We continue our look at the Titans new rookie class today with first round pick, Rashaan Evans. If you missed the Harold Landry breakdown you can check it out through the link below.
Rashaan Evans was one of the most unique players in this draft. At Alabama he started his career as an edge rusher before eventually moving to an off-ball inside linebacker role. He primarily played the Will position as a full time starter in Nick Saban’s 3-4 in 2017, but also lined up at edge and in the Mike position from time to time as playcalls and injuries to other players required. That versatility perfectly aligns with what Mike Vrabel has stated he wants out of his front: “multiplicity”.
Dean Pees defenses are known for being aggressive, blitzing units who find ways to generate pressure and then convert those pressures in to turnovers. He’s going to love having a weapon like Evans who can chase down running backs in the box on one down, then turn around and blitz off the edge or drop in to coverage on the next.
Beyond just fitting in the lineup — which he certainly does following the departure of Avery Williamson this spring — Evans also fits what the Titans want to be at their core under Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel.
Fast and aggressive? Check.
High football character? Check.
Able to contribute to pass defense? Check.
Heard the Steelers were looking to trade up for Rashaan Evans. Patriots who picked at No. 23 also had interest in him. Titans made the move up to No. 22 to get their guy over two AFC rivals.— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) April 27, 2018
There have since been reports from the Patriots side that they were not, in fact, targeting Evans. That could be spin from New England to make it look like Belichick wasn’t out-maneuvered by his former protege, or it could be legitimate. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, but it is fun to think about The Hoodie stomping his feet in the draft room because Jon Robinson keeps stealing his favorite players.
My guess is that Evans steps right in as a starter for the Titans in base defense from day one, lining up next to Wesley Woodyard. My guess would be that one of those two guys gives way to Jayon Brown on third downs, but who that is may depend on how quickly Evans picks up the defense and how comfortable they are with him being the guy to wear the green dot communications helmet and make the calls.
Evans is the first linebacker the Titans drafted in the first round since taking Keith Bulluck with the 30th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft. Let’s hope he can live up to those lofty standards.
PRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Evans arrived in Tuscaloosa as a 5-star recruit from Auburn, Alabama in 2014. His recruitment was a hotly contested battle between Auburn University — his hometown school — and their hated rival to the north. He made the difficult decision to head to Alabama, in large part, because Auburn wanted to make him a safety while the Crimson Tide wanted him to keep him at outside linebacker, the position he played in high school.
As a freshman, Evans was mostly relegated to special teams duties and the occasional situational pass rushing opportunity as a depth edge rusher on a stacked Bama team. He finished with 14 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 1 sack.
His sophomore year was more of the same, but his effectiveness in limited snaps increased. He totaled 10 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks.
During his junior year he made the transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, though he still got the opportunity to pass rush on some sub-packages. Bama started the season with a starting linebacker group of Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton, and Ryan Anderson — all four are now in the NFL and two of them were first round picks — with Evans serving as something of a super-sub who could come in to the game at either spot. Shaun Dion Hamilton’s injury during the SEC Championship Game pushed Evans in to the starting lineup for the College Football Playoffs and he responded with back-to-back impact performances. In a win over Washington he tallied 7 stops and 1 sack in a dominant defensive performance, followed by an 11-tackle, 0.5 sack stat line in the loss to Clemson in the National Championship Game. He finished the year with 52 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks while also tacking on 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery.
With his former high school teammate Foster off to the pros, Evans finally started the season as a full-time starter in 2017. He was elected as a team captain prior to the season and proceeded to play like one throughout the year, collecting team-highs in tackles (74) and tackles for loss (13), while finishing 2nd on the team in sacks with 6 despite missing two games due to a groin injury suffered during the season-opener. He played through the lingering groin issue effectively all season while helping lead Alabama to another national title.
From a stats perspective, Evans’ pure tackle numbers aren’t that great, but his tackle for loss and sack numbers are. Part of that is due to the way that he was used at Alabama. He was often asked to pass rush instead of drop in coverage on obvious passing situations to take advantage of his excellent ability to get after the passer. Evans ranked 1st in PFF’s pass rusher productivity metric in 2017 among linebackers.
Evans’ ability to rush the passer is a big part of his value and I think that special talent will fit in perfectly with one of the packages that Mike Vrabel is likely to bring with him from Houston (I’ll get further in to that during the Film Review section below).
If you want to get to know Evans (and his family, which seems awesome) better, there is a great series of videos from AL.com that covered his lead up to the draft. I would highly recommend checking them out here.
A couple of my thoughts from watching the videos is that Evans comes across as a very charismatic, genuine guy who is absolutely obsessed with football. Jon Robinson said the Titans got a really good feel for Evans’ leadership and attention to detail when they spent time with him and other Alabama players at their pro day in Tuscaloosa. This quote from the Titans press conference following the first night of the draft is telling.
“You could see his leadership in the room,” Robinson said. “We had several of the Alabama guys in that room, and the command that he had in that room. He kind of had an old soul feel about him. A guy that really loves football, loves sitting there talking, watching the film and talking through the responsibilities he had, the front had, that the DBs had.”
The “old soul” comment certainly rings true if you watch the videos linked above. He comes across as a 10 year NFL vet in the way he carries himself. Nick Saban talked some about Evans’ leadership and ability to impact the game in multiple spots for Alabama during the 2017 season in this article from David Paschall.
“Rashaan has done an outstanding job for us,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “He’s gone through a lot with his own injuries and coming back. The loss of other players created multiple roles for him that we were hoping we wouldn’t have to endure throughout the season, but he’s done a good job of handling that and preparing.
”As we’ve lost other players, he’s picked up his leadership in terms of helping other players in the front seven play well and helping in the development of some of the younger players.”
Evans is the kind of player that could be the leader of the Titans defense for years to come. During the third video in the Road to the Pros series, the Alabama training staff talks about how they actually have to restrain Evans from overtraining because he just wants to go full speed with everything. Jon Robinson is collecting guys like that on this team and it bodes well for the future of the Titans.
One thing we can take away from the last two drafts is that Jon Robinson is not afraid to judge speed on tape rather than relying on stopwatches and a track setting. Last year he took Corey Davis at #5 overall despite the wide receiver never recording a 40 time due to an ankle injury. That evaluation is looking pretty good so far. He took another player with no recorded 40 this year in Evans. Evans skipped running the 40 at both the combine and Alabama’s pro day and was limited somewhat in other drills due to the groin injury that he fought through all season.
Evans’ combine results in the drills that he did participate in weren’t terribly impressive.
His 3-cone time of 6.95 seconds was very good though and it shows off his ability to stop, start, and corner. There is a decent chance that Evans’ groin truly did limit his ability to train for these events to some degree, particularly with Alabama’s season extending in to early January. However, the combine and athletic testing aren’t what made Evans a first round pick.
This is the fun part with Evans. The first thing that jumps out on Evans’ tape is his physicality. He was a true tone setter for the Alabama defense who made life miserable for opposing blockers and ball carriers.
Here he is coming on a bit of a delayed blitz from his inside linebacker position. The Arkansas running back steps over to pick him up and Evans just runs right through him. The only thing keeping Evans from the sack is him getting tangled up with the back’s sprawling legs, but the massive collision draws the quarterback’s eyes down and causes an off-balance incomplete pass.
I mentioned that Evans is a tone setter for the defense and that may be the term that best describes his overall impact on a game. He plays with a fiesty, competitive edge that can inspire a unit. On this play the quarterback sees Evans coming and starts to go down, but he doesn’t slide and Evans makes him pay for that decision. These big hits can have a lasting impact that echoes throughout a game. It gets Evans’ teammates fired up and keeps the offense busy checking over their shoulder for that freight train wearing 32.
Arriving with this sort of violence is a common thing for Evans. He’s among the most physical linebackers you’ll ever watch. Check him out taking on a lead-blocking tight end here at the beginning of the Alabama-LSU game. He not only disengages from the block, but knocks the tight end completely out of the way, allowing Evans to make the tackle for a short gain.
Here’s another example of Evans being extremely physical with a blocker and it also shows off another of his most appealing traits: his relentlessness. Once again, he blows up the running back who steps to pick him up in pass protection, knocking him in to the quarterback’s lap, and then Evans leaps on to the quarterback bringing him down for a sack.
Evans is a non-stop motor guy. Here he not only puts Arkansas’ right tackle on his backside, but he also has the presence of mind and effort level to go in and strip the ball after his teammates had made the initial stop.
Let’s take a look now at how he combines some of that physicality with good instincts to be a force against opposing running games. Here Tennessee is running a little halfback dive with a WR screen action window dressing. Evans reads run right away, easily defeats the right tackles block with good power and hand usage, then destroys the running back behind the line of scrimmage with a perfect form tackle.
If you’re a UT fan, you’re probably saying “yeah, but Drew Richmond is terrible” right now — and you’re right, he has been — but here is Evans working against a guy who was taken two spots ahead of him in the draft: Frank Ragnow. Watch how Evans beats Ragnow to the punch, gets his hands inside, and then slides off to make the tackle. That’s textbook linebacking against a very good opponent.
While Evans’ calling card is his physicality, that’s not his only option when it comes to making plays. He also shows a good ability to set up and evade would-be-blockers with what almost look like pass rush moves on the second level. Watch here as he gives a little hesitation move and then rips by the tackle to stuff the running back on 3rd and 1. You can also see the stopping power he possesses in his tackles. He certainly had some help on this play, but Evans is the guy who really kills the back’s progress short of the line to gain.
Here’s another example. Watch Evans bait the right tackle towards the inside before quickly quickly stepping around him to the outside and making a great tackle in the hole against Derrius Guice. The tackle doesn’t even get a finger on him. The ability win with either power or quickness make Evans a tough block for any offensive lineman trying to climb to the next level.
Here is more evidence of Evans’ stopping power. It’s 3rd and goal at the 1 and Evans manages to read the play in time to meet the running back at the 2 yard line and actually drive him all the way back to the 4 yard line.
Evans shows really good burst in small areas when he clicks and closes on a ball carrier. Here he reads the zone run, finds a lane, and then explodes through it to make the tackle for a big loss.
If there is a knock on Evans from most scouting reports, it’s that he’s relatively inexperienced in coverage due to Bama’s frequent usage of him as a spy/pass rusher. There is a very good reason for why Saban did that and I’ll show it shortly, but for now let’s take a look at Evans in coverage. There aren’t a ton of clips to work with — due partially to usage and partially to limitations of TV broadcast camera views — but what I did see from him was actually pretty strong. Here he’s dropping from an edge position as part of a zone blitz. He goes off screen at the top of the route — can someone please make college All-22 tape public — but you can see he shows good situational awareness here as he knows where the sticks are and is able to break on the throw to knock it away.
This time we have Evans carrying the tight end on a post route. He does a nice job of sticking in the hip pocket and making the play on the ball when it arrives.
Here’s a better shot of him working in man coverage down field. This time he’s matched up with Titans UDFA tight end Ethan Wolf. Evans tracks Wolf through the crossing route and stays tight to him until his teammates get home for the sack.
Here is Evans matched up on another tight end. This time he does a good job of maintaining outside leverage, knowing he has help inside, before running with the tight end up the seam.
Here is an example of Evans working in zone coverage which really suits his strengths better than man. Bama appears to be in quarters coverage here which means Evans is responsible for the curl/flat zone. He stays inside long enough to take away the curl from the tight end before breaking on the back leaking out in to the flat and forcing an incomplete pass. Evans’ instincts and burst make him a very good zone defender.
This is really a variation of a running play more than a true pass, but you can see Evans’ ability to read and then finish on this play. LSU is trying to run a “Utah pass” — a play that the Titans ran several times last year — but Evans sees it all the way and destroys the tight end as soon as he catches it. Also, check out how little interest LSU’s slot wide receiver Derrick Dillon shows in blocking Evans. He wants no part of 32, with good reason.
Finally, let’s get to what makes Evans very unique as an inside linebacker: his ability to rush the passer. We’ve already seen a few examples of Evans blitzing from his inside linebacker position, but Alabama also lined him up as an edge rusher often on 3rd downs. This was the position that he played during his first two years in Tuscaloosa so he’s the rare inside linebacker who actually knows what he’s doing from a pure pass rush perspective. Here you can see Evans easily defeat the left tackle with a nice snatch move (or cloth pull if you prefer). The back bails LSU out here, but it’s an impressive pass rush win for Evans nonetheless.
Here’s another pure edge rush snap. This time Evans times up the snap count and leaves the left tackle grasping at air as he turns the corner for a quick sack. You can see that quick 3-Cone time on display here.
Evans’ signature pass rush move is his spin though. Here it is against Clemson. He starts up field like an ordinary edge rush, but then gives a quick jab step outside before whirling back inside to beat the tackle and force the throw away. Watch how Evans uses his inside arm as he’s finishing the spin to clear the tackle and get free. He’s very polished with this move. It’s not just spinning for the sake of spinning.
Here comes the spin again. This time Tennessee is trying to use their back to chip Evans on the way out, but he spins by both the back and the tackle in one move and gets in on the quarterback. Guarantano does a nice job of stepping up and evading the sack, but this is a really nice move from Evans.
One last inside spin example. This one is a little less of a clean win, but just the flash of Evans coming off the block causes the quarterback to get antsy. Evans continues to fight through and eventually finishes the sack at the 1 yard line.
He’s got an outside spin as well. Here he’s rushing on a 4th and goal situation and he just blows by Drew Richmond with the tight outside spin and forces a pressured throw which results in an interception for his teammate.
Evans’ ability to pass rush fits extremely well in a sub-package that Vrabel used frequently in pass rush situations in Houston featuring 5 defenders lined up across the line of scrimmage. The Texans referred to this as a “diamond front”. It’s a relatively simple concept that has a wide range of variations that can be built on. You can get a great detailed breakdown of this front here, but the simple idea is that you line up with a mix of 5 defensive linemen/linebackers against the 5 offensive linemen which dictates one-on-one pass blocking matchups across the board.
Here is one variation of it from the 2016 playoffs. Pre-snap you can see the Texans line up from left-to-right with linebacker Brian Cushing, defensive end Ufomba Kamalu, edge rusher Whitney Mercilus, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and linebacker Bernardrick McKinney all on the line of scrimmage. This alignment dictates matchups and also forces the offensive line to anticipate one-on-one blocking assignments. In this example the Texans end up dropping Cushing and McKinney in to coverage, but the Patriots tackles have to at least set first against the wide-9 rushers outside before reacting and trying to scramble to help elsewhere. Inside, the Texans have huge advantages with Clowney one-on-one against left guard Joe Thuney and Mercilus walking up over center David Andrews. On this play Mercilus makes quick work of Andrews with an excellent spin move and hauls down Brady for the sack.
The Texans built all sorts of stunts and twists off this look to further confuse matters for the offensive line. They can also vary the number that they send and which of those players go. Sometimes they’ll rush all 5, sometimes they’ll rush 3, like they did in the example above. Other times they’ll rush 4.
It’s something that the Titans are almost certain to take advantage of in 2018 with their personnel and Evans could be the linchpin with his ability to rush the passer like an edge player from the linebacker position. It’s not hard to imagine the Titans lining up with Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey, Rashaan Evans, Derrick Morgan, and Harold Landry in a diamond front as they look to get specific matchups.
In addition to his ability as a pure rusher, Evans is also an excellent blitzer from a more traditional off-ball inside linebacker alignment. Here he is lined up in the A gap pre-snap, but he twists around his defensive tackle and end before blowing up the running back, doubling back, and stripping the escaping quarterback.
Finally, Evans was used quite a bit as a spy on 3rd downs, particularly against mobile quarterbacks. It is something that he showed great instincts for. On this snap he’s spying, but as soon as he sees the quarterback in trouble he closes in a hurry and gets the sack.
I’ll finish the tape review with a quick pro tip for opposing offensive coordinators: block Evans. Your quarterback’s health depends on it. The next few plays need no description so I’ll just let’em rip.
Rashaan Evans is a perfect fit for the type of defense that Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees say they want to run in Tennessee. He plays fast and aggressive and his pass rush ability is special for a player at his position. Evans’ versatility will allow his coaches to be multiple without changing personnel which is extremely valuable in today’s fast-paced NFL. He has the look of a “heart and soul” type leader of the defense for years to come and it’s hard to ask for more than that from a first round pick.
Evans feels like a high-floor player to me with the only drawback being a relative lack of experience working in pass coverage and possible questions about his durability due to the lingering groin injury from this past season. However, Evans — at a minimum — should be an immediate upgrade over Avery Williamson and a future building block for the Titans defense to build around.