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Why the flex TE is the next big thing in the spread offense

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Out in Big 12 country where coaches are always test driving the next big offensive innovation, flex TEs are dominating the scene. With opponents spread out, offenses need guys that can create winning matches in isolation and they’re using basketball-sized players to do it from the slot.

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

One of the more under appreciated breakthroughs of 2017 was Oklahoma mainstreaming the “21 spread” formation. Spread to run teams had typically played a blocking H-back/TE that could bounce back and forth between playing inline, in the backfield, or potentially flexed out wide. In the slot they preferred to play a speedy wideout that could help them take the top off the defense or else catch perimeter screens and quick routes in space when teams loaded up to stop the run.

Oklahoma in 2016 and 2017 went in a different direction. For 2017 they were replacing star wideout Dede Westbrook (1524 yards, 17 TDs, Heisman finalist), star RB Joe Mixon, and their third leading receiver to boot (Geno Lewis). Lincoln Riley was faced with starting over at WR and did so with true freshman Ceedee Lamb and another diminutive JUCO burner named Marquise Brown. But they still had Baker Mayfield, an experienced and athletic OL, and then an ultra-versatile FB named Dmitri Flowers and a full-time flex TE named Mark Andrews.

So the Sooners built around their strengths and spent most of the season in “21 personnel” in spread formations with Flowers as a mobile H-back and Andrews flexed out as a slot to either side of the formation. Flowers had a great year, torching Ohio State on POP passes over the middle and finishing the season with 26 catches for 464 yards and five TDs but Mark Andrews really gave teams fits. The flex TE had 62 catches for 958 yards and eight TDs and made it impossible for opponents to figure out what kind of personnel or coverages to utilize in order to keep Oklahoma under wraps.

A new challenge at the focal point

Defenses are already in a tough spot these days trying to build out their base packages. One week you may be facing a spread to run team that wants to beat you by creating angles up front with their H-back to run the ball with their RB and perhaps QB. If you don’t have DEs and LBs that can blow up their blocks then a nickel or safety have to be actively involved in serving as an extra man to stop the run. Many teams will design their rosters so that the nickel and/or the boundary safety are big, 200+ pound box safeties that can close from range, tackle in space, and aren’t strangers to beating blocks.

But then the next week perhaps you’re facing a spread team that will run the ball behind their H-back only after forcing you into a two-high shell by taking shots at your deep coverage with the outside WRs and slot alternating between running verticals. Now the defense either needs their safeties to be a little more rangy and coverage oriented or else they are going to end up being wasted away from the run because they have to backpedal at the snap or risk giving up freebies over the top. Gary Patterson’s TCU D has felt this keenly over the years and landed on playing smaller, rangier, but still willingly physical safeties at all three spots.

The flex TE of the sort that Oklahoma unleashed in Mark Andrews is a different beast entirely. A guy who can body up DBs with his size and run option routes in the middle of the field without fear of the LBs or safeties roaming there within a spread concept is a different kind of challenge. There isn’t really a defense adjustment to that kind of player save for the freak safety or LB that can run and play man coverage at 230 pounds or the double team that requires defenders be pulled from elsewhere.

That didn’t used to be that great a concern until the NFL level, where it’s one of the predominant tactics on offense. Sure, the college defense didn’t really have that guy but neither did the offense. But now? The flex TE as a mainstay in the college offense is becoming increasingly normalized. Witness the 2018 Big 12 football season.

Flex TEs in the Big 12 in 2018

Team Flex TE Production 3rd down percentage
Team Flex TE Production 3rd down percentage
Texas Lil'Jordan Humphrey (6-4, 230) 79 catches, 1109 yards, 9 TDs 46.28% (14th)
Oklahoma Grant Calcaterra (6-3, 230)/Lee Morris (6-2, 212) 46 catches, 835 yards, 14 TDs 51.18% (4th)
West Virginia Gary Jennings (6-2, 215) 54 catches, 917 yards, 13 TDs 43.31% (31st)
Baylor Jalen Hurd (6-4, 217) 69 catches, 946 yards, 4 TDs 45% (21st)
Kansas Jeremiah Booker (6-2, 212) 31 catches, 344 yards, 5 TDs 39.26% (60th)
Iowa State Charlie Kolar (6-6, 250) 11 caches, 137 yards, 3 TDs 38.62% (65th)

The year of the flex TE in the Big 12

Before the season it seemed that the league would be defined by all of the running QBs across the league, and while that certainly had its impact, it was also the year of the flex TE. All of the league’s top four teams would regularly put a big bodied wideout in the slot and work off the inability of defenses to match up in order to create reads and matchups for their passing games.

The winning play of the Big 12 title game featured Oklahoma finding one of their flex TEs (Grant Calcaterra) matched up on a big, run-stopping safety on third down for a touchdown.

This sort of 11 personnel set is probably most lethal for utilizing the flex TE. Oklahoma has three other receivers for Texas to match up against with Calcaterra aligned to an area of the field that technically draws the weakest coverage defender. The Longhorn defense plays their corners left and right, the nickel follows the “passing strength” which means the slot receiver, and the SS is paired with the nickel. That leaves the three LBs and the free safety to account for the RB, the TE, and any extra pass-rush beyond the three DL. So Calcaterra is drawing the weakest coverage defender despite arguably being OU’s most dangerous target on third down for moving the chains.

The 21 spread sets are rough too though, again simply because most defenses don’t choose their personnel to get a guy who can match up with a big-bodied possession receiver out in the slot. If they’re getting a big DB on the field it’s for helping account for the H-back and the run game and that’s generally what he’s been trained for.

Oklahoma utilized the flex TE pretty effectively this season but the main thrust of their passing attack was the two 1k-yard receivers Marquise Brown and Ceedee Lamb. The former is another burner in the mold of Dede Westbrook, checking in at 5-10, 165 soaking wet and running vertical routes and screens by people. Incidentally, all of those screens become more dangerous when the flex TE is helping block on the perimeter. Lamb is more of a traditional receiver that runs great routes and has flypaper hands.

Ironically it was OU’s rival Texas that made most use of the sort of 21 spread formation in 2018, pairing Lil’Jordan Humphrey in the slot with the 6-3/260 pound Andrew Beck at H-back/TE. They’d also use that set on third downs, leaving the big Beck on the field but flexing him out in different spots. By flexing Beck out wide Texas could create extreme matchup issues for defenses playing by normal rules and thus force opponents to either live with weird matchups, change up who played where on the field, or drastically shift the strengths of their defense to try and account for the issues.

With the defenses forced to play simpler rules and carry a handful of responses, it could then become possible to isolate Lil’Jordan Humphrey and force him the ball in crucial situations, such as this third and 12 in the Big 12 championship game:

Technically Texas is running the famous “four verticals” passing concept, but really they’re running the “hey LJ, get open!” concept. By running all four receivers deep, they clear out most of the OU defenders and create space for Humphrey to work in isolation against the safety (Tre Norwood) that Oklahoma tasked with trying to cover him. There’s a safety over the top but underneath and at the sticks it’s just Norwood out there.

The progression, such as it is, is for Ehlinger to check the alignment of the safety and then wait to throw with anticipation of Humphrey’s route break. They have to work together regularly to know where Humphrey is likely to break his route. If they get in sync and read the coverage the same way? It’s the crane kick of the passing game, no defense.

If things aren’t working out then Ehlinger can progress to the RB on the check down or go ahead and scramble in anticipation that the RB will have already cleared out the box and isolated Ehlinger on whoever is left in the box. OU had their will linebacker Curtis Bolton hanging around to manage that task but Ehlinger still scrambled six times in the game for 36 yards.

Most of the game was spent with Oklahoma making sure they had a double team on Humphrey to try and prevent these sorts of gains. Texas’ no. 2 WR Collin Johnson subsequently set a record for the Big 12 title game with eight catches for 177 yards and a score.

The future of the flex TE

Out of high school, Lil’Jordan Humphrey was a composite 3-star recruit. At DFW powerhouse Southlake Carroll he’d played mostly as a 6-5, 200 pound RB. As a senior he ran for 719 yards at 9.6 ypc while adding 22 catches for 386 yards, all in just six games. Recruiting evaluators weren’t exactly sure what to do with him though and at a Sparq combine he posted some rather ordinary numbers in most tests except the 20-yard shuttle, where he ran an exceptional 4.16. For comparison’s sake, the blazing quick Johnny Manziel ran a 4.03 shuttle at the NFL combine.

Somehow rankings ostensibly built around NFL projections didn’t see the value of a dude that could run with that kind of lateral agility at 6-4. He always projected to end up as a flex TE running option routes in the middle of the field but that position didn’t necessarily exist. Even in the new Tom Herman offense that Texas installed, the slot was normally manned by a RB/WR of the famous “Percy Harvin type.” Texas’ 2019 class includes such a player in Jake Smith but also includes another flex TE type in Jordan Whittington, a wider bodied target who’s quicker then fast and likely to be a 6-2, 220 pound option route runner. They’re also poised to sign two additional TEs. There’s no doubt that Herman understands where the game is moving here.

West Virginia has been utilizing guys of that ilk for the last four years or so, starting with Daikiel Shorts in 2015 and 2016 and then Gary Jennings over the last two seasons. While a guy with TE size is great, the lesson teams are taking away is that what makes TEs so dangerous in space can be true of a wider range of players then just guys that are labelled as tight ends.

What teams are looking for here is:

1) Quickness and coordination running routes. No use being isolated on defenders if you can’t get open against them.

2) Size, particularly some width and length to box out defenders on stick routes and spot routes over the middle and to hold up catching 50+ balls in the middle of the field and then taking hits from safeties and linebackers.

3) Smarts, to understand coverages and route leverage in order to consistently get open where the QB expects him to be open.

Good TEs often fit into all three categories and increasingly large numbers of them are going to envision this sort of role rather than one where they have to master the art of being a bludgeoning blocker in the box. There are lots of receivers that could also project really well here that have languished in the past being asked to try and run vertically past superior athletes at CB and create enough separation outside the hash marks for the QB to get them the ball. The windows of separation to be created inside the hash marks can be briefer, which means a larger number of guys can thrive in this role.

Finally, there’s still the Y-iso formation that the NFL loves which hasn’t seen as much usage in the college game yet. That’s to play the flex TE as the single-side X receiver and then have the three “true” receivers all aligned to the other side of the field. If he’s a nice, big jump ball target on the boundary then the defense may be forced to double him with a safety over the top, creating opportunities for the other receivers opposite. We didn’t really see much of this in the Big 12 this year because most teams already had a boundary X receiver that could command a double team or punish an isolated corner. OU had Lamb, Iowa State had nearly-TE sized Hakeem Butler (6-6, 220) and Texas similarly had Collin Johnson (6-6, 220).

In some sense, it was almost as though Texas was playing three TEs between Beck, Humphrey, and Johnson, which helps explain their high third down percentage and overall finish of 28th nationally in offensive S&P+ despite ranking only 110th in IsoPPP. That and having a FB playing QB to handle short yardage situations.

All in all this is a continued progression down the “spread-iso” school of offensive football. Much like the spread pick’n’roll era in the NBA, college spread offenses are learning that after you’ve spread your opponent out and they’ve accepted that new playing field that it becomes about isolating matchups that you can win. The flex TE is going to become the new position that everyone wants to use in order to have a good isolation matchup on passing downs.