Analysis of the Free Safety Class

The free safeties in the 2012 draft class lack some depth with few capable juniors, but there are a few second-day prospects of intrigue. In the third day, there is a talented safety that Dave-Te' Thomas of NFL Draft Report terms "wackadoo."

The safety position has evolved in recent years. While there are still the titles of "strong" and "free" safety, most defenses utilize a tandem that can interchange at each position. The problem is, finding those interchangeable athletes. With these two positions lacking in star quality, outside of Alabama strong safety Mark Barron, the only other safety with even a slight chance to be taken late in the first round is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, who fits the mold of the strong slashing free safety package teams covet.

One look around the league and you will find the evolution taking place at both free and strong safety. When the ground game was "in," defenses combated that offensive attack with two big, physical safeties, built more in the mold of outside linebackers. Now, with the West Coast Offense and multiple receiver sets becoming the rage, the safeties are required to have quickness, along with superb open-field hitting ability.

The free safety will usually have better range of motion. He has to handle the inside slot receivers and also pick up the running backs that escape the slower linebackers into the second level. He is more of a centerfielder type, roaming the field with one primary assignment – help out whatever defender is going after the offensive player with the ball.

The free safety is probably the most instinctive athlete on the defensive side, as any sign of hesitation on his part will lead to a quick six points by a smart quarterback that spots the free safety's moment of weakness. On top of all that, the free safety is responsible for making the defensive calls in the secondary.

Unlike previous seasons, this position is not only lacking in star quality, but there is also a dearth of underclass talent to help fortify the position. Two juniors of note could be drafted late.

One is Philip Thomas (Syracuse), but at sub 200 pounds and 4.7 speed, it will be his special-teams play that might help him earn a roster spot.

The other junior is highly talented, yet also highly troubled, Tennessee castoff Janzen Jackson (McNeese State), whose long trail of off-field issues could scare away more than a handful of prospective suitors. Regarded as the elite cornerback coming out of high school, unimpressive speed agility test results make him better suited to play in zone coverage rather than in one-on-one assignments.

Notre Dame's Harrison Smith came into the collegiate ranks as a weak-side inside line-backer before shifting to the secondary as a sophomore. The second half of that 2009 campaign saw him shift to strong-side linebacker before returning to free safety for his final two seasons. He is a stellar pass defender, as he picked off seven passes and ranks second in school history with 28 pass deflections.

Smith has a defined, angular frame with the growth potential to add more bulk without any decrease in his impressive quickness. He has a V-shaped torso with a well-defined upper body, good bubble, developed calves and good chest thickness. He shows solid muscle tone in his arms and thighs. Smith has rare size for a safety, as he looks more like a cover-2 linebacker. He has minimal body fat (5.8 percent) with a tight waist.

Smith is a naturally gifted athlete who shows good agility test scores. He has the loose hips and sudden burst to close on the ball in a hurry and shows good body control in transition. He has nimble feet and excellent hand/eye coordination, along with the leaping ability to get fine elevation going up to get to the pass at its high point.

The Irish defender has large hands (10?-inch width) and does a fine job of extending and catching away from his frame. He is quick and fast, which allows him to keep plays in front of him and mirror even the swift flankers and split ends in deep secondary coverage. He has an explosive burst to close and the acceleration to make plays from sideline to sideline. He also maintains balance and keeps his feet when asked to come up and shut down the cutback lanes.

Smith demonstrates good acceleration to come off his assignment and make the tackle when another receiver escapes the defender. He has sharp cutting ability and fluid foot movement in transition. Simply put, he is a quick-twitched athlete who demonstrates excellent balance, lateral movement and closing speed to be regarded as a valuable asset playing inside the box in run support or covering the deep portion of the zone.

Smith's quickness makes him an excellent centerfielder when playing deep in the zone. He does a fine job of keeping plays in front of him, as the coaching staff utilized his forward charge by using him as a blitzer, collecting 18.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage during his career. He has to literally compensate for coverage breakdowns by the front seven in order for the staff to let him play in the box, but 50 percent of his plays have come in run force, thus disputing the assessment by some that he is not physical playing near the line.

The senior safety is quick to anticipate the play and has the loose hips and acceleration to stay with almost any receiver on deep routes. When given room to roam, he can really locate the ball in a hurry. You will almost never see him get burned on deep routes. He is a decisive athlete who can react in an instant. His quickness and ability to take proper angles allows him to close on the ball and string plays wide in run support. He has the vision to make plays with his back to the ball, doing a nice job of looking the pass in over his shoulders.

George Iloka
Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
Boise State's George Iloka is a big, physical defender who could be asked to bulk up and play the cover-2 linebacker position, reminding scouts of Carolina's Thomas Davis before the Panther's injury woes sidelined him the last two years. He has good hands as a pass thief, picking off seven throws while deflecting 17 others. He is also capable in run force, as 15 of his 232 tackles were good for losses.

Iloka has good timed speed, but shows better quickness than the stopwatch indicates, especially when closing on plays in front of him. He shows good agility and above-average balance recovering when a receiver gets behind him and is flexible in his attempts to slip past and avoid blocks. He closes with good urgency and is smooth moving in the open field.

The Boise State defender runs with a normal stride and flashes very good in-stride acceleration. He is agile working in space and excels at breaking down and making open-field tackles. He has the ability to come up and support the run, but also does a nice job of executing his second gear to deliver big plays outside the box. With his low pad level, balance and body control, he looks very fluid coming out of his backpedal with no wasted steps.

Iloka is a quick "read-and-react" type of player who is very decisive in recognizing the runs and passes in front of him. He is not the type that a quarterback can "sucker" out of position with misdirection or play-action. He shows good anticipation and knowledge for taking angles when closing and has a knack for stepping into the passing lanes, evident by his interceptions and ability to keep the receivers from getting into their routes (with his press coverage skills, he prevented his assignment from getting to 90 of 148 passes into his area the last two years).

The senior shows good vision tracking the ball in flight, but you would like to see him more determined to compete for the pass at its high point rather than being more concerned with hitting his opponent (great intimidator, but with his natural hands and leaping ability, you want to see more thefts and pass break-ups). He is alert to blocking schemes and is fast to come up and plug holes inside the box when asked to provide run support. If he doesn't get blocked, he is certain to make the play.

In the mid-round area, Michigan State's Trenton Robinson and Oklahoma State's Markelle Martin are certain to hear their names called. Martin likely would have been taken in the second round, but post-season surgery to repair a pinched nerve and fluid build-up in his right knee prevented him from working out for teams until early April.

Martin lacks blazing speed, but shows good footwork, foot quickness, agility, balance and body control. He has enough speed and range to close on plays in front of him, using his balance to change direction effortlessly. With his long legs, he is a bit of a long strider, but has smooth hips and quick feet in transition. He shows the ability to accelerate and generate that second gear needed to quickly close on the ball.

Martin has fluid change of direction agility and above-average flexibility to make plays from sideline to sideline. He demonstrates excellent leaping ability to compete for the ball at its high point, deflecting 36 passes, but lacks great hands (three pass thefts), as more than a few of those break-ups looked like valid interceptions, if only he secured the ball better.

The Cowboys safety shows excellent awareness playing in the zone. He is quick to react to action in front of him, but needs to be quicker getting over on deep activity. He takes good drops in curl, flat and underneath coverage. He will sometimes freelance a bit and neglect some responsibilities, but generally shows good awareness and reactions to handle combo routes and smoothly switch off assignments.

Coming off his knee surgery, Martin will need to convince teams that he has the wide range and movement agility to cover the deep third of the field well. With his vision, he immediately scans the field and sees the play develop. He makes good adjustments, whether playing in deep or shallow assignments. His range allows him to cover a lot of field in a hurry, but it is his ability to keep everything in front of him that is rare in a player his age.

Trenton Robinson
Kim Klement/US Presswire
Michigan State's Trenton Robinson has great flexibility and the burst to close in a hurry when the action is in front of him. He displays the foot quickness, balance and change-of-direction skills to transition without taking extra steps. He plays with very good body control to mirror tight ends, slot receivers and backs in the short-to-intermediate area and the loose hips to stay tight with the receivers on long patterns.

The Spartan runs with a normal stride, keeping his pads down to generate the acceleration needed coming out of his turns. He has improved his backpedal technique and shows no hip stiffness. He possesses natural hands (nine interceptions) and is quite effective at tracking the ball over his head on deep routes. He times his leaps well and while he is more quick than fast, he demonstrates the consistent explosion coming out of his breaks to prevent much separation through the route's progression.

Robinson has the athletic ability to get off the hashes and cover grass in a hurry vs. plays in front of him. He shows above-average route recognition, and while he might not have that explosive second gear, he has good transition quickness. He is best when he can maintain position on the receiver in his area, as he will stick to his man like glue. He reacts very well to the ball in flight and gets good depth in his pass drops.

The safety is quick to handle the switch and has the ability to close when he keeps the play in front of him. He will bait the quarterback to throw to his area, then quickly get back into position to deliver the tackle or break up the pass. He is very good at sorting and reading routes, staying low in his pads to generate enough range to close on the ball.

McNeese State's Janzen Jackson might have a high talent level, but one look at his bizarre off-field "adventures" tells me this kid is a freaking "wackadoo." At Tennessee in 2009, he was one of three football players charged with attempted armed robbery at a gas station in an area known as "The Strip" at the edge of Tennessee's campus. Prosecutors dropped all charges vs. Jackson after determining he did not know about the robbery beforehand and did not know anything happened until after the trio left the store.

In February 2011, Jackson withdrew from school to continuing dealing with the personal problems that forced him to miss workouts in December before the Music City Bowl. Jackson returned to school in July, but one month later Dooley dismissed the safety from the team as the junior's personal issues had apparently become too much of a distraction.

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