It probably hasn’t escaped the attention of many Panthers fans that Thomas Davis is not going to be with the Panthers in 2019 – and while Shaq Thompson is expected to slot into the #2 linebacker role alongside Luke Kuechly with second-year ‘backer Jermaine Carter, Jr. as the #3, along with the pending free agency of David Mayo this could create some opening further down the depth chart this offseason.
Among other things that have happened since the season ended, rumors have emerged suggesting the Panthers might look to incorporate more 3-4 looks into their defense in 2019, especially on passing downs, and while it would be assumed that Luke and Shaq would start inside, with David Mayo a pending free agent, the Panthers could look to add some depth at inside linebacker.
If the Panthers are going to play more 3-4 snaps, this opens the door to players who might struggle in space in a 4-3, but before we dive into what David Long has to offer, I’d invite you to check out the following: my inside linebacker big board, my outside linebacker big board and the accompanying podcast for Linebacker Week where Dan Kreso and I discuss the entire board, Long included.
Now let’s take a look at why Long may be a great fit if the Panthers plan to feature more 3-4 snaps.
The core skill for a run defender is tackling, and this is something of a mixed bag for Long, as his tendency to go very low does have some positives:
But it also leads to too many missed tackles:
This is something that can be worked on, as the biggest issue is his tendency to dive towards ball carriers rather than entering the tackle on his feet, but NFL teams will be aware of this and should add a slight note of caution. However, despite some concerns about his tackling, there is a lot to like about his run defense. First, and something we’ll come back to a bit more later, he does a good job of avoiding blocks and hitting his gap, such as on the following play where he dips and bends around the blocker to remain in his gap:
This is something he also does effectively when asked to set the edge:
But, of course, defenders can’t always avoid contact, and Long uses his arms well to keep blockers at bay allowing him to make the tackle should the ball carrier come down his gap:
As well as allowing him to stack and shed when necessary:
The other thing I noticed on tape was that Long used a nice spin move to work back to a gap when the blocker looked to push him wide:
This is never going to be a core skill trait, but is another arrow in his quiver when it comes to be an effective run defender. All this speaks well to his ability to work as an inside run defender, but what happens when teams look to run outside the hashes, thereby stretching the defense laterally?
While he probably won’t shock anybody at the Combine, Long has the speed to cover the breadth of the field effectively, as can be seen on both of the following plays:
One concern with Long’s run defense, however, is his gap discipline, and while it wasn’t a persistent issue, when teams looked to pull blockers in front of him, he had a tendency to try and dive an inside gap rather than pursuing to the edge:
On the second play, Long nearly makes the tackle for a loss – but when he isn’t able to do so, this leaves a lot of rushing room where he should have been, with backside defenders not able to cover the gap. This is something that NFL teams will want to probe in interviews, as it was mistakes like this that cost the Panthers at times this past season. However, what this second play also hints at is one of the real positives about Long’s run defense on tape; his ability to shoot a gap.
This is where Long is at his best, when he has a gap and is able to just pursue to the ball through it:
Even when it isn’t him that makes the tackle, what he is able to do is force runners back the other way, hopefully into the arms of his teammates:
This is particularly important in a 3-4, where the linebackers are tasked with a great portion of the run defense and Long’s ability to be a disruptive force against the run could be valuable for teams looking to run this type of defense on a consistent basis.
Long isn’t the perfect run defender, and he could do with being more disciplined in terms of both tackling and gap discipline, but he has all the requisite skills to be a good run defender at the NFL level, especially operating as an ILB in a 3-4.
Up Next: Pass Coverage