Head coach Sean McDermott is about to undergo his first draft in Buffalo and there is no doubt that he has many holes to fill on both sides of the ball. In his introductory press conference, McDermott mentioned that he has been part of rebuilding a defense from the ground up, and he has his work cut out for him due to the transition to a 4-3. Luckily, the depth of this year’s draft lies on the defensive side of the ball. For that reason, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Bills to go offense early and defense in the mid rounds.
There are holes in the secondary, but McDermott can scheme to protect them. Athleticism, play making, and most importantly depth needs to be injected at the linebacker level. According to McDermott, the current starting linebackers are 33 year old Lorenzo Alexander, Reggie Ragland, who is coming off a surgically repaired knee and has yet to take a snap in the NFL, and finally journeyman and special teams standout Ramon Humber, who has appeared in 108 games but only started 19.
The Bills will likely target a starting outside linebacker like Reuben Foster or Haason Reddick in the first round. If they don’t select one of those LBs, then Boise State linebacker Tanner Vallejo has many of the traits that will translate into McDermott’s cover 3 defense. Vallejo will most likely be available with one of their 5th round picks, which may be why the organization sent the Bills’ linebacker coaches to the Boise State pro day to get a closer look at the prospect.
When you look at the stats and turn on the film, Vallejo looks very similar to former Carolina Panther AJ Klein. Coming out of college Klein was 20 pounds heavier, which makes sense, considering Klein played inside linebacker. Vallejo projects as an outside linebacker early, but like Klein, could be used in a pinch at any of the linebacker positions in McDermott’s defense. In fact, Vallejo played inside linebacker at Boise State in 2015.
Vallejo is a good match in McDermott’s defense because of his athleticism. He has the speed (4.67 forty yard dash) and fluidity to be an asset versus the pass in McDermott’s cover 3 scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, his average yards per catch surrendered was under 6.0 in seven of nine games in which he was targeted. He gave up just one grab over 20 yds (43 targets) and none over 10 in all but two games.
He doesn’t just let receivers run through his area; he gets physical with them.
His abilities in zone coverage are very good. He reads route combos well, covers a lot of ground with his backpedal, and ultimately takes options away from the QB.
On this play, Vallejo is the force defender to the field, and the offense tries baiting the defense to bite on the WR screen.
On the snap, the QB fakes the screen and is attempting to get the ball to the vertical route. Vallejo reads the QB and the receiver and senses that he will not be the primary target.
He gets his eyes back on the QB, transitions to his backpedal, and takes away the secondary option.
Here’s the play in full:
He has good feet and change of direction skills, whether at outside linebacker or inside linebacker, something Klein also showed.
The offense runs a snag concept versus this cover 2 look by Boise State. He is able to flip his hips and gain depth while in zone.
Vallejo is the inside linebacker and responsible for the deep middle. He opens his hips to the field, then gains depth while continuously checking for threats that may enter his zone. As the ball is thrown underneath, he plants and drives to bring the receiver down.
His style of play is very similar to Klein. Check out both in the same role as force defenders. They utilize their feet and change of direction skills to make plays on the ball.
Against the pass he shows really good awareness of the down and distance, in conjunction with how the offense wants to attack. On third down, Vallejo recognizes the sprint out and takes away the primary option. Such a heady play to force fourth down.
He does not fall for ‘eye candy’ because he displays good discipline and awareness when in zone coverage. On this two point attempt late in the game, Wyoming tries getting horizontal movement with the fake jet sweep.
He doesn’t fall for the jet sweep action, stays home, finds the threat entering his area, and forces the QB to go to a different receiver. That is all you can ask for from a zone defender!
The Bills’ defense definitely needs to add some range to it’s linebacking corps, and I think Vallejo is a mid-round target who fits.
Range isn’t the only dimension that the Bills need from their linebackers, though. They also need to add the ability to blitz. According to PFF, Vallejo had the 6th highest pass rush productivity rating for all outside linebackers (24.4). He registered 14 total pressures last season. Vallejo has the timing and speed to create pressure on the QB, and from pretty deep in his set.
The 2016 campaign for Vallejo was overall disappointing to witness, in terms of his tackling ability. I would chalk most of it up to the fact that he played with a broken wrist for several games. His tackling was pretty bad, missing nine, but his inability to wrap up was usually paired with a tendency to over pursue.
Vallejo comes in too hot at times and doesn’t wrap up when in pursuit. These are things you would expect from a mid-to-late round prospect. Angles and tackling technique can be improved with the proper coaching.
But overall, his athleticism will give him opportunities to avoid blocks along the perimeter or to shoot gaps versus the run. His ceiling as an NFL player will hinge on his tackling.
Potential Bills Fit:
According to Tony Pauline, the Bills “think highly” of this linebacker prospect. Why wouldn’t they, especially considering where he projects on day 3?
Initially, I don’t believe that Vallejo is a starter, but I think that he can play all three of the positions in McDermott’s defense. That will make him a fantastic depth player to have. He has the range that you want in a pass happy league and good enough instincts versus the run to create chaos at or behind the line of scrimmage.
His below average size and bulk will hinder his ability to win versus most guards and tackles one on one. But if stacked behind a strong defensive line that can keep him clean, I believe he will be more than just effective.
His tackling was pretty bad last season, but I do believe a lot of that had to do with his wrist injury and his inability to properly wrap up.
If drafted in the 5th round (like AJ Klein was), then I could see him entering the game in nickel and dime packages. If Vallejo can stay healthy and steal some snaps here and there, then he is the type of player that 2-3 years from now could be considered a starter for Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier.
Overall Grade 68.182-5th round
Other Scouting Breakdowns: