With this post I'm going to talk about three different safeties available to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 NFL draft: USC's TJ McDonald, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien and Florida's Matt Elam.
Obviously these aren't the only guys available but I think these guys pair well with what we've seen, and what we might see in the future in regards to Eric Berry's role in our defense.
With new Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton we probably won't see the same scheme that had Eric Berry constantly lining up in the box from his strong safety position. Which at times looked more like a linebacker position under Romeo Crennel.
Read more: A brief history of Bob Sutton
Berry expressed his thoughts of wanting to move back off the line of scrimmage more often in an interview with 810 WHB down in New Orleans during Super Bowl week. Berry's prowess as a run defender combined with his play-making ability at or behind the line of scrimmage is why coaches like him up in the box.
Berry is instinctive enough as a player that he could continue making plays behind the line of scrimmage and make his presence felt in the run game if he he backed off the line and spent some time in the 'center-field' role, or free safety. I think finding a safety that can either play both safety positions or play a role similar to what Berry did last season is ideal for this defense moving forward.
McDonald was one of the players I was really excited about getting a chance to watch down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. I believe that his physical skill-set for a player listed as a 'free safety' would be a great complement to Berry. He spent most of his Senior season playing in the box for USC at 6'2 211 lbs. They consistently brought him off the edge as a blitzer and he's not afraid of contact. He welcomes it, actually.
I watched four games of McDonald against Stanford, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona.
One thing that really stood out to me about McDonald was his physicality. He is not afraid to stick his nose in the box in running game and establish his presence. He finishes plays and is rarely caught standing around a pile as he's consistently getting shots in when he can.
Another thing that stood out is that he struggled with his angles in the open field. Especially against faster running backs like UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Oregon's Kenjon Barner. These problems occurred when there was plenty of space between McDonald and the offensive player. Moving him closer to the line of scrimmage, which is where USC played him most of the time his senior year, would help close that gap and mask this issue better.
I agree with Adam's statement. After watching these games I think he needs to be closer to the line of scrimmage. I think in the right scheme he's going to be a solid player but I'd hesitate to put him out in space too often.
He can play that role that Berry did last year. As teams keep trying to spread out defenses these 'tweeners' are going to become even more valuable. You need players that can play in the box but also get out and run in coverage. While he doesn't have the same quick-twitch reactions as some other safeties in this draft, or at least at their level, he's fluid enough to shrug off any Taylor Mays comparisons.
Notice the closing speed that McDonald brings. He's at his best when he's flowing downhill. There's also great recognition of the play displayed here. As soon as the ball is snapped the WR is looking for McDonald to flow his way on this play-pass to the RB. McDonald's quickness + recognition blew this play up. Without both of those skills the WR would have had a better chance of getting that block in and putting the CB in a 'must-tackle' position.
Watch him coming downhill and making a play. He LOVES contact and when I spoke with him down at the Senior Bowl he said he'd like to be at least 10 yards off the LOS so he can get a full head of steam coming down to lay a hit on the offensive player.
I admittedly didn't know much about Cyprien when I went down to the Senior Bowl but he stood out from the weigh-in Monday morning all the way to the final 2-minute drive in the game on Saturday night. I watched his games from this past season against Louisville, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic.
He is comfortable down in the box and spent time there as a strong safety at Florida International. Much like McDonald he absolutely LOVES contact. His physicality is what will define him as a prospect. The physicality that I'm talking about with McDonald and Cyprien is about being able to make plays in traffic inside the box. Not necessarily just laying a big hit.
I don't see the same kind of angle issues with Cyprien that I did with McDonald. He always seems to be around the ball. Therefore you wouldn't be as worried putting him out in space. He has the ability to play deep coverage but it's not where he's the best fit. You can see that deep coverage ability in this video against Teddy Bridgewater at around the :20 mark.
One thing you hear from everyone regarding Cyprien is his love to 'talk' when he's out on the field. He brings the kind of attitude that you'd love him if he was on your team and you'd hate him if you were playing against him.
He shows fluid hips and the ability to get out and run with receivers from the slot. You won't mistake him for a cornerback once a receiver makes a couple of moves but he's not lost in space either.
See his aggressiveness in the run game and his willingness to get into traffic and make a play. He's someone that defenses will always have to account for on every play. You'll see the MLB blitz the A-Gap with Cyprien coming in behind on a run-blitz. The OLB spies the H-back as protection for Cyprien and the deep safety rotates over behind the blitz. This play was setup for Cyprien to make a play.
This is similar to what we saw above from McDonald. The closing speed running downhill to cover a back in the flat. The CB came on a blitz and Cyprien then had responsibility for that WR in coverage. He notices where the QB is going with the ball and reacts. The free WR then goes to block the OLB at the same time Cyprien was closing on the RB in the flat. The QB dumping it off to the RB in the flat on the blitzing side would have been a great idea if not for a tipped pass and a play-making Cyprien. The offense had the play-side OLB on the ground and two offensive lineman out in space. But Cyprien got there too quickly.
The younger brother of Chiefs free agent safety Abram Elam, Matt is my top choice of these three safeties. I watched his games against Tennessee, Florida State, LSU and Texas A&M.
He's physical just like McDonald and Cyprien but is the better coverage defender of the three. He would consistently line up on the slot receiver or tight-end in coverage for Florida and showed the ability to jam at the line and then open-up and run with faster receivers, or bigger tight ends. In zone coverage Elam seemed to recognize different routes into his area and peel off from one to the other.
Elam is a playmaker, plain and simple. He had 22 tackles for loss over the past two seasons at Florida and finished with 4 interceptions in 2012 which tied him for 4th best in the SEC. I think Elam's closing speed is the best among this group and something that really sticks out about him. When there's a play in front of him and he's around the box there's a good chance he's going to be in on the tackle or disrupting the play. He doesn't show the same willingness to fight through blocks to make a play but he will use his speed and quickness to get around blockers. That's one big difference between Elam and McDonald/Cyprien.
Of these three safeties he's the closest to resembling Eric Berry. At least in terms of their skill-sets and abilities. I like this pairing because it would allow them to be moved around from play to play. When you have the ability to effectively play in the box and back deep as a 'center fielder' it gives the defense that much more versatility as a whole.
Look at the down-hill closing speed and tackling ability. (Notice a trend? I like safeties that can tackle and hit people). Elam starts 12 yards off the LOS from his SS spot. When you watch the blocking on this run it's actually setup pretty well from LSU. The LG gets out and pulls around and seals the OLB to the inside. But Elam fills and makes the play. Try and visualize this run if Elam had got sucked inside or missed the tackle.
This is Elam's ability to go up and get the ball in the air. Granted it was a terrible pass and terrible decision from Florida State QB EJ Manuel, but this shows Elam outside the box making a play in coverage. He's got man coverage on the slot receiver which is something he did quite a bit at Florida.
Based on current projections Elam will be the first of these safeties to be drafted and then Cyprien, then McDonald. Elam will go in the top-half of the 2nd round and Cyprien somewhere between the mid-2nd and 3rd round. McDonald somewhere between the late 2nd and late 3rd round.
Thanks again to Clay Wendler for making these GIFs.
Which of these guys do you like best and how important is upgrading the safety position opposite Eric Berry?