Su’a Cravens may not have the prototypical measurements for a linebacker, but he’s the future of the position. How will scouts react to him?
The combine is now coming to a close, so it’s time to start evaluating the whole body of work that each of the Trojan NFL hopefuls have displayed to the public. Keep in mind, with free agency on the horizon, some of these predictions for selections may need to change.
The individual workout component at NFL teams’ private facilities and interviews are also key for these players, but we do not have the privilege of knowing exactly what goes on during them. With that being said, let’s continue with the Trojans’ best player of 2015, Su’a Cravens.
Currently, the NFL is in a transition phase when it comes to linebackers. In a more traditional sense, Cravens is considered a “tweener,” meaning he’s too big to be a safety and too small to be a linebacker, in between the two positions as the name suggests. But, with the advent of more three and four wide receiver sets and vertical threat tight ends, the hybrid safety/linebacker role makes a lot more sense. Deone Buccanon and Shaq Thompson have been recent examples of this.
In the current NFL, the advantage to having someone that can cover a receiver and stop the run is enormous, but the hard part is actually being able to do both well. We know that Cravens has the ability to cover receivers, and we saw this specifically in his freshman year. Against Arizona State that year, take a look at how Cravens not only has tight coverage on the receiver, but also his ability to get in position to create the turnover.
Cravens may not be able to keep up with the fastest NFL receivers at his linebacking weight of 226 lbs, but we know that he has the skill set to excel in coverage and break on the ball. Understandably, his interception count has dropped since he switched to linebacker, but he has added another dimension to his game in run support.
In his first year as a linebacker, he had 17 tackles for a loss, which ranked 24th in the country, and another 15 in 2015. He has a great ability to get off of blocks to get to the ball carrier and sometimes the quarterback. This clip below might look mundane, but it illustrates what I image Cravens doing in the NFL
You can see that he lines up in man to man coverage with a wide receiver. Right away, this is something that linebackers are seldom asked to do, and if they are, it can end up in an extreme mismatch in favor of the receiver. The fact that he can cover a receiver man to man is impressive.
On this play, you see that he almost immediate recognizes the play as a toss to his side, and is able to get past the block. Sticking with the man coverage would have given the wide receiver a better chance to make a play against Cravens. At this point, Cravens is the only one able to prevent the running play from getting to the sideline and becoming a big play because the outside Trojan corner has followed his man down the field 10 yards.
Because of his excellent play recognition and speed, Cravens sets the edge and forces the ball carrier back inside, where the rest of the defense can tackle him. Despite a slight hold from the receiver, Cravens still makes the tackle himself, culminating a great individual effort on the play.
In this instance, you realize that Cravens actually has the advantage in this matchup. He can cover the receiver, but also get around him in the running game. With tight ends being a force in the running and passing game, a player like Cravens has the potential to stay on the field in running and passing situations and lock down a tight end in both phases.
The real question in terms of Cravens’ drafting position is which teams feel that his size can work well in their defensive scheme. I believe the key for Cravens will be excelling in the personal workouts with the teams he visits.
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Since outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes are typically much bigger than Cravens, I would predict that he would play weak side linebacker in a 4-3 team, or inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Weak side linebacker is more of the playmaker linebacker position, which suits Cravens’ coverage skill set, and is where I would think NFL general managers would pick him to play.
In the second half of the first round, the Vikings may be a candidate to select him, as their current starting weak side linebacker Chad Greenway is likely in the last year of his career. In the second round, the 49ers, Saints, and Bills all seem like teams that could be interested and need more playmakers on defense.
Many people will try to compare Su’a Cravens to Troy Polamalu and how he transitioned to a pseudo linebacker role later in his career with the Steelers, but I don’t believe this will happen, as the Steelers have a pretty solid linebacking corps already and wouldn’t want to put him purely at safety due to his lack of speed compared to the receivers he would have to cover.
Preliminary Prediction: Su’a Cravens is drafted in Round 2 by the San Fransisco 49ers.