The Redskins' second-round draft pick had his inconsistiencies this season, but also showed flashes of the dynamic playmaker he can be as he transitions to safety next season.
Su'a Cravens' first season with the Redskins could be described in a variety of ways – a work in progress with flashes of brilliance, rapid development scarred by multiple injuries, a window into what the team's future strong safety will look like.
The team's second-round draft pick might just call his rookie year a learning process, one which helped him understand the tools he will need to compete at a high level throughout an entire year.
"I would say my rookie season wasn't what I wanted it to be," Cravens said the day after the season ended. "I was injured a lot of the games, so I'm going to come back next year, I'll be stronger, healthier player and ready to ball."
The Redskins used the USC product primarily as a dime linebacker this season, helping him learn the defense with the middle linebackers group for the majority of the season as a way to transition into the NFL.
He played 297 snaps, missing five games due to two separate injuries – a concussion early, an upper arm injury late -- that Cravens said he has fully recovered from. He made 34 tackles with a sack and an interception, which came against quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants and sealed the team's first victory of the season.
Even without defensive coordinator Joe Barry as part of the team's coaching staff, Cravens still plans to transition to strong safety in his sophomore season, a move the team had been building towards. In the last two weeks of the season, Cravens, although he didn't practice, observed workouts with the secondary, receiving guidance from safety DeAngelo Hall and other veteran defensive backs throughout the year.
"He's been on my back as of the last two weeks, just telling me we got to get this work in all season and next year's going to be a big year for you," Cravens said of Hall. "DHall's been a great help with mental advice and along with safety advice."
Strong safety was Cravens' more natural position with the Trojans and where he says he feels the most comfortable, a place where he can roam free in coverage as well protect against the run up front.
"I've just played it my whole life," Cravens said. "I'm used to covering tight ends and I think I can cover backs and also think I can be good in the box, so it makes sense to put me at strong safety, because that's who rotates down."
Cravens said playing linebacker this past year helped him grasp the "landscape of the defense" and let him understand the role and responsibilities of each position. The challenging part of that transition came in his physicality – fluctuating from 215 to 230 pounds, getting off blocks against 300-pound offensive linemen and learning how to stay healthy while making tackles.
"I think Su'a we knew coming in would be a 'Let's teach him the defense and he's going to be a jack of all trades' type guy. But he's got to learn first," head coach Jay Gruden said. "He's 21 years old. He's young. Let's teach him a piece that he can grasp on to and then branch him off. So I think those two guys obviously you can't see the rewards until two, three years down the road."
Cravens has no target weight this offseason, but knows it will come down to how he feels – if he can move fluidly and still be a physical presence when he plays inside the box.
This offseason he plans to work in Louisiana with former Redskins safety Ryan Clark, who contacted him through Twitter. Clark already helps train Giants safety Landon Collins, who emerged as one of the best safeties in the league in his second season, and will likely help Cravens gain more tools at the position.
Still, Cravens believes mastering the mental side of the game will have more implications for his future as a football player, experience he gained this season that will help inform his process in his second year.
"It's a long season and not counting the preseason and you got a lot of games," Cravens said. "You gotta just stay focused, you gotta be mature about it and know you got a job and I'll be better at it next year."