2018 Senior Bowl Preview: Safeties

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]I am writing this 33,000 feet high in the sky. Travelling 520 miles per hour. Somewhere south of Greenland.

As I munch on the excellent breadstrick and chocolate spread snack that has been handed out by a certain airline (get in touch about partnering with ITP), my excitement to see the 2018 safety class in Mobile is still building.

This is an interesting group, with every prospect bringing something different to the Senior Bowl. Seeing the players in the flesh will answer some questions that have cropped up in the evaluation process to date.

Marcus Allen, Penn State

Age: 21

Measurements: 6ft 1, 207lbs

Games Started: 44

Games Played: 49

Production: 320 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 FF, 1 INT, 10 PD

Allen’s strengths lie in his play facing the run. He reacts quickly, stays outside in and uses his length to keep himself free outside versus blockers. He is a capable open-field tackler, hitting with excellent power, yet he needs to break down far more consistently and get his head out of tackles.

However, he really does struggle in man coverage and downfield zone coverage—making him best suited to a box safety role. He has the athleticism and hips to play man coverage, yet really struggles to jam opponents in press and he’ll open his hips out too early. He lacks ball skills too. In zone coverage, he does at least have good play recognition, and reads his quarterback and receiver keys well.

At the Senior Bowl, I want to see Allen demonstrate awareness in shallower zone coverages and also show some underneath pattern matching ability. His block-shedding needs to be quicker; he needs to use his hands and arms better. Finally, I hope he breaks down consistently so as to avoid lunging into tackles.

Quin Blanding, Virginia

Age: 21

Measurements: 6ft 1, 210lbs

Games Started: 49

Games Played: 49

Production: 493 tackles, 1 Sack, 0 FF, 10 INT, 15 PD

On a bad Virginia team, Blanding was often a rare bright spot. His high tackling production should have context heavily weighted in, with a lot of them transpiring due to teammates’ errors. However, Blanding was still capable at sifting through trash in the box, and he carried some hit power when he played with the correct form. Yet, too often, Blanding takes horrid approach angles and makes contact with poor form—losing sight of the near-foot, near-shoulder principles. He does wrap and drive his legs well though.

In coverage, Blanding showcases route recognition, ball skills and recovery ability. He also plays with silky footwork and fluid hips. He will always be athletically limited, with a lack of twitch and long speed affecting his game. However, he often overcomes this via his football intelligence, making a two-high shell in Cover 2 or quarters his best fit.

At the Senior Bowl, Blanding’s route diagnosis skills should shine. Due to his lack of burst or long speed, he has to excel in the zone coverage drills. Another thing he must prove is that his approach angles are fixed.

Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii

Age: 22

Measurements: 6ft, 200lbs

Games Started: 38

Games Played: 47

Production: 234 tackles, 5 Sacks, 1 FF, 7 INT, 13 PD

Henderson is the best blitzing safety attending the Senior Bowl. He takes a great path, staying in the quarterback’s lane and getting his hands up at the right moment. What makes him even more dangerous is the disguise he executes his blitzes with. The effectiveness shows up in the production, with the former Rainbow Warrior registering five career sacks.

His play diagnosis needs work, as he’ll come down hard against play-action. He is also a head ducker in tackles, and must break down better—which would improve his poor tackling angles. Improving his form would also increase his play strength and power on his hits. Athletically, he lacks long speed. Combined with his play style, that makes him more suited to being around the line of scrimmage

At the Senior Bowl, frankly, I am looking forward to seeing more of Henderson. A lack of Hawaii film means that he is the least-watched prospect of the group. He should impress in blitzing drills, and will likely struggle with pursuit.

Tray Matthews, Auburn

Age: 23

Measurements: 6ft, 209lbs

Games Played: 40

Production: 228 tackles, 1 Sack, 1 FF, 5 INT, 10 PD

While Matthews lacks long speed: his burst, length and ability in deep zone coverage gives him intriguing range. He has a polished backpedal and gets excellent depth in deep zones. Combined with his route recognition ability and speed, this makes him a potential center fielder.

His ability against the run is his main weakness. His run fits and approach angles are a mess. Furthermore, he appears keen to let others make the tackle. Whether that is due to him having a lack of confidence tackling due to bad form, or down to something more psychological, he must improve this side of his game.

At the Senior Bowl, I am curious to see how much Matthews’ solid long speed impacts his sideline to sideline range. I also want to see just how badly he struggles in man coverage, something he found really difficult in college—be it short, intermediate or deep. He must show better play against the run in drills, both in executing his run fits but also making a proper, form tackle.

Jeremy Reaves, South Alabama

Age: 21

Measurements: 5ft 11, 205lbs

Games Played: 45

Production: 362 tackles, 1.5 Sacks, 4 FF, 8 INT, 20 PD

Reaves played a fair bit of cornerback for South Alabama, but his full-time conversion to safety is a sensible move. He moved to the position in college, and, at the next level, needs to be closer to the line of scrimmage. He lacks the long speed, instincts or range to be at a deeper level.

Plus, putting Reaves in the box would best impose his play strength and competitive toughness on opponents. He is a big hitter who executes his run fits well. His best coverage was also on shorter, underneath routes, where he showed that he had some twitch and can mirror opponents.

At the Senior Bowl, there are two things that Reaves has to prove in his new position. Firstly, he has to show the same capability in executing run fits as he did from the cornerback position. Secondly, and more importantly, he has to consistently wrap up, use his feet and improve his tackling form. Looking for the decleating hit so often leads to a drop in his form. I am anxious to see how he does in underneath zone coverage and pattern matching. These are more preferable schematic fits for him in the pros.

Armani Watts, Texas A&M

Age: 21

Measurements: 5ft 11, 205lbs

Games Started: 41

Games Played: 45

Production: 307 tackles, 1.5 Sacks, 4 FF, 10 INT, 16 PD

Watts is a player full of football intelligence who is also an athlete with excellent speed and a high motor. That, In conjunction with his range, ball skills and deep zone coverage ability, makes him really well suited to a deep safety role.

His man coverage is really lacking, with double moves, feints and action in the backfield causing him serious issues. Yet the biggest problem with his game is his play against ballcarriers. He has weak play strength and woeful tackling form, leading with his head into tackles, all of which needs serious work. This undoes the solid understanding of run fits and leverage that he possesses.

At the Senior Bowl, his tackling ability and strength will be under intense scrutiny. He improved from 2016, so perhaps that theme will continue. I am interested to see if he has a better plan against bigger blockers when trying to shed them in drills. I think he will impress as a deep playmaker, showing off sideline to sideline range and playing the football. He also should flash his jamming ability in press coverage.

Kyzir White, West Virginia

Age: 21

Measurements: 6ft 2, 216lbs

Games Started: 15

Games Played: 15 (JUCO transfer)

Production: 152 tackles, 4 Sacks, 5 FF, 3 INT, 9 PD

A JUCO transfer, White continued his theme of improvement in 2017, building upon an impressive 2016 where he performed better with every game. Sure, development is not linear, but White’s rapid growth is an encouraging indicator of his response to coaching and higher competition.

His ideal size gives him really good hit power, which he shows off with good form. It also provides him with length, which he best utilizes when engaging blockers. His block shedding and block disruption is the best part of his game. Combine that with his great awareness in zone coverage, and he looks to be an excellent box strong safety at the next level. He just has to improve his approach and pursuit angles.

At the Senior Bowl, I look forward to seeing White show off his dominant block shedding and block disruption. I am intrigued to see how fluid his hips are and I want to see him tested in downfield man coverage. If he copes with this assignment against fast guys, he will be really comfortable as a tight end killer in certain NFL packages. He must show better approach and pursuit angles, which is what really limited him in college.

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matty’s other work here, such as why Reuben Foster will excel in the 49ers’ defense, Oklahoma State’s misdirection connection between James Washington and Mason Rudolph, and how Cooper Kupp and Sean McVay could save Jared Goff.

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