Depending on your level of faith in the internet, Pete Carroll really likes Courtney Upshaw. An anonymous Alabama fan going under the moniker of ‘8:16am’ supposedly entered an impromptu game of basketball with the Seahawks Head Coach during Senior Bowl week in Mobile. The conversation turned to the Crimson Tide players available this year, where Carroll supposedly revealed his admiration for Upshaw:
“He thinks he is a better player than Von miller. He said Von was more athletic, but Upshaw is stronger, more technically sound and doesn’t have weaknesses.”
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this story is true, given that it’s totally believable that a.) Carroll was shooting some hoops and b.) he didn’t sprint out of the building at the prospect of communicating with a member of the public. Even so, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether there’s any truth to this.
I felt obliged last night to go back and review some Alabama tape, so I skimmed through the game against Auburn last year and the two most recent meetings against LSU. My opinion on Upshaw has shifted several times, initially from one of disinterest because I couldn’t logically place him in Seattle’s defense. I became more intrigued when watching the Florida game this season where he stood out and then watched him closely against Arkansas, Auburn and those two games against LSU. After further review, I felt confident enough to make Upshaw the one player I’ve mocked to the Seahawks on multiple occasions. Even so, I still couldn’t place exactly what his best position was. Is he a 4-3 left end? A 3-4 OLB? Can he logically move to outside backer in a 4-3 with a lot of rush duties similar to Von Miller?
I’ve charted every play he had an impact in for the three games I watched last night – and I’ve come away convinced he’s going to be an early pick. In a season without a lot of elite defensive talent, someone is going to draft this guy at the top of round one. In my most recent mock I projected he could go #8 overall to Miami to play OLB, so I was slightly surprised to see their announcement today that they’ll switch to a 4-3. That shouldn’t exclude Upshaw from being an option for the Dolphins, who suddenly have to find a 4-3 edge rusher as a main priority. I wonder if they have the cash to compete in the Mario Williams sweepstakes? If the Dolphins don’t take Upshaw, then Buffalo (also possibly moving to a 4-3) and Kansas City could show real interest. Being the #11 or #12 pick should be his floor.
Here’s what I saw on tape and why I think he’s a real option as a pass-rushing linebacker for the Seahawks. For starters, his recognition skills are elite. In the two meetings with LSU and Cam Newton/Auburn, he came up against a lot of run-option. Not only did he show top-end instinct to react to the ball carrier, he also consistently drew the quarterback on the pitch and then adjusted to the runner – essentially taking both opponents out of the play. You see real awarness and athleticism when he tackles the pitch and I’ve not seen anyone comparable with Upshaw here. He showed fantastic awareness to react to screens and reverses and while he’s not an elite athlete, his pursuit skills more than make up for it. It’s incredible how often when teams tried reverse plays and other gimmicks it was Upshaw making the tackle.
He’s only 6-1 and around 270lbs, so he’s not got the ideal length for an edge rusher. However, the guy just ‘gets‘ leverage. He will consistently attack a lineman with great pad level and drive players into the backfield. He has a deceptive second effort when trying to beat blocks, dropping a shoulder and seemingly giving the impression he’s beaten before bursting by a tackle to make the play. He’ll disengage with violent hands and rarely gets absorbed by even the biggest lineman. Despite not having the longest arms, he does a fine job keeping blockers away from his body so that he’s able to dip inside or burst around the edge. Upshaw’s thick set is comparable to a small three-technique and he has similar skills. He’s never likely to move inside at his size, but it’s funny how the hand use, the bubble and the strength are all comparable to an interior lineman. The guy bull rushes like he was born in Pamplona.
For a team like Seattle that wants to shut down an opponents runing game, Upshaw is going to make it really difficult to run on the left side when he’s placed next to Red Bryant. Perhaps even more of an advantage though is the ability to spell Bryant a little more and maybe even kick him inside, knowing you can use Upshaw as a pure power end on more orthodox four-man sets. As great as Bryant has been for this team the last two years, there’s going to be big advantages on first and second down when the defense is able to press from both sides. At linebacker you’ll be giving up some coverage ability because he’s never going to be able to stick with top-end slot receivers and tight ends (he worked predominantly on underneath coverage at Alabama) but the WILL position is designed to be more of an attacking threat. Seattle has enough range at the SAM and MIKE (if they keep Hawthorne) to accommodate a player like Upshaw. In those sets the defense will have more of a 3-4 feel to it, but that’s not such a bad thing as discussed earlier this week.
I also see Upshaw as the kind of guy who will make 4-5 key plays in a season. Not big plays, key plays. Whether that’s a crucial interception to end the game, a sack or a forced fumble – there will be a handful of games at the end of the year where people are talking about Courtney Upshaw’s performance on the ride home. And hey – the Seahawks are building a defense that is filled with attitude. Upshaw wouldn’t just fit into the brooding attitude that’s already part of this team, he’d take it a stage further.
There aren’t a lot of stand-out defensive options for the Seahawks in this class. I like both Devon Still and Michael Brockers, but I’m not convinced either are the missing three-technique this team is looking for. Drafting a guy like Upshaw will improve the front seven as Pete Carroll is planning. You’re getting an 8-10 sack guy who can become a focal point on the defense for the next ten years. He’ll be the kind of player that is permanently talked about as ‘under rated’, when people suddenly realise they talk about him so much that couldn’t possibly be the case. People have compared him to LaMarr Woodley – I’m not sure he’ll bring the same rush impact as Woodley in Pittsburgh (positions and duties will be different), but his all-round influence could certainly be similar.
What’s more, the guy is used to high standards at Alabama. He’s used to winning. That’s not a bad thing to have on a growing defense that has already achieved quite a lot given it’s starting point in 2010.
Last year I argued – quite strongly – against Von Miller being a top-five pick. This wasn’t because I didn’t think he had elite speed and a very attractive skill set – I often remarked that he was the defensive player I’ve enjoyed watching the most in the last few years of writing this blog. My concern was his likely transition to linebacker, that he would have to adapt to different responsibilities and that could ultimately limit what he does best – rush the passer. His size made it unlikely he would play permanently at the LOS, so would he be able to have the same impact at OLB in a 4-3? I’m always happy to admit when I’ve made a bad call and kudos to Denver and Miller for making it work. The biggest concern I have for Upshaw is being able to make the same move, to the same position and role. Yet this is all about a learning process and acknowledging when you’ve made a mistake. Having misjudged Von Miller’s potential impact, perhaps Upshaw deserves a greater investment of faith this time?
It would not surprise me at all if those internet rumors prove to be true and that Upshaw is near the top of Seattle’s board. He should be, possibly right behind the top two quarterbacks considering they don’t need a left tackle or running back (if they re-sign Marshawn Lynch). The only question is whether he’ll still be on the board at #11 or #12. I suspect not. If he is, then you could be looking at the next big piece in Seattle’s defense.
Below I’ve included a series of videos featuring ‘every snap’ tape