I’m not a car guy, and neither is my brother. That knowledge should make the following story a predictable one. A few years ago when my brother was in high school, we went to get him a car at a nearby dealership. He was 18 at the time and I told him how we could be cautious and take our time. After all, I had a fine vehicle he could use until we found the right pick. Instead we wound up grabbing the first car off the lot and within two years he was back in the vehicle market.
This wound up leading him to a car shopping trip while he in college. When he went to the dealership he was offered a really awesome price on a 2005 Monte Carlo. So good that he thought he was getting sold another lemon. After much consideration, he wound up taking the deal because it was too good to pass up compared to the alternatives. When he came to visit me the following summer I rode in his Monte Carlo. It had some character, but nothing I thought seemed irredeemable if it really was that affordable. He wound up selling it later that same year for not quite 20% of what he got it for.
I share this because the Denver Broncos got a 5-time Pro Bowler for a 7th round pick and for the life of me I’ve had the toughest time figuring out the catch. Back when Elway acquired Jurrell Casey, I looked over a couple of his games after studying Graham Glasgow. What struck me as a bit peculiar was how he fit. After all, he isn’t the kind of behemoth D.J. Reader is, who went to the Bengals after the Broncos refused to top his 4-year, $53 million offer.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t good, just that he wins differently and isn’t necessarily the kind of player I expected Vic Fangio to prioritize. Back in March I felt I needed more time to work through Casey’s tape, and a flurry of moves began to happen. I decided to table my Casey study as other moves were happening because I didn’t see anything alarming to suggest he was anything but a really good deal at the time. Now that I’ve gone back over another five games of his, I’m convinced the Broncos got what could be the steal of the off-season.
Who is Jurrell Casey?
2020 will be Casey’s 10th year in the NFL. He came into the league as a third round pick out of the University of Southern California. He was the 19th defensive lineman selected in what will go down as a historically rich 2011 draft class. So far in his career he has played 143 out of a possible 149 games and started all but two of those for the Tennessee Titans.
In 2018 the Titans placed Casey on Injured Reserve on Christmas Eve because of a knee injury. 2019 marked the first time in his professional career where Casey had to miss consecutive games. He suffered a shoulder injury in a week eight win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that knocked him out of the next two games. He returned after the Titans’ bye to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars and returned to his usual workload, averaging between 42 and 58 snaps over the remainder of the regular season. While there has been some reports that the injury was nagging and influenced his play, it’s worth noting that Casey notched five of his seven and a half 2019 sacks, 13 of his 17 QB hits, and a forced a fumble after the bye.
What does Casey do well?
The first thing that catches the eye watching Jurrell Casey is how he’s a very good athlete for a defensive lineman and it goes beyond his measurables. He displays very good lateral mobility, balance, and good explosiveness. In 2019 he was asked to play up and down the defensive line, and it speaks volumes about what his former defensive coordinator Dean Pees thought of him that he was asked to play as a stand-up rusher on obvious passing downs. To date, I’ve never seen a 300 lb man asked to play so many snaps as what amounts to a blitzing linebacker role.
The Saints are facing 3rd and 8, Jurrell Casey is the only 300 lb player on the Titans defense. pic.twitter.com/OyzxMHkcXq— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 20, 2020
I’ve already written about Casey’s durability and his ability to return and play at a high level despite the shoulder injury in 2019, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that I’d give him high marks for his competitive toughness. He’s consistent on a down-to-down basis and shows up in big moments in the face of difficult matchups, such as when the Broncos tried to overwhelm him at the point of attack.
The #Broncos send 4 blockers at Jurrell Casey on this third and 1. It doesn't work. pic.twitter.com/DR3784Wpd7— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 20, 2020
Casey displays solid play strength for his position and brings a lot of power from his core and lower body. He knows how to maximize the advantage his natural leverage provides him and this shows up when he’s rushing the passer and playing against the run. What’s more, Casey has very good mental acuity. He rushes with his eyes up and quickly processes and reacts to changing situations as they occur.
The 30-year old has very good upfield burst, which stems from his ability to key the snap of the ball and his very good get-off. It isn’t rare to see him reacting more quickly than the majority of the offensive plays, which helps him to reach his opponent before they’re ready for him.
In all phases, Jurrell Casey displays an elite motor. Overall, he’s a good run defender who does good job defeating solo blocks. When he’s square for them, he can stalemate double teams and will mix in a corkscrew technique to stand his ground. One area he really shines in is against outside zone runs where he’ll utilize a long arm to provide him space to see the play develop and create a small target for the blocker as he works laterally. Whether he’s playside or attacking from the backside, he’s very good at beating opponents into the spaces that are created and has the discipline and mobility to run down ball carriers without giving up his gap.
Casey’s also a very good interior pass rusher who utilizes a variety of moves such as the swim, rip, and club to make his way to the quarterback. I’ve also seen him utilize a spin move. He displays very good footwork and will use his lateral mobility to create a false step before working back against his opponents leverage. Because he’s good at cornering for an interior linemen, these kind of movements create space for him to slip into cracks and disrupt the pocket. When asked to rush the passer from a five or wider technique, Casey looks solid.
I’ve mentioned this a few times on Cover 2 Broncos, but one area where Vic Fangio may weaponize Casey is on stunts. With Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, and Casey, to go with incoming rookie McTelvin Agim, the Broncos’ head coach now has a variety of mobile 300 lb gap shooters who could cause confusion for blocking schemes.
What are Casey’s weaknesses?
One of Casey’s biggest strengths comes with a cost: he has natural leverage as an interior rusher because he stands at 6’1. In and of itself this isn’t a huge issue, but as a shorter rusher he also has just 32” arms, which puts him near the bottom of the baseline for interior defensive linemen. This shows up most when he’s rushing from the edge, as many ends will use their arm length to create separation against tackles, but Casey has trouble doing so.
Casey also has issues if blockers can hit him from the side before he squares up. This prevents him from using his mobility, rush moves, or athleticism to defeat the block before the opponent gets into his body.
Lastly, the fact that Casey had a significant injury in 2019 to go with his season ending on IR in 2018 is reason for some concern.
Based upon what I saw watching Jurrell Casey’s 2019 season, I believe this move was a great one. While the former Titans may not be quite the 5-technique the now-departed Derek Wolfe was, the truth is Denver played more than 60% of their snaps in nickel personnel a year ago. As an interior rusher the Casey I watched blows Wolfe out of the water. If he can stay healthy, this move is going to look like one of the biggest steals of the 2019 off-season.
So why did the Broncos get him for so little?
I have three theories about this.
- With Dean Pees’ retirement, Mike Vrabel may have preferred moving the Titans’ defense to something closer to what he ran as the defensive coordinator of the Texans in 2017. In this system, Vrabel may have thought “Casey’s not a traditional two-gapper and is best utilized with designs that maximize his athleticism” and believed 2019 first rounder Jeffrey Simmons can cheaply replace his production.
- It may have been a simple cost decision. The Titans made a point of signing Ryan Tannehill to an extension and franchise tagged Derrick Henry this off-season. While they now have $20 million in cap space, there’s been a number of rumors linking them to Jadeveon Clowney, who could upgrade their iffy edge rush. If the Titans had not moved Casey when they did, they were quickly approaching a contract clause that would have guaranteed about half his contract. That and the potential bad publicity may have prevented them from dangling him long enough to drum up better offers.
- While I’m nothing resembling a trained medical professional, I subscribe to the belief that the best predictor for future injury is previous injury. Missing time the last two years to go with the mileage on his body suggests that Casey may be headed for an athletic decline soon. Perhaps the Titans thought it best to get out from under that now.
All or none of these situations could have been the reason, mind you. But beyond that, I don’t see much from Casey’s tape to suggest he’ll be anything less than one of the best defensive players on the Denver Broncos in 2020. I’m ecstatic for this move, and the fact his contract carries no guarantees makes it the kind of low-risk, high-upside gamble John Elway was brilliant to make.