The NFL Draft kicks off Thursday night in New York City, so your wait is nearly over. Over the past few weeks, I've put together a series on hybrid player-types among this year's draft prospects: I hit on the development and evolution of the Joker Tight End and the H-Back in parts one and two, then shifted my focus to the defensive side of the football and talked about the J.J. Watt-type DE/DT defensive linemen.
Today, let's talk about safeties. The players that I want to break down about aren't necessarily hybrid players, but they represent the new school of the position's prototype -- athletes that can play the run, play the deep middle, match up in coverage against slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs, or even bump outside and cover receivers.
With the multiplicity of offensive schemes in the NFL, it seems obvious that defenders are being forced to be more versatile in response. Safety is one of the positions most impacted by the fact that some teams in the league run spread-out concepts with three or four wide receivers and others stick to the heavier sets with multiple tight ends or running backs.
With college concepts making their way into the NFL game these days, defensive coordinators will be looking for players they can align all over the field to counter the increasing variety of offensive styles and challenges. These are concepts that Greg Cosell broke down recently over at Yahoo!'s Shutdown Corner, and the evolution of player roles and paradigms is exceedingly interesting to me. It's why I started this series in the first place, and it's why I'm so excited to see which teams this group of safeties ends up landing with.
There's one player who is pretty much unanimously thought of as the top safety in this class, and he's Texas' Kenny Vaccaro.
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas - 6'0, 214 pounds with 32 3/4" arms and 10" hands.
The Texas Longhorn ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds with a 1.60 10-yard split. He put up 15 reps on bench and registered a 38" vert with a 10'1" broad jump. He ran a 4.06-second short shuttle with a 6.78-second three-cone. He plays faster than his 4.59 and his quickness is evident in his shuttle and three-cone times.
Vaccaro is a perfect example of the shifting prototype at the position. Specifically, he's a player who can align all over the field - deep middle, in the slot, outside, and in the box against the run - and that's how he was used at Texas. He's often compared to another former Texas safety in Earl Thomas, and indeed, Thomas has been used as such in the NFL.
For those unfamiliar with Thomas, he has quietly become one of the most important players in the Seahawks' elite defense (and a two-time All-Pro), being used in different ways during his first three seasons while setting the tone for the burgeoning "Legion of Boom" along with Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Brandon Browner.
With Sherman, Browner and Chancellor all filling out their own respective roles more effectively in 2012, Earl's role was mainly focused on patrolling the deep middle of the field in the Seahawks' Cover-3 scheme, and occasionally coming in to blitz or cover a slot receiver. In previous years though, he's been utilized all over and even as a de facto cornerback. For instance, in Seattle's 2010 Week 17 win over the Rams, which sent the Hawks to the playoffs, he was used in man-to-man coverage as a cornerback, blanketing Danny Amendola nearly the whole game. Amendola ended up with two catches for nine yards. That's the type of versatility that defensive coordinators covet, and that's the type of talent that Vaccaro brings to the table. I shudder at the thought of Vaccaro in the NFC West, but fear that's probably where he'll end up.
Vaccaro demonstrates the ability to mirror in coverage while playing off in the slot - turning his hips easily to run with receivers and showing the innate ability to get his head around. When you don't have the sideline to rely on as a boundary, fluidity and lateral agility become more important than straight-line speed. Hence my emphasis on Vaccaro's strong shuttle and three-cone times.
Below, Vaccaro demonstrates both athleticism and route recognition ability -- transferring his angle underneath the receiver as he cuts in on a slant. The outside corner gets caught with ineffective leverage inside and flips his hips much too late. Vaccaro is smooth throughout and picks his angle of defense almost immediately.
Of course, one of the best endorsements for Vaccaro's ability was his now-famous performance against the highly explosive Tavon Austin in this year's matchup between Texas and West Virginia. In that game, Vaccaro matched up on Austin almost the entire game and effectively shut him down. It's a game that Alen Dumonjic broke down at the time, and it's a nice case study to go along with this post.
It's assumed that Vaccaro will go in the mid-first round. And he should.
Video and GIFs courtesy of the always excellent DraftBreakdown.com.
Matt Elam, Florida - 5'10, 208 32 5/8" arms with 9" hands.
Elam ran a 4.43 40 with a 1.58 10-yard split, put up 17 reps on bench, and registered a 35.5" vert and 9'10" broad jump. Solid, solid athleticism.
Elam is another guy who's been projected somewhere into the late first round and into the second. He has a very different body type than Vaccaro - more squat and compact - but he packs a ridiculous punch while also playing all over the field. Elam speed shows up on the field in the deep half and he's an eager run defender and blitzer. He spent a lot of time in the box, wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage, but was also asked to play in man coverage on slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs.
Below, you can see him in zone coverage with his head on a swivel - the ability to locate in-zone receivers and get his head back to the football at game-speed is essential for a player of his ilk, and Elam almost gathers a pick on this play.
Similarly, when playing the slot, closing quickness (click and close) and trailing ability come into play. below, you can see Elam locate tight end Mychal Rivera running a drag route across the formation and trailing him perfectly, breaking up the pass at the sideline.
Elam is shorter than the prototypical safety at 5'10, but has length and explosive athleticism to make up for it. His compact build, explosive hitting and competitive nature bring images of a shorter-haired facsimile of Troy Polamalu. I would never say that Elam is going to end up getting to Polamalu's level, naturally, but their playing styles are similar. There's some team out there that's going to see him in this light and plug him into that role.
More from DraftBreakdown.com:
D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina - 5'11, 208 pounds with 32 3/8" arms and 9.5" hands.
Ran a 4.63 40 with a 1.59 10-yard split at the Combine, while registering a 37" vert with a 10'4 broad jump. He ran a 4.11 in the short shuttle and a very, very good 6.70 in the three-cone drill.
Swearinger is in that Matt Elam mold of a more compact, tough, hard-hitting box safety with the rare ability to also play deep, on the outside, in the slot and in run support. He was a captain on South Carolina's brash defensive unit in 2012. Thought Swearinger's abilities extend past his most apparent role as a "freelancing goon enforcer," as Eric Stoner put it during the season, that's definitely the defining feature you notice about him while watching tape.
Swearinger plays with an almost reckless abandon, and will get flagged for helmet to helmet hits and taunting from time to time (he does enjoy a celebratory flex above his defeated opponents' smoldering ruins). He's not exactly a thug, though, as Stoner points out: "In South Carolina's base 4-2-5 defense, he's listed as a free safety. Over the course of a game, however, you'll see him line up all over the field. He's played as a center-fielder, can go down in the box as a strong safety, and even got a healthy amount of snaps at cornerback for the Gamecocks this year after injuries took their toll on that position."
This is the type of player teams will be looking for because versatility provides both depth and creativity. If this read-option craze does end up lasting, athletic, tough safeties like Swearinger will be a necessity for teams trying to stop it.
In the meantime though, you can use him as a blitzer, where sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Watch as he sheds a block from the slot receiver, wraps up on Denard Robinson, and strips him of the football, all in one smooth motion. His footspeed combined with power and speed is evident.
Oh - right. He can also play deep, which really is still the most important function of a safety. There are questions about his ability to play centerfield, and that is something that he'll have to answer - I'm not sold one way or another, but I do think he has the anticipation skills and athleticism to develop as a reliable deep half defender as well.
Duke Williams, Nevada - 5'11, 203 pounds with 32" arms and 9 3/4" hands.
Ran a 4.48 40 with a 1.58 ten-yard split. Put up 13 reps on bench and registered a very fast 4.00 short shuttle. He posted a 37.5" vert with a 10'6" broad jump. Very good athlete. At his pro day, he ran the three-cone in 7.19 seconds.
Nevada's lower level of competition combined with the fact he's a tad undersized at 203 (he's listed at 190 in places too), means Williams is currently projected as a fourth- or fifth-round player, but he's starting to generate a little bit of buzz in the draft scouting world. A colleague of mine, Derek Stephens, described his play better than I could, so I just wanted to defer to him. Said Derek:
He plays like a cornerback. He moves like a cornerback; he has the hips of a cornerback; the feet of a corner, even a nickel corner. You watch him on tape, and he plays every position in the defensive backfield. Outside, inside, he plays physical. He can play off, he can close on the ball. He doesn't let plays get over him. He can cover the tight end. He can cover the slot receiver really well on underneath routes. There's so much about this guy - he's so versatile.
Again, you're probably seeing a pattern to these prospect scouting reports. Guys that can play all over the field and transcend position, in a way. Williams looks like a typical NFL outside cornerback at 5'11, 203, but may play safety or slot corner in the NFL. It will be very interesting to see what type of scheme he ends up in.
Below you can see his reaction time and closing speed.
Below - you can see his route recognition and spacial awareness - undercutting the route of the tight end and breaking up the pass.
There isn't a ton of tape on Williams, but I like what I've seen in the limited amount I've evaluated. He's had some legal issues over the years and will have to answer some character concern questions from teams, so it does seem likely he'll land somewhere in the mid rounds, but as long as he can keep his nose clean, I think he's got a good shot of being a productive NFL player early on in his career.
Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse - 5'9, 213 with 31.5" arms and 9 1/4" hands.
Thomas is a burner, and ran 4.37 in the 40 at the Combine with a blistering 1.52 10-yard split. He put up an absurd 28 reps on bench, registered a 40.5" vert and a 11'1" broad jump to go with a nice 4.26 second short shuttle. He's an explosive athlete, that much is clear.
Ah, Shamarko. ShamWow, as I've heard him called. ShamarKO from others (get it, knock out?). Whatever you want to call him, he's a player that I'm very intrigued with. He fits right into that Matt Elam, D.J. Swearinger vein of athlete - compact, speedy, a little explosive ball of muscle, and plays a lot bigger on the field than his 5'9 measurement would imply.
He's a big hitter, throws his body around with reckless abandon and will certainly have the ability at the next level as a downhill, run-defending safety. Example below:
The main questions will concern his coverage ability, and while he's a bit of a work in process in that area, he was asked to play outside at times for Syracuse. Below he's matched up against Robert Woods, and while he gets away with a little physicality, you can see him run step for step with the explosive USC receiver.
Below, he's matched up on the slot receiver and does a good job of keeping his hips low and moving his feet before committing to one leverage side or another. His make-up speed combined with physicality makes me believe he'll be effective in the slot against NFL receivers with a little refinement.
Thomas is also a very vocal and strong team leader, a responsible, mature individual with an inspiring back-story. He's been projected anywhere from the third round all the way into the sixth and seventh rounds, so he's a big question mark for me going into the weekend. I would be pleased as punch to see my Seahawks land the versatile defender, but it will be very interesting to see how highly teams rate him.
As Sigmund Bloom wrote in his scouting report on Thomas, he can play all over the field, and maybe that ability is worth more to teams going into this season than we're all accounting for.
"Thomas pops off of the screen because of his range, closing speed and hitting ability. He is a fast, decisive, physical presence on the field, and he makes a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage even though he often lines up at least ten yards off of it. He can blitz and cover slot receivers one-on-one with effective press coverage, and Thomas can also play as an extra linebacker in the box against the run. He gets low and moves like a linebacker one-on-one against a running back in space and routinely blows up screen passes."
That's what I got. We're out of time. The Draft starts today. Hold on to your butts.