Written by Kip Earlywine
Last night I sat down to begin my Draft Spotlight article for Courtney Upshaw, and like I had done previously with Zach Brown, I had to stop partway through because I felt that a scouting report wouldn’t sufficiently convey the thoughts I had discovered while going through the process. I’ll go ahead and treat this like a scouting report and include my Draft Spotlight graphic, but there is also a larger point I want to get across.
Before today, I liked Upshaw as a player but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that drafting him to fix our pass rush was misguided. I had seen a few compilation videos of Upshaw. He wasn’t explosive. He didn’t seem fast enough to fit the LEO role currently occupied by Chris Clemons. And while I thought Rob’s estimated guesses about scheme changes made a lot of sense, in the back of my mind I wondered. Changing the defense fundamentally for Von Miller is one thing. Changing it for a guy like Upshaw is another. Then there was the question about how Seattle would shift its defense around to make it all work.
After scouting several games tonight, a realization came upon me. I’ll get to that realization later in the scouting report section, because first I think its important to explain the entirety of my observations so that my thoughts will make sense. I want to show my work so that you can understand the answer I came to.
Coming out of high school, Upshaw was ranked a four star prospect by both Scout and Rivals. He was the 4th best graduating high school defensive end in the country according to ESPN. Upshaw had a whopping seven different scholarship offers, but settled on Alabama since he was born and raised there. At Alabama, Upshaw was promoted to full time starter during his junior season (2010) and started nearly every game since. During those two seasons he accumulated 16.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss. Upshaw started in two bowl games, and was awarded MVP both times, including the MVP of the 2011 national championship game. He was also a consensus All-American in 2011.
Thankfully there is a lot of material out there for Upshaw, so I was able to get a larger than usual sampling of his play. One thing that really surprised me is how many 4-3 fronts Nick Saban uses in his “3-4″ defense, and on almost every single play that featured Upshaw, he was lined as a 4-3 end, typically on the strong side, though occasionally he’d see snaps at weak side end too. Upshaw only played a handful of snaps at linebacker in the seven game sample I broke down. He only dropped into coverage one or two times as well. Almost without exception, Nick Saban used Upshaw like a typical 4-3 end, but dropped him into coverage even less than a typical 4-3 end would.
As strictly a 4-3 end, Upshaw probably reminds me the most of Adrian Clayborn, whom I was a big fan of in last year’s draft. Both are enormous strong side ends in the 280 pound range who win with power and awareness instead of speed. Clayborn posted 7.5 sacks as a rookie on what was otherwise a disastrous 2011 season for Tampa Bay’s defense. If Seattle drafted Upshaw with Adrian Clayborn in mind and gave Upshaw Red Bryant’s job straight up, it would upgrade the team and the pass rush. Maybe that’s what the Seahawks could be thinking, and it wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but based on some of the subtle traits I noticed in Upshaw’s game, I think there could be a better use yet, which I’ll explain a bit later on.
Upshaw has short 32″ arms, the same length as Robert Gallery’s. For all the (well deserved) grief that Melvin Ingram gets for his short arms, they are only half an inch shorter than Upshaw’s. However, when watching Upshaw’s tape you honestly wouldn’t know that he had short arms, because his arm usage is one of his biggest strengths. Arm length is important because when linemen engage, the one with the longer arms has the first strike and all the advantages that come with it. What’s neat about Upshaw, and this was only something I noticed after studying him very closely, is how he compensates for this problem.
Upshaw’s is not a speed demon, but his ability to go from a standstill to top speed is impressively quick. One of the tricks he likes to do sometimes is to slow down before engaging, almost to a full stop, and just as he nears arms reach, he’ll explode into the blocker’s body, not merely engaging the blocker but attacking him. This attack is sometimes preceded by a bit of a quick wiggle move, which makes the initial punch more difficult to deliver for the blocker. Upshaw doesn’t do this to shed the block. Upshaw is actually attacking the blocker’s upper body to throw off the blocker’s balance with a violent body impact, and Upshaw is pretty damn good at it. The blocker remains engaged with Upshaw, which temporarily seems as if Upshaw is losing. However, when Upshaw senses that he’s knocked the blocker off balance, he turns on the jets and walks the blocker into the backfield like John Carlson attempting to block Jared Allen. Off balance and reeling, the blocker is doing his best just to simply stay in Upshaw’s way. Upshaw powers into the pocket in moments, and uses his impressive upper body strength to shed the off balance blocker with ease and close for the pressure, hit, tackle for loss, or sack.
If Upshaw was able to pull off this power move with more consistency, he’d be a threat to break double digit sacks with regularity. The reason he can’t is precisely because he’s often playing in a five or six tech role that doesn’t allow him enough of a “flight deck” to take off. Funny enough, I’ve always thought that Upshaw was a terrible fit for the LEO because he lacks the speed and agility of a typical weak side rusher, but on snaps when Upshaw is given the extra yard outside to work with he is able to explode and attack the blocker’s balance with much better consistency. Just an extra yard or two often makes a big difference. Now try to imagine how effective this attack would be if given a full running start instead. It’s an exciting thought, and I’m surprised that Upshaw didn’t get almost any reps as a pass rushing linebacker when he looks his best with momentum at his back.
Upshaw is also very strong in run support. He has the power and leverage to hold his ground, he has the arm strength to disengage from blocks, and he generally does a good job tracking the ball and knowing when to break free for a tackle. He seems to always sniff out cut blocks, though unfortunately he doesn’t have the quickness to completely avoid being slowed by them. I haven’t seen enough of Upshaw at linebacker to pass judgement, but my initial impression is that he’d be a more extreme version of David Hawthorne, really good against the run but even weaker against the pass.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that Upshaw stands out on a great defense, but you might say that he’s the Alan Branch or Red Bryant of the Crimson Tide, not because he’s anything like either of those players, but because Branch and Bryant made the defense better last year in ways that were not easy to notice, and Upshaw was just one of those players that somehow made his defense better. There is so much NFL talent on Alabama’s defense that it would be almost impossible for that defense to have one true standout player. We’re talking about a defense that is probably going to have three players go in the first round next week.
That said, I don’t think its an accident that Upshaw won the MVP award in both of his bowl games. Not just because Upshaw stepped up big in both games, but because his tenacity and spirit sets the tone for the rest of the defense. Nick Saban called Upshaw “the meanest player [he] ever coached.” We saw last year how the nasty style of play by Red Bryant, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner helped set the tone and changed the mentality of the defense completely. In that sense, Upshaw seems like a perfect fit for what Carroll is trying to build in Seattle.
I only have two notable complaints about Upshaw that haven’t been said elsewhere ad nauseum. The first is that once the play is by him he will often jog in pursuit instead of running. That’s a minor gripe, but there will be times in a game where backside pursuit can lead to an important tackle that minimizes damage. For a guy that plays so hard when the play is in front of him, he doesn’t really share that urgency when he thinks the play is past him.
The other complaint is that for a guy who doesn’t get a ton of sacks, he had a lot of sacks where quarterbacks slipped or fell down and Upshaw was credited. It makes his eight sacks a year stat feel like five or six instead. Or to put it another way, it felt like Upshaw “over-achieved” to reach 16.5 sacks the last two years because of him having so many shoe-string sacks that very nearly weren’t sacks at all. I think if Carroll plays Upshaw exactly as he was used at Alabama, he’d be a 5-8 sack a season defensive end in the NFL.
Upshaw’s ability to disrupt a blocker’s balance and subsequently walk the blocker into the pocket is a potentially elite trait that has yet to be harnessed. It’s probably because of this that Upshaw looked much more effective in pass rush attempts that gave him even a small head of steam at the start. Nick Saban is one of the best coaches on the planet, but he didn’t experiment much with Upshaw and I’m starting to think he should have. When Upshaw has enough momentum and power to unbalance blockers he looks like an elite pass rushing talent on those snaps. The question is, “how can we enable Upshaw to be in that position more often?”
I’m guessing Pete Carroll has asked himself similar questions regarding Upshaw. Not that I have anything against adding an Adrian Clayborn or Robert Ayers type player to this defense, but I wouldn’t do it at #12 overall, and I don’t think Carroll would either. I think Carroll sees more than a sub-elite defensive end when he looks at Upshaw. If given the chance to rush the passer from an outside linebacker spot with a head of steam, he’d be a fundamentally different pass rusher than the Upshaw who played at Alabama lined up directly across from the tackle and too often had to rely only on hand usage.
It’s common to dismiss the idea of Upshaw as a rush linebacker because of his lack of burner speed. Fair enough. It should be noted though that Lamarr Woodley, a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Steelers, ran the same forty time as Upshaw at a very similar size and weight. Woodley has had 44 sacks over the last four seasons, and he isn’t as violent as Upshaw with his upper body use either. Upshaw may not become a typical rush linebacker, but he wouldn’t be unprecedented.
How Seattle would get Upshaw on the field for a Woodley type role is a discussion in itself, but that’s not the point. The point is that pass rushers are very hard to find, and if you feel good about your chances of landing a difference making pass rusher with a certain player who may not fit the scheme like a glove, there is a lot to gain by getting creative. Carroll has already shown that he’s perfectly willing to tweak the defense to fit available talent.
Whether Seattle plays Upshaw at outside linebacker, the LEO spot, or another position that gives him some room to build up speed, I’m starting to believe there is a chance that he could develop into an elite level bull rush pass rusher. And if I’m wrong, then Upshaw could still be a solid 4-3 defensive end who generates a modest amount of pressure while being very strong against the run. If the Seahawks do draft Upshaw at #12, I think its because they believe they can get more out of Upshaw’s unique talents than he showed at Alabama. Even if they are wrong, Upshaw will still be a solid contributor to this defense. Contrast that with Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram, who have high ceilings but very low floors. There is a chance that Upshaw has a high ceiling too, but he also comes with a nice parachute if he doesn’t become the bull in the china store that he could be.
Its hard to get behind a pick as high as 12th overall without feeling there is a chance that he could become an elite contributor. But after looking into Upshaw very closely, I can see the faint signs of some untapped talent as a pass rusher that may actually give Upshaw a real chance to justify the #12 pick after all.