NFL teams have been adding speed at linebacker with offensive schemes putting more skilled players on the field. The days of the 260-pound run stuffer at linebacker are becoming a distant memory with every new season of NFL football. The average NFL team’s base coverage is nickel, and the importance of a linebacker who can cover will only continue to grow. Deion Jones was a second round pick in 2016 and he fell because he was undersized, but in the new age of the NFL he is a Pro Bowler. Sideline to sideline speed is crucial for a defense to be great, and that’s why Shaquem Griffin might be a steal for a team willing to pick him.
Every year the NFL draft produces a feel-good story that touches America’s hearts, and this year it is that of Shaquem Griffin, a linebacker out of UCF. Griffin is overcoming only having one hand, and pushing to become a Top 100 prospect in this draft. His story has captivated the hearts of football fans, and his tape backs it up.
Griffin was very productive at UCF, and won the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, collecting 11 sacks on the season and 92 tackles. He followed that up in 2017 with another 7 sacks and 74 tackles, playing everywhere from nickel corner, ILB, OLB, and edge rusher. He played well against Power 5 schools with a dominant performance in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Griffin displayed that versatility at the Senior Bowl, where he stood out all week in one-on-ones and pass coverage drills. He followed that up with a strong week at the combine, as he ran a 4.38 40 yard dash, put up 20 reps on the bench press, and looked outstanding in the drills. He probably has had the best off-season of any draft prospect this year. At his pro day, teams had Griffin run defensive back drills to see if he could make the change to DB. He did well there by showing how fluid his hips are with explosive change of direction. I put on the tape this week and wanted to share some of the intriguing traits I saw.
Tackling in Space
Griffin is a very sound tackler in space, rarely missing tackles in the open field. He breaks down well and explodes into ball carriers while finishing off with sound fundamentals. His consistency with his tackling technique mixed with his speed for tracking down ball carriers will help him be a difference maker at the next level.
Watch him above against Auburn, where he does a great job of reading the zone-read play. He breaks down with a good knee bend and knows he can explode in either direction whether the quarterback keeps it or hands it off. The quarterback keeps the football, and Griffin shows off his elite speed by hunting down the quarterback for an easy loss.
Griffin’s critics think because he is missing a hand he wont be able to take on blocks. I will say Griffin can be moved by bigger lineman and get washed out of plays, but the concern overall is completely overblown. Here is a perfect example against Maryland. Watch Griffin attack the lineman with a violent hand strike to gain leverage. He ends up pushing the offensive lineman back into the running back to cause a loss.
Griffin’s best attribute is his pass rush ability, which is very underrated by draft analysts. Griffin tallied up 18 sacks over the last two seasons, and when you turn on the tape you can easily see why. Griffin is explosive off the ball and has a tremendous motor that gives linemen fits. He keeps a plethora of pass rush moves and comes up with a great plan to set up lineman for different moves later on in the game. His bend when he corners to the quarterback is exceptional, with great ability to rip through blocks to create sacks.
The first example is against Auburn, displaying his bend and ability to corner to the quarterback. You just don’t see this type of bend every day from your typical prospect. It is very reminiscent of Von Miller, which is a player Griffin idolizes. The upfield burst is what kicks this play off, but the bend and cornering to the quarterback are what makes this so special.
This is my favorite rush attempt from Griffin. He has been setting up this left tackle for the entire first quarter with the outside speed rush. This time he fakes the outside speed rush and quick jukes back inside to the QB for a sack.
Here against Memphis, he goes to his signature inside spin move. He usually saves this for the end of games in key moments when he has been killing teams with the speed rush to the outside. This sacks shows the importance of a good pass rush plan, and Griffin has one.
One thing you see from Griffin is pure speed. His relentless motor, mixed with his speed and athleticism, make a dangerous combo for any offensive coordinator. UCF is in Cover 1 with Griffin spying the quarterback, Jarrett Stidham. Stidham doesn’t have anyone open and starts to roll out to his left. Griffin sees this and immediately attacks, causing an errant throw from Stidham. His speed is pretty mind-blowing and it translates on tape.
Versus Maryland, Griffin is blitzing from the weak side linebacker position. He times the blitz up well and creates pressure, but the quarterback avoids him and runs to his right. Griffin makes a quick circle and displays incredible speed to track down the QB from behind.
With offenses primarily running sets with 11 personnel and 3 WRs, the importance of having speed at linebacker has grown tremendously. Griffin fits the mold in every way possible with his unique athletic ability, instincts, and blitzing ability on 3rd down to create pressure. The only question with Griffin comes down to coverage. You do not see that many reps on tape to give you a very good idea of how good he is there. The speed, athleticism, Senior Bowl practices, and his pro day give you confidence he could succeed. The team who will really get something out of him is the team who takes a chance on him as a pass rusher. His pass rush traits are just too good for a team not to have him rush the passer at some point during the game. Griffin will be a make a difference at the next level.