By now, much has been written about the Su’a Cravens trade and what he potentially brings to the Denver defense. This is a player that the Broncos have apparently been trying to acquire for nearly a month, and had a first round grade on in 2016.
So what exactly does Cravens bring to Denver, and how does he fit into the defense? That is what I went to the film to find out. After watching through the majority of Cravens’ tape in his rookie year (2016), as well as a few games from his college career, it’s clear why Denver coveted Cravens’ skill set, especially given their recent struggles in the passing game.
Let’s talk about Cravens’ role first, before diving into the tape. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve already heard my mini-rantings on this. Let’s set the record straight on Cravens. He was brought in to play the dime linebacker role. He is not replacing Darian Stewart (at least not this year), and the main play he will take snaps away from is Will Parks.
This is not a bad thing nor does it diminish the potential impact or talent he brings. Last year, Parks played 60% of defensive snaps primarily in that role, so Cravens will be just as much a starter as Domata Peko and Todd Davis.
Last thought on Cravens. He can say he wants to be seen as a safety all he wants, and the org can say that all day, but I haven't seen him line up beyond 5-7 yards of the LOS in three years worth of tape from college or NFL.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 31, 2018
He's a sub dimebacker and that's where he'll play.
There have been some folks pointing out Cravens’ stated desire to be seen as a safety, and his strong safety designation. That is fine. He can consider himself a safety all he wants, and he may be able to move to that position in the future, but he hasn’t played safety in the three years of tape I have watched.
Cravens never lined up more than 5-7 yards off the line of scrimmage in two years of tape at USC, or in his rookie year in Washington.
“This is one of the things I was saying: My love for the game and my personal feelings for it affected the way that I handled things,” Cravens said. “So if you asked me last year, I’d tell you, ‘No, I’m not a linebacker. I don’t like the position. I don’t know why I’m playing it, but I’ll just do it.’
”But now, for me, if they want me to play linebacker, I will play linebacker. If they want me to blitz and take on guards and tackles and get off double-teams, I will do whatever they need me to do. So I feel like I’m a strong safety, but I realize that I also have a skill set that suits the ‘backer position.”
So with that, let’s take a look at the skills he brings to the table that will allow him to excel in this dime linebacker role.
First and foremost, you have to be able to cover (or pass rush) if you’re on the field in a sub package. Cravens has shown excellent man to man coverage ability, as well as good instincts in zone coverage.
Here he is manned up on Jared Cook against the Packers. Cravens does a nice job pressing him off the line, and shutting off the inside. He then runs the out route for Cook, and forces Rodgers, who was looking that way, to throw the ball away.
Here, in a shallow zone, he drops over the middle and takes away the slant route to the left, then reads the quarterback’s eyes, and gives chase once the ball is thrown.
While he was primarily matched up on running backs and tight ends, Cravens was also called upon to cover receivers as the offense attempted to scheme mismatches. That’s the beauty of having a guy like Cravens on the field in his position, the offense can line a receiver up in the backfield to create a mismatch, and then motion him out in the slot, and Cravens holds his own just fine.
Here you can see Davante Adams being split out into the slot. Cravens jams him nicely at the line and stays in his back pocket and stops the catch for a minimal gain.
This one is my favorite, though.
Cravens is matched up one on one against the running back, who runs a Texas (or angle) route out of the backfield. This is one of the hardest routes to cover from a running back.
He reads the back, doesn’t over-commit to the out, stays with him on the cut, and shows excellent lateral agility and burst to intercept the pass.
You may recognize this route from the Los Angeles Chargers game in Week 1 against Denver. Todd Davis was matched up on Melvin Gordon, and Gordon absolutely toasts him on the play.
These kinds of plays are why I’m so excited to see Cravens join the team.
When you’re playing in the box, or close to the line of scrimmage in this dimebacker role, you also have to be able to fit in the run game and make tackles in the open field.
Cravens checks the boxes in this area as well. He shows a good nose for the ball in the run game and is a sure tackler when he arrives.
I specifically wanted to watch this tape against the Cardinals because David Johnson is one of the most shifty and explosive backs in the NFL. Cravens handled himself well in the open field against Johnson, and here he makes a key stop in the run game.
This is a good example of making an impact in run support that won’t show up on the stat sheet. Cravens reads the play and explodes through his gap, beating the guard across his face to where the guard has to essentially tackle him to avoid it being a massive loss. The officials correctly call the hold. Great play by Cravens here.
Another example of his tackling ability, athleticism, and hustle. Cravens is actually lined up as an outside linebacker in this play. Washington occasionally would line him up there.
He shows good instincts to read the screen and stops this play before it ever got going.
Lastly, Cravens brings excellent speed and athletic ability to the table and it routinely pops on tape.
Check out this open field burst and top speed to chase down this play that was nowhere near his responsibility.
As I said the other day on Twitter, this is the difference between timed speed, and speed on tape.
When people talk about speed on tape vs. timed speed, this is what they mean. pic.twitter.com/fEMUQTixk3— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 31, 2018
His burst and acceleration is also on display as a blitzer.
He not only affects the quarterback, but also is able to get his hands on the ball for the pass breakup.
So I hope this gets you excited about our knew Swiss Army Knife that Joe Woods can deploy in sub packages.
If Cravens is able to build upon his rookie campaign, John Elway got a steal in this trade. Additionally, Cravens is only 22 years old, and due to sitting out the 2017 season, still has three years left on his rookie deal.
As far as I know, he would actually have three more seasons on his contract, and then would be eligible to be a UFA in 2021. The contract, as far as his base salary, basically picks up where it left off after 2016, so in service/contract length, it’s like ’17 didn’t exist.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) April 3, 2018
Cost effective, young, talented, athletic, and fills a major need? Please and thank you.