Quick question, which Raider player made the most splash plays in 2020? At first glance you might bark out, “Maxx Crosby!” Johnathan Abram would be a popular choice as well. Unfortunately, both answers are incorrect. If I gave you one more guess you’d probably say Nick Kwiatkoski. That too is wrong. The correct answer is none other than linebacker Nicholas Morrow. The same Nicholas Morrow who was an undrafted free agent in 2017 out of tiny Division III Greenville University in Illinois.
It’s uncommon for a player from such a tiny program to make the quantum leap to the NFL. It’s that much more impressive when you change positions from college strong safety to outside linebacker in the pros. Yet the Raiders scouts saw something in Morrow despite his lack of high-level competition. He fit the prototypical profile of a modern-day NFL outside linebacker.
In order to play that position at the pro level, you need to possess great short-area quickness to elude blockers, fast-twitch muscle fibers to change direction on a dime, long arms to attack the ball in the air, a strong core to wrestle ball carriers to the ground, and strong hands to jam receivers within the 5 yard zone. Basically, you need to look like Tarzan and seek destruction like the Terminator.
Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden had this to say about Morrow during his first press conference of training camp on Tuesday:
“He might be one of my favorite players,” Gruden said. “If you watched him play college football, he was returning kick offs. He was playing all over the place. He comes to the Raiders, he makes it as a rookie. Finds a way to get on the field and now he’s got a chance to be a captain for us. He’s got a chance to be a difference maker for us in the middle of our defense.”
The jovial Jerry Glanville famously once said “This is the NFL, which stands for ‘Not For Long.’” If you are not getting better, you are surely getting worse. Morrow has shown steady improvement since his rookie campaign five seasons ago. When you don’t have the security of being a big-money free agent or a high draft pick, you are literally one bad practice away from hearing a team staffer say, “Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook.” That type of pressure can be suffocating for some. For others, it’s the exact ingredient need to make diamonds.
Morrow in 2020
To kickoff the 2020 free agency period, the Raiders made two splash signings at the linebacker position. They made Cory Littleton one of the league’s highest paid linebackers in the league. Then they filled the MLB spot with Nick Kwiatkoski. However, their best linebacker transaction would turn out to be picking up Morrow’s restricted free agent option. He received $3.27 Million, which was significantly less than what Littleton and Kwiatkoski netted.
Now that his contract situation was settled, he could focus on football knowing that he would be in Las Vegas for 2020. Morrow notched the teams first interception of the year against iconic quarterback and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints in a Week 2 victory on Monday Night Football.
Morrow continued to showcase his impressive package of skills throughout the season. He finished the season with 76 total tackles, 3 sacks, 8 tackles for loss (second on the team behind Crosby), 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and 9 pass break ups. His 9 PBUs were the most of any linebacker in the league. He was also the only linebacker in the NFL to record 9 PBUs and 3 sacks.
The stats don’t tell the full story. A lot of players around the league put up impressive stats on paper. Morrow made impactful plays when his team needed a jolt. He didn’t wait for the opportunities to present themselves; he went out and forced his will upon the opponent.
Optimism abounds with new Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley taking over for the much-maligned Paul Guenther. Bradley is an excellent communicator and is universally beloved by his units everywhere he’s coached. Players rave about how friendly his scheme is and it puts them in position to make plays.
Couple that with Morrow’s strong finish to the 2020 campaign, you have the makings of a breakout season in 2021. Morrow was unable to land the long-term contract he was seeking this offseason. Instead, he chose to bet on himself and re-signed with Las Vegas on a 1-year deal worth $4.5 million, fully guaranteed.
Heading into his fifth NFL season, the conditions are primed for Morrow to show up and show out. If he continues his meteoric rise, his career could mirror that of fellow teammate Littleton. Nicholas Morrow just might become one of the league’s highest paid linebackers when it’s all said and done.
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