There's no doubt the Arizona Cardinals are one of the most progressive teams in the NFL when it comes to varying stunts and blitz packages defensively.
Though it's the Cardinals' defensive linemen and outside linebackers who are often the ones executing the team's pressures, Arizona's schematic flexibility is made possible by two critical components on the back end of the defense.
"Money" linebacker Deone Bucannon and free safety Tyrann Mathieu line up all over the field for the Cardinals defense, and their ability to play man coverage, pressure the quarterback and stop the run on any given play allows defensive coordinator James Bettcher to become creative with how he deploys the other nine players on defense.
While Bucannon and Mathieu may not have the ideal size to play in the box against power run schemes, both players have demonstrated an ability to shed blockers and work downhill to bust up plays at the line of scrimmage. The versatility these two players bring to the back end of the Cardinals' defense is invaluable, and has inspired the organization to re-evaluate the way it looks at its talent.
General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have made it no secret they're constantly looking for more players in the Bucannon-Mathieu mold, and the pair believes it found another asset through this year's draft in fifth round selection Marqui Christian.
At 5-foot-10 and 196 pounds, the Midwestern State product may not have even been on some teams' radars, but the Cardinals' search for an impact talent at the back end of the defense led them to Christian in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
"He (Christian) is a guy that really came onto the scene late for us," Keim said. "But the closure that came late in the process was a guy named Adrian Wilson, who went to the NFLPA game and came back with jaw dropping."
The recommendation from Wilson is high praise for Christian, who may need to channel some of the 12-year veteran's physical playing style at the next level.
At Midwestern State, Christian played a considerable amount of safety as the single-high man at the back end of the defense, but he didn't fill the role in the mold of a traditional "centerfield" safety who tracks passes down on both sides of the field. Because of that, we foresee Arians' draft-day comments regarding Christian's versatility as a foreshadowing of the diverse ways the team will implement him into the scheme.
"He can do everything," Arians said. "He can cover a lot of ground, he's a 4.4 guy, can play man-to-man, can be interchangeable, which we like to do with our safeties."
How He Fits
The most difficult question for Christian to answer early on in his career is whether or not he has the durability to withstand the rigors of playing a physical style of football over the course of a full season.
Playing at or close to 200 pounds isn't a problem for many NFL safeties, but Christian's style of play is reflective of safeties who play the game with larger frames and more bulk at 220 or even 230 pounds.
As we noted in our film evaluation of Christian, the best aspect of his game is his ability to make key reads, dissect plays and fly toward the line of scrimmage to punish opponents. Of any Cardinals' defender, these skills are most similar to those of Matthieu, who is almost always in the right place at the right time because of his elite ability to anticipate an opponent's next move.
Fortunately for Christian, Matthieu has laid the groundwork for how to succeed as a safety with a smaller frame (He weighs just 186 pounds), and Christian can learn from Matthieu's success. Matthieu takes great routes to the football, uses his speed as a weapon to escape blockers, and doesn't allow himself to get run off his landmarks which are all parts of the game Christian will need to master to see playing time with the Cardinals.
Though much of Christian's experience comes in the single-high safety role that Rashad Johnson often filled last season for Arizona in man coverage situations, we project Christian as an "in-the-box" safety which is where Matthieu and Tony Jefferson often aligned last season. We think the Cardinals can maximize Christian's skill set by asking him to fill running lanes and match up with slot defenders in man-to-man situations.
Christian should see the field early in his career in more obvious running situations, and because he'll be aligning closer to the line of scrimmage than he did on the majority of plays at Midwestern State, Christian should be able to thrive against the run if he continues to dissect plays with the same level of ease as he did in college.
Christian's closing speed could be a huge difference maker against the run and in the screen game, and below are two examples of the distance Christian regularly covered to make tackles.
In this shot, the receiver at the 25-yard line in white already has the ball in his possession and is working up the field toward Christian who is recovering from his back pedal to come up and play against the quick slant.
By the time the receiver breaks free from an initial tackle attempt, Christian has already put himself in position to secure a tackle and drive his opponent backward. The leverage Christian created in a matter of five yards allows him to deliver a blow to his opponent and stop the receiver's forward progress in its tracks. This kind of quick closing speed will be even more effective on outside zone running plays and against quick screens like the one we see below.
In this shot, Christian is aligned as more of a nickel corner than he is as a safety, which is a spot we could see him eventually line up at with the Cardinals. Once Christian begins to backpedal, his eyes lock in on the movements of the offensive line and they shift to the developing screen with the outside receiver on Christian's side of the field. As the quarterback begins his throwing motion, Christian is already darting toward the line of scrimmage to beat his blocker to open space, and he capitalizes with the tackle in the image below.
Though Christian's film is a bit blurry and difficult to see, this image shows Christian breaking down and making the tackle at the 46-yard line, which is right where the play began. For a safety to have the play recognition skills to make a tackle on an inside screen like this is impressive, and it's a skill the Cardinals hope Christian carries over to the NFL.
Much like the Cardinals' earlier draft picks of Robert Nkemdiche and Brandon Williams, there's risk involved with drafting a player like Christian because at this point in his career, it's uncertain how his skills will translate to the next level. However, the risk is somewhat mitigated because the Cardinals waited until the fifth round to select Christian, where the team won't lose out on much if Christian doesn't pan out as a prospect.
There's also the possibility the Cardinals could try to throw too much on Christian's plate early in his career, because he doesn't have a position that fits him naturally. Christian is a small school player with experience as a single-high safety, but he'll likely be asked to play a variety of different roles with a number of different alignments that could challenge him and slow down his play reaction time, which is his best quality as a defender.
Even with the challenge of transitioning to the Cardinals' scheme from a more simplistic college defense, Christian is ready to embrace the road ahead and learn everything the team throws his way. And by the sounds of it, the Cardinals won't hold back in showing Christian the ropes.
"They kind of talked as a hybrid-type guy, a safety playing down in the box, just using my different talents," Christian said. "Blitzing off the edge man-to-man in the slot, zone, interchangeable at safety, maybe playing deep."