Alex Cappa was selected in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft out of Humboldt State, further bolstering the idea that GM Jason Licht doesn’t shy away from selecting small school prospects. With the former Hobart standout Ali Marpet working out for the best, why wouldn’t Cappa?
Despite Cappa’s accolades at the collegiate level, the tag of attending a division II school left him with little buzz at the national level, until his solid performance at the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl is often the largest stage many of these players have seen, and they need to show that they know what they’re doing if they want any chance at the NFL.
Further playing into this story is the transition that Cappa made from collegiate tackle, to professional guard. While he was shown to be effective as a tackle at Humboldt State, his play style was more so oriented with that of an NFL guard, with NFL analyst Lance Zierlein asserting in 2018 that, “[he] is a better run blocker than pass protector at this stage. Because of that, he could be targeted for a move to guard...”
It looks like Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter agreed with this assessment and decided to pull the trigger on a developmental guard that showed a lot of promise. This transition is not easy for anyone, especially if one has been playing a certain position their entire career; so it is understandable that he didn’t see much playing time in his first year.
During his rookie season, he barely eclipsed 100 offensive snaps, as most of these snaps went to the under-performing Caleb Benenoch. Even in his relief role, he struggled immensely, showing that this transition was not going to lead to immediate success and paved the way for many Bucs fans to question whether or not Cappa should be “the guy” going into 2019.
Now that Cappa has an entire season as a starter under his belt, he is still seen by many Bucs fans as the weakest link on an offensive line that has to protect the ageless wonder, Tom Brady. Many are worried that Brady is going to be pummeled to a pulp by the same line that allowed Jameis Winston to show off his dancing skills every time he dropped back to pass.
As it stands now, it looks like the Buccaneers will be rolling with Donovan Smith (TBD after his statement), Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, and newcomer Tristan Wirfs at offensive line. According to PFF, the speculation is true! Alex Cappa does appear to be the weak link, sporting a PFF overall grade of 62.7, good for 40th in the league and 4th best (can’t include Wirfs) on the Bucs.
From what I saw on tape, I will agree with many of you and PFF in stating that as it stands now, Alex Cappa is the weak spot. While this is no stark discovery or bold claim, the film does tell the tale of what it is that puts him last in line, but it also shows that there is promise.
Like many of the players I analyze I try to show the good, the bad, and the ugly, in order to put together a more complete picture. This analysis will be no different. Let’s take a look at what Cappa struggles with, if these struggles have improved, and what to look forward to coming into 2020.
Now I will begin by saying that the overall look at the Bucs run game in 2019 was a travesty. If I could take the tape of the running game over the past few seasons and throw it in the Mariana Trench, I would. Unfortunately I do not have that power.
That being said, what was it that made the run game look the way that it did? Well, before Arians and Co. took over, the run game was overly predictable and showed signs of incredibly poor execution and adjustment. After, the run game was overly predictable and showed signs of incredibly poor execution and adjustment.
The run game in 2019 consisted heavily of zone and duo blocking schemes which were much different from the typical schemes we saw under Dirk Koetter. It is possible that the switch in scheme led to a lackluster year for the run game, but there is always the potential that the blockers were the problem.
From the tape, I think it was a little of both, combined with the same predictability and lack of adjustments. How many times did we see them line up on a third and three with Peyton Barber in the backfield and think, “I bet they’re going to run it right up the middle”? Probably a lot, and more often than not, we were right.
Scheme deficiencies aside, the blockers themselves had a lot of problems, with the exception of Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet. Demar Dotson has always been known to be a weak run blocker, and we haven’t seen a lot to be desired from Donovan Smith in the run game either.
While this is all good context for the run game overall, this article is focused on Alex Cappa. So what did he lack? Well, it was kind of difficult to tell as it ranged game to game. If I could sum up Alex Cappa (run game or not) with one word, I would use inconsistent.
He definitely showed signs of his tenacity and toughness, I mean the guy broke his arm in the second quarter against the Saints and played till the end. What a madman! Even outside of that incident there were many signs of this, from cracking skulls when pulling, to man-handling pass rushers.
One big issue that stood out to me was the problem he had with being a bit too timid once he got to the second level. He would often come off of double teams in the perfect position to make an impact block but would wait for the man to come to him.
Here’s this being shown in week 1 against the 49ers. Keep in mind, this is his first start and was one of his sloppier games overall.
Notice how he gets to the second level perfectly but then sort of shuffles towards Fred Warner (#54). When playing speedy linebackers, they are often smaller but much more agile so you have to be the attacker. Any hesitations will lead to what we see here.
This happened quite a bit actually, more so in the beginning of the season. However, he did show the ability to attack, it just wasn’t consistent. Here’s a play in the same game where he doesn’t hesitate at the second level and boy did it make a difference.
This is a similar play to the one above, an inside zone run. Notice how Cappa gets to the second level and cleans Kwon Alexander (#56), yet another speedy linebacker?
The odd thing about this is that this play happened about 5 minutes earlier than the one above. This shows that he does know how and when to attack on the second level, but for some reason he doesn’t do it every time.
This is something that he has to be able to do if he is going to be successful in the NFL, especially if the Bucs continue to use this zone run scheme. To me, this issue may be caused by inexperience, rather than lack of ability.
I think that maybe he was nervous and more hesitant because he didn’t have enough live reps. I deduced this based on the fact that this problem tended to fade a little more as the season progressed.
When I was watching film, I ended up seeing more problems in the passing game than in the running game, so I decided to put the majority of my focus here. One thing I noticed about Cappa is that he often displays traits that are more associated with tackles, than guards.
He often takes a deeper drop than he should, which often leaves him with a lot of space on the inside. This leads to easy sacks or QB hits for any D-lineman that knows how to see an opening.
Here’s this on display in week 1:
Now playing the 49ers defensive line in your first NFL start is no easy task; however, there were some issues that could have been easily remedied with some in game adjustments. Notice how wide his drop is. I know that he may be worried about speed, but he can’t just give up the inside like that.
In slide protections, this wide of a drop (definitely not his height) is fine because the center will have anyone who crosses his face on the inside. Well, this was no slide protection. Honestly, this drop looks like the drop a tackle would make, look at Dotson just one man over, they take a very similar angle.
Despite the height, he overextends WAY too far on this block, which is the reason DeForest Buckner (#99) was able to get inside so easily. Cappa needs to line the center of his body with the left side of Buckner here to get any success in washing him out of the play. Instead, he lets his left hip cross Buckner’s mid-line and it was game over from there.
Ideally, he would like to be in front of his defender completely, but if he’s so concerned with Buckner beating him outside, he can still wash him up-field.
Another thing that is iffy here is his hand placement and his punch timing. During the drop, his hands are set up pretty nicely, timed well, and could’ve made a huge difference if he didn’t hesitate on contact. Notice that when Cappa goes to make that punch, he loads up a bit, widens his arms, and leaves his chest exposed. This left just enough time for Buckner to make a nice swim move inside.
Enough about this play, here’s a similar happening in week 4, this time going head to head with Aaron Donald (#99):
Aaron Donald is hands down the best defensive lineman in the NFL today so I will give Cappa that much when looking at this play. What brightens my day here in particular is that he is incredibly low and in a good power position. What darkens my day, is everything else.
Once the play starts, Cappa immediately lunges at Donald’s outside shoulder, which allows him to slap his hands away and get through for an easy hurry (which eventually led to a sack for his teammate). Lunging is a huge no-no for any lineman, in any position, during any play, in any game. He immediately shifts that position of power, to a position of weakness.
Once someone lunges, they lose the entire strength of their base. Here, Cappa needed to stay with his drop and stay in front of his man. If he just kept the same angle and didn’t attempt to push Donald’s outside shoulder, Jameis may have had some time to at least check it down to Ronald Jones II.
What makes this play similar to the one before is the egregious overextension of his body position. He always seems to shift his weight to his outside, leaving his inside vulnerable to counters. While he did only give up 4 sacks on the season, he gave up many hits, doing this exact same thing.
Interior pressure for any QB is an absolute nightmare. While outside pressure is obviously terrifying as well, if the inside is kept nice and clean, the QB can step up into the pocket and make a throw. If this sort of thing happens often when Brady is back there, he’s going to get absolutely eaten alive.
Even if someone underextends and loses the outside position, they have the ability to make up for it and wash a defender up-field and out of the way. When Cappa gives up such a wide gap on the inside, there’s no coming back from it.
Another issue I noticed was the problem of underextending and not being able to recover. While it was not as common as shooting too far, it did happen nonetheless. Let’s look at an example of this from week 17 against the Atlanta Falcons:
Remember earlier when I said that the center of the body should be in line with the inside position of the defender if you want to wash them out of the play? Well, Cappa is WAY too far inside here. His right hip hardly crosses the left side of John Cominsky (#50) here.
To see a proper example of pass blocking, just look two men to the right. Ali Marpet drops back and is immediately heads up with his defender in a strong position. Cappa on the other hand, drops back and gets caught on the inside shoulder of his defender.
Once Cominsky gets to Cappa’s outside shoulder, it was easy to drive towards Jameis, simply because there is no power in the position that Cappa is in. When he gives up the outside, he doesn’t recover quickly enough and panics, forcing him into a position where he has his back to the pocket. This is never a position you want to be in as an offensive lineman, because it sure is easy to get driven back into your QB.
Ok, enough about under/overextensions. Let’s look at the issues he had with picking up stunts by taking a look at their week 4 game against the Rams:
On this play, Cappa commits fully into the defender who is crossing underneath in this stunt. The second he tries to drive him down the line, the defender coming inside on the cross easily gets by since there is no one there to pick him up.
Cappa needs to be a pass blocker, rather than a run blocker here. He commits fully to his man, instead of keeping his head up and waiting for anyone to come inside. If a linebacker had come on a delayed blitz, the same thing would’ve happened.
This particular area was one of concern almost all season for Cappa (until the end), it seemed as though he never had the recognition that stunts may be coming.
While this definitely was something that made me yell at my computer screen every time I saw it, it definitely started to improve as the season progressed. Here’s an example of him successfully picking up a stunt in week 17:
This play in particular makes me pretty happy. Notice here that the second he realizes the defender he engages with is clearing out, his head turns right to where the underneath defender is. This showed that he was not only ready to make the heads up block, but that he recognized almost immediately that this was a stunt. Beautiful.
While the last play made he happy, this one made me realize that maybe he really is starting to get it. It’s even more impressive since he is basically sprinting backwards once he sees the outside rusher come inside.
He makes the initial engagement, notices that defender go outside, and immediately pops his head up and waits for that outside defender to make contact. The physical ability to do it is one thing, the mental recognition is another, and one that is arguably just as, if not more important.
Plays like these really gave me hope that Cappa could be the long term solution going forward at the right guard position.
Despite his deficiencies in certain areas, once he is able to get his hands on a defender in the proper position, he often doesn’t let go.
Here’s this on display in week 4:
So this is not a perfect block by any means. He gets driven back pretty far in the pocket and forces Jameis to step up into a gap. However, what impresses me is his ability to not let go once he’s made contact. Despite being driven back, he is able to anchor himself really well and eventually throws Michael Brockers (#90) into the ground.
Plays like these really show off the tenacity and toughness that he was known for back at Humboldt State. Here’s another one:
Again, he locks up his defender almost immediately and doesn’t let go the entire time. He get’s pushed back into the pocket, but definitely not enough to be concerning. On top of this, he once again shows his strength and ability to re-anchor every time he takes a step back.
When getting driven back it is not easy to find power. People often lose their balance and get put on roller-skates, often being thrown into their own QB. Fortunately for Jameis here, Cappa was able to anchor each step, allowing himself to remain in a powerful position.
The major theme through this whole article was the fact that Cappa was often inconsistent with his skill-set. From play to play you never knew what you were going to get. In some instances, he would look like Ali Marpet Jr., and the next he would look like Caleb Benenoch.
The lack of consistency is exactly what plagued his first year as a starter, but I believe that the improvement he showed towards the end of the year is something to build hope on. While his ceiling is not pro-bowl in my opinion, his floor is high enough to be a serviceable if not good starter going forward.
The only thing he really needs is more practice. This will eliminate the hesitations that often led to positive plays for the defense. Once you no longer have to think about what you’re doing, it is done much more quickly.
What do you personally think about Cappa? Do you think he shows promise, or do you think he should get heavy competition in camp? Let me know in the comments below!
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