He’s not Rolando McClain. He’s not Dont’a Hightower. Both of those guys were cut from a traditional linebacking cloth, as they’re big and lumbering downhill types coming out of Alabama. C.J. Mosley is part of the new breed, the type that plays in space, covers significant ground from sideline-to-sideline and roams in underneath coverage. He’s more fluid and athletic and rangy. He’ll run down a ball carrier or jump a route in the middle of the field.
But does that make him a better player than them?
McClain and Hightower were selected in the first round, respectively. McClain at No. 8 to the Oakland Raiders in 2010, Hightower at No. 25 to the New England Patriots in 2012. If you believe the early hype Mosley is slated to go somewhere in the top-15, which is entirely possible considering he’s more athletic than the other two, which many NFL GM’s are going to love because they’re bent on getting faster in between the hashes, the area that still determines who wins every Sunday.
With Mosley, they’re getting a player who can run down the seam with a split tight end or slot receiver, and allow the defense to avoid going to a nickel package. This is significant — just look at the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl run. Their linebackers were able to match the routes of pass threats underneath and eliminate players like Jimmy Graham from games completely. At 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, Mosley has the size and skills to do the same.
When you watch him play for Alabama, déjà vu settles in. I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen McClain pump his arm, make calls and play this role. It’s the Robber or “Rat” role in Nick Saban’s complex defense, one that puts an inside linebacker in underneath coverage where he’s communicating to his teammates about crossers and anticipating throws. There are many instances Mosley will jump out in front of an underneath throw and deflect a pass.
McClain used to do that, and he was excellent at it. But once he came to the NFL and was asked to play in coverage more outside of the tackle box, he struggled. He was slow and heavy footed, turning like a crane. When he was asked to run down the seam with Calvin Johnson he was roasted. That shouldn’t happen to Mosley if we’re looking solely at his physical skill-set.
Mosley wasn’t always running down the seam, but he showed that he could on other plays that put him in a position to show off his fluidity and range. Here’s an example (5:40 mark below).
He’s five yards across from the ball on third and two. The Oklahoma Sooners motion their running back out of the backfield pistol set and to Mosley’s right, who follows the back across the 35-yard line. As he runs, the play begins and the running back swings around the numbers and faces Mosley, who pivots with his right foot and opens his hips to the quarterback. The running back slows down, waiting for a throw to be made and then suddenly gears up again. Mosley swings his right foot around, changes direction again, this time to the sideline, and smoothly turns downfield, covering the back. Blanketed.
Mosley’s ability to click his heel and change direction is what will have scouts and GM’s gazing. It’s not a rare skill that he has, but it’s still appreciated because there are far too many teams that need it (like the Baltimore Ravens). They need to have a Mosley-type of linebacker on their roster in order to win Super Bowls, even if it means they have to sacrifice in other areas, such as run defense, which isn’t always the Alabama linebacker’s strong suit.
In addition to his fluidity, what stands out is Mosley’s range. It’s not rare, but there’s enough of it. He covers ground quickly and takes strong angles. There are many occasions which he will hunt down a running back who has leaked out of the backfield and into the flat. He’s very good at this, as long as his jersey is kept away from an offensive lineman’s hands.
Against LSU this past season, Mosley showed his range by bringing down Alfred Blue in the flat after the running back caught a pass (4:58 mark below).
Blue was in the backfield in a traditional alignment, one that some call “home,” directly on the right hash. Slightly inside the right hash four yards from the ball was Mosley, who rested his hands on his bent knees. Mosley waited for the snap, which came when Blue faked a carry on play action and ran through the offensive line before leaking over into the left flat. He took two steps back, read the play, and followed to the same area.
Quickly after dropping back, the quarterback dumped off to Blue, who ran parallel to the 25-yard line before Mosley intersected his path upfield with an anticipatory angle. The angle led Mosley to the hashmark, where he swung around Blue with both hands and tackled him for a four-yard gain.
These are the skills McClain didn’t have. These are the skills Hightower didn’t have. That’s why Mosley is believed to be valued highly at the moment. He has the fluidity and range that will let him cover running backs out of the backfield, slot receivers in short areas and flexed tight ends through the seam. He may be worth a top-15 selection to some because of that.