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Chicago Bears Draftwatch: 2016 Linebacker Prospect Su’a Cravens

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The perfect LB/S hybrid or an undersized player stuck in no-man’s land? The curious case of Mr. Cravens.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The case before this week's draft court looks like it might end up in a hung jury. I'll use that opportunity to give you a bit of glimpse "behind the curtain" of what goes into an evaluation. Hopefully it will help give you a deeper insight into both the player and process.

Su'a Cravens, Linebacker, University of Southern California

Su'a Cravens is the embodiment of a perfect conundrum in both his physical makeup and his game tape. He is an excellent illustration of why drafting players is still as much an art as it is a science in today's NFL. To counter the fact that there is so much uncertainty about his role on the next level as football player, I will start with the things that are certain. Cravens is a junior at USC and a leader of their defense. His is listed at 6'1" and 225 pounds, but even that is not a certainty as Cravens posted this on Twitter a few days ago:

Even his number and listed position lead to more confusion. USC has listed him as both a safety (S) and an outside linebacker (OLB) in his time there. He wore number 21 for the Trojans (which usually reflects a defensive back) but played the majority of his snaps near the line of scrimmage... so the confusion continues.

Cravens has been a hot name in the draft community (and in the WCG comment sections) for a while now. Early on he was routinely listed as safety or a hybrid safety. However as the 2015 college football season progressed and analysts got a look at him in person (or on tape) it became clear very quickly that he was indeed a linebacker, not a safety. Even with that fact "established" the questions about what Cravens is really good at and where he might play on Sundays don't stop. In fact, they're just getting started.

With all the uncertainty surrounding him and the wide range of opinions regarding his potential prospects as a pro, Cravens is a player I was anxious to get a look at. However I didn't want to look at him first. I wanted some context. I wanted to see some of his peers at both safety and linebacker before I looked at his tape. I had the chance to evaluate him early on in the Draftwatch series but chose a player that is very similar in many respects, Duke's Jeremy Cash, instead. This gave me the best opportunity to compare apples to apples when I finally did get a chance to do a film study on Su'a.

I always strive to watch at least 3 game tapes of players before I evaluate them. Highlights are great but they simply don't provide the full picture of a player. After 3 tapes you can usually identify enough abilities, tendencies and trends about a about a player to have an informed take on their overall game. For Cravens I had the luxury of 4 available tapes from 2015 and chose 3 quality opponents: Notre Dame, California and Stanford. All 3 teams feature excellent offenses that would test Cravens against both the run and the pass. That is a nearly ideal setup in terms of evaluating a player and things rarely line up that well.

I started off with the Notre Dame tape and it was, in a word, underwhelming. Cravens exhibited a lot of the limitations I had heard people worry about and at the same time showed very few of the strengths that I had heard others rave about. It was certainly not his best game, or so I hoped. I moved on to the California game where USC faced one of the top potential picks in this year's draft, Golden Bears QB Jared Goff. The change of scenery did nothing for Cravens. His game was still full of negatives with very few highlight-type (or even solid) positive plays. Through 2 full tapes I had seen very little to justify the hype surrounding Cravens and plenty to backup the doubters, including:

  • Being routinely handled by a single blocker, often only a tight end or a fullback
  • Missed tackles; plenty of them
  • No real run stops to speak of and some long rushing gains right through his area of responsibility
  • No impact plays versus the pass; a few decent runs in coverage but no breakups or interceptions
  • No major pressure to either QB in terms of quality hurries, hits or sacks
  • Complete ineffectiveness when taking on offensive tackles - he just got erased
  • Zero effect on goal line plays
  • Displayed very average on-field speed and loafed enough to get noticed

Needless to say I was starting to form a pretty negative opinion of Cravens game. He simply had not made any real splash plays and was even getting washed out on basic responsibilities, like setting the edge versus the run. He had basically no real impact for his defense in either contest. His hard-hitting reputation and the comparisons to USC greats like Troy Polamalu were falling flat in the face of what was on his game tape. Worse yet the Stanford game was up next and their team featured a terrific offensive line and one of the best running backs in the nation (Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey). In short, it was looking pretty bleak for Mr. Cravens.
I took a break so my eyes would not glaze over and came back to watch the Stanford tape with fresh resolve.

I ended up rewinding that tape; a lot. I was in utter disbelief. Here was the player who everyone had been raving about. Cravens played the lights out:

  • Beat the left tackle inside with speed and sacked the QB
  • Set the edge versus the run hard and made stops against McCaffrey with authority
  • Flew off the line and nailed ball-carriers in the backfield for losses
  • Sprinted into throwing lanes and disrupted screens before they reached the intended receiver
  • Broke up a pass on deep seam coverage of a slot receiver
  • Fought through multiple blocks to make a tackle versus a run to the opposite side of the field

Cravens still made some mistakes in the game, but they were so much easier to overlook when he was flying to the ball and making so many impact plays. It was a figurative night and day difference from the two earlier tapes I'd studied. He had so much more energy and effectiveness that he looked like a completely different player.

So where do all these mixed messages leave us in trying to solve the curious case of Mr. Cravens? In a way, trying to read the tea leaves... just like everyone else. A few things are for sure:

  • Can perform at a high level versus quality competition - if you doubt that, just check the Stanford tape
  • There's some inconsistency in his game (see: Notre Dame and Cal tapes)
  • Will need to land in a place that is willing to scheme to put him in a position to succeed - if you slam him into NFL guards all day long (and expect him to win) you're nuts
  • Coverage ability is quite good and probably better than several of his nearest positional peers (Cash comes to mind) - he also has excellent hands for a DB
  • "Wins" will come from using his speed more than power
  • Has a fairly high "floor" as he is a good athlete with versatility (he's an excellent special teams tackler), so his chances of being a massive bust are lower
  • Hasn't reached his full potential as a player
  • If he gets drafted in the top 45 picks it will be tough for fans to temper their expectations of him being a totally complete football player right now - which he's not

As for me, I am going to watch that 4th tape (vs. University of Washington) and see if it serves as a bit of a tiebreaker or just muddies the water further. Tracking his performance at the Scouting Combine will also be fascinating. With a little bit more evidence and honest deliberation maybe I can reach a final verdict before the draft in the case of Su'a Cravens. Court is adjourned and you are released from the jury. Feel free to make your case in the comments section below.