Film Room: Markus Golden

Film Room: Markus Golden
Film Room: Markus Golden
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

2015 has been a weird year for the rookie class.

It's clear who the stars are. Todd Gurley, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Amari Cooper all fit that description. It's also clear who is getting value for their first-round selections. The teams who selected Brandon Scherff, Leonard Williams, Kevin Johnson, and Marcus Peters immediately come to mind. Outside of those players, the first-round rookies this season haven't produced a huge amount. Injuries have been a major issue. Dante Fowler, Cedric Ogbuehi, Breshad Perriman, and Kevin White have all failed to play a single snap this year, while each of Ereck Flowers, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Phillip Dorsett, Damarious Randall, and Shaq Thompson have missed time because they have been hurt. Once you throw in those who are healthy and not meeting expectations -- Vic Beasley, Trae Waynes, Danny Shelton, Melvin Gordon, Cameron Erving, and D.J. Humphries -- the first round becomes a major disappointment.

Of course, the success of any draft class isn't determined by its first round alone. Rookies selected outside of the first round can still have a huge impact in their immediate exposures at this level. No rookie who fits this criteria, outside of arguably Buffalo's Ronald Darby, has outperformed Markus Golden of the Arizona Cardinals so far this season.

Golden wasn't considered a strong prospect coming out by most media analysts. Lance Zierlein of considered Golden to be a fourth- or fifth-round prospect, saying, "Golden is primarily an effort and pursuit player with special-teams potential, but he doesn't fill up a stat sheet." Evan Silva, of NBC, offered a similar point of view as he questioned Golden's athleticism: "Golden produced in college, but lacks the athletic ability required to become an impact NFL pass rusher." Doug Farrar, former Football Outsiders writer now with Sports Illustrated, offered more optimism: "Golden was lost in all the Shane Ray hype, but he's a hard-working, productive player who can steal a lot of snaps as an all-around defender as opposed to a pure pass rusher." Pete Prisco, of CBS, echoed Farrar's sentiment after the Cardinals selected Golden: "He plays hard and he's tough, but will he be a big-time edge rusher? I like him, but he might be more solid than special."

SackSEER, meanwhile, gave Golden a horrible 8.3 percent rating. Golden was a junior college transfer and had just 14.5 sacks and two passes defensed in his junior and senior years combined. Those numbers don't fit what we usually see from an edge rusher chosen in the second round as Golden was.

Rarely is there such a clear consensus on a prospect as there was with Golden. Almost everyone who watched him came away impressed by his ability but concerned by his athleticism. So far, the consensus scouting report appears to be an accurate one. Golden hasn't been a great defender this season, nor has he put up huge numbers as a pass rusher, but he has offered huge value to the Cardinals defense. The edge defender has 19 tackles and just two sacks with one forced fumble as his role has continued to grow over the developing season. He has been a constant source of pressure while also showing off great intensity and ability against the run.

Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11, Golden was a prominent part of the rotation upfront and made the biggest play of his career to date when he sacked Andy Dalton.

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Golden not only sacked Dalton, he forced a fumble that the Cardinals recovered deep in Bengals territory. Sticking with the accuracy of the scouting reports, Golden didn't get to the quarterback with his athleticism. Instead, he showed off impressive body control and awareness to use his precise, strong hands to prevent Andre Smith from engaging him. As Golden knocked Smith's extended arms away from his body, the Bengals right tackle kept moving in the wrong direction so the edge defender had a clear penetration lane to get to the quarterback. Golden showed off impressive body control and enough acceleration to close on the quarterback. Although Smith didn't show great technique on this play, it was still an impressive one for Golden.

This is the type of play that the defender can make on a consistent basis. Over recent years, the NFL has become infatuated with extremely athletic edge defenders who can be molded into pass rushers. While it's important to be a good athlete in these roles, excess athleticism isn't always better than refined ability. Golden is proving that he is athletic enough to be effective at this level, so the way he wins shouldn't be something that is looked down on.

Although Golden only has two official sacks on the season, he has gotten to the quarterback more often than that. His two official sacks are actually compiled on three plays, as the rookie has two half-sacks.

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For his sack against the St. Louis Rams, Golden wasn't touched by a blocker. He went unblocked to the quarterback on a stunt. Even though he didn't beat a blocker, Golden once again showed off impressive body control and footwork to work his way between bodies and close on Nick Foles quickly. He was unfortunate not to be credited with the full sack because Golden got to the quarterback before Calais Campbell and didn't appear to need Campbell's help to bring him down. Debating who deserved the credit for that sack is obviously fair, but there should be no argument that Golden deserved full credit for his sack against the Chicago Bears.

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On that play, Golden lined up as the right outside linebacker across from left tackle Jermon Bushrod. During the broadcast of the Bengals-Cardinals game on Sunday night, Cris Collinsworth compared Golden to James Harrison. This type of play is why that comparison holds up. Golden is left in a one-on-one situation against Bushrod. He is aggressive in how he engages the left tackle, immediately attempting to punch his chest and knock him backwards. Golden gets Bushrod moving backwards, but is relentless in his efforts to attack his chest again. Before the lineman can bring his hands back up to protect himself, Golden is already violently attacking his core so he can slide off of him and get to Jimmy Clausen in the pocket.

Golden was the one who brought Clausen down even though Martin met him at the quarterback. Regardless, Golden's ability to force his way through Bushrod with such violent, aggressive hand usage while working from a lower center of gravity is what stands out most in terms of comparing him to James Harrison. During his prime, Harrison was a great player, but it took him a long time to get to that point. He was cut on multiple occasions before he became a defensive player of the year winner, and part of the reason he didn't automatically stick to rosters was his perceived lack of athleticism. Harrison worked to the point that he was extremely powerful and Golden will need to follow that path if he is to develop into a great pass rusher.

Power will also go a long way into making Golden a dominant run defender.

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Golden stands out most against the run when plays are designed to work away from him. He regularly chases down running backs with great intensity from behind and erases cutback lanes with his work ethic and discipline. Against the Cincinnati Bengals this past weekend, Golden didn't have many opportunities to chase down running backs from behind, but he did show off his intensity twice in curtailing the gain of quarterback Andy Dalton on scrambles.

Golden consistently shows off discipline and intensity in his run defense. What he lacks is the power to be dominant at the point of attack. This stands out most when he attempts to set the edge on plays that are designed to work to his side of the field.

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On this play, the Baltimore Ravens attempt to run right at Golden, who lines up across from the Ravens' right tackle. Golden engages the right tackle and meets him behind the line of scrimmage. He hits the blocker and knocks him backwards before establishing himself on the outside. The edge defender shows off good awareness to recognize that the play has been turned back inside, but he doesn't have the power, nor does he show off good enough technique, to control the blocker through contact. When he works back infield, he is too easily knocked to the ground despite filling the running lane. If the running back hadn't been dragged down by a backside defender, he would have had an opportunity to cut back behind his right tackle to the outside.

With added power, Golden has a chance to become a great pass rusher and a great run defender. He is already a good pass rusher and good run defender, so the Cardinals won't be concerned about him at this early stage of his career. Like many of the Cardinals' defenders, Golden is a versatile player. His ability to drop into coverage further pushes the comparisons to James Harrison. Even when Harrison was at his peak as a pass rusher, Dick LeBeau relied on him in coverage to make his defense as a whole less predictable.

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While Golden wasn't considered a great athlete coming out of college, he is a controlled athlete with the quickness and balance to drop into coverage. The Cardinals have asked him to drop into coverage relatively often this season. His natural positioning and comfort moving in space adds to a defense that is already very versatile. On this play against the Bengals from Sunday night, Golden fills a passing lane that Andy Dalton looks to after the snap. He gained depth quickly and flipped his hips while turning his eyes back to the quarterback. Golden wasn't asked to hang in coverage for long because Dalton escaped the pocket to the far side of the field, but where he settled and how he dropped into space highlighted his comfort with this type of assignment.

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Golden isn't the prototype edge rusher that teams have come to crave and media analysts have come to celebrate over recent years, but he is still a very good football player. You don't need to be a special athlete to be a good football player, even though it definitely helps.

Since Bruce Arians and Steve Keim arrived in Arizona, the Cardinals have consistently found value in less celebrated additions who fill ancillary roles. Golden isn't a key piece of the Cardinals defense at this point; he is a complementary piece to Calais Campbell, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson. Based on how well he has played to this point, it would be no surprise if Golden eventually became a key piece alongside those established stars.


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