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Seahawks on tape: Should first-round draft pick L.J. Collier start at 5-technique?

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NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice-North John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

John Schneider likes to surprise with first picks. L.J. Collier, at #29, was no exception in the 2019 NFL Draft. Early in the draft process, most draftniks had Collier as a mid-round, value pick. But, after an excellent Senior Bowl showing and more tape viewing, Collier soon was getting 2nd round talk.

After the defensive line-heavy first round, Schneider didn’t want to be left off the ledge and he took the Seattle Seahawks’ next 5 technique, as Pete Carroll described: “[Collier’s] gonna play 5 technique for us.”

Seattle has never been conscious of the perception of others. They are a Front Office that, for better or worse, follows their own mindset.

Crucially for the Seahawks, Collier fit their intangibles. Collier was challenged to the famous/infamous staring contest. He was invited to the VMAC, where “coaches really liked him.” Schneider seemed to love Collier’s character, mentioning “grit”, “toughness” and “hunger.” He placed an emphasis on Collier losing his mother: “guy that lost his mother when he was a freshman in college and he didn’t play well in the last game that she saw. And he’s always used that to his advantage.” Both Head Coach and General Manager touched on Collier’s small-town chip-on-shoulder. Carroll added the adversity Collier had overcome to get playing time at TCU. “He’s just our kinda guy,” concluded Schneider as Carroll finished with “He’s one of our guys.”

Before we can study the other parts of Collier’s game, we must first address what a 5-tech is. In simple terms it describes a defensive line alignment, where the DL aligns over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. But in Seattle’s scheme, the “5-tech” is more of a role on the defensive line. The Seahawks typically have a bigger end play 5T, and then a smaller, faster end play LEO (a wider rusher).

The knowledgeable @cmikesspinmove wrote an excellent piece describing the 5T role: “it asks one player to be able to play nearly all elements of the defensive end position in modern football — from techniques 3 through 9,” Mr Spinmove surmised.

For Seattle, there seems to be have been a certain infatuation with the role—even if they traded one of the best to do it in Michael Bennett. (Culture, a subject for another day or maybe never) “It’s a hard spot to find, the Calais Campbell’s of this world are hard to find,” imparted John Schneider after picking Collier.

Collier certainly has some of the traits and production for the role. “He’s very flexible and we can move him around,” praised Carroll. Sports Info Solutions charted Collier as having a 14.6% pressure percentage in 2018, which placed 2nd amongst all draft-eligible defensive tackles and 5-techniques. This certainly satisfies Pete Carroll’s want for “quarterback affecters”.

But Collier’s testing appeared to be a barrier, particularly when considering Collier as an early selection. His combine largely disappointed, asides from 34” arms and a 82” wingspan that he utilizes well:

There were, however, some positives. Back in May, I wrote:

“His 30” vertical jump meant his combine wasn’t all underwhelming…Collier’s 5-tech projection means Seattle will likely be willing to overlook bad numbers for positive traits.”

Then James Thomas (an excellent follow), highlighted the magnitude of Collier’s vertical leap:

Such explosiveness for a big man was confirmed by Rob Staton at Seahawksdraftblog. Staton has devised a “Trench Explosion Formula”. Essentially, anything above a 3=explosive. Collier scored a 3.20.

He plays explosively too. Let’s get to that and the other traits which Collier will lean on in the NFL.

Cornering bend and dip

Collier, rushing from the tighter EDGEs of 5-tech, is not expected to be overly bendy or speedy. He will need to turn the corner on occasion though. He possesses a canny ability to keep his feet pointing at the quarterback as he rushes around the arc. His hips can bend around the corner, plus there are hints of greater dip and flexion. He will often work the half-man relationship well on deeper drops.

There are, of course, natural athletic limitations to the cornering ability of Collier. At times, he really does look like a defensive tackle playing defensive end. There often is no attempt to shorten the corner and his rushing arsenal would be better suited to attacking tackles squarer most of the time. Too often, he tried to dip under a vertical-setting tackle and he’d slip off. Ultimately, his limited bend, dip and flexibility will see potential sacks and hurries get away from him.

Figuring out a better economy of footwork, with added steps reduced, would also suit Collier. He was limited by TCU’s unusual two-point stance, that had the outside foot up and the inside foot back. This appeared to be designed to help set the EDGE, with one angled step reaching contact.

However, typically in a two-point, the inside foot is up at the line of scrimmage and the outside foot is back. This helps to flatten and bend in each pass rush rep. Furthermore, as a defensive end you want your inside foot up at the offensive tackle’s set-up point so that you can step into contact from an outside position.

Power rush

Collier’s best trait as a rusher is his power. As his former Head Coach, Gary Patterson lauded: “He’s very powerful…and very physical.” Collier’s go-to move is a bullrush that dominated at the college level, though that was most apparent against lesser tackles. He tied in a vicious long-arm that lacked the same consistency as the two-handed punch in its placement. What really shines about Collier’s play is his first-step power, heavy hands pad level and leg churn.

Schneider repeatedly mentioned Collier’s hands, describing them as “strong,” “heavy,” and “violent.” Combined with his forward lean, get-off and pad level, Collier swats offensive linemen back when contacting them first on his power rush plan. His style led to me tweeting this during the draft:

“He jumps off the ball and he’s got that really good snap anticipation.” Schneider clearly agrees with me on Collier’s first-step.

Interior rush

Being deployed in the 5-tech role will see Collier moved inside on sub-package rushes to alignments like 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard). “Similar with Rasheem. They both have the ability to play defensive end and they both have the ability to move inside on the pass rush. We need all of that flexibility, we need all of that variety of guys to make this happen,” described Carroll.

This is where things get rather exciting. Getting Collier one-on-one with a guard, on a shorter path to the quarterback, raises some very dangerous situations for opposing offenses.

Quickness

Collier’s quickness isn’t just restricted to his first-step. He has short-area quickness on tape that wasn’t reflected by his testing. It was best shown by the wide-angle-on-guard, interior-rush assignments that the Horned Frogs gave Collier.

In Seattle, Collier will operate from the 3-point stance that the Seahawks use for their 5-technique and interior defensive linemen. This will massively benefit his overall quickness. The Horned Frogs’ unusual two-point slowed Collier. When he was given the chance to put one or two of his hands in the dirt, his true explosiveness was unleashed. Figuring out the optimal economy of footwork for the 3-point stance may take Collier some time though.

Pass-rush plan/counters

For Collier to succeed as a quarterback-hunter in the league, he must establish his bull-rush to the extent that the offensive tackle is setting up early in anticipation of the bull. This then would allow Collier to string together more pass-rushing moves. It’s how Calais Campbell has made his living.

Collier did show elements of a pass-rush plan. He attempted to set up his power path with body and arm feints, shimmying to try and get opposing tackles off-balance, lunging or flashing their arms too soon. He occasionally would hard-step one way and then cross face.

As a bull-rush player though, Collier must have more viable and effective counters. By being deployed in various techniques and stances, Collier never really got the chance to work out a pass-rush plan on an opponent. The negative impact of this was acknowledged by Patterson himself: “We ask our ends to play in several ways, like outside linebackers, and to be honest with I probably hurt his stat-line as far as sacks and everything else.”

That said, Collier did struggle to comprehend the “game within the game” of pass-rushing. With a rather telegraphed long-arm move that lacked consistency in placement, Collier often got found out against better tackles. His footwork appeared unrefined and too often he failed to influence the set of the tackle. The bob-and-shimmy moves were the beginning of this, but it was very deliberate and takes time. Most NFL tackles will be happy to patiently wait it out.

Collier’s forward lean and pad-level is something that will be exploited by offensive linemen and requires counter moves. OL will, and did, yank Collier down, using his lean against him. Developing an effective knockdown counter move, like a snatch-rip or pull-armover, would prevent Collier leaning into the turf.

Stacking blocks

Against the run, all the traits that make Collier such a vicious bull-rusher combine to make him a nasty run defender too. The strong base, forward lean, pad level and hand placement are superb. He gets in position so well and his hands are placed above his eyes.

The Seahawks have their 5-tech play with some two-gap principles. It requires reading of blocks and an ability to stack a block, then get the head into the playside gap. The linebackers behind frequently expect to be kept clean. This is a huge strength of Collier.

Let’s look at Seattle’s “Fist” defensive line call as a quick example of stacking blocks head up. It’s essentially an automatic call from their “Boston” (over) front. Essentially, the 5-technique moves inside to a 4-technique alignment, head up on the tackle. If the offensive guard were to pull, the nose tackle goes frontside and follows the pulling guard. This is thanks to the tighter alignment of the weakside defensive end, and it requires that 4-technique to basically two-gap and read blocks. Collier has repeatedly shown that he can do this.

Double teams

The Seahawks love their defensive linemen wedging sideways against double teams and anchoring in their designated gap. Who doesn’t? Seattle, though, appears to play with a “spill-then-kill-with-force” approach that often has their 5-tech player taking the double to keep the outside backer free.

Collier will frequently get doubled-teamed. His films shows he can deal with this just fine. He possesses great strength at the point of attack, anchoring well, driving his legs and squeezing into his gap. There was some WOW run defense plays.

If Collier can add a slightly better disengage move, plus step-though sideways more regularly, he could be even more dominant taking on doubles.

Stunting and squeezing down

Collier is slippery and quick against down blocks, squeezing down the line of scrimmage to penetrate and pursue. He was often too quick for tackles when he shot inside. Patterson claimed: “He has more wiggle than you think he has.” Meanwhile, Carroll enthused about Collier’s “penetration ability” and the fact he is “really slippery.”

Once more, Collier’s traits lend themselves well to the stunts that Seattle call. A Seahawks staple is the “Pirate” call which is again run out of their “Boston” (over) defensive front. This was run against the St Louis Rams in 2013 to stop their bend run-play, called when the defense saw a “far” backfield alignment.

It frees up the 3-technique and defensive end to his side to slant inwards into the backfield. The inside linebackers are then used as fallback players. Given the numbers going frontside, the second level is free to go over the top of the stunt to make the tackle in the hole. Collier’s fast sliding hustle will thrive slanting inside, even if he will often be opposite the Pirate stunt in the tighter 5-tech alignment. The overall point is that his traits suit Seattle’s style of stunts.

Run defense force

Collier will be asked to set the EDGE too as a force defender, that being a player assigned with forcing the running back up inside or to change direction. Collier uses his length well, fully extending his arms to stay outside of the play. Combined with his high motor and quick run diagnosis, he is very reliable. When the run goes inside of Collier’s EDGE, he is excellent at squeezing his linemen down into the gap and tightening things for the ball-carrier.

Ending up on ground

The biggest dilemma over Collier’s game is how much he falls over, in addition to his forward lean being exploited. Collier often reads the tackle block well and then shoots inside with great slipperiness and quickness. But then he ends up on the ground. A lot.

Most of the time he had already wrecked the play in the backfield and was trying to make a tackle. Even then, Collier must improve his awareness of incoming contact. His balance could become an issue at the next level. You can’t make a play if you are on the floor and I don’t recall watching a player on the deck this much.

Impressive Senior Bowl

In many ways, Collier’s Senior Bowl showing was damn impressive, as Schneider alluded to: “he graded out real well at the Senior Bowl.” One-on-one drills are a dream for Collier, where his first-step and power can shine. Most encouraging was the fact that, by Day 3, he could still dominate his opponents with his bull-rush. These were some of the best draft prospects in the nation and Collier was consistently winning.

Mobile was a microcosm of Collier’s skillset. Issues such as the occasional false-step were sometimes visible. His forward lean was exploited, as was his unsuccessful attempts to dip, bend and slide through contact. It would have been nice to have seen Collier disengage better and have more counters, but the fact that his explosive bull-rush was so dominant—even against #14 overall Chris Lindstrom—was massively encouraging.

Projection

In summary, Collier almost looks like a defensive tackle at end. And that’s kinda what Seattle wants from their 5-technique role. Rushing from 3-technique suits him so well because guards have narrower sets. The tighter splits of NFL offensive lines will suit Collier better too.

Teaching Collier to snap-jump, something the Seahawks’ staff has success with, will add to his game. Other tweaks, like rushing from a 3-point, will be even bigger. Though the Senior Bowl showed Collier can dominate the best in football, the pre-season will be huge for showing what Collier can be as a pass-rusher in his rookie year.

Seattle hasn’t had great success with rookie pass-rushers. And Collier adding the needed counters to his game feels like a more difficult process at the age of 24. If he can’t develop a more advanced pass-rush arsenal, then he will be a NFL rusher who mainly beats up on bad tackles and largely flashes on clear passing downs, aligned inside while using his bull-rush plus first-step.

Fortunately, Collier clearly realizes the importance of improvement. He already set out his plan for development, telling Gee Scott that he was going to pay attention to “All the defensive linemen, guys that have already done it, guys that are established in this league. And just learn from them. How they really do it. Watch how they operate.”

Collier being an excellent run defender is the biggest attraction. The balance concerns are real, and again he must add some moves to avoid ending up on the floor. Overall, though, he is an immovable man that possesses wonderful traits for a variety of run defense—particularly in Seattle’s system. This alone will see him start at 5-technique, particularly when the depth behind him is players like Branden Jackson.