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Broncos Film Room: Is Su'a Cravens exactly what the Denver defense has been missing?

Andre Simone Avatar
March 29, 2018

After rumors swirled a month ago that a trade between the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos for Su’a Cravens was in the works, the two teams finally pulled the trigger, with the Broncos giving up four picks and getting two back from Washington to complete the transaction.

Denver’s taking a big gamble on Cravens, who didn’t see a single snap in 2017 after a premature retirement announcement eventually turned into a lost season. In the end, though, things with the Redskins simply didn’t work out for the former 2016 second-round pick.

Still only 22, Cravens was our 30th ranked prospect in our final 2016 big board, due to his versatility and great collegiate tape. The upside is still there without a doubt, but who is Cravens as an NFL player?

To make sense of it all, we had to go back to his rookie tape to see what the Broncos got in the mercurial hybrid safety-linebacker.


From his college tape, Cravens was a stud defender who could play inside linebacker, outside linebacker, in-the-box safety and even as a single-high safety. His intensity on the field was evident as was his ferocity closing down on plays and attacking the line of scrimmage. In watching his tape with the Skins, you still see a lot of those same qualities.

The first thing that stands out is how often Cravens was used up on the line and how stout he was against the run. He can burst through the hole and close on plays in a hurry as he’s a train coming downhill to make tackles. In college, he was amazing at this, racking up 32 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks in his final two seasons.

He’s also a terrific blitzer, dynamic in reading the play pre-snap and timing precise A-gap blitzes that really disrupt the timing of an offense.

Cravens can also go from inside to out, starting from the interior and bending around the edge, working his way around the tackle or B-gap, where he’s equally dangerous. This skill of his should really help the Broncos in manufacturing pressure from the interior, allowing them to be more creative with their blitz packages, particularly in nickel and dime looks.

His ability to read plays allows him to fly to the ball, as he’s quick to read and react. That, combined with his fantastic ability to make tackles in space, make him a pretty special player up against the line of scrimmage. As a linebacker, he’s talented and was used both on the interior and outside in his rookie season.

As an outside linebacker, he also showed the ability to read plays, sift through blocks and make tackles for short gains or a loss in space (see this great tackle on a screen to Larry Fitzgerald below). He was used a ton on third down in sub-package looks as a nickel backer and made a lot of plays either tackling in space or creating pressure.

In coverage, Cravens is no slouch, though he’s best used in packages where he can still operate closer to the line. He is versatile, though, and can play in man, zone, press or off. He’s also shown himself to be competent defender covering receivers in the slot or outside from time to time.

His ability to turn and run with running backs or tight ends was particularly impressive and is just what the Broncos have been missing from their interior linebacking position. According to Pro Football Focus, Cravens allowed zero touchdowns and a 73.1 passer rating when in coverage in 2016.

The USC product shows fluid hips in turning to run after targets in the receiving game and does a nice job dropping in coverage, establishing good depth when used up close to the box.

While he’s at his best up close to the line, his utility is vast with fairly unlimited potential. He produced one sack, one interception, three tackles for a loss, and five pass deflections in limited time. At his peak, when fully developed, he could be a nightmare for offensive coordinators to game plan against.


During his one season in the league, Cravens appeared in 295 snaps—27-percent of the defensive snaps, as well as 120 on special teams—he’s still a greatly unknown commodity despite the upside he’s shown.

His NFL career has been marred by injuries, and he had a weird retirement announcement that put him on the outs in Washington. The Redskins didn’t give up on him because of on-field play, but because of all the off-field stuff that made his 2017 season a complete waste.

On the field, there are few questions, one of those is his testing at the combine which was less than spectacular as he didn’t necessarily show the high-end athleticism we saw on tape—which bodes well for his instincts.

He also doesn’t have a true NFL position, which might be ok, but will force the coaching staff to use him the right way. His cover skills are good in the short-to-intermediate areas, and he’s capable of lining up high when having to close downhill, but his coverage ability playing as a true free safety is a question mark, as is his range if used as a deep safety. His ball skills are good but not necessarily elite either.

Simply put, Cravens needs to show he can be more than just a versatile sub package player and become a three-down ace.

On tape, he did get flagged a few times for illegal contact or roughing the passer. He needs to iron out those issues and find a way to play on the edge maintaining his aggressive style but not exceeding the legality of the game. Especially in coverage, his hand usage will need to improve.

In conclusion

The big question with Cravens is what happened last year. Hopefully, the Broncos have answers to that question that they feel good about, as Cravens’ on-field talent certainly warrants gambling on, but there must be a reason things didn’t work out in D.C.

That aside, this looks like a slam-dunk trade based purely off of the film. Even if it was only in limited spurts, Cravens has the skills to be a modern safety who can be a bad man in the box, or a new-age linebacker who plays with aggression but can also cover.

He’s probably best as an inside backer who can blitz efficiently and be solid in coverage both in underneath zones and when having to cover RBs and TEs. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used in Denver, but by all accounts, he’s healthy and motivated to play, both really encouraging signs.

After watching the film, there isn’t another new addition this offseason that’s more promising than the former second-round pick who actually mya have deserved to go higher in the 2016 draft based purely off his college tape at USC.


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