The Falcons traded their sixth and seventh round picks to move up and grab Marquis Spruill in the fifth round. It's difficult to say what the expectations will be for him in 2014, but going forward I think the Falcons believe he has a legitimate shot to be a special teams worker and quality backup at worst. Here's a closer look at Spruill.
Spruill has excellent field awareness, a key component of any successful inside linebacker's game. Watch the clip from 27 seconds in to see him watching the backfield, managing to stay right near the middle of the line without getting tangled up by blockers and intercepting the running back as soon as he hits the hole, bringing him down for a minimal gain.
If you want to see how he combines that awareness with quality strength, athleticism and superb balance, you're looking for the play beginning at 1:14. There, Spruill crosses once again diagnoses the run play with startling quickness, scything through the middle of the line and knocking down a blocker expecting a defender from another direction. The running back attempts to juke, but Spruill already has a long arm on him, stays with the tackle and brings him down for a significant loss.
His explosion to the ball, instincts and sound tackling make him a nice for special teams early on, where Mike Smith is almost certainly going to love Spruill.
Really, when we're talking about how Spruill's going to find success at the next level, that awareness is the integral component. He's an above average athlete, I'd argue, with sound tackling form and the ability to withstand blocks and keep rolling. While the majority of scouting reports you'll read tend to ding Spruill for his instincts, I think he's got excellent ones. A highlight reel is obviously not the best way to show you this, because it's cherrypicking Spruill's best plays, and nothing you see here is going to stun you. Time and time again, though, you see Spruill tracking the ball, arriving and delivering a hit, something the Falcons as a defense have struggled with for a while now. There's one caveat here, which will get to in a minute.
Spruill's upside is tough to define. No one's sure if his frame can support a lot more weight, and his pretty good functional strength won't be as much of an asset in the NFL. He's a quality athlete but doesn't necessarily move side-to-side well and isn't lightning fast by any stretch of the imagination.
The biggest issue I saw when watching Spruill was the same on a fly faces when dive-bombing a spider web. When Spruill gets tangled up he finds it extremely difficult to disengage, and that will be the case more often at the NFL level. All his best plays come when he's able to catch a blocker off-guard, comes in at an angle or blows by them entirely, and again and again you see a competent blocker take him out of the play for crucial seconds at a time. It's worth noting this is the same thing Paul Worrilow was and is still being dinged for, so despite my early hunch, there's no guarantee he's going to beat Worrilow out for a role.
The very first play in this clip shows you what I mean:
Consistency is the big issue with his field awareness, as sometimes Spruill becomes a bit too eager to make a play and betrays his own instincts. When he's patient enough to diagnose the play, good things happen, but the Falcons will need to coach that eagerness out of him. His momentum sometimes carries him past the play.
We turned to Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, SB Nation's Syracuse site, for more on Spruill. Sean Farrell was kind enough to answer our questions and share some relevant links.
Dave: What would you say are Spruill's greatest strength and greatest weakness? I know it's a dumb, obvious question, but scouting reports I've seen are all over the map on the guy.
Sean: Strength: Dependability
Spruill was a four-year starter at Syracuse who didn't miss a game in his college career. He's a reliable tackler and, on occasion, will delivering a crushing hit. I thought he got better and better as his college career progressed. In his senior year, he posted his best numbers for tackles (66.0) and tackles for loss (14.5) despite transitioning from the Big East to the ACC. He was a good leader and team captain for the Orange. As a late-round pick, Spruill provides value to the Falcons through his versatility. He played both the inside and outside linebacker positions. In the NFL, he says he is willing to play at nickel back or serve as a special teamer.
As productive as Spruill was in college, at 6-1 and 231 pounds, he isn't as big as the traditional NFL linebacker. Of the six outside linebackers drafted in the fifth round this year, he was last in height and second to last in weight. That's not to say these measurables are the only predictor of NFL success. GMs, scouts and coaches all have their own criteria. But, I decided to check out where Spruill stands against a larger sample size of players. I found an ESPN data set showing combine averages from 2008-2012. It's important to realize that this compares Spruill to linebackers who were high draft picks, not just fifth-rounders.
As I said before, I don't think stats and drill results provide the full picture. But these numbers suggest that Spruill may struggle with the size and quickness of the NFL.
Dave: Watching him play, I was struck by how good Spruill's instincts are and how well he seems to be able to diagnose a developing play? Is that something you've seen, and how well do you think it will translate to the next level?
Sean: Absolutely. The cliché you'll hear so often is "he has a nose for the ball" and it applies with Spruill. The combination of his closing speed and his ability to get to the ball carrier through traffic made him an explosive playmaker at Syracuse. His 41.0 career tackles for loss, good for second most in school history, illustrate this point.
The two stats I mentioned before - the 20 yard shuttle and 3-cone drill - measure lateral speed and change of direction. I was somewhat surprised that Spruill scored below the average because I thought he covered a lot of territory at Syracuse. This is where his instincts can come into play. If he can position himself well - like he did in college - then side-to-side motion isn't as relevant. By using his north-south quickness (shown through the solid 40 time) and his closing speed, Spruill can translate into a useful NFL player.
Dave: Anything interesting we should know about Spruill the person?
Sean: After high school, he played for one year at Fork Union Military School, a boarding school in Virginia. Wake-up calls were at 6:00 in the morning. He had to hang his clothes and make his bed a specific way. It paid off. As a junior in high school, his team went 0-10. He entered Fork Union two years later with no college offers. He left as a Syracuse University recruit. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fork Union link:
ESPN combine averages:
The Bottom Line
Spruill projects as a special teams ace right off the back, as well as a solid backup for 3-4 inside linebacker. If he can adapt to the NFL, work within the limitations of his athleticism, gain some weight and not overpursue, however, he could eventually blossom into a solid starter for the Falcons. There is work ahead, but I hope he gets there.
Thoughts on Spruill?