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NFL breakout players 2018: Browns opponents will have a problem trying to block Trevon Coley

The defensive tackle found the right fit in Cleveland. Now it’s time for him to make game-changing plays.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Browns defensive tackle Trevon Coley is one of those special cases I mentioned in my introduction to these Breakout Players columns. Technically, he’s heading into his second year in the NFL, but he came out of college in 2016. Coley wasn’t drafted that year, and then signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent shortly thereafter.

It was a start, but ultimately Coley wouldn’t make it out of training camp that year with the Ravens. They released him and as the 2016 season opened, he found himself a man without a job. He would eventually make it back into the NFL by signing onto Washington’s practice squad at the end of that November, but he didn’t last very long and was released again a couple of weeks later.

When a guy can’t even stick on a practice squad for more than a few weeks, there is usually some question about whether he is made out to be an NFL player. I am sure Coley was starting to have some doubts of his own at that point. Fortunately for him, the Browns signed him to their practice squad a couple of days after Washington dropped him, and he remained there for the rest of that season. It could be humbling to be fired by the first two teams that gave you a shot.

But the truth is sometimes it’s just about finding the right fit. And Coley found his in Cleveland.

It’s really rather astonishing that Coley went from the chaos of bouncing around like that in his first year, not really knowing if he would even get another shot, to then turn around and earn a starting job at defensive tackle for the Browns last year. Hell, heading into training camp last summer, Coley was probably no better than third team on the depth chart, and maybe even worse than that. And yet he put in the work, showed what he could do, and ended up starting 15 games last season.

Coming from where he had been the previous year, 2017 would normally have definitely qualified as a breakout year for Coley, except for one thing:

After watching his film, I think he was just getting started.

Coley was the starting 3-technique last year, and in that position you have to be able to rush the passer at least as well as — but preferably better than — you play the run. The 3-technique usually lines up in the B gap and tries to wreak havoc up the field. Coley didn’t play at 3-technique exclusively, as the Browns like to move him around a little bit, especially on passing downs. However, he spent the majority of time as the 3-technique and while he played pretty well there last year, he still has plenty of room to grow.

On the positive side, Coley has a natural hip turn when he pass rushes and that helps him to “get skinny” through the gap. That means the offensive lineman trying to block him usually doesn’t end up with a lot of surface to hit when they punch. Keeping his hips turned to the quarterback also allows Coley to press forward toward him. You tend to go in the direction where your hips are facing, so when a guy’s hips are turned away from the quarterback, it usually makes the offensive lineman’s job of forcing him away from the quarterback a lot easier. The quickest route between two points is a straight line, and Coley’s hip turn allows him to take the most direct approach to the quarterback possible.

I also really like the way Coley uses his hands as a pass rusher.

Last season, he was always working to keep offensive linemen’s hands off of him, and if they got them on him anyway, Coley was constantly working to get them back off. The hip turn combined with the hand moves really allowed him to slide by offensive linemen rather than having to try to run over them all of the time.

Coley also has more quickness than you would normally associate with a man his size. At 6’1 and 310 pounds, Coley looks like a tank running around on the field. But the dude can go laterally as quick as a hiccup, which shows up big time both when he’s rushing the passer and on run stunts as well. It is easy to see the kid is a pretty good athlete. He even has a nifty little spin move, too, but unfortunately when he breaks that move out, it always seems to be either a screen pass or a draw. Regardless, Coley has more than enough wiggle to be a consistently good pass rusher inside.

Of course any defensive tackle worth his salt still has to be able to play the run, too, and Coley did a good job of that as well. He fought his ass off when he had to face double teams, and he tried to make a pile whenever he felt himself getting pushed off the ball. I was also impressed with how Coley pursued running plays, especially laterally. He was always getting down the line and making solo tackles or cleaning dudes up on assisted tackles.

That’s another thing that I really liked about Coley on film. The dude knocked the hell out of ball carriers whenever he could get to them. Like, he would always seem to find a way to have both feet on the ground right before contact so he could explode out of his hips and deliver big blows, even when he didn’t have enough time nor space to generate that much power. There are some dudes who just naturally hit harder than everybody else, and Coley looks like one of those guys.

Now, after giving him props for his play last season, I have to also point out there are a lot of areas where Coley can and should improve in his second year as a starter. For one, his blocking scheme recognition wasn’t great at the beginning of the season. It got better week after week, but this year he should have a much better feel for what teams are trying to do to him from day one of the regular season.

Coley also probably went with finesse moves a little too much as a pass rusher last year.

It is great that he is athletic enough to win with those moves at times, but, honestly, most defensive tackles should have power rushes as their default. If you give an offensive lineman a heavy dose of power rushes early, he has to start setting for them, which will allow those finesse moves to be more effective anyway. And with power rushes, even if you can’t escape off the block to get a pressure or a sack, you can still drive your man back into the quarterback’s lap and affect his throw or flush him out of the pocket.

With finesse moves, on the other hand, all too often when they don’t work guys either get pushed wide and past the quarterback, or they end up stuck on the block because they can’t use a counter move after whiffing when they tried to swipe the offensive lineman’s hands. That is something Coley himself should see needs correcting on film and something his defensive line coach should be on him about, too. If he uses power rushes more to set up his other moves this season, Coley will be a much more productive pass rusher. Two sacks last season for an unheralded guy like Coley was OK, but his sacks should go way up this season.

On another note, I can’t be sure what kind of technique Coley is being taught when it comes to playing the run, but I saw him get reached by offensive guards more than I’d like, meaning they were able to gain outside leverage on him even though he lined up on their outside shoulder. What made it worse is a lot of the time Coley was lined up wide, more like a 4i-technique on the inside shade of the offensive tackle rather than just a 3-technique.

It’s not like he looks physically unable to maintain his B gap against those reach blocks, but more like he just didn’t trust his technique or something. Or, again, maybe he’s being coached that way. I can’t understand why a defensive line coach would want that, but hey, who knows. What I do know is that the better he gets at playing those reach blocks, the bigger of an impact he will have in the run game. Either he will be getting a lot more tackles for a loss, or he will be forcing the runner to cut back to his help.

So those are three areas where I feel like Coley not only can improve, but should improve this season. When he gets to the point where he really knows what he’s doing and he can anticipate what’s about to happen before the snap?

Opposing teams are going to catch hell trying to block him.

There is no doubt that starting all 15 of the games he appeared in last season was one hell of an accomplishment in its own right for Coley, but he has bigger fish to fry this year. Now it’s time to for him to start making a lot of the game-changing plays that being the starting 3-technique grants him the opportunity to make — and I believe he will.

If he can stay healthy, that is. Unfortunately, Coley went down with a high ankle sprain a week or so into training camp. However, I believe he will be recovered in time to start Week 1 for the second year in a row, except this year it will be expected, as will his much-improved production.

Confidence Level: Moderate