Like we did on Monday with the offensive side of the ball, before we take a look at the best defensive movers of 2018, I wanted to offer up the reminder of last year’s best of the best. Of course, mastery isn’t built in a day and when it comes to individuals who possess high degrees of functional movement skill, it’s on this foundation that sport success stands. Thus, you will definitely notice some repeat performers from last year’s list to this year’s. However, there are also a good amount of newcomers who I believe we will see for years to come here.
2017 All-Movement Team:
All-Movement Team 2018; Defense
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: First-step explosive burst, Ability to move rapidly to change direction to move laterally when tracking down ball carriers
First Team: Aaron Donald (Rams)
Second Team: Frank Clark (Seahawks)
Third Team: Myles Garrett (Browns)
Luckily for me, the Chicago Bears eliminated one of my potential headaches when they listed Khalil Mack at outside linebacker as opposed to defensive end. Thus, I wasn’t forced to pit the two best defensive players in the league, and the two individuals who I feel are in a class of their own as it pertains to movement skill defensively, against one another in this duel for the top spot at DL/DE on our All-Movement Team (of course, I am referring here to Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald). So, just what is it about Aaron Donald that puts him so far ahead of other defensive lineman (especially the many freaks of the NFL who live on the outside) when it comes to movement skill? Well, for starters, no player is double or triple teamed as often (actually, no player is even close to him in this regards, in my opinion) or game-planned against as much as Donald is. Yet, the result: no player is as disruptive on an opponent’s offense technically and tactically as AD99 is (again, I don’t believe any player is even close). When talking about the analysis and evaluation of movement skill on a football field, one of the main criteria to investigate is how/if the player is able to solve the most complex and intense of movement problems that can be faced based on his position; that, no matter the problem in front of him, the most skillful of movers are able to find a way to adapt with one’s solutions to match the needs of the problem. And in this way, on the defensive line, and on the entire defensive side of the ball, as well as across the entire NFL, Aaron Donald is the best of the best.
Two defensive ends that move like a couple of coiled springs hold down the 2nd and 3rd Team spots, in Frank Clark of the Seahawks and Myles Garrett of the Browns, respectively. Clark has a variety of solutions to match his personal strategy and execution to both the tactical strategy being offered by the play call as well as the technical demands and accompanying opportunities presented by the blocker in front of him. Clark is equally adept at using power or speed and has an awfully dangerous inside spin move which is executed with both deception and efficiency. 2017’s number one pick in the draft, Myles Garrett, was busy throughout all of 2018 showing just why the Browns felt as confident as they did about him when they selected him so high. A physical freak of nature blessed with athleticism and power, it seems as though Garrett’s movement skill-set is in a stage of constant evolution where he has continued to learn to couple moves together in response to what was unfolding in front of him and began to show those same flashes were capable of happening no matter which offensive lineman would stand in front of him.
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: First step explosiveness in all directions, Ability to rapidly cover ground laterally
First Team: Bobby Wagner (Seahawks)
Second Team: Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys)
Third Team: Luke Kuechly (Panthers)
Can we just stop to appreciate how consistently good Bobby Wagner is on a week-to-week, and season-by-season basis, please?! Even on a team where the roster was filled with young guys who’s names no longer jump off the media guide at the average fan, Wagner has elevated his unit by leading the only way he knows how; by the extreme example he sets on-field made possible with his extraordinary movement skill. Though guys like Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack will get recognized by the NFL with mentions of postseason award nominations, if you want a lesson on dexterity in defensive movement skill, you would be hard pressed to find another player as skillful has Wagner across the entire NFL play-to-play and across various situations and conditions. In the NFL, you can’t be considered as consistently effective as Wagner is without also being extremely efficient, as well. However, the middleman for the Seahawks defense is the definition of efficiency at the position which can be shown by the fact that he didn’t miss a single tackle on the entire season according to NFL statisticians.
As I have admitted here in posts on this blog before, I watch very little college football in most years. Thus, when the Cowboys selected Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State in the 1st Round of the 2018 NFL Draft, it forced me to ask myself “who’s that?” much like it may have with others across the league. However, I would find out pretty early from the time that Vander Esch stepped on the field that he would routinely jump off the game film anytime a Cowboys game was on my screen. I am not big on player comparisons at all as I usually prefer to allow each player’s own authentic movement skill to define who they are. That said though, whenever I studied Vander Esch this season, I honestly found myself being reminded of another LB that I analyzed quite extensively; newly named Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Chicago Bear, Brian Urlacher. Besides obvious similarities in anthropometric features (6’4” and 255 for Leighton whereas Brian was routinely listed at 6’4” and around 258-260) and general athleticism qualities (with Combine test values which were eerily similar; as if that tells us much of anything!), their movement skill toolboxes are built off of similar characteristics, as well.
Another player who seems to be a mainstay with Wagner on our All-Movement Team since its inception, Panther LB Luke Kuechly, finds himself once again relegated to the Third Team on this year’s rendition. For some reason, Kuechly seemed to have a quieter season per his usual standards (crazy that someone can record 130 tackles with 20 of them being for a loss and it seems quiet) but Kuechly remains the gold standard for perceptual attunement and accurate decision making at the ILB spot. This supreme perceptual and cognitive ability allows him to stand out amongst his peers as he detects and diagnoses everything happening around him much more rapidly than all others.
Outside Linebackers – Pass Rush OLB
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: First-step explosive burst, Ability to move rapidly to change direction to move laterally when tracking down ball carriers, Versatility to be moved around the formation and asked to execute various tasks
First Team: Khalil Mack (Bears)
Second Team: Von Miller (Broncos)
Third Team: Dee Ford (Chiefs)
This season, I finally elected to do what I should’ve long ago: split the OLB group up into guys who primarily rush the passer versus guys who are asked to be more versatile snap to snap. On that note, though the 2nd Team performer on this year’s unit would be one of the very first players on either side of the ball that I would select if I were a General Manager of a team, the 1st Team selection for this position was as cut and dry for me in 2018 with Khalil Mack leading the way from start to finish as the best of the best when it comes to the use of one’s movement toolbox. Having been traded from the Raiders to the Bears before the start of the regular season, Mack immediately became must-see TV each week for the magnitude of the impact that he would have on the Bears defense and the entire team in them winning the NFC North division crown. Though every OC and OL Coach who played versus the Bears had an entire game plan centered on how to eliminate Mack’s disruption, this usually wasn’t enough to do it. Mack played with a renewed sense of purpose and passion all season long (getting traded usually does that to players) and he was absolutely relentless each week. Though I put Mack in this pass rush emphasis category, don’t get it twisted: Khalil Mack can be moved anywhere around the defensive formation and his movement skill would still allow him to stick out over his peers.
Like death and taxes, some things are certain. And when it comes to analyzing movement skill on a football field especially as it pertains to pass rushing capabilities this is abundantly clear; we will find Von Miller on this list year-in and year-out unless hell freezes over (or he would get injured). Nobody else has Von’s unique knack for accurately perceiving the snap of the ball like he does. Nobody else has the level of explosive pop in early steps like Von Miller does. Nobody else has the coordination and control to execute around corners quite like #58. And nobody else has the ability to present nearly unsolvable movement problems to his opponents like Von Miller does. Wrapping up our group of disruptive pass rushers from the OLB position is a newcomer in Kansas City Chief, Dee Ford. Though his production was overshadowed at times by fellow defensive line-mate Chris Jones who had a heck of a year, it was Ford whose movement skill jumped out to me every time I watched a Chief’s outing. The thing that many don’t realize when it comes to guys on the edge is that sacks do not always tell the whole story; instead, its QB pressures that change the scope of the opposing team’s strategy as well as both when and how those pressures come about. In those categories, Dee Ford was without equal in 2018 and it’s what led to him landing on this year’s edition of the All-Movement Team.
Outside Linebackers – All-around OLB
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: Accelerative burst, Deceleration/Cutting ability to be able to stop quickly to reaccelerate while tracking ball carriers, Versatility to drop into coverage frequently
First Team: Darius Leonard (Colts)
Second Team: Telvin Smith, JR (Jaguars)
Third Team: Nigel Bradham (Eagles)
2018 has to be the ‘Year of the Rookie’ as yet another one leapfrogged a strong group of dynamic movers standing in-front of him. Darius Leonard joined fellow All-Movement First Team rookies Saquon Barkley (RB) and Derwin James (Safety) based on his insane sideline-to-sideline havoc that he caused while starting all 16 games of the season. The best way to describe Leonard’s output as you watch it unfold is that he flies around like his hair is on fire (even though he doesn’t have a lot of hair). This was shown in him not only leading the league in tackles but also finding his way into the backfield to routinely bring down an unsuspecting quarterback and/or running back behind the line of scrimmage in what felt like several times each game. An aspect of Leonard’s game that shouldn’t go unnoticed is in his ability to raise the level of the performance of others around him as the Colts defense turned into a very formidable one as the team found its way marching to the playoffs.
I got a chance to closely watch our 2nd Team performer, Jacksonville Jaguars OLB Telvin Smith, JR, when the Jags were in Minnesota during training camp for a few days to share practice time with the Vikings. I was enamored with watching Smith as he moved around live in front of me. Like Leonard, Smith can flat-out fly. Listed at only 215lb (not sure of the accuracy of that value), Smith isn’t just fast when sniping unsuspecting players running loose down the field, but he can change direction exceptionally well for a guy who is 6’3” and that is while in a position where he’s at the mercy of reacting to the kinematics and movement behaviors of the offensive player with the ball in their hands. Smith is one of three players (along with Patrick Mahomes and Tarik Cohen) from my 2018 ‘Movers to Watch’ post at the beginning of the season to also find themselves with recognition on this team at the end of the season.
On the other end of the spectrum is the more traditional OLB in Nigel Bradham who holds down our 3rd All-Movement Team spot in 2018. Though he’s pretty explosive, Bradham is one of those guys that isn’t overly flashy, but for the defending Super Bowl Champions, is a vital piece of the puzzle for a defense that routinely steps up and makes plays when it has to. Very rarely out of position due to great perceptual skill, Bradham can be found moving frequently with a naturally low center of gravity, taking on great angles, and arriving to the spots he needs to be, play-in and play-out.
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: Mastery of body position & control (especially during cover situations), Movement speed in multiple planes, Athleticism while ball in the air (leaping ability, tracking, kinesthetic awareness, etc)
First Team: Patrick Peterson (Cardinals)
Second Team: Byron Jones (Cowboys)
Third Team: Kyle Fuller (Bears)
Back on top to represent the cornerback position in 2018 is Patrick Peterson. The former All-Movement First Team performer (2013) has a vast amount of experience which has led to the display of his extraordinary expertise across the entirety of this blog being in existence. Though he once again found himself on a poor performing team, Peterson did as much as he could; capable of routinely locking down one side of the field and frequently limiting the opponent’s best WR. Peterson’s certainly blessed with world class physical capabilities (namely, accelerative burst and linear speed), but as he has gotten more experienced over the years, his perceptual skill has improved dramatically and this has allowed him to begin to rely less on the physiology in his movement and more on the psychology of moving proficiently.
A player that I have been impressed with, but also somewhat surprised by, is our 2nd Team performer, Byron Jones of the NFC East Champion Dallas Cowboys. Jones came into the league back in 2015, blessed then with a whole bunch of athleticism such as extraordinary explosiveness; the Cowboys have experimented with him over the last four years, moving him from cornerback to safety and now back to corner. Because of this more global problem based on positional demands, Jones is now figuring out how to play more patiently and put some of those physical capabilities to use in the movement skills needed to play corner at a high level in the NFL. Wrapping up our All-Movement Team unit is the guy manning the outside of one of the NFL’s most feared defense in 2018, Kyle Fuller of the Chicago Bears. Kyle is a guy that I personally had the opportunity to work with a couple of years back so it is great to see him performing at such a high level now. Kyle’s ability at the line of scrimmage to match WR’s movement actions during their release is arguably the best in the league right now and it often allows him to take opponents out of the play before that WR really gets going. This short space perception and movement action proficiency is also matched by the angles he organizes in his plants and breaks. All of the above contributed to him being in the co-lead for the interceptions across the league this season.
As is typically the case at this position, there were a number of other guys who were knocking on the door of being on the Team this year but just barely missed out for various reasons. Guys like Jimmy Smith of the Ravens, Stephon Gilmore of the Patriots, and Casey Hayward of the Chargers, were all guys who made a running at our list this season. Additionally, I routinely took notice of speedster, Adoree Jackson, of the Tennessee Titans. Though Jackson has improved and grown considerably this season in his second year, his exceptional speed sometimes worked as a detriment to his execution as he still relies on it too often for my liking (and this forces him to get out of position at other times). Another player who turned my head throughout much of the season was Miami Dolphin CB Xavien Howard. In his third year, Howard took huge steps in his perception and sensory awareness this season. This more evolved and functional fit between the problems he encountered and the solutions he had to solve them resulted in him ending the season with 7 interceptions which included THREE games (yes, 3!) where he had multiple INT in the game. However, due to him missing the last month of the season with a knee injury that left him questionable each week when the Dolphins needed him the most to contend for a playoff run, I decided to keep him off the list even though I fully expect huge things for him in years to come as his movement skills continue to flourish.
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: 360 degree movement ability (acceleration, stopping, changing direction), Movement speed to snipe guys from anywhere in the field in both aspects of the game, Athleticism while ball in the air (leaping ability, tracking, kinesthetic awareness, etc)
First Team: Derwin James (Chargers)
Second Team: Eddie Jackson (Bears)
Third Team: Jamal Adams (Jets)
Though I gave our 2014 Mover of the Year, Earl Thomas, the First Team nod last year, readers could almost feel as though there was a sort of new young cream rising to the top at the safety position. In fact, in the 2017 edition of the All-Movement Team, I talked highly of the player who I felt was likely to grab this passing of the guard from Earl (if he was willing to let it go) in Tennessee Titan safety, Kevin Byard. There were certainly other young cats in the mix to ascend the ladder, as well, such as Landon Collins (2016 First Team All-Movement) and Lamarcus Joyner (2017 Third Team All-Movement). When Earl Thomas went down in the third week of the 2018 NFL season, it seemed it was definitely time for this passing of the guard. However, as we sit here at the end of the season, it was none of those three individuals (Byard, Collins, or Joyner) who I felt were ‘the guys’ to be investigated more deeply and discussed here though each of those aforementioned guys were still solid in their own right (particularly Byard). Instead, three other young fellas (all within their first two years in the league) are the ones that I felt were most deserving of being recognized on this list. The more I dove into breaking down the movement of the guys at this position, the more this analysis felt eerily similar to that of the tight end position this year; meaning, based on the unique authenticity of each player’s toolbox and how they routinely solve movement problems, each player brought something different to the table versus their peers and could’ve easily been at the top of this All-Movement ladder.
At the end of the day, the unique versatility and overall problem solving abilities of Derwin James were too much to keep him from being placed as the new champion of movement skill at the safety position, despite being a rookie (joining Leonard at LB and Barkley at RB). Throughout the NFL Draft process, we routinely heard Draft analysts raving about how different Derwin James was from all others. James made good on this analysis early on from the start as he hit the ground running like few rookies really can. Representing the new breed at the safety position, James immediately made an impact wherever he was on the field and this could be seen all season long for the young defender which allowed the entire unit to flourish more as the weeks passed and the Chargers made a run when it counted. The versatility mentioned above became his calling card to get the nod over the others at this position (though Jamal Adams is asked to do similar duties in New York). Derwin James was lined up all over the field from deep safety, to in the box, to at linebacker, and both corner positions, throughout multiple games, and he played each with high proficiency too…a true testament to his exceptional movement problem solving skill.
One of the NFL’s most improved movers was certainly Eddie Jackson who anchored the backend of one of the NFL’s most skillful defenses. For his efforts, he leapfrogs Adams and a whole host of on-the-cusp-of-our-list safeties to find himself on the 2nd Team. Though he isn’t quite asked to have the same versatility as James and Adams do for their units, Jackson showed out all season long with game changing range and consistency. Speaking of Adams, he has tremendous awareness of where he is in time and space and this allows him to play ‘unhinged’ free of constraint to fly around and do what he does best; make plays…wherever, and however, they need to be made.
General Movement Qualities Evaluated: Rapid acceleration, Top end speed (mechanics & ability), Curvilinear running ability (mechanics & speed), Open-field decision-making, Movement strategy use in chaotic conditions,
First Team: Andre Roberts (Jets)
Second Team: Tarik Cohen (Bears)
Third Team: Desmond King (Chargers)
Due to what’s been happening in recent years with the lack of kickoffs even being returned, this season I elected to put kick returners and punt returners in the same category for our All-Movement Team. On the 1st Team for the first time ever, we find the Pro Bowler from the New York Jets, Andre Roberts. Roberts was the only player to record both a punt return touchdown and a kick return touchdown in 2018 while averaging 14.1 yards per punt return and 29.4 yards per kick return. To do so, Roberts relies on linear speed mechanics and has a unique understanding of his affordances for action when hitting the gas pedal to pass through gaps that exist in special teams situations. The most innovative problem solver of the bunch is the man also known across the internet as “the Human Joystick.” One doesn’t simply get the nickname by following the straight and narrow when it comes to solving movement problems in front of him. Instead, it comes from creating when it seems like an entire coverage unit has you surrounded and dead to rights. If you’ve watched the Chicago Bears over the last two seasons, especially when they are in punt return formations, you know that this encompasses the dynamic playmaker named Tarik Cohen. Rounding out this group of returners is second year cornerback and return specialist for the Los Angeles Chargers, Desmond King. Though he’s also begun to take positive steps forward as a slot cornerback, King’s movement skill has also really shined at times especially as a punt returner. He has short space movement problem solving capabilities which runs through the execution of crisp, sharp football-specific footwork to navigate through tight traffic.