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Chiefs on the rise in 2018: safety Eric Murray

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Why the film lab says Eric Murray could be a player to watch in 2018

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the opening of training camp, preseason is pretty much here - which means the Kansas City Chiefs 2018 regular season is right around the corner. Hype is at an all time high!

And it’s about time to move our film breakdowns from focusing on how players performed last year to what could be in store for 2018. Training camp will be full of position battles and players making a name for themselves, but instead of looking directly at those details, let’s turn our attention to Chiefs On The Rise!

First up is Eric Murray, converted CB to S out of the University of Minnesota who has slowly seen his playing time and role with the defense increase.

Where He Currently Is

Pro Football Focus rates Eric Murray the 81st safety in NFL (Ron Parker was 84th and Daniel Sorensen was 82nd) which is clearly not great. A simple bit of math - 32 teams x 2 starting safeties = 64 best safeties - would lead one to believe they graded Murray out as a subpar third safety. Obviously it’s not that simple; Murray played some games with injuries, and overall snaps do factor into PFF’s grades. But it’s a safe assumption that according to their system he is a nickel safety. PFF also had this to say about Murray, whom they put on their All Pro Team for his special teams play.

The term “special teams ace” gets thrown around a lot, but we’re looking to grade more than simply a tally of special teams tackles. Eric Murray was a key part of the Chiefs’ kickoff, kick return, punt coverage, and punt return units. He routinely made impressive blocks in the return game, and was often found beating blockers to force returners to change direction.

Bleacher Report, unlike PFF, ranks their safeties by splitting them into strong and free safeties. Eric Murray was included in the strong safeties category - likely due to his play mostly as a slot and overhand defensive back. Out of 51 qualifying strong safeties, Murray ranked 21st. (As a reference, Sorensen was 42nd) So Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranking is clearly more favorable to Murray by grading him out as an average to low end starting strong safety in the NFL.

He showed plenty of promise in the games he played while healthy. He usually lined up in the slot in man coverage, and he excelled. He looked comfortable when matched up with bigger tight ends. He’s undersized (5’11”, 199 lbs), which showed up in his ability to play the run.

The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle of these two rankings. But we aren’t here to look back at 2017. Instead, let’s focus on 2018 and how Eric Murray can make an impactful leap as a quality, full time starting player for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Where He’s Winning

Eric Murray’s most common and most effective usage last year came as a man defender out of the slot. Whether on traditional slot wideouts or even bigger tight ends (outside of Jared Cook taking his soul) Murray drew plenty of slot man/zone coverage snaps before Steven Nelson’s return - and even after.

Being an ex-cornerback, there is no surprise that Murray shows plus footwork, hand usage, leverage, and route identification for a safety. Murray shows the same tenacity he did as a prospect by not being afraid to jam much larger players and challenge them at the catch point. Murray doesn’t showcase the most fluid hips, but has enough change of direction ability that he performs admirably in that regard when paired with his good footwork.

As a run defender, Murray’s size does pose limitations when stacking or shedding blocks when in the open field against powerful runners, but since he has tenacity and proper pad level upon contact it’s not a negative. His run fits when playing as an apex (overhang) player are usually limited to holding contain and attacking outside - which he does quickly and well, and from proper angles.

He isn’t the best interior gap filler as a safety, but as a “big gain limiter” he shows the ability to reduce the open field for the runner and make secure tackles. Murray isn’t an ankle tackler - which is admirable - but that also means he comes in too high for a player of his size that doesn’t generate a ton of force.

In 2017, Murray wasn’t given a ton of reps as a deep zone defender. Most of these snaps were in obvious passing situations occurring late in games when the Chiefs were trying to protect a lead. While sitting in the deep hole, Murray wasn’t really challenged - but didn’t make his impact felt, either.

Murray was, however, often used as a hook/curl defender from the apex, or a robber type defender when aligned as a high split safety. It sounds like an easy role, but there is a fair amount of effort that goes into reducing angles, quickly reading receiver’s leverages, and getting proper depth - all while carrying routes being passed off. Murray showed well in all of these areas. Murray was able to prevent quite a few throws that a QB wanted across the middle by closing toward the potential target.

The opportunity ahead

Overall, Eric Murray was a good piece to have on the team last year, filling a variety of roles - including slot CB, apex/overhang defender, and various deep safety roles. While players like that are very useful - even necessary - for a team to succeed in today’s NFL, there is a reason they are not full time players.

That can all change for Eric Murray in 2018, as there is starting safety role completely up for grabs across from Eric Berry. But who will be filling that role?

Let’s run down the attributes Bob Sutton has valued over the past few years:

  1. Versatility. Sutton has famously said strong and free don’t matter, but two safeties are his goal. This has rung true most years for the Chiefs as safeties rarely switch sides after alignment, but instead change the depth of their play and assignments based on offensive alignment.
  2. Overly physical beats too much finesse. Under Sutton, the Chiefs secondary began as a “hit em in the mouth” defense that came downhill and challenged plays. This mentality may have changed for Chiefs cornerbacks last year, but for the safeties, it held true.
  3. Instincts over physical ability. Sutton has no issue with taking the lesser athlete that reads a play properly and acts quickly. Specifically in terms of zone responsibilities, there has to be trust that a player will be where has to be, rather than chasing a play.

So where does Eric Murray fit on the back end of the Chiefs defense? He’s shown his versatility as he’s slowly worked his way from a cornerback to a safety role in the NFL. As for his physicality, “feisty” may be a word that could go into any article ever written about Murray - whether positive or negative. To round out the trifecta, while Murray has never been a great athlete compared to his competition, gets by on technique and his ability to recognize what is happening quickly.

The final step

Murray is not a finished product - or a perfect player. There were times - even in the roles he fulfilled last year - that he lost good position due to trying to handfight, over-moved his feet, or he came in too tall for a tackle. But the groundwork for an ascending player is laid out right in front of the Chiefs.

Once Sutton’s preferences and tendencies are accounted for, there could be a specific reason that despite losing Ron Parker, the Chiefs weren’t heavily interested in the safety market. The light at the end of the dark tunnel - opposite the freight train that is Eric Berry - could be none other than Eric Murray.

For Murray to fully secure this starting role, there are a few things that will have to take place. He’ll have to continue to grow in his comfort level as a deep safety, specifically in single high looks. He looks very natural and ready to make plays in two-deep looks, but plays with a ton of depth while he is the lone deep safety; it only makes sense for a safety transitioning from cornerback to be picking up a centerfield position more slowly since it is the most different from past experience. That being said, if Murray’s learning curve thus far in his career holds true, there should be no worries. Even with his limited experience, the way Murray keeps his hips square to the mesh point of the receiver and the ball is a great sign of what’s to come.

After that, it’s just consistency at the catch point that needs to be dealt with. While in man coverage, Murray is able to stick into a receivers pocket and deny the ball from the catch point, and pin the receiver’s hands from the ball. While acting as a deep safety, the ball will much more often be in a “50/50” location in which he’ll have to challenge the receiver at the catch point - or circumvent them entirely and meet the ball earlier on its trajectory. He’s shown the ability to do both but not at a consistent level during his limited reps in that role.

Even if Murray improves marginally in these two areas, he could be an upgrade over the safety play seen for much of last year, and could form a solid pairing with Eric Berry. Having both out on the field would allow for seamless transitions on defense without tipping their hand, or scrambling to flip the field as offenses go through pre-snap calls.

Eric Murray may be flying under the radar as a potential big improvement from last year’s defense. Don’t count him out based only on his part time role last year.