DeMeco Ryans, Tremaine Edmunds, and the LB Whisperer
It’s mock draft season, and that means that everyone, including Matt Miller, Mel Kiper Jr., your neighbor’s dog, and everyone in between, is peddling their obviously 100%, always correct mock draft. Being less facetious, there are generally trends among some of the more respected writers who have connections within the organizations, and those trends can give you some insight as to who the next top prospect on your favorite team will be. This year, a great common pick you see to the 49ers is Tremaine Edmunds, a linebacker from Virginia Tech who has all of the physical traits to become the cornerstone of an NFL defense, but who also is very raw on the mental aspects of the game. Edmunds has the size and the ability to be one of the best strong-side linebackers in the league, and he could be a drastic improvement over the likes of Eli Harold. His different and complementary skill set when compared to someone like Reuben Foster is what makes him especially intriguing, as opposed to someone like Roquan Smith, who is more like a clone of Foster.
While good coaching won’t guarantee that the prospect reaches his potential, it is very rare that a physically gifted but raw prospect reaches his potential without the benefit of good coaches bringing him along. Which leads us to the point of this article: Do the 49ers, who were one of the most unstable organizations in the NFL between 2014 and 2017, finally have the structure and coaching staff in place to get the most out of a player like Edmunds?
Measuring in at 6’4.5” and 253 pounds while running a 4.54-second 40-yard-dash at the NFL Combine, Edmunds’s physical traits are undeniable. In addition to his speed and strength, Edmunds shows good technique in both tackling and in man coverage. However, the mental aspects of his game could certainly use some improvement, as he tended to rely on his physical prowess to react to plays while they were happening rather than reading the play to get ahead of the offense. Edmunds showed this reactionary play in zone coverage, as well, routinely waiting for the play to develop before getting into position. A more detailed scouting report was expertly written by my colleague Mason LeBeau, which can be found here: (https://www.the49ershub.com/single-post/2018/02/06/Scouting-Spotlight-LB-Tremaine-Edmunds).
The coaches who would be responsible for cultivating the farm of talent that is Tremaine Edmunds are Robert Saleh, San Francisco’s Defensive Coordinator, and DeMeco Ryans, former Pro Bowl linebacker and San Francisco’s Linebackers Coach. Saleh was previously Jacksonville’s Linebackers Coach from 2014-2016, whereas this is Ryans’s first stint as a coach. As usual, the best predictor of future success is past experience, so what have Saleh and Ryans done to show they can be trusted with a prospect like Edmunds?
A first indicator of a positive outcome for Edmunds and the 49ers is the fact that DeMeco Ryans made multiple Pro Bowls in his NFL career because he excelled in exactly the areas where Edmunds is weak. Ryans had great timing and skills when blitzing, displayed superb awareness in zone coverage, took expert angles to the ball carrier, kept good leverage when engaging with blockers, and generally showed some of the best instincts in the league. Ryans had all of the great mental skills and enough physical skills to be a top-of-the-line linebacker for many years, before injuries derailed his career.
Defensive plays are designed very purposefully, and every defender has their role that they must perform in order to keep the defense strong. Some improvisation is needed depending on the play, but big offensive plays typically result from someone on defense being caught out of position or bailing on their responsibilities because they are reacting to something the offense has done. This may mean that the defender who makes the play isn’t necessarily the guy who makes the tackle, but could be the player who sticks to their assignment and mentally processes the play to understand where they belong to win the down. Very few linebackers did this better than DeMeco Ryans.
Take, for instance, this play against Jacksonville. This is an outside zone play run to Ryans’s side of the formation. Ryans is obviously faster than the running back. However, Ryans stays in the optimal position throughout the play to win the down. If Ryans gets between the runner and the sideline, the runner can cut back towards the inside part of the field, where he has blockers coming for just such an occasion. If Ryans cuts downfield and tries to get the runner down for a loss, the runner can adjust his angle to get by Ryans and pick up additional yards. Instead, Ryans stays in pursuit and uses the sideline as an extra defender, keeping the back running laterally to the line until the last second, where he is forced to cut upfield and right into the arms of the lineman. This will only go down as an assisted tackle, at best, for Ryans, but his perfect pursuit and processing of the run makes the play.
Ryans also showed his patience in this run play against the Giants. On this inside run, Ryans stays in a defensive position while the play develops, shuffling closer to the line of scrimmage. Once Ryans sees a hole open up on the left side of the line, he jumps in the hole immediately and plugs it up. Ryans knew that the running back was looking for a hole and used his mental abilities patience to make a stop for no gain. If he had been aggressive and attacked the line of scrimmage at the beginning of the play, the hole would have remained wide open for the runner.
On this play against the Colts, Ryans again shows the patience, instincts, and mental adeptness that would turn Edmunds into an All-Pro linebacker. The play is initially designed to be a run off the left side and away from Ryans, but the defensive end over the right tackle takes a wide, pass rush angle off the snap. This leaves a big hole for the running back. This happens to be the only hole in the line, and the running back cuts back in an attempt to make a big gain. A linebacker who reacts to the play would have charged through the hole, attempted to pursue the runner from the back side, and be left out of position for the cutback attempt. Instead, Ryans fills the cutback lane and waits for the runner to commit to coming back towards him. Once the runner commits, Ryans attacks and brings him down for a loss.
Time and time again, Ryans is showing the discipline to maintain his responsibilities in the defense and be in perfect position to make the play, even if he isn’t making the tackle. This is not to say that Ryans is patient because he can’t attack. On this play against the Cardinals, Ryans recognizes that there are no receivers to his left, meaning the left-side cornerback can handle the cutback responsibilities. This puts Ryans in attack mode. The play is a power run away from Ryans, yet he comes from the opposite side of the formation to meet the runner in the hole for a big hit and another tackle for loss.
In zone coverage, Ryans could read the quarterback’s eyes like few other linebackers could. On this play against the Panthers, Ryans is responsible for covering the sticks on the middle portion of the field. Jeremy Shockey initially runs an out route just short of the sticks, but the coverage forces Shockey to improvise. Shockey begins leaking back towards the middle of the field and away from the defender covering the boundary. Ryans is able to read the quarterback’s eyes and notices that he is looking back towards Shockey. This puts Ryans on alert, and once the windup begins, he attacks. He meets Shockey at the catch point and lays a jarring hit on the tight end, lodging the ball loose for an incomplete pass. This is the type of play you want to see from a linebacker in zone coverage.
It’s obvious that Ryans had the tools that Edmunds is seemingly lacking at this point in his career. However, this isn’t a situation where Ryans can place his mind in Edmunds’s body and control him. How well can Ryans and Saleh combine to actually coach a linebacker with great physical tools but who is also mentally raw? Look no further than 49ers reclamation project, Brock Coyle. Coming out of the University of Montana in the 2014 NFL Draft, Coyle was pegged as being very good in most of the physical aspects of the game, but was poor in coverage, had bad instincts, and lacked patience. Think of him as Tremaine Edmunds, but a bit less physically gifted and without the man coverage skills that Edmunds has displayed. Coyle played almost exclusively on special teams in Seattle, rarely getting the opportunity to come in on defense. How did the 49ers coaching staff do with Coyle in his first year in the organization? Surprisingly, the answer is pretty well.
Take this Week 15 game against Tennessee. At the 48:47 mark of the below video, Coyle drops back into zone coverage, similar to the area Ryans was asked to cover in the video above. Once each of the receivers leaves the back end of Coyle’s zone, Coyle recognizes the play as one designed to clear out the under part of the field to get Delanie Walker the ball in open space. Coyle reads the quarterback’s eyes on this delayed route and begins inching towards Walker, baiting Marcus Mariota into throwing the pass. Once the windup begins, Coyle breaks downhill on Walker, meeting him at the catch point. Walker makes the catch, but Coyle is able to make the hit and rip the ball free, forcing a fumble. This is a notable example of exceptional zone coverage from a linebacker and is something Coyle did not show in his football career until he got to San Francisco.
In Week 17 against the Rams, Coyle truly showed what a season with a cerebral Linebackers Coach can do for a physically gifted prospect. Please follow along in this video with the timestamps below, while I walk you through a truly great game from Brock Coyle.
27:08: Coyle is tasked with defending a zone in the back half of the end zone. After seeing the route combination, Coyle adjusts and moves his zone up to the receiver on the goal line. Coyle converges with another defender at this point, forcing Sean Mannion to go elsewhere with the pass, allowing Adrian Colbert to ultimately break up the pass. Coyle didn’t get the stat, but he made the play by forcing a more difficult throw on the short out route.
36:13: This is the one bad play I saw Coyle make all game. Both Coyle and Reuben Foster bit on the play action, leaving a hole in the middle of the defense where they vacated their zone responsibilities. Luckily, the receiver and the quarterback did not synch up.
37:30: Coyle learned from his mistake and keeps his zone on both play actions fakes. Further, Coyle recognizes the swing pass and breaks to the outside. K'Waun Williams gets the tackle in the backfield, but notice Coyle’s positioning after the play was over. Knowing his responsibilities, he realizes there is no help to the outside of Williams. However, he has help from additional pursuers towards the inside. Recognizing this, Coyle cuts to the boundary, which would have forced the runner back inside towards the rest of the defense. A linebacker with less mental abilities would have run at the ball carrier. Instead, Coyle put himself in position to set up his defense to make a play. He doesn’t get the stat, but he makes the play.
1:06:48: Coyle’s responsibility on this play is to spy on the running back in the backfield. As the running back runs towards the outside of the formation, Coyle approaches the line of scrimmage. However, notice that he doesn't overcommit to any particular route, instead showing the patience to let the play develop further. The running back continues to drift towards the sidelines, but Coyle knows that the wheel route is an option. If Coyle engaged the running back, the running back could have easily caught Coyle out of position and burned him deep. Instead, Coyle gets in the best position to make the play a win for the defense.
1:18:09: This play is reminiscent of the play Ryans made on the cutback above. On this run away from Coyle, he doesn't attack line of scrimmage right away. Instead, Coyle stays disciplined to cover the cut back, and then attacks when he has the play on the runner.
1:19:10: Similar to the play against Tennessee, Coyle drops back in zone to cover the sticks on third down. Coyle recognizes the underneath route and breaks towards the running back before the pass is even committed, knowing the go routes on the outside are designed to clear out the underneath area. Coyle gets to the running back right as the ball does and gets the third down stop. This is a great display of route recognition and shows great progress in Coyle’s game.
1:26:07: This play shows Coyle’s ability to read the play and attack. Coyle recognizes the play and gets right in the hole to stop the running back. Unfortunately, Coyle can't finish the tackle, but slows the runner down enough to allow his teammates to make the stop.
1:53:20: This is another great display of Coyle’s developments in his patience and discipline. Coyle doesn't get sucked into the counter and holds the edge of the run perfectly. Coyle is in position to make the hit on the cutback, even though Cassius Marsh gets there first. Again, he doesn’t get the stat, but he certainly made a good play.
In his last game of the season, Coyle certainly didn’t look like a mid-round draft pick who needed development in the mental side of the game. While this was Ryans and Saleh’s biggest project in their one year together, Saleh had a project of his own as the Linebackers Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2014, the Jaguars drafted Telvin Smith, a 6’3”, 218-pound athlete who Saleh would be tasked with molding into an NFL linebacker. Smith had similar strengths and weaknesses to Edmunds, relying on his physical gifts to catch up to a play rather than his mind to get ahead of the play. After Saleh’s last year in Jacksonville, Telvin Smith was named to the NFL’s Top 100 list, coming in at #83 among all players. Just take a look at this highlight tape from Smith’s 2015 season, and you consistently see Smith making the type of reads and plays you want to see a cerebral linebacker making.
It can be very difficult to project a raw prospect such as Edmunds, who at 19 years of age is so young and inexperienced in processing the game on the mental side. However, his elite size, speed, strength, and general athleticism show a great deal of promise, so long as he can go to a group of coaches who can mold him into the budding superstar many hope he becomes. It’s possible that no coaching staff is able to do so, but I am confident that if anyone can, it’s the combination of Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans.