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Next man up: Nevin Lawson (Part one)

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Checking on CB Nevin Lawson's development from the 2015 season.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Next man up is a series of articles examining players further down the depth chart, particularly young players being developed for larger roles.

This time, we are looking at cornerback Nevin Lawson.

Draft Flashback

Prior to the draft in 2014, the Lions were coming off a brutal 2013 season in terms of cornerback performance: Chris Houston went from being a solid No. 1 corner to the doghouse. Due to a combination of injuries, salary, and performance, the team released him just one month after the draft. That meant the starting corners were Rashean Mathis and an unproven Darius Slay, with a host of question marks at nickel and depth: Bill Bentley, Jonte Green, and Chris Greenwood. A significant new addition to that stable was supposed to have been fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson.

A horrible dislocated foot/toes injury in September 2014 against Carolina ended Lawson's rookie season in a hurry. As Lawson recovered through the 2015 offseason, he was intended to be in the mix for the nickel position. But by midsummer, that competition became a battle between Josh Wilson and Quandre Diggs. Lawson survived roster cuts (Bentley did not) but at the time lacked a clear role in the depth chart.

Many people have probably forgotten -- as I did -- that Lawson is barley even 5-foot-10 (occasionally he is reported an inch shorter, so he's more or less the same size as Diggs). That's why he was pegged as a nickel and not an outside corner. It's also why Detroit spent a third-round pick in the 2015 draft on six-foot Alex Carter.

Then Carter and Mathis got injured, and wouldn't you know it? Nevin Lawson was starting games opposite Darius Slay as Detroit's No. 2 outside corner by Week 8 in 2015 against the Chefs. Let's go back to the things said about Nevin Lawson in 2014 that had Jeremy Reisman worried about the pick.

NFL Network's East-West Shrine Game Postgame analysis from Charles Davis:

Nevin Lawson, he may have been a little handsy and a little grabby (tugging at Mike Mayock's jacket), but he figured into some big plays today and made some plays.

NFL.com Draft Profile:

Reads and reacts quickly. Has skills to man up receivers. Soft-footed with flexible hips to pedal easily and transition smoothly. Good zone awareness and reactions.
Press technique needs refinement. Too often allows free release. Clutching, grabbing and incurring flags have been issues in the past. Ball skills are a work in progress. Leaves some production on the field. Inconsistent run supporter.

CBSSports.com:

Very physical defender, especially as an open-field tackler, where he quickly closes on the ball-carrier and strikes them at the hips, encircling his arms and wrenching them to the ground emphatically.

Often asked to line up inside, showing the spatial awareness to handle playing the nickel and not relying on the sideline to protect himself. Highly confident defender, who varies his approach in man coverage, alternately punching the receiver to get a quality jam to impede their release or turning to run with them, demonstrating quick feet and a seamless turning motion. Good awareness in zone coverage.

With the First Pick's Peter Smith:

Lawson is a pretty good tackler when he has opportunities. He wraps up pretty consistently and latches on until the ball carrier goes to the ground.
He makes the vast majority of the tackles he has the opportunity to make.
The problem for Lawson is that he tends to too easily shoved out of the play and allows himself to get shielded off too easily. He does not sift through trash all that well and he is not involved in as many plays as he probably should be.
Lawson is impressive in terms of his ability to stay on defenders, mirror and run with opponents. He is impressive with being able to process information and react quickly.
Lawson is best served to play in a pure man scheme.

The early takes on Lawson's run defense and tackling seem to be contradictory, saying he's inconsistent against the run and can't sift through the trash but closes well on ball-carriers? Will make the vast majority of tackles he has the opportunity to make, but is not involved in as many plays as he should be? What does that mean?

The constants in the draft previews were that Lawson was good in man coverage but would draw penalty flags for grabbing receivers. Most previews used his height to project him to the slot/nickel spot. What's odd about the analysis on his coverage skills is that nothing was consistent about his ball skills and nobody had anything beyond a single sentence about his zone coverage.

This leads me to a few things worth investigating. First, let's figure out what is going on with Lawson's tackling and ability to zero in on ball-carriers. Does he move up and make tackles in the open field and run game well? Second, were his man coverage skills as good as advertised? Finally, let's see if his awareness and reaction playing in the scheme are sound. Many fans are hoping Lawson can be the answer on the outside as a permanent No. 2 corner, so these last two coverage items are the most important places for him to excel.

The basics of good tackling

The first issue of run stopping and tackling turns out to be a valid concern with Lawson. His technique ranges from solid Quandre Diggs style play for his size to Deion Sanders style tackling. I wish this were about Nevin Lawson's coverage skills (which are good), but unfortunately it is not Deion's ability to blanket a receiver downfield we are talking about. As we saw in our Diggs review, tackling is fundamental even for cornerbacks because they prevent small plays from turning into big plays:

Perennial All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman is most annoyed when he sees short passes turn into long gainers because of poor tackling.

The solution?

"You just tackle better," he said. "A lot of them have come from missed tackles, letting them run for more yards. And communicating better. Simple."

2015 PHI, 3Q (7:05). Second-and-10 at the Philadelphia 20.

We know that Lawson knows how to tackle well because we've seen him do it. For example, here's Lawson taking down 17 WR Nelson Agholor on a wide receiver screen play. There are several things to note about this particular tackle that meets the requirements of sound tackling technique. Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN wrote a nice article on tackling back in 2009:

A proper tackle usually involves a player: (1) putting himself in position to make the play; (2) getting his head across the body of a ball carrier; (3) grabbing hold of the jersey (or "grabbing cloth," as it is called); (4) keeping his feet moving after contact; and (5) taking the opponent to the ground.

In the split screencaps above, you can see in the first third that Lawson takes a great angle directly at Agholor and has his head across the body of the receiver. Lawson's left knee is in front of Agholor while his head is behind the ball-carrier's back. Arms wrapped completely around the waist, Lawson continues moving through the man: look where contact was made and where he's located in the second panel. At this point, he's trying to drag Agholor to the ground, which he does in the third panel by cutting down to the legs.

What else is going on in that third panel? Let's go back to the Barry Wilner AP article linked above (emphasis added):

"It’s two-fold, usually, with missed tackles," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It’s definitely technique. Sometimes, in a sense, you’re not aggressive enough. You break down too much and give a guy a chance to make you miss. In this league, athletes will make you miss in a heartbeat. If you try to wait for those guys to get to you, they are by you.

"Good tackling is gang-tackling. Good tackling is pursuit. That’s always been true in football. We have to make sure we do a good job of that."

Here, Lawson has stayed on Agholor and made his main focus immobilizing the guy with the ball. This buys time for 28 CB Quandre Diggs to come up and finish the job if necessary, and allows more distant defenders like 57 OLB Josh Bynes to swarm to the ball. Good angle, good wrap, pushing through the ball-carrier, and taking him down where teammates can help. This is every fundamental for good tackling demonstrated in a single play.

The pain of bad tackling

In the Chadiha article, Bernard Pollard tells us why positioning is number one on that list:

"That's the most important thing about tackling," said Texans strong safety Bernard Pollard. "If you take a bad angle in this league, it's going to turn into a big play in a hurry."

2015 PHI, 1Q (1:17). First-and-10 at the Philadelphia 33.

Here, Lawson is the outside man and needs to either squeeze the play back inside to the linebackers or keep spilling 29 HB DeMarco Murray to the sideline. He's so near the sideline that it's a safer play to try to keep Murray going sideways and buy time for Tulloch and Bynes to get off blocks and make it through to help from the back side.

Instead, Lawson runs upfield too far with not enough bend back to the hashes to take away the cutback. 19 WR Miles Austin keeps him shielded to the outside, and Murray cuts it up inside the block for 19 yards. Without a good angle to make a play, Lawson gets a hand out but misses Murray as he blows past.

2015 at NOS, 4Q (10:11). First-and-10 at the Detroit 11.

The weird thing with this play is that Lawson reads the catch but explodes upfield at 12 WR Marques Colston as if he is going to stand still. The goal line is to Colston's left, and Lawson has 59 LB Tahir Whitehead to the outside in position to get Colston should he decide to go right after catching the ball. Instead of adjusting his approach to take away the other inside run after catch path to Colston's left, Lawson goes straight line at the spot of the catch:

Lawson knows he should have had Colston short of the first down marker, and is disgusted with himself.

2015 OAK, 2Q (9:04). Second-and-12 at the Oakland 44.

Again, it's not clear where Lawson thinks 15 WR Michael Crabtree was most likely going to run with the ball after securing the catch. Instead of angling to anticipate the run to the inside, Lawson was shading toward the sideline behind Crabtree's back. Out of position to make a good wrap, Lawson whiffs on what should have been a stop for two yards and instead Crabtree picks up nine to set up third-and-short.

2015 at NOS, 1Q (2:04). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 40.

There is no attempt on this tackle to wrap up or even grab any cloth to bring down 83 WR Willie Snead, but another part worth looking at is the angle Lawson takes:

From overhead, we can see Lawson essentially goes straight for the position of the receiver as he's making the catch instead of anticipating where the play is going after the catch. Detroit has 57 LB Josh Bynes approaching as help from the inside, so the outside escape is on Lawson.

Next time: Why we drafted him (clearly not this)

I'm not quite sure what to make of Lawson's missed tackles, but my hunch is this is another one of those "speed of the pro game" issues that can be worked out over time as Lawson gains NFL game experience. In the good tackle, the receiver had not yet moved and Lawson delivered a textbook tackle. In each of the bad tackles, a ball-carrier made a cut or move which turned his direct approach into a bad angle. Think about how you might lead a target when hunting or playing a first person shooter video game or flight simulator. This makes it seem likely that these NFL players are simply moving faster than Lawson is accustomed to (i.e. back in the college level or at practice).

At a "slower" speed, his angle would be fine and he'd make the textbook tackle. Unfortunately, pro players like DeMarco Murray and Marques Colston are the best of the best in making football plays flow. It may very well be that Lawson has the right understanding of the angles he needs to take and where he needs to be, but simply needs to adjust his expectations of when he needs to be there.

In any case, I hope everyone remembers that none of this is the end of the world since run support and tackling are not the main reasons we drafted a cover corner who plays aggressive man coverage. Next time, we'll look at those cover skills and how they make Lawson a real asset in pass coverage at the outside cornerback position.