Secret Superstars 2014: Lions
PFF’s Secret Superstar series serves to highlight young emerging players, as well as consistently quality players still flying under the radar. Few players personify the latter better than Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch. The middle linebacker has graded out in the top 10 for middle linebackers two of the past three seasons with just one negatively graded season in the PFF era and still fails to get mentioned (or paid) as one of the best at the position.
A fourth round pick out of N.C. State in 2006, Tulloch didn’t break through as a full time linebacker until 2009 and even then the results were mixed. Then with the Titans, Tulloch gave up a still career high completion percentage of 90.9% when targeted, but was strong enough against the run (+6.0) to finish with a +1.7 overall grade. It wasn’t until 2010 that he really broke through earning a +2.6 run grade and a +8.2 coverage grade.
That offseason though he would be involved in one of the most curious personnel decisions of the last decade. The Titans chose to pursue Barrett Ruud from Tampa Bay over the home grown Tulloch. Ruud was coming off a season where he was PFF’s second lowest graded inside linebacker while Tulloch was 19th. On July 30th, 2011 the Titans inked Rudd to a one year, $4m deal and the very next day Tulloch would depart to Detroit on a one year, $3.25m deal. Ruud would treat the Titans to a -18.2 grade over 596 snaps in 2011 and has played a mere 155 snaps in the NFL since. Tulloch would finish that same season with a +13.3 overall grade and the Titans have struggled to find quality play at linebacker ever since.
By the Numbers
After an unusually poor 2012 season, Tulloch rebounded in 2013 to have, easily, the best season of his career by almost any metric. The linebacker’s +14.7 overall grade was a career high and was good enough for fourth best at the position. He would finish fifth in Run Stop Percentage (11.3%) and sixth in Tackling Efficiency (15.7). Those numbers represent a considerable jump from his 2012 season, which graded out as his worst to date (-5.8), when he only had a Run Stop Percentage of 8.0% and a Tackling Efficiency of 6.5. Even in his worst years though, Tulloch has been extremely solid in coverage. The Lions linebacker paced all inside linebackers in coverage stops for the second straight season with 27 such stops in 2013.
The one area that Tulloch didn’t excel in last season was rushing the passer. His Pass Rushing Productivity of 12.1 was good for 15th among 33 qualifying inside linebackers. It’s hard to knock him too much in that area though as he rushed the passer on just 6% of his 1,067 snaps for the season compared to 38% defending the run and 56% dropping in coverage.
When looking at the overall picture of Tulloch’s game we decided to name him the 62nd best player of the 2013 season in the PFF top 101 and was the fourth-highest inside linebacker on the list. He was also selected as the starting middle linebacker on our All-NFC North team.
Three Down Linebacker
When it comes to attacking receivers in open space, Tulloch’s angles and instincts are second to none. He compiled a +9.3 coverage grade, despite just three passes defensed and one interception, because he breaks so well on passes caught in front of him. His modest height and low interception totals in his career (five interceptions in eight seasons) could lead some to conclude he has poor coverage skills, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
At 5-foot-11 he does have his limitations when running the seam with a tight end, but that low center of gravity also allows him to mirror the cuts of backs and tight ends at an elite level. It’s because of this that Tulloch has led all inside linebackers in coverage stops the last two seasons. On third downs last season Tulloch had 16 positively-graded plays in coverage compared to just seven negatively-graded snaps. While guys like Derrick Johnson and Patrick Willis get most of the publicity for their coverage skills, Tulloch is the only inside linebacker to finish with a Top-10 coverage grade each of the past four seasons.
Not only is Tulloch one of the most underrated at his position, but he is also one of the most underpaid. In 2012 he signed a five year, $25.5m deal that currently has him as the 18th highest paid player on a per year basis at the position. To get that type of value (+$3.2m last season according to PFF’s Jahnke Value Model) on a non-rookie contract is truly rare. At 29 years of age, the Lions’ linebacker figures to be productive through the life of his contract which expires following the 2016 season. Tulloch’s modest cap hits of $5m, $5.8, and $7.3m in the coming years are a welcome sight with to the impending cap bombs from Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner