As much as I value pre-draft evaluations, the prospect’s landing spot is a pivotal part of the process. Few talents can transcend any scheme and impact their team’s success. In fact, plenty of starters and contributors at the NFL level only fill certain roles and might not be considered a long term starter at that position. It is all about figuring out where a player wins and giving them a chance to succeed in that area. In this series I will take a look at prospects selected on the third day that could offer an immediate impact thanks to their strengths and situations. I will never call myself an expert on the coverages and schemes that are included, but I am working hard to learn, so feel free to (politely) point me in the right direction. With that said, I cannot recommend this defensive write-up by Jene Bramel enough.
Other third day gems: LB DeVonte Holloman, RB Zac Stacy, S Earl Wolff, WR Quinton Patton
Despite what Madden has ingrained into your brain, not every 3-4 defense or three/four man front is created equal.
“We are a 3-4 personnel, but a lot of times the front that we play is a 4-3 front,” Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said. “A lot of teams call it over, under, whatever you want to call it, but we really do it out of a 3-4 personnel. So it gives us, hopefully, a little flexibility to jump into a true 3-4 or be able to play 4-3. Either one.”
Pees did not specifically state this mindset in that explanation, but rather than lock themselves into a boxed scheme, the Ravens enjoy having the flexibility to pressure offenses in a variety of ways. Notice how that did not read “pressure the quarterback,” but rather the entire offense. As this breakdown discusses, the Ravens’ (and previously Rex Ryan’s) philosophy was to disrupt weaknesses and strengths on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
Before attempting to unpack how pressure is achieved, let’s quickly discuss the Ravens’ personnel at the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive spots. Terrell Suggs has been and remains the key, and as Smart Football’s Chris Brown put it, he is the player “that makes it go.” Elvis Dumervil joins the club after lining up in a variety of fronts while in Denver, shining in both a strict four man front and also one with under principles. He is a technician, manipulating his body and hand use to force opponents off balance. Many might look at his measurables and call Dumervil a speed rusher, and although he can win by beating offensive tackles to the edge, his bull rush is paramount. The former Bronco’s game is expanded off that leverage thanks to length and a low center of gravity. With teams seemingly valuing length and height at the pass rushing positions, Dumervil is close to a rare breed and offers something different because of it.
The Ravens added Courtney Upshaw, and his experience in multiple fronts, during the 2012 NFL Draft. I wouldn’t call Upshaw a dynamic pass rusher, but he wins with force on first contact and improving technique in the details of the game. He can stand up or rush from a three point stance thanks to a straight-line attitude and a consistent leverage advantage.
One more addition this offseason comes in the form of Ohio State defensive end John Simon. Prior to the draft, I listed Simon at No. 113 in my pre-draft rankings, so I obviously think somewhat highly of his talent. Like other third day gems I spotlight, their futures might not be as starters, but instead at filling and excelling in certain roles. As previously mentioned, few talents can star or transcend schemes, therefore coaches must find players who win in certain roles and find ways to put them in those situations. For Simon, he has already earned comparisons to former Ravens pass rusher Jarrett Johnson.
After losing Johnson prior to last season, the Ravens saw a large improvement in Paul Kruger’s game. However, Kruger signed a large contract this offseason, so his role is there for the taking. To be honest, I had a difficult time nailing down Kruger’s role for multiple reasons. For one, the Ravens’ defense seemingly changes snap to snap. Secondly, Kruger was forced into the starting lineup during the early parts of last season thanks to Terrell Suggs’ injury.
Again, let me stress that Simon isn’t a true starter, but he could shine in certain roles. Rather than working through his fit with a standard 3-4 or 4-3 front to project that role, let’s discuss the Ravens’ (and Rex Ryan’s) philosophy on pressure. Ryan defined the term as “applying the proper strategy for the situation in order to maximize your defensive force," and offered three circumstances: Normal Situations, Penetrating Situations, and Prevent Situations. Each is not locked into a specific alignment of the defense, but rather a mentality. In this case, however, I will discuss a certain situation and Simon’s corresponding role.
The normal situations could be termed the base philosophy of a defense and coincide with what is currently going on in the game. As Ryan notes “Generally speaking, defenses selected for normal situations are delaying tactics designed to optimize pursuit and provide gang-tackling opportunities. Normal situations call for a defensive orientation towards containment.” The first part of that statement is a critical piece to Simon’s game. Few prospects in the 2013 class had the same kind of motor, as Simon loved to chase down from the back side with controlled aggressiveness. That mindset translates off the field as well, since Simon has been called “Tebow-ish” in terms of his dedication to the game and improvement. Whether it be from a stand up position as a 7 technique or down as a 5, Simon is always working to get past his initial blocker and achieves it thanks to relentless movement, leg drive, and strong hands to shed with a variety of techniques.
When teams are down on the scoreboard or are hoping to demoralize their opponent, an attacking philosophy can be valuable. Not only does this put pressure on a quarterback, but it pressures specific lanes to disrupt a set blocking scheme or planned area for offenses. The Ravens can use a variety of alignments, including a 3-3-5 or 4-2-5, in these situations. If on the field, I could see Simon filling Paul Kruger’s sub-package role in these sets. Kruger lined up in a wide 9 or 7 in upfield situations, winning with pursuit to keep working towards the quarterback. Like Kruger, Simon does not win with outstanding bend to turn the corner, but he does not settle for staying locked up in the offensive lineman’s grasp. Simon also saw snaps as an interior penetrator at Ohio State and used those same leverage skills when asked to slant inside from the edge. That versatility to help with edge or inside pressure will serve him well. He loves the spin move to finish counters, but Simon’s main traits are persistence and strength on first contact when asked to get upfield.
As Ryan wrote “Our primary purpose in the prevent situation is to delay the offensive team’s progress, preventing the long gainer or successful trick play.” Despite the association that connects coverage skills and outside linebackers in a perceived 3-4 defense, I would never put Simon in man assignments in space. He is a straight-line athlete who is not comfortable mirroring. Even with zone schemes, I would hesitate to place Simon in an assignment that goes beyond spying the quarterback. He works best when the offense is in front of him. I hate to sound like an echo, but Simon’s best fit here is with the pass rushers. The offensive line will almost certainly outnumber their opposition, so Simon’s motor will be welcomed to force the quarterback to move off his spot or out of the pocket.
Simon lacks ideal athleticism but can overcome it in a similar way that Elvis Dumervil has: technical hand use, leverage, and never settling for a weak position. I will say Dumervil is a more fluid athlete, as Simon tends to be a bit headstrong with his play, but the latter can learn a lot from the Ravens’ new addition. I doubt Simon has much of an impact this season, since the club has a group of solid players at his spot, but I would be shocked if the former Buckeye does not stick on NFL rosters, if only for his ridiculous motor.