Kwon Alexander wasn't as good as you think
Sometimes the hype surrounding a player can take on a life of its own that his entire body of work does not support. MLB Kwon Alexander of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers certainly exceeded many expectations by starting for the Bucs from day one despite being a fourth-round draft choice, but some of the hype and excitement surrounding his performances got a little out of hand.
Alexander was named NFL’s Rookie of the Week twice, as well as the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in Week 8. He made some big plays in his rookie season, but there was a lot of bad to go along with the good, and that seems to be getting glossed over.
Take that award-winning performance against Atlanta in Week 8 as an example. He had six solo tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, and he had another interception on a free play for Matt Ryan that was nullified. If you distill his performance down into three box-score numbers it looked great, but if you start evaluating all 78 snaps he was on the field for, it looks far less impressive.
Between the pick, the pick that never was and the forced fumble on a pass play after the catch, Alexander did grade positively in coverage for that game, but it was far from perfect, or even elite in that area over the entire game. He offset his interception by allowing a touchdown and being beaten for a passer rating of 107.1 on the passes thrown into his coverage. That day, Alexander gave up 68 yards on six catches from just seven targets, and he missed a tackle on a pass to Devonta Freeman.
The story of Alexander’s rookie season is really that for every good thing he did, there were one or two mistakes dragging down his net performance that were less highlighted.
Sometimes these mistakes were physical, and obvious to spot. Alexander missed 27 tackles last season, and remember that as impressive as his raw tackle count was given the fact he missed four games to a suspension, that missed-tackle number might be even more notable given the same lost time. It was one off the NFL lead, and the worst rate in the league among all linebackers. For a player whose strength is supposed to be his skills in coverage, his missed-tackle rate was actually worse in the passing game. He often got into a good position only to fall off the tackle and render all of that positional work pointless.
Take this play against Atlanta as an example:
Missed tackles are obviously bad, but some can be catastrophic. A player has no control over what happens after he misses his man. Maybe the ball carrier takes two more steps before being brought down or slipping in the turf, or maybe somebody else has been pulled out of position behind him and instead of a three-yard pickup, the play suddenly becomes a huge gain or a touchdown. Missed tackles shouldn’t be glossed over just because they are rescued elsewhere by the defense, and a linebacker that misses as many as Alexander did last year is giving the offense a lot of opportunities for big plays.
Alexander was particularly susceptible to play-action passes all season long, and would routinely vacate his zone to shoot up to the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the running play that never was. Take this play from the first game of the season as an example:
Alexander is busy trying to tackle the running back at the line of scrimmage while the pass is flying right past him into the space he just vacated and should be occupying. Marcus Mariota began the season winning Rookie of the Week after completing 13 of 15 pass attempts (86.7 percent) for 209 yards and four touchdowns – a perfect passer rating – and a huge reason for those numbers was the consistently open middle of the field he was staring at because of Alexander.
From the same game, we see Alexander so concerned about Mariota’s run threat on a bootleg that he just abandons TE Delanie Walker crossing the field behind him to end up in no man’s land, despite the fact there are at least two defenders with a better chance of getting to Mariota than he has when he wavers.
But this was his first game of the season, facing a quarterback unusually liable to take off running and complicate matters on the ground, so let’s assume this is as bad as it got for Alexander, and move on to that award-winning performance against the Falcons.
The forced fumble was a great finish to a play, ripping the ball straight out of the hands of Julio Jones and into his own followed by a nice return, but it happened 35 yards down field again because Alexander went AWOL against play action.
I don’t want to take anything away from the forced fumble on the play — staying with it and stripping the ball was a genuinely excellent play from Alexander — but he got help from other Bucs defenders slowing Jones down and making him weave his way through traffic for Alexander to catch up. A misstep from somebody else in the secondary and this could have been a 94-yard touchdown in part because Alexander again bit on play action and was up at the line of scrimmage and not squeezing the throwing window.
The upshot of all of these negative plays is that he graded significantly worse at PFF than the general consensus would indicate. 27 missed tackles is the most we have seen from a linebacker in nine years of grading, and he didn’t play in four games. He might have ability to run with receivers in coverage, but the mental lapses and missed tackles mean he was beaten for a passer rating of 101.6 over the year, surrendering a completion percentage of 83.3 when targeted.
Reasons for Optimism
Alexander finished the season with a PFF rating of just 33.5, lower than every other starting linebacker with significant snaps other than San Francisco’s Michael Wilhoite, because of those mistakes and errors in his game, and in spite of the big plays that he made.
Bear in mind Alexander was a rookie, and simply being on the field as much as he was is an achievement. Only Stephone Anthony played more snaps among rookie linebackers, and Alexander played a greater percentage of his team’s snaps when he was available to play (98.5 percent vs 93.0). There were only four rookie linebackers in the entire league to play in excess of 500 snaps, and even highly touted talents were brought along slowly and asked to play situational roles rather than the every-down job Alexander had in Tampa Bay.
For all the mistakes he made, there were plenty of good plays in his rookie season too, enough that there are reasons for optimism looking forward. Only seven inside linebackers had more +1 graded plays than Alexander this past season, and he had six more than the nearest rookie, Anthony.
In this area, Alexander differentiates himself from other poorly graded young linebackers. Manti Te’o has never quite lived up to his expectations in San Diego, with poor grades in two of his first three seasons and one that closely matches Alexander’s in 2015, but Te’o never made the volume of positive impact plays that Alexander has to demonstrate the potential for improvement. Even in 2015, Alexander more than doubled the number of +1 or better grades of Te’o, who had two years in the league to learn and grow before the season began.
The bottom line is that there is definitely a lot to like about Kwon Alexander. Any time a fourth-round rookie can start from day one he has exceeded expectations, and when you throw in his athleticism, impact plays and weekly awards, it is easy to get caught up in the hype and excitement. The fact remains that there is a concerning amount of bad to his game that needs to be cleaned up if he is ever to become the player his reputation says he is. 27 missed tackles in 12 games simply can’t happen, but that isn’t his only issue. His rookie season was also plagued with mental mistakes and plays where he was out of position, having a domino effect on Lavonte David alongside him as he tried to cover for his rookie teammate at times.
We will see in 2016 if Alexander can fix the problems that plagued him, or if he will play his way off the hype wagon just as quickly as he played his way onto it.