Everyone loves a good underdog story. This year, there may be no bigger underdog story than Shaquem Griffin, a linebacker from the University of Central Florida. Shaquem has always been the less-heralded Griffin brother, with his twin, Shaquill, being a third round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 2017 draft. However, over the past two years as a starter at UCF, Shaquem managed to play his way out of his twin brother’s shadow and into the minds of NFL scouts. If you know anything about Shaquem Griffin, then you are likely aware of the Crimson Tide-sized elephant in the room when it comes to evaluating Griffin as a prospect. Like most concerns where the on-field effects are unknown, though, it is important to first get a grasp on Griffin’s ability to play linebacker before adjusting the grade. Given that Griffin won the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016 and was named the Practice Player of the Week at the Senior Bowl, Griffin certainly has the ability.
Griffin is an undersized linebacker, being measured at 6’0 ¼” inches and weighing 222 pounds during Senior Bowl week. These measurables put him very much in the mold of some successful modern linebackers, such as Reuben Foster, Shaq Thompson, and Deion Jones. Though they play with speed, these linebackers have been successful in their transition to the NFL because they are able to generate power despite their smaller frames, making sure yet vicious tackles on larger skill position players.
Griffin certainly has the speed portion of his game down. In high school, Griffin was recruited to various colleges to run track as a sprinter and long jumper. This athleticism translates to the football field, where Griffin shows great sideline-to-sideline speed in his pursuit of the ball carrier. As shown below in the American Athletic Conference Championship game against Memphis, Griffin starts the play covering the slot receiver, yet is quick enough in his recognition and fast enough in his pursuit to chase down the running back from behind and make a tackle at the line of scrimmage.
Griffin also displayed skill as a speed rusher with multiple moves. On one play, I saw Griffin use his lateral agility to sidestep an interior lineman and run unabated to the quarterback. Griffin can also use his speed rushing from the outside, getting around the edge set by the offensive tackle and cutting back upfield to get pressure on the quarterback in the pocket. Griffin has also displayed a strong spin move which, when coupled with the threat of getting around the edge, can really give an offensive tackle fits. A speed rusher is best when he has the threat of quickly moving in whichever direction would most catch the offensive lineman off balance, whether it is running around a lineman with a slow kick step or shifting inside on an overly aggressive tackle. In the clip below, Griffin shows off this spin move against University of Houston’s left tackle who gets too deep into the backfield to account for Griffin’s straight-line speed, leaving a hole for Griffin to spin into for the sack.
UCF ran some complex blitzing techniques, enabling Griffin to display to show some football IQ in addition to his speed. As shown below, Griffin executes a stunt blitz perfectly. Griffin starts the play lined up over the left tackle, while Griffin’s teammate lines up over the left guard. On the snap, Griffin cuts slightly backwards and to his left, giving his teammate space to cut outside towards the left tackle while the left guard begins engaging with the block. Griffin’s speed takes over, hitting the hole and getting into the quarterback’s face before he even completes his dropback, which is especially impressive given the play came out of the shotgun formation.
Griffin also excels in coverage. When dropped into zone coverage, Griffin showed a good awareness for his designated area of the field. Griffin was able to get himself into position on receivers entering his area, while also passing off the receivers at the optimal time when they left his area. In man coverage, Griffin held his own against wide receivers, which is something not many linebackers can claim they do. In this clip against Temple, Griffin is tasked with covering the slot receiver on a go route. The quarterback sees the mismatch and wants to attack it, expecting, at the very least, a big gain out of the play. Instead, you see Griffin running stride for stride with the slot receiver and tracking the ball in the air perfectly, getting to the spot where only he can make a play on the ball and nabbing an easy interception.
Early in Griffin’s college career, this awareness didn’t translate to defending the run. He would often lose the ball in the backfield and take himself out of the play. I’m comfortable in saying that Griffin drastically improved in this area during his time at UCF. As shown below in a clip from this year’s Peach Bowl against Auburn, Griffin defends the read option perfectly. Rather than committing to a particular player, Griffin gets into the backfield and sets himself up a few yards in front of the mesh point. Then he waits. If the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, Griffin is in position to chase down the back from behind for a loss. If, as is the case here, the quarterback keeps the ball, Griffin is in position to fulfill every linebacker’s dream and feast on a helpless quarterback.
What would any underdog story be without the player showing that grit and determination? Griffin has got that part locked down. On the field, Griffin shows a high motor, keeping his assignment, moving around, and playing to the whistle on every down. On this fumble recovery against Memphis, the receiver is on the ground with the ball in his breadbasket but doesn’t quite have possession. Griffin swoops in, gets his arms on the ball and rips it away for a fumble recovery.
Unfortunately for Griffin, while the speed portion of his game is excellent, the power portion leaves a lot to be desired. Griffin has trouble disengaging from blocks, especially in run defense. If Griffin is unable to put one of his various speed moves on the blocker, or if the move in unsuccessful, Griffin is easily washed from the play. In the NFL, where linemen are as skilled as they are strong, this could lead to decreased success in tight areas.
This lack of power also showed up in Griffin’s tackling. Griffin’s tackling form is textbook, using his arms to wrap up the ball carrier rather than trying to just lower a shoulder and knock the ball carrier to the ground. However, Griffin is not a vicious hitter at all. Griffin would almost always at least slow the ball carrier down, but ball carriers would too often escape his grasp and gain a few more yards before help came on defense. If this was a problem at the college level, I would not expect Griffin to come into the NFL as a rookie and bring down tight ends and bigger running backs in the open field.
Griffin’s lack of size also causes concern when evaluating his ability to cover the bigger tight ends he will see in the NFL. Griffin certainly has the speed to keep up with them, but bigger tight ends may be able to bring physicality to the routes that Griffin is unable to defend.
This brings us back to that elephant in the room for Griffin. If you weren’t able to see from the above clips, he does not have a left hand. Griffin suffered from a pre-natal condition that caused a deformity in his left hand, and the constant pain in that hand led doctors to completely amputate it when Griffin was only four years old. He learned to play every aspect of football, including catching and tackling, with only one hand, and has excelled thus far. Griffin will be the last person to make this an excuse for anything. In fact, Griffin played in a game against Houston in 2016 with a broken right arm (meaning he had zero arms that functioned as one would normally be accustomed), and all he did was make 14 tackles, 3 of which were for a loss, plus 2.5 sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery. However, it is hard to watch the tape and not think that, if he did not have this condition, some of those ball carriers would be tackled instead of breaking free.
Teams will evaluate Griffin differently due to his condition. Some teams may take him completely off the board. Others may not drop him down their boards much at all. Early in his career, Griffin will be a special-teams ace, using his speed on coverage units and his great tackling form to bring down the smaller return men. If Griffin can improve his tackling ability on larger ball carriers, his ceiling is a top-line weak side linebacker in a 4-3 defense, where other defenders eat up blockers and he is able to run around and make plays in space and in coverage. Even if he doesn’t improve his tackling, his coverage skills and speed could warrant being a second-string linebacker who sees some run in sub-packages on passing downs. This type of player would generally garner interest in round four, give or take a few spots if he tested better or worse than expected at the NFL Combine. Griffin has found a way to make it work on every level, and my money is on him overcoming adversity yet again and being in the league for a long time.