Kingsbury, the Air Raid and NFL Roster Limits

by Justis Mosqueda

In November, Optimum Scouting made the case for Kliff Kingsbury as an NFL offensive coordinator. Little did we know, there was a much bigger opportunity for him waiting. After taking a job as USC’s offensive coordinator, Kingsbury went on interviews with the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets as a head coaching candidate. On Tuesday, he was officially hired as the next Cardinals head coach on a four-year contract with a fifth-year team option.

As a head coach, rather than just a play-caller, Kingsbury will have plenty more responsibility than when we made the case for him as an offensive coordinator candidate. To me, the most interesting aspect of Kingsbury’s early tenure in the desert will be roster construction.

To say the least, you are playing with fewer cards in hand at the NFL level than you are in college. At Texas Tech, Kingsbury had 115 football players on his team’s official roster in 2018. In Arizona, he will have a 53-man roster and 46 players available on Sundays. What an “Air Raid” offense looks like within the limitations of a 46-man active roster is a hypothetical. We are operating in an unknown if we are to assume that the offense Kingsbury ran with the Red Raiders will be traveling with him to Glendale.

Below is a roster breakdown of Kingsbury’s positional numbers at Tech:

Last year, Kingsbury’s team did not have a true full-time tight end, just one “WR-TE” and one “FB-TE”. Words cannot explain how different that is from NFL football. According to Sharp Football Stats, the NFL only ran 10 personnel (one running back and four wide receivers) on two percent of plays in 2018. The Detroit Lions, who ran it eight percent of the time, lead the league in 10 personnel last year. The Arizona Cardinals only ran one play in 10 personnel all season. That is Kingsbury’s base personnel.

In Week 17, the Cardinals had 21 active offensive players on game day, including just five wide receivers. At Tech, Kingsbury had 17.5 (with the WR-TE hybrid) receivers on his roster.

Arizona’s third, fourth and fifth receivers had 19, 17 and 7 receptions last season (43 combined.) If you extrapolate Kingsbury's 2018 third, fourth and fifth receivers to a 16-game schedule, they would have had 149 combined receptions.

When you juxtapose those numbers to other NFL rosters, the comparisons are stark. Remember, early on this season the New England Patriots only had three wide receivers on their entire roster. If Kingsbury plans on running his 10 personnel version of the Air Raid at the NFL level, no team will have more emphasis on their fourth, fifth and sixth receivers than the Cardinals. What that means is that they will likely have more receivers on their game day roster than anyone else in the league, taking away active players at other positions.

The easy answer to this problem is to just say “the Cardinals will replace tight ends with receivers”, but that plan unravels when you consider special teams. Specifically, realizing the difference between the NFL’s rules on the punt team and college football’s rules on the punt team can paint a picture of why the NFL is so tight end heavy.

Both the NFL and college football use non-offensive linemen at the guard and tackle positions on punt team because there are far better in-space athletes than 300-pounders. The biggest difference between the two sports is that college football allows their ineligible receivers to travel downfield before the punt, leading to the shield punts you see on Saturdays. Below is an example of a college football punt which would not be legal in the NFL:

As you can see, the long snapper and guards fly upfield to cover the punt. Because return teams know that this will happen at the college level, fewer teams try to put a man on a man at the line of scrimmage as both sides opt to play the return more than the block.

At the NFL level, those same linemen are not allowed to go downfield until after the punt has been kicked. This leads to teams playing the block, leading to more legitimate blocking opportunities. Below is an example of a standard NFL punt:

You know who can block on punt team but still can run better in space than offensive linemen? Tight ends.

According to Football Outsiders, NFL tight ends played a combined 11,066 snaps on special teams in the 2018 regular season. So while “just get rid of tight ends if receivers are taking their place” might make sense on offense, finding replacements for those reps on special teams become trickier (unless you’re confident in guard Christian Kirk blocking Frank Clark on punt team.)

Kingsbury’s scheme combined with the NFL’s roster limits could lead to a few options:

  1. Kingsbury mostly sticking to his 10 personnel mantra while still keeping tight ends on the roster, leading to fewer bodies on the defensive side of the ball.
  2. Kingsbury sticking to his 10 personnel matra while excluding tight ends on the roster, leading to more linebackers and pass-rushers (potentially starters) playing more special teams.
  3. Kingsbury moving away from 10 personnel to join the 11 personnel heavy NFL.

Every NFL team carries three special teamers (kicker, punter and long snapper) as part of their 46-man active roster on game days, meaning there are only 43 available spots for “positional” players. Between offensive and defensive starters, there are 22 starters per team. With how the NFL’s roster limited are currently constructed, teams cannot physically even field a full two-deep for their offensive and defensive starters. That’s a reality that Kingsbury, or the Air Raid, has never really faced before.

The hiring of Kliff Kingsbury could be great, he’s about as qualified as you can be as a college play-caller, but translating his offense to the NFL will have to take some creative roster construction under the current rules. Starting four wide receivers probably means he would need to carry seven receivers on an active roster just because he can’t go into a game being two injuries away from complete offensive derailment. That’s two more receivers than Arizona had active in Week 17. While two players doesn’t seem like a big deal, it becomes increasingly more important when that’s about 10% of your offensive roster on Sundays and the NFL’s special teams rules demand more blocking-orientated bodies on the punt team.

Kingsbury is going to have plenty of doubters going into the NFL. He’s going to have to answer a lot of questions over the next four years. The first, and maybe most important, is what his team’s numbers will look like on game day.