The New York Jets need an infusion of athleticism and coverage talent at linebacker. Here’s why Nicholas Morrow is the perfect man for the job.
As long as he stays healthy and available, the Jets have their MIKE linebacker in C.J. Mosley. He’ll stay on the field for just about every play and man the middle of the linebacking core. What the New York Jets need to look for over the next few months is a WILL (weak-side) linebacker to place beside him, someone who offers speed, athleticism and high-quality coverage ability.
Enter Nicholas Morrow. The 2017 undrafted free agent out of Division-III Greenville University (Illinois) is coming off a breakout 2020 season that established him as the exact type of player that the Jets will be seeking.
Tiny for a linebacker, as he stands at just six feet and 225 pounds, Morrow played safety in college before switching positions in the NFL. He has used his superior athletic tools to find his NFL home as a WILL linebacker in the Raiders’ 4-3 defense, making him a natural fit for the Jets.
When Morrow was drafted, the Raiders’ defensive coordinator was Ken Norton, who served as the Seahawks’ linebackers coach from 2010-14. Over that time period, Robert Saleh (2011-13) and Jeff Ulbrich (2010-11) coached in Seattle alongside Norton, inheriting the defensive philosophies of Pete Carroll that they have each carried with them throughout their NFL coaching careers.
Although he weighed only 216 pounds at the time, Morrow ran the forty-yard dash in 4.52 seconds at his pro day, a mark that would rank as the seventh-best in Combine history for an inside linebacker, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Obviously, his inferior weight would project to be a problem for him at the linebacker position regardless of his speed, but Morrow has bulked up a bit since getting into the NFL and has been able to hold up at the position full-time despite his lack of size.
Outstanding coverage in 2020
Morrow was a backup-quality player over his first three seasons (more on that later), but in 2020, he ascended to an elite level in coverage.
Dropping back into coverage on 411 snaps over 14 games, Morrow was targeted 53 times and allowed 36 catches for 265 yards, four touchdowns and 10 first downs. That’s a conversion on just 26.4% of pass attempts, well below the 2020 league-wide average of 36.3%.
Morrow allowed only 5.0 yards per target, third-best among linebackers to face at least 30 targets in their direction, trailing only Roquan Smith and Lavonte David. His average of 0.64 yards allowed per cover snap placed at the 86th percentile among qualified linebackers, while his Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 70.4 landed at the 83rd percentile.
With a total of nine passes defended, Morrow trailed only K.J. Wright (10) among linebackers.
Morrow has been a highly effective blitzer throughout his career. He has 29 career pressures over 138 pass-rush snaps, a pressure rate of 21.0% that is far beyond the 2020 positional average for linebackers (14.3%). In 2020, Morrow had a career-high pressure rate of 22.5% as he picked up nine pressures over 40 rushes.
Improvement as a tackler
Missed tackles were a problem for Morrow prior to 2020, but his tackling consistency kicked up to a top-notch level in his fourth season. Morrow converted 78 tackles while missing only six, giving him a miss rate of 7.1%. The 2020 league average for linebackers was 10.1%.
Morrow has played in 62 out of 64 possible career games (96.9%). The only games he has missed in his career came in Weeks 15-16 of 2020, with the first of those two games due to a concussion and the second due to COVID-19.
Just 25 years old today and about 26.1 years old when the season opens in September, Morrow is one of the youngest linebackers on the free agent market. Among unrestricted free agent linebackers who played at least 200 snaps last year, only Anthony Walker (26.0 on September 1) is younger.
Morrow’s lack of size and strength has been problematic for him in the run game, which is why he has never been a full-time every-down starter in his career. He has played 95% or more of his team’s snaps in 14/62 career games, just 22.6%, usually taking on the role to fill in for an injured starter. Morrow exceeded the 95% mark in six of his 14 games this past season.
In each of his four seasons, Morrow registered a PFF run defense grade that was below the positional average. His average percentile ranking among qualified linebackers (200+ snaps) in PFF’s run defense grade has been the 31st percentile, with a career-high 42nd-percentile ranking in 2020 (50.9 run defense grade).
Morrow is actually solid at finding the football to make stops in the run game. In 2020, he made 20 run stops over 272 snaps against the run for a rate of 7.4% that placed at the 61st percentile among qualified linebackers. He was solid at finishing tackles against the run as well, making 43 tackles in the run game and missing only three (6.5% miss rate).
How could Morrow grade poorly against the run if he is doing a good job of both getting to the ball and finishing when he gets there? Well, the fact that his run defense grade was so low in spite of those things suggests that he struggles in the off-the-stat-sheet facets of the phase. As we will see on film, Morrow was often at fault for allowing big runs as he struggled with fulfilling his gap responsibilities and getting off of blocks.
One-year-wonder status of 2020
Teams thinking about pursuing Morrow will need to deduce whether his 2020 season was a mere outlier or a true breakout that will be sustainable.
Morrow did not put up very good coverage numbers prior to 2020. From 2017-20, he allowed 1.15 yards per cover snap and 7.9 yards per target (2020 LB averages: 0.96 and 7.3).
As mentioned earlier, Morrow was a poor tackler until making massive strides this past season. From 2017-20, Morrow had a 14.0% missed tackle rate, nearly double his 2020 rate of 7.1%.
You can clearly see Morrow’s safety background any time you watch him drop into coverage. His instincts, fluidity, and technique are atypical of a linebacker. He has the exact tools that the Jets have sorely lacked at the linebacker position for so long.
Dropping into the hook/curl zone on the play below, Morrow doesn’t just run to a spot and stand there like Jets linebackers have loved to do for the past few years. Instead, he recognizes the greatest threat in his area and covers both the area and the man.
Morrow recognizes the tight end, Noah Fant, as an immediate threat in his zone, so while keeping his eyes on the quarterback, he uses his peripheral vision to mirror Fant’s movements, ensuring he is positioned to play the ball if it comes Fant’s way. Drew Lock looks to Fant on the quick sit-down and Morrow is right there, using his outside arm to punch the ball out. The Jets have not had nearly enough plays like this from their linebackers in recent seasons.