A breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 fifth-round pick, former Syracuse linebacker Marquis Spruill.
40 Time: 4.53 (Campus)
Three-Cone: 7.33 (Campus)
He was born on May 14, 1991 in Newark, New Jersey and attended the adjacent Hillside (NJ) High School.
He did not receive any scholarship offers following high school and went to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. The following year he would enroll at Syracuse, where he would start 13 games at strong-side linebacker. He finished the year with 51 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks and a pass breakup. He moved to middle linebacker as a sophomore, starting 11 of 12 games. He had 62 tackles, 8.5 for loss, three sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. He would also earn 2nd team All-Big East honors. As a junior, he moved back to strong-side linebacker where he started 12 of 13 games, recorded 64 tackles, nine for loss, two sacks, and a pass breakup. He moved again to middle linebacker as a senior, starting all 13 games there but missing a bit of playing time late in the year due to a neck stinger. He finished with career-highs with 66 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. He would earn All-ACC honorable mention honors. He finished his career second in school history with 41 tackles for loss.
In December 2012 at the end of his junior season, he was arrested for disorderly conduct. He was involved in an altercation with police that saw him try to intervene at a party where he thought a teammate was going to get arrested.
A durable player that started 49 games and played in a total of 51 games. He took on more of a leadership role this past season alongside his role as team captain, becoming a stronger voice in the locker room at the linebacker position.
2013 GAMES WATCHED
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The grading system is based on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (7.5) – In a straight line, he covers a lot of ground with good closing burst on the ballcarrier. He has good range in pursuit and is able to chase down ballcarriers with the potential to go sideline to sideline.
Strength (4.0) – Undersized and it shows when he’s asked to take on blockers. Also needs to get stronger as a tackler. Probably could add another 10-15 pounds in an NFL weight room to improve him in both areas.
Tackling (4.0) – With his closing burst, he has the ability to deliver a hit when he’s in position. But struggles at times to see what he hits and can get juked by ballcarrier. Will try and wrap up, but because of his lack of strength he’ll bounce off ballcarriers too often leading to missed tackles.
Coverage (4.5) – Has the athletic tools to match up in man coverage, but rarely asked to play in man coverage. Can drop into zone, playing the deep centerfield as in the Tampa-2 defense. Doesn’t quite have great burst out of his breaks to close on the ball and disrupt the throw.
Point of Attack (2.5) – Struggles to take on blockers at the second level and rarely is able to get off them to make a play between the tackles. Has a tendency to get pushed around and dominated when taking on offensive linemen. Can fill against the run in the hole, but struggles to make the play because his tackling isn’t great.
Instincts (5.0) – Can get caught out of position, trying to fill the wrong hole. Has some trouble locating the ball behind blockers and will get turned around in pursuit or at the point of attack.
Pass Rush (5.5) – Will line up at times with his hand in the dirt on nickel situations and rush as a three-technique defensive tackle. Because of his straight-line burst, he is an effective blitzer off the edge. But if he’s asked to beat a blocker, he will struggle.
Based off my own grading system on a 9-point scale.
Potential Stopgap Prospect (3.0) – Player with enough tools that sticking at the NFL level should not be a huge obstacle, but how long he sticks will largely depend on ability to impact early on special teams. Tends to be journeymen player that has enough ability that he can become a stopgap starter for a limited period of time. Ideal target for the last three rounds of draft, although typically become harder to find after the sixth round.
Spruill plays inside and has some upside to play in a 3-4 scheme, but he’s a developmental project.
Right now, he’s better suited to playing the weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense because he’s a better pursuit player than taking on blockers like he would playing inside.
He can be a quality backup but with some upside to be a starter, but it’s going to take some time for him to get there.
In the meantime, Spruill will have to make his impact on special teams where he should be capable when covering kicks and punts.
He needs to get stronger. In this day and age where linebackers are now lighter due to their responsibilities of having to play in space and in coverage, Spruill is going to need to get a bit heavier. He was listed at 225 pounds at Syracuse and bulked up to 230 during the draft process. He probably ultimately needs to play around 240 in order to be a more effective defender at the next level, particularly if he’s going to play inside in a 3-4 scheme.
If he can add strength and become better at stacking and shedding blockers, he can be a decent stopgap starter at the next level, particularly if he’s playing beside a quality middle linebacker.
However, it’s hard for me to recall a player that was ultimately successful in the NFL that is as poor as Spruill when it came to beating blockers. Part of that I believe was due to his lack of size, but he routinely got controlled by centers and guards on the second level and it limited his impact when teams ran up the middle against Syracuse’s defense.
He’s a chase player that doesn’t always take great angles to the ball and there were too many opportunities where Spruill was in position to make a big play, but for whatever reason did not make it.
He’s a self-made player that his year at Fork Union and his growth as a leader at Syracuse indicate he has the sort of character that he can become a better player. But there are just too many current limitations at this point to be overly optimistic about his NFL future.
Most likely, Spruill spends his career as a reserve that can be a functional stopgap starter a couple of years down the road in the event of an injury. But he’s unlikely to be the sort of player that a team will count on to be anything beyond a special teams player.
Spruill will most likely be asked to back up Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker when they have their 4-3 looks, but also at inside linebacker when they go to their 3-4 looks. There won’t be a huge distinction between the two positions in the Falcons hybrid scheme since most often he will line up in a similar place: off the line of scrimmage in an A or B gap.
It’s hard to imagine the Falcons seeing Spruill as an insurance policy in the event that Weatherspoon walks in free agency next offseason. Rather, he’s more the sort of player that a couple of years down the line, if Weatherspoon continues to struggle with durability concerns, Spruill has the potential to be a capable fill-in starter at the position.
Right now, Spruill is a good athlete that needs significant development in a lot of areas. But unlike some of the other linebackers the Falcons drafted, because of his natural athleticism, I have a bit more optimism that Spruill can ultimately reach his potential.
It’s not a lot of optimism, but it’s just a bit more than the others. But even if he does, I would not expect it to occur until his third or fourth year in the league.
In the meantime, he’ll have to contribute on special teams. He’ll be able to contribute in the interim, which should buy him the necessary time to improve in other areas. Even if Spruill never develops, then the Falcons should still have a decent to good special teams player.
If he can’t immediately contribute on special teams, then Spruill is going to struggle to stick in Atlanta.
The player he reminds me of is former Falcons linebacker Spencer Adkins, a quality athlete that had some tools to develop. Adkins was a productive special teams player when he got opportunities, but was never a stalwart enough to really stick in Atlanta. Adkins proved to be a decent option when he got an opportunity to play in 2011, but the team moved on shortly thereafter thanks in part to the untimely arrival (at least in Adkins’ case) of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Part of Adkins struggles was his inability to play in coverage. He had good straight-line speed, but stiff hips that made him struggle to cover tight ends and backs. Spruill is similar, but has better hips. If he can develop in coverage, it’ll be harder for the Falcons to move on from him down the line.
Ultimately, Spruill is going to have to develop some value on defense if he wants to stick long-term. Eventually, the team will be in a position where they can draft another backup linebacker or sign a free agent, and unless Spruill has proven to be an asset in some area: whether that’s on defense or special teams, it’s going to be relatively easy for the Falcons to move on from him.
If placing bets, I would not bet on Spruill being anything more than a reserve that sticks around for three, maybe four years, with the Falcons eventually moving on to someone better. But at the same time, it would not completely surprise me that down the road he develops into the team’s top reserve at inside linebacker.