As I alluded to on Twitter yesterday, I’m basically in agreement with everything Jeffery Essary said for MHR here. Go read that before you continue.
What we know
If his previous tape is any inclination, there is little doubt that Cravens’ fit for the Broncos will primarily be as a dime backer: a sub package player where he will likely replace Todd Davis on passing downs. This has been Cravens’ claim to fame going back to his USC days, in fact he played all but 8 snaps his final year of college within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Last year Will Parks played the dime backer role on the Broncos defense. He left a lot to be desired, earning a PFF grade of 47.5. Adrian Phillips, Clayton Fejedelem, and Deshazor Everett all outshone him. Who? Exactly.
2017 actually marked the first time since the Jack Del Rio days that the Broncos were below average defending passes to running backs, they finished 19th in DVOA. The 2016 Washington defense Cravens was a part of? They finished 7th, and plays like this make it easy to see why:
There’s a lot at play here.
You’ll notice that Cravens initially is lined up right off the edge of the line of scrimmage. He could potentially blitz, fill against the run or drop back here. That threat has to be accounted for, whether it means a faster release, a hot route by a receiver, or an adjustment from the offensive lines’ protection call.
On the snap Cravens drops back while fading out to his flat coverage, but believing there’s a mismatch, Ben Roethlisberger moves to dump off the pass to DeAngelo Williams quickly. It’s 3rd and 4 and as you can see on the cut-up above, Williams appears to have the space to gain 4.
Williams gains 2 and the Steelers fails to convert. What’s more, the way Cravens bailed on the snap prevented Ben from an easy completion to the slant here:
Cravens is clearly good in coverage against running backs. Let’s hope he didn’t lose much in his year off, because Kareem Hunt (53 receptions in 2017), Todd Gurley (64), Melvin Gordon (58), Le’Veon Bell (85), and David Johnson will all take their turn against the Broncos in 2018.
Another aspect of Cravens’ game that became painfully apparent over the course of his rookie year? He’s a very capable blitzer. While this may not be his primary role with Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and the gang around to terrorize quarterbacks, it’s a curve ball that teams will have to be aware of.
His presence as a pass rusher is an underrated part of Cravens’ game, mostly because he only got home once; a take-down of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. That doesn’t paint the whole story though, he’s a persistent nuisance on tape, and forcing a quarterback to rush his throw goes a long way towards forcing turnovers.
Is he an upgrade over Parks?
There’s no question. Cravens has him by 30 lbs and offers a lot more athleticism. It’s not surprising that the Broncos reportedly had a first round grade on him, coming out of USC the big question about Su’a wasn’t IF he could play in the league, but rather where he would fit into a defense. Someone like Wade Phillips wouldn’t be scared off by that when a prospect clearly offers special talent.
3 & Out with Jeff Essary
1. Is Cravens unable to play a more traditional role in the defensive backfield?
JoRo: The juries out here. Craven’s considers himself a safety and balks at the idea that he’s basically a linebacker, but Washington used him exclusively as a backer in their passing down packages.
It would appear that Elway and the Broncos coaching staff believe that Cravens can bring additional coverage abilities against tight ends and underneath zones as that was responsibility often left to Parks in his dimebacker role before Justin Simmons’ injury. While I didn’t spend significant time focused on Parks’ performance last year, it’d be shocking if Cravens’ can’t do a better job in the dime.
Jeff: For Cravens future, I know the DB coaches are working with him on deep safety coverage so he could potentially turn into a full blown safety.
I don’t see him in a robber role, as that requires him to play up high and would signal the coverage to the opposing offense. The beauty of Simmons and Stewart is both are capable at playing SS or FS so they often rotate pre-snap or can both swap out who’s up high or in each spot depending on the call so it allows for more disguise.
2. Could Cravens eventually grow into a nickel back?
JoRo: Again, the jury is out. His player comparison coming out was Thomas Davis, who played defensive back in college before a stellar career at weak-side linebacker for the Carolina Panthers. One thing that’s notable about Davis has been the Panthers ability to stay in base personnel (4 down linemen, 3 backers) against 3 receiver sets. This is due in no small part to the coverage skills of Davis, Shaq Thompson and Luke Kuechly.
As I watched Cravens tape I was looking for any sign that this could be in the cards for Cravens going forward. My biggest concern for the 2018 Broncos defense at present has been the 3rd corner role with Aqib Talib departing for the Los Angeles Rams. Right now I’d say that question remains unresolved. If Chris Harris continues to play significant time in the slot, Su’a likely stays as a dime backer in the short term. As athletic as he is, it seems like a stretch to push him all the way out into a boundary spot and ask him to cover receivers like Tyreek Hill, Amari Cooper or Antonio Brown downfield.
Jeff: I think right now Cravens is strictly a dime backer. In the year of pro tape and 3 years of USC tape I watched, he never lined up more than 5-7 yards off the LOS. However, given his ability against the run, I think he’s at least as valuable as a productive interior linebacker + the added versatility of coverage, to me, that makes him invaluable to a team. I’ve argued that Denver needed a player like him for a long time and I think nearly every NFL team will be looking for these kinds of players soon.
In terms of a contract amount or dollar figure, the NFL rewards playmakers and difference makers, regardless of specific role. So if Cravens turns out to be a difference maker in the middle of the defense, I think he’s worth rewarding appropriately.
3. Will Cravens stay healthy?
JoRo: Let’s hope so. It looks like the Broncos are taking his concussion history every bit as seriously as they did Wes Welker’s before him.
Still, this bit I read from the Denver Post can’t be ignored: “Not long ago, Cravens said a doctor told him: “I don’t think you’re going to be able to play football anymore,” as the result of head injuries. It’s a dire diagnosis that Cravens, 22, still keeps in mind today as he enters what will be just his second NFL season on the field. “At that point it was, ‘I’ve got to get healthy and make sure I’m good and I have a long life to live,’” Cravens said.”
Jeff: Like you’ve mentioned, no one can see the future and we certainly hope so. I’m taking as an encouraging sign that he was medically cleared to play and wants to continue to play. I’m sure it’s a situation the Broncos will monitor closely and take seriously any difficulties that might pop up.
Obviously with his fast style of play and his physicality as a tackler, the risk of concussions recurring is there, but hopefully he’ll be able to protect himself and have a long, healthy career - which is what we hope for all players as fans.
I’m way more excited than concerned about Cravens at this point.
One of my favorite parts of working at MHR has been how easy it is to just sit and discuss the Broncos with all of the talented staff. I talked with Jeff about this piece and he shared his thoughts on Cravens at length. Here are his thoughts, verbatim.
“I have been brainstorming different packages and ways to incorporate Cravens and the possibilities are exciting. I think the name of the game is versatility these days in the NFL. It’s fine to have highly specialized players at times, but as a defense especially, you have to be able to adapt on the fly and so the more you can keep the same core players on the field and just change up the calls and alignments to match whatever the offense throws at you the better. You have teams like NE spreading you out and throwing out of 22 personnel (2 TEs, 2 RBs), and teams like Philly and KC who run RPOs and gouge you with shotgun 11 personnel runs.
You bring up a good point about Denver’s corner talent being less stacked than it used to be, and I think Cravens can play a role in compensating this indirectly.
Try this package on.
Offense comes out in 12 or 22 personnel.
Harris/Roby on the outside. Simmons and Stewart SS and FS respectively.
Cravens, Davis (or Jewell down the road) and Marshall at LB.
Von Miller, Wolfe, Harris/Peko, Chubb
Now if they spread you out, you have Stewart up high running FS and Simmons and Cravens ready to split wide or spread out and matchup with whoever they need to. Davis plays run first, or even green dog blitzes and Marshall can drop short, or play the run.
You’re essentially running a 4-3 with Chubb and Miller as DEs and Cravens as an over hang/Will LB, which he ran all the time in college and even some in Washington. Tell me this wouldn’t be able to shut down passing out of those sets and be prepared for anything the offense throws at you. Additionally, this package still kicks butt against the run, especially if you have Peko at 1-tech. The D-line doesnt change a whole lot assignment wise and Cravens has the physicality and speed to set the edge or chase down a play from the backside. This gives you a ton of flexibility and speed on defense and you can rotate the defensive line around depending on what you need.
Then, from here it’s a quick swap of Davis with Parks or Brock for a Sub package look depending on if you need another safety or a corner.
Which leads me to my sub package looks I think we can use more. I love the idea of using Simmons and Cravens as matchup players all across the formation for specific types of players. I’d prefer Cravens on RBs due to his twitchy short area quickness and Simmons on TEs due to his length.
Simmons has also shown the ability to kick into the slot at times so I think if you wanted to stay a little heavy and forego the extra corner and do the big nickel like you suggested with Simmons in the slot and Cravens as a LB.
My go-to personnel grouping that I would rely on 65% of the time would likely be Harris/Roby/Brock (unless someone really surprises at 3rd corner), Stewart/Simmons/Cravens/Marshall as the back-7 and then utilize Miller/Chubb/Wolfe + a rotation of rushers or Dlinemen depending on situation.
But I think the core of Harris, Roby, Stewart, Simmons, Marshall, Cravens, Miller, Chubb, Wolfe need to be on the field as much as possible in whatever combinations Joseph and Woods can come up with.”
JoRo: Broncos Country, if you aren’t already doing so, give Jeff a follow @JeffreyEssary