Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Apr 2013
by Matt Waldman
Imagine you’re considering two final candidates for a job. Both possess top-drawer talent, which is what you'd expect at this point if their resumes are the remaining two on your desk.
Candidate A is refined, smooth, and versatile. If you needed him to start today, he’d be up to speed and produce with minimal training. If you improved the rest of the surrounding talent in your workplace, Candidate A could become a star.
In contrast, there’s something disconcerting about Candidate B. You see how it could all go wrong if you opt for him – but that’s not what’s nagging you. It’s that his talent leaves you wondering if three years from now you’ll look back on your decision and conclude that you settled for less by taking Candidate A.
What Candidate B lacks in experience is compensated by a singular talent that not only jumps off the page, it grabs you by the neck and squeezes until your eyes bulge from their sockets. Candidate B carries more risk and he may never do everything as well as Candidate A, but he has the potential to do one thing so well that it could elevate the performance of your team's surrounding talent.
Many organizations would take Candidate A and not look back. However, it is not that that clear cut.
A decade ago, I knew several people who worked for one of the top hospitality organizations in the world. This award-winning company’s philosophy on hiring placed a priority on talent over experience.
“Experience often means you spent more time ‘doing it wrong,’” one director told me. “We would rather hire someone with the basic talent for the job, the capacity to learn, and a personality geared to excel. The last two things we can’t teach. So when we spot it, we know we can teach the rest.”
There’s something appealing about this philosophy, but you have to know how to spot these behaviors beyond an interview. I believe the Baltimore Ravens have this perspective. Before NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah worked with the Eagles, he talked about his time with the Ravens in his old podcasts.
I remember him mentioning that one of the qualities Baltimore sought in players was a comfort level with – and penchant for – hitting. If it wasn’t there, they weren’t interested.
I believe the Steelers also have this on their list of fundamentals a player must possess. If these teams discover they were wrong about that player later on, he won’t last long with either team.
But an organization has to have a strong understanding of what they can and cannot teach a player. If they don’t possess this knowledge of what is and isn't teachable – or worse yet, they lack these teaching skills as a staff – then you have what the Oakland Raiders are trying to work past with some of their personnel decisions.
This philosophical quandary underscores the difference of opinion that I bet a few teams may have when considering the talents of outside linebackers Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo. Both are exceptional athletes, but despite playing the same position these two are as Robert Frost once wrote, “two roads diverged in the wood.”
The consensus prefers Jordan, who is the more experienced and versatile of the two. The question is whether Mingo -– a player with higher risk-reward potential -– represents to one NFL team what Frost meant as, “the road less traveled by will make all the difference.”
Depending whom you ask, Jordan reminds analysts and scouts of two pros. The first group cites Jordan’s versatility as an edge rusher and athleticism and skill at covering backs, tight ends, and slot receivers. It reminds them of Julian Peterson before his Achilles’ tear. This is why my buddy Josh Norris at Rotoworld and NFL.com believes Smith can have success as the LEO in the 4-3 that Gus Bradley will use in Jacksonville.
The second group believes Jordan has only scratched the surface of his potential as a pass rusher. The 6-foot-6, 248-pounder from Oregon ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, a 4.35-second short shuttle, and a 7.02-second three-cone drill at the NFL Combine. His 40, short shuttle, and 122-inch broad jump were among the best performances in each drill.
A former scout like Jeremiah believes that if Jordan were let loose as a pass rusher, he could become a dominant edge rusher along the lines of Aldon Smith. Jordan sees this in his own game and has stated that if he could dictate the scheme he'll play in the NFL then it would be as a 3-4 outside linebacker so pass rushing would be his primary duty.
I think both comparisons are valid and this is what makes Jordan a hot prospect this spring. Here’s a play against an I-formation run where the linebacker shows off that NFL athleticism. This is not a special play in terms of impact on the field, but it’s a play that illustrates Jordan’s athleticism to become as an NFL-caliber pass rusher and run-stopper.
If you pause the play between 5:38 and 5:39, you’ll see Jordan use his hands well enough to swat past the right tackle’s arms to gain position at the edge before the quarterback completes the exchange with the runner. As he enters the backfield (at the 5:39 mark), he does an excellent job of making a sharp turn so he doesn’t overrun the play.
This takes every bit of quickness and agility he displayed in Indianapolis. Jordan gets his hands on the runner and slows the ball carrier’s progress so his teammate can clean up the play.
What I like most is how Jordan uses his hands to gain the early advantage. Watch enough games of this linebacker and it’s apparent that if an offensive lineman allows Jordan to win the first move the defender’s athleticism takes over and he’s in position to make a play on the ball. However, good hands technique is still something Jordan -– and most rookie linebackers –- are still learning.
Here’s another nice display of Jordan’s potential to get low and around a left tackle on a run play where the actual outcome isn’t as important as his potential to perform the techniques required to become a good NFL pass rusher.
Pause the tape at 0:26 and you’ll see Jordan bend around the tight end with the same technique you want to see on a pass rush. Note the angle of the legs, hips, and back as Jordan uses his inside arm to work under the blocker to turn the corner. Although he doesn’t make a play on the back, the tight angle Jordan takes against this block shows what he’s capable of doing as a pass rusher with additional work.
If Jordan can refine this technique on his rush attempts so he’s more consistent at getting low and bending at this angle around the corner, he’ll develop into a fine edge threat. However, he's doing this against 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo, who is a good blocker but not an NFL left tackle. Against Washington State's right tackle, it's another story. Jordan has an opportunity to bend, but doesn’t.
The tackle gets a hold of Jordan’s face mask on the play, but before this uncalled foul occurs, Jordan had a chance to get that inside arm into the chest of the lineman and bend. Still, this is a promising aspect of Jordan’s game that has a lot of opportunity for growth.
Jordan’s versatility is on display in pass coverage and special teams. This Washington State game offers a lot of examples of Jordan’s work on kickoffs, punt coverage, and dropping into coverage. What I like most about Jordan in pass coverage is the depth of his drops to keep the receiver under him so he can make a play on the ball.
I like how Jordan gets the jam on the first cross, but immediately drops to get over top the second cross breaking towards his zone. The quarterback releases the ball to an earlier window away from Jordan.
Jordan once again gets contact on the slot player, but drops deep enough to take away that target and remain in position to make a play on the check-down in the middle of the field.
Here’s another play where Jordan plays tight to the outside shoulder of the slot receiver but maintains his position to make a play on the check-down to the receiver in the flat.
This final example in coverage shows Jordan hitting the slot receiver and then dropping deep enough to work from the end zone. Once the receiver makes the catch Jordan cleans up the tackle attempt on this check-down to keep the receiver away from the goal line.
Former Raiders defensive end Ryan Riddle –- one of my favorite football writers –- calls Jordan a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ and cites that for a linebacker of his size, Jordan’s ability to cover tight ends, backs, and receivers is amazing.
This is what I think Jordan does best. It also translates to what makes him a great “cleanup” artist as a pass rusher. Jordan's speed, quickness, and change of direction works well on stunts or broken plays where his teammates force the action and Jordan can swoop in and make the tackle.
I think this is why Jordan draws favorable comparisons to Aldon Smith. I think Smith is a terrific young player who makes game changing plays on his own. However, it cannot be glossed over that a lot of Smith’s big moments come on stunts or having quarterbacks funneled towards him with initial, disruptive pressure from his teammates.
It’s in these instances where Smith and Jordan thrive as pass rushers because they can maintain this quickness longer than most linemen. It’s a great skill, but it is somewhat dependent on having teammates who can be disruptive early and create openings for them to capitalize. How dependent will be an interesting thing to see once we learn where Jordan lands.
A nagging thought I have is that the Oregon linebacker’s game might be so smooth that when his first move doesn’t work and he has to battle a tackle, he lacks the physical style of play to generate disruptive plays without help from his teammates.
On this play, Jordan doesn’t win with his first move. Instead of staying on the tackle and trying to collapse the edge, he opts to use his speed and agility to disengage and run a cone drill between the tackle and guard. I see why Jordan is trying this maneuver, but if he collapses the pocket, his teammate on the interior cleans up the play for a sack rather than the tackle forcing the quarterback outside with room to throw the ball away.
There are enough plays like this one in this game and others that generate this minor concern. I get the sense that when Jordan doesn’t win with his first move he takes a more passive role in the pass rush.
Because Jordan flashes a variety of good work with his hands early, I think there’s a gray area where one can legitimately wonder if his athleticism and potential to develop into a clean, economical technician also hides a lack of urgency to his game. If this is the case, it will be magnified as the level of competition goes up a notch.
I’m not ready to say this is the case, but from what I have watched there are enough moments where I believe Jordan allows the lineman to dictate the action too often and he’s not willing to stand his ground and fight.
Jordan is the better all-around player, but I think Barkevious Mingo has an inherently more destructive presence. Whether he can refine this talent is a question that looms larger than it does for Jordan. At the same time, I watch Mingo and wonder if three years from now he won’t be “the road less traveled by.”
If you think Jordan was a special athlete, the 6-foot-4, 241-pound Mingo one-ups the Oregon linebacker in the 40 (4.58 seconds), the three-cone drill (6.84 seconds), the broad jump (128 inches), and the vertical leap (37 inches). Only Mingo’s 4.39-second short shuttle doesn’t win in this head-to-head contest of quickness and burst, and it’s only four hundredths of a second slower.
This initial step and change of direction leaps off the screen and it’s apparent in a variety of on-field situations.
Mingo actually uses a head fake to work inside-out like a wide receiver on this right tackle and then dips under the lineman to get a clean angle to the quarterback. One of the major criticisms of Mingo’s game is that he plays out of control and this play is one of many good illustrations you’ll see of this flaw. However, I also want you to notice that despite having issues finishing, the LSU edge rusher is consistent at disrupting the play to a point that he gives his teammates a chance to clean up.
Mingo’s initial quickness isn’t just with his first step. Watch him demonstrate the speed to work from a prone position on the ground to get airborne and knock down a pass. This requires quickness, agility, awareness, and hustle.
It’s this sense of urgency that I see flowing through Mingo’s game on play after play. He may not know how to maximize his skills with his hands, his feet, or his strategy to set up an opponent like an NFL defender, but his athleticism, energy on every play, and situational awareness like this is dazzling.
Here’s another deflection –- something Mingo has a knack for.
The fact that he has the coordination to reach across his opponent and knock the ball away while tied up is also impressive.
Mingo even demonstrates awareness in coverage. Against Alabama, Mingo switches from pass rush to coverage and forces the quarterback elsewhere.
Although the quarterback makes a play for more yards than what the back might have earned on a dumpoff, Mingo forces the lower percentage play and that’s what you want – even if it succeeds.
Mingo’s willingness to mix it up with a bigger man without ceding ground or attempting an exaggerated redirect to the pocket is another facet of his game that differentiates him from Jordan.
Mingo’s hands aren’t extended far enough to control the right tackle as he works the edge and he even gets slapped in the head during his initial approach, but he continues battling. He continues throwing his hands, beginning with a left to the tackle’s chest and then after he gets up field, a right hand that connects and sets up a spin move to cut off the quarterback’s escape route and forces the passer to give up the sack.
Although I would say Jordan demonstrates more refinement at bending his hips to get the edge on a tackle, I think the potential is there for Mingo to learn fast. Here’s a strip of the quarterback where he has to work around Mississippi’s State’s left tackle.
Mingo uses a stutter step inside and then works the opponent’s outside. Because he doesn’t use his hands well at this stage of his development, Mingo is too close to the lineman and it leaves him open to getting pushed outside (11:15-mark). However, Mingo is able to bend his hips and legs to adjust his angle after the shove, get the corner, and rob the quarterback of the ball.
I also like how Mingo reduces his inside shoulder just as he gains the corner and this clears the way for a final lunge to the passer. It’s not great technique, but you can see the athleticism to bend and turn at high speed. Teach Mingo to extend his arms early in the play and his efforts will translate into hits that jar the ball loose a beat earlier than this snap.
Another criticism of Mingo has been that his production dropped this year, but Josh Norris believes that LSU asked him to contain the pocket more often this year and not just collapse it. I saw evidence that supports this idea so I’m more inclined to criticize the edge rusher’s technique than his production.
Draft Breakdown’s Eric Stoner agrees with this notion. If you ask him, he believes LSU used Mingo in ways that were inconsistent with what the future outside linebacker does best: mainly, working inside against tackles or strong side double teams. He recommended I watch Mingo versus Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl because I’ll see how devastating he can be as a Wide-Nine rusher or outside linebacker.
Here’s an example of Mingo's disruptive tendencies on the second play of the game.
Mingo’s alignment begins wide of the tackle and he’s quick enough to meet the ball carrier in the backfield just after the exchange with the quarterback. This kind of backfield greeting is common highlight fodder with defensive tackles, but not a defensive end from the Wide-Nine position at the beginning of the play –- even unblocked. Note how fluid Mingo is to avoid the pulling blocks to reach Sammy Watkins in the backfield.
Here’s another display of quickness and agility to force a loss on a run late in the second quarter.
Mingo avoids two linemen with his spin move and is in the backfield to disrupt the play. Again, he doesn’t finish it on his own with a tackle, but he gives his teammates ample opportunity to clean it up for a loss.
The LSU-Texas A&M also has examples of Mingo’s disruptive presence from a wide alignment. This interception that is the result of Mingo’s pressure is a good example.
Mingo works outside-in and then spins outside the guard to force Johnny Manziel to slide outside and rush his throw.
No one questions Mingo’s speed, but strength is a different matter. Jordan is bigger and appears capable of adding even more weight to his frame. In contrast, Mingo refused to participate in the bench press in Pro Day workouts.
Yet, I have seen more instances of Mingo collapsing a pocket or battling a lineman with physical play than I have from Jordan. Here is an example at the end of the half that leads to a sack.
Mingo isn’t the reason for the sack, but his willingness to get under his opponent and push him into the backfield to collapse the middle is what limits the quarterback’s escape route and forces Clemson’s Taj Boyd to collide with his teammate as he’s wrapped from behind. I think Mingo is strong for his size and should get stronger.
Here’s another against Alabama’s right tackle D.J. Fluker, who is earning consideration as a future NFL left tackle.
Mingo gets under the much bigger Fluker after his initial move doesn’t work. He bull rushes the tackle five yards behind the line of scrimmage and forces the quarterback to slide to escape left and throw the ball away.
This effort against Fluker wasn’t a one-time thing. Watch Mingo battle to the point that he forces the tackle into a holding penalty.
This deflection coming off what looked like a stalemate with Fluker -– and frustrates the tackle into a personal foul -– is another example of Mingo’s willingness to fight.
Mingo’s hands may not be precise, but they are relentless: a punch, a spin, a swipe, and finishing with a deflection of the pass. What’s tantalizing about these last two plays -– and risky -– is imagining what Mingo can do if he refines his basic technique.
This is where the player-personnel philosophy of a team comes into play. If an organization believes it can’t teach Mingo’s intensity, athleticism, and basic awareness, but it can teach positional technique, then Mingo will be a prize worth risking this high of an investment.
As a matter of style, I’d rather have an edge rusher like Mingo who creates havoc early than one who cleans it up late - even at the cost of being a little too wild off the edge. However, the flexibility a team gains when it can drop a player like Jordan to cover a top tight end, back, or even slot receiver in this day an age cannot be understated.
I understand why others would rather have Jordan at the top of the draft, but if I were leading an organization confident in Mingo’s emotional makeup and my staff’s ability to teach young players then I would hardly call the LSU wunderkind a consolation prize. In fact, I'm more risk-friendly than most and I have a feeling Mingo's pass rushing could make him that impact player who elevates his team more than Jordan.
(Ed. Note: Now that you've read the scouting reports, what do the numbers say about Mingo and Jordan? Come back to FO next Monday, when we'll be running the 2013 SackSEER projections.)
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download now and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.
38 comments, Last at 21 Apr 2013, 8:48am by Durst