I like impact plays.
Everyone likes impact plays. Offenses want explosive runs and deep shots; defenses want sacks and interceptions. Offenses play nickel-and-dime when they have to; defenses play bend-don’t-break when they have to. But in football, more so than in other sports, individual plays can generate huge swings in leverage over the outcome of the game.
Defensively, we’re looking at sacks and turnovers as our impact plays. We know that sacks kill drives. We know that the winner in four out of five NFL games also won the turnover battle. A successful defense in the NFL generates these plays, and that’s why successful NFL defenses typically invest heavily in their defensive front and in their secondary.
The defensive front generates pressures, which lead to bad decisions that can create fumbles and interceptions—and, if they get there fast enough, they get sacks. The secondary gets targeted on passes, and accordingly, have the most opportunity for interceptions—and if they cover well, they extend the period of time for the pass rush to arrive and generate a sack.
So if your impact defensive plays are sacks and turnovers, then your impact players are on the defensive line and in the secondary. That’s not to say that linebackers can’t have an impact—they can. Linebackers drop into coverage, linebackers blitz, linebackers create fumbles—but they have fewer opportunities to do so.
In the first two seasons of his career, Buffalo LB Tremaine Edmunds is making impact plays—especially in coverage. Since 2000, only 12 linebackers have generated more interceptions in their first two seasons as pros; only one has more passes defended.
Edmunds’ length and explosiveness, which was elite among college athletes at Virginia Tech, has remained elite at the NFL level. A monstrosity in the middle of the Buffalo defense, Edmunds is regularly tasked with alignments close to the line of scrimmage, peppering the line of scrimmage and threatening a rush on clear passing downs. From there, Edmunds can do a couple of things.
Firstly, he can sink into zone coverage. Edmunds is a high-quality zone defender because of his athletic traits, but he’s also got a great nose for routes breaking near him, and does well to cancel check-down routes by getting connected to underneath breaking routes early. Even in the event that Edmunds allows completions, he’s a tremendous tackler given his strength and radius, so he limits YAC developing in front of him.
Edmunds is also available to be put into a QB spy role, and perhaps plays that role already at an elite level in the NFL. Against quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, Edmunds was regularly able to match the league’s best athletes in space, whether in reacting to the quick passing game or processing scrambles, which allowed him to shut down plays in a way that few linebackers would be able to. Again, Edmunds has the ability to make these plays because of the range of influence afforded by his athletic ability.
And in man coverage, Edmunds is what he has always been, going back to his days at Virginia Tech: a blanket on legs. Edmunds’ movement skills in space are stupid for a player of his size, and he’s accordingly capable of tagging both tight ends and running backs vertically and horizontally despite having poor initial leverage. Edmunds’ length and size discourages targets altogether, but it’s his football IQ that allows him to sniff out concepts as they develop and make aggressive plays to the football or to a different route. Few players play as fast as Edmunds does, and that’s both the result of his physical and mental prowess.
Edmunds is a nasty dude against the run and oozes the same blend of football instincts and physical edge that few in the NFL have. He’s been a wildly productive tackler with great production behind the line of scrimmage, accordingly. But if the impact plays in today’s NFL are sacks and turnovers, then it’s the defense of the passing game that will matter the most to the next age of linebackers, and Edmunds is one of the best young pass-defending linebackers in the NFL. With time, his stunning PBU numbers will lead to more picks; the departure of oft-blitzed LB Lorenzo Alexander may lead to more sacks. Edmunds is a strong player now, but the future may truly vault him to elite status.