It’s a changing NFL.
I won’t wax poetic on today’s spread-style, pass-oriented league—you’ve heard the spiel six ways from Sunday. Just reach back into the Chip Kelly years you’ve endeavored to wipe from your memory and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Spread ‘em out and run ‘em up.
The chess match of offensive and defensive coevolution, responsible for now-household concepts like the zone blitz or Run and Shoot offense, likewise lead to the spread offense. A direct descendant of the Run and Shoot mentality, the spread offense worked in concepts like the read option, triple option, and even run/pass option (RPO) to respond to the defensive alignment and always attack a weakness. The spread offense quite sincerely spread the defense before isolating a defender in space and forcing him to choose between two evils.
Like the predator and the prey, the defense had to learn how to combat the spread offense, or else get eaten alive. Base 4-3 packages decreased in frequency, replaced by speedier nickel packages (4-2-5) that covered more grown. Pattern-matching concepts in the secondary frequently neutralized multiple WR sets/route combinations.
Linebackers became lighter, more agile, as they needed to play in space more so than through traffic. They needed the athleticism to mirror running backs in the flats, the frame to match up with tight ends down the seam, and the astuteness to react to multiple potential ball carriers.
Players like Luke Kuechly in Carolina and Sean Lee in Dallas garnered national acclaim for their versatility from the linebacker spot. ‘Moneybackers’, or safeties-turned-linebackers, like Mark Barron from the LA Rams and Deone Bucannon of Arizona came into being solely as a response to spread offense threats. Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and Atlanta’s Keanu Neal are two of the most-feared safeties in the league, because they can come up and hit like ‘backers.
In the 2017 class, players like Jabrill Peppers, Paul Magloire, Tony Conner, and Josh Harvey-Clemons all had ‘tweener’ potential that was discussed continuously when considering their draft stock
And with all but Peppers on the board, Howie and Co. went for a player about whom I hadn’t heard a whisper: With the 184th overall pick, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Nate Gerry, Safety, Nebraska.
And they immediately moved him to linebacker.
It isn’t a new position for Gerry: he came into Nebraska as a linebacker and started there as a freshman before moving to safety in 2014. However, Gerry’s 2013 tape shows anything but a run-of-the-mill linebacker. He moved out into space with tight ends and running backs on passing downs—he even played the shallow corner against trips formations. He took MLB reps, keying run fits and blitzing every gap from A to D. By 2016, he ran as a single-high safety, and tracked tight ends and running backs when they went out for a pass. No matter what Gerry was asked to do, no matter where he was lined up on the field, he showed up and he did it.
Coming in to the NFL Combine at 6’2 and 218 lbs, Gerry fits right into the size parameters of those ‘moneybackers’: a Deone Bucannon (6’1, 211) or a Mark Barron (6’1, 216). But even more ‘traditional’ linebackers have started finding success at lower weights: Telvin Smith out of Jacksonville plays around 220 lbs, and he’s one of the rangiest LBs in the game. Christian Kirksey, the third-year standout ‘backer in Cleveland, tips the scales at about 230—he was third in the league in tackles last season. Both Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks play at or below 240 lbs.
Philadelphia calls Gerry a linebacker, but a long look at his skill set shows that he lacks the necessary tools to be a three-down player at the position. A moneybacker, then? Well, he doesn’t have the athleticism to make a living there either. He’s a fifth-round selection—the limitations are there.
However, a consideration of his tape and the needs of the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster carves out a potential niche for Nate Gerry, should he play to his potential. Let’s get into his film to understand the player, and then we’ll zoom out to his role on the roster.
Run Fits, Size Disadvantages, and Instincts
Usually, your lightest linebacker plays the WILL position in a 4-3 defense. Runs often go away from him, and therefore so do blockers—he can scrape across the defense, tracking the ball carrier without worrying about offensive linemen the way a MIKE or SAM might.
Here, from a WILL alignment, freshman LB Nate Gerry scrapes across the top, tracking UCLA RB Paul Perkins as he presses the line of scrimmage. As a tackler, Gerry struggles coming to balance and often lunges at his target. It’s a feast or famine technique that led to his high incidence of missed tackles—here, he snags Perkins’ leg and throws him down for a loss.
This is a relatively simple read for Gerry. Once the weak side defensive tackle crosses the face of the right guard, to attack the weak side A-gap, Gerry’s responsibility is filling to the strong side while maintaining position on the cutback lane: the weak side B-gap.
But Gerry has the instincts and processing skill to maintain his run fits through much more complicated reads. Here, sophomore safety Nate Gerry climbs into the box and initially moves with his keys: the running back and weak side guard both show action to the strong side. But this is a QB counter trey look: a nifty little play that’s meant to catch Gerry, the effective WLB, over-pursuing.
See how quickly Gerry gets moving back to the weak side? He recognizes the pullers and QB action almost immediately, and it allows him to gain outside leverage on the pulling H-back (Maxx Williams). Despite the yardage gained, this is a good play by Gerry.
You can see, however, how his physical limitations hurt him. Williams has a good 30+ pounds on Gerry, and though he takes on the block with solid form, he can neither squeeze the hole down and force the runner to bounce outside, nor can he disengage to try to make the tackle. A 240 lb LB would have more success.
This size disadvantage necessitated Nebraska’s relocation of Gerry to safety, I’d assume. From there, his lack of bulk and pedestrian agility would be masked. His strengths—linear aggressiveness and instincts--could be highlighted. When projecting Gerry’s role in Philadelphia’s offense, giving him a full-field view of an offense and freeing him to attack should be the priority for Jim Schwartz.
From this single-high look, Gerry processes something—whether from tape, from earlier in the game, or from his gut—that tells him to drive on the QB in this read-option look. He comes screaming down the field, in front of his own teammates, to drop the ball carrier for a gain far shorter than what it could have been otherwise. Suspect tackling shows up once again, paired with a poor angle—but the instincts on Gerry are undeniable.
Physicality, Quickness, and, um, Instincts
On tape, Gerry isn’t nearly the player in coverage that he is against the run. The production is undeniable—Pro Football Focus loved Gerry in coverage—but his linear athleticism and aggressive tendencies can get him in trouble.
This play against Oregon is an interesting study. It’s only a two man route concept—and both WRs end up rather close to one another. Gerry, a senior playing safety in a 3-high look (Nebraska only has 10 defenders on the field for this play?) is responsible for the area of the field in which the receivers and the ball eventually end up.
It’s a nice break-up, but Gerry seems out of position. That’s his deep-third—no receiver should get behind him. Perhaps he was swallowed up by the play action in the backfield, wanting to drive downhill, and his lack of hip mobility allowed the receiver to climb on top of him.
Or perhaps Gerry recognized that he would have help over the top, with only two receivers against a 3-high look, and decided to undercut the route and let the middle safety play over the top. Perhaps it was an instinctual, heady play by a defensive captain and veteran player. Either way, a better ball from Dakota Prukop leads to six.
Was Gerry overlapping zones and molding his coverage to the play, or was he caught out of position and stuck in the mud? I lean the latter way. He lacks flexibility and short-area agility, and it regularly hampers him in pass coverage.
He’s in solid position, but once the receiver declares a release, Gerry labors to turn upfield and run. He’s burned the moment the wideout sticks his foot in the ground.
This is, of course, a freshman linebacker playing dime cornerback. Placing Gerry closer to the line of scrimmage forces him to handle agility in space, while moving him to safety allowed him to play in straight lines and worry less about changing direction.
From his safety alignment, Gerry could attack the catch point and lay the wood on exposed receivers. He fails to get his head around on this play, which is worthy of concern, but he arrives on time and plays the wide receiver’s hands, forcing the incompletion.
Gerry’s Role In Philadelphia’s Defense
Philadelphia calls Gerry a linebacker, but he doesn’t have the short-area quickness or mass to hold up that close to the line of scrimmage. If he’s in the box, a lineman can wash him out; if he’s in tight coverage, his poor quicks make him a target. Gerry’s strengths, from either a safety or linebacker alignment, comes from his quick mental processing, plus instincts, and overall physicality and aggressiveness.
When considering where this puzzle piece fits, the soon-departing Mychal Kendricks is the first thought that comes to mind. The aggressive WLB never found his fit in multiple Philly defenses, and his name floated on the trade wires every year for the past few seasons because of it. Seeing roughly a third of the snaps last season, his part-time role could be filled by Gerry come 2018, whose instincts in the run game would be an immediate improvement. To play from this alignment consistently, Gerry would need to add mass and prove he can handle NFL offensive linemen.
I also expect Schwartz to find ways to align Gerry more than five yards off the line, especially in nickel and dime subpackages. This alignment allows him to fly downhill and fill against the run, drop into either a short or deep zone, and play off-man coverage. It maximizes his versatility and masks the defensive look pre-snap.
Playing Gerry in this alignment allows Malcolm Jenkins, a premier slot defender, to line up at the line of scrimmage more often. Last year, Philadelphia struggled to get consistent safety play from Chris Maragos and Jaylen Watkins, after slot CB Ron Brooks went down and forced Jenkins into the slot. Should Jenkins see reps as a slot defender again this season, Gerry is handily the best run defender between himself, Maragos, and Watkins, and likely plays the pass better than Maragos as well.
Gerry shouldn’t start for Philadelphia in 2017—if that’s happening, things are not going well for the Eagles. But his ability to play multiple roles from multiple alignments will add wrinkles to Philadelphia’s defense that can confuse quarterbacks and eliminate the match-up problems caused by the spread offense. With questionable depth at both linebacker and safety, a role on this defense is in reach for Nate Gerry.