I had a chance to sit down with one of my favorite people in former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick last year to break down two of the top receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft. I love picking the brains of former players and coaches because everyone views the game differently. I learn something new every time I sit down with them to watch film. I decided to do something similar this year as I sat down with former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese to analyze the top linebackers in this year’s draft.
As a precursor, I didn’t do this because I think the Eagles will draft one of these players, but because I love learning more about the position and sitting with a longtime veteran to ask questions and help me evaluate these players was something I could not pass up on.
Below is (most of) our conversation as we studied the consensus top three linebackers in this class by draft analysts - Georgia’s Roquan Smith, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, and Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch. I wanted Reese to see a game where each player was productive so he could see them at their best.
The game I chose for Smith was the National Championship Game against Alabama, where the junior racked up a season-high 13 tackles and a sack against the Crimson Tide. The action started on the first play of the game, as Alabama ran a Jet Sweep to the left side, faking a quarterback run in the process. Smith wasn’t in on the tackle but chased the play down to the sideline.
Fran Duffy: “This is tough because he’s got to respect what he sees in the backfield with this Power Read element. He can’t play the Jet Sweep until afterwards just in case (quarterback Jalen) Hurts keeps the ball).”
Ike Reese: “Today’s reads for linebackers have to be so difficult. It didn’t use to be so hard for us but with all this read-option in there now, it’s not the same. It used to be you have to read the triangle, that was your key.”
FD: “Now that triangle is a whole lot wider.”
IR: (Laughing) “Now you have to read the whole box man! See, that line is going to get you to false step. You’re going to be put in a tough spot right at the jump!”
FD: “He’s got the speed to make up for it though”
IR: “Yes he does. What are his measurables?”
FD: “He’s just under 6-1, 236 pounds. He played in the low 230s I believe. He ran 4.52 at the Combine.”
IR: “Did he?! Wow. I didn’t think he was THAT fast! That’s pretty darn good.”
FD: “Yeah he can run, no question, and he typically plays fast too.”
A few plays later, on the same drive, Reese saw exactly what I meant by that. Alabama running back Damien Harris took a Counter run to the right for a 2-yard gain. In that play, a tight end came from the back side and ran around as a lead blocker for Harris, and Smith met him in the hole.
IR: “There’s a lot to like here. He pressed the hole quickly (meaning he attacked downhill in his gap). He’s got to stuff this tight end back in the hole, though. He catches him and lets him into his chest instead of delivering the blow. He read it correctly though.”
FD: “He presses it really quickly.”
IR: “He does. He’s in the right gap, attacking the correct shoulder of the block, playing to his help inside. He understands he’s got outside leverage on this play. You just want to be able to hit first, initiate that contact because No. 82 just wants to grab and hold you. Don’t let him strike first!”
On the first play of the next drive, Reese got his wish. Bama runs a Power run to the right, and as the backside linebacker Smith has to deal with the block from a tight end coming from his left. Smith has his eyes in the backfield but is able to defeat the block from the tight end and get in on the play at the end.
FD: “How hard is it when you’re attacking something downhill and you’ve got opponents coming out of your peripheral? It can’t be easy to defeat that block without taking your eyes off the ball.”
IR: “He feels it. That’s film study. It’s difficult. But that’s a tape study play. I love that he shocks the block with his hands here, not like the one we saw a few plays ago. Look here again, this is another tape study play.”
Alabama throws a bubble screen to running back Bo Scarbrough to the right. Smith defeats the block on the outside and gets in on the tackle.
IR: “He recognizes that, again off film study. He feels the receiver trying to block him; he can’t let that happen. This play is going outside and he knows it. He gets rid of the receiver, stays square ... he’s always square to the line of scrimmage.”
FD: “I know that’s big for you, and that’s a big back he gets to the ground.”
IR: “That’s from being square. He’s in position to make that tackle. He looks comfortable in space. You put him out there and you watch him, he’s not falling over himself. He looks athletic; he always a good base. That’s a big part of those shoulders being square. He does a lot more shuffling than crossing his feet over. Shuffling gives you the ability to change direction much easier, he can go left or right at any time. Crossing your legs over, you can get caught up under yourself and cause you to get thrown off balance, that’s what the ballcarrier wants. That’s a nice play.”
The game progresses. In the first drive of the second quarter, we see Smith get in on another stop, this time on a 1-yard run to the left. This time he takes a block from All-SEC tackle Jonah Williams, stays alive, and gets in on the tackle.
IR: “Good job pressing the hole here, he doesn’t stay blocked. That’s the number one thing for a linebacker, it’s one thing for a lineman to get a fit on you but you have to get off the block. That’s what he does there. That’s his gap (the C gap outside the tackle), and he’s right where he needs to be. You probably want him to be a bit more stout, but he’s off balance here so you can’t kill him too much for that.”
FD: “That’s where that athleticism comes into play too.”
IR: “Watch him gather himself. He doesn’t get blown out of there and he’s in there to make the play.”
Two plays later, Smith makes the tackle on third-and-long to get the Bulldogs off the field. The play was to the left, and he lined up on the right side, so he came from the back side and got the ballcarrier down.
IR: “He’s unblocked here. The good thing is that he doesn’t get caught up playing with that right tackle, a lot of guys may try to initiate contact there. Again, he’s square so that allows him to see everything so he doesn’t overcommit. He’s so fundamentally sound. Doesn’t try to do too much, he’s not freelancing. This is his responsibility right here, that’s perfect.”
FD: “I love the violence there at the end too. It’s not perfect tackling technique. He’s got to leave his feet to bring this guy to the ground, but I like the physicality. During your time in the league did you see guys that maybe didn’t bring that or, I guess more importantly, do you think you need to have that to play at a high level?”
IR: “Yeah, it’s easy to see it on film. Some guys more or less, they’re not as quick to go play and downhill against the run. They want to go play in space and cover. This is the ugly part of playing linebacker, having to go in and play against this. You can get by with it in some schemes.”
FD: “Not this one.”
IR: (Laughing) “No, not this one.”
On the first play of the third quarter, Smith caught our eye with a really impressive stop on a 4-yard run by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It was a zone-read play, and the quarterback had a lead blocker out in front with his tight end. Smith beat the block by the tight end and got in on the stop.
IR: “Watch him use his hands here. This is a good read, he presses the line of scrimmage. You can tell he was expecting run here. He secures his gap first, that’s his primary responsibility. Shows good vision, he sees the quarterback keep the ball through all of that traffic.
FD: “Look how easy he reacts too, he’s so athletic.”
IR: “His shoulders are square, he uses his hands to strike the block and get rid of him. That’s awesome, man.”
FD: “That’s what you want.”
IR: “Yes sir.”
FD: “You can really see that ease of movement on that one.”
IR: “He kind of reminds me of Jordan Hicks a little bit, you know?”
FD: “Oooh, interesting, I can see that.”
Two plays later, Smith gets home for a sack, his sixth of the season. He attacks downhill and beats the running back, Harris, before getting the quarterback to the ground.
FD: “Wow. This kid is usually good in pass protection.”
IR: “Here’s what I like about this blitz. He doesn't give him his whole body. Smith knows he’s about to get picked up, but this is one of those techniques where you give him that inside shoulder so that you can get the rest of your body by him. Give up that inside shoulder, let the back worry about blocking a quarter of your chest, because once you get that hip around, it’s game over.”
FD: “That’s a naturally instinctive play, right? I mean you’re either getting blocked by the center or the back on this play (the Bulldogs lined up in a double A-gap look) so you have to know what technique you’re going to use to beat which guy and it happens so quick.”
IR: "Absolutely, that’s a great play."
In the next series, Alabama tries to attack downfield on a play-action shot play. Smith plays a big part in making sure it doesn’t happen, dropping back in underneath zone coverage to take away the throw.
FD: “Now this is the first time we’ve gotten a chance to see this. He’s dropping back in coverage here. Alabama hasn’t really attacked downfield much to this point.”
IR: “He’s right in his hole and takes away this throw. Gets great depth, his shoulders are still square.”
FD: “He’s really comfortable, doesn’t look out of place at all.”
IR: “He looks like an athlete. That’s great to see.”
Alabama is now driving and has the ball inside the 30-yard line. They throw a bubble screen to the right, and Smith makes the stop 9 yards downfield along the sideline.
FD: “Effort is not a question with this kid. Love the effort here, takes a great angle in pursuit.”
IR: “Great pursuit. He saves a touchdown there. If he loafs even for a second here that’s a touchdown for Alabama. He doesn’t know that the safety is going to miss that tackle, he could easily pull up but he keeps running and because of that he’s there to make the stop.”
FD: “Back when you played and you had young linebackers come into your room, if they didn’t have that level of urgency was that something you could bring out of them?”
IR: “Because of the room that we had, the way that we played, a standard was set. We had that benefit of having guys that played that way all the time. Having Jim Johnson as a defensive coordinator, that was something he harped on. That was how he wanted us to play all the time. So if a guy comes in and doesn’t play that way, it may not be an issue, because you have an established defense and a well-known unit. As a rookie, you want to come in and fit in, you want to make sure you’re not the guy holding the team back because your lack of hustle or inability to play fast stands out more than anything else.”
FD: “My guess is that this team will have that same benefit.”
IR: “The way they play? Yep. Look at Derek Barnett, now he is a guy who always played that way going back to college, but he was a backup. The only way he’s getting noticed is if he’s playing 1,000 miles per hour.”
FD: “You have to play that way.”
IR: “No doubt. A lot of these kids coming from the college level, they’re used to being the best player on the field the majority of the time. You get to the NFL, though, and there are guys you’ve never heard of that are just as good, just as athletic, compared to what you saw at the college level. You have to raise your standard of play.”
Alabama gets the ball back on the next possession thanks to an interception. Smith makes a great play out in space on the opening play, wrapping the quarterback up short of the first-down marker one-on-one. The quarterback dropped back, didn’t like what he saw, and scrambled to his left to try and pick up the first down on his own.
Shot 1 - Not an easy play to make as a LB. Watch #3 Roquan Smith drop back as a hook player with eyes on the QB, stay patient and not void his zone, then trigger downhill and make a tackle 1-on-1. pic.twitter.com/pACsnMffnd — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “It’s play-action. They’re in a zone defense. Smith is a hook defender so he drops into the middle of the field. He’s out there, staying in his zone until the quarterback commits. He’s waiting, he’s waiting, and NOW he goes.”
FD: “How hard is that to be patient there?”
IR: “It’s difficult because you see a guy coming and you want to go get him, but you have to know that you’ve got routes being run behind you. You can’t just leave your area of responsibility. If he left, he’d void a zone and the quarterback could throw it to a wide open receiver. Clearly, he understands his role in the coverage and then he’s able to come downhill and attack. And then, man, to make that tackle in open space? That’s not easy. I always go back to his shoulders being square. If he had turned his body to the sideline and started running, the quarterback is putting his foot in the ground and cutting that back and Smith isn’t able to make this play. Because his shoulders are square he can plant and make this tackle.”
FD: “That’s an athletic play too, I love that he comes to balance and finishes this.”
IR: “Yes! That’s not easy to do right there. I’ve seen that tackle missed so many times. He gets a great piece of him there and gets him to the ground.”
A few plays later, Alabama runs a double screen, first faking a pass to the running back to the left before going back to the right on a wide receiver screen to Calvin Ridley. The ball is bobbled and incomplete, but Smith was right there to make the stop had it been caught.
FD: “So one thing I’ve started to value more is a linebacker’s ability to navigate through traffic innately, still find the ball without having to take their eyes off it and look at the bodies around him. He’s got three bodies there, including the ref, that he has to navigate through and he still finds his way to the receiver. He’s going to get a hat on him if this ball isn’t dropped. Is that a natural thing, like either they have that ability or they don’t?”
IR: “If you do it enough, I think you develop a natural feel for it. Again, I go back to Jordan Hicks. That’s one of the things he does so well. It’s what Luke Kuechly is able to do at such a high level. A lot of that stuff is film study. You can see he has a good feel for that.”
It’s third-and-3 in the next series. Alabama has the ball just shy of midfield and the Crimson Tide throw a swing pass to the running back out of the backfield. Smith explodes into the receiver as he catches it and gets him down for a short gain to bring up fourth down. It was his arguably his best play of the game.
Shot 2 - This is one of my favorite Roquan Smith plays. 3rd-and-3. He gets a read on what this play will be pre-snap (read the piece to find out why), and he explodes to the sideline, doesn't get outleveraged, and makes a stop short of the sticks. Big time! pic.twitter.com/K1fDjilEPv — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “See, now this is awesome. Smith knows it’s a short split (meaning the receiver is lined up close to the formation). He’s definitely aware of what could happen, that the receiver will run inside and either try to crack block him or at least create a bit of interference for him to run through. Then watch him look at the back, that’s his second tip right here. The back is lined up way too far outside. He’s almost outside the tackle. He’s cheating to the sideline.”
FD: “So pre-snap he knows what’s happening.”
IR: “And here’s what I love too. He can’t go underneath this receiver and try to cheat it. A lot of guys would do that and think that’s the shortest line to the ball. That would be wrong. That’s how Corey Clement got the big catch on third down in the Super Bowl, the safety tried to go underneath the block instead of running over the top. He’s got to get over the top of this.”
FD: “And we’ve talked about this a lot. Stay square, bring your hips through, that’s a form tackle right there. Third-and-3, it’s a throw to the flat and you make that tackle short of the sticks? That’s a big-time play right there.”
On the next drive, Alabama is driving and gets a huge play on a 35-yard run down the left sideline. Smith is on the back side of the play and has to run through a lot of traffic, but ends up chasing the runner down from behind. We both let out our "oohs and aahs" about the crack block that helped spring the running back, but it’s time to focus on Smith.
Shot 3 - Roquan Smith is like a ball of razorblades that with a rocket sticking out of the back. He's non-stop. Love the effort here working through traffic and then pursuing downfield. This is a constant with him on film. pic.twitter.com/wk53inFye7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “Look at this hustle! Look at the traffic he has to go through. He beats one block, slips by another, runs by a third one, and he’s still going. He saves another touchdown.”
FD: “That’s two now he’s saved.”
IR: “That’s what you want right there. Love to see that.”
FD: (As the next play starts and the ball is handed off to the right) “Look here, he’s tired now.”
IR: “You’re right, look at that. It’s everything, he’s winded. He’s not square, he crosses his feet over, and he doesn’t use his hands ... and yet he STILL makes the tackle!”
We both laugh.
FD: “I love that. This guy leaves it all out there.”
IR: “He just ran a play down 35 yards downfield, then gutted this next out and made the play.”
FD: “I love this kid. I love him. He’s going to go high. Let’s wrap it up here and end on a good note. What did you think?”
IR: “I’ll tell you, there’s not much I don’t like about him. He’s always around the football. That’s a trait that you want to see. Fundamentally sound. You rarely see him take false steps. He’s always pressing the line of scrimmage. You certainly see a thirst and the love for the game. He plays fast, he’s an inspirational kind of player. I’m not surprised to see that he’s probably going in the top 10.”
The game I chose for Edmunds was his performance against Pittsburgh, where he posted seven tackles (five solo) and a sack. I was excited because I knew Reese hadn’t seen much of him at all.
FD: “I’m going to be honest, Ike, I struggled with this kid when I first watched him and I think I’d be nervous taking him in the Top 10 (I’d be more comfortable later in the first round). He’s 6-4 1/2, 256 pounds, with really long arms. He lines up all over the place.”
IR: “What’d he run?”
FD: (After a long, dramatic pause) “He ran 4.55.”
IR: “He ran 4.5!?!? At 6-4 1/2!?!?”
FD: “(Laughing) On the laser!!”
IR: “These dudes today ... golly ... they can move man. Back in my day if you ran 4.5 and you weigh 225, you couldn’t be 230 or 240 pounds running 4.5.”
FD: “He’s also 19 years old.”
The initial excitement from Ike was expected, and we get into the film. The first notable play happens on the fourth snap of the game, a 6-yard carry to the right. Edmunds, lined up as the backside linebacker on the opposite side away from the run, gets into the backfield but doesn’t make the play.
IR: “See, if you use your hands you make that tackle. He read it fast, but that left guard isn’t going to just let you run by him. That’s what stopped him from making that tackle. He makes a good initial read; he’s in the hole. But this is where his size can sort of hurt him a bit. There’s so much body to gather and restart, and the lineman has a big target to try and block. Now his length can help you, sure, but you’ve got to use it, and he doesn’t here.”
FD: “That was one of my concerns in the first couple of games I’ve seen. The tools are all there, there’s no debate. He just has to put it all together. This play is a great example. Like you said, that guard gets a piece of him when he shouldn’t. Edmunds is still able to run by, but since he gets held up a bit he’s not able to make this play and the back cuts upfield for 6 yards.”
Two plays later, we see more of the same. The back gets stuffed for a 2-yard loss on a run to the right, but Edmunds gets blocked by the right guard and gets jolted backward on contact.
IR: “See, he doesn’t use his hands. He gets here! I don’t like how he’s crossing over his feet, but he’s there fast. Now he has to learn to press him (the pulling guard) back into the hole. Now, his teammate kind of sells him out here. No. 25 is wrong, he’s got to stay outside, that’s why the guard gets up to Edmunds in the first place and cuts him off. Still, if he presses him here, he gets in on this play.”
Two plays later, Pitt completes a 25-yard pass over the middle of the field, and Reese does not like what he sees.
IR: “Get depth man! He’s got to get better depth than this on a pass play. See this completion is mostly on him.”
FD: “We saw Roquan do this at a high level, not so much here.”
IR: “Look at the down and distance.”
FD: “It’s third-and-12.”
IR: “He’s got to get out of there, man. He’s barely 3 or 4 yards off the ball. He was lost on that one.”
FD: “If he gets more depth on his drop he may take that throw away or at least be in position to make a play on it. He’s in no man’s land here.”
Pitt scores a touchdown on the drive. On the first play of the next possession, the Panthers run a Jet Sweep to the far sideline for no gain.
FD: “He reads this one quickly.”
IR: (Watching him run and chase the play down) “Get there. Get there. Get there. Hit somebody. Hit somebody. That’s my thing man, if I have to run that far, someone’s getting hit.
FD: (Laughing) “That’s your thought process?”
IR: “I’m making you pay for making me run!”
Play continues, and we notice something about the way he lines up.
FD: “He lines up right on top of his defensive tackles in this game, doesn’t he?”
IR: “I’ve been wondering the same thing! Is this just part of their defense? When you’re this close it’s hard to read everything and it’s easier to get caught up in the wash. So you better be right with your initial read or you’re out of the play.”
FD: “The fact that he’s reading things as quickly as he is this close to the ball is pretty impressive.”
A few plays later, Edmunds lines up off the edge as a pass rusher. He’s matched up against a tight end and fails to get home.
IR: “This guy should be salivating when he’s got a tight end across from him one-on-one. Press him! Don’t run around him, you’re just letting him block you. That would be my advice for him here. The tight end’s feet are all crossed up, he’s got no base right now, if you try to run through this kid who you are significantly bigger than, you’re making the play. Now you’re just letting him block you.”
FD: “A lot of people talk about him as an edge rusher at his size, but he’s not a great pass rusher right now. Potential is there, sure, but that’s not a strength of his game. Look at the false step on his get-off, he doesn’t use his hands at the top of the arc. If you’re going to win outside, use your hands to win at least.”
IR: “That’s tough. He’ll have to keep working on that.”
It’s play 26 in the game, and we’ve got our best one yet. Edmunds chases down the ballcarrier on a run to the left for a 3-yard gain, riding him out of bounds.
IR: “This is good, he does a nice job staying out of the wash. His shoulders are square to the line of scrimmage.”
FD: “He doesn’t get fooled by the line either, they're all going right and the ball is going left.”
IR: “He presses the line. He’s finally using his hands, he defeats the block from this tight end on the run. There you go. Now, look at that speed.”
FD: “Two-yard gain. That’s how it should look every time.”
Two plays later, on third-and-short, Edmunds knifes into the backfield untouched for a tackle for loss.
IR: “Oh yeah, here we go. Go get you a piece of that, man. Yeah, he’s unblocked but he’s pressing the hole quickly. He read it fast, saw a gap, and now it’s his job to be decisive. That’s what you like on this one, he’s decisive on this play.”
FD: “That’s a good looking TFL. The center is trying to release up to block him, but he can’t get there in time even though he’s lined up so close to the line of scrimmage. Edmunds defeats that block because of his quickness. He’s got those things that are unteachable. That length, that burst.”
IR: “That’s what people are going to love.”
On the next drive, the Hokies send a zone blitz at Pitt on second down. Edmunds has to run down the seam with a slot receiver in what is a wide open middle of the field. The pressure gets home and the quarterback checks down for a 3-yard gain.
FD: “Wow, that’s impressive right there.”
IR: “That middle of the field is his. He’s got the speed to do this for sure. See people will look at that and say, ‘Now, that’s raw potential.’ I can see if someone wants to put him outside in a 3-4. I just think when you’re that tall it can be tough inside. I feel like Brian Urlacher may be the last inside linebacker that did it at a high level being that tall.”
FD: “That’s who some people compare him to, actually.”
IR: “I believe it.”
On the next drive, Edmunds explodes downhill for a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in a 3-yard loss.
FD: “He’s unblocked here again, but there’s a reason for that.”
IR: “I can’t believe it with him so close to the line.”
FD: “That’s what makes it so impressive, again, that he’s still this close to the line and can still make the play to defeat this block with quickness. The lineman can’t get on him even though he’s a couple of feet away.”
A few plays later, Edmunds is in man coverage against a tight end on an option route.
FD: “See, he can do this at a high level.”
IR: “That’s a tight end, and Edmunds doesn’t look like a fish out of water.”
FD: “Impressive stop-start. When he’s manned up, he’s fine in coverage. I don’t know if I like him in underneath zone coverage as much as I do in straight up man-to-man.”
IR: “I agree.”
A few plays later, Edmunds makes another play in coverage, this time against a running back out in space. The quarterback dumps it off in the flat and Edmunds fires downhill and makes the play on an island.
IR: “That’s really good. He sees this coming. He doesn’t get outleveraged outside (meaning he doesn’t let the back outside of him), and he’s right there to drive on this throw and make the tackle.”
On the next drive, Edmunds gets his first sack of the game. The quarterback drops back to throw off play-action, scrambles to his right. He thinks about running, but Edmunds flies downhill and makes the stop.
FD: (Laughing) “That’s pretty good right there.”
IR: “When his shoulders are square he’s in good shape. Look at that good base, and he’s not crossing over. He doesn’t overcommit and he doesn’t lose leverage.”
FD: “Look how athletic he is coming to balance and breaking down clean in space to finish that one-on-one. That’s impressive.”
IR: “That’s not easy for a guy with his size to do in open space. That’s not easy to do at all. His size is what’s so intriguing. You get a big man to move like that, that’s not common.
FD: “What are your overall thoughts on Edmunds?”
IR: “I think you’re in awe of his size. You see how big he is and you think you can do wonderful things with a guy built like that. When he sees something, he goes. With his size, there’s not really any stiffness to him. There’s fluidity there you don’t see with guys that are that size. He has work to do though, particularly with his hands. He doesn’t play to his size, he should overpower guys with his size and his speed. He should be winning more one-on-one matchups than he does. But you watch that guy in open space and you say, ‘Wow.’ You talked about wanting to see more urgency, I think that’s very true. His ceiling is really high though, he may have his best football ahead of him.”
Leighton Vander Esch
The game I chose for Vander Esch was his career highlight game, a 16-tackle outing in the Mountain West Championship Game against Fresno State, where he was declared the game’s Most Valuable Player.
FD: “Alright, Ike. This kid is another biggun’. Just over 6-4, he came in at 256 but he was listed around 240 in the fall, still a big guy. He’s got the neck roll so that’s gotta count for something.”
IR: “Old school! You don’t see that too often these days!”
FD: “So I’ve watched this game already, I’ve watched a lot of this kid, and one thing I love about him is that he’s really good in coverage. He’s really smart in space.”
IR: “Well that’s what you need today!”
The first play we see from Vander Esch isn’t a pass play though, as he’s in on a tackle in the run game. The play starts to his right, but the runner cuts back and he’s able to find his way to the ball.
IR: “I’d rather he use his hands here, but he slips this, that’s a fine technique. He slips this block by getting under him. He’s right where he needs to be. He’s in the right gap, stays on his feet, and makes the play.”
FD: “That’s pretty athletic, I love the balance.”
IR: “That’s a good play, really good play. And look, he’s going to do it again on the very next play! Oh yeah, I like that. I really like that. Now I don’t like the crossover, he crosses his feet over here on his first couple of steps downhill, but he slips under the block. He gets skinny through the hole. Again, I really like this, this is his responsibility in this gap. As long as you press your gap, you’re good. Let the other guys do their job, but that’s his job.”
FD: “He doesn’t get the tackle but he slows this play up.”
IR: “He gets a good piece of the back. Slows him down, and if the defensive end doesn’t get rolled up outside this is going for a loss.”
FD: “He carries his weight really well. He doesn’t look like a guy who is 245-plus.”
IR: “No, he doesn’t look like it at all.”
A couple of drives later, Fresno State is right around midfield. Vander Esch is on the back side of a run play to his left, but he chases it down and makes the play.
Shot 4 - Vander Esch is always where he needs to be. Stays square to the LOS, keeps pace with the RB as the backside LB, and fits this perfectly, finishing with a form tackle pic.twitter.com/bEPdwGB6QE — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “This is another good play. He plays this inside-out. He is the backside player. His responsibility is to not overrun it, keep good pace, mirror the back. He’s right here and he fits this perfectly.”
FD: “He’s always where he needs to be.”
Soon afterward we see the junior drop back in zone coverage for the first time.
IR: “Good job here getting good depth. He knows the down and distance, he gets to the sticks, looks comfortable, and is able to come down and get in on the stop.”
FD: “He is pretty athletic, he’s smooth.”
IR: “Especially at 6-4? That’s crazy.”
A few plays later, Fresno State is on the goal line. It’s first down, and Vander Esch blows the play up before it reaches the line of scrimmage.
FD: “I always have a tough time evaluating plays on the 1-yard line in terms of responsibility. I feel like things happen so fast and it’s really just man-on-man, beat the guy in front of you. I know it’s more than that, but it’s tough to really decipher what people’s responsibilities are so often in coverage and in the run fit.”
IR: “You know I always felt like when you get down here, for a linebacker, you have to make a decision. Listen, if you’re wrong, be wrong going 100 miles per hour but you have so little room for error you don’t have time for second-guessing. I don’t know if this is a run blitz or not but the fact that he’s selling out means that he knows he has to get through that gap, that’s his responsibility. He gets skinny, doesn’t get pushed down, that’s where that size really helps because the blocker is trying to wash him down. That’s a hell of a play, a tackle for loss. That’s from him being decisive.”
FD: “That’s a great play, and he gets low going through the hole too, removing some of that surface area for the offensive lineman to strike. This is another good play coming up. Watch him read the Jet Sweep.”
IR: “Yep, he sees it coming a mile away. Love the hustle here. Presses the line, sees it, and pulls the trigger.”
FD: “That’s an outstanding two-play sequence. Does that come from film study?”
IR: “Yep watch his head. He sees it before it happens.”
FD: “Let’s see what happens on third down ... where is he?”
For whatever reason, Vander Esch was off the field after saving the Broncos on the first two plays. On third down, Fresno State gets into the end zone to take the lead. The Bulldogs get the ball back on the next possession and this time they’re in the complete opposite side of the field on their own 1-yard line. We get to see the linebacker in space again, dropping down the middle of the field in zone coverage.
IR: “Good coverage, really good coverage. Recognizes that it’s a pass quickly. Rolls with the wide receiver on the over route.”
FD: “He hunts him up in space. He just looks comfortable, though I guess he’s a bit handsy here downfield.”
IR: “Not bad though. You can’t just let those jokers run free through the zone, you have to touch them a little bit! Let them know you’re there!”
On the next drive, Fresno State gets a big chunk of yardage on a Jet Sweep that includes a QB Power Read. Vander Esch helps chase the play down from the back side, but not before doing his responsibility inside first.
FD: “He saw that one quickly. Love that. This is like the first play we saw from Roquan. He has to play the A gap first, but once he sees his guard pulling the other way, his gap changes and he has to respect the quarterback keeper here on the Power play. Once the handoff happens, now he’s chasing.”
IR: “Yep, love the hustle. He gets over the top, secures his next gap, that’s his responsibility inside like you said, but he’s in position to make this play if the quarterback keeps it. What I like to is that he has to play off of his defensive end, because it looks like he’s wrong on this play. The end should be outside, forcing this run back inside. Vander Esch sees that, but he scrapes over the top of it to make sure he’s in position, and then he chases the play outside. And again you have to take his size into consideration. Because what a 6-4, 255-pound guy is doing versus a 6-1, 235-pound guy is doing is way more impressive.”
FD: “He’s moving weight.”
IR: “Yeah, you don’t see those guys out in open space like that. Guys his size are usually defensive ends, they’re not playing backward.”
On the very next play, Boise State runs a blitz and Fresno State’s quarterback burns it, taking off for a big run through the teeth of the rush. Vander Esch was used as a blitzer on the play.
Shot 6 - Vander Esch defeats the back in pass pro - yeah you want him to get home on the blitz, but watch the hustle here. Works at a different speed and makes a touchdown-saving tackle in the red zone pic.twitter.com/DRIvxkYvxp — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “He does a good job there. First, he set the running back up to fail in pass protection. He defeats the block but the quarterback is already gone, and then you get the hustle. Obviously, you want him to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage but freeze it right here (as the quarterback crosses the line). Right now, he is the second-furthest player away from the ball. There are eight other guys who should be in position to go and make this play, but he doesn't give up on it. He looks different than everyone else there, watch the speed. That’s a touchdown-saving tackle right there in the high red zone. And then you’ve got the nice swipe at the ball. He’s trying to get the ball on the ground at the end. I love this play.”
FD: “What’s impressive about that play as well is it comes off the heels of him making that last play outside the numbers, so you get two really high-effort plays right in a row here, that’s great to see.”
Vander Esch makes a stop in the run game on a play to his right where he’s unblocked later in the third quarter.
Shot 7 - Vander Esch playing off of the DE in the run fit. DE falls off inside, but LVE is there to clean this run play up for a short gain. He's always where he needs to be in the run game. pic.twitter.com/cV2hptoSpg — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) April 5, 2018
IR: “That’s a good play there. He knows it. He sees it. He gets straight to his gap right there. Stays out of the trash. He’s ready to come across. Plays off of that defensive end again, because I think he’s wrong here again. The end should be staying outside, that looks like that’s his gap, but Vander Esch plays off of him, and he's probably done this enough with him. Think back to what we saw with Roquan where he flew downhill fast. If Vander Esch presses this as quickly as Roquan did, then both of those guys are in the same gap and no one is outside, but he stays patient and plays off of his defensive end. Now he can stay out of the wash and get over the top to cover up for his man. I like that.”
On that play, Vander Esch was at the forefront. On the very next snap, he does something small that won’t be seen on a stat sheet, dropping back in zone coverage.
FD: “This is a shot play. They’re trying to hit that crossing route over the middle of the field off play-action.”
IR: “Yeah and the big man looks comfortable dropping back, look at him.”
FD: “He takes that way, that’s where the QB wants to go, but the coverage leads to a sack.”
IR: “No question. That’s great to see. What’s great is he knows there’s no threat underneath. They leak the running back out but he knows there’s someone outside for the back. He just keeps getting depth, that’s what you do in that situation, and he takes away that throw, forces the quarterback to keep it, and they get off the field. Well done.”
Now, we get to my favorite play from the game, and the last one of our breakdown. It was a play I’ve already shown you in our Meet the Prospect series, a fourth-quarter interception to seal the game.
FD: “That’s big-time, right? Three-level stretch, get your eyes on the back side.”
IR: “Really nice. Good depth. Quarterback starts to his left, follows his eyes, and comes back. That’s really nice.”
FD: “Not a lot of guys making plays like that in college. They make picks, but not like this. This is an NFL play, Ike.”
IR: “That’s a play a pro makes.”
FD: “I really like him. It’s not about flash with this kid. He is always where he needs to be. He’s doing the right thing. He’s got the tools, sure. He’s big and he can run. But he’s so consistent.”
IR: “And that’s what you need. Really it’s great when you have guys that show you a flash, but it’s the inconsistencies that will lead to negative plays. When you’re just solid and you doing everything right every play, you build around those guys. They don’t get you beat. They’re in the right place at the right time when balls are tipped, when balls end up on the ground. It’s like Jordan (Hicks), he’s always in the right place. That’s not an accident. He’s a good player.”
There were plenty of linebackers Ike and I could have kept watching. I’m really excited about this linebacker class as a whole. If you haven’t make sure you check out the podcast where I let Ike explain some of the things he values most at the linebacker position and a whole lot more.
Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.