There has been some recent debate surround the hiring of a new defensive coordinator as to whether that individual's scheme should be tailored to fit the defensive talent he has, or if we should go out and find talent that best fits within the scheme the new mastermind wants to run.
Now, in a perfect world, you sign and draft players that are scheme diverse...you know, like your J.J. Watts'(how the hell did we miss that one) and your Luke Kuechlys'. What is that you say? - these players don't just grow on trees!. Well, then I guess we better start putting something in the water at Redskins Park!
So, back to our question. Do you acquire players to fit your scheme, or build a scheme to fit your players? Albert Haynesworth may tell you the former, while Su'a Cravens may scream the latter.
On defense currently, we have 3, maybe 4 core players we can "scheme around". Those players are Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Josh Norman and Su'a Cravens.
Let's start with the first two.
Both Kerrigan and Murphy were college defensive ends who played primarily in an even front with their hand in the dirt. They were not asked to drop into coverage much, if at all. They were both stout against the run, and showed speed, flexibility and power off the edge when rushing the passer. Last season, under Joe Barry, we used a lot of even fronts, where both men were put into this position once again. The results - Kerrigan(11 sacks - Pro Bowl), Murphy(9 sacks - career high). It's pretty easy to see that these two players excel out of the 7-technique.
Josh Norman is a complete corner. He can play press man, cover 2 and cover 3 effectively. He is excellent when asked to cover a team's best receiver in hip-trail technique, and can anticipate throws and break on the ball with the best of them. Some have said he's best in a heavy zone scheme, but I disagree with that. He's best in whatever he's asked to do. A new defensive coordinator will not have any issues fitting him into any scheme.
And finally, we have Su'a Cravens. Right now, he is the most interesting and versatile player on our defense. Cravens tweeted out at the end of last season that he would be making the move to safety. Now, that was when Joe Barry was still employed, but rumor had it that Barry wanted to keep him at linebacker, but his hand was being forced by "others" to move him to safety. It looks as though the "others" will get their wish - unless we move back to a 4-3 base. It is my opinion that Cravens would excel as a WILL(weakside linebacker) in a base 4-3 defense. He would be asked to play more in space, which is a strength of his. If we stay with the 3-4, strong safety looks to be his position. There, he would be able to play down in the box on running downs, using his great instincts to get through the mess and help stop opposing running backs from gashing our front seven. On passing downs, he can match up against athletic tight ends or running backs - a troublesome area for our defense as of late.
On March 9th, 2017 the NFL free agency period begins. The Redskins should have ample cap space to sign some defensive help. By this time we will have our defensive leader in place. I imagine he will want to bring in some players who best fit his system. On the defensive line, scheme questions pop up quite often. Would we target an immense talent like Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who is known to be a force in the middle of that defense, and a guy who could definitely play some 1-technique in a base 3-4 or Ravens interior defensive linemen Brandon Williams? Maybe the organization would prefer to go with the more versatile Kawann Short, Bennie Logan or Jonathan Hankins; all who can fit into any defensive front.
The NFL Draft is where this questions comes into play the most. Three year ago current Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a very talked about name. There was no denying Donald's talent, but was he a scheme fit for the Redskins 2-gap 3-4 scheme under then defensive coordinator Jim Haslett? The Cravens selection in the second round of the 2016 draft drew the same questions; just under a different coaching staff.
This year, there are some prospects who draw similar questions. Solomon Thomas, a 6'2" 275 pound defender from Stanford is one heck of a football player. The biggest questions surrounding him is scheme fit. He's played the 3, 5 and 7 technique at Stanford, but many feel his future position in the NFL is strongside defensive end in a base 4-3. Two problems here in DC...1)We have been a 3-4 team for a few years now. Will we switch to a 4-3? 2)We have Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy and Preston Smith. All three profile best as 4-3 defensive ends. So the question here is would you draft a player and force him into a position he wasn't able to maximize his talents in(a 3-4 defense), or draft him when two stalwarts on your defensive front already play the same position(4-3 defense)?
Another draft prospect with a similar comparison is Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. At 6'4" 230, Cunningham is an athletic freak on the football field. He plays well in space, can go from sildeline-to-sideline with ease, and has the fluidity to effectively drop into zone coverage. He however is not a middle linebacker. His best position would probably be as a WILL linebacker in a 4-3 base defense where he can use that athletic ability to play in space, or use his speed to rush the passer on occasion. Is Cunningham a kid you draft regardless of scheme? Would you try to force that square peg into the round hole?
Could Albert Haynesworth have been heading to the Hall of Fame if we hadn't forced a position change on him? Would Aaron Donald have been the player he is today if the Redskins had drafted him to 2-gap in their base 3-4 defense?
There are so many unanswered questions as we head into a new chapter of Redskins defense. I'm sure we'll have a pretty good idea of the direction our team might be heading very soon, but this question I have posed to you today will always be a hot topic of discussion amongst fans.