NFL Combine Watch: Safeties
Turron Davenport of Press Coverage Sports brings us the players to watch during the combine at the safety position.
The 49ers were the ranked fourth in the NFL when it came to pass defense up until the Patriots game. That was the game that Justin Smith got hurt. Dashon Goldson continued to show that he is one of the more versatile safeties in the NFL and is deserving of a long-term deal. It is unknown whether or not the 49ers will use the Franchise Tag, sign him to a long-term deal or let him go elsewhere.
Donte Whitner on the other hand is under contract but he struggled this season and especially in the Super Bowl. He could be a cap casualty this year.
Here are a few Safeties that the 49ers should look at: (Please note, The following evaluations are from the staff at NFL.com)
NFL Comparison: Morgan Burnett
Strengths: NFL starting combo safety material with a very good blend of overall strength and athleticism. Often used as a nickel back despite a thick overall build. Very loose hips and good overall change-of-direction ability. Locks onto slot receivers at the line and has the agility and straight-game speed to stay with them on out routes and downfield. Physical with receivers trying to block him in the run game, has the strength to rip off and make a stop. Strong off the edge as a blitzer, has bent to turn the corner and gets physical with running backs standing in his way. Flashes the hands and body control to catch passes away from his body. Good change of direction ability and shows the range to play the half-field in Cover Two. Attacks downhill against the run well, running the alley aggressively from deep-half coverage.
Weaknesses: Used extensively in man coverage and around the line, must continue improving as a reliable back-half defender against the pass and last line of defense against long runs. One-speed player who lacks burst. Is not quite agile or fast enough to stick with better NFL receivers, back pedal is high and stiff, can be out-quicked in space, and loses a step running down the seam. Can get caught freelancing and watching the backfield in zone coverage, and will bite on play action. Can fill downhill out of control, losing his leverage on the ball carrier and missing tackles. Doesn’t always take good angles and is prone to running himself too far up field.
NFL Comparison: Mark Barron
Strengths: All-around defender who can play the run and pass. Flashes excellent closing speed, pummels receivers after the catch when coming downhill and can get into the backfield if smelling out the play after the snap. Has length and attitude to wrap up ball carriers in the open field. Brings power into cut tackles, lowering his shoulder to stop running backs cold. Also lays the wood over the middle, putting a shoulder into their midsection. Gets physical with receivers attempting to block him in the run game. Has athleticism to handle tight ends in the passing game. Possesses the height, vertical and competitive nature to win jump balls.
Weaknesses: Gets over aggressive at times; will jump on short crossers, opening up the back half of the field, and overrun stretch plays to allow cutback lanes. Not a consistently powerful tackler, and will lunge and miss in the open field as he often fails to break down quickly. Recovery speed will be questioned, might be tough for him to catch NFL receivers if he takes a false step or in the aid of a teammate.
Comparison: Jordan Babineaux
Strengths: One of the hardest-hitting safeties in the 2013 draft class. Looks and plays like a strong in-the-box safety with solid thickness throughout his build. Holds his ground against blocks from bigger opponents, and also runs through traffic to wrap up ball carriers inside. Possesses enough speed and athleticism to cover ground as a zone defender in the back half and line up against slot receivers inside. Closes on stretch runs and quick throws to outside receivers even when playing well back from the line. Beats receiver blocks with quickness or strength. Used as a blitzer on run and pass plays, can overpower running back blocks.
Weaknesses: Doesn’t have elite range or the height/length combination to play as a single-deep safety. Quick enough to make a hit after the catch when deep, but is often a step slow to recognize the pass coming into his area. Aggressive in coverage, he can be sucked up by play action and will jump underneath routes, allowing plays over the top. Lacks elite change of direction and quickness in man coverage, and does not recover like a corner if beaten by a quick move off the line or in space.
NFL Comparison: TJ Ward
Strengths: High-motor, downhill run and pass defender who throws his body around, but with some control. Big hitter over the middle on receivers and pounding running backs, especially in tight quarters and as a backside pursuit defender. Good lateral movement to flow with runs from the back half, yet fly into the hole to prevent big runs. Feisty in-the-box defender who out-quicks or swims over lead blocks and fights through the whistle. Has experience at a variety of positions, and lines up against receivers regularly, using his physicality, agility, and knowledge of routes to stay with them across or down the field. Has the range to split the field in half in two-deep coverage. Effective blitzer off the edge, brings force into fullback blocks and quarterback hits. Makes the easy interception on poor throws, but also snatches and dives for tougher picks.
Weaknesses: Average height for the position, though he has good thickness in his lower body. Best in a two-deep look, might not have the range to make plays and length to take on deep routes in single-high, although South Carolina often asks him to fulfill this role. More of an enforcer against receivers than backs. Prone to leaving his feet and goes low on tackles (especially in space), pro backs might avoid them more easily in the open field. NFL quarterbacks might take advantage of his aggressive nature, as he will jump underneath routes. Gets overly physical with receivers, sometimes crossing the pass interference line because he lacks the pure speed to keep up. Straddles the line with trash talk and hits through the whistle. Will likely get flagged and fined for overly-aggressive play.
NFL Comparison: Quinton Mikell
Strengths: Elam is one of the higher profile prospects at his position due to his on field emotion and energy when lining up big hits in the open field. Plays close to the line of scrimmage or in the box very often. At his best when asked to make a play, either blitzing or one on one on the edge. Frequently assigned to cover the slot receiver. There are times when he flashes tremendous disruption when the play is developing in front of him. Has catch up speed to chase down when he wants to. Gets hand up to disrupt at the catch point even if head is not turned to locate the football. Gets downfield very quickly as a gunner in punt coverage.
Weaknesses: Would rather drift laterally against the run rather than plant his outside foot, free outside arm, and force run up field immediately. For how many hard hitting splash plays he makes, he could be much more aggressive every down. Little urgency to his game. Seen standing around far too often. Waits on screen rather than attacking while ball is getting there. Tries to make the big hit far too often, lunges, leads with shoulder, or leaves his feet rather than just wrapping up. Elam lacks urgency to his game and can be seen standing around while others make the play.
NFL Comparison: Reggie Nelson
Strengths: Athletic, physical defender. Strong tackler with good length and the attitude to throw down ball carrier. Breaks down well when approaching ball carriers in space, has quick feet and agility to make the stop. Quick enough to stay with tight ends and some receivers in coverage, can undercut to knock away or pick off late throws. Nice ball skills to extend away from his frame to make the moderate-to-difficult interception. Sticks his nose in against the run when making that read, fills a hole, flows through traffic to find the ball, or adds himself into piles with reckless abandon. Comes downhill from two-deep look with speed. Adept blitzer off the edge, makes ball carrier pay in the backfield if not accounted for.
Weaknesses: Missed 2011 season due to a leg injury. Not corner-like in his change of direction ability in man coverage against quicker receivers, though more than adequate for an NFL safety. Can get nosy on play action, getting sucked up or failing to drop deep enough when starting around the line. Loses battles against better receiver blocks in the run game. Needs to prove he has the strength to stop pro ball carriers in their tracks and be an intimidator in the back half when receivers come over the middle.
Shamarko Thomas – (Sleeper)
NFL Comparison: Donte Whitner
Strengths: Tough safety with a linebacker’s mentality and good thickness throughout his frame. Used around the line throughout his career, but also possesses the closing speed to make plays from a two-deep look. Makes jarring stops by flowing through traffic and lining up his target. Mixes it up in the box despite his size, won’t back down from lineman blocks and will extend his arm to keep them at bay. Effective blitzer off the edge using his speed and change of direction ability to make plays. Speedy and athletic enough to stay with slot receivers down the seam, can show blitz off-tackle and get back to handle slot coverage responsibility. Covers a lot of ground in the secondary when deep, can change directions effectively to get angles to prevent explosive plays. His coverage skills and ability to support against the run make him a potential starting strong safety who is likely to be selected in the middle rounds.
Weaknesses: Lacks ideal height for a defensive back, though his arm length appears to be more than adequate. Has been a safety/linebacker hybrid through most his career. Leaves his feet on some tackles trying to make the big hit or swipe down defenders instead of taking them on. Gets jumpy and needs to use his hands more effectively when pressing in the slot, can be head-faked at the line to give up inside leverage – though he has recovery speed, length, and toughness to stay in the play. Lack of height makes him a potential liability in downfield coverage against NFL receivers and tight ends.