RICHMOND — Trotting off the Redskins field after practice Thursday, Su’a Cravens used the animal kingdom to analogize the difference between his current position, safety, and the one he filled in last season, linebacker.
“Linebackers are different because they’re wolves, so wolves carry a different attitude than most,” Cravens explained. “The DB’s, we dogs. A dog is a lot similar to a wolf, but we’ve got our own attitude, we like to be consistent, we like to be aggressive, we like to attack.”
Hmm. In case you’re wondering how an aggressive, attacking mentality would differentiate a dog from a wolf, fellow safety D.J. Swearinger said he could clarify.
“I can translate that,” Swearinger promised.
“In the back end we’re dogs, man,” Swearinger continued. “Down in the trenches you’ve got to be a wolf. You know, you’ve got to have a little more ‘umph’ to you. On the back end I guess we are big dogs.”
Linebacker Zach Brown ran over to offer his two cents: “It’s the same thing,” he said. “Same canine family.”
“You just have to be a dog,” Brown said. (As a linebacker, this would seem to contradict his position.)
“That’s the moral of the story,” Swearinger agreed. “You’ve got to be a dog.”
The players are just having fun, but the imperfect metaphor still says something about Cravens, in particular, who represents the type of modern NFL safety who shares a close phylogenetic origin with rangy inside linebackers.
Just two years ago, when Cravens was coming out of Southern California, he felt that “being a tweener or being a guy that, he’s not necessarily a safety but he’s not a linebacker either, was a negative.”
The Redskins didn’t think so, drafting him in the second round, but it’s fair to say they weren’t quite sure what to do with him.
“Su’a came in as an oddball outside linebacker-type guy. He wasn’t really a safety, wasn’t really an outside linebacker, he was a nickel kind of a move-around type guy,” coach Jay Gruden said Friday.
This past draft, Cravens marveled at the interest and praise generated by similar hybrids like Jabrill Peppers, the former Michigan Wolverine who was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns.
“Now it’s a positive because the NFL, it’s pass-happy and you need linebackers or safeties that can match up on the slot and not be a liability so it’s definitely changed,” Cravens said. “The guys that have been playing in college and performing, and the coaches that are putting them at those robber-type positions, they’re definitely changing the game.”
If Cravens has better results in that type of role this year than he did at linebacker last year, the Redskins will benefit. Inability to stop teams running underneath routes was a big reason Washington was so dismal on third downs last year, and an effective strong safety would make a difference.
With only one day of padded practices in the books, it’s too soon to tell if Cravens is up to that challenge, but he’s done nothing so far to raise concerns that he can’t.
Despite his insistence that there’s enough depth and talent on the team that he “could be a three tomorrow,” he and Swearinger have been the starting safeties for all of offseason practices and so far during training camp. The coaching staff has been impressed by his blitzing, play in the box, against the run and in space, so they’re spending training camp trying to figure out how to use all those skills and still give Cravens a defined role.
Cravens is happy to be back at safety, the position he’s felt came most naturally to him since his junior year of high school, and believes he “definitely didn’t play to my capabilities” last year at linebacker.
“I just felt like I was better in the open field,” Cravens said. “I just felt like, being an athlete, I was always able to make a play in the open field instead of being locked up one-on-one with an O-lineman or being limited to the line of scrimmage. I felt like if I can move around in open space then I’ll be a little bit more effective.”
Cravens said that he got a better understanding of schemes by spending last season at linebacker. Mason Foster and Will Compton would routinely quiz him, naming a play and asking Cravens to list his assignment on the spot.
“I had never played inside linebacker before, so having to know two to three different run fits on every play and knowing where the D-line was, that was different for me,” Cravens said.
It’s crucial for a safety to understand what the other parts of the defense are doing at all times in order to take the proper depth and have the right anticipation. Cravens feels he’s internalized those things, which will help him when patrolling the middle of the field.
“Getting to learn run fits, getting to learn the D-line’s responsibility and why they do things definitely helps when I’m back at safety,” Cravens said. “Because now where it’s a run play I know D-line’s going to fit here, linebackers are going to fit here and when it comes to the pass it’s the same thing.”
Gruden said that Cravens’ success is “all going to come down to how much he can handle mentally,” something the experience of last season should help with. For the Redskins, it’s all going to come down to figuring out what kind of animal they’re actually dealing with.