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The Patriots defense has been very good the last two seasons, a product of strong drafting and shrewd free agent moves. From 2009-2013, they simply couldn't put it all together and the main reason for their Super Bowl drought was not being able to stop anyone in big moments. That has all changed, with Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower leading a defense that is fast, physical, and tenacious. Even the loss of Darrelle Revis didn't hurt their secondary, which was a surprise, but New England has done a good job of developing talent, so allowing a great player to walk won't destroy them, which we'll see again this year after the trade of Chandler Jones, the Patriots sack-leader and top pass rusher over the last four seasons. One way to make up for the 12.5 sacks is to use linebackers that can effectively blitz and get after the quarterback.
Su'a Cravens, OLB/SS from USC, would be a strong fit for the Patriots defense, not only for his positional flexibility, but also because of his ability to make big plays, something he did regularly as a Trojan. Cravens, 20, is listed at 6'1, 225 pounds, which is on the light side for an NFL outside linebacker. Cravens played strong safety as a freshman, but USC sustained an injury at outside linebacker, and because they had a lack of depth at that position and lots of depth at safety, they asked Cravens to make the position change, which he begrudgingly agreed to. The move ended up being the best thing that could happen for Cravens and the Trojans.
Cravens was an impact player for the Trojans the moment he stepped on the field. He finished his freshman year with 39 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, one pass defended, two forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Cravens was all over the field, and his excellent play did not go unnoticed by scouts and the media. He made the 2013 Sporting News Freshman All-American First Team, Athlon Freshman All-American First Team, Phil Steele Freshman All-American First Team, and 2013 All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.
As a sophomore Cravens was playing outside linebacker. He didn't like the move at first, but he flourished in his new position. He finished the season with 49 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions, and nine passes defended. Once again Cravens racked up end-of-season awards, being named to the 2014 AP All-American Third Team, Athlon All-American Third Team, Phil Steele All-American Fourth team, SI.com All-American Honorable Mention, 2014 All-Pac-12 First Team, Athlon All-Pac-12 First team, and the Phil Steele All-Pac-12 First team. To top it all off, he won USC's Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year Award.
Cravens junior year was just another exhibition of excellence, finishing with 46 solo tackles, 40 assisted tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, six passes defended, and two forced fumbles. Offenses game planned to control Cravens for basically most of his career, and he still consistently produced and proved to be maybe the best ball-hawk in college football. The trend continued as he was showered with accolades, being named 2015 AP All-American Third Team, Athlon All-American Second Team, Phil Steele All-American Second Team, and SI.com All-American Honorable Mention. Cravens felt that he had accomplished all he could at USC and decided to declare for the NFL Draft.
Cravens plays fast and he's always around the ball, but he's not a combine athlete, which may push him down to the bottom of the second round, maybe even the third. He ran a 4.69 40-yard dash at the USC Pro Day, and he didn't run it at the NFL Combine. Scouts aren't concerned about his 40 because all they have to do is turn on the film, because film doesn't lie. Cravens is excellent in coverage, having the ability to mirror tight ends and running backs, he blows up bubble screens, and when he gets his hands on the ball, he catches it.
One area that Cravens needs to work on is over-aggressiveness, something that is typical of players that have a nose for the ball and make big plays. Cravens is always looking to get into the backfield, and sometimes he would cheat and get swallowed in the run game. NFL coaching will fix that problem, assuming he's receptive to it and able to control himself. Cravens also needs work in his zone coverage as he seems to roam too far out of position, a problem if he plans on playing regularly in the NFL.
New England did have Cravens in to meet with the team, so he is definitely on their radar. If the Patriots are able to draft him, which seems like a good possibility if he's available when they're on the clock with the 60th and 61st pick, he'd add another playmaker to a defense that has been getting younger and better every season, and teaming him with Collins and Hightower could be terrifying for the rest of the NFL.
Statistics Provided by Sports Reference.com/College Football
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