WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Divine Deablo did plenty of good things throughout his first two NFL seasons.
But it was the less-than-outstanding moments that occupied far too much of his mind.
The Raiders linebacker needed to learn a valuable lesson, and position coach Antonio Pierce was finally able to get through to him in the offseason.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I get really down on myself real hard if I do anything wrong,” Deablo said. “That probably affected my game more than it should have.”
The adjustment in his thought process is already paying dividends.
After an offseason of praise from coaches and teammates, Deablo looked like a potential star in Sunday’s season-opening road win against the Denver Broncos.
In the past, his mind might have been too bogged down by any little mistake during the game to see the things he did well. But even the 25-year-old Virginia Tech product had to admit it was a strong performance.
“I would say overall it was my best game in the NFL when you combine the pass game and the run game,” Deablo sheepishly said.
The 2021 third-round pick had nine tackles, including one for a loss, and finished eighth among NFL linebackers with an 84.5 grade from Pro Football Focus. His 82.2 tackling grade was also eighth-best.
But Deablo’s best attribute is his coverage ability, which should be no surprise considering he played safety in college.
Deablo allowed just a 44.8 QBR when targeted and was third among all linebackers with a 90.7 coverage grade.
One play in particular highlighted just how effective Deablo can be as a force against the pass.
The Broncos had a second-and-goal from the 6-yard line with a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter when Russell Wilson faked a handoff to the right. It was a fake specifically designed to get Deablo to bite and move him out of position so the Broncos could leak Brandon Johnson into the vacated area and Wilson could take a couple of quick steps to the left for an easy touchdown.
But Deablo didn’t bite.
As Wilson started to roll, Deablo saw where he wanted to go with the ball and then laid out to knock it down. The Broncos eventually settled for a field goal to go up 16-10 before falling 17-16.
It was a big moment for the team and Deablo, who is starting to believe more and more in his ability to play linebacker at the NFL level.
“My confidence is pretty high right now,” he said. “But like I always say, I’m still learning every day.”
Studying pays off
Deablo has spent time during his two offseasons watching film on himself to learn how and where he could get better. His coach has noticed.
“He comes in and works at it every day,” Josh McDaniels said. “He studies hard. He prepares hard. He’s had an opportunity to learn from different people. He’s a very inquisitive guy.”
In the summer, Deablo talked about eliminating wasted steps, saying it was a glaring weakness he saw on film. On Wilson’s fake, he barely budged off his spot.
“I shouldn’t move too fast to the right or to the left,” he said then. “I should just bounce my feet, be patient and see what’s going on, and then attack because I feel like I’m fast enough to react. I’ve just got to be patient.”
It’s fitting for a player whose name is all about balance. The surname, pronounced like the Spanish word for Devil, was passed down from his Native American great-grandfather. Divine’s father, Donnelle, was bullied for the name as a child, so he wanted to counter the last name with a more holy first name.
So Divine, who has a brother named Deity who is a Class of 2024 high school football prospect, was the result.
Divine’s play is starting to garner as much attention as his unique name once did.
Deablo made his presence felt Sunday on another play in the second quarter with the Broncos facing second-and-long. Wilson tried to throw a screen pass, but Deablo was in pursuit of the target before the ball was in the air and tackled the receiver for a 7-yard loss.
While Deablo is playing his best football right now, he was showing signs of getting there last season. He was leading the Raiders with 74 tackles in eight games when he broke his arm and missed the rest of the season.
“I want to be considered one of the best linebackers in the league one day,” Deablo said. “But it’s about taking baby steps. Right now, that means getting ready for Buffalo.”
Actions speak louder than words
He is doing so mostly in the background, as is his way. Deablo is quiet and cerebral, never one to seek attention or the spotlight.
But teammates speak of a hidden wit that often flies under the radar at first.
“He’s a really good dude,” linebacker Curtis Bolton said. “He jokes a lot, but it’s so subtle. He’s real slick with it.”
Added defensive end Malcolm Koonce, a member of the same draft class: “He’s so quiet. He tries to stay out of the way, but you have to really listen and then he’ll just hit you with something. He’s dope. I love that guy.”
Opponents probably don’t share those feelings.
Deablo is making it so teams have to prepare for him now that he has added confidence to his size and skill set.
“It was during (training) camp when I really started to figure it out,” he said. “I’m not going to be perfect, but I think I’ve improved a lot.”
Not bad for a player who never expected to be playing linebacker at the NFL or any other level. Deablo was a standout receiver in high school and moved to safety in college. He knew he would have to gain weight for the move to linebacker in the pros so he could take on offensive linemen while also maintaining enough speed to cover backs and tight ends.
He seems to have settled on a sweet spot — he’s listed at 223 pounds on his 6-foot-3-inch frame — and even has taken on the nickname “Big Swole” for his work in the weight room.
He’ll keep striving for perfection, but now understands that falling short is OK.
“I have to move on to the next play, and I think I did a better job of that on Sunday,” he said. “Football is an imperfect game. That’s a hard lesson to learn. But as long as you get back up and make the next play, you’re good.”