ball in his hands and create mismatches. Malik Nabers, the fourth-ranked prospect on Daniel Jeremiah's big board, gained 239 receiving yards after being used in a motion last season (fifth-most in the Power 5), according to PFF. He went in motion on 57 routes, ranking in the top 15, and picked up 12 first downs on such routes (third-most).

There's another notable trend that Shanahan and his acolytes seem to be driving: the strategic incorporation of condensed formations and tight formation widths. Condensed formations create more open field, forcing cornerbacks to play with outside leverage in order to protect that open field.

The story is similar to that of shifts/motion. In 2016, NFL offenses on average used condensed formations 11 percent of the time -- and, as with their usage of shift/motion, Shanahan's Falcons far outpaced the average, using condensed formations on 25.4 percent of plays, second to the Titans (30 percent). Since 2016, Shanahan has increased his condensed formation rate in each season, setting a single-season high in the NGS era with a rate of 63.9 percent in 2023. The Niners also became the first team to average fewer than 20 yards of formation width in a season since 2016 (with a mark of 19.9). And, of course, the league-wide condensed-formation rate has ballooned, hitting 30 percent in 2023, while the league-wide average formation width has shrunk by nearly 4 full yards since 2016, from 28.3 to 24.6.


Reviewing the leaders in condensed-formation usage over the past few seasons, it is not shocking to find yet more Shanahan associates. McVay's Rams led the NFL in the category in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and ranked third in 2021-22 and second last season. McDaniel's Dolphins led the NFL in 2022 and finished third in '23. LaFleur's Packers finished third in 2020 and fifth in 2023. In fact, including the Texans last season (who have former Shanahan assistant Bobby Slowik as their offensive coordinator) and the Jets in 2021 (who had former Shanahan assistant -- and brother to Matt LaFleur -- Mike LaFleur as their offensive coordinator), either Shanahan or someone who worked with him was responsible for 18 of the top 20 single-season condensed usage rates since 2016.


That's not to say everyone in this group approaches the game exactly the same way. Each coach adjusts to maximize their team's roster construction, as illustrated by a divergence in offensive formations. The Rams led the NFL in usage of 11 personnel (94.6 percent of plays) in 2023, while the 49ers (38.8 percent) and Dolphins (44.4 percent) used 11 personnel at the second and third lowest rates, respectively. On the other hand, Miami (42.2 percent) and San Francisco (36.2 percent) topped the NFL in usage of 21 personnel, while the Rams were one of four teams to not record a single play in the formation last season.

Still, looking at the numbers, it's impossible to miss the ways Shanahan and his like-minded colleagues are shaping the league.

Chace Daskalos & Jack Habegger contributed to this article.

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