With the emergence of young players like Telvin Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals, more and more NFL teams are buying into the notion of “undersized” linebackers who make up for that lack of perceived size with speed, athleticism and tenacity. In the opinion of one former NFL general manager (per Lance Zierlein of NFL.com), one prospect this year that fits that bill to a tee is USC’s Su’a Cravens.
“He’s a lot of fun to watch because he processes quickly like an NFL linebacker and then just fires into the play,” the GM said of the 6’1″, 226-pounder. “I’ve never really cared about the size at the WILL, I just want to know if they have instincts and can run and make plays. That’s it. He can do that.”
Cravens, who had 86 tackles, 15 TFL and 5.5 sacks for the Trojans in 2015, drew comparisons to Tampa Day’s Lavonte David from Zierlein, who wrote that Cravens was “born to play football.” “Teams focusing on putting a “tweener” label on him could be making a huge mistake considering his competitive nature and toughness,” Zierlein said. “Cravens was highly disruptive and productive in each of his three seasons as a starter thanks to his tools/traits to act on his instincts. Cravens will help on special teams immediately and could become an early starter for a 4-3 defense looking for a playmaking weak-side linebacker.”
Of course, there are also those who believe that Cravens fits best as a “hybrid” safety/linebacker ala Bucannon, including Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated. “The NFL has changed a lot in the last decade, Farrar said. “Safety-linebacker hybrids like Michael Boulware used to come into the NFL without a defined position and tended to fade away quickly. But in today’s multiple pass defenses, where nickel and dime coverage have become the dominant base concepts, “tweeners” are more valuable than they’ve ever been. Many see Cravens as a traditional weakside linebacker, but I see him as a more valuable piece in the mold of what the Cardinals were smart enough to do with Deone Bucannon.”
“The team that takes its nickel package and adjusts it to personnel, as the Cardinals did with Bucannon, may be the team that can get the most out of Cravens as a range player with rare positional depth.”
Rob Rang of CBS Sports agrees that Cravens best fit in the NFL may be at the back end of a defense. “With his long limbs, tapered frame and impressive fluidity,” Rang said, “Cravens looks the part of a traditional NFL strong safety. He’s at his best attacking the run, showing excellent recognition and terrific closing speed on outside runs to slice past pulling linemen and lasso ballcarriers for big losses.”
In fact, it would appear Cravens himself is on board with that notion, at least if what he told Farrar is any indication. “I just think I bring versatility to the next level,” Cravens said. “I know the role of being a big safety is beginning to change. I think before it was kind of frowned upon. But now that guy that can run with slots and guard tight ends in man and then come into the box and be that extra linebacker without having to sub, it’s pretty big nowadays. With the league becoming a passing league you’re going to need guys like that, so I think now, I’m at an advantage more than a disadvantage.”
Cravens versatility makes him an especially intriguing prospect for IDP owners, but it also makes him a difficult youngster to get any sort of pre-draft bead on. After all, until we see where he lands it’s hard telling if Cravens’ next team views him as an outside linebacker, a strong safety or a combination of the two.
Both Smith (fifth among linebackers in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring in 2015) and Bucannon (second among defensive backs a year ago, although his positional designation will likely switch to linebacker this season) showed the potential for these so-called “undersized” linebackers (or big safeties, depending on how you look at it) to become valuable IDP assets in relatively short order.
Cravens has the potential to be such an asset. But until we get past next weekend and have a better idea what’s next for Cravens, it’s hard to say where he fits into this year’s rookie pecking order.