There are so many feel-good aspects to the Shaquem Griffin story that it almost defies credulity.
Yes, Griffin won the 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year award and had an equally impressive 2017 season despite having a condition called amniotic band syndrome. This prevented the fingers on his left hand from fully developing, causing such extreme pain that his hand was amputated when he was four years old.
Griffin and his twin brother Shaquill, selected in the third round of the 2017 draft, patrolled the UCF Knights defense with authority. But it wasn't until 2017—the year after Shaquill left for the NFL—that UCF put together an undefeated season that included a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
Just as Griffin's team showed no quit in the face of a storied SEC opponent, Griffin has never blinked when presented with adversity by those who would assume a one-handed player couldn't perform at the highest level of college football. According to Pro Football Focus, Griffin had 10 total pressures and seven defensive stops in that game, mostly as a 227-pound, edge-rushing linebacker.
At the scouting combine, Griffin became the first defensive player weighing more than 225 pounds to run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds when he posted an official 4.38 time, per Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com. He then put up 20 bench-press reps of 225 pounds with a prosthetic left hand. By that time, if you weren't on the Shaquem Griffin bandwagon, you were definitely in the minority.
Still, with all his production in college—122 solo tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks, three interceptions, 18 passes defensed and four forced fumbles in three years as a starter—there were questions about whether Griffin could be any more than a special-teamer.
Could he beat blocks with only one hand? How was he going to catch the ball or deflect passes? Could he be a credible defender against the best in the game?
It's why Griffin dropped to the fifth round in the 2018 draft, but the story just kept getting better when the Seattle Seahawks—the team that selected Shaquill in 2017—took Shaquem with the 141st pick. To have the brothers potentially roaming a defense once again makes this quite the fairy tale, but there's still the question of how he'll be used in the NFL and whether he can be effective.
"We're going to play him at the weak linebacker spot and see how that works out—to give him a chance to run and chase the football, which he is really adept at doing," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said Saturday after the selection was made.
"We're going to count on him to be a big factor on special teams, which he has shown us that he has a great knack for. We're going to try to put him in spots where we can utilize the great speed that he has, and he's as fast as you can get as a linebacker.
"I don't think it's going to throw us off, that he's that fast, but we're anxious to see how it works and how it fits in with him chasing the football and all. We'll see what happens from there."
To be clear, Griffin isn't your typical linebacker. At UCF, he was primarily asked to rush the passer off the edge in base and blitz packages, spy quarterbacks and running backs over the middle, and occasionally pressure and cover from the second level. At this point in his career, Griffin may be called a linebacker, and Carroll may see him as a weak-side player, but there are several aspects to his game that defy the traditional "Will" model.
The Seahawks have a precedent here. In 2010, the first year of Carroll's tenure in Seattle, the team took Virginia Tech defensive back Kam Chancellor in the fifth round. Coming out of college, Chancellor was thought of as more of a linebacker-level "enforcer" than an effective cover man. Over time, Chancellor learned to cover at all levels, and Griffin has the potential to do the same.
"I have some teams tell me I move like a DB; well, I've been a DB most of my life," Griffin said at the combine. "I still have the feet for it, and that's why I was able to be at the Senior Bowl and move and progress at each and every position.
"I want them to know that I don't have to be the guy who just rushes the quarterback. You need somebody to cover? I can cover not just tight ends but slots too. I got a few interceptions against some slots. I want to show NFL teams that, whatever you need help at, I'm the player. You want me to play kicker or punter? All I gotta do is get a good stretch in, and I can kick the ball too."
Well, what the Seahawks need is extra pass rush with the potential for short and intermediate coverage. Griffin has the most experience as a quarterback-disruptor off the edge, and this is where he shows the most effective moves that transfer to the next level.
Perhaps the most stunning attribute Griffin possesses is his pure, raw speed. He covers ground as well as any defensive player in this draft class, and it's why you can never count him out of a play.
Watch this sack of quarterback Riley Ferguson against Memphis, where Griffin has left tackle Trevon Tate (No. 72) and left guard Dustin Woodard (No. 53) blocking him out of the play. This is a clear show of respect for Griffin's ability to bring pressure—it's not often you'll see an outside double-team against a defender Griffin's size—and at first, it looks like the double-team works.
What Tate and Woodard fail to account for is how Griffin waits for his opening and how quickly he clears the pocket once he gets it.
Griffin doesn't have a lot of advanced hand moves as a pass-rusher, but that's less about his "handicap" than it is the status quo among college edge-rushers. Most ends and outside linebackers come to the NFL without the upper-body techniques they'll need to face off against the league's best blockers. But Griffin does have that speed and an impressive burst off the snap.
Here, he creates a pressure that leads to an incomplete pass by coming off the snap so quickly that Auburn right tackle Darius James (No. 78) can't get in his set before Griffin zooms right by him. And Griffin's movement to crash the back of the pocket is exceptional.
At 225 to 230 pounds, Griffin will have to get a lot of his pressures exploiting gaps in the interior offensive line as a first- and second-level defender. Perhaps this is what Carroll envisions when he talks about Griffin as a base Will linebacker.
Here, you can see him give James a stunning outside-in move, leaving the right tackle flat-footed. Griffin is rewarded with a takedown of quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
While Griffin may not have NFL-level hand technique, this spin move against Memphis—a move that takes him from a wide alignment into the pocket with the aforementioned Trevon Tate struggling to keep up—is something that NFL blockers will have to watch for. Again, Griffin's quickness wins the day.
One thing modern NFL defenses need against mobile quarterbacks and the option looks that exploit that mobility is a defender who can stay at his position in the middle of the field and spy the backfield action. This two-play sequence late in the Peach Bowl shows how well Griffin can read the action and how quickly he closes to the ball when the read is made.
That's not to say Griffin's game is always amazing—there are some things to address before he's able to reach his full potential. A downside of his demon speed is that he runs himself out of far too many plays. And his coverage ability is a work in progress.
Like Chancellor when he came out of college, Griffin is pretty stiff and slow when he's asked to turn and run with tight ends and slot receivers, as this tape against Maryland shows. He's not yet learned how to flip his hips and adjust with quickness and control to receivers who may tie him up with more advanced route concepts.
Chancellor had to learn to be more efficient in coverage movement and avoid wasted motion. Griffin will have to do the same.
However, this interception against Temple shows where Griffin can be effective in coverage right off the bat: Put him in the slot, lining up on downfield routes, and let him use his open-field speed and quickness to mirror. Carroll's coaching staff has a specific set of principles for training defensive backs and linebackers in coverage, and it will be fascinating to see how Griffin develops.
This forced fumble against Memphis may be the most remarkable thing Griffin did on the field. Your eyes are not deceiving you: He is beating the block, closing in on the quarterback and forcing the fumble with his left arm.
It's hard to see plays like that and not buy in.
There's no question that Shaquem Griffin is an inspirational person. There's no question that his story is one of the most remarkable in NFL history, and that's true before he hits his first minicamp.
But when you watch the tape and see the potential, it's also clear that when he's evaluated purely on his merits on the field, there's enough in his game to think the story isn't nearly over yet.