This “Millionaire” earned everything the hard way
Thurston Armbrister comes to the Detroit Lions under familiar circumstances, having to once again prove the doubters wrong about his ability to play. Passed over by colleges scouting high school players, the zero star recruit scrapped his way into a starting role at the University of Miami at Florida. Armbrister ended up starting 23 games over three seasons for the Hurricanes, and more than once had to earn back his status as a starter (2012-2013) or fend off competitors (2014). Over the course of his career at The U, the man named after Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island emerged as a capable leader on defense for former head coach and current Lions tight ends coach Al Golden.
Despite a productive college career, Armbrister was one of a handful of Miami players not invited to the NFL combine. He went undrafted as predicted by SB Nation’s State of the U, who had this to say about him at the time:
#1 Playmaker - Armbrister has a knack for separating the ball from the QB, as illustrated above. He's also pretty good at shooting gaps and finding ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Is a strong, sure tackler with good punch.
#2 Strong at the Point of Attack - TA takes on and sheds blockers and very rarely loses one on one battles, making him an asset Vs the run.
#3 Intangibles - Has a chip on his shoulder about not being invited to the NFL combine. Armbrister also played his entire career with something to prove at Miami. Looks for that same type of determination at the next level.
#1 Not the best out in space/coverage - Though he is a better decent athlete, Armbrister does not look comfortable at all dropping back in coverage, whether zone or chasing a RB/TE in man.
#2 Explosiveness - Is a good but perhaps not spectacular athlete. Gets around the edge well, and uses good pursuit to make plays, but is not elite in any one physical attribute.
At rookie camp, Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley was pleasantly surprised:
Do the scouts tell you with guys like Thurston Armbrister [undrafted Miami linebacker] how his skillset is?
"Yeah we do. They come to us and say here is his skillset and how he looks. He’s very fast for a linebacker skillset. I think what shocked us a little bit about him was his lateral movement was maybe a little bit better than we thought."
An excellent preseason in 2015 led to Armbrister making the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. Oddly enough, the initial depth chart that year penciled in Armbrister as a backup middle linebacker (he played outside linebacker in college).
Oh no, not this again: missed tackles
The first playing time that Thurston Armbrister saw in 2015 came very early in the season: starting MLB Paul Posluszny suffered a high ankle sprain in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4, forcing the rookie into action. Whether due to rookie jitters or something else, Ambrister did not play well in that game or the following week against Tampa Bay. In particular, his tackling was unsound, creating big plays for opposing rushers.
2015 JAX at IND, 3Q (7:48). First-and-10 at the Indianapolis 45.
Our man number 57 is guilty of the second missed tackle on this play, which went for 9 yards.
2015 JAX at IND, 3Q (6:10). Third-and-3 at the Jacksonville 48.
The most disappointing part about this missed tackle is that Armbrister is actually in excellent position to stop the flat route run by 23 HB Frank Gore on this all-curls call by the Colts. A secure tackle here would have forced the Colts to punt.
2015 JAX at IND, OT (6:06). Third-and-5 at the Jacksonville 29.
While Indianapolis was already in range for Adam Vinatieri, the blown tackle here turned a short gain into a 22-yard scamper. What could have been a difficult kick for Vinatieri became a virtually automatic game-winner.
2015 JAX at TBY, 1Q (7:52). Second-and-12 at the Tampa Bay 15.
Backed up deep in their own territory and behind schedule to move the sticks, the Buccaneers manage to gain 13 yards on a middle dump-off to 22 HB Doug Martin thanks to a terrible whiffed tackle attempt. At this point, two games into tape review of the Lions’ newly-acquired waiver claim, the words “less athletic Kyle Van Noy” came to mind. Thankfully, it got somewhat better in later games.
Signs of growth
Even in the later games, it was clear that Armbrister was not ready to be on the field full-time; he was benched again after a Week 13 road loss to the Titans in which Poz was again injured and eventually shut down for the season. Although the Jaguars were depleted at linebacker, the UDFA rookie who had impressed in the preseason would barely see the field again for the last four games of the season. The coaching staff was not happy with his progress to that point in the season, but it was pretty clear progress was being made.
2015 JAX at BAL, 1Q (10:44). First-and-10 at the Baltimore 32.
This is better; the tackle is driving through the ball-carrier and stops the play for a loss of a yard.
2015 JAX at BAL, 3Q (12:41). Second-and-10 at the Baltimore 45.
Armbrister starts on the left edge of the GIF, avoids the lead blocker 71 T Ricky Wagner, and takes a direct path to 44 FB Kyle Juszczyk. Even on poorer reads, we can find signs of learning and development. First, here’s a bad version:
2015 JAX at BAL, 4Q (3:57). First-and-10 at the Baltimore 20.
Committing up inside on the play action, Armbrister gets outflanked by Juszczyk going in the other direction to the flat. A similar play situation came up the following week at Tennessee, but the rookie had learned to be more patient. Here is the good version:
2015 JAX at TEN, 4Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Jacksonville 43.
This time he stays disciplined, watching his man 45 FB Jalston Fowler and following to the flat instead of biting hard on the play action. Good coverage led to a quick stop for just two yards.
LEO, OTTO, LOTTO?
Certainly the Lions did not think they were getting a starter off the waiver wire, but it looks like they may have found a decent young depth linebacker who is still growing. Showing some improvement over the year, it’s likely Armbrister can serve as an acceptable backup.
If he’s so useful, why would Jacksonville cut him? Remember, that team invested a ton of draft capital at linebacker recently. First, there was the 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler (who went down before the season to an ACL injury); he’s back and ready to go. Then, injured but talented Myles Jack fell to the Jaguars in the second round; he’s also back and ready to go. Also drafted recently: 2014 fifth-round pick Telvin Smith, who is pretty damn good. That’s a roster which happens to be very deep at linebacker and not everyone could make the cut (see: Detroit Lions defensive tackles).
Another factor as to why he might find more success in Detroit is the scheme change. An outside linebacker by training at Miami, Jacksonville tried to move him inside as a rookie (e.g. the early games where he came in for Poz and looked bad). Look where he was playing in the later games that yielded better tape:
That is from the Tennessee game: Armbrister is outside at their OTTO position (a modified strong-side linebacker). Getting out of the weirdness of the Jacksonville system and into something more normal like Teryl Austin’s defense could help. Josh Bynes would have been the primary backup at the outside linebacker positions with Williams behind Tahir Whitehead in the middle since we have no other options there. On the first depth chart of the season, we find Armbrister listed behind Kyle Van Noy at SLB, and that’s a job I think he can do for Detroit.