This week we introduce defensive prospects 31-35 in our effort to familiarize you with the finest in draftable talent for the NFL draft that now sits 34 days away. These are players who join the groups we have already featured who are thought of as Top 50-75 prospects by many of our resources. And then I give them the 200-snap treatment to examine them closely and see how they compare with the others in the group.
If you are just joining us, please know that I am trying to get to as many as we can (at my 1 prospect a day pace), but I am definitely going to err on the side of defense, because I expect the Cowboys are leaning heavily in that direction for at least their first two picks. If I am wrong -- which will happen from time to time -- at least I will have a good handle on this impressive crop of defenders who are joining the league. I really don't remember this many real strong prospects on the defensive side of the ball who all seem to fit on Day 1 or 2 of this draft.
So, today, we take our first expanded look at safeties. I already did Jabrill Peppers a few weeks ago, but here are five more names that you will want to know who seem to be exceptional safeties.
A couple thoughts about safeties that I believe are very important: One of the great characteristics about our game is the constant evolution. Unfortunately, it evolves at different paces with everyone involved in the game. This simply means that there are coaches on the cutting edge -- dreaming about how to solve old problems with new solutions. But, most likely, the majority of coaches remain in the mold of solving old problems with old solutions. Coaches, like humans, get set in their ways and can't see the new thing. But, there are those who seem to believe that they must innovate, because offenses are throwing things at them that have never been done in the NFL until recently.
That is why coaches now at the NFL level look to colleges and even high schools to deal with dual-threat QBs with zone reads with pass options. This wasn't a thing before. Heck, 25 years ago, 3 wide receivers was rare. Now, 5 wide outs with empty backfields is just another package that is routinely seen. Sometimes they are all "littles" or maybe they will throw 2 big tight ends with 3 wide outs.
But, one of the bigger things we are seeing is teams trying to put mismatches out there that were not seen in 1992. Put 4 wide receivers on the field to spread a defense out and forcing them into "dime" defense, but then keeping in a RB like Ezekiel Elliott or Devonta Freeman and forcing the 5 defensive players left who would be considered "big" to stop the run out of that formation. Bring in a 6th or 7th run defender and then they pass. You are never right as a defensive coach.
So, what are we seeing more and more of? Where is the innovation taking us? Well, I believe we are getting closer and closer to converting one and sometimes two linebackers into safeties. And then, I believe we are getting closer and closer to safeties and corners being the exact same guys. In other words, what is the opposite of innovation? Drafting a 235 pound safety, like the Cowboys did when Roy Williams was taken so high in the draft. He was a safety that resembled a linebacker which is the opposite direction of where football was headed during his career. Tight hips, poor change of direction, and instead of the 2 LBs who are now the norm, the Cowboys were putting 4 linebackers on the field (and then, ultimately 5 linebackers when the Cowboys switched to a 3-4 in 2005. They were basically running a 3-5-3).
Now, what do we see? Well, we already know that most teams are in nickel 60-70 percent of the time on defense. That has already happened, so the idea that people are looking for 2 corners and 2 safeties to start is not true. They are looking for 3 starting corners in most cases. But, even that is problematic against the teams who are just spreading you out to then run. So, we see the 4-2-5 defense which is more and more becoming a thing. TCU gets tons of credit for perfecting this at the college level for their way of answering the spread. But, it isn't always 3 corners. It is 3 safeties. Strong safety, free safety, and weak safety.
For purposes of this conversation, just consider the strong safety and the weak safety to be very similar players. Teams can do it differently, especially if they want to use a 2-deep safety look, but I prefer the Cover 3 look out of it, where you have the free safety and 2 corners playing high, and that leaves 4 defenders underneath. Your 2 linebackers (who might range between 230-250 still present who can run but also take on guards in the middle) and your 2 safeties who are both playing near the line of scrimmage and can be the Swiss Army Knives of your entire operation. They are guys who might weigh 200-220, can run like the guys they are trying to deal with, but they have a linebacker's mentality. They are not fragile flowers like some corners. These guys can only survive in the box by being animals, regardless of their size.
Are we getting to a point where football is shrinking? The linemen are now leaner than they have been. We stopped trying to see how big guys can get. The bigger they get, the less agility they have. So, tight ends are made into tackles. But, defensive ends are now smaller than ever before. We will consider 250 if he has the flexibility and explosiveness. So, 250 pound defensive ends means linebackers are 225 to 230, and now, yes, these box safeties, if they match the profile, sometimes weigh almost nothing more than 205. Let's look at some safety sizes of guys who have gone through this process: Troy Polamalu 5'10 - 207, Earl Thomas 5'10 - 202, Bob Sanders 5'8 - 206, Eric Weddle 5'11 - 195, Brian Dawkins 6'0 - 210. Now, many of these were centerfield types (which frankly, are more and more becoming cornerbacks), but none of these guys are corners. These are linebackers in a smaller body. Mean, tough, and strong players.
Where am I going with all of this? I believe we need to understand that we can't call all of these guys safeties as fans and just throw a blanket over wildly different responsibilities. It is too broad. It is too vague. You can ask a corner to play free safety, but you would never ask a guy who avoids contact to play in the box and basically replace the old school linebacker. You would get steam-rolled.
So, when we debate these guys, let's use these definitions:
Free safety/center field safety: Must have great hips, great recognition, great ball skills, great speed, and it would sure help if he likes to hit people (although they are trying to take this out of the game more and more).
Strong safety and weak safety: You will want hybrid guys here who can both play at that linebacker depth, turn and run in coverage or drop into zones (you will want guys who can do both ideally), but also can shed and tackle and blitz and cause havoc because they are quicker and faster than the old linebackers. You will not take advantage of them because you run a RB on a wheel route. They may have issues with the hybrid tight end due to size, but that seems to be the new tradeoff for these guys who are sometimes in the slot and other times off the shoulder of the defensive end. These guys have great athleticism and speed, but more than anything -- including their size -- I need guys with a violent mentality. They are not afraid of anything and can't wait to dish out physicality and take it.
And, ultimately, I might need 3 starting safeties in today's game. 3 corners works OK on 3rd down, but on those early downs, I think the new developments are going to follow TCU and the college game. Nickel means 2 corners and 3 safeties and dime means 3 corners and 3 safeties.
Linebackers are being minimized and this is becoming a better world to be a defensive back who isn't afraid of anything. I hope this all makes some sense.
So let's look at this week's group: Jamal Adams of LSU, Malik Hooker of Ohio State, Budda Baker of Washington, Obi Melifonwu of UConn, and Marcus Williams of Utah.
Junior - LSU - 33
6'0 - 214 - 4.56 40
Last 2 years - 24 games - 5 INT, 143 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 10 PBU 2 FF, sack
Adams, the pride of Hebron High School in Carrolton, Texas, is yet another Metroplex product believed to be a sure thing for one of the Top 10 picks in this draft.
POSITIVES: Of all of the safety prospects I have looked at, I think Adams is clearly my favorite. He is absolutely phenomenal in all the aspects of the game you are looking for. He is a guy who can function well at all of those safety spots, including a real impressive game in the physical spots on the field where he hits with a vengeance. He can also play man and turn and go with a guy down the field and he moves so well. He can do anything you want from any of these safety spots and provides versatility to just get a difference maker on the field. He also has size that does not give you any pause about his ability to dish out punishment and to take it. He has a toughness about him that is great and comes down hill to dish out some big plays, too. He is decent in the open field for sure and sometimes plays safety safe. Which is not always a given with certain prospects. He is widely recognized as a very smart player who can be trusted to coordinate on the field.
CONCERNS: There are not many. He whiffed on a big hit on a WR screen that gave me pause, but for the most part in the three games I studied, I did not see anything that would be considered problematic. There are some slight changes in direction that you wonder about against the quickest of attackers, but he is an elite player.
He is a real special prospect and I would give some thought to taking him at #2.
Junior - Washington - #32
5'10 - 192 - 4.45 40
Last 2 Years Stats - 26 games - 4 interceptions, 11.5 TFL, 120 tackles, 3 sacks 13 PBU, FF
This All-American is incredibly small, but makes enough plays to get your attention.
POSITIVES: The positives of Budda Baker are easy to see if you watched Washington play at all this past season. He is all over the field and plays aggressively and with the mentality I always seek. He has a non-stop motor and is also a very smart player who seems to figure out where the QB is looking at top speed. He is a tremendous athlete who can run like you wouldn't believe and his hips are everything you want in a corner. In fact, he might actually be a cornerback, to be honest. He does everything in that realm just fine and while he never played center field or deep safety hardly at all, Washington used him like Peppers in Michigan as almost a straight linebacker who could slide out and grab the slot man without issues. He run blitzes like an all pro. I really, really love this guy's game.
CONCERNS: Well, he weighs about 192. He is 5'10 and 192. I know I just got done claiming that everything is getting smaller in today's game, but he weighs 192 pounds. This is so small that you wonder if he can play a normal work load and be a positive and not a guy who is getting attacked. He is a real hybrid player who will give you everything he has, and they can try to use him like the Honey Badger and there is plenty of value to that, but there does come a limit to where science takes over.
I really want him to succeed, but the question with Baker is where he goes and how committed to figuring out how to use him his new coach is.
RS Sophomore - Ohio State - #24
6'1 - 206 - Has Not run
2 Years Stats - 25 games - 7 interceptions, 5.5 TFL, 84 tackles 4 PBU
Hooker is another first-team All American who is the best center field prospect in the group.
POSITIVES: Hooker is a fantastic athlete who has some very impressive ball skills that jump out at you in terms of thinking if there is a ball in his area, he is going to go get it. He also does something everyone likes once he does make a play on the ball -- which is return it for a touchdown in a way that has many comparing him to Ed Reed. He has played almost all as a free or 2-deep safety, but he will get a bit of a physical edge when the situation calls for it. In fact, there are times where he appears downright chippy with wide receivers and looks to get his shots in. He really looks 100 percent like a corner who is playing safety and that can be a real negative at times, but Hooker clearly makes it a positive in his skill set.
CONCERNS: With Hooker, there are some things to consider. One, his body of work at Ohio State is very limited in that he really has one year as a starter before he bounced. That year was obviously quite impressive, but it was just the one look at the Big 10. He also has been banged up with a torn labrum and a sports hernia, which has prevented big workouts. He certainly has been called more of a projection that the reality like Adams might be. Otherwise, I see he may enjoy ball-hawking over good man coverage techniques which will need to get some attention. Further, I did see him pass on a hit or two on a RB in the open field at Penn State, but he will flirt with coverage penalties for being too physical.
That said, don't get me wrong. He is a real impressive prospect that won't get to pick #20. I just don't quite like him as much as others, it appears.
RS Senior - UCONN - #20
6'4 - 220 - 4.40 40
Last 2 Years Stats: 25 games - 6 interceptions, 206 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 8 PBU
Melifonwu is rising up the charts quickly after dropping jaws at the NFL combine with his absurd workout.
POSITIVES: He ran 4.40, he jumped 44", and he had a 11'9" broad jump as a 6'4 safety. These are all crazy numbers and set him aside as maybe the biggest prospect in his group and the most elite athlete as well. That is some Megatron type stuff, so we should take notice. He plays deep safety for the most part as a deep-half guy. He is extremely tall and lanky and will get in there and make a hit from time to time or break up a pass across the middle. He will find the ball and pick off passes which is a prerequisite for a deep safety in my book. He defends in man coverage at times and can pull it off a decent amount of the time. He gets where he is going in a real hurry.
CONCERNS: I must admit he is a body-type I really struggle with as I am looking to convert athletic cornerbacks into free safeties, so it is tough to see many 6'4" safeties that ultimately have the hips to turn and run like they must. That said, he has absurd athleticism, so perhaps he is an outlier. But, my bigger concern is that he does not seem to have a consistent desire to mix it up and has limited violence to his game. He meets the ball with an amount of disconcerting reluctance at the college level which I fear doesn't always age well at the next level where the meek do not inherit the earth. When he blitzes, it seems he is rather easily picked up.
There is no question he is toolsy, but I would not select him too early as I have mentality concerns about his approach to a position that requires a type for me.
Junior - Utah - #20
6'1 - 202 - 4.56 40
Last 2 Years stats: 24 games - 10 interceptions, 3 TFL, 110 tackles - 8 PBU, 2 FF
Williams has generated an elite number of big plays while playing Center Field at a high level in the Pac 12.
POSITIVES: One thing you are looking for when you study a player is a flat-out ball hawk. There is nothing more rare in NFL players than the guy who can consistently go get you the ball and Williams has enough takeaways -- 12 in the last 2 seasons -- to make you think he has a real knack for it. He is always looking for the ball and then knows how to get to that spot and either break up the play or take it the other direction by baiting a QB or taking the best path to the ball. His instincts appear to be on point and he gets sideline to sideline like you might need if you are a Cover 1/3 team. He is also willing to tackle and come down hill on plays.
CONCERNS: The willingness might be there for the physical component of the game, but he really doesn't really arrive with authority. Tackling will not be considered one of his strengths. In fact, depending on who you talk with, the opposite might be true. He also has some limitations in man coverage where he seems to not have the best hips you have ever seen.
Again, at the right price, he might be the free safety you seek, but he is limited in his value without the physical component we seek.
That concludes Week 7 of this project. More corners next week are coming, I do believe.