Sometimes, you've got the film on to watch a defensive tackle, and the linebacker behind him pops with a couple of high-quality plays. Maybe it's the offense -- you're watch the offensive tackle, and the center keeps making high-quality climbs, or the running back looks spry and shifty.
But it's not often that you're watching a team for a certain player at a certain position -- say, a Utah linebacker, for instance -- and the other dude playing the position pops.
But as I've watched Chase Hansen's senior season at Utah, I haven't been able to take my eyes off of running mate Cody Barton. One of the most productive linebacking duos in all of college football, Hansen and Barton powered a stifling Utah defense that carried a backup quarterback and beat-up offensive line to the Pac-12 Championship. Now, they both turn their eyes to the Draft.
Early returns from NFL teams prefer Hansen -- he grabbed a Senior Bowl invite and has a QB-to-DB-to-LB conversion to his name. That makes him an interesting and buzzy prospect -- but for my money, Barton is being under-appreciated for his grittier, less flashy, but still quality style of play.
Meet The Players
Hansen's highest quality play comes when he can see it quick. Immediate recognition allows him trigger his burst, which is comfortably his best physical trait, and helps him stay clean against climbing blockers. I wouldn't characterize Hansen as a pure gap-shooter, like some of these undersized backers you see who are just desperate to fly into the first space they see and play hero ball -- but he's at his best when he's quick to flow and knifing into gaps
I love the quick recognition here, but what's most impressive is the easy acceleration to beat the late angle of the offensive lineman, and the path into the backfield: Hansen runs the alley with outside leverage, so as to force the back to stop his momentum and change direction. That makes the tackle easier for Hansen, and allows help to rally to him.
You'll notice, however, that Hansen's tackling form here...isn't exactly how you'd draw it up. Hansen comes into contact upright, leaning forward and out of balance. At 6'2, Hansen's a tall dude, and he struggles to drop his hips down to create good leverage at the tackle point. Accordingly, there are many reps in which Hansen bounces off of contact, or allows for extra yards through the tackle as the back falls forward.
Against the inside zone look here, we get our first taste of Cody Barton (lined up as the MLB, to Hansen's left). He screams downhill into the teeth of the blocking scheme and collisions the right guard. Dude is a basket case -- super aggressive.
But watching Hansen here, he generates a good initial angle to keep leverage on the climbing center, but as he sees the running back take the upfield path, he works back over the top to present in the lane -- great! Problem is, when he arrives, he's bending fully at the waist and has no lower-body power behind his strike. He's just kinda dropping his weight on the back, without much of a wrap attempt -- and as such, the runner stays upright and continues into space for some valuable YAC.
The thing about Hansen is this: his tackle radius is small. He has good length, but his form and instincts together are lacking enough that he disrupts often, but rarely finishes the play on his own.
This play, again against Northern Illinois, models the issue: it's as similar as you'll get to the above rep, as inside zone comes toward Chase Hansen, who is lined up as the WILL. Hansen plays again with patience, worried about the upfield cut -- but he is unable to see the back through the cluster of offensive linemen. Happens sometimes.
You'd like to see Hansen continue to gain width, however, and feel the developing space in his B-gap -- there's clearly room in front of him for a runner to squirt out. Hansen remains stagnant, not gaining width or working into daylight, and accordingly has to try and make a quick space tackle when the back finally uncovers. While he seems bursty playing into the line, you can see here how, without recognition, he doesn't have the instant click and close to contact the runner.
Barton, unlike Hansen, is super aggressive coming into the line of scrimmage to play some football. He's got a more traditional linebacking frame -- 6-foot-, 230+ pounds -- and he plays with low pads and lot of power. Barton really plays the opposite game as Hansen: while the ex-safety Hansen likes to stay clean, juke out offensive linemen, and knife into gaps, Barton wants to get dirty, go meet offensive linemen in the trees, and disrupt by initiating contact.
Cody Barton is the MIKE linebacker
Simple, easy, quality play here. Barton sees the double team, keys zone flow, and flies into the A-gap. He doesn't just want to plug it -- no, he comes in with the intention to displace the center back into the backfield to force the back into a choice. The back here immediately cuts back upfield, because his zone path has been compromised by Barton's aggressiveness -- and that leads him right into the unblocked player.
That's gap-sound football right there, and it's Barton's speciality.
Barton's best trait is probably his recognition, but a close second is understanding of leverage and fundamentally sound play. He is a great "part of the defense" player who will be proactive in creating opportunities for his teammates.
The other thing about gap-sound play? It lets you move Barton around. Utah regularly rotated him over the tight end as an on-the-line SAM linebacker, as you might see in a 4-3 Under front. Barton has quick keys into space, so he excels as a end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) who can widen boundary plays into the sideline and keep space clean for his defensive backs to rally to the tackle.
The most interesting aspect of Barton's evaluation, however, is his surprising success in man coverage. I don't think Barton's a bad athlete, but he's not an amazing one -- yet he has great man coverage instincts to get connected, loves to bully within the contact window with size and physicality, and seems to have instincts with the ball in the air as well.
Barton's man coverage strength will get teams even more excited about the prospect of playing him over tight ends as a SAM 'backer.
It's easy to note the high-quality INT over the shoulder here, but Barton creates that play by quickly getting connected to the wheel route and leaning into it. He initiates contact and forces RB Myles Gaskin to widen closer to the sideline than Gaskin would like. This throw looks like it hangs inside -- it does a bit -- but Barton also deserves credit for displacing the route early by keying the release, not getting picked by the bunch set, and winning with his strengths.
Because Barton and Hansen play in tandem, we have a cool opportunity to not only compare their traits side-by-side, but also look at their particular deployment and figure out how it speaks to their strengths. Hansen was almost always aligned to the weakside of the formation, and Barton to the strong -- makes sense for their NFL deployments as well.
But Hansen also had blitz keys and QB spy responsibilities far more often than Barton did, which is interesting given Hansen's safety background. Hansen is a good blitzer, but so is Barton -- so when we see that deployment, we have to wonder: is Barton a more trustworthy cover man than Hansen?
Against this super unbalanced set (Play 1), Hansen is all the way protected on the weak side -- he'll be the last player to pick anyone up in coverage. But watch Barton again sift through traffic to get connected to the back out of the backfield, and then undercut the flat route to force the quarterback to improvise.
On the very next play -- again, a key goal line rep! -- Barton has inside leverage on the slot receiver in the doubles set (top of screen), and ends up in one-on-one coverage accordingly. Hansen is responsible for the RB release this time, but comes super hot into the pocket with fantastic instincts to read the QB draw here. Again, I have no umbrage with how Hansen played this -- high-quality play! -- it's the usage that quirks my eyebrows.
We also benefit from the side-by-side comparison, on plays like this one: watch Barton (MIKE) and Hansen (WILL) read these conflicting keys. Watch their footwork and the timing of their recognition.
This is a "BASH" idea. BASH stands for Back Away, as the action of the running back runs exactly opposite to the action of the linemen. For a player like Barton, who loves to meet offensive linemen in the first level, you'd expect him to key hard on the zone flow and false step to the left -- but it's Hansen who is late to recognize the backfield action and shuffles himself out of position when generating his angle. Barton, on the other hand, had the angle and the read immediately.
It's a unique opportunity, to watch two legit prospects play side-by-side -- gives us these opportunities for comparison between roles and traits that we don't usually get. While Hansen's physical traits excite and likely earned him the Senior Bowl invite, I find Barton's tape to be higher quality on a lot of key boxes: recognition, angles, tackling, and block deconstruction.
Hansen most likely moves to the NFL as a special-teamer and sub-package player, while Barton has a better profile for traditional NFL play. He may not have a ceiling beyond that of low-end starter, but he's a disciplined player who wins with his eyes and his instincts, which can translate into a long career at the NFL level.
Hansen, on the other hand, will need a team invested in carving out a specific role for his strength in space. He needs to play that spy/green dog blitz role that you saw above in the goal line clips, but I'm not sure what that makes him as a run defender. Senior Bowl week will go a long way to determining if he can be trusted in man coverage, and if his tackling issues are surmountable.