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The Film Room: Zach Baun Is The Next Great Wisconsin Pass Rusher

Why Zack Baun is perfect for the Texans

J.J. Watt, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt. Wisconsin is lucky to be the home ground of the accomplished Watt trilogy. Two are elite pass rushers (Derek’s probably no slouch either) who scare every quarterback and offensive lineman in the NFL. Offenses are forced to gameplan for these monstrous edge rushers, because if they don’t, moving the ball will be an impossible thing to accomplish.

As Texans fans, we have been extremely lucky to watch J.J. Watt, demolish and terrorize every offensive lineman thrown his way. You can’t leave him one-on-one without getting your quarterback crushed into the ground. Even double teams often aren’t enough to stop the giant. The best you can do is hope and pray that J.J. will have an off day (he never does) and is going to take it easy on you (he never does).

Don’t let the four letter networks deceive you, at 31 years old, J.J. Watt is still a dominant pass rusher. He might not be as athletic as his young self, but he still owns a myriad of pass rush moves, which he has the power and fluidity to execute. While J.J. is still a productive pass rusher, we need to think about the future without him and improve our pass rush immensely.

The chart above gives me more pain than promise. A simple explanation of the graph is that you want to be in the upper right quadrant and don’t want to be in the bottom left quadrant. While it helps support Watt’s dominance despite his age, it also shows Jadeveon Clowney’s (above Watt) destructive season despite low sack totals. While it hurts to be reminded that we traded away a generational talent for nothing (except for Jacob Martin). It hurts just as much knowing we gave Whitney Mercilus, (bottom left quadrant) one of the worst pass rushers in the NFL last year, a 4 year $54 million dollar deal.

As currently standing, the Texans’ defensive line is composed of likely starters: J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, Brennan Scarlett and promising backups: Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu and Duke Ejiofor (please stay healthy). As much as I love Martin, and believe in Omenihu’s abilities to be a solid interior pass rusher, everyone knows we need to add more.

This is where Zach Baun comes in.

At 6’2, 238lbs, Baun is a talented outside linebacker. The Texans like their outside linebackers to have size. For example, Mercilus is 6’4, 258lbs and Scarlett is 6’4, 263lbs. While Baun is clearly a bit smaller, he plays bigger than his size and this shouldn’t be an issue. Baun’s game is built around his great athleticism, nuanced pass rush moves and his useful versatility. I never thought we’d have a chance to draft Baun, but now possessing the #40 overall pick, he could slide right into our range. If so, we should be running in that card with absolutely no hesitation.

Most great pass rushers are great athletes, it gives them a natural advantage to use at their disposal. Baun may not be a generational athlete like Clowney, but his bend and burst show up when rushing the quarterback.

Baun (#56) is lined up at the bottom of the screen as a stand up rusher. When the ball is snapped he flies off the line of scrimmage showing off his burst and gets into the left tackle (#78) before he can even take his third kick step. This immediately gives Baun an advantage. All he has to do is dip his shoulder, flip his hips towards the quarterback, then bend and finish the strip sack.

Every time Baun steps on the field, his athleticism is apparent, but even the freakiest of athletes need some skill and pass rush moves to succeed. Baun, just like J.J. and T.J. coming out of Wisconsin, has plenty of those skills. Baun plays mind games with offensive tackles. First he’ll beat them with a speed rush as shown in the first play. Then, when the tackle is waiting for the speed rush, he’ll counter inside.

On this play he takes a hard step outside to fake the speed rush. Then he fires inside, uses his right hand to swipe down the tackle’s hands and get off the block. The tackle doesn’t move his feet to recover and Baun has a clear path to the quarterback. Defeating the tackle’s hands is a necessary skill for a pass rusher and Baun is one of the best in the draft at doing so.

Now that Baun has shown he can beat you outside or inside, it’s time for his go to pass rush move. Once he gets close to the tackle, he takes one step to his right, faking the inside rush, then explodes outside to his left. Finally, he swims over the tackle and swipes down at his hands, preventing him from getting pushed out of the play. He bends the corner and is one of the many Wisconsin Badgers devouring the poor quarterback.

Here’s another example of Baun’s go to move, but it’s easier to see with this endzone camera view. He’s lined up on the left side, over the left tackle (#75). He makes it look so easy. He flies off the ball, takes that inside step selling the inside rush, then goes outside instead. From this angle it’s apparent how he expertly uses his hands to defeat the block. As the tackle tries to punch Baun in the chest, he uses his right hand to swipe down the tackles hands. Then Baun swims over with his left arm and holds off the tackles last resort effort to recover. Yet another strip sack for Baun.

Rushing with a plan is one of the most important aspects of pass rushing. Baun always has a calculated plan on how to beat the tackle. It’s the fourth quarter. Baun has been using up the speed rush all game. Now he counters inside, and the quarterback can’t get away. As an offensive tackle going up against Baun, you have to worry about a variety of rushes: the speed rush outside, the quick inside counter move, and his go to rush, where he fakes both the speed rush and the inside counter.

Baun has a wide variety of pass rush moves but he can just simply run down the middle of an offensive tackle too. Here, he flies off the ball and converts speed to power by punching the tackle right in his chest. He drives his feet, pushing the tackle into the quarterback’s face. If the ball was out half a second later he would’ve had the sack.

He has athleticism and skill, but his versatility is what the NFL scouts are raving about. He’s a perfect 3-4 outside linebacker who can rush the quarterback and also cover.

Here he lines up on the defensive line and takes one step forward to fake a rush. Then he drops back, reads the quarterback’s eyes, and has an easy pick 6. The Texans have needed linebackers who can cover for all of eternity and we could finally have a great one in Zack Baun.

Versatility is the name of the game in the NFL and the Texans do value it quite a bit. With Romeo Crennel, we have been a multiple defense that mainly plays 3-4 front, but also plays the 4-3. We don’t know for sure what new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will do, but luckily Baun can fit into either scheme.

On this play he is lined up at the top of the screen as a 4-3 off ball SAM linebacker (he’s on the strong side of the formation) and is forced to defend a screen. Once he reads it, he stacks the wide receiver, sheds the block, then makes the tackle and shut down the play. Baun has good instincts and play recognition; two things that are vital for a linebacker playing in space.

He’s lined up at the top of the screen again, this time he drops back in coverage and is tasked with the flat zone. He notices the running back leaking out and once the quarterback looks his way, he makes a break for it. He flies downhill and makes a tough open field tackle.

As great as Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney are at stopping the run, they are abysmal in pass coverage and aren’t great at making these tackles in space. Thankfully, Baun is fundamentally sound and calculated with these tackles.

Baun is smaller than the typical Texans’ outside linebacker, but he plays bigger than his size. Here is a perfect play that clears any apprehension.

Baun is lined up at the top of the screen and the offense is running zone in his direction. He needs to set a strong edge and force the run back inside. Despite his lack of size, Baun plays this perfectly. He fires his hands into the tackle’s chest, pushing him back five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play is dead. The running back has no where to go. Baun doesn’t make the tackle or get anything on the box score, but he definitely made this play.

Here’s another example of Baun’s strong run defense. Minnesota is running the read option. As the read man, Baun’s job here is pretty simple, he needs to stay at home, not pursuing the running back or the quarterback. He also needs to squeeze down the edge, closing the gap between him and the tight end (#42). Since he does his job, he forces the quarterback to hand the ball off to the running back. Now Baun can chase down the play and make the tackle. Tough, smart, and dependable.

Zack Baun combines J.J. Watt’s wide array of pass rush moves and power with T.J. Watt’s athleticism and versatility to create a very well balanced, dominant player. I have him ranked as my EDGE #3 and a top 20 player in the draft class. but currently he’s mocked as a late first round/early second round selection.

Leading up to the draft, every night before I go to sleep I will put a shiny spoon under my pillow for good luck. I will wear my pajamas inside out and backwards. I will brush my teeth for exactly 56 seconds and pray that somehow Baun falls to pick #40. Will any of these random good luck charms I just made up on the spot work? Highly unlikely. But you can bet I’ll still try them, and I welcome you to try anything you can to ensure Baun falls to Houston’s early second round selection. Because if he does, we might just have the next great Wisconsin pass rusher to carry on J.J. Watt’s legacy.