Rookie FA Breakdown: Steven Friday
Some folks write off undrafted rookies, considering them a mixed multitude of untalented players: quarterbacks whose deep outs hang suspended in air, running backs who can’t keep pace with their own linemen, receivers with carnie hands who can’t even catch a cold. The same holds true with guys on the other side of the ball, where “special teamer at best” becomes a thinly-veiled euphemism for “He doesn’t belong in the league.”
Virginia Tech defensive end Steven Friday is one of many rookie FAs from the ’11 class who could challenge that notion. With a little more time and polish, the speed rusher could become a big-time contributor.
Contrary to the UDFA label, Friday possesses early round explosiveness. His workout numbers compare favorably to some top 50 prospects (4.62 40, 10’4” broad jump). And that explosiveness shows up on the field, where Friday’s gotten the best of NFL-caliber offensive tackles. In the 2010 season opener, Friday caught draftniks’ attention by beating up inconsistent but talented OT Nate Potter (see the video below), and those who continued to keep an eye on him for the rest of the season weren’t disappointed.
In perhaps his most impressive performance, Friday did a lot of damage against first round tackle Anthony Castonzo. He repeatedly beat the BC OT around the edge, notching a sack and a few more pressures. He fared better against Castonzo than many players who were picked in April; perhaps the only pass rusher who toyed with him more was Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins, who’s widely projected to be a future first round pick.
With his disruptive ability off the edge, Friday certainly put enough on tape to warrant being drafted. Unfortunately, teams opted to pass on him, probably because he lacks great size to pair with his excellent speed. At 6’3”, 240 lbs., Friday possesses a far below average build for a d-end, and teams may not have been confident that the overaged prospect (he’ll turn 25 in August) will be able to add much bulk to his frame. To make things worse, Friday often stands straight up when facing the run, allowing linemen to get into his chest and escort him out of the play. He’ll likely continue be a liability against the run, preventing him from being an every down defensive end.
Because of his point of attack limitations, some have emphasized how much better off Friday will be playing with his hand up as a 3-4 outside backer. And that’s true: while he’s looked uncomfortable and too high in his backpedal dropping into coverage, he possesses more than enough athleticism to make the move work.
However, seeing the position switch as a cure-all minimizes the importance of fixing what’s truly the biggest deficiency in Friday’s game: whether he’s a nickel end or a rush backer, Friday needs to up his overall strength. Doing so will close a significant hole in his pass rush arsenal. Ultimately, getting after the QB will be where he makes his money, so eliminating that issue should be a major point of emphasis as he tries to carve out a role in the big leagues.
At this point, Friday’s only average strength limits his pass rush ability. He consistently fails to move linemen with his bull rush: slow-footed blockers can just lock on and be glad that he didn’t try to run around them. While he occasionally does a nice job setting up linemen for an inside move, he’s overly reliant on his outside speed rush. Because he’s fairly one-dimensional, smarter pass protectors can anticipate his preferred path to the QB and neutralize him. To keep them guessing, he’ll need pack a stronger punch and expand his variety of moves. If he manages to do so, he’ll be able to turn his speed off the edge into solid sack numbers.
As an undrafted free agent, Friday’s most immediate path to the 53 man will be making an impact on special teams, and his athleticism puts him in good position to to do. He needs to get on specials, get stronger, then prove he can get after quarterback. If that happens, some team will end up getting a great undrafted gem.