During the 2014 offseason, Colts Authority is making a concentrated effort to have a complex understanding of as many of the players on the roster as possible. It’s all a part of the Colts Authority Charting Project, an intentional effort to chart as many statistical and strategical details about the team as we can. In that vein, we have several film-review series going thoughout the next few months. You can see all of the 2014 film review pieces at the CA Charting Project page.
We hope you will enjoy the series, and if you have any requests (either in specific players or different statistics you’d like to see charted), please let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @ColtsAuth_Kyle and @ColtsAuthority using #CAchartingproject.
A pass-rushing star at Army, Josh McNary spent two years on active military duty before signing with the Colts last April. He wasn’t released from military duty until the end of July, causing him to miss the start of training camp, and he didn’t survive final cuts. But he stuck on the practice squad and earned a promotion to the active roster for week 13.
From there, McNary slowly won over the Colts’ coaches. He played four snaps with the defense in week 13 and seven in week 14, playing exclusively on third down and primarily as a blitzer. By week 15, he had won a more regular role, and he started showing up on earlier downs. His playing time dipped a bit in the playoffs, when the Colts went with their veterans more often, but McNary wound up playing 134 defensive snaps in seven games and earned a solid 3.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Kyle broke down the advanced stats of the Colts’ inside linebackers, including McNary, in his excellent D’Qwell Jackson profile a couple weeks ago (shameless intra-site promotion). Rather than repeating his work, I’ll focus on McNary’s game film here.
You can often tell when football comes naturally to someone – think Robert Mathis, Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne – and when it’s a bit of an awkward fit – think Joe Reitz, LaRon Landry and a certain running back. Mathis, Luck and Wayne still work hard for it, of course, and guys like Reitz can still become good players (no comment on the other two), but some guys seem to move more fluidly and react more naturally, while others look unsure or robotic. McNary is definitely in the former camp. He made some typical rookie mistakes last year, but he also did some veteran things that looked effortless, particularly toward the end of the season as he grew more comfortable in his role.
For example, Landry often takes strange angles to the ball, and it sometimes kills the Colts (take a look at the first GIF here if you need to be reminded). McNary, on the other hand, showed great instincts in cutting off angles, which helped mitigate a lack of pure speed. Watch him sprint for the sidelines on these Dexter McCluster swing passes:
On both plays, you can see McNary making subtle body adjustments without losing any speed as he judges the best point to meet McCluster on the sideline. It’s impossible to teach that; you either have it or you don’t (hi, LaRon).
McNary also honed his rush-faking skills as the season went on. On this play, he acts like he’s coming on a blitz, keeping up the ruse just long enough that Knile Davis thinks he can head out on a dumpoff route without being covered. But just when Davis tries to bust out, McNary bumps him hard and sticks with him in coverage, throwing off the Chiefs’ timing and resulting in an incompletion:
It all happens very quickly, but McNary’s feel for when to bump Davis means the difference between a wide open back with acres of space and a ball harmlessly hitting the turf.
Here’s a closer look at McNary’s work in each facet of the game.
PFF gave McNary a 1.9 grade on 24 snaps in run defense. They gave him only one negative run defense grade in his seven games, a -0.4 on five snaps in the playoff game at New England, and his work in the Wild Card game against Kansas City earned a shiny 1.1 on just four snaps. Most encouragingly, he appears to be a sound tackler, unlike many of the linebackers who have come through Indy in the past 15 years or so; PFF charged him with only two missed tackles, against 14 solo tackles and two assists.
McNary is extremely good at coming in at an angle, dipping his shoulder under a blocker and standing up a running back:
Again, McNary’s instincts look solid in the running game. He was always quick to spot where the run was going and get himself into the proper lane. And it takes skill to get that shoulder-dipping stuff right and pop back up between the blocker and the back, rather than getting pushed into the dirt.
McNary has a harder time when a blocker is coming straight at him, and he’s not great at freeing himself once he’s been engaged. (As a married man, I can relate. Boom! “Meh,” says my wife, unimpressed.) New England’s Logan Mankins – who is no slouch, in fairness – positively owned McNary a few times in the playoff game, particularly on this play:
It wasn’t just linemen, either; Anthony Fasano, who isn’t exactly a legend in blocking, wiped him out of a couple plays:
It looks like McNary needs to get a bit stronger and learn how to shed blocks better, but there’s enough ability there to work with.
McNary’s college career at Army, during which he piled up a school record 28 sacks as a defensive end, suggested he would be an outside linebacker for the Colts. But he played almost exclusively on the inside, taking only five of his 134 snaps at outside linebacker. The Colts clearly like his coverage skills and mobility (more on those in a moment), which are more important for inside linebackers in the 3-4 than for outside linebackers. It’s harder to rush the passer from the 3-4 inside linebacker spot, and McNary didn’t show much in that area. PFF had him at 0.7 on 26 pass rush snaps, meaning he was almost exactly average. He generated four quarterback hits and no pressures or sacks.
When blitzing, McNary did flash the ability to spot open lanes and make quick adjustments:
And he embarrassed Shonn Greene for a big hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick in his first game with the defense:
Still, you can see something on that play that comes up repeatedly when McNary rushes: he has a decent set of moves and good agility in tight spaces, which means he often gets past blockers. But his closing speed leaves something to be desired. McNary looks more smooth than explosive, which is fine for coverage but not ideal for pass rushing. Colts fans have been spoiled by years of Mathis and Dwight Freeney, two of the best ever at closing those last few feet and getting to the quarterback before the ball is out. McNary simply isn’t at that level:
Notice how he drops his shoulder on that last play to get under the tackle’s block, in Mathis-like fashion. Again, body control, which is impossible to teach, appears to come naturally to him.
McNary’s lack of sacks was partly a result of circumstances, since the quarterbacks usually got the ball out quickly when he rushed. If the Colts continue to use him as a blitzer, he’s good enough to pick up a sack here and there. But I doubt that will ever be the strongest area of his game.
McNary did the bulk of his work last year in coverage. He dropped on 84 of his 134 snaps (63%). PFF graded him at 0.5 in coverage, with excellent grades of 1.1 at Cincinnati in week 14 (on only three coverage snaps) and 1.8 in the Wild Card game (on 15 snaps). He had a bit of a clunker in the first Kansas City game, drawing a -1.6 grade on 25 coverage snaps.
Four times last year, the Colts even put him at cornerback, usually using him to bump a receiver before a corner behind him took over:
Bumping a receiver is a tricky skill, and McNary does it well. Watch him knock Julian Edelman off his route on this play:
McNary has good, fluid hips and does a nice job of turning to run with receivers – unlike, for example, Caesar Rayford, who drew raves with his pass rushing last preseason but couldn’t drop in coverage to save his life. McNary was generally able to stay tight on his man, particularly when tracking tight ends deep:
I only saw a receiver put a straight-up whuppin’ on McNary once: Fasano beat him soundly for a 19-yard catch in the first Colts-Chiefs game.
McNary also found himself out of position a couple other times in that game:
Again, he’s not a finished product, but McNary has sufficient athleticism and instincts to be a steady, productive player in coverage.
For the long term, McNary looks like a good rotation/depth linebacker. I don’t think he’ll ever be a star, but he’s competent enough in all three phases to be a three-down player. With Jerrell Freeman firmly entrenched and D’Qwell Jackson newly signed, the Colts don’t need McNary to emerge as a stud right away.