Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
06 May 2011
by Doug Farrar
After watching almost nothing but draft prospect tape from the day after the Super Bowl, I thought it might be interesting to continue the Cover-2 series with a different idea. I'm taking Football Outsiders' four primary college-to-pro projection models -- SackSEER, Speed Score, Playmaker Score and the Lewin Projection System (otherwise known as "Brandt 2.0") -- and adding two more variables to those projections. The first is college game tape from broadcasts, and the second is NFL scheme and personnel fit.
Of course, the frustrating thing with these projections when we let them fly before the draft is that we don't know certain specific and crucial things, especially with quarterbacks. How will the offensive coordinator adjust his West Coast offense to meet the speed option guy his GM just selected? Will Mr. Quarterback start or sit, and to what receivers will he be throwing? And of course, there's the ultimate variable none of us knows -- how long will these players be locked out? Right now they're unable to do anything more than work out at health clubs and high school fields while trying to make sense of bootleg playbooks from Kinko's or Google Docs.
The same is true of the defensive ends projected in Nathan Forster's SackSEER projection metric, which is based on vertical leap, short shuttle time, per-game sack productivity in college (with certain adjustments), and missed games of NCAA eligibility. These projections often miss the mark because they evaluate players in a vacuum, just as I have to use qualifiers in pre-draft evaluation because I don't know on what teams or in what schemes players will land.
In 2010, I saw two draft prospects that I considered scheme-transcendent -- Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh. You could have dropped either player on any NFL team, and they'd rip it up, playbook be damned. That's two more than I usually see. For most players, the reality is that they're more dependent on scheme personnel. So, with those projections out there, and hopefully the wisdom of enough game tape behind me, I thought I'd start with SackSEER, and I'll be looking at the players fitting into the other projection models through the offseason.
It's no surprise that Elvis Dumervil was texting this year's highest-projected pass-rusher minutes after the Broncos made him the second overall draft pick: With Denver moving back to a 4-3 defense under John Fox, the Broncos will have one of the most dynamic edge-rushing duos in the NFL, just a year removed from finishing dead last in Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate as a result. Miller led the nation in 2009 with 17 sacks, and he put up 10.5 more in 2010 after recovering from an early season ankle injury.
Nathan points to various drill times as indicators of Miller's ability to explode off the snap and make agile turns on a dime, and those attributes absolutely transfer to the field. Miller has unquestionably the quickest first step I've seen from a draft prospect in a while. He exposes multiple offensive tackles by getting around the blocker's outside arm before the lineman can even get into his stance. I don't think that will get lost in translation, because I didn't see a huge dropoff in winning quickness battles against better opposition.
His skills also transfer well to the NFL because he has a comprehensive arsenal of hand moves and foot fakes -- he can rip and swim and take a step inside or outside before switching directions and leaving some other poor sucker in the dust. He will also pick up sacks by sheer determination. One of the things I like best about Miller is that he refuses to give up on a play after he gets beaten, or if it goes the other direction.
Of course, we're talking about pass rush value with SackSEER, but we also have to look at the complete potential of the player in an NFL sense. I can't wait to see what kind of base defenses Fox draws up. It's assumed that he'll run the 4-3 sets he was known for in Carolina and when he ran the defense for the New York Giants, but I wouldn't be surprised if Fox set up some four-man fronts disguising three-down principles that would set Miller up to be more of a LEO end, as opposed to the strong-side linebacker spot that is his initial projection.
Miller reminded me of Clay Matthews on tape because he could use his quickness to loop inside to slip through gaps, just as Matthews did for Pete Carroll at USC in 2009. Texas A&M had Miller designated with a moveable "Joker" position in 2010, and the Broncos could reap similar rewards with a like-minded concept -- especially given the fact that the Broncos have yet to solve their issues at defensive tackle. Miller's ability to meet that generous projection will now depend as much on schematic intelligence and positional versatility as pure talent.
I had an early second-round grade on Houston based on tape, but that was before he blew a drug test at the Combine, which isn't the best indicator of functional intelligence. That test is about as random and unpredictable as New Year's Eve at Times Square. That said, one of the things that personnel execs had to like about Houston is that there was full-season tape of him operating both as an end on a four-man front and as an outside linebacker in a true 3-4.
Like Miller, Houston will line up opposite of an elite pass-rusher -- the Georgia grad will benefit from the presence of Tamba Hali. And I like Houston best outside the tackle, where he can use his surprising burst for his size. Despite outweighing Miller and Nevada's Dontay Moch by 25 pounds, Houston had a very similar 10-yard split (1.62) at the Combine. Houston possesses all the attributes required or a true edge rusher -- he gets off the ball quickly, turns the corner without losing that speed, and closes well on the quarterback.
Adding in his ability to peel off and play the run, and it's easy to see why Houston projects as a fine do-it-all defender for a team playing a lot of different fronts. He's going to have to develop his hand moves in order to disrupt NFL blockers, and I wonder if the Chiefs will use his impressive versatility (he can line up hand up or hand down on either side) in ways that produce more stops than sacks. He'll probably make his projection if he's on Hali's opposite side just because of the attention paid to Hali.
The work Kerrigan did as a 3-4 linebacker at the Senior Bowl and at the Combine drew the attention of the Redskins coaching staff, who have had trouble switching to their 3-4 scheme. Kerrigan has the first-step quickness to succeed standing up and blowing stuff up off the snap, but I hope the 'Skins let him put his hand on the ground most of the time, because he is more explosive off the three-point stance than any other defender I saw in this draft class. It's amazing to me how often he was winning leverage battles when a lot of his peers were relying solely on speed.
Ostensibly, the idea will be to fit Kerrigan in as a 3-4 "endbacker," though defensive coordinator Jim Haslett certainly called his share of four-man fronts out of nickel defenses or hybrid concepts. I'm not generally a big believer in Haslett, but I do like what the Redskins did in the first two rounds of their draft -- not only did they get Kerrigan after trading down from the 10th overall spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they also picked up Clemson's Jarvis Jenkins in the second round. Jenkins is a tackle who presents that same sort of front versatility inside. Like our top two projected players, Kerrigan is in a situation where he doesn't have to be "the guy" right away, which leads to a positive projection to me.
Just one year after they selected defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) in the first and second rounds of the draft, the Bucs went back to the well and took ends in the first two rounds this year. They selected Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in the first and Bowers in the second. And to put it bluntly, based on tape and nothing else, I don't know of too many people who would take Clayborn over Bowers -- Bowers flashed the skills that scream "Top 10." However, teams had concerns over the torn meniscus Bowers suffered halfway through the 2010 season. He played on the tear and put up about half of his 15.5 sacks after it happened, but he still dropped after not being able to participate in the Combine, canceling his original Pro Day, and not performing well at the rescheduled event.
If he's healthy, I see Bowers having more comprehensive value than pure sack terrorism -- he's more Justin Houston than Von Miller, and his stats could reflect that. While he can and will explode into the backfield, he's not exceptionally quick off the block (though he is off the snap), and he tends to wrestle when other ends are looking to disengage.
However, Bowers is, to me, the best run-stopping end in this class, and it's not even close. He's a violent and precise form tackler who smothers running backs one-on-one and can go sideline to sideline to crash in on downfield blocks at an elite level. If he stays healthy, Bowers still may not exceed that sack projection by too much -- and despite that, he could still wind up being the steal of the 2011 Draft.
While I was very high on Smith from his tape, seeing him taken with Robert Quinn still on the board was a bit odd. I had Quinn ranked just behind Von Miller on my list of pure pass-rushers, and given the problems the 49ers have had with ends in recent drafts, I thought they might be more prone to go with the "sure thing" in Quinn. However, Smith's tape was nothing to sneeze at. He projected to me as one of the better pure four-man front ends in this class because he's so good at getting blockers off balance with foot fakes and hand moves. He's almost better stunting inside than he is coming off the edge, though he does have the speed to be a stronger outside linebacker in the James Harrison mold.
Initial word is that he'll play outside in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense, but so few 3-4 defenses are truly that at all times anymore, and I think the 49ers picked Smith because they like his ability to put his hand down and pick it right back up again. Because of that, and because Justin Smith has been such an underrated disruptive presence on that front, I think Smith has a great chance to exceed his projection. In fact, I could see him surpassing it by Year 3. The question is how quickly and well he adapts if he's in more of a traditional 3-4.
Of all the defensive ends in this class, none showed the kind of talent on tape that Robert Quinn did. And because of that, I can't knock him for the missed year. Put simply, this guy is a freak. The first time I saw him explode off the snap, I thought I was looking at someone of the approximate size of Miller or Moch, only to find that he had a playing weight of 265 pounds. I did not see any other end this year with Quinn's combination of initial burst, quickness and strength around the edge, closing speed to the quarterback, and upper-body strength to use a variety of hand moves and simply bull-rush weaker tackles into oblivion.
Quinn can loop inside and confound guards and centers. And for all of his pursuit speed, he really shocked me with his awareness to read run at or near the line of scrimmage. Putting him on the other side of Chris Long might be illegal, especially with Steve Spagnuolo overseeing the both of them. This is one of those times when I simply close the spreadsheet, watch him all over again, and wonder if I'm looking at the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Needless to say, I'm taking the over on this one.
Long, blond hair, force as a Pac-10 endbacker, high-motor guy. Yep, yep, yep. Brooks Reed passes the Clay Matthews Comparison Test on a photo and print basis, but those pesky DVDs of mine tell a different story. Reed is quick off the snap and can slip off a blocker if he's heads-up or in an over front, but he doesn't share Matthews' talent for using his speed at different angles; with Reed, it's pretty much straight-on, all the time. And the downside of his particular pursuit intensity is that Reed can be fooled on misdirection and will occasionally just blast right by a ball carrier. Add in a lack of lateral movement and bull-rush power, and I'm just not all that impressed with the guy I saw in college.
In fact, Reed and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt were the two defensive players I watched pre-draft who, in my opinion, had the biggest negative discrepancy between their athletic exploits in drills and what they did on tape, and both players were drafted by the Texans. I have no earthly idea what that means, except to say that Wade Phillips certainly can coach 'em up as a defensive coordinator, and he'll be a busy guy when he can finally begin.
Sheard is living on both sides of the character debate. He saved an elderly woman from a burning building and received a bravery award; he was also charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest in July. On the field, he stepped up when Greg Romeus got hurt, amassing nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2010.
The Browns took two interesting defensive linemen after trading down with the Falcons -- Baylor tackle Phil Taylor, who is built like a nose tackle but has an agility that makes him look more like a three-technique tackle exposed to radiation, and Sheard. Cleveland is another team moving back to 4-3, though it's unknown how much the Browns might think outside that particular box. In any event, Sheard is an ideal 4-3 end who can run some edge stuff in a linebacker role if need be. The high number of hurries has me looking at a more positive projection, but I certainly understand Nathan's concerns regarding Sheard's relatively unimpressive drill numbers.
64 comments, Last at 07 Aug 2011, 1:16pm by Jjerone