Don’t call ’em trick plays: Why NFL teams love non-QB passes and who’s best at it

Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tell a non-quarterback he’s part of the game plan to throw a pass, or that he’ll be catching a pass from someone other than the QB, and the fun is just getting started.

“For us, it’s a backyard play,” veteran New England Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor said. “It brings us back to our grass roots — just throwing it around. We enjoy it.”

Such fun is happening more across the NFL over the past several seasons, with Agholor and his Patriots calling them as much as anyone else.

Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers is 2-of-2 for 45 yards this season, and fellow receiver Kendrick Bourne has thrown a 25-yard TD pass — to Agholor.

Meyers, of course, tossed two touchdown passes in the 2020 season, and former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman retired with a most impressive passing stat line: 7-of-8 for 179 yards, two TDs and a 158.3 rating.

But the trend goes beyond the Patriots.

Through Week 12 of the NFL season, non-quarterbacks have attempted 26 passes this season, completing 13, and are on pace to attempt 37 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In 2020, non-QBs attempted 44 passes. But the year before that they attempted 33 passes, and the year before that it was 31.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson is 2-for-3 for 35 yards this season.

“I really get excited. I try not to show it too much [but] I love every time that I throw the ball,” he said. “I just like to be in the mix, especially with a tricky play. I definitely remember the Little League days of me playing quarterback, running around, throwing it on the run, so it definitely brings me back to that.”

Dallas Cowboys receiver Cedrick Wilson leads all non-QBs in passing yardage this season, going 2-for-2 for 57 yards. He credits offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for his success.

“I feel like when Kellen draws up the plays he, I think, knows it’s going to be open. He doesn’t really give me too hard of a decision,” Wilson said. As for the decision to call those type of plays, it includes multiple considerations.

Practice makes perfect

In New England, the first thing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels points out is that they aren’t trick plays.

“They may be a little bit different in terms of the scheme, but I usually tell the guys that we’re going to rep them in practice long enough — sometimes for weeks — to the point where none of us feel like it’s a trick,” he said.

“That’s the biggest thing for me; if I don’t feel confident in the scheme or the execution of the scheme in practice, [and] if the players don’t feel confident in what they’re being asked to do, then I don’t think it’s really a safe thing to use.”

In Minnesota, under offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Jefferson describes a similar approach.

“Me and [receiver] Adam [Thielen] throw the football every single day. It’s all about practicing it, seeing it, making sure everybody is on the same page,” he said. “And [then] when it comes to the game, I’m confident enough to make the play, make the throw.”

Kubiak couldn’t remember the first time he considered having Jefferson throw a pass in a game, but said: “I know Justin played some high school quarterback, and just seeing him before practice tossing it around, it looked pretty natural.”

In New England, when experimenting with different possibilities, McDaniels added that he also gauges the reactions from players when things don’t go well in practice, which factors into decision-making on who they might have execute those plays.

Once those hurdles are cleared, it comes down to where it fits in the game plan, and coach Bill Belichick said McDaniels seems to have a knack for when to strike.

“Josh does a great job of mixing plays in to take advantage of the defense’s overaggressiveness, whether it’s pursuit or run force, or whatever it happens to be,” Belichick said. “Sometimes some of those plays are designed to really get everybody up [near the line of scrimmage], and then get behind them.”

McDaniels shared further insight into his thought process.

“You can’t run them blindly against every defense, that doesn’t work. You have to know what you’re looking for and there’s got to be a reason behind it; just like there’s a reason why we run the lead play against certain teams and may not be able to run it against some other teams,” he said.

“Some teams are better to run reverses against, and some teams are not. Some teams are better to run screens against … so if you have a team that you feel like you have a chance that you’re going to get that look, and the look is something that would be conducive to using a play, [you] try to gain an advantage that way.”

McDaniels credited his assistants for their input as well.

“I don’t go into my office and draw trick plays ad nauseam every week. Some of [the plays] come from everywhere [and] they all have a say in what the game plan is,” he said. “And so to me it’s just about whether the idea is sound, and whether the defense that we’re playing would give us a chance based on how they play and the scheme they use to make it work.

“And then it goes to trust in the players, and giving them enough repetitions in practice. I always tell them if your heartbeat starts going up and we call this, we probably haven’t repped it enough in practice.”

Center David Andrews, in his seventh season with the Patriots, added: “We work on these a lot, so when we do call them, it’s not some big thing. We put a lot of time and effort into them.”

Once a QB, always a QB

One common thread between the NFL’s leading non-QB passers this season is their background — the Cowboys’ Wilson and Patriots’ Meyers once called quarterback their primary position.

Wilson played QB in high school before moving to receiver at Coffeyville Community College.

“I was playing baseball and I got tired of throwing the baseball and the football,” said Wilson, who played shortstop.

Teammate Amari Cooper has noticed Wilson relies on some of those old skills.

“He has some good mechanics. That doesn’t surprise me what he can do, flicking that ball around,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, Meyers was a quarterback at Arabia Mountain (Georgia) High School, and was recruited to NC State at that position, before switching to receiver as a redshirt freshman.

That experience matters when coaches consider the risk-reward dynamic of the play.

“You want to have confidence in the guy who has the ball, so if something goes wrong, you’re not going to turn the ball over. If it’s not there, then you just throw it away and go back and line up again, run another play,” Belichick said.

“You look for a player who would make good decisions and is accurate — former college quarterbacks, or guys who at least have some experience seeing if the receiver is covered or he’s open. It’s not a one-time thing. You don’t want to just throw it up there for grabs, but if the play design works and the players are open, you want somebody that can put it on them.”

More and more, teams are finding those players, and calling those plays.

NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer and Courtney Cronin contributed to this report.