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A Look Forward at C.J. Mosley

2nd in a series

New York Jets Minicamp Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

A Look Forward at C. J. Mosley

First a little history

With the 17th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft the Baltimore Ravens selected C. J. Mosley from the University of Alabama and at the same time took the last top talent on my Jets board. I wanted him at #18. I knew Khalil Mack, Mike Evans, and Jadeveon Clowney would never be there, and I didn’t want the Jets to trade up as there was too much talent in this class. My choices in order of desire were Zack Martin, C. J. Mosley, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham at #18. They were all gone before the Jets picked.

I figured a young stud ILB could replace David Harris in a year to help the Jets as a run stopper and in coverage. Mosley ran a 4.6/40 at his pro day which is about the same as Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix who ran 4.58/40. His 10 yard split was a quick 1.56 seconds with a 4.40 sec short shuttle. He had the tools to be special. With Tom Brady eating the Jets alive and an All Pro (when he was 22 years old) Rob Gronkowski coming back from injury I figured this team needed all the help it could get in coverage. Mosley was even better than I thought. He was a Pro Bowl ILB as a rookie for the Ravens and Draft guru Ozzie Newsome.

The Jets drafted safety Calvin Pryor who I had rated outside the 1st round. The only good thing I thought about the drafting of Pryor was he wasn’t Johnny Manziel. Thank every deity imaginable. If Manziel had been the pick I think my brain would have hemorrhaged followed by inevitable catatonia. Pryor was a bust but not a prodigious nitroglycerin laced historic bust like I felt Manziel would be.

Mosley was a fantastic college player who was well-coached by Nick Saban. He played a lot as a freshman at Alabama (which is rare) and earned consensus Freshman All American honors. Considering he had Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson, Jerrell Harris, Adrian Hubbard, Ed Stinson all in front of him it was remarkable. He had to show so much in practice to get that much time on the field. He was used in a ton of coverage his first two years at Tuscaloosa.

As a junior Mosley was a 1st team All-American. He led the team in tackles with 107. The next player on the tackle chart had 57. He also had 3 INTs that he returned for TDs which tied an Alabama record.

As a senior he led the team in tackles again (108), and Alabama coaches named him as one of the players of the week in 9 of the first 10 games. Michael Sam is always credited with being the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but he shared that award with Mosley. Mosley also won the Butkus award as the nations best linebacker.

As a rookie in Baltimore Mosley started as an ILB along with Daryl Smith and wore Bart Scott’s #57. He was the first rookie to start on the Ravens defense since Haloti Ngata in 2006. He started all 16 games as a rookie recording 133 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 INTs. He finished 2nd to Aaron Donald in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. He was voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers as a rookie.

Why did the Jets sign C. J. Mosley?

It was Gregg Williams who wanted the Jets to sign C. J. Mosley. Williams said, “I really wanted him, one of the guys that he played for is a very good friend of mine, Nick Saban, so I understand the whole philosophy of what he’s gone through. He’s had his ass chewed before, so I don’t have to worry about that because that’s how Nick is.”

Leadership is a huge factor in the Mosley signing. H was the unquestioned leader of the Ravesn defense which was always highly ranked during his tenure. “He’s a really good leader, and he leads by example first. All the great leaders that I’ve ever been a part of have to show great example before you open your mouth, so he’s always doing that. He’s always done that. He’s not an extremely highly vocal guy, but he sets the example by how he goes about doing his job, and he understands the routine of being a pro, being a real pro,” Williams said.

Williams always talks “culture” when he speaks of his defensive philosophies. C.J. Mosley noticed right away the Gregg Williams style during OTAs. Mosley recalled, “Our first three days when the veterans got here for conditioning and all of that, all he talked about was culture. We didn’t talk about any plays or anything like that. It kind of set the standard about how he wanted the defense to work, how he wanted us to work and how he wanted us to be on the field.”

“Tenacity. That’s one of the first things you can think of, the way he carries himself in the classroom speaks volumes to the way he wants his guys to play on the field. You’ll hear him talking like this and the next moment he’ll bust out screaming. I think it’s just a culture change,” Mosley stated.

Gregg Williams likes leaders on each level of the defense, leaders he can trust to change the defense when the offense moves or adjusts. That means that Jamal Adams will have the leeway to make changes in the coverages on the fly. The same goes for C. J. Mosley and presumably Leonard Williams on the 1st and 2nd levels. Mosley is a 5 year veteran and was a Pro-Bowl player for 4 of those 5 years. He is someone Gregg Williams can trust.

What makes C. J. Mosley a great run defender?

Mosley is a smart, strong player who can recognize what an offense is trying to do. He not only can read his keys. He has the speed, quickness and strength to make a play. On this play Mosley’s first key is the right guard David Decastro. When Decastro pulls to the left Mosley knows where the play is going. He has probably seen this same action on Pittsburgh’s game film numerous times.

Mosley has to decide quick whether he is going to follow the play outside or find an avenue into the backfield. If he follows the play he risks Bell cutting back against the flow and finding an opening. If he gets caught up inside then he risks allowing Bell the edge without any inside defensive leverage. The three step approach to make a play is to find the avenue, use quickness, and speed through the hole then use the strength to make the play. Bell is a 6’ 1” 230 lbs back with deceptive power; Mosley makes short work of him with a forceful, sure tackle.

Mosley has to maintain his position in the defense and not over commit to a play fake that will leave his zone vulnerable to slants and deep crosses yet still be able to make his run fits. Here against Philly (a team known for RPO plays) Mosley has to make sure the play is not a pass before he commits to a full out assault against the run.

You can see that Mosley holds his position until the ball is handed off. He is the backside inside linebacker on this play so it’s a huge area to cover. Once he commits to attack the play he is off like a shot. The right tackle (Isaac Seumalo) is supposed to make the 2nd level block on Mosley but is not quick enough. Mosley make a hard, sure tackle on a difficult play and makes it look easy. (It wasn’t.)

Hall of Famer ILB Ray Lewis is a huge Mosley fan who feels his physical attributes and attention to detail separate him from other LB’s in the NFL, “Every time I watch him, I’m like, Wow, I get super excited when I see him playing football because he’s playing it from a linebacker perspective. He isn’t just trying to tackle you. He’s trying to make you feel him. I think a lot of linebackers now are OK with making tackles. No, the game is about punishment. You want to run the ball against me? That’s a problem.”

This next play is short yardage against the Patriots who are using the battering ram LeGarrette Blount with lead blocker James Develin. This is the New England’s jumbo package with TE’s Matt Lengel, Martellus Bennett and OT Cameron Fleming playing a third TE in this set. Mosley is actually playing over the outside shoulder of the left tackle when the ball is snapped.

The play is blocked well, and Mosley must make his way the the opposite hash if he wants to make a play. DE Albert McClellan tries to make a play but whiffs on the attempt which leaves Blount a clear path to a first down. Mosley fills the hole just in time to stop Blount’s momentum and keep him from the first down line. Now he must take down a bull of a runner who is about the same size as Mosley. As Blount tries to spin away from the tackle Mosley is able to use his weight and power to throw him to the ground before he gets to the marker. This was a hard violent tackle that brought up a 4th down.

What makes C. J. Mosley a good cover ILB?

One of the reasons I personally wanted the Jets to pursue Mosley was his ability to cover in the passing game. Mosley was a superb college pass defender but struggled as a rookie in coverage in the NFL. He has gotten much better over the last few years and although he isn’t elite, he has shown a vast improvement since 2014. He ranked 24th out of 89 LB per PFF in coverage coming into 2018 but posted career lows in passing yards allowed (408) yards per reception (9.3) and yards after catch (190) last year.

C.J. just turned 27 years old so he is entering his prime years as a defender which means he should continue to improve in his coverage abilities and excel in Gregg Williams’ system. Also remember grading a MLB in coverage skills is arbitrary at best. The MLB position’s primary job is to stop the run and is usually dropped into zone coverage. He is not like a man to man corner who has a player a foot in front of him. Sometimes PFF tries too hard to put a grade on a player which makes those grades warily capricious.

Mosley is a film room junkie who has watched game film since he was a junior in high school. Everyday during the football season at Theodore High School he would bring in his bagged lunch, sit down with his school’s defensive coordinator, and watch film. His coach Eric Collier said he remembers Mosley as a courteous kid and the film sessions, “It was an everyday thing.” C. J. was quiet, didn’t say anything, didn’t ask questions, just fixated on the film. He did listen to coach Collier when he was going over the film, saying “yes sir” whenever he made a point.

This turned into not a chore but an obsession during college and the NFL. For Mosley to not watch film would be like not eating during the week. It is just part of his football life. He finds tendencies of his opponents then uses them to his advantage on the field. He is also the defensive leader who also puts his teammates in the best position to make a play.

Jets linebackers last year were woeful in coverage so getting a talent like Mosley was crucial to their being a successful defense in 2019. Mosley is a superior run stopper and a good coverage ILB. After his first 4 seasons in the NFL Mosley was 1 of 2 defensive NFL players to have at least 450 tackles, 5 sacks and 5 INTs in those 4 years. The other was Luke Kuechly.

Here C.J. is able to get great depth dropping in his zone by quickly reading the poor play fake of Blake Bortles. Bortles increases his mistake by staring down his receiver Allen Robinson; which C. J. reads easily. By getting a deep zone drop C. J. is able to move into the passing lane then jumping up and making a fingertip grab.

This play is eerily reminiscent of a heartbreaking play from the end of the 2017 season. The Ravens were leading the Bengals with less than a minutes remaining in the game; it is 4th down and 12 to go for Cincinnati. If Baltimore wins this game they are in the Playoffs. If they lose the Buffalo Bills are in (for the first time this century), and the Ravens are done for the year. The Ravens are double teaming A. J. Green at the bottom of the screen, and Tyler Boyd is in the slot covered by Maurice Canady who is in off coverage.

C. J. Mosley’s job on this play is he is to fake a blitz. He is lined up in the “A” gap just before the snap. He is then supposed to peel back and get under the route of Tyler Boyd to take away the passing lane. All Canaday has to do is pick up the coverage 25 yards downfield while not letting Boyd get behind him. You can see this action better from a different angle.

You can see Mosley get his drop and he finds the correct spot under the route but the throw is just over his outstretched leap. Somehow Canady gets lost in coverage. He gets pulled to the sideline by the route of Brandon LaFell and gets completely turned around. This is not even a good route by Boyd. He essentially just runs straight down the seam to a spot 25 yards downfield. This completion is completely on Canaday as Mosley got to his spot, Mosley also has underneath responsibilities so if Giovani Bernard (bottom of the screen) catches a dump off pass Mosley can stop him from attaining the first down.

This play haunted Mosley for some time even though he did everything he could. A few weeks later Mosley was in the Pro Bowl game ,and his high school coach (coach Collier) came up to see him. “C.J. doesn’t get too riled up, but you could tell the Bengals game hurt him, because he brought it back up over and over,” Collier said.

Many fans falsely blamed Mosley for the Cincinnati defensive collapse and social media users were unmerciful in their rancor on Mosley. As the leader of the defense Mosley took this defeat as a personal failure so he worked doubly hard in the offseason to hone his coverage skills, and the work paid off in increased efficiency in 2018.

Mosley is a quiet leader and usually very stoic in his demeanor except for life-altering plays like the one against Cincinnati. Coach Collier recalled a conversation he had with Alabama coach Nick Saban when C. J. was at Tuscaloosa, “I’ll never forget this, one time Nick Saban called me and asked, ‘Does this guy ever get emotional?” The answer was yes, but it is hard to tell exactly when it happens.

Of course many fans didn’t remember the first game of that same season against that same Cincinnati team when the Ravens defense shut them out to the tune of a 20- 0 score. In this game Mosley is in essentially in the same zone coverage except he is covering the zone directly in the middle of the field.

The horribly lazy throw By Andy Dalton to a covered Brandon LaFell is this time picked off by a leaping Mosley and returned 31 yards out to the 27. Again this is basic zone coverage and a pick on a ball that should never have been thrown. The one thing Mosley can do to improve his coverage skills more is to work on his catching ability. He drops many would be interceptions, and those are lost turnovers, game-changing plays that need to be made.

Then of course there are great plays that Mosley makes which change the conversation about his skills. Ray Lewis is quoted as saying. “I would love for you to show me a better middle linebacker in the game than C.J. Mosley. That’s from a pure football instinct level of being a general and always ending up in the right place. Can he get better? Absolutely. Overall, that is what a linebacker looks like, plays like and thinks like. C.J. Mosley, that’s a football player.” I would argue that Luke Kuechly is a better ILB, but Kuechly has had injury issues, especially concussion issues which are very concerning for an ILB with all the contact involved at the position.

The part of the the Lewis quote “pure football instinct level of being a general and always ending up in the right place” rings true in this next GIF as Mosley is in blitz mode when he reads the play and the actions of QB Matt Moore.

As Mosley starts his blitz he is picked up well by right guard Jermon Bushrod, but C.J. keeps his head up and reads the play. QB Matt Moore is in shotgun yet takes only a 2 step drop back and stares down his receiver Jarvis Landry who is running a short slant from the slot. As Mosley watches Moore’s eyes he pushes off Bushrod and puts himself in the passing lane as Moore is in the process of his throw. The result is an INT and a defensive TD which puts the game away as the score moves to 27-0. The Ravens eventually win this game 40-0 in a complete domination of the Fish.

C.J. developed his work ethic early in life as a child from a good family. His mom Tracy was a parent coordinator at his high school while his dad woke up everyday at 4 am to go to work at the shipyard in Theodore Alabama. “You have a family like that, and see your father do that, you’re going to have a work ethic,” Collier said. C.J.’s mom Tracy added, “It comes from his father. Both boys saw him work, but my husband did not let them give up on anything. There was nothing easy. He wanted them to know how to work.”

After getting off work the Senior Mosley didn’t follow coworkers to a bar or lounge around on the couch at home. He was usually toting around sports equipment to football or baseball or basketball practice As Coach Collier got to know the Mosley family better he now understood why a kid like C.J. was watching film during his lunch hour everyday instead of hanging around the cafeteria with friends or fooling around.

When C.J. played football in high school he would dominate on the field but never celebrated like other kids. He didn’t chest bump or jump up and down. He just went back to the huddle to call the next play without so much as a fist pump. He didn’t trash talk or showboat. He didn’t even construct a highlight tape to send to colleges. He felt if his play on the field was good enough people would notice and he would get recruited. He was right as he was a huge find for Alabama; C. J. would became a Butkus award winner.

That extra hard work paid off in 2018 after the heartbreak in 2017. As fate would have it the season was on the line in the final game against Cleveland. If the Ravens win they are in the Playoffs, and if they lose the Steelers go instead.

Even more like the 2017 season it all came down to the last drive with the Ravens up by only 2 points and Cleveland barely outside field goal range at the Raven 39 with 1:06 left in the game. Also like 2017 C. J. Mosley was within a finger tip of the play.

In this play the pass was just low enough for Mosley to get his hand on it and tip the ball upwards then back down into his waiting arms. Ray Lewis’s quote rang true again, “pure football instinct level of being a general and always ending up in the right place.” Mosley was able to see out of the corner of his eye Duke Johnson sneak out of the backfield then he was able to break away from the block of Joel Bitonio enough to make a play. The Ravens were AFC North Champions, and Mosley felt a sense of vindication.

What did Mosley accomplish in Baltimore, and what does he bring to the Jets?

C.J. Mosley is a man of few words about himself and said succinctly, “I have an obligation to be the guy in the middle to make the plays and make the calls, that’s my job; that’s what I’m here to do.”

C.J. Mosley was a Pro Bowl player in 4 of the 5 years he played in Baltimore starting all 77 games he played there. He had 579 tackles, 9 sacks, 9 INTs and 6 forced fumbles and was also a leader on defense and respected by his teammates. He led the Ravens in tackles 3 of his first 5 years and led them in INTs 2 times. Terrell Suggs said of him, “C.J. is one of the premier players in this league.”

DT Brandon Williams said, “I feel like C.J. can go as high as he wants to go and be whoever he wants to be. He’s got that much talent. He’s got that much leadership ability, and I’ll follow him anywhere. I think C.J. can be a premier -- can be, is, will be forever -- a premier linebacker in this league.”

You have to remember that C. J. Mosley was drafted two years after Ray Lewis retired and was looked at as THE replacement for Lewis. Replacing a Hall of Fame player is no easy task let alone a Baltimore cultural icon like Ray Lewis. Lewis played all 16 years of his career in Baltimore. He had legendary pregame speeches and a famous introductory dance that became renowned across the league. Ray Lewis was on the cover of a famous video game, Baltimore held a parade in his honor and the team erected a statue of the linebacker in front of M&T Bank Stadium. That is a lot to live up to as a replacement.

Mosley’s persona was the exact polar opposite of Ray Lewis. He was quiet and introspective, never wanting personal accolades. He didn’t show people up. He didn’t give loud speeches, he didn’t dance. He was a lead by example kind of guy, the I got your back kind of player who just wanted to win.

Without self promotion he won the hearts and soul of a team; even Ray Lewis looks up to him in a way. His coach Jim Harbaugh saw it first hand; “C.J. has always been a leader because of his ability and because of his work ethic, but he’s definitely grown. He’s grown into, he’s more comfortable with, he’s taken more charge of the defense that way.”

“You’re never going to replace Ray Lewis,” John Harbaugh said. “There will never be another Ray Lewis in football, ever, but there will be a C.J. Mosley, and that’s all C.J. has to do, and that’s what I love about C.J. He understands that. Be who you are, be your version of whatever that is, and he does a great job of chasing every day.”

C. J. Mosley may not be a self-promoter, but he still has high goals for himself even if he does not shout it from the rooftops. He has goals he wants to achieve in his career. He is not shy about them. He puts a list of them on his locker so he can look at them everyday before practice to motivate himself to greater heights.

Some people claim the Jets overpaid for the services of Mosley, but what is a player’s worth to a team, and how do you know what that worth is before he has ever played a down for that team? Mosley enters the prime of his career as he comes to the Jets and brings a high standard of play along with him. If he can can play to his level while motivating others to play to a higher standard isn’t that worth more than the sum of his stats?

In today’s world of knee-jerk reactions and instant commentary I say let’s wait a little while before we pass judgement on the Mosley signing. The Jets are finally building a nucleus of fine young talent with at least 8 or 9 players as building blocks. Those building blocks and other auxiliary players need leaders; not gung ho types but do as I do types who show you how to be a pro and then expect you to act accordingly. If you have a team with a few alpha types who demand greatness and expect to win most others will follow their lead.

The first 4 years of their careers of C. J. Mosley and Ray Lewis are statistically similar with both players with the same numbers of Pro Bowls, Lewis with more tackles and sacks while Mosley had more INT’s and forced fumbles. Asked if he was surprised by that fact Mosley said, “We both put in the work. Being part of great defenses and great organizations, we both got to the Ravens at a great time when they needed a linebacker to do the things we did in the first four years. It’s still an honor to be talked about with him. As long as I keep that going, I think I’ll be alright.”

He said we both put in the work. That is what C. J. Mosley is all about.