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Carter Coughlin: 5 plays to be excited about and 2 to worry about

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Was Carter Coughlin the steal of the Giants’ draft?

Reese’s Senior Bowl
Carter Coughlin
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The New York Giants disappointed many of their fans by not addressing the linebacker position early in the 2020 NFL Draft. There were certainly opportunities and talented players available, but the team decided to go in other directions.

At least until late in the third day. Starting in the sixth round, the Giants went on a binge at the linebacker position, drafting linebackers with four of their last five picks. The team used the first of four picks in the seventh round on Carter Coughlin, an EDGE and linebacker out of Minnesota.

That pick turned out to be the Giants’ biggest steal of the draft, according to the Big Blue View big board. We gave Coughlin a fifth-round grade, and getting him in the seventh presents a potentially great value. So, what kind of player did the Giants draft?

Play 1) Minnesota at Iowa

First quarter, 12:50, Third-and-9

The first thing I wanted to take note of is that Coughlin just does not have the typical profile of a seventh-round pick. Generally speaking, players drafted that late fall into one of three categories. They either have a good athletic upside but limited polish and production, are productive but athletically limited, or were buried on a bad team.

Minnesota emerged as a force in the race for the College Football Playoffs and was a team to be feared. Coughlin, meanwhile, was both productive (22.5 sacks and 40 tackles for a loss in 4 years), and athletic with a 4.5 second 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical jump, and a 10-foot-6 broad jump. He isn’t athletically ideal, but as far as linear athleticism goes, he is on the right side of the bell curve.

And here you can see that get-off and linear athleticism at work. Coughlin is lined up as the right defensive end (though he’s in a 2-point stance), and gets a great jump off the ball. He is one of the first players moving and gets upfield in a hurry. He transfers speed into power, bulling the left tackle back despite giving up nearly 100 pounds of body weight. Coughlin comes off the block with an inside move and nearly gets the sack but loses contain and Nate Stanley is nearly able to run for the first down. That outcome is far from ideal, but the raw explosiveness on display is exciting.

Play 2) Minnesota at Iowa

First quarter, 12:09, Fourth-and-1

For our next play we, fittingly, go to the very next play to get a look Coughlin’s potential versatility. Talking with Invictus, he mentioned that Coughlin could be a “poor man’s Zack Baun,” and plays like this show why.

On this play Minnesota opts to rush three and drop eight into coverage when Iowa shows an empty set on fourth-and-1. Coughlin is once again lined up on the defensive right in a 2-point stance and initially fakes a rush, momentarily drawing the attention of the left tackle. But instead he quickly bails on the rush and retreats into a zone coverage.

Coughlin does a good job of getting back into his zone, and while he doesn’t have natural feet and hips for coverage, he shows enough ability to play in space. He shows enough awareness to know that there isn’t anybody in his zone, but does identify the wide receiver running the quick 10-yard comeback route up the sideline. He adjusts his positioning to constrict the potential passing lane and get into a position where he might be able to tip the ball if it goes his way.

It doesn’t, and Stanley ultimately targets the tight end targeting the middle of the field. The ball is ultimately dropped and Minnesota takes over on downs.

Play 3) Minnesota at Purdue

First quarter, 2:08, Third-and-14

For our third play we get another look at Coughlin’s versatility. This time he lines up as a true linebacker, showing pressure as a potential A-gap blitzer.

A-gap blitzes are scary for an offense as they have the potential to not only generate quick pressure in a quarterback’s face, but also quickly disrupt a blocking scheme. In this case it is another fake as Coughlin drops into another shallow coverage zone.

He initially picks up the running back who releases into the flat as a receiving option, but immediately switches from coverage to pursuit as the quarterback breaks contain. We already saw that Coughlin can play in space as a linebacker as well as downhill as an EDGE, and this is further evidence that he has the awareness and mental processing to be a candidate to transition to more of an off-ball role.

Play 4) Minnesota at Purdue

Fourth quarter, 6:16, Second-and-3

Speaking of mental processing, I wanted to bring this play up to show how players who are able to process quickly can disrupt the pass even when they can’t get to the passer.

Coughlin gets a free run into the backfield on this play, immediately signaling that something is up, and Coughlin knows that the offense is running a screen without even having to look. This is a quick-hitting play designed to get the ball to a runner in space with blockers in front for easy yards, a first down, and hopefully a touchdown.

There really isn’t time for any pass rusher to get to the quarterback, but it’s also tough to flight the ball to the receiver. The quarterback is throwing off-platform, the timing has to be just right for the play to work, and there isn’t room to put much air under the ball.

Whether it is by accident or design, Carter is rushing up the throwing lane and quickly identifies the screen pass. He is able to get his hands up to tip the pass.

Play 5) Minnesota at Iowa

Fourth quarter, 14:27, First-and-10

Coughlin lines up as the outside linebacker on the defensive left or offensive right. He’s matched up on the linebacker and does a good job of flowing with him as he takes the hand-off. He keeps an eye on the ball and maintains his gap discipline as the backside defender on what looks like an outside zone run to the left.

It’s a good thing he does, as the offense runs a reverse.

Coughlin is able to keep track of the ball as it changes hands, and immediately switches from backside contain to frontside contain, getting up-field and taking on a block from Tristan Wirfs. Coughlin isn’t able to completely defeat the block, but he is able to keep Wirfs from locking in and taking him out of the play. He also manages to keep contain and not give up the edge, forcing the receiver to stop his feet and redirect.

Because Coughlin was able to stay disciplined, keep contain, and hustle through the whole play, it gave the rest of the Minnesota defense a chance to rally to the ball and get the tackle for a loss. If Coughlin over-committed to following the initial ball carrier, lost his gap discipline, or loafed when the ball went away from him, this would have been a big gain for Iowa.

Things To Worry About

Play 1) Minnesota at Iowa

First quarter, 2:23, First-and-10

One of the reasons Coughlin slipped in the draft is that he simply lacks ideal measurables for an EDGE at the NFL level. He is undersized at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, with 31 3/8-inch arms, and that puts him at a severe disadvantage against NFL blockers.

In this case he simply gets overpowered. He doesn’t have the length or play strength necessary to set a firm edge or shed the block. The defensive tackle is able to shed his block and make the play, but Coughlin is simply a non-factor. He will be much better used as a pursuit player at the NFL, reinforcing the notion that if he has a path onto the field as a defender, it will be as an off-ball linebacker who is used as a space player as well as a pass rushing option.

Play 2) Minnesota vs. Auburn (Outback Bowl)

Second quarter, 4:28, Third-and-5

Earlier I noted that Coughlin has an above average athletic profile and good linear explosiveness. Well, linear explosiveness can be a great trait in a pass rusher, blitzer, or run defender. But at some point players have to be able to corner, and that was something Coughlin struggled with on tape.

Here we see him have issues with bending the edge to pressure the passer. He initially beats Prince Tega Wanogho off the snap. He is able to get under Wanogho’s pads and beat him around the edge. This is a sure-fire pressure or quarterback hit, if not a sack.

Unfortunately, Coughlin’s feet go out from under him at the top of his rush as he tries to bend back into the pocket. He lacks the lower body bend and flexibility to maintain good contact with the ground while carrying his momentum around the edge. It’s the thing that sets elite pass rushers apart from good ones. In this case, the Giants will likely have to be careful if they want to scheme Coughlin as a rusher, either using him as a wide-9 rusher or up the middle as an A or B-gap blitzer. Either option would give him straighter paths to the quarterback.

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