Monday, 22 July 2013

40 Players in 40 days: Number 39

(Photo cred: Carlos Acenas - Daily Trojan)

The top 40 got underway over the weekend and after a day off we’re back with another talented young player with volatile talent. Unlike Chris Harper though, this player has proven production on the field but has been stuck in a role that doesn’t suit his skill set. As a result, I find myself putting him a little lower as a junior than I thought I would when he was a freshman. The 39th best player in the Pac-12 is USC OLB Dion Bailey. Here is the Pac-12 Top 40 list so far:

40. WR Chris Harper, Cal

I promise this part of the countdown will become more exciting as the list comes along.

Bailey is an undeniable talent who just doesn’t seem to have found the right fit in USC’s “defense.” I put that word in quotations because whatever defense USC played as a unit last year was merely an allegation. That being said, Bailey had a decent enough season in 2012. The Outside Linebacker spots in a 4-3 defense are typically not very productive positions as the 4-3 and specifically the Tampa 2 which USC ran the last three years under Monte Kiffin is typically designed to get tackles from other positions.

Despite that, Bailey still produced 80 tackles (48 Solo) and eight TFLs (although only one sack). The encouraging portion of his stat line was his pass defense numbers: four interceptions and nine pass deflections plus an untold number of incomplete passes due to his man rarely being open. With his athleticism and nimble frame (listed at just 6-0, 200, tiny for a linebacker) Bailey did a particularly great job covering slot receivers.

The Trojans loved to line up in their base 4-3 personnel and walk Bailey out to the perimeter to cover guys in the slot. However, when teams went with big personnel and forced Bailey to cover a tight end or when they ran the ball out of a spread formation, Bailey had his problems. Take this scouting tape of Bailey against Washington as an example of the mixed bag USC got from Bailey.

He uses good positional zone principles to stay in the passing lane and intercept a bad pass and he shows off his electric hitting ability by forcing a fumble at the end of the clip. When he’s highlighted covering slot receivers you can see he does well covering short passes and even makes a great play by diagnosing a check down to Bishop Sankey and coming up to make a solid tackle for a loss. You can also see the problems he has. When the Trojans kept him inside the box and opposing teams were able to get a blocker on him, Bailey struggled to shed blocks.

Watch this touchdown USC gave up against Oregon. Oregon picks out Bailey lined up inside the tackles and runs a screen for Josh Huff right at him. Oregon actually messed up the play as Oregon C Hroniss Grassu tried to cut-block Bailey and whiffed but Bailey still wasn’t able to get in there and make a play on Huff to prevent the touchdown.

Here’s a long video of Oregon highlights against USC. Check out a few plays to get a sense of Bailey’s struggles when Monte Kiffin put him in the box.

At 3:33 He finds a hole in the O-line but takes a bad angle and gets caught out of position. On the next play, TE Colt Lyerla (not a huge Lineman, Bailey should be able to shed his block at some point) trucks Bailey and pushes him back about 10 yards and would have kept going if not for the whistle. At 4:42 he gets lost in the middle of the field and ends up getting to Kenyon Barner late, he can’t make the tackle and gets knocked over with ease for his trouble which allows Barner to pick up an extra 30(!) yards. Bailey wasn’t even blocked initially and was unimpeded in his route to stop Barner on the sideline but he was slow finding the ball and ended up allowing a 40 yard run instead of a 10 yard run. At 5:56, he has coverage responsibilities on Deanthony Thomas but he runs too far into the backfield and opens the door for Thomas to take a swing pass 10 yards when he should have been in position to force a throw to another receiver.

These are all little mistakes but you can see how they snowball into allowing huge plays. It may be a little harsh to pick on Bailey in particular when the entire defense put forth such a pathetic effort in that game but you can see the frequent problems he has against the run (and swing/screen passes that are basically runs that count as passes) when he was lined up as a traditional linebacker.
So why have him in the top 40 if I’m so down on him as linebacker? Well, he’s ridiculously talented and he is one of the better zone coverage defenders in the conference for one but more importantly, it sounds like he might not be playing linebacker anymore.

I love the idea of Bailey playing Strong Safety. He can stay away from the box and provide run support from the back end where he is either a luxury in run support or the last line of defense rather than a first responder. USC’s new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can use him as an eighth man in the box where he can still be a productive tackler however, Bailey can line up outside the tackles and cover slot receivers exclusively and avoid getting blocked by lineman whom he cannot shake. Most importantly, his smaller stature which was a huge concern at linebacker becomes no problem at all as 6-0, 200 is pretty much the ideal size for a safety.

Of course there is concern over his shoulder surgery which could take away practice reps and remove precious time Bailey would need to pick up a new position. However, I think Bailey has the talent and coverage abilities to pick up the position quickly and be very good at it. But, if Pendergast decides to leave him at Linebacker then I don’t think Bailey belongs in the top 40 anymore.

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