It’s NFL Draft and free agency season. Accordingly, there are a lot of transactions and reports that come out on players, many of which start the same way: Trent Murphy from Stanford University or Trent Murphy, formerly of the Washington Redskins, stands 6’5″, 250 pounds, runs the forty yard dash in 4.86 seconds. It’s likely followed by what he does or doesn’t do well. One buzz word that you will hear frequently is ‘tough’. Well, that buzzword isn’t just a descriptor; it’s in newly-signed defensive end Trent Murphy’s DNA, and it’s something General Manager Brandon Beane and Head Coach Sean McDermott obviously fell in love with.
“I sat down in his office and what he is looking for and why he was sold on me, and I think it’s just that toughness and that passion. He said he’s kind of followed my career and seeing it at Stanford, the Redskins, saw how hard I played at the Senior Bowl – just bringing that kind of relentless passion every play and that’s how I play the game. That’s how I think it’s meant to be played. I couldn’t be more excited to bring that here.” –Trent Murphy discussing his meeting with HC Sean McDermott
If you go to his website, the first word you see is toughness. It is something that he learned among his six siblings on their farm in Mesa, Arizona. When he began playing football freshman year in high school, he was inexperienced, running around creating havoc with no real structure to his game. His coaches had to reel him in, start teaching him defensive techniques from square one. But his coaches didn’t want to just build a football player; they wanted to bolster the man he would one day be. So his coordinator and strength coach augmented his toughness by incorporating Navy Seals drills. These are the types of drills that not only test your physical limits, but also your mental limits.
Those techniques and Murphy’s hard work paid off, and he went on to play at Stanford for Jim Harbaugh. But Murphy’s toughness was immediately tested, as he dealt with injuries. His freshman season was a wash because of a sports hernia, and his sophomore season was cut short due to a broken foot. But his toughness shined through, finishing the final three years of eligibility by racking up 160 total tackles, 52.5 tackles for loss, and 32.5 sacks from the outside linebacker position.
The fifth year Senior was drafted by the Redskins in the second round and averaged 60.7% of the snaps in his three seasons in the capital.
2015 vs. the Bears
But his coming out party was in 2016, when he registered 10 sacks, 15 QB hits (2nd-most) and 30 QB hurries, and that was not even as a starter. He typically started on the bench behind Ryan Kerrigan, but the two would rotate frequently. When he was on the field, that toughness, length, hand usage, and motor created a ton of production.
In 2016, Murphy was one of the better run defenders among all outside linebackers. He was ranked 9th in run stop percentage (6.3%), which included 21 solo tackles and 15 run stops, per Pro Football Focus. He is very good at using his 33 7’8″ arm length to stack and set edges.
His length and physicality help him set strong edges and defeat some of the better tight ends and tackles in the NFL.
Here he is lined up over the tight end, and as the ball is snapped, the tight end tries to wash Murphy down. Murphy utilizes his long arms and great hand placement to swim over the top and avoid the pulling guard to make the tackle. That’s winning trench warfare with good play speed and technique.
Murphy was very disruptive that season, sometimes due to his never ending motor, sometimes due to design. He showed a tendency to get skinny through the hole on run slants/blitzes, quickly putting him into the backfield to make plays.
But the real reason he was brought to Buffalo was to improve the Bills’ pass rush. Buffalo’s defense produced the 2nd-worst pressure rate (27.2%) in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders.
Murphy is able to win often because of his play speed. It’s almost as if he slows the game down. His ability to win the hand battle is fun to watch. This tackle tries landing his ‘punch’ inside Murphy’s frame, but the targeted area is too high, Murphy reads it and immediately grabs both wrists, lifts, and rips through.
While he isn’t the most explosive athlete, he drives hard out of the block. He has the ability to threaten upfield, with a slight arc that puts him in position to get a two-way go either inside or to the edge, and that makes tackles vulnerable.
“At the end of the day, you kind of have to beat hands and get down the edges of guys….”
On this play, the lineman attempts to neutralize Murphy’s speed rush with wide hands by looking to use the ‘hug’ technique to grab him and do what he can to stay with the rusher. Murphy recognizes it and quickly swipes both HANDS down, throwing the tackle off balance. He rips through and gets a hit on the QB. Murphy is just really good at diagnosing the tackles’ blocking intentions and countering accordingly.
On this rush, the left tackle is struggling to kick slide, and his weight is on his toes. The tackle attempts to get Murphy to declare his first move by flashing his left hand, but Murphy doesn’t fall for it. Instead, on Murphy’s third step he converts the speed to a power move. First, he uses his helmet to initiate contact, then he gets his hands inside and bull rushes. The guard attempts to help, so Murphy shifts his leverage wide, rips through, and gets the sack.
Having played in the NFC East, he had to face some really good tackles, guys like Jason Peters, Lane Johnson, Tyron Smith, and even his teammate Trent Williams, who he saw every day at practice. On this play, Murphy beats Smith for the sack. On the snap, Murphy reads run, so he takes a tight angle to set the edge. But it’s a play action pass and Murphy is able to withstand Smith’s ‘punch’, chop down his hands, and at the same time have the speed to get the corner, giving him a lane to the QB.
“I mean, I think that their biggest goal is to bring in and help the guys that are here already be more disruptive and disrupt the passer, [and] disrupt the backfield. I think when you can get after the quarterback and get TFLs and do your job from that standpoint, stop the run and put pressure on the passer – you’re talking about winning games from that standpoint.” -Trent Murphy
The ability to diagnose run-to-pass on play action passes but still get to the quarterback is a skill that the Buffalo defense lacked last season. They just didn’t have rushers with that sort of balance. Murphy’s ability to stop the run at a high rate (9th-best), paired with his ability to be a productive pass rusher to the tune of 9th-best in pass rush productivity (11.8) among all outside linebackers in 2016, is a testament to his mental processing. He is always reading, diagnosing not just the play, but also his opponent. He can win his matchup with pass rush plans and counters. Here, he clears the run then swipes the tight end’s hands away to get the corner, then flattens to the quarterback.
While I don’t believe he has top tier bend or leg strength, he does show flashes of it from time to time. For example, take this play versus the Cowboys. There’s a slight delay in the tackle’s kick slide, which allows Murphy to swipe, rip, put his hand down to bend, and flatten en route to the sack.
As you may have noticed, on a lot of these clips he ends plays on the ground. I think that has to do with the lack of lower body strength, mainly when trying to bend or turn the corner. He has thin legs, and they seem to buckle at times. However, he will produce, even with some of those deficiencies.
Buffalo took a chance on Murphy, a guy who battled severe pains in his knees and heels in high school, the former Stanford Cardinal who dealt with a sports hernia and broken foot while at Palo Alto. Then he overcame a torn ACL and MCL in 2017, a season in which which he was supposed to build on his 11th-best, 55 total pressure campaign.
But it’s easy to see why they did. He has the competitive toughness that this regime looks for. He has the run stopping and pass rushing skills that fit the defensive scheme. Murphy is just another misfit, and the Bills hope to maximize his potential like they have with so many others.
“I just want to compete. Compete and find a way on the field, really. At the end of the day, help the team win, so however that happens, however that plays up, I hope I can hit the opposite color.” -Trent Murphy