It’s organized team activity (OTA) time across the National Football League. From Buffalo to Los Angeles, rookies and veterans alike have gathered for their first taste of what teams will look like in 2017.
Now, it’s important not to read too much into the happenings at organized team activities. These workouts are in shorts and shells with a minimum of contact (there isn’t supposed to really be any, but you know how that goes).
Also, proclamations from on high during OTAs are usually heavily seasoned with glass half-full coachspeak. The youngsters who are acclimating well are future superstars in the making. The ones who aren’t just need a little more time.
Nobody sucks at OTAs, and everybody gets a participation ribbon.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be gleaned from pre-camp workouts. They can offer an early window into how position battles are shaking out. Personnel moves at this juncture can indicate what teams view as areas of strength and/or weakness. And OTAs offer a first chance for surprise starters in the making to make a move up depth charts.
And, for this trio of individual defensive players, an opportunity to rise from obscurity and get themselves (potentially) on the draft-day radar.
Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers
From the moment it was announced that the San Francisco 49ers would run a 4-3 “Under” front similar to that employed by the Seattle Seahawks under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, one question has loomed over the team …
Who would the 49ers use as their “Leo” weak-side end – the most fantasy-favorable slot on the line?
If OTAs are any indication, the 49ers are giving the first crack at that job to third-year end Arik Armstead. And while at 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds, Armstead is nothing like the prototypical “Leo” (usually a smaller end who relies more on speed than power) Saleh told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area he thinks Armstead has the quickness to break the proverbial mold.
“He moves well,” Saleh said. “The concern was that he’s so big and he doesn’t exactly fit the prototype, but he’s so athletic. He’s so long and he’s got a good first step. He just needs to get more comfortable in the things that we’re asking him to do physically. He looks lean. He’s in amazing shape and he looks good out there.”
There’s no guarantee that Armstead will win the job. The 49ers recently signed veteran edge-rusher Elvis Dumervil, who is (on paper, anyway) more the sort of player we’ve come to expect seeing in the “Leo” role. But Dumervil’s also 33 and coming off an injury-marred 2016 that saw him miss eight games.
With just 4½ sacks over his first two NFL seasons, Armstead hasn’t come close to living up to his first-round status. Winning the “Leo” job could turn that disappointing start around in a hurry though.
Demario Davis, ILB, New York Jets
After a disappointing season in Cleveland, Davis told Ethan Greenberg of the Jets’ website that he’s glad to be back in the Big Apple.
“I’m so happy to be back,” Davis said. “It feels good to be back home. This is my football home. I just praise God for bringing everything full circle like that. I wanted to be back here in the Big Apple, the place I was drafted. I’m excited to get started.”
Davis, who spent the first four years of his career with the Jets, before departing for Cleveland in free agency a year ago, said he learned a lot in his year away from the team.
“I came back a different person,” he said. “I grew a lot in leadership. Being on a team that had a young locker room, I had to grow a lot and learn how to lead the young guys. And I grew as a human being in that, mostly in relationships and how to relate differently to different individuals. I also grew as a player. It was almost like an isolation at the end of last season where I was really able to check my game and see where I was at. I realized there were areas of my game that were deficient where I should be strong. I’ve been decent in the run game, but I haven’t done so well in the pass game and blitzing, so I spent an incredible amount of time in the offseason preparing myself. Had I not been in the situation that I was in last year, I may not have had stopped and looked at myself in that way.”
In related news, I don’t believe him even a little bit. Davis graded 46th among qualifying inside linebackers last year at Pro Football Focus. He was the seventh-worst inside linebacker in the NFL against the run – the facet of his game Davis said he’s best at.
The thing is – Davis doesn’t have to be good to be a productive IDP asset in 2017. The Jets’ defense is going to be on the field, well, always this year. And as bad as Davis was a year ago, Darron Lee was actually worse.
If Davis nails down the three-down role I expect he will, he’s going to put up numbers – even if he’s awful while he does it.
Calvin Pryor, S, Cleveland Browns
The player who was traded for Davis is just as happy as he is to be getting a change of scenery. Safety Calvin Pryor, who has been a massive disappointment since being drafted 18th overall in 2014, told Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer that he views this fresh start as a chance to get his career back on track.
“I feel like it was a great opportunity. Have a fresh start, learn a new system and buy into a new culture,” Pryor said. “I have a great defensive coordinator who is going to put me in a position to be successful. I am really believing and buying into the coaching.”
Pryor also insisted that despite how things turned out in New York he’s not the bust so many make him out to be.
“One thing I know – I can play football,’’ he said. “It’s about being in the right situation and then going about things the right way. I’m looking forward a fresh start, having an opportunity to play with the Cleveland Browns. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.’’
Disappointment doesn’t totally cover how bad Pryor was in New York. In 813 snaps a year ago, Pryor graded as the fifth-worst safety in the NFL per PFF.
However, it’s worth pointing out that in the two years prior to that, Pryor graded inside the Top 35 safeties in the league. Not awesome – but not awful either.
It’s also worth pointing out that with Davis back in New York, the Browns suddenly have a hole at linebacker – a hole that’s led many pundits (this one included) to wonder if the team might use a lot of “big nickel” three safety looks that get Pryor and rookie Jabrill Peppers on the field together.
I can’t say with certainty that will be the case. I can, however say with certainty that I’ll be watching closely in training camp to see if that is the case. Because if it is, Pryor could become the sort of no-risk, high-reward defensive back pick I’ve been making hay with for years.