There are several reasons why the Patriots have been so successful, but one of the more important factors in the team’s continued success in the league has been Belichick’s ability to take other team’s trash and weave it into gold, like a hoodied Rumplestiltskin.
He does this by looking at what a player’s strengths and weaknesses are, and only asking them to do what they’re good at, then putting them in a situation where they aren’t asked to do anything they can’t. This is how New England changed Wes Welker from an undrafted cast-off on his third team and Julian Edelman from a late-round quarterback viewed as too small to play in the NFL, into the two best slot receivers in NFL history.
The Broncos need to apply this Belichick-ian mindset to linebacker-safety hybrid Su’a Cravens.
When Cravens was coming out of USC, the league saw him as a “tweener” too small to play linebacker but too big and not talented enough in coverage to play safety. He was selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins where he had an impressive rookie season at linebacker. Appearing in 11 games, and starting in just three, Cravens recorded 33 tackles, four of which came behind the line, with a sack and an interception.
Following his rookie season, Cravens announced that he would be retiring despite being in line for a starting job. He was unhappy in the nation’s capital and wouldn’t play another snap unless it was with another team. Washington traded him to the Broncos who eventually moved him to safety where he made his debut with Denver in 2018.
Cravens’ first year with the Broncos was an ugly one that makes him a likely cut candidate once the preseason comes around. In limited playing time, Cravens earned the lowest grade of any Broncos player from Pro Football Focus (37.4) in large part due to his coverage grade of 29.2, which is the worst among all defensive backs who played at least 30 snaps last season.
However, in every category outside of coverage, Cravens earned an above-average grade from PFF. Cravens earned a grade of 75.5 in run defense, 72.7 in rushing the passer and 63.6 in tackling.
So how can Denver solve this problem in order to get some return out of the draft picks they sent to Washington in order to acquire the safety?
Do what Belichick would do and play to Cravens’ strengths.
Cravens clearly doesn’t have the coverage skills necessary to play safety in the NFL, but he’s an instinctive and talented coverage man from his more natural linebacker position. While playing linebacker in Washington, the highest graded aspect of Cravens’ game was his coverage, posting a coverage grade of 76.3 and an overall grade of 76.5.
That’s not the only reason to believe that Cravens could make the move back to linebacker. The strongest parts of his game a season ago were defending the run and rushing the passer, both jobs more associated with linebacker than defensive back. It also doesn’t hurt that one of Denver’s more shallow positions is at inside linebacker.
While Cravens shouldn’t be expected to make a run at the starting linebacker roles, he could have a valuable impact as a rotational linebacker. Leave Josey Jewell and Todd Davis in on early downs and obvious run situations, but bring him out to help in coverage in obvious passing situations. The Broncos have long struggled to cover opposing tight ends, a niche role that Cravens could thrive in if given the opportunity given his tweener size and athletic ability.
Do what Belichick would do and ask Cravens to do what he’s good at, and that certainly doesn’t entail another season at safety for the Broncos.