When the Washington Redskins drafted Su'a Cravens in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, no one questioned the type of player they were getting. A tough, ultra-competitive warrior with strong bloodlines who eats, sleeps and breathes football. Cravens was a proverbial Swiss army knife at USC and wore many hats across the defense. He played safety, he played linebacker, he was asked to cover, blitz and set the edge. When he was selected with the 53rd overall pick, the only question was what hat would he wear for the Washington Redskins.
In just two years time, it has already become cliche. In the broadest of strokes, if a player is a linebacker/safety 'tweener, he's painted as a "Deone Bucannon-type" and that's the grade. The Arizona Cardinals have taken advantage of Bucannon's skill-set and placed it on the national stage but this position is not new. I hear the terms "hybrid", and "money 'backer" thrown around but allow me to tell you what that means in layman's terms; he's an inside linebacker. Let me show you:
Comparing a nickel/dime linebacker to Deone Bucannon isn't fair. Here are the Cardinals in their base defense. Three defensive lineman and two outside linebackers form your regular five-man front in a 3-4 defense. Bucannon is on the field as a inside linebacker with Kevin Minter. You can give the position whatever nickname you want, but in 2015, Bucannon played more downs on defense than any other defender for Arizona. That's because he's a base inside linebacker. He usually plays the weak side like shown above.
On this play, Bucannon ended up mirroring the running back out of the backfield.
Here is Bucannon again on the weak side, opposite the tight ends. This gives Bucannon the opportunity to trail plays, catch them from behind and shoot gaps (especially when a pulling guard vacates his spot). Again, notice the Cardinals are in a base 3-4.
The Bengals run a counter to the weak side toward Bucannon with two pull blocks. Bucannon sees the offensive tackle crash down and immediately goes outside for contain.
Whether it's because of speed or smarts, a smaller linebacker like Bucannon can beat pullers to the spot, get underneath the block and make a play.
Here is a short-yardage situation. I can only assume Bucannon is playing the strong side now in case the tight end releases on a short route past the sticks as both linebackers have been shifted to strong side. Note: It's still base defense.
The Bengals run a counter to the strong side toward Bucannon.
If the defender doesn't beat the blocker to the spot or make a quick, athletic move, he becomes an easy block for a guy who outweighs him by more 100 pounds. Sure, you take out one of the lead blocks, but that opens up the second level. This is the downside to being undersized.
The Cardinals move to nickel against a spread look. Bucannon shades the tight end side.
Bucannon shades the quick outside hitch well.
Cardinals in nickel again, and its third and long for the Bengals. Bucannon has eyes on the running back.
Bengals go with a predictable draw play. The offensive lineman marked is supposed to double the tackle, then release for Bucannon.
Bucannon uses his athleticism to beat the block and make the play. This is the upside of being undersized.
These are all things Su'a Cravens will have to deal with if he's used as a "Deone Bucannon" type. Cravens isn't quite the athlete Bucannon is, but he has smarts and understands the game. Will that even it out for him? Can he take on the big bodies on every down? The Redskins are primarily a zone coverage team but run man coverages as well to be more diverse (that's why you see Ryan Kerrigan trailing a Darren Sproles down the field). Cravens' 4.69 40-yard dash will be tested at times. They won't be able to just hide it in a zone coverage at all times.
This isn't a new concept to the Redskins but they used it sparingly. Kyshoen Jarrett would replace Mason Foster next to Will Compton. When they did use it, they made sure it was very obviously a pass.
Jarrett gets out to the flat on his Cover 3 assignment and Sproles releases from the backfield.
Incomplete pass, but Jarrett was there for the hit.
Jarrett played in the middle for a few snaps against the Giants as well.
Jarrett picks up the running back out of the backfield in man coverage. Like I said, you can't run zone every play.
Su'a Cravens will have a bit of a learning curve if he moves inside. I've watched seven of his games and this was basically his home. He was an outside linebacker asked to set the edge or catch running plays from behind. If he wasn't here ...
... he was here. More than one receiver to his side and he would flex out to cover the slot.
In special situations, Cravens he would move inside. He played inside when USC was in goal line defense.
Cravens does a good job here of getting skinny and getting into the backfield. He doesn't make the play, but this kind of quick disruption is what he is going to need to succeed.
Cravens also would move to the middle against certain players who needed a spy. This quarterback is known to run.
As soon as the QB moves, Cravens attacks.
Cravens chases him down and trips him up before the first down.
Of the seven games I watched, only against California did he log any serious inside linebacker time. This is a simple shotgun hand-off.
The offensive lineman releases to the second level, meets Cravens two yards beyond the line of scrimmage and seals him outside, allowing the running back to cut off the block and get a good gain.
Here is Cravens at inside linebacker again. Another running play for California.
Offensive lineman releases to the second level and seals Cravens outside again.
Cravens gets washed out behind the line of scrimmage while the pile moves.
Cravens playing on the inside still.
Cravens attacks the line of scrimmage hard on this one, but the offensive lineman seals him inside and the running back cuts off of the block.
The running back gets tackled after a gain of more than 20 yards.
Cravens doesn't back down from anyone and takes on any linemen who come at him. The problem is he doesn't have a ton of length so if he doesn't win off the first move, he has a hard time separating.
Cravens is coming on a blitz from the inside linebacker position on this play.
Cal is running a wide receiver screen, but the offensive lineman tries to block Cravens. Cravens makes the first move and beats the block.
Cravens flies out and makes the tackle on the wide receiver.
Here's the other question: Will his body hold up banging around inside all day?
You can call it "hybrid" or "money 'backer" if you want. I played on a team that utilized the same concept and called it "Land Shark." Instead of "see blood, get blood," it was "see ball, get ball." This seems pretty fitting for Su'a Cravens, who has a non-stop motor and flashes on the screen as someone who wants to be the best player on the field. How the Redskins utilize him might determine his ceiling because it won't be from a lack of effort. Calling him the next Deone Bucannon, who has been an exception to the rule, isn't a fair expectation to put on him. A ton of small, athletic linebackers have been put in the middle and failed. Most of those players were finesse, however, which is the last word I would use to describe Cravens. He's a tough-as-nails competitor who isn't afraid to bring the fight to anyone. I'm excited to see what defensive coordinator Joe Barry does with this weapon in this season and beyond.
Paul Conner is the Film Analyst and Draft Evaluator at Breaking Burgundy. You can follow him on Twitter @P_ConnerJr
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