A continuation of my previous blog Three Traits Every Offensive Position Must Have, here I identify the most important traits every defensive position must have. As always, I attempt to back my opinion with facts. And again, a lack of these traits can be overcome by good to rare compensating factors. My view is from a front office perspective and how they scout these positions and traits as the game evolves. Hope you enjoy and thank you for your support of this blog. Feedback from my initial post has been highly positive. I’ll keep working hard to bring you the valuable scouting content you desire.
Acceleration/Speed- There are two ways to win as a pass rusher in the NFL, speed or power. Without speed/acceleration, it is difficult to produce power. It is a race to the spot vs the Tackle. Those that consistently challenge OT’s with speed, win at a much higher rate. Look at 40 yard dash for the top 5 DE/3-4 OLB sack leaders in 2020: Myles Garrett (4.64 88th percentile), Jason Pierre-Paul (4.78 64th percentile), Brandon Graham (4.71 75th percentile), Bud Dupree (4.56 96th percentile), and Emmanuel Ogbah (4.63 91st percentile). Speed sets up every other move. It forces OT’s to be quick out of their stance and on balance when they get to the intersection point. It sets up the counter plus the spin and improves the effectiveness of stunts and games. Speed is essential.
Use of Hands/Shed Ability- While speed may be essential, you CANNOT win at a consistent rate without quality hands. Much like hands on the offensive side of the ball, use of hands is an incredibly difficult thing to develop. Players that have it frequently see almost immediate success when they enter the league. We can look at the products from one school as a prime example. DE’s that Ohio State has produced over the 5 years: Joey Bosa had 10.5 sacks his rookie year, Nick Bosa had 9 sacks his rookie year, and Chase Young has 2.5 sacks in essentially 4 games. All three were truly refined in their hand use coming into the league.
Flexibility- Otherwise known as bend. It provides DE’s the ability to dip under a tackles punch and tighten the angle to the QB. Speed along with flexibility creates a quality speed rush. Without bend, a stiff straight-line speedster cannot run the hoop and is easily pushed around the pocket by properly positioned OT’s. One speed without flexibility example is Jordan Willis who, in 2017, blew up the combine with a 4.53 40 but has failed to find any production at the NFL level. Throw on some Myles Garrett tape for some RARE bend/flexibility.
Use of Hands/Hand Placement – For many of the same reasons stated above, hand use is absolutely essential when playing inside. DT are fighting in a phone booth and accuracy is paramount. This is true in both phases. A DT’s initial hand placement is the key factor in their ability to press out and shed. Good luck producing power without proper hand placement. As a pass rusher, hand accuracy is key to knocking down lineman’s punch and avoiding the latch. It allows you to get to the edge of the block with speed or control the chest and push the pocket with power.
Strength- DT’s quickly become a liability if they can’t hold the point and anchor to avoid displacement. It is essential that a DT utilize strength to execute their run assignment. As a pass rusher, at the very least you can reduce the pocket with grind-it-out strength and effort approach. One note: leverage is a major factor in play strength. A player can break the bench record but if he can’t sink and play with proper pad level, he is going to be moved.
Speed or Power Rush- Interior pass rush is vital, yet all too rare. It destroys pockets and forces QBs to escape out the back of the pocket. Frequently, high picks at the DT position fail to produce the value that the selection requires because of their inability to produce a consistent pass rush. Danny Shelton comes to mind. It’s why the NT position has changed drastically over the last several years, there just isn’t a ton of value for a two down NT without any pass rush ability.
Speed- Now more than ever, speed is a necessity for the LB position especially at WILL (4-3 weakside LB) and MAC (3-4 speed LB). Offensives, more than ever, attempt to stretch defenses both vertically and horizontally. Range is important. Against the run, speed allows LB’s to scrape over the top and avoid being cut off by climbing lineman, it allows LB’s to shoot gaps and be disruptive, and it allows them to defend SL to SL vs outside zone, WR sweeps, etc. In the pass game, speed increases range. It expedites LB’s close, which is especially important given the usage of RB’s in the pass game these days. Size and strength is much less a factor and that is reflected in the trend of smaller LBs with speed taken high in the draft. Just look at LBs taken in the top 10 over the last 3 drafts: Isaiah Simmons (4.39 at 238 lbs), Devin White (4.42 at 6’0″ 237lbs), Devin Bush (4.43 at 5’11” 234lbs), and Roquan Smith (4.51 at 6’0″ 236lbs). All below average weight and exceptional speed. It matters.
Instincts- Instincts are a bit of an all-encompassing trait. A combination of preparation, mental processing, and overall feel for the game. Good instincts allow you to identify, locate, and trigger. It’s what separates the good from elite. With instincts and speed/AA there is a high probably that player is of high quality. It’s imperative for above average play in both phases. A linebacker with good instincts improves the overall functionality of the defense.
Coverage Ability- In todays NFL, coverage ability is absolutely crucial. Pass catching for RBs is a necessary trait, therefore, LB’s have to be able to cover man-to-man. Without rangy LBs, offenses will expose you in the MOF (middle of field). Teams will happily give up some size, strength, and overall run defense for a player that can play all three downs and cover effectively.
Speed- More than any position in the football, speed is absolutely required at CB. Think about it, cornerbacks are asked to pedal backwards, mirror, and turn and run with some of the greatest athletes in the world. A CB’s ability to recover when beat initially is highly important in minimizing big plays and requires exceptional speed.
Route Awareness- Man coverage ability is the most valuable skill a cornerback can have. A cornerbacks deficiencies can be covered up in zone coverage. They can’t in man. In order to stay in phase throughout the entirety of the route requires CB’s be able to identify/feel routes. This comes from study of tendencies, offensive alignment, and overall coverage instincts. It’s critical to maintaining quality positioning at the break point. Its vital for making plays on the ball.
Ball Skills- As mentioned in the offensive traits breakdown, there is direct correlation between turnover margin and wins. The truly valuable CB’s know how to create turnovers. Ball skills have little value without the ability to get in position and locate the football. However, ball skills combined with excellent instincts, route awareness, speed, and overall coverage ability creates incredible value for a defense. It’s the main reason I prefer a cornerback who gets on the hip and turns to locate the football over the technique of playing through the hands.
Communication- The most frequent cause of blown coverage assignments and big plays over the top is a lack of communication. Safeties are literally that, the safety net for the defense. Safeties are the only ones on the defensive side of the ball with a complete picture of the play. It is absolutely critical that safeties communicate both with each other and the defense as a whole. Communication allows for presnap disguises, zone coverage pass offs, and route concept identification. It is key to assignment sound coverage.
Tackling Ability- The responsibility of a last line defender extends beyond pass coverage. Good tacklers at the safety position limit home run plays and forces continued offensive execution. The great ones have the ability to truly impact the run near the LOS. Jamal Adams is a prime example. Yes, he lacks ball production but he truly impacts the game near the LOS.
Range- As in how much ground can a safety cover on a given play. It’s a combination of instincts, hip fluidity, acceleration, and speed. It has the potential to all but eliminate deep play opportunities. Ultra-rangy safeties are rare in the NFL but when you have one, it has a huge impact on how offenses have to attack. It forces short to intermediate throws, it creates more turnover opportunities, and it allows defensive coordinators to bring more pressure knowing the deep third is protected. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the prime example of how a rangy, ball hawking safety can impact overall defensive performance. Arrived Wk 3 of 2019, he has amassed six INT’s, 2 TD’s, and 10 PD. According to lineups.com, Pittsburgh went from 29th in TO created in 2018 to 1st in 2019 (when Fitzpatrick was acquired). In 2020, they have the best overall defense in football.