The Buffalo Bills’ defense was inconsistent throughout the 2015 season as they transitioned to Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme. Some players throughout the front seven that were productive in Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz’ defensive schemes that were based on 4-3 concepts weren’t able to replicate that success in their new roles. So, going into the offseason and most notably the 2016 NFL Draft, it’s likely that the team will look to acquire defenders that fit the archetypes for the positions needed for Ryan’s system to thrive. Today, we’ll take a look Southern California’s versatile safety/linebacker hybrid, Su’a Cravens.
Su’a Cravens is one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft class. As a safety, Cravens was named Freshman All-American in 2013 when he weighed roughly 210 pounds before moving into a hybrid box safety/nickel linebacker as a sophomore and was essentially a strong-side linebacker in his junior year.
In his three seasons as a Trojan, Cravens racked up 207 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 16 pass breakups, nine interceptions and forced four fumbles.
Cravens is an interesting prospect because he doesn’t have the range or fluidity to play as a deep safety, but he lacks the ideal bulk to play as an every-down linebacker, so whichever team selects him will need to have a plan for how to maximize his talents.
Previous Prospect Breakdowns
Su’a Cravens Size/ Physical Attributes
Su’a Cravens is listed at 6’2” while weighing 225 pounds. He’s got a long, lean frame and it doesn’t look like he could put on much more weight. Cravens is a dynamic athlete that possesses the speed and size to run the seam with tight ends or cover running backs out of the backfield, but is strong and physical at the point of attack and can come down to defend the run.
USC played him all over the field, as you can see from the image below. Keep in mind that all of these plays occurred in the first quarter of a game from his freshman season—that’s a lot to ask from a young player.
Cravens plays with a relentless attitude that stands out when watching him and he consistently finishes plays while giving maximum effort on every snap.
Su’a Cravens Run Support
For a player of Su’a Cravens’ stature, he’s surprisingly effective against the run—not just shooting gaps or chasing a running back down—but in terms of setting the edge as a force defender, holding his ground at the point of attack and letting his teammates make plays.
In the following play against Stanford, Cravens is aligned as the strong-side linebacker and is on the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals are in a pro formation with a fullback to Su’a Cravens’ side and they motion the tight end over him before the play. At the snap, Cravens takes on the right tackle and works down the line of scrimmage, forcing the running back to bounce it outside. He sheds the block only to engage with the fullback that’s lead blocking. Cravens does all this without surrendering ground, allowing his teammates to flow to the ball before he eventually sheds the block and makes the tackle at the sideline for a short gain. It’s a fantastic play and a great effort.
In the next play from the same game, Cravens is lined up in the slot over a receiver. Again, Stanford has a fullback to Cravens’ side of the field and they run in his direction again. Cravens runs through the fullback’s attempt at a block and brings down Christian McCaffery for a loss.
Cravens isn’t afraid to get in on the action and he’s got ridiculous agility with insane closing speed that help him make the play even after taking on a block.
While the plays above show Su’a Cravens’ ability to work through blocks, his lack of bulk can be an issue at linebacker when offensive linemen get out to the second level and will wash him out, as the following two plays show.
When given the opportunity, he routinely made plays in space due to his speed, quick feet and burst, avoiding blockers and shooting a gap.
But, at times Su’a Cravens will get too aggressive and overpursue a run, finding himself either behind the pocket or whiffing on a tackle attempt.
ProFootballFocus credited cravens with 22 run “stops” against the run, which accounts for about ¼ of his tackle total for the 2015 season.
Su’a Cravens Coverage Ability
Su’a Cravens is an incredible athlete with great speed and lateral agility. However, being a great athlete doesn’t always mean you’ll excel in pass coverage. Cravens is best when the play is in front of him, as he can be slow to recognize routes or exchange receivers with a teammate.
In the following play, Cravens is in the box as a dime linebacker. The two receivers to the right of the formation run switch routes as Cravens drops into a shallow zone, but he doesn’t get to a proper depth and doesn’t even acknowledge the receiver getting right over the top of him. Cravens’ eyes are on the quarterback and by now, it’s too late and Arizona picks up a huge chunk of yards down the seam.
In the following play against California, Cravens is too slow in his pattern matching—or passing crossing receivers to a teammate. The receiver catches Cravens flat footed and beats him across his face on a shallow crossing route. Cravens can’t recover quick enough and it results in a touchdown.
When the play is in front of him, Su’a Cravens is fantastic. He’s an ideal matchup for tight ends, as he’s strong enough to jam them at the line of scrimmage, fast enough to run with them and powerful enough to wrap them up easily without surrendering yards after the catch.
With more mobile quarterbacks coming into the league, defenses need someone that can defend the threat of a run. In the following play, Cravens is at inside linebacker and drops into a shallow zone between the hashes, but “Spies” Nebraska’s quarterback. When he sees an open running lane, the quarterback takes off but Cravens’ speed and explosiveness is too much, and he’s able to make a stop for a short gain.
Cravens is ridiculously explosive and has good anticipation when routes are developing in front of him, as the following play against Arizona State shows. It’s 3rd-and-5 and Cravens is covering the slot. As he’s backpedaling, Cravens sees the receiver running a crosser just short of the sticks. He anticipates the pass and breaks on the ball, blowing the receiver up short of the first down.
He does this again against a screen.
Su’a Cravens Pass Rush
Playing as a strong-side linebacker on the line of scrimmage, Su’a Cravens was asked to blitz on a regular basis, and he was really effective. He has good burst and power while showing some wiggle around the edge.
A majority of Cravens’ 16 career pass breakups came on blitz attempts too, showing great instincts and a knack for getting his arms in the quarterback’s passing lane.
Even when he’s not getting on the stat sheet, Su’a Cravens is a headache for quarterbacks as a blitzer. He plays through the whistle and is relentless in his pursuit, as the following two plays that result in throwaways show.
Potential Fit with Buffalo Bills
Su’a Cravens is an intriguing prospect that could potentially serve a variety of roles within Rex Ryan’s defense, similar to what Manny Lawson did last season. After Bills’ defenders complained about the amount of personnel substitutions and how it negatively impacted the unit’s performance, having a player like Cravens that can line up at almost any position in any given situation would be invaluable. He can play as the weak inside linebacker in base 3-4 fronts, in the box as a third safety in “Big Nickel” situations, as the “Mike” in dime packages, in addition to moving around the edge as a blitzer.
Regardless of where he lands, a team will have to have a defined job for him within a defense for him to succeed. If he lands with a team that is willing to be creative with him, he has the potential for a Bob Sanders/ Troy Polamalu-lite/Adalius Thomas-like ceiling. But, if he lands on a team that wants to pigeon-hole him into a spot where his lack of bulk and struggles with deep speed can be exposed, he could wind up as another Taylor Mays.