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NFL Draft

Rashaan Evans’ Versatility Makes Him A Special Player

  • The Draft Network
  • July 12, 2020
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It’s easy to underestimate players who are multiple. That may seem foolish to say: Derwin James, Tyrann Mathieu, and J.J. Watt are some of the best defenders in the NFL in part for their ability to move around the defensive structure. Their impact is a product of their versatility, but it’s also a product of their delightful talent levels—and that’s why they’re put on the field in so many different circumstances

But when a player isn’t so elite in his skill level that he doesn’t produce at the height of his position, his best trait can often be his versatility, and this is where he can fly under the radar. Adrian Phillips’ best trait is his versatility, which allows him to play in concert with James and gives James the freedom to aggressively roam across the defense; rookie Juan Thornhill, when healthy, opened up the defense for Mathieu in the same way. Often accompanying elite defensive playmakers are another versatile move piece that serves an equal, opposite reaction for the primary playmaker’s wild alignments and responsibilities.

There is no elite versatile playmaker in the Tennessee defense, but there is a versatile defender who stirs the drink of the New England Patriots-inspired defense under Mike Vrabel: Rashaan Evans. The 2018 first-round selection out of Alabama is somewhere between Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy: a hammer of a middle linebacker who has the size and strength to line up on the line of scrimmage and hold his gap, but also enough quickness and fluidity to get after the passer.

Evans was an outside linebacker recruit entering Alabama, and many expected him to take and hold an EDGE role in the Crimson Tide offense. He primarily played outside linebacker before his final season, during which time he bumped permanently to stack linebacker with Shaun Dion-Hamilton, only kicking down to the rush linebacker position in certain subpackages. In a class including Tremaine Edmunds, Roquan Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch, Evans’ average athletic profile and lack of a perfect, singular fit kicked him down the board for most teams. But for the Titans, that was just right.

The Titans like to spin their defensive fronts around. If we call their base a three-down front, Evans was the strongside inside linebacker responsible for triggering quick and thundering downhill to fit in the line of scrimmage. If we call their base a four-down front, he was the true middle linebacker and retained the same aggressive style of play. Despite bouncing from various alignments across the course of his college and young pro career, Evans has developed a good eye for alignment and motion, and has a quick trigger to accompany his physical dominance. He played fast this year off-ball.

This is absolutely wicked film. Evans is playing so much faster in Year 2 than he was in Year 1, and as such, his characteristic violence and power remains devastating against pulling blockers and runners in tight gaps, and he’s often a step ahead of would-be blockers and able to slip full-bore contact, leading to glancing blows that are all the easier to win. On plays such as the goal-line stands against New England in the Wild Card Round of the 2019 playoffs, you can see what Evans looks like as a run-and-chase linebacker using processing speed and linear explosiveness to hunt the ball-carrier in pursuit. The Patriots tried to run away from Evans; he didn’t let them.

But what’s most exciting about Evans is how comfortable you are keeping him on the field in subpackages because of his rush ability. A violent player with pass-rush experience, Evans works games well, often lining up in a two-point stance in the B-gap to either loop inside on stunts, or threatening the A-gap before looping outside on a contain rush. Evans is not the most fluid athlete and lacks ideal route awareness, largely as a product of the roles he hasn’t played, so rushing him makes sense and has born fruit for the Titans in terms of quarterback hits, sacks, and pressured throws, all of which Evans produced more of this season than he did the prior.

It’s important to note here that Evans is also winning on head-up rushes on both outside and inside alignments, using his patented spin move, the clearest remaining fragment of his history playing EDGE as his dominant position. Evans is far from a polished pass-rusher, but he absolutely pulls rabbits out of his hat that linemen don’t suspect from a MIKE linebacker sugaring the interior gaps. He gets on top of you with his urgency and quickness, and finishes rushes with velocity.

We’re still looking for more from Evans, as he himself admitted to the Titans’ media stepping into Year 3. Evans wants to grow as a leader, as a cog in the defense, and continue honing his production; from a film perspective, his best chance to do so is to find a way to translate his urgent style of play into consistent pass coverage. For Evans to take the next step, he simply must create more plays in the passing game, where now he operates mostly as a QB spy or shallow zone dropper. Evans’ intensity here can lead to impatience and overaggressiveness, as quarterbacks pull him out of his landmarks and force him into recovery. Zone awareness, more so than perhaps any linebacker trait, comes with time.

There’s a concern in scouting if a player’s best trait is his versatility, as that likely means he doesn’t have enough good traits in other areas to see the field consistently. But for Evans, he’s just so well-rounded, physical, and fundamentally sound, that he’s never really a liability on the field. No, he doesn’t have the pass breakups that Edmunds does, or the zone drops that Vander Esch does, or the run-and-chase TFLs that Smith does—he doesn’t have the same individual impact plays. But he does fit within the gestalt of a complex defense, and with continued improvement in pass defense, he’ll likely command control of the defense as the signal-caller, proving an integral if underappreciated cog in one of the NFL’s most flexible defenses.

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