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Tale of the Tape: Dane Cruikshank

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What can the aggressive and versatile defensive back from Arizona bring to the Titans?

NCAA Football: Arizona at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s continue our breakdowns of the Titans 2018 Draft Class.

In the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans traded up (for the third time) to pick No. 152 to select Arizona defensive back Dane Cruikshank.

Cruikshank was the third straight pick on the defensive side of the ball for the Titans, after trading up for each of Rashaan Evans (No. 22 overall) and Harold Honor Landry (No. 41 overall).

Mike Herndon worked very hard to break down Evans and Landry already, and you can read those excellent reports here if you missed them:

Tale of the Tape: Rashaan Evans

Tale of the Tape: Harold Landry

With Cruikshank, the Titans addressed the team’s third-most glaring hole (the “Da’Norris Searcy role”) after targeting the top two needs by selecting Evans and Landry.

With the additions through the draft and free agency, the Titans defense appears, at least on paper, to be pretty solid from top to bottom. So what does Cruikshank specifically add as the final piece of this defense?

Background

A Chino Hills, California, native, Dane Cruikshank, Jr., enrolled at Citrus College in 2013 after graduating from Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills. At Ayala High, Cruikshank played defensive back, running back, wide receiver, and was also listed at “athlete.”

For two seasons after high school, he played football at the Los Angeles-based community two-year school, Citrus College, where he was named a top-100 JUCO prospect and was recognized as a selection for first-team all-state in 2014, after which he transferred to the University of Arizona.

In a somewhat-uncommon move for a healthy junior college transfer student, Cruikshank redshirted for the 2015 season despite retaining eligibility to play right away. Cruikshank spoke about his feelings towards the redshirt year in this piece for the Arizona Wildcats website:

“It was super beneficial,” Cruikshank said. “I needed help mentally understanding the defense better. I’m thankful Coach Rod blessed me with that redshirt year. I took control of my redshirt year and tried to get better in every facet of the game. That’s what I tell the guys redshirting this year. When you find out you’re redshirting, you’re a little down because you’re not going to be playing. But I kept my head up and every day, I tried to get better at something.”

That hardworking, team-first mindset will mesh great with the rest of the Titans’ secondary, who have already been training hard together this offseason.

Cruikshank spent the majority of the 2016 season as a boundary corner, meaning he primarily lined up over receivers on the outside. His 2016 season was promising but inconsistent. He displayed the speed, ball skills, and coverage abilities to keep up with receivers, notching 7 pass break-ups (2nd on the team) and 2 interceptions to go along with 60 tackles (according to the UofA website). However, he also committed 9 pass interference penalties that season while giving up too many touchdowns (according to his NFL Draft profile).

In 2017, Cruikshank moved to the “SPUR” position, which is a hybrid safety-linebacker role. In Saturday’s press conference following the selection of Cruikshank, General Manager Jon Robinson spoke about Cruikshank’s willingness to change positions for the betterment of his team.

“He played mostly outside corner his junior year,” Robinson said. “This year, he talked with the coaching staff, they talked about moving inside for the team, which I thought spoke a lot for his team-first mindset... they had some younger defensive backs, so he kicked in there at the SPUR nickel position/hybrid safety.”

This aligns pretty closely with Cruikshank’s own comments about moving, from this piece for the Arizona Wildcats’ official site:

“It’s something new, and it’s something fun,” Cruikshank said. “I think they’ve been talking about moving me for a while now to make our defense better. It gives us the best athletes and players on the field. I do whatever is best for the team. When they came up to me, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I love playing football. If I’m playing corner, safety, spur, bandit, linebacker, I don’t care. As long as I’m out there, I’m having fun and doing what I love to do.”

And of course, the part about loving football stands out there in that quote. Jon Robinson has been saying for years how important it is to him that players love football, and Mike Vrabel has echoed that throughout his career as a coach, as well.

Cruikshank had a productive year as a redshirt senior in 2017 from this SPUR position, recording 75 total tackles (5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), 3 interceptions, and 3 PBUs. Cruikshank was voted one of four “season captains” for 2017 by his teammates at the end of the year (at Arizona, the coaches name “game captains” weekly, and the team votes to honor the season captains after all the games are played - Cruikshank was named a “game captain” by coaches three times his senior season).

In the right defensive alignment, utilizing this hybrid position can allow a team to get their best and most versatile athletes on the field, with the SPUR filling a third safety role.

In simple terms, the SPUR provides the run support of a linebacker and the coverage abilities of a nickel/safety. Think Mark Barron’s role with the Rams, or Deone Bucannon with the Cardinals. The SPUR’s responsibilities play-to-play vary based on the offensive alignment and, ultimately, the play itself.

So what does that mean for his NFL projection? Well, Cruikshank would’ve needed a thorough understanding of the Arizona defense, as well as the position versatility to operate effectively in multiple spots on the field. Once he picks up Dean Pees’ scheme, he could be a “chess piece” type for the Titans, although I don’t this that will happen this season.

How He Fits

Cruikshank was one of the most explosive athletes of the entire 2018 draft pool, posting an insane RAS score.

RAS, or Relative Athletic Score, is a way of comparing players raw athleticism to others at the same position.

RAS stands for Relative Athletic Testing. A score of “5.0” is considered an average athleticism rating relative to a player’s position group. RAS compares a given prospect to every player at his respective position in the RAS database. The player with the best historic score has a 10.0. The worst is 0.0, while 5.0 is a weighted “average” score. 9.69 is (obviously) very close to 10.0, and Cruikshank’s score is actually the 43rd best score for a cornerback out of the 1,365 athletic profiles at the position in their database (for more detail on how RAS works, read this article written by its creator, Kent Platte).

Cruikshank has great size combined with that off-the-charts athleticism for a cornerback, and it seems Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees and Head Coach Mike Vrabel want to use him all over the defense. He was announced as a “defensive back,” rather than specifically as a safety or corner when the selection was made on Day 3 of the draft.

In response to a question about if Cruikshank would start out as a corner or a safety, Vrabel said (completely seriously), “We like him at DB.”

Film Study

In his new “SPUR” position, Cruikshank often lined up essentially as a weakside 4-3 linebacker who slid over to the slot as needed, allowing Arizona’s defense to remain versatile and athletic.

There aren’t any “cut-ups” of Cruikshank out there. Therefore, the film on him is somewhat limited, so this breakdown will be a compendium of the clips I could find from trusted sources mixed with my own film review and analysis to provide as complete a picture as possible.

I was able to watch his games against Oregon, Purdue, USC, and Washington State (I was particularly interested in Washington State because that meant I’d also get to watch Luke Falk. Unfortunately, Luke Falk was benched before the end of the 2nd quarter in that game).

When crashing to contain the edge on run downs, Cruikshank is quick off the snap and able to come screaming downhill.

Cruikshank fires into the backfield to wrap up the running back (it’s not Royce Freeman).
Cruikshank quickly reads the play, gets in the backfield before the pulling guard can even locate him, and takes down the running back (it’s not Ronald Jones).

Of course, when you’re left completely unblocked, you’re expected to make these plays.

In this next snap, again tasked with outside contain, Cruikshank does his best to avoid the lead blocker but gets tripped up. Still, his quick presence in the backfield and on the edge forces the running back to evade, eventually resulting in a massive loss of yards.

Cruikshank’s elite athleticism was on full display when Arizona used him as a blitzer off the edge.

Lined up the same as he would be if he were containing the edge in the run game, Cruikshank quickly diagnoses the jet sweep fake and chases down the quarterback with excellent backside pursuit.

When he wasn’t coming downhill off the edge, Cruikshank could be found dropping into coverage, often responsible for the short curl/flat zone and occasionally covering tight ends and slot receivers one-on-one.

One thing that jumped out to me was Cruikshank’s ability to read the eyes of the opposing quarterbacks as he moves in space.

Here he’s in a man coverage, but he’s reading the routes in front of him as well as the quarterback. When he sees the throw coming, aware that the other receiver is breaking inside behind him, Cruikshank lets his man go, staying in the passing lane and almost coming up with the interception.

The next play is a case of Cruikshank following the quarterback’s eyes - and his movement - to meet the receiver at the catch point and force the incompletion at the sideline in the end zone.

Cruikshank flows to the sideline because he sees the quarterback rolling that direction. His play in coverage consistently displays a level of awareness that should translate well to an expanded role at the safety position in the NFL.

Just watch this short breakdown by Ben Solak of NDT Scouting examining Cruikshank’s high level of awareness and football IQ on this interception of Sam Darnold.

Joshua Gleason, in a thread dedicated to Josh Rosen’s interceptions, noted the below play by Cruikshank. Cruikshank has the underneath hook/curl responsibility, and he is able to anticipate the throw and get into the passing lane because he sees where the quarterback is going with the ball.

That’s a special level of recognition and athleticism to break fast enough to snag the interception.

You can see the awareness again on this next play. While Cruikshank certainly benefits from being in the “right place at the right time” to haul in this interception, I think it was a result of his awareness and ability to read the quarterback.

Interesting note about this play, Cruikshank was flagged for taunting (for waving “goodbye” to the Oregon player) near the ten-yard line, turning this would-be pick 6 into a first-and-ten for Arizona in the red zone.

Of course, sometimes relying too much on reading the eyes of the quarterback can get you into trouble, particularly when the quarterback knows you’re reading his eyes.

Cruikshank looks like the poor victim of a no-look pass here. The ‘tell’ is the way he quickly whips his head around after breaking to the place he thought the ball was being thrown (luckily his teammates came up with the deflected interception).

The good news is that Cruikshank will get plenty of practice with quarterback eye manipulation every day against Marcus Mariota, one of the NFL’s best at manipulating a defense with his eyes and the master of the “no look pass”.

As a one-on-one cover man, Cruikshank was pretty effective, often using his long arms and athleticism to contest passes and notch PBUs at the catch point.

Jonah Tuls of NDT Scouting is a big fan of Cruikshank’s, and he wrote a piece on him before the draft called “Dane Cruikshank deserves more hype – traits rival that of Minkah Fitzpatrick.” Highly recommend checking it out. The above and below tweets were pulled from this article.

I’m not sure if the Titans plan to use Cruikshank as a cornerback. They seem pretty set at the position, at least at the top, likely featuring Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson as the boundary corners and Logan Ryan manning the slot for the majority of plays, with LeShaun Sims serving as the first guy off the bench.

However, the Titans do need players who can help eliminate the match-up nightmares offensive coordinators are creating around the league with tight ends and running backs.

Cruikshank shows off his closing speed at the catch point to break up this pass.

Coverage abilities are always in demand and never go out of style. At the very least, Cruikshank could provide slot cornerback depth in addition to his potential as a strong safety.

Count Jon Ledyard among the NDT Scouting analysts who liked what they saw from Dane Cruikshank.

Okay, at this point in the breakdown, you’re probably wondering why this guy wasn’t a top level, highly-touted draft pick, right?

Cruikshank was a difference-maker for Arizona’s defense, and the above is a collection of his best plays. But he wasn’t without fault.

I saw Cruikshank occasionally get into trouble when he relied too much on his athleticism or got caught looking in the backfield instead of at the players around him .

In the above play, Cruikshank loses his responsibility on the wheel route, lets his man get behind him, and then jumps for the ball early, hoping his athletic abilities can bail him out. They do not, and thus he allows a big completion.

You can see again in the next play Cruikshank gets caught drifting backwards when it appeared he should’ve picked up the receiver running the shallow dig, passed off to him by his teammate.

Cruikshank is slow to react as he passes his man to a teammate and picks up another receiver.

I also thought Cruikshank struggled frequently in disengaging from blocks when placed in a run-stuffing role. While he has good size for a defensive back, Cruikshank is rather undersized for a linebacker.

Final Thoughts

I wouldn’t expect to see all that much from Cruikshank as a rookie. He’ll need time to learn the nuances of playing the safety position full-time (if that’s where the Titans decide to keep him). He does have a potential mentor to learn from in third-year All-Pro, Kevin “just a fan” Byard, as well as a good coaching staff led by Dean Pees, which could accelerate his development a bit. Regardless, Byard and Johnathan Cyprien are pretty entrenched as the starting safeties, at least for the start of 2018.

That said, Cruikshank should be able to get on the field and contribute right away on special teams. He could act as a 3rd safety/4th cornerback early on if he picks the defense up quickly enough, or if injuries push him into duty (knock on wood).

Cruikshank’s explosive first step will allow him to carve out an early role on special teams. His pursuit abilities should make him a quality gunner on punt and kickoff teams, too.

I think the idea of a “redshirt year” would benefit Cruikshank the same way it did for him when he first arrived on campus in Tucson. Depending on where the Titans decide to play him, he may be tasked with learning a new position.

He could make an impact in spot duty with specific, limited roles as a rookie. I would also expect him to be one of the team’s leading gunners.

His athletic potential and football IQ demonstrated on the field give him the potential to develop into a solid player for the defense’s back-end.

Call it cliché, but Dane Cruikshank could end up being a steal in the fifth round.