When Su'a Cravens arrived at Southern California, he was as a five-star safety out of Vista Murrieta High School. As the Trojans starting strong safety, he had an impressive freshman campaign -- compiling 53 tackles, 4 interceptions and 6 tackles for a loss -- earning him Freshman All-American honors and All-Pac-12 Honorable mention. But despite his All-American performance, USC made a decision during the 2014 fall training camp: Cravens was to move from safety to linebacker.
Initially, the sophomore was furious with the decision. He cleaned out his locker and told teammates he was leaving the team. However, despite his initial frustrations, Cravens accepted the move, and his first year at linebacker was just as successful as his freshman year at safety. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team, and was single handedly attributed 82 negative yards for opposing offenses with an unfathomable 17 tackles for a loss. He also led the team in interceptions (5) and made 68 tackles. In his junior year, Cravens led USC in tackles (86), tackles for a loss (15), and tied for first in sacks (5.5). He was again named to the All-Pac-12 First Team, and the AP All-American Third Team.
Yet despite all of his accolades and production at USC, there are still significant questions surrounding Cravens. The biggest question of all: which position will he play in the NFL? Will he continue to play linebacker, or will he move back to safety, or will he play somewhere in between the two?
During the past two seasons, since being moved to linebacker, Cravens played as the strong side linebacker in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's base 3-4 defense. But due to his versatility, he also spent just as much time as a nickel back in the Trojans 3-3-5 nickel defense. Cravens is just as comfortable defending the run as he is in covering a slot receiver or tight end in pass coverage.
As a run defender, despite being undersized, Cravens is aggressive and does not shy away from contact. He spends a lot of time inside the box, and is more than capable of taking on blocks by bigger, stronger players.He has an excellent initial punch, and does a great job in contain, controlling blockers to maintain the edge and string out the play. As a tackler, Cravens isn't spectacular, but he's unyielding. He's far from a punishing hitter, but rarely misses when in the correct position.
Due to his athleticism, Cravens is certainly capable at both man and zone coverage, but his pure coverage skills are lacking. He uses his hands far too much, and often gets tied up with the receiver more than strictly covering him. This works to his advantage in the college game due to the lack of the 5-yard NFL contact rule, but at the next level he'll need to adjust. That being said he is more than capable of covering slower slot WR's and TEs, and his strong mental processing and excellent ball skills more than make up for some of his coverage deficiencies.
Previously, players built in Cravens mold were deemed "tweeners," hurting their draft stock because they didn't fit into the cookie-cutter template coveted by NFL teams. However, thanks to the increase in multiple receiver sets and the increased dominance of pass catching tight ends, these previously forgotten "tweener" players are more in vogue than ever before.
These players have the ability to do a little bit of everything. They can play a multitude of positions: inside linebacker, in the box safety, or a cover corner. They are true jacks-of-all-trades. There's no label that truly fits them.
Several previously drafted players who match Cravens' hybrid mold have already successfully transitioned into the NFL, such as Arizona's Deone Buchannon (6ft 1" 214lbs), who made 112 total tackles in 2015 and Los Angeles's Mark Barron (6ft 1" 214lbs), who made 116 total tackles. But Cravens best pro comparison is Carolina's Shaq Thompson. Prior to becoming the Trojans defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox was the Washington Huskies defensive coordinator, and used Shaq Thompson in very much the same way as he used Cravens at USC. They are effectively the same player, from the same system. And although Thompson started slowly last year, his rookie season in the NFL, he finished the season as a large contributor for the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers, with 29 total tackles over his last 6 games. Technically, because the NFL loves labels, these players are classed as 4-3 weak side linebackers, but they truly all are hybrid players, and provide a perfect comparison for Cravens' projection.
The buzz around Cravens seems to have died a little since the end of the season, when he was projected as a mid to late first round pick. There's likely two reasons for this: a) He chose not to participate in all the drills at the Scouting Combine. And in the drills he did participate in at the combine, he was not quite as explosive as some had hoped. b) The media, who essentially controls players' "draft buzz," still don't quite know what to do with a "tweener/hybrid" type such as Cravens.
Cravens' best chance to improve his draft stock was at USC's Pro Day on March 23rd, when he finally ran the 40 yard dash. However, his time of 4.65, which while admirable - it would make him the 7th fastest linebacker, and the 12th fastest safety compared to the combine numbers - will not drastically alter his draft stock.
Overall, no matter when he is drafted, or the position he ends up playing, what you're getting with Cravens is an instinctive, well-rounded football player with a nose for the ball and eye on the spectacular. In his own words, "I'm not going to be the fastest guy out there. I'm not going to be the strongest. But I know I'm going to be the smartest and I know that I'm a playmaker and a competitor."
If you're drafting Cravens, what more could you ask for?