Vikings

Blake Cashman Brings An Element the Vikings Were Lacking

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Cashman was clearly a priority target for the Minnesota Vikings in free agency. They came to terms just over three hours after the legal tampering period opened.

While initial reporting had Cashman’s deal at $25.5 million total, the real number was $22.5 million with just $9.4 fully guaranteed, per Ben Goessling:

Cashman is a hometown player. He grew up in Eden Prairie before playing college ball for the Golden Gophers. Despite incredible athletic testing with a 9.51 RAS score, Cashman fell to the fifth round due to a lack of refinement and landed with the New York Jets.

Cashman was impressive enough to earn playing time almost immediately with the Jets and started in his second career game against the Cleveland Browns. He went on to play 90+% of the snaps in the next handful of games before he ended up on IR with a torn labrum. Cashman’s bad injury luck continued. He spent two stints on IR in 2020 with groin and hamstring issues and landed on IR again in 2021 with a groin injury.

Out of favor after missing so much time, the Houston Texans flipped a sixth-round pick for Cashman, and he caught on as a core special teamer. In 2023, he became a starting LB midway through the season and played the second most snaps of any Texans LB despite missing two games with another hamstring injury. He played alongside Christian Harris, Denzel Perryman, and Henry To’oTo’o, all of whom had injury issues.

Along with Andrew Van Ginkel and Jonathan Greenard, Cashman represents an overhaul to Minnesota’s edge and LB group. Out are Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, and Jordan Hicks. They were replaced with Greenard, Van Ginkel, and Cashman, respectively. While Cashman’s injury history may raise a question about his ability to play full time, injuries are not necessarily sticky for certain players. For example, Hicks suffered significant injuries in three of his first four seasons, then didn’t miss a game for almost five years until he had to miss time with compartment syndrome this past season.

So, on the field, what time of player are the Vikings getting in pass coverage? I went to the tape to find out. I was able to watch the Houston Texans’ games against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, and the Divisional Round against the Baltimore Ravens last year.

pass coverage

The best part of Cashman’s game, and probably the most important from an analytics perspective, is his ability in coverage. He’s a strong coverage player with a number of traits that translate to any defense. In his coverage ability, Cashman brings an element that the Vikings were lacking last year. Hicks had slowed to the point where he was underwhelming, and Ivan Pace Jr. was still getting a feel for how to cover in the NFL game. With Cashman, the Vikings are hopefully shoring up a weakness that led to the defense falling apart at the end of 2023.

Cashman put his skills on display in the play below against the Falcons. He’s No. 53 and lined up at middle linebacker on this snap. Atlanta fakes a run, which Cashman respects, and then his job is to roll over and back (ROBOT) to gain depth as quickly as possible and find a coverage assignment. He quickly spots former top-10 pick Drake London running a crossing route and has the burst and speed to stick with him on the route.

The play below displays a high level of athleticism and feel for the game:

Cashman has the athleticism to comfortably stick with TEs in man coverage like he does with Kyle Pitts on this play:

Cashman also has the athleticism to gain depth quickly as a coverage player. In one rep, he was able to get depth to play underneath a vertical route from Hollywood Brown, knowing he had safety help over top. In the impressive rep below, he starts at the line of scrimmage, gets depth against the No. 3 to cap any chance at a vertical win, and reads the curl to stick with it.

This is a difficult assignment that made a player like Eric Kendricks so valuable, and Cashman has the skill to consistently execute it:

Cashman’s athletic traits also allow him to quickly bring pass catchers down if opponents scheme them short completions. He has the burst to close and contact the receiver as they catch the ball and the speed to chase down screen plays or dumpoffs to the sideline to limit gains.

On the London play above, Cashman showed a good feel for spacing in coverage and consistently stayed underneath routes to prevent throwing lanes. It’s something Minnesota’s LB group struggled mightily with last year. He keeps his eyes on the QB in zone while feeling the receiver behind him and was able to rally and tackle on scrambles. When asked to play man or match within his zone, he sticks to the receiver even when they try to use routes with short-area quickness to shake him.

Cashman isn’t perfect in coverage. He’s not quite like having another safety on the field, and while his athleticism and feel are strong for an LB, there will be some lapses. The three plays below show some limitations.

On the first, he fails to feel how deep the TE’s vertical route is going and leaves a window for the ball to be thrown (the QB misses the throw, which leads to an INT, but it could easily have been a completion over Cashman’s head). Against the Panthers, he had a rep where he played with far inside leverage and couldn’t quite get to an out route, which is an extremely difficult assignment (the TE dropped the ball). Finally, he did get worked by Tommy Tremble on a red-zone TD.

If anything, he needs to work on his ball skills to disrupt passes while they’re in the air.

run defense

Cashman’s athleticism and range show up immediately when looking at his ability to defend against the run. The play below, where the Falcons run a pitch to the sideline, is a great example. Cashman has the burst to get past the center climbing to block him and meet the RB as he tries to turn the corner for the tackle.

His sideline-to-sideline ability and burst to get to the ball show up time and again when Cashman is unblocked. He’s an impressive athlete at the position and these plays will be a big positive for the Vikings.

While Cashman has great range, he falls short in another area of run defense: his ability to take on blocks. He’s abysmal at taking contact from opposing blockers, whether it’s linemen, TEs, or even an RB in one rep. Cashman consistently gets knocked backward at initial contact. He fails to compress run lanes or set an edge if that’s his job on the play. Check out this play against the Panthers, where Cashman is aligned on the edge against the LT. Rather than absorbing contact and trying to compress the hole, he takes a massive step backward and tries to spin out of the contact, but that plays directly into his opponents’ hands.

Cashman also struggles to disengage from blocks. Cashman can disengage by outrunning offensive players to the spot, which can be seen some in the compilation above, but he almost never disengaged from blocks when directly contacted by an offensive lineman. On the play below, he let the lineman move him so far that he basically ended up off the screen:

This happens to Cashman play after play after play in run defense.

The Vikings have another smaller player, Ivan Pace Jr., whose lack of length means he struggles to take on blocks directly from linemen. However, Pace is relentless in run defense, trying every move possible and using quickness to get around blockers, making himself very difficult to block. Cashman just lets the player come to him and takes the loss.

Here is the one play where I saw Cashman effectively shed a block:

To put a positive spin on it, Cashman will likely have to take on direct contact less often against the run on the Vikings, who play with five-man surfaces often during early downs. That helps prevent double teams and linemen from climbing to the second level, and should help Cashman get more free runs into the backfield like on the first positive compilation above.

Cashman reads the game and generally plays his assignment well. However, a couple of lapses, particularly against pullers, make me question his feel for defending gap runs.

The three plays below show the misses:

Ultimately, Cashman has shining positives with his mobility in run defense. However, he doesn’t live up to his high 82.3 PFF grade because he struggles to take on contact and will miss reads. Hopefully, the Vikings can keep him clean, and he may benefit from playing with a more aggressive mentality in Brian Flores’ defense.

blitzing and effort

Blitz ability is a critical component for linebackers in the Flores defense. Ivan Pace Jr. and Jordan Hicks blitzed on over 25% of their snaps last year. Cashman didn’t blitz quite as often. But with 48 pass-rush snaps on the year, he’s no stranger to blitzing the QB, with three sacks in the games I watched. The snap below against the Cardinals was a particularly impressive rep and came on a “You” stunt, which is a common stunt the team runs in 5-0 looks like on the play below.

Cashman used his speed to get upfield on the RT and then bend effectively to get around the corner and make the sack:

Cashman’s athletic ability regularly shows up when he’s asked to blitz. He ended up unblocked a number of times, but the burst was evident, and he was able to disrupt the process for opposing QBs.

Besides blitzing, Flores LBs must have the capacity to mug a blitz and then drop out into coverage, and Hicks and Pace occasionally struggled to get depth in these drops. Cashman did this effectively on multiple occasions, and his athleticism really shows in his ability to drop from the line of scrimmage.

Cashman also had a rep where he dropped out in a “tag” pressure, something that is a hallmark of the Flores defense. I didn’t love the way Minnesota’s defenders performed on these blitzes generally last year. With Cashman and the addition of Van Ginkel, who also has a lot of experience doing it, I expect the depth and ability to take away throwing lanes to improve.

The two plays below show Cashman’s ability. On the first one, he does a good job with a tag pressure. On the second, he gets great depth to take away a throwing window on a deeper crosser.

Still, on an isolated rep, Cashman struggled to disengage from an RB blocking him on a blitz. Hopefully, he learns to disengage from blocks, something Pace is awesome at:

Finally, an important part of any player’s game is the motor that they play with. Cashman has multiple high-level hustle plays on tape. On the first play below, he gets pulled by the run action on a trick play but can make his way downfield fast to tackle the pass-catcher from behind. On the next play, he runs down a screen to the opposite sideline after initially following run action.

Finally, he gets one of his three sacks after spinning around to get after a scrambling Lamar Jackson:

conclusion

In Blake Cashman, the Vikings added a quality player to their defense. Cashman is a strong coverage player who has a good feel for zones and can play man well against TEs. He can even stick with wide receivers in match coverages, where his athleticism is a true asset. Cashman may not quite have the athleticism or coverage chops of a defensive back, but he’s the next best thing and covers at a very high level for an LB.

Against the run, Cashman is great when he’s kept clean and doesn’t have to take on a block. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player who has the burst to get to the edge and tackle RBs. When the way is cleared in front of him, he can explode into the backfield and make impressive TFLs. However, when asked to take on blocks, Cashman really struggles. His inability to hold ground or shed blocks makes him a liability if the team wants to play with light boxes, and some of his missed reads or poor positioning against power plays are concerning.

Cashman also has notable positive reps as a blitzer. He can execute stunts that will exist for him in Minnesota’s defense, and his burst makes him a dangerous player to leave unblocked. Cashman also regularly finishes plays with great effort to bring down his opponent from behind when he starts from the other side of the field or to finish off a sack on a scramble.

The change the Vikings made at LB is an interesting shift, moving from a stronger run defender and box player in Jordan Hicks to the rangy, coverage-focused Cashman. I like the move, as coverage is generally a more valuable skill than run defense. The Vikings will likely be able to hide some of Cashman’s deficiencies in run defense with heavy boxes, including Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard.

Meanwhle, Cashman’s feel for space will benefit the team greatly when he is dropping from the line of scrimmage or asked to play an underneath zone while the coverage structure is down one or more players due to a blitz. Cashman’s skillset should help eliminate opponents’ ability to attack the middle of the field with their passing concepts, which was a big part of the reason the defense fell apart down the stretch last year. Overall, I think this move is a step in the right direction to get younger and more coverage-focused at the position.

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