Film study: The raw athleticism of Al-Quadin Muhammad

Nov 7, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Matt Johns (15) is pressured by Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Al-Quadin Muhammad (8) during the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 7, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Matt Johns (15) is pressured by Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Al-Quadin Muhammad (8) during the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Because of the lack of depth at defensive end, sixth-round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad has a chance to contribute heavily in his rookie year.

And while common sense suggests Al-Quadin Muhammad will need some time to develop — he has only played on year of football in the past three — he appears to have all the physical tools he needs to be a disruptive force from the edge.

I recently wrote a film study on the Saints other DE rookie, Trey Hendrickson. With Hendrickson, I had to deal with the problem that there’s not much tape of Florida Atlantic online. With Muhammad, I had a similar issue, with one key difference. Miami has plenty of tape, obviously. But the only available game from Muhammad is from 2015, against Virginia Tech. Because he missed all of the 2016 season. The difference here is that the Saints have plenty of tape to evaluate Hendrickson on, I just don’t have access to it. For Muhammad, neither I nor the Saints have anything to watch from 2016.

So much of the Saints evaluation of Muhammad came from his workouts with the team. But from what little tape exists, we can come to some conclusions. Let’s watch it together.

Al-Quadin Muhammad

Pass rush

The first thing you’ll notice from Muhammad — it jumps out from the very first snap of his game against Virginia Tech — is the explosiveness. It’s something that you don’t necessarily see in Trey Hendrickson. Muhammad EXPLODES off the line to get after the quarterback.

He’s got an excellent combination of speed and strength. He lowers his head and makes the first contact with the tackle, moves him with ease and doesn’t lose a step getting to the quarterback. This was early in the game, and while it was Muhammad’s only sack on the day it was a sign of things to come. Note, also: he lines up in a two-point stance. He does this all game. The Saints haven’t typically rushed ends out of the two-point stance, so it’ll be interesting to see how they line Muhammad up. He certainly has the speed to play two-point.

Muhammad doesn’t have a huge array of moves, and that problem is exasperated by his lack of practice over the last few years. But more often than not he’s able to beat his man with sheer athleticism.

He’s at the bottom of the DL here. Watch. He doesn’t use any moves, and might even have been better served by swimming back outside after leading his blocker inside. But as the tackle plants and tries to push him out of the play, Muhammad stays strong. He doesn’t budge. He fights through the inside arm without losing any balance and rips through with enough force to send the tackle to the turf. Then he puts on the burners.

Here’s another example:

Muhammad doesn’t have the bend that we hoped we’d get in Derek Barnett. But he turns the corner here off of pure athleticism. He’s simply too fast and strong for the tackle. Even though he doesn’t lower his shoulder he can fight through the arm-block. If anything this sort of rush — if he can pull it off against NFL tackles — is more effective than a bending edge rush. If the DT plays contain (the DT really blew his assignment here) this collapses the pocket quickly without giving the same lane out that a bend does.

And while he is short on moves, he showed flashes. And remember, I’ve only watched one game.

He puts on a solid swim move here. It’s not great: he takes too long to initiate after getting initially swallowed up, and he swims into a crowd surrendering his gap against a scrambling quarterback. But the hand technique is solid and it shows that the rest might come with reps. And with some solid coaching.

This play does betray a trait that I noted over this game: it’s first down, Miami has no players covering the short middle, yet Muhammad sells out for the pass. He shows flashes as a run defender, but he’s clearly a pin-your-ears-back type of lineman. Now, listen. I’ve heard some complaints about Trey Hendrickson’s abilities against the run. Supposedly he looked bad in the Senior Bowl. I suspect he may have been out to prove his abilities in pass rush. In general Hendrickson looked very solid against the run. And while Muhammad did show flashes, he’s much further behind as a run defender. That could limit his impact early in the season.

Run defense

As a run defender, Muhammad tends to rely on his athleticism to recover and make a play. Lining up in a two-point stance doesn’t help against the run, so it’s hard for me to evaluate how effective he might be as a regular in a three-point stance. But Miami’s insistence on the two-point stance suggests that it is his best use, and his body suggests the same. Muhammad’s main strength is his speed and his ability to convert that into power. But he’s decently moveable.

In general, I was not a fan of Virginia Tech’s tackles against the run. Watch here:

I mean, sure, the play is essentially a fake. The left guard pulls and the fullback and tight end break to the right end to make the run look like it’s going right. I don’t think it’s a read option because the quarterback doesn’t even look to keep it. And yeah, sure,  Muhammad is fast and the tackle wants to make sure he initiates contact solidly. But come on. What are you doing. The run is going to your side, the back tries to bounce it outside immediately, and you still haven’t made contact with your DE? The center doesn’t do the play any favors here either.

Still, I think it’s worth breaking down what Muhammad does well here. Even if the tackle had moved forward and made contact, Muhammad has his shoulder turned and would have been able to stay squared to the edge. And while I can’t excuse the tackle, I’ve got to give credit to Muhammad for setting him up and forcing him to backpedal. The tackle is waiting for the right moment, and Muhammad makes sure it doesn’t come. And then he’s got the lateral movement to explode along the edge when he sees the opportunity for the tackle. And then, something that has been sorely missing in New Orleans: Muhammad wraps up the ball. It’s hard to fault the back for the fumble here. It’s all Muhammad.

I’ve only got one more example against the run:

His athleticism is really on show here. At first glace it looks like he sets the edge a bit shallow, but with the pulling right guard and the fullback that’s exactly what he needed to do. If he’d tried to take a wider angle the quarterback would have had plenty of space between the two blockers to get the first down. He still does, because the corner to the outside gets held. But Muhammad does his job here.

The only thing I would want is that he disengage from the blocker just a bit earlier. He does a great job of getting his hands on the guard and making the first contact, but once he’s done that he’s sealed the gap. If he explodes out of that block immediately, there’s no corner for the quarterback to turn. That’s a tough ask though. Muhammad does a great job regardless.

Like I said, Virginia Tech’s tackles were not very effective against the run. And I suppose you have to give some credit to Miami for that. Either way, it led to very few running plays for VT. There’s not much I can show in the way of Muhammad getting moved from his spot. Much of my suspicions of his ability against the run come from some play action plays in which Muhammad showed poor gap discipline. He likes to pin his ears back, and at times that left him exposed to runs to his side. But perhaps this was all in VT’s scouting report, because they failed to take advantage. Having only watched the one game, it’s hard for me to make a solid judgment. But if this game was any indication Muhammad needs to work on his run discipline. He’s athletic, but he’ll be moveable for many NFL tackles.


Just a short bit on Muhammad’s abilities in coverage. Miami seemed reasonably comfortable dropping him back into zone. He lined up as an OLB on more than a few plays and even dropped back occasionally as an end. The results were mixed.

The plus is that Muhammad clearly has the athleticism for it. He’s got more straight-line speed than he does lateral, but he’s got enough to make due in a pinch. See here:

Muhammad’s assignment is the flat. When he sees the tight end break from the trenches and come rolling out, he tries to punch him and, once he misses, tries to run with him. He falls behind immediately because he lost momentum on the missed punch. But once he gets moving, he makes up for that ground. By the time the quarterback can make the throw Muhammad is all over the tight end. The throw is bad anyway, but even had it been a dime Muhammad extends his arm and would have swatted the ball away.

That said, an NFL quarterback makes this throw as the TE crosses the 10-yard line. He’s open there and good for at least five yards. But some better coaching will have Muhammad playing this route much more solidly. Here he gets caught in something of a no-man’s land. He tries to punch but doesn’t fully commit, and the TE brushes him off. Either he needs to read the route better and be better prepared for the punch, or he needs to just run with the TE. He has the speed.

In general, though, as with this example, Muhammad is too tentative in coverage. He has the physical tools for it but needs to commit to what his eyes say. Again, my sample size for his coverage abilities is much to small.

But watch here:

It looks as if Muhammad knows the receiver screen is coming. He’s trying to read it from the snap, and turns as the quarterback releases. But then, when he’s got a clear angle to the runner, he slows down. The cornerbacks don’t do a good job here but neither does Muhammad. He needs to explode to that gap behind #24. If he does, there’s no first down here. He either tackles him for about six yards or he bounces him back inside, likely for even less gain. Again, Muhammad has all the athleticism to make this play. He just needs to commit.


I understand that character concerns played a role in where Muhammad fell. But considering Miami’s coaching staff allegedly pushed for the Saints to draft the talented DE, I’m surprised it hurt him so much. Illegal NCAA payments and a fight with a friend don’t seem like the biggest red flags.

Likely it was the years away from football that did more damage to his stock. But again, I’m surprised it hurt so much. Muhammad is an elite athlete. A sixth-round pick is a steal for a prospect like him.

He needs to work on his game against the run. But like I said, that’s more of a suspicion than an established fact. There’s simply not enough tape on him. And there’s no telling how he looks a year and change after this tape. He may have bulked up. A year removed from football likely hasn’t done much for his instincts, and he’ll need some time to get those up to speed. But some solid coaching could turn him into a real force, especially as a pass rusher.

He has all the tools to make an impact on special teams as well. He can run in a straight line and convert that to power, and he can hit. Barring injury, he’s a lock for the roster. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge as a pass-rush specialist as the year progresses. I like Trey Hendrickson more as an three-down DE prospect, but Muhammad has a lot going for him.