Despite the fact that he was initially drafted in 2010, outside linebacker Ricky Sapp is still largely an unknown quantity in the NFL. After showing tremendous promise during his college career with Clemson, his progression to the big league via the Philadelphia Eagles was badly hampered by a knee injury that ultimately led to him being cut in August 2011.
The eye of Jets coach Rex Ryan soon fell upon him, however, and within two months of his departure from the Eagles, Sapp was signed up to the Gang Green practice squad. The South Carolinian quickly developed a reputation as being a player to watch, but again his development was dogged by injuries.
Now aged 26, it may be be considered a stretch to continue thinking of Sapp as a youngster, and it seems likely that in 2013 he will find himself knocking back shots in the last chance saloon. Yet despite his lack of professional playing time, many Jets insiders feel that Sapp has the potential to nail down a starting spot in the Jets defense. So, without any more hesitation, let’s get to some rare game tape of the man in action during the middle portion of last season and figure out whether or not the hype is merited.
We’ll begin by looking at Sapp’s ability as a pass-rusher. The first thing that stood out on tape was how regularly he was used in the role of what really amounts to being a weakside defensive end (Picture 1). During this play in the game against the Seahawks, he is lined up in the 7-technique and is set to square off one-on-one against Pro Bowl starter Russell Okung.
Sapp’s first move is to unsettle Okung with a shimmy before then committing himself to a pure outside speed rush (Picture 2). Okung tries to strike at the chest, but Sapp shows nice technique and upper-body strength by slapping away his arms while at the same time maintaining his outside momentum.
Having succeeded in completely disengaging from Okung (Picture 3), Sapp now uses his impressive burst in an effort to outmanouevre the tackle’s footwork and attack QB Russell Wilson’s launch point.
Although Okung’s impressive foot speed enables him to take a position where he can still get an arm across the defender’s chest, Sapp has sufficient upper-body strength to fight him off (Picture 4) and as he homes in on the launch point, his blocker has been well and truly defeated.
Unfortunately for Sapp, on this occasion he was up against one of the most agile and switched-on QBs in the league, and as can be seen in the above picture, Wilson immediately sensed the pressure and was able to escape the pocket before Sapp was able to lay a hand on him. However, if he had been facing a less mobile QB, it seems reasonable to suggest that this play would likely have resulted in Sapp recording his debut NFL sack.
Moving ahead to our next assessment, let’s stay with the Seahawks game and consider Sapp’s ability to defend against the run. Again we find him lined up shaded to the outside of Okung (Picture 5) who will – let’s be honest about this – physically beast the former Tiger in a zone run scheme.
In football, one of the oldest and most true adages is that the lowest man always wins, and on this occasion (Picture 6) Sapp displays disappointing technique in coming out of his blocks with his pad-level set far too high. As a result, Okung has no problem in getting underneath him and driving him back off the line of scrimmage.
But here’s the thing that I like most about Sapp: The kid’s an out-and-out fighter with good football intelligence. Instead of being shunted five-yards downfield (Picture 7) he quickly recognises that he’s being over-powered and responds by using his deceptive upper-body strength to fight off Okung’s grip and, as he does so, he employs his athletic advantage to twist inside and towards the ball-carrier (Marshawn Lynch, yellow).
At this point something very interesting happens: Lynch misreads the situation and cuts towards Okung’s block without realizing that Sapp has been able to defeat it (Picture 8). It now becomes all too obvious that if the defender had failed to disengage, Lynch would have been looking at a fairly straightforward path into the heart of the Jets secondary.
Ultimately, however, Sapp’s presence in the cutback lane is enough to cause the running back to delay for the briefest of moments (Picture 9) and consequently David Harris and Eric Smith are able to combine for the tackle.
Moving on to look at the final phase of Sapp’s game, pass defense, let’s reluctantly revisit the Thanksgiving disaster (Picture 10) against the Patriots. Here we find Sapp lined up opposite TE Aaron Hernandez in what is often referred to as the ‘radar’ defense (a formation which is designed to confuse the offense by means of not disclosing where the pass rush is going to come from). Current Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (I just wanted to see how it felt to say that) is highlighted in yellow.
As the play develops, Sapp does an adequate job of dropping back into his zone (picture 11) and passing Hernandez off into the secondary. But as he does so, he seems more focused on reading QB Tom Brady than he does on the fact that Calvin Pace is about to pass Welker off to him.
By the time Welker has entered into his line of vision, Sapp has already dropped too deep (Picture 12), and is now in no position to change direction and recover his ground against the jet-heeled slot specialist.
By the time Brady delivers the ball, Welker has blown by the Jets man and is wide open to receive the ball (Picture 13). On this occasion, however, Brady’s arm fails to deliver the goods, the pass falls harmlessly incomplete, and Sapp is able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
In summary, I think it’s reasonable to say that based upon the scant amount of game tape that’s available for analysis, there’s a lot to like about Ricky Sapp. Although he would probably benefit from adding to his repertoire of pass-rushing moves, his combination of speed, strength, and agility will be enough to worry many accomplished offensive linemen. And while there is room for improvement in the technical side of his run game, it’s easy to see why a loyal hardcore of Jets fans have immediately taken to his gutsy, intelligent, never-say-die approach.
In terms of his ability to defend the pass, I’m reluctant to be too harsh on the grounds that he was exposed by arguably the finest slot receiver to ever play the game. Having said that, however, based on the little evidence that’s available, it may be the case that he would do well to improve his overall awareness.
My overall conclusion is that if he is able to remain fit and continue improving his technique during the off-season, Sapp’s supporters have every reason to feel optimistic about his chances of seeing significant playing time in 2013. It seems quite clear that he is capable of becoming much more than just a specialist pass-rusher although – as is always the case in any walk of life – that kind of reward will only come with yet more hard work and application.
To ensure the survival of this blog (and its author), please be kind enough to express your appreciation by making a small PayPal donation.
Many, many thanks.
What do you think about Ricky’s potential? Could he be a starter in 2013? Let us know in the comments section below.