Earlier this week, the Las Vegas Raiders traded defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to the Dallas Cowboys. Hankins had been a clog in the middle of the Raiders' defense for several years, often serving as the team’s best run defender. However, he’s approaching 31 years old and started losing reps to younger DTs, Andrew Billings and Neil Farrel Jr.
Billings has been a starter since the beginning of the season and cemented himself as the run-stuffer on the interior of the team’s defense. That shouldn’t change much with Hankins’ departure, so Farrel will likely step in and take on the extra reps.
Year one got off to a slow start for the rookie as he struggled in the preseason and was a healthy scratch for the Raiders' first four games of the regular season. However, he has gotten more playing time over the last two contests, albeit, just 31 snaps in total, but that is a step in the right direction. Plus, the front office’s willingness to get rid of a proven veteran at the position could be a sign that they believe in Farrell’s development.
So, what has the LSU product shown during his limited playing time, and is he ready for a bigger role moving forward?
Neil Farrell Jr. with a beautiful escape. Maxx Crosby robs him of a TFL#Raiders pic.twitter.com/RwaKETvQwe— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
We’ll kick things off on a high note as the Cheifs run an inside zone to the left, putting Farrel on the backside of the play. At the point of contact, he’s physical and has his hands inside on the guard’s chest which with his strength, makes it easy to get extension and win at the line of scrimmage.
With the Chiefs’ motion, Divine Deablo has to widen and is essentially taken out of the box, so Farrell is asked to two-gap here. That means not only is responsible for the weakside or left A-gap (between the center and right guard), but he’s also responsible for the weak B-gap.
He plays this perfectly by staying square on the offensive lineman and showing color in the B-gap (that little peak to the outside) to help force the running back into the teeth of the defense. Once the back veers toward the playside, Farrell’s extension and hand placement make it easy for him to beat the guard across the guard’s face.
This won’t show up on the stat sheet because Maxx Crosby makes a great play as the unblocked defender against Kansas City’s read option, but the rookie was in a position to make the play had Crosby not been there.
Farrell's hands are the key to him playing well, has them by his waist here and it's game over when Creed Humphrey latches on with the vice grips#Raiders pic.twitter.com/UcjJYPWVLF— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
Rushing the passer isn’t Hankins’ strong suit, so it’s not something the rookie is expected to or needs to be great at right away. But the Raiders could use some help getting interior pressure and the clip above is an example of where Farrell needs to improve to be part of the solution.
Those quick and accurate hands that we saw on the play before against the run are almost completely gone. On this rep, his hands are down by his waist, and by the time he does get them up, he lands wide on Creed Humphrey’s shoulders. That allows Humphrey to make the first significant contact and lock in those vice-grip hands he has to make it difficult for Farrell to escape.
Also, look at Farrell’s pad level at the point of contact. His helmet is almost even — and maybe a little higher — than the centers’. Without a leverage advantage and with wide hand placement, the pass rusher has no chance to win with a bull rush.
Yikes, this one was ugly from Neil Farrell...#Raiders pic.twitter.com/8xLF4JAbN0— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
Here we’re going to see a similar issue but against the run. Kansas City is running an outside zone where the left guard and center are going to scoop-block Farrell and work up to Deablo.
Farrel is going to take on the guard with wide hands again and it looks like he only lands one of them, his outside hand. That limits his force at the point of attack and makes it nearly impossible to beat the man he’s lined up across from, which is the best way to defeat a double team.
On contact, his pad level is a little better than before but still not where it needs to be, and his base is way too narrow which makes it easy for the center to wash him down the line of scrimmage. The rookie is making the offensive linemen’s jobs easy as he nearly clips Deablo, essentially blocking the linebacker for them.
When Neil Farrell's hands are right, he can win at the LOS pretty easily#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/oY7tBasujY— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
Let’s get the positive vibes going again. This time the Chiefs run duo and Humphrey releases quickly to the second level, so Farrell basically just gets a base or one-on-one block with the guard.
The defensive tackle’s hands aren’t perfect, but he does shoot them sooner and lands on the front of the guard’s shoulder which is tight enough for him to control the block. That allows him to stand up the offensive lineman and gain a leverage advantage while simultaneously making it easier to escape the block and factor into the play.
I think it’s safe to say the rookie is inconsistent, but that’s somewhat to be expected from a first-year player and it’s good to see him make subtle improvements throughout the game. Keep in mind, this was his first regular-season game in the NFL so some volatile play is going to happen.
No hands, no chance and Farrell gets scooped#Raiders pic.twitter.com/eKp2nCHkqb— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
Speaking of up-and-down play, let’s briefly take a look at another rep where Farrell’s inconsistencies with his hands screw him. This is another outside zone from Kansas City where the offensive line is trying to reach or scoop the backside defensive tackle with the right guard and tackle.
The Raiders counter with a slant call and Farrell has his hands down by his waist again, exposing his chest to the guard. That makes it easy for the guard to turn his shoulders and the tackle can finish the job by sealing the defender to the outside. If Crosby wasn’t unblocked and working straight down the line of scrimmage, the running back would have had a massive cutback lane that could go for six if the back can make Tre’von Moehrig miss.
Farrell's get-off was a lot better against the Texans, can see an example on this rep for a QB hit#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/7ZLnWG8cui— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
There’s nothing sexy about this pass rush but the improvements Farrell shows with his get-off and use of hands — a common theme today — are encouraging.
Las Vegas has a slant called and the LSU product does a great job of not only getting off the ball but also gaining ground laterally and vertically with his first step. That puts pressure on the center and doesn’t allow the center to set his base. Also, notice the difference between Farrell’s pad level and hand placement.
His helmet is underneath the offensive lineman’s at the point of attack, and his hands are nice and tight on the chest, making it easy to get extension and gain control of the block. When Davis Mills starts to scramble away from the protection scheme, Farrell can escape, force the ball out and go get a QB hit.
Neil Farrell gets off the ball, drops his pads and uses a nice rip move to cut the field in half#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/Ic6hPn9YvT— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
He’s another example of Farrell’s get-off improving and how it can be effective against the run. Houston calls mid-zone with the fullback leading the way through the B-gap on the weakside. But, since the defensive tackle gets off the ball so well, the center’s angle is thrown off.
Also, the rookie makes a conscious effort to drop his pad level, recognizes the blocking scheme and fights back against pressure, and uses a good rip move to get penetration and effectively cut the field in half, so the ball carrier has no choice but to cut back. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense’s tackling could use some work...
An ex of Neil Farrell's strength. Kenyon Green is a strong dude and Farrell works him here #Raiders pic.twitter.com/YcEOF6uZah— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) October 27, 2022
We’ll end on a high note with a rookie vs. rookie matchup between a couple of former SEC foes, with Kenyon Green lining up at left guard for the Texans.
Again, Farrell gets off the ball and gets his hands involved in the rep a lot faster and that makes a world of difference. This rep is a great example of how strong he is as he’s able to turn Green’s shoulders about 90 degrees and walk Green back into the quarterback with a bull rush.
The former Aggie was known for his strength coming out of Texas A&M, so this clip is a great example of the potential that the former Tiger has as a pass rusher when he gets more consistent with his technique.