Meet the Cubs: Amari Spievey Scouting Report

>> 5.21.2010

3.2, 66: Amari Spievey, Iowa CB:

01 JAN 2009:  Amari Spievey of the Hawkeyes warming up before the Outback Bowl with the University of South Carolina playing against the University of Iowa at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  It’s not a secret: coming into the draft, the Lions needed cornerback help.  Of course, the Lions always need cornerback help, but the Lions really needed cornerback help.  At the top of the third round, the pickings were slim.  The Jets’ surprise selection of Boise State CB Kyle Wilson kicked off a run on cornerbacks: four went in just seven picks. 
With two more corners coming off the board before the Lions got back on the clock, all of the “first- or second-round” corners were gone; there was no slider, no steal, no early Christmas present sitting there for the Lions.  One such guy I thought might fall, Chris Cook, actually went with the 34th pick of the second round.

Unfortunately, the next tier of man-to-man cover cornerback prospects, like Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Trevard Lindley, were definite fourth-rounders.  Until Michael Schottey started putting Amari Spievey’s name out there on the Mlive.com live chat, he wasn’t even on my radar.

Amari wasn’t really on the major recruiting sites’ radar, either.  Coming out of Middletown, CT, as Xavier High School’s all-time leading rusher, Spievey was rated a two-star corner by Rivals, and a two-star cornerback/runningback by Scout. He had 3,606 yards and 50 TDs, along with 87 tackles and 16 INTs.  In 2005, he was named the Connecticut Player of the Year, while leading Xavier to the Class LL state championship.

Despite the tepid grades from the big recruiting sites, Spievey boasted a small, but impressive offer list: Iowa, Wisconsin, and Rutgers.  Spievey chose Iowa partially because they showed lots of early interest:

"The offensive coordinator at Iowa is from Connecticut and my school is actually his school's rival and I used to run all over them. I kind of caught his eye and they had been recruiting me since I was a freshman."

Once at Iowa, Spievey didn’t have a seamless transition.  He was redshirted his freshman year, and had difficulty maintaining motivation.  Through a combination of being switched to defense (he’d played runningback his whole life), being so far from home (he’s very close to his mother), and having a staph infection (ow), Spievey lost his way.  He wasn’t mixed up in the party scene; he’d just lost confidence and direction both on the field, and in the classroom.  Spievey got the wake-up call he needed, according to Nick Cotsonika, by being dismissed from the team:

"When I got dismissed, that kind of just shook me up and just woke me up, like, 'Man, you better take advantage of this opportunity that you have here,' " Spievey said. "I knew that if I had a chance to come back that it would be my last chance. After that, I would be out of football. I made sure I wasn't going to mess it up."

That's exactly what Spievey did.  In 2007, he had seven INTs, 242 INT return yards, two INT return TDs, returned two kickoffs for TDs, boasted a 39-yard kickoff return average, and blocked four punts.  His The Iowa Central Community College Tritons went 9-2 en route to being ranked 7th in the nation, and Spievey was named NCJAA 1st-team All-American.  He also pulled his GPA up, netting a 3.0 and 2.7 in his two semesters there.

Welcomed back to Iowa University—and the Hawkeye squad—with open arms, Spievey embraced the challenges of big-time college football.  Amari opened his junior year as the starting right cornerback, and closed it on the All-Big Ten team (coaches’ second-team, media’s honorable mention).  He finished third on Iowa in tackles, with 68 (43 solo); he had four INTs and six passes defensed.  He was also named to CollegeFootballNews.com’s Sophomore All-American second team.  Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker on Spievey’s turnaround:

"When he came back, he came back with a different attitude," Norm Parker said. "He was much more into studying film and that kind of stuff, the stuff you have to do to prepare to play a game, than he was before he left. All of a sudden, he believed a lot more of what you said than he did in his first go-around. He just wasn't mature. I think it helped him mature."

His senior season, Spievey had two things he'd never had before: respect, and expectations.  Named to the preseason Jim Thorpe award watch list, and a bevy of preseason all-Big Ten teams, Spievey was expected to be an impact player on defense, and that he was: starting every game, he was second on the team in solo tackles, with 42, 2 interceptions and eight passes defensed. 

The postseason awards followed.  He was named All-Big Ten again, this time to the first time by the Big Ten coaches, as well as The Sporting News and Phil Steele’s own first-team All-Big Ten lists.  He was also named to College Football Insider’s All-America third team, and Pro Football Weekly’s honorable mention All-America team. 

Spievey decided to forego his senior year.  Between his redshirt year, his juco detour, and leaving early, he’s actually right on schedule: He had four years of school, and just turned 22 years old.  With his physical maturity, the accolades he’d received, and the limitations of Iowa’s system, he had little left to prove.

An interesting sidenote: Spievey was an art major.  Yes, that’s right, an art major.  I have the privilege of being the son of an art major, and I knew a couple of art majors in college . . . none of them were big-time college football players.  Spievey told Scout.com why:

“My whole family is good at drawing. I've been drawing since I was little. My brother was always drawing, so I've been watching him for years and found that I had the ability to draw, too. And I found that it's something I love to do. Whenever I have free time I pull out some paper and a pencil and just draw whatever I see, whatever's on my mind. I talked to Coach Ferentz and he said, "while you're here you might as well do something you love to do" and I love to draw, so I decided to be an Art major.”

So.  This is the part where I run down his profile as a prospect, but I’m going to sideline for a bit.  Adam Jacobi of the excellent Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants put together an Amari Spievey Owner’s Guide, and it is a definitive reference.  Getting away from all the “stiff hips,” “thick lower body,” and “has the high, tight bubble you look for” stuff, Jacobi gives us the in-game bottom line on what Spievey does on the field:

Will Spievey be awesome? It depends on where he goes. At Iowa, he was the most special cornerback we've ever watched. He got torched once against Illinois in '08 and once against Penn State in '09. Those happened and you're free to read as much as you please into those plays, but also consider that they're the only two times that he got torched. It's not as if he's just plain too slow. On, say, the Ravens, he'd fit in beautifully.

Again, read it: Black Heart Gold Pants's Amari Spievey Owner’s Guide.

Okay, so: really special player, really hardnosed tackler, great instincts, very physical, good athlete, but possibly lacking in the blazing/gambling/one-on-one fly route erasing department.  Also, a suggestion that he could be a standout in a defense which runs a defense where the corners press with safety help up top, such as the Tampa 2.

Cue the wailing, lamentations, and gnashing of teeth from Lions fans everywhere.

Let’s hear what all those scouty types have to say, anyway:

First, Spievey's NFL.com combine profile page:

Spievey is a two year starter for the Hawkeyes after transferring from Iowa Central Community college. He has a good combination of size and athleticism for the position. Spievey doesn’t have great power and pop as a run support defender but gives consistent effort and is solid in the open field. Spievey is just average as a reactor to route progressions and has some work to do in this phase of his game. He does have a good feel for leverage in the running game and is quick to squeeze running lanes from the perimeter. Spievey shows good hands with the ball in the air and is aggressive to make a play in traffic. Spievey is a good football player that has a higher ceiling than many prospects but may take some time to work into a starting role.

CBSsports.com's NFL Draft Scout breakdown of Spievey:

Man Coverage: Usually played off in Iowa's defensive scheme and was able to transition to face receivers and stay on their hip down the sideline. Could be an effective press corner, but needs to get his hands on the receiver more consistently. Strong enough to ride his man out of bounds if getting the jam. Loses track of his man when turning to look for the ball downfield. Plays tall, has a high, choppy backpedal and only average lateral movement. Allows receivers to eat up cushion too quickly.

The National Football Post’s scouting report on Spievey, via Rivals.com:

He's a technically sound corner who showcases good footwork in his drop, does a nice job keeping his feet under him and wastes little motion when asked to click and close on the ball. He displays a good feel in coverage and looks natural when asked to read and react in zone coverage and close on the football . . . the biggest knock on Spievey is his lack of a second gear when asked to turn and run downfield. He demonstrates above-average fluidity when asked to transition out of his drop but struggles to get back up to speed quickly and seems to get too upright when asked to run vertically downfield . . . Overall, he's a tough corner who can tackle, press and find the ball in both off-man and zone coverage but will struggle when asked to turn and run with speed downfield.

SI.com grades Spievey as a 2.65; a "future starter".

Analysis: Spievey has been a terrific player at Iowa the past two seasons and has the skills necessary to develop into a second cornerback on the NFL level. He's a top-100 pick who should see action in nickel packages as a rookie in the NFL as he completes his game.

As always, there's a lot of contradiction here: Spievey either has "good feel or "isn't instinctual", either "wastes little motion" or "is inefficient", either "doesn't have great power and pop" or is the best tackling corner ever.  However, there is a consensus picture: he's really, really good until he has to turn and chase—but if he can improve that dimension of his game, he’s a complete player with high upside.

It's difficult to say what "scheme" the "Lions run" when it comes to the secondary, since between injuries and lack of talent, the Lions were pushed up to, and beyond, the breaking point.  They 2009 in all-hands-on-deck panic mode against Drew Brees and the Saints, and then lost Ko Simpson, Eric King, Jack Williams . . . the starters were terrible, and they were losing their injury replacements to injury.

It’s reasonable to assume that given healthy, quality defensive personnel, the Lions would use more man-to-man, to allow their safeties to be more aggressive blitz.  Then again, it’s reasonable to assume that the Lions will be deploying their safeties in 2-deep umbrellas, as Gunther turns up the wick on OLB pass rushing.

Either way, the Lions like their defensive players to be multidimensional; no player should limit what the defense can do.  They’ll expect him to learn what he doesn’t know, and improve where he’s lacking.  The stuff they care most about: smart, big, tough, physical, aggressive, but doesn’t make the big mistakes—and learns from them when he does, that stuff’s all there.

The comparison Lions fans leap to is nasty, physical Tennessee CB Cortland Finnegan; I hesitate to compare any third-round rookie to a perennial Pro Bowler.  But Finnegan needed a few years to develop his game, and if we give Spievey enough time, he may get there as well.  Of course, why bother waiting and seeing when we can know right now?

We consult the most authoritative oracle, the Solomonic arbiter of future NFL success: YouTube Highlight Reels!

Observe the "snap-back" (Gunther's phrase for the motion DeAndre Levy’s tackling victims) at the two hits Spievey delivers at the 1:10 mark here :

Here’s the NFL Network’s Draft Recap breakdown of Spievey.  These are some great clips here, and we see Spievey make some excellent plays on the ball.  What struck me most was his awareness of where he is on the field, his understanding of angles, and his instincts to turn INTs upfield and make plays.  You see his background as a runningback and kick returner in his open-field vision, too. 

Here, also, is the 2009.  IOWA.  DEFENSE.  SIX.  SECONDS.  OF.  HELL.  In the 4 minute video, six seconds is about all we see of Spievey (check 2:52), but it’s still worth a look-see.

After all that killer rawk music, I'm totally amped to go play some Quake II or something!   Anyway, the upshot is that Amari Spievey is an unusually tough, smart, motivated player, who has the technique, strength, instincts, and maturity to compete for a starting job right away—and acquit himself well, for a rookie.  Moreover, the giant smoking crater that is the Lions’ depth chart at the cornerback position will give Spievey the opportunity to do exactly that: compete for a starting job right away.

The issue will be whether or not he can hold up in man-to-man coverage on the outside.  As a nickel corner, I think he’d be a plug-in impact player.  But I have a sneaking suspicion he ends up on the outside right away, where he’ll be repeatedly tested by Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and, let’s face it, Brett Favre.

Spievey's saving grace for 2010 might be Louis Delmas.  If Amari plays the same right cornerback position he did in college, he should (if memory serves) have Delmas behind him more often than not, allowing Spievey to be aggressive and physical—and therefore, effective.

Will James was a similarly-built, excllent the-play-in-front of him tackler last season.  But, his rotten coverage skills, and the rottener safety play behind him, forced the Lions to play him ten, twelve, or even fifteen yards off the ball; practically at safety depth.  You can’t be a physical, press corner if the wideout is in lined up in the next zip code.

To that end, I want to mention something interesting: TJ, from Lions blog The Mane Point, saw that Spievey was initially listed on the Lions’ official roster at DetroitLions.com as a safety.  It’s since been changed back to corner—but given his skill set, and the Lions’ similarly smoking crater next to Delmas, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spievey flex a little between corner and safety.

Long term, the outlook is extremely bright.  There’s no question in my mind that Spievey possesses all the physical tools to be an excellent all-around starting cornerback in the NFL, even if he’ll never achieve Champ Bailey status as a one-on-one cover man.  He will be much better in 2011 than he will be in 2010—and, I believe, much better yet in 2012 than in 2010.  The only problem for the Lions is, they need Future Amari Spievey to arrive in August.

2 comments:

Neil May 21, 2010 at 6:14 PM  

That's pretty much where I landed on Spievey too.

One big thing that I took away from my rooting around for info when I did my scouting report on him was that the dude is just a player. There is a little bit of a cliche in a statement like that, but sometimes cliches are true, you know? He has all the qualities that Jim Schwartz seems to love: tough, physical, smart. I think they know how to use him.

sJe May 21, 2010 at 8:56 PM  

I don't know if forcing him into the #2 CB spot is a good idea this year or not, but its looking more and more likely that it will happen. Ideally he's a nickel/back-up guy right now, but I don't see anyone as a favorite to take that #2 spot away from him. Jonathan Wade, Eric King, Jack Williams? Those are some ugly names right there. He'll definitely be thrown into the fire early and often this year, I just hope he doesn't get abused too bad. Let's also hope we are not overstating the effectiveness of a good d-line to a secondary's performance, assuming of course our d-line will meet expectations.

Boy oh boy, the Lions secondary is lookin' at another tough year. Watch out for a CB first round next year. Looks to be a nice class at the top, for whatever its worth.

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