The first round of the 2018 NFL Draft has come and gone, and I gotta be honest; It’s the most interesting first round I’ve ever covered as an NFL analyst. Loads of twists, turns, and trades came about, and even Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders in the middle of it all.
The Titans, however, had one of the more curious picks. With Boston College defensive end Harold Landry falling in the draft, the team traded picks with the Baltimore Ravens (coincidentally, defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ last team he coached with) to move up to the 22nd overall pick. Many, including myself, expected Landry to be taken, but general manager Jon Robinson threw a curveball instead.
Alabama inside linebacker Rashaan Evans was swooped by the Titans with the pick. Initially, I was puzzled by Robinson passing over Landry, as were many Titans fans at the time. But when I sat down to watch Evans, the pick just made sense. This is a surprise pick that I like a lot.
During his time as defensive coordinator for the Ravens, Dean Pees specialized in going blitz heavy with his front seven. Since the team’s foundation, the Ravens have always been known for aggressive, blitz heavy defenses, so Pees stayed true to the team’s roots in that regard.
So, for the Titans to draft Evans meant they must have gotten a lot of input from Pees to draft him. And yes, while the defensive coordinator’s last name is extremely hilarious, the selection of Evans is no laughing matter.
Inside (or middle, however you want to call them) linebackers are one of the most crucial parts of a defense because of how they can signal plays to the rest of the defense and survey the quarterback closely. The play above is less of a highlight reel statement than a technical understanding on Evans’ part.
The quarterback keeps on the read option, but even if he were to give the ball to the back, Evans still had the back cornered. His patience prevents the play from having any life, and the result is a sack for the Crimson Tide.
This next play is more of a highlight reel statement.
While the back intentionally lets Evans slip by, it’s still phenomenal pressure from the linebacker. His athleticism is ridiculously quick, allowing him to use flashy footwork while getting an angle on the quarterback.
One player that immediately comes to mind when comparing Evans is Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. He’s assigned as a “middle linebacker” instead of the inside linebacker position Jones will most likely assume, but they’re generally the same. Jones is an extremely aggressive, fast defender that uses his speed to make nightmares of any linemen he faces. He’s also versatile, offering a high level combination of coverage and athleticism as a pass rusher.
Evans appears to play a little more zone coverage than Jones, but he’s very comparable in regards to speed and aggressiveness. Another trademark he has is a dangerous spin move.
There’s no doubt Evans will likely display this spin during his time on the field with the Titans (knock on wood). It’s very reminiscent of guys like Minnesota Vikings defense end Everson Griffen, and while he doesn’t have the timing on the snap of Griffen (to be fair we’re comparing a linebacker to a defensive end), he has a similar style of explosiveness. The pressure he creates on this play as a result forces an interception on 4th down.
For those that don’t know much about Evans, rest assured he is as much of a threat against the run as he is against the pass.
The coverage and reaction to the play from Evans suggests he’s playing zone defense. Impressively, his reaction time is near flawless, as he seems to notice the running back has the ball right at the point of the handoff. Even more impressive is the acceleration he displays when he notices what’s going on. With that turbo boost from the push off of his back foot, there’s no contest. The running back runs into a wall as Evans executes him.
This is a less spectacular play, but one that also puts Evans’ power on display. His approach to the play suggests he understands the run is going to the right side of the blocker he’s facing. With this in mind, he pushes off the blocker, creating plenty of space for him to tackle the back. It’s not that much of a positive play for the defense, but it’s one where the linebacker is able to at least limit the amount of yards the offense puts up.
There’s a lot to like about Evans, but are there concerns? There’s one reservation I have, so the answer is yes. The only real problem I have with Evans is probably the most important part of being a defensive lineman: Tackling.
Evans isn’t one of the worst tacklers out there, but the consistency wasn’t really there last year. On more occasions than I would’ve preferred to watch, he couldn’t get a grasp on the quarterback/running back, even if the initial pressure he created was excellent. He uses an insane spin move to create pressure, but can’t finish the sack, giving the quarterback a bit more life before he’s finally tackled down.
Evans will probably be a good player for a while in the NFL, but won’t be a great one until he improves his tackling technique. Fortunately, Evans is so good everywhere else that his skill set has a great foundation for whenever he does improve his tackling abilities.
It’s a pick I didn’t understand when it was first announced, but I feel Jon Robinson nailed this one. Rashaan Evans is an incredibly gifted linebacker with dangerous pass and run defending traits. He’s very quick, patient, has extremely nimble footwork, has a deadly spin, and brings a much needed diverse skill set to the Titans defense.
So, I love the Titans trading up for Rashaan Evans, and I feel in time Titans fans will too. If they haven’t already, anyway.