Mask On, Mask Off: Malik Hooker and Jamal Adams
Ohio State’s Malik Hooker has the chance to eventually be the best free safety in the NFL. A bold statement, I know, but when you see Hooker on tape, you know you’re looking at a special talent. He is the ultra-rare, high-end centerfielder that so many teams covet and so few can attain. Playing with the ball in front of him, to see every bit of the play unfold, Malik Hooker’s tracking, anticipation, and closing speed separate him from his peers at the position. Being able to cover the backend of the defense allows coordinators to get creative with their strong safety and other personnel in front of Hooker. The unfortunate part of his evaluation is that he was injured this spring and did not test – and testing matters a great deal. We don’t know his forty-yard speed, his explosion through jumps, or his change of direction and short-area quickness. Taking him in the top 10 will be a leap of faith, because healthy safeties rarely go that high, much less one with no known NFL Combine numbers on him. Hooker is a player whose athleticism we have to gauge on tape, which can be misleading, but with him I believe what he can do pops off the screen. He is a bit of a projection with some gut-instinct thrown in, but he’s worth going top 12 in this class.
LSU’s Jamal Adams is the other side of the safety coin. Where Hooker is the rangy centerfielder, Adams is the box safety who attacks downhill and across the middle. He’s one of the most aggressive safeties I’ve ever scouted – and similar to Alabama’s Reuben Foster, his biggest strength is often his downfall. Adams’s closing speed and violent nature to throw himself through an opponent has to terrify opposing running backs and receivers when he squares up, but often Adams over-launches and flails past the target or doesn’t tackle clean through contact. This is only worth noting because no prospect is perfect, and it’s certainly fixable. Where Adams excels above other downhill safeties is his ability to cover. He’s not a single-high safety, but he’s also not a liability covering a receiver. Like Hooker, he’s heavily scrutinized for the position he plays, because strong safeties just aren’t taken as high as he’s being talked about. Adams would be one of the highest paid safeties in NFL history before he took a snap if he’s taken in the top 5. And while I understand the economic implications, that’s modern football. The salary cap is always rising, and in a class without many offensive tackles and edge rushers to congest the top 10, Adams deserves to be in the conversation. I believe he’s got as much potential as Landon Collins did coming out in 2015, and having seen Collins’s success in 2016, I know the payoff can be worth it in an investment like Adams.
The Forgotten Man, the Quandary, and the Budda
Alabama’s Eddie Jackson was being talked about in the same conversation with Hooker and Adams during the college football season until he broke his leg and missed the SEC title game and Playoffs. Because Jackson was injured at the end of the season instead of the beginning, he went through the draft process with no athletic testing numbers to back up his successful career, and that has slid him down into Day 2 or 3 conversation for many, which is often another way for people to say “I have no idea where to put him because we didn’t get numbers on him this spring.” I, too, have had to slide him down from a locked in first round grade to a high end second round grade. But, even still, there’s a ton to like about Jackson’s game. Like Hooker, Jackson is a high-end free safety, a field general for the back half of a defense. Transitioning from cornerback, his ability to play man coverage are as good as any at his position, but his instincts are what separates him. Jackson lacks Hooker’s instincts, but his anticipation for where the ball will go along with his ability to diagnose a play rate him in the “excellent” category for traits grade. A broken leg should heal and Eddie Jackson’s career should be a long and successful one.
No prospect gets the heat that Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers gets. He embodied everything we want a college athlete to be – a team-first player, an explosive and exciting player, a dynamic player, and by all accounts an upstanding young man. Unfortunately, players who are jack-of-all-trades often get labeled as masters-of-none, and so there’s much debate over where Peppers plays in the NFL. For me it’s simple: Jabrill Peppers is an overhang defender (slot safety) in the NFL. He’s not a true nickel corner and he’s not a true box safety, but he’s someone who can affect the game in multiple ways in multiple schemes. Peppers is a Day 1 asset on special teams, too, and maybe that’s where most of his money is earned as a rookie. The big question isn’t Peppers’s evaluation, it’s his valuation: Where do you take him? For me, Peppers should be taken somewhere between picks 50-75, which is mid-second to early-third round. It’s unrealistic to expect him to perform to the level that a first rounder needs to, so to get the biggest return on invest throughout the life of his rookie deal, he needs to be taken at proper value and worked into an NFL role. In three to five years, Peppers could be a fantastic playmaker in a team’s defensive secondary.
Budda Baker is a tremendous player, and it’s easy to see Tyrann Matheiu’s style of play watching him. Baker is a chess-piece safety – he can play single-high, he’s able to play down in the box despite his size, he can play the overhang in the slot, and he can even slide out and play corner. Despite him being my #4 safety, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have the biggest impact as a rookie, because of how dynamic he is and the way he attacks every snap of the game, and should be a long-time NFL starter.