With the Minnesota Vikings signing “backup” defensive end Everson Griffen to a lucrative contract worth $8.5 million per year (though guaranteed only for the first two years, making him easy to cut should it be necessary), the shape of the roster is becoming clearer. Known mostly as an athletic wunderkind who dropped in the draft to off-field issues (and had some run-ins with the law since), Griffen’s signing was widely described as an investment in potential.
That’s not quite a fair analysis. Since joining the Vikings in 2010, Griffen hasn’t simply been a ball of unmolded potential and an unknown athletic quality; he’s had over a thousand quality snaps with the Vikings playing the position they’ll ask him to play—snaps they and the rest of the NFL would use to gauge his value. In fact, the Denver Broncos were willing to offer Griffen a deal worth $500k more a year.
With all that attention what does Griffen bring to the table?
There are two reasons I chose to watch exclusively 2013 film: 1) you would not believe the difference in quality in coaches film [sic] from this year to last. HD quality coaches film is an underrated godsend, 2) it provides the most recent context for Griffen, who should have enough snaps in 2013 that this isn’t an issue
While I ended up reviewing nearly half of his snaps from the previous year, I decided to focus on a few games. The first two games are the Week 10 game against the Washington Redskins and the Week 12 game against the Green Bay Packers, if only because Pro Football Focus regarded them as his best and worst games. While I believe the sustainability of player performance exists in the area exclusive to those outliers, it makes sense to study them for potential best-case and worst-case scenarios.
I also decided to watch his game against Cincinnati because it would be inevitable that he’d play directly against a Pro Bowl-level talent at RT, LT and LG. The final game I looked at was his Philadelphia game for a few reasons: the first is that I believe Philadelphia may have the best offensive line in football; the second is that dealing with the unique nature of schemes that may become more proliferate in the NFL is useful for determining a player’s adaptability; the third is that he’ll play against players nearly as athletic as he is; and the fourth because it was late in the year.
Everson Griffen is best known for being a preternatural athletic talent. It’s true, in a world of “rare” athletes, Griffen is unique. Aside from a crazy “speed score” (a Bill Barnwell metric originally designed to measure the weight-adjusted speed of running backs, with an average RB at 100) of 117.8, which is short of only Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Donald, A.C. Leonard and Quincy Enunwa out of all players who participated. In fact, out of all pass-rushers, Griffen beats out everyone but Clowney and is in the top 15th percentile in the past four years.
With that are impressive 10-yard splits (1.63) and clear on-field athleticism. While athletic on the field, what’s more important is what he does with it. Dontay Moch and Martez Wilson are both excellent recent examples of players who have been out-of-this-world in terms of their potential and abilities, but haven’t been able to integrate their physical tools with enough technical skill to make an impact.
Usually, the natural reaction to hearing first that a player is athletic is to assume they are somewhat raw technically. This is actually a somewhat fair assumption because it speaks to the path many players took into the NFL and what made them successful, but it occasionally shortchanges wonderful technicians like Randy Moss and Geno Atkins.
In this case, to assume that Griffen, who’s entering his fifth-year in the NFL, is as raw a rusher as Jadeveon Clowney or Ziggy Ansah would be way off mark. As a pass-rusher, Griffen has shown a surprising amount of technical skill, instinct and savvy at the position, and has ironically been a victim of his versatility because of his inability to play the one-on-one matchup against an offensive lineman like a batter working the count. As a result, he can’t display much of the shrewdness he has or has developed at the position because he doesn’t have the ability to “set up” opposing offensive linemen.
Despite all of that, Griffen has shown an ability to generate pressure. In the last two years, Griffen has racked up 15 sacks, 19 hits and 63 hurries per Pro Football Focus, who counts “half-sacks” as full sacks (for those wondering, it would not change any sack records). He did that in exactly 900 pass-rushing snaps, earning a Pass Rusher Productivity rating of 8.5, which would put him right next to Jared Allen and Michael Johnson (8.6) over the same two years.
When only using his snaps at defensive end, his PRP jumps to 9.2, which is identical to Terrell Suggs and Lamarr Houston. And in 2013 alone, his PRP was 9.5, which puts him in the same tier as Clay Matthews and Carlos Dunlap.
This isn’t the end-all-be-all of evaluating pass-rushers, of course. For one, sacks weight heavily in the data and are much more random events that are subject to spikes in data. Pressures-per-pass-rushing snap is more sustainable (in a small sample of 80 pass-rushers, the r^2 between 2012 data and 2013 data is 0.5, which is extremely low for generic data and extremely high for football). In that, Griffen has ranked in the middle of the pack of starting pass-rushers when lined up as a 4-3 defensive end. In that measure, he falls right in between former teammates Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.
In addition, data can only project so far into the future. As a starter, Griffen will be expected to take the majority of the defensive end snaps against one player. He will have the opportunity to learn their tendencies over the course of a game, but so will they of him.
EDIT: If the GIFs don’t work and you still want to see them, just open them in a new tab—they should load just fine.
From a technique perspective, Griffen has a number of pass-rushing moves in his repertoire. Historically, it was very important that edge rushers have a variety of moves in order to keep opposing offensive linemen off-kilter, but recently that has proven to be less important—with some rushers excelling with one base move and one counter (the best example is an interior pass-rusher: J.J. Watt).
His favorite is a speed rush, which is hardly a surprise. It’s largely a basic dip-and-rip to the outside. His get-off isn’t elite for a few reasons, but he certainly has more speed than necessary to execute the move and displays the bend and timing needed to make the move work. This move doesn’t come with a lot of technical sophistication, but where it can be improved with handwork, he’s done it. With that he has a few counters. The most famous is the spin move, made notable by Dwight Freeney, but he also has a counter rip inside and a stab-and grab.
He also has a basic bull rush that he uses much more often than his reputation for speed would have you believe, although he doesn’t play this one often enough to effectively employ a counter. Griffen is surprisingly strong and is willing to overpower instead of simply beating the rusher to the edge and understands that a collapsed pocket can sometimes be more useful in a given situation than outside pressure—especially against mobile quarterbacks willing to take inside lanes.
With his bull rush, he not only has an understanding of leverage and employs raw power to make it effective, he also understands where to attack and how to place his hands in order to use the first-mover advantage defensive linemen have when moving upfield. He uses this to set up chop/swat moves that give him a nice outside counter.
He also has some other moves he uses less often, like a swim move and basic rip, but for the most part, his technical sophistication lies in the first two speed and power moves he employs. As a rusher, he needs to more consistently get his hands on the opposing blocker first and use his length to his advantage, but for the most part has technique down to be a deadly rusher in most situations. The number of pass-rushing moves he has isn’t a problem and the strong armory of techniques he has will serve him extremely well.
Griffen is an effective rusher, but will really benefit from playing against the same offensive lineman over the course of the game, allowing him to set up the player and exploit it in critical situations.
In terms of his pass-rushing angles, Griffen has significant room for improvement, sometimes shooting too far upfield before bending into the pocket. When moving inside, something he needs to do more often when outside, he doesn’t set his first inside move towards the quarterback, wasting movement and pressure.
He isn’t an elite handfighter, though he’ll win more often than not despite the low amount of hand movement in his game. Activity in general isn’t a problem, as he’s constantly pushing the opposing lineman and keeps his feet moving. This becomes somewhat of an issue when offensive linemen begin to counter his initial punch by pulling him inside or pushing his hip too far out of the play (his bend isn’t low enough to make this completely untenable), but if he gets this down, he’ll be extremely difficult to stop.
As a run defender, Griffen sets the edge far better than people think. Consistently, I see reports that he’s “weak against the run” or “needs to improve in this area,” which is simply not true. Coming out of USC, he had a reputation as an able player against both the pass and the run, and he should have maintained that reputation with his play in the last two years. When bull-rushing linemen, he has the awareness and technical ability to two-gap and generally can punish the defense for running to the outside, though he has to get off his blocks a little better before he can approach the level of “completeness” that a player like Michael Johnson has.
His backside pursuit is good, although sometimes a little disappointing given all that we’ve heard about his athletic ability. Sometimes his pursuit angles are too wide, and on occasion he’ll be late to change directions but for the most part has a natural ability to stop the run that we’ll really begin to notice this next year.
Griffen won’t be a textbook example of tackling form, but very few defensive ends are with the angles they have to take and awkward positioning, but he more often than not gets the job done. He doesn’t quite have Pat Williams’ crazy ability to drag down ballcarriers with arm tackles, but he has more than enough strength to get away with some of his poor form and he doesn’t get dragged with the runner.
It’s difficult to look like you have a difficult first step when you play next to Kevin Williams and Fred Evans, both of whom are preternatural at getting off the snap and hitting the opposing lineman first, but Griffen’s is better than most. It isn’t as consistent as Williams or Evans, though, and there are times when he’ll be the last off the snap instead of the first. For the most part, however, he’s explosive and quick off the snap, allowing him to win the first half of any pass-rushing battle.
He also displays a lot of second-effort in his rushes. Like I mentioned above, there’s constant movement throughout his rush, but in general he’s the quintessential high-motor player who I haven’t seen take a play off—exceedingly rare for defensive linemen, who by the very nature of their position will need to take plays off. This exceptional hustle and high-effort play allows him to generate late pressure better than most and he’ll continue to put pressure on the pocket even if he knows he can’t get a sack, switching techniques (with mixed, but sometimes very positive) results.
Though he is instinctive about a lot of the requirements of his position, he’s not necessarily all there when it comes to reading the play, often slow to engage when tasked with this responsibility instead of purely defending the run or rushing the passer (or rushing the passer with gap control in mind). When faced with these moments of ambiguity, his effectiveness drops. In general, his play diagnosis on-the-fly when not asked to slow-play the opposing lineman is fine and perhaps above average; it’s when he’s asked to set up with diagnosis in mind that he really slows down.
This may have the biggest impact on the passing game; Griffen is not particularly adept at batting down passes at the line and doesn’t get his arms up if he can’t rush the passer. If nothing else, this might be his biggest area of improvement.
His fluidity is a huge asset and he can change directions quickly if need be, but sometimes this slower reaction time to a developing play moots that fluidity and can expose him, especially when faced with the read-option. Alternatively, when he knows he might need to change direction, he’s on point and insanely smooth.
Griffen’s pad level, for the most part, is not a problem. In the middle of games, I did find a few instances where he was stood up by opposing lineman because he attacked too high, but he resolves this issue within one or two snaps of getting ragdolled by his height. Similarly, it will occasionally look like his get-off decreases over the course of the game, when it really is a more temporary lapse than endurance issue.
His balance is generally on par with his counterparts, though nothing special. Should he get moved off of his intended spot, it takes him some time to recover (relative to the demands of the position). He has an integrated game; his feet and hands work in sync and he’ll sink his hips or knees as necessary to take advantage of this, although he could do this better when he counters.
Some have wondered if he’ll have the stamina to take on 900 snaps a year as a starter, and I don’t see this as much of a problem. Aside from the fact that in games where he’s had a heavy snap count he’s been able to go hard in the final snap just as easily in the first, he’s played with tenacity from the nose tackle and under tackle positions—often getting double-teamed in nickel situations.
He really is a poor defensive tackle (not that it matters) and his instincts saw him get double-teamed far too often (he consistently played the under tackle position as if the Vikings lined up in a 4-3 over instead of under, mooting some of the schematic advantages he would have normally gotten) which should have taken more out of him than any three snaps at the defensive end position would have.
If he demands double teams, which he did more often than you’d expect as a DT, he’ll struggle to make an impact more than many doubled pass rushers. For all his strength, technique and speed, he finds it difficult to shoot through a double team to make an impact or collapse into the pocket. This isn’t a big issue—any player demanding a double team is necessarily helping the team—but it’s worth noting. He’ll have to watch out for chips from tight ends, which he hasn’t seen very often as of yet.
Right now, I think Griffen has positioned himself, from a technique and ability perspective, to be a “good” pass-rusher in the top fifteen at his position with definite upside to be much more than that. It’s rare to find even high-level pass rushers with the combination of speed and strength as well as an ability to expand his game.
He doesn’t really need to improve his physical techniques all too much, though things like more effective handfighting and more interesting counters to his bull rush would be very useful, and the mental game of setting up an offensive lineman to take advantage of him later will be critical.
In Zimmer’s defense, he’ll be asked to set the edge and play the run first, something he didn’t necessarily do all that often in Minnesota, but he should be fine. He may even be asked to reduce the number and type of rushing moves he has so that he can better set the edge and play against the run.
Contrary to a lot of opinions on him out there, he wasn’t only a subpackage player or situational rusher put in situations that should artificially boost his pass-rushing numbers; he came out onto the field early and in every situation more than enough to gauge his talent at a holistic level.
Everson Griffen isn’t just a ball of unmolded athletic potential; he’s a far more complete and technically refined product than he’s given credit for. He’s also more than speed; he’s an incredibly powerful player with a lot more strength than most 4-3 ends, and is willing to use it. If he tightens his pursuit and pass-rush angles, he’ll be a demon.
If Griffen continues his current level of play, he’ll likely have played to his contract. Of the 31 pass rushers last year who had signed a contract in free agency int he last four years (this does not include players on their rookie deals), his salary’s cap hit will take up the 16th-most space relative to the size of the cap when the deals were signed, marking his contract not as elite money, but as average for a starter. Should he do better than rank 20th-25th out of the league’s pass rushers, he’ll have more than paid off the investment and was worth the cap space.
If he doesn’t improve as a player at all, he’s still a top-fifteen player at his position from a technique and physical ability perspective, and will have justified his contract. Should he improve, the Vikings will have come out the winners.