The Indianapolis Colts drafted Bjoern Werner in the first round of the 2013 draft, a pick that surprised many. Werner wasn't a player who had been linked with Indianapolis prior to the draft, but head coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson had worked him out at Florida State, and the team decided if he was there in the first round, he was the pick.
At first, it was a bit of a surprise. Werner was more suited for a 4-3 defense, and the Colts had holes at other positions with flashier names still available, like cornerback Xavier Rhodes, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and safeties Matt Elam and Johnathan Cyprien. But, Grigson believed Werner could play both RUSH and SAM outside linebacker in the Colts' hybrid scheme, and the pick was made.
The transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 linebacker is one that could take some getting used to, especially when also transitioning into a faster, stronger level of football. The difficulty of that transition definitely showed during Werner's rookie year.
Werner finished 2013 as one of the most disappointing rookie edge-rushers, finishing last among first-round picks in total snaps, total pressure and pressure per snap.
His final Pro Football Focus grade of minus-6.7 was second-to-last, while his pass-rushing grade of minus-8.0 was the worst of the five first-round edge-rushers.
With Erik Walden also struggling to provide pressure from the outside and the Colts defensive line made up of run-stoppers, the Colts struggled to maintain a consistent pass rush.
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis was the only saving grace, finishing with a league-high 19.5 sacks in a career year. But when Mathis wasn't getting to the quarterback, nobody was, and Werner's struggles were a big contributing factor.
If the Colts want to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2014 and beyond, they need some of their defensive draft picks to pan out, starting with Werner.
While it's too early to apply the dreaded "bust" label to Werner, his first season leaned more toward the bust side of the scale, and he must show improvement in 2014 to avoid being a wasted pick for Indianapolis.
It's not run defense that Werner needs to be concerned with, despite the teams continued emphasis on it. Werner was decent against the run as a rookie, and he showed improvement in the playoffs, according to Steve Palazzo of Pro Football Focus.
You would like to see a player with Werner's first step make more plays against the run rather than simply setting the edge, but as a strong-side outside linebacker in the Colts scheme, he filled his role adequately.
In this particular play, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has the option to keep the ball and go left in a read-option, but Werner's patience in holding the edge forces Tannehill to hand the ball off, which limits Lamar Miller to a three-yard gain.
Werner shouldn't be all that worried about his job in coverage, either. He likely won't be asked to drop back very often, and his few coverage snaps in 2013 resulted in just one poor play: a 24-yard catch by Rashard Mendenhall in Week 12.
Werner doesn't have the athleticism of somebody like Erik Walden, who dropped back three times as much as any other Colts OLB, and shouldn't be asked to cover often, but he can handle it in small doses.
In general, his run-stopping and coverage skills are adequate, but Werner has to make more plays on the ball in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Werner had a tackle attempt on just 16 plays last season, and he missed four tackles. Werner had a high stop rate, so his tackles were valuable, but he simply didn't make enough of them.
But the one area in which talent is coveted and Werner was drafted for is what desperately needs improvement: pass rush.
You don't draft an outside linebacker in the first round for their average edge-setting skills or potential versatility to drop back in coverage a few times per game. You draft them to get to the quarterback, and Werner didn't do that enough in 2013.
Much of Werner's traits, both good and bad, can be seen in his sack of Tannehill in Week 2. Werner's best trait was his snap anticipation, something evident on this play.
Then you see where Werner excels: If an offensive tackle didn't get in front of him, he does a good job of using his hands to create separation and get around the edge. But you can also see from this play Werner doesn't get particularly low, even when turning the edge.
It all matches up with Werner's scouting report prior to the draft:
Werner is very good about shooting his hands quickly off the snap and landing inside placement when playing the run. However, his upright playing style greatly limits his functional strength.
He also doesn’t have an advanced repertoire of pass-rush moves, but is also very good at swiping offensive tackles hands off of his body while coming around the edge, finishing with an solid arm-under that gets him past tackles as he skims the edge.
It's that functional strength that holds Werner back on the vast majority of pass-rushing plays. Werner, playing upright and not attempting to bend and explode around the edge, got man-handled by tackles. It led to plays like this, where Werner was stonewalled by left tackle Duane Brown.
Granted, Brown is a fantastic left tackle, but this was not a rare occurrence for Werner in 2013. Playing so high makes it easy for the tackle to keep hold of Werner, who didn't have the strength or well-developed moves to escape. Werner isn't a weak player, but without any momentum or leverage, his strength was rendered useless.
The problem with plays like this is it simply makes quarterbacks so comfortable. There's no risk of Werner coming from behind to pressure the passer or potentially cause a turnover. The quarterback has all day to throw and completely clear throwing lanes. It's a nightmare for a defensive backfield.
Werner isn't exceptionally athletic, so he can't afford to slip when it comes to technique. In 2014, that has to improve.
Some improvement should come naturally, as Werner becomes more comfortable and adjusts to the speed of the NFL. But it will take more than that for Werner to live up to his first-round expectations. It'll take a concerted effort to refine his pass-rushing technique.
Maybe Robert Mathis can help him out with that.