Thursday, March 10, 2016

2016 Free Agent Profile - Chris Long, DE, St Louis

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 03:  Chris Long #91 of the St. Louis Rams reacts after a play against the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 03: Chris Long #91 of the St. Louis Rams reacts after a play against the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Well, we have had quite a week as we profile potential free agents here on the blog and take a break from the draft for a week. On Monday, I broke down the impressive skills of Lamar Miller, the running back from Miami, and he quickly agreed to terms with Houston as soon as the window went up (4 years/$26 million).

Then, on Tuesday, it was to check and see what Jason Pierre Paul could do after his fireworks injury. Just like Miller, the tape was actually quite impressive. And just like Miller, the ink was hardly dry on the study before he elected to take the 1-year offer from the Giants ($10.5 million) to stay where he has been since his NFL career has begun.  
Today, let's look at Chris Long and see if he can make it all the way to lunch without signing  with someone. Actually, he would probably prefer to do that. The question is whether the Cowboys will get in on this guy -- and from my perspective, whether they should.
Long has been an outstanding player for quite a while. He was the second overall pick in the 2008 draft (behind Jake Long) and from 2010-2013, you could easily say he was in the same class of pass rusher and edge presence that J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Robert Quinn, and DeMarcus Ware were in -- with 41.5 sacks, he was enjoying double-digit sack years one after the next.  
Unfortunately, 2014 and 2015 were not so kind to Long. He suffered an ankle injury that took him off the field for 10 weeks in 2014 and required surgery. Then, in 2015, it was a knee getting hyperextended that cost him almost all of six weeks of action. He went from playing over 800 snaps a season to about 350 per season in the last two years.  Even when healthy, he was now part of a rotation that would keep his snaps around 40. And with a cap number that was around $14 million, it did not shock the world to see the Rams let him go before they moved to 2016.
So is he on the downside of his career? Well, he turns 31 this month and his annual sack totals have gone from 13 to 11.5 to 8.5 to one to three in the past five seasons. He has also made about $85 million in his career to date and no doubt could live off that surplus without playing another snap.
But, many believe that he still has plenty left in his tank. In fact, we have done plenty of studies about how pass rushers age much better than most positions. Somehow, most elite pass rushers can easily shoot past 35 years old and beyond. So, can Chris Long offer the Cowboys what they are looking for? If so, because of how little he has been on the field, the price would be substantially lower than the top prices being thrown around early in free agency. He has three things working against him as he looks for a deal -- 1) age 2) durability 3) productivity.  
Reading stats though is lazy analysis. Let's watch him play and try to get a feel for what the 2015 version of Chris Long brings to the table.  
#91 - Chris Long, 6'3, 268 - DE - 30 years old - St Louis Rams
Long has always been an active pass rusher who can get on the move and find openings to get to the QB. Here against Detroit he is on an inside stunt where he has to avoid some carnage on the way in but eventually gets to Stafford just a moment too late. But, this is Long. A pass rusher that does most of his damage with quickness and movement.  
Great extension with the one arm which is always going to offer more advantage than two as you can now use the leverage to turn them away and get that space you need as a rusher. Then to see him here against the Cardinals dispense of two men on his way to a sack back in Week 4 is quite impressive. This is the week before he hurts his knee in Green Bay. But, this looks like old Chris Long as well.  Very impressive athleticism and a fine motor, of course.  
Oh, did someone ask about his motor? Well, it is a fair question because he has already put $85 million in the bank and even though he has a reputation for running around the field like a wild man, it is fair to ask if that is still the case. I want to show you a few plays here that test that. The pass rush is unsuccessful and the pass is away. Many players now become spectators. I admire a DE that says he is going now to turn and sprint to the secondary to go get in on the play. I think this one demonstrates Chris Long is still willing to do that. Watch No. 91 blur into the play.
The motor is even better here in Seattle. Look at him run like the cop in "Terminator 2." Sometimes the term "motor" is thrown around too easily and we tend to just say it without much thought. I am telling you, many years into his NFL career, Chris Long is still flying to the ball downfield and on this occasion is even causing a fumble from behind from a very unsuspecting WR for the Seahawks. Where did that train come from?
But, here is the important role for a LDE. Can he stay on the run game and make sure that is covered to the strong side? I would say that has never been Long's specialty at just around 270, but he fights pretty hard to the edge. I would certainly like someone with a little more raw power at the snap to disrupt zones to his side, but he does well here to make sure he holds up the play until his reinforcements arrive to shut it down. This is usually not a statistically-measured role. That is why we need to watch him play.
This one is solid, too. Obviously it helps to have Aaron Donald cave the line in on a play like this, but 91 continues down the line and meets the runner at the line of scrimmage to get in on the tackle. Active body and stays in the play doing his job. Not a world beater against the run, but plenty capable -- especially with the lower snap counts.  
I really like this one. Right at the snap he gets some thump to push his man back and then meets the RB right in the hole and ends that play right there. This is one of the flashes that says he can be what you need. I think it is important to recognize that this knee injury took a lot of his flash out of his game. This tape from September looks really strong.
This is from December. I think it is showing you that he is trying to play with an issue and still is plenty twitchy to fake the tackle out of his jock and get right to the play. The RB -- Ameer Abdullah -- who happens to be one of the quicker men on the planet sees Long in his path and is able to shake him to the outside and Long gets frustrated that he can't end that play. But, he forced the runner back inside and kept contain well. I think this play is also pretty promising as most RBs aren't capable of what a rookie like Abdullah can do. Long makes the play on most guys there.
Let's end with more pass rush stuff. This is what you want to see.
Goodness gracious, Aaron Donald is good. But, Long comes off the RT and gets there for half of the sack, as well. Long dips that shoulder under Morgan Moses and keeps driving and eventually gets home and shows that he has a natural array of moves that might not get there quite as fast as they used to, but he sure wouldn't shock anyone to get back to eight sacks or so.
Now, later in the same game, he is flipped over to deal with RT Trent Williams and is able to get up in the pocket and then sit on the play breaking down and pouncing with the second phase of the play where coverage helps the rushers get home. This phase has been where Chris Long has done a lot of damage in his career and he sets up Williams high to then go back underneath him to finish the play.  
Here is his last sack with the Rams of his career. Final week of the season and they leave Long against a tight end on a play where Blaine Gabbart is holding the ball too long. Long gets there by keeping the legs driving and ends the play emphatically.  
Chris Long is at a different stage of his career than he was when he was elite. But the idea that his last two years were a product of being unlucky with a couple football knocks that slowed him down and also being a huge cap number in today's NFL means that he is available at lower prices. How low he gets will likely affect the degree of interest by the Cowboys. But, Long looks active and able in the smaller doses. Would you want him at big money and 65 snaps a game? Probably not.
But, if that market allows them to use him for 50 plays at $5 or $6 million a season for 2-3 years, I wouldn't be shocked to see Long as a real solution for this team at DE. He seems to still have plenty of good football to play if you are willing to take a little risk.

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