Vikings

What Can Brian Asamoah Be?

Photo credit: Bryan Terry-The Oklahoman via USA TODAY Sports

For all the trading and maneuvering that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did on the first night of the NFL draft, his reward was pick No. 66. With that pick, he selected Brian Asamoah II out of Oklahoma. It was a wholesome moment that helped soothe the awkwardness of the pick seven slots prior. Adofo-Mensah immediately connected with the teary-eyed fellow Ghanian and seemed genuinely excited to get him into the building.

That doesn’t have anything to do with his evaluation, it’s just cute, and I like it. Anyways, about his football play.

Range

Asamoah’s selection continues a trend from the Rick Spielman era of undersized, coverage-focused linebackers. He’ll compete with Chazz Surratt, Troy Dye, and even Blake Lynch for backup inside linebacker spots on the interior of Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense. To get to know him, I watched the games I could get my hands on, which started with his masterstroke at Baylor (and a game-ending rep from the 2020 Cotton Bowl).

There are a lot of great skills at play here. Oklahoma is assigning him front side gaps with a back side alignment, meaning he has to make up a gap’s worth of ground on that first toss play. That’s exacerbated in college, where the hash marks are further apart. No problem; Asamaoh’s got true sideline-to-sideline range. It’s one of the few things that gets easier in the NFL, which means Donatell and his staff will be able to exploit that range.

This play in particular against Texas Tech stood out:

Asamoah has a blitzing responsibility, which takes him very far upfield before the pass is thrown to the flat. That’s what Texas Tech wanted, and the play is designed to put Asamoah in exactly that position. It’s incredible that Asamoah got to the ballcarrier by the first-down marker.

That’s an important lesson when scouting a prospect. The above play is a good gain for Texas Tech, mostly because they had the right blitz counter dialed up and the quarterback successfully threw hot. We’re not scouting how many yards Texas Tech got, we’re scouting Asamoah’s traits. This is the rangiest play I saw on the tape I could get my hands on, and it would be difficult to outdo.

Physicality

All this speed does not come without cost. Asamoah weighed in at 226 lbs. at the combine, which is closer to a safety’s weight than a linebacker’s. I don’t think he should move to safety, but he does have to play linebacker in an odd way. Asamoah just does not have NFL physicality. He can’t take on a blocker and influence him in the way most linebackers have to.

Watch the below compilation. Take your eye off the ball and instead watch Asamoah. Don’t ask if he made the right play or read things correctly. Focus on what happens when he first engages with his opponent. Who influences whom? Who is delivering force and who is tasked with withstanding it?

It’s Newton’s law — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. He’s just not putting the oomph on his opponents that his opponents are putting on him. Two caveats that are important to consider: One, many of these lowlights are from 2020, and in 2021 he seemed to improve at this somewhat. Two, a ton of these are blocks against offensive linemen with huge weight advantages. Even if Asamoah packed on 20 lbs., he shouldn’t be expected to stand up an offensive lineman like Anthony Barr could.

Before you go getting worried about a Chazz Surratt redux, Asamoah is not Chazz Surratt. They have some traits in common, but Asamoah is a much more responsible version of the extreme case that Surratt is. Surratt got repeatedly blown up by lighter players than Asamoah himself. The worst example I found for Asamoah was against a 246 lb. tight end. It’s a weakness, but not a dealbreaker.

Asamoah is also not a gigantic idiot and is aware of his weakness, so he plays an avoidant game. At every juncture possible, Asamoah will avoid the contact and instead opt to keep the blocker at a distance or try to use a pass-rush move to dodge him altogether. That can be sustainable, though it’ll be much harder against NFL competition.

The first rep sees him “get skinny,” which is a great way to avoid a blocker. Make yourself a smaller target and the big guy will suddenly have to be a lot more precise than he was expecting. The second, third, and fourth reps each feature a different defensive line technique: A shoulder dip, a two-hand swipe, and long arm all help keep the blocker from getting a clean engagement. The third rep isn’t much of a pass-rush move, but it highlights just how much Asamoah wants to stay out of true stack-and-shed engagements.

You could say he shies away from contact if you wanted to paint it in the most negative possible light, but I think that’s a perfectly defensible style for him. In fact, it leads to penetration and backfield disruption. That’s preferable to just holding your gap (would you rather have Aaron Donald or Dalvin Tomlinson?). Still, an NFL starting linebacker has to be able to stand up to some contact. It’s unavoidable. Eventually, an offensive lineman will get his hands on you. Nobody expects you to win every one of those reps, but Asamoah would be a marked man against powerful run games.

This is, as it comes, a backup linebacker package. He isn’t physical enough to be an every-down plan A, but if someone gets hurt or if you need another body for a subpackage, you can live with it temporarily. I personally expect a little more than a backup from pick No. 66. Anyone in the top 75 should be able to start for you eventually. So there are two options: Ask Asamoah to bulk up and limit his range, or live with who he is and hope that his avoidant style can become more consistent.

That second option isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Asamoah is an adept blitzer. You can tell that he already has a pass-rushing repertoire, even in the above compilation. That’s a great base from which to build a player who proves the last two paragraphs spectacularly wrong. The biggest weight advantage in the world won’t matter if Asamoah is too slippery to consistently engage. It’s a strange way to play, but it might be the highest ceiling Asamoah has to offer. If he’s that hard to block, forget being a starter. That can be a defensive weapon.

That’s the most optimistic path forward for Asamoah. While not impossible, it would be improbable. A more likely path is to teach him how to be physical when at a weight disadvantage. He can utilize leverage and technique to hit blockers a little harder without having to bulk up and slow down. He could take a few pages out of Lewis Cine‘s or Andrew Booth‘s book, both of whom can hold their own against offensive linemen despite massive weight disparities.

But all of this ignores what Asamoah’s biggest strength is according to his scouting reports: coverage.

Coverage

Every scouting report I could find on Asamoah lists coverage as a strength, and I’m not going to be the dissenting voice. Asamoah is very fluid in coverage, his range makes his assignments easy, and he even has some exciting man-coverage ability.

Watch Asamoah’s feet on these two plays. He shows a ton of traits that will be very important to Donatell’s scheme. There is no wasted motion. That efficiency maximizes his ability to pick up one route, pass it off, and pick up a different route without ever conceding a throwing window.

Twice, Texas Tech tried to attack Asamoah with a wheel route. This might be the hardest coverage responsibility a linebacker can have. Wheels are one of my favorite concepts because of how much they demand from coverage linebackers. Asamoah sticks with them well.

As an inside linebacker primarily tasked with shorter coverage responsibilities, Asamoah wasn’t tested too much. The NFL will test him more. But seeing these traits, I’m not worried about his ability. That’s what makes him a viable backup linebacker by Day 1. You can trust him in his coverage responsibilities, and, assuming he learns the playbook as well as the next guy, you can trust him to go the right way in the run game. He’s just a little too small to be a dependable starter as it stands right now.

Asamoah’s scheme fit is in line with all of Adofo-Mensah’s draft picks in the first two days. He’s explosive, rangy, and smart enough to read concepts and execute complex coverage patterns. The vision for Ed Donatell’s defense is clear, even down to the rotational players. Whether Asamoah can be more remains to be seen, but the package the Vikings drafted can immediately fill a role.

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