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49ers draft picks tape study: Arik Armstead

With their first-round pick, the 49ers selected Arik Armstead, the presumed heir apparent to Justin Smith at defensive end. We go to the tape to see what the former-Oregon defender brings to the table.

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Trent Baalke proved every single mock draft on the planet correct on Thursday night when he made Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead the San Francisco 49ers’ first-round selection.

You’re surely familiar with Armstead’s size. Standing tall at 6–7 and weighing in just a shade under 300 pounds, to borrow a line from SB Nation’s Stephen White, he’s a member of the All-Bus team; you want Armstead sauntering off the bus first when you roll into an opposing stadium. Armstead’s behemoth frame has drawn frequent comparisons to Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell. More importantly for the 49ers, many making those comparisons believe Campbell is where Armstead’s upside lies on the field.

Opinions on Armstead in the pre-draft process have been all over the board. Most agree on the fact that he’s an incredibly raw prospect with immense physical talent. But where things start to split is how much Armstead can develop that raw ability. Bleacher Report’s Cian Fahey sees Armstead as a future star; Pro Footall Focus landed on the opposite end of the spectrum and doesn’t believe he showed enough in college to warrant a first-round pick; Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar lands somewhere in the middle.

After studying Armstead’s college tape,1 you can certainly see the appeal in taking a player with his physical talent. That said, Armstead has a long way to go before he’ll be ready to compete at a high level in the NFL.

Where He Wins

Given his massive size, it makes sense that Armstead most often wins with strength and power, rather than quickness or athleticism. He’s got strong, violent hands and when he’s able to keep his pad level low and extend those long arms into the chest of the offensive lineman, he’s capable of driving blockers backward with relative ease. When all of those elements come together — as it did on the following play in the playoff semifinal game against Florida State — you get an impressive display that resembles something out of Justin Smith’s repertoire.

Aligned over the guard as the left defensive end, Armstead gets a good jump off the ball — something that he struggles with on most plays — and quickly gets into the chest of the right guard. His initial punch knocks the lineman back on his heels. From there, Armstead muscles his way back to the quarterback, one-arming the blocker right into Jameis Winston’s lap. Armstead isn’t quite able to grab ahold of Winston before he escapes the pocket, but he disrupts the play, forces Winston to scramble, and ultimately into a throwaway that ends the drive.

Though Armstead rarely looked quite that dominant in bullying an opposing lineman on his way to the quarterback, there will similar examples of his ability to win with power in the National Championship game against Ohio State.

Armstead does a solid job staying low, again extending this long arms into the chest of the right guard and controlling him with the bull rush. This movement created by Armstead is enough to deter Cardale Jones from stepping up, opting instead to bail backward and outside the pocket. When Jones looses control of the football while attempting to get rid of it, Armstead is able to finish the play by beating the Buckeyes’ offensive linemen to the spot and recovering the loose ball.

Armstead’s power and strong hands also surfaced in his best work against the run.

Lining up once again as the left DE in a three-man front, Armstead is a little high after the snap here with his helmet clearly above the right tackle’s. However, he’s able to overcome that lack of leverage on this play thanks to those violent hands. Armstead bench presses the tackle, knocking him off balance, and opens up an inside lane to the ballcarrier. Armstead successfully disengages from the block and works down the line scrimmage to stop the running back for no gain.

For how much draftniks have lauded Armstead’s upside, largely due to his atleticism and physical traits, there were very few positive plays where speed, quickness, or change-of-direction ability was the root cause of the play’s success. There were flashes that gave you a glimpse of what could be, with Armstead showing off a quick, compact spin move…

…as well as a swim move reminiscent of something we’ve seen from Aldon Smith

…but those flashes didn’t come around often. That could be at least partially due to the scheme used by Oregon’s defense. You’ll notice that in each of the GIFs above, Armstead was matched up one-on-one with an offensive lineman. In the three games that I studied, that didn’t happen with much regularity, especially when rushing the passer. That was due to Oregon’s incredibly annoying habit of sending only three defenders after the quarterback, leaving Armstead and one of his teammates to be easily neutralized with double teams. For a player possessing his physical tools, it was mildly concerning that Armstead never once threatened to defeat one of those double teams, but it does help to somewhat explain his lackluster production as a pass rusher.

Where He Needs To Improve

Leverage. Leverage. Leverage. For a player of Armstead’s size on the interior of the defense, it all starts with leverage. Keeping his pad level low and playing with the proper leverage might be the biggest determinant of Armstead’s success in the NFL. Because as powerful as he appears at times, even the most mediocre NFL offensive lineman will put him on his ass if they can get underneath his pads.

Because of Armstead’s inconsistency winning at the point of attack, teams had no qualms with running the ball directly at him — in fact, many of the biggest runs Oregon gave up in the games I watched went in Armstead’s direction.

Armstead is again lined up in the left defensive end spot, and the Longhorns have a power run called to his side of the field. The double team stands Armstead up almost immediately before proceeding to move him several yards to the inside. With Armstead out of the picture, a sizable hole opens up for the running back, who’s able to pick up first-down yardage.

It didn’t always take a double team to move Armstead off the spot in the run game either.

Going back to the National Championship game — some have mentioned this game as Armstead’s best, but Ohio State repeatedly found success running the ball his direction — we see a similar power blocking run scheme from the Buckeyes. The guard is forced to change his assignment from doubling Armstead with the right tackle to having to crash inside due to the blitzing linebacker. But the tackle has no issues handling Armstead one-on-one, taking him to the ground, creating a mass of bodies in the middle, and opening up a massive hole for Jones to run through.

These type of plays were far from isolated incidents. Armstead was repeatedly moved off the spot by a guard or tackle on a down block during his three postseason games. And for as much trouble as Armstead had dealing with gap-scheme blocks such as those shown in the two GIFs above, he might have struggled even more against zone runs to his side.

Armstead repeatedly gave up the edge and allowed himself to be sealed inside. Often, he would try to get around the defender with an inside move rather than fighting to regain outside leverage and force the ballcarrier back toward the rest of the defense. That led to some big plays for opposing offenses, such as this one from the Texas game:

And though Armstead isn’t the end man on the line of scrimmage on this next play, you see a very similar action that leads to a very similar result against Florida State:

Even on plays in which Armstead is able to control the offensive lineman with the violent hands and strength we highlighted in the previous section, he still ends up getting himself blocked because he doesn’t capitalize on his advantage. At times, Armstead seems more interested in imposing his will on the blocker than he does in actually making the play. Armstead is routinely unable to locate the ballcarrier, and when he does it’s either too late or he can’t disengage from the block in time to make the tackle.

Armstead is aligned in his typical left defensive end position in Oregon’s 3–4 defense. He stays low, violenty extending his arms into the chest of the right guard, jarring him backward in the process. At this point, Armstead is in complete control of the situation and can essentially do what he wants with that guard. With the run coming his way, he needs to hold the point of attack until the running back declares his intentions. Worst case, he forces the back to stretch the play wide. If the back tries to weave through traffic on the interior, Armstead should be able to rid himself of the blocker and make the play.

What Armstead actually does proves to be costly. His attempt to swim inside takes him out of position prematurely and gives the back a clear rushing lane. A play that could’ve been stopped for minimal gain goes for 27 yards.

Similar problems arise when Armstead is rushing the passser, where he’ll often look paralyzed after getting control of the blocker.

Armstead has kicked inside on this play against the Seminoles. With another pass rusher occupying the tackle to his left, Armstead is presented with one of those rare one-on-one opportunities that he should be winning more often than not. Armstead gets the guard back on his heels and in a position where he should be able to rid himself of the block and hunt down the quarterback. Instead, he never really makes an effort to shed the block and just keeps pushing the guard backward. Don’t get me wrong — there’s value in being able to get push in the middle of the pocket. But these are situations where Armstead should be getting more out of his superior physical tools, and actually making plays. More often than not, that simply doesn’t happen.

The Bottom Line

Potential and upside can be dangerous words, especially for a prospect that doesn’t posses an elite trait he can rely on while the rest of his game develops. Organizations often fall into the trap of thinking they can mold a player with immense physical tools into a player capable of integrating those tools into applicable football skills, but that proposition often fails.

Many have compared the reaction to Armstead’s selection to the reaction most fans had following Aldon Smith’s selection in the 2011 Draft. Smith was also considered to be a raw, incomplete player coming out of college. The difference is that, while Smith’s ability as a complete player at outside linebacker was questioned, his ability to rush the passer was not and he had the production to back that up. Smith finished his freshman season at Missouri with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss — both of which were 10th-best in the NCAA. That ability to create negative plays, especially as a pass rusher, allowed Smith to get on the field early and make an impact while the rest of his game developed.

I’m not sure Armstead possesses that one special trait that will get him on the field early. He’s all potential at this stage; every single area of his game needs work. Even when it comes to areas of his games that are relative strengths, such as his powerful hands and initial punch, he’s not consistently able to utilize those traits to make plays. In fact, Armstead didn’t make many plays in college, period. To this point in his football career, he’s been one of those guys that’s consistently almost making plays, but rarely actually making them.

We don’t know to what extent Jim Tomsula will still be involved with the defensive line, but Armstead will undoubtedly benefit from having a coach that appears to be genuinely more concerned with the individual development of players rather than scheme. Tomsula and his staff might very well be able to harness Armstead’s physical tools into a quality football player two or three years down the road, but he’s going to have to be a miracle worker to make it happen by September.

  1. only had three games available for Armstead: the 2013 Alamo Bowl game vs. Texas, and the two 2014 college football playoff games vs. Florida State and Ohio State. While I don’t think three games is enough to get a complete picture of a player, it’s what we have to work with at this point.