But now, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Cravens plays a more natural position. Cravens has trimmed down from 225 pounds in an effort to be faster and more effective as he’s lined up exclusively at strong safety and projects to start there, with offseason addition D.J. Swearinger entrenched at free safety.
It’s been a somewhat quiet first week-and-a-half of training camp for Cravens. But the progress is indeed there, and it continues at an encouraging pace, coaches and teammates say. It’s all about getting the mental tools to sync up with the physical.
“His athletic ability and his talent — he has good ball skills and can tackle. He can do all the things you want as a safety,” said Swearinger, Cravens’s new mentor. “Only thing we have to work on with him is having him being disciplined with his eyes and his run fits and knowing what leverage he needs to be in.”
Players and coaches sum up the to-do list offered by Swearinger as “trusting your eyes,” or “eye discipline.”
That involves reading formations and pre-snap motions, recognizing how things begin to unfold post-snap and then properly — and quickly — deciding how to react. A play might look like a run, but a safety can’t get stuck looking at the running back if his assignment is to read the tight end and then the quarterback. Or, he can’t just lock in on the tight end if he’s not in man-to-man coverage and miss another pass catcher venturing into his area of assignment.
“If I’ve got poor eye discipline, I’m biting on the play-action,” Cravens said. “If I’ve got good eye discipline, I’m triggering pass, not the run.”
Said Swearinger, “Whatever your key [or assignment] is, whether it’s the tight end, the guard or the tackle, whether it’s center-guard, reading the receiver. You have to have your eye on whatever your key is before you can move.”
Because of the rate at which things unfold on the field, this proves easier said than done, fellow safety Will Blackmon explained.
“Obviously, everything the offense does is all an illusion,” Blackmon said. “The Patriots are so successful because they have 800 different formations for everything that they run. It’s trying to make sure you have the right read, if it’s a run or a pass, having the right indicators.”
Blackmon recalls a play last year where the Philadelphia Eagles ran what’s called a dagger route. Two receivers stacked to one side. The first ran straight downfield, the other ran 10 yards and cut in.
“I was reading and kind of jumped the 10-yard in, as opposed to staying at my landmark [position on the field] and reading the quarterback,” Blackmon recounted. “They caught the deep ball on [nickelback] Kendall [Fuller]. I should’ve been there to help Kendall. … It comes through repetition and doing. I learned the hard way.”
Cravens is learning that strong eye discipline doesn’t come without religious film study. A defensive back who can recognize tendencies in an offense is a back who better avoids guessing, and getting into trouble. Patience also represents another important key in developing the much-needed awareness and keen instincts.
“That’s very hard, especially for a young safety,” Swearinger said. “I had problems with it my first two years. That’s the biggest thing for me is getting him to be more patient and letting him know he doesn’t have to be so fast. A coach of mine used to say, ‘Chris Paul it. Don’t Russell Westbrook it.’ Chris Paul is more finesse, and Westbrook is more fast and go. If you Chris Paul it, you’ll be fine.”
Swearinger said Cravens is “definitely taking strides and showing a willingness to do it.”
In recent days, Cravens has seemed to be around the ball with greater frequency, meaning he’s getting to the right place at the right time.
Three times, he positioned himself to hit Vernon Davis right as a pass from Kirk Cousins got to the tight end. Because players don’t tackle in practice, Cravens held up at the last second each time. Had he not held up, Cravens likely would have broken up those passes. Later, he made a diving attempt at an interception, getting both hands on the ball and forcing another incomplete pass.
Cravens promises that the big hits will come once the games begin. For now, it’s about reading, reacting and positioning himself correctly.
“Across the board, I think he’s doing a tremendous job,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “Taking that transition from being the linebacker to now on the back end, I think he’s doing a great job. … We’ve got to get into the real games and see how his tackling is, but I think he’ll be all right. … D.J. is helping him with his sight lines and his vision, and [defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and James Rowe] are really working with him on getting his eyes right and getting his fits. Really, the sky’s the limit for the guy.”
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