Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Free Safeties

The Packers likely will be looking for a safety throughout the draft. Will it be Harrison Smith, the top-rated free safety, or how about an underrated one in the middle rounds or one that comes with a warning label late in the draft?

Cream of the Crop

Harrison Smith, Notre Dame

Smith would have been a perfect fit for the old Buddy Ryan system the coach incorporated while running the defense during their Super Bowl season, as you can see he has the range and competitiveness to not only interchange at both safety positions, but has the muscular build and power to be highly effective as a Cover-2 linebacker.

Harrison Smith
Matt Cashore/US Presswire
Smith has a quick break to get to the thrown ball and he shows fearlessness stretching out to get to the ball at its high point, evident by his 28 pass deflections and seven interceptions for the Fighting Irish. He is like a quarterback on the field for the defense, as he knows everyone's assignments and makes sure the rest of his teammates are in position to make the play. His take-charge attitude was highly displayed during his senior year, as he took the "kid gloves" off and did not hesitate to get vocal when a player would make a mental error.

His take-charge attitude would not have worked without his own success on the field. He has worked hard on his pass defense skills and converted from a player whose success relied on stepping up into the box to one that has no problems mirroring receivers in the deep portion of the field.

Smith started 47 of 51 games during his Notre Dame career – 32 at free safety, seven at weak-side outside linebacker, six at strong-side outside linebacker and two at weak-side inside linebacker. He recorded 309 tackles (187 solos) that included 3.5 sacks for minus-26 yards, 18.5 stops for losses of 61 yards and three quarterback pressures. He ranks ninth in school history with his 309 total tackles (fifth among defensive backs) and is second in school annals with 28 pass deflections, topped by only Clarence Ellis (32; 1969-71).

Compares to: Eric Weddle, San Diego – The thing you see on film is Smith's timing and leaping ability to get to the ball at its high point. He is the type that knows how to ride up the receiver and use his arms to either deflect or catch the ball in flight. He attacks the ball with good urgency and feels that any pass coming his way will not be caught. Minnesota is serious about using their second round pick on him, as both the Jets and Patriots are also ready to bring him into the fold during the draft's first two rounds.

Best of the Rest

George Iloka, Boise State

Iloka presents a pleasant problem for teams trying to determine where he might be a better fit in the National Football League. Having started at free safety the last three seasons, the Broncos defender is built more in the lines of a strong safety. Some teams utilizing a Cover-2 scheme might also consider him a potential outside linebacker candidate, much like San Diego utilized with Cato June and where Carolina placed Thomas Davis, both collegiate free safeties before making the position switch.

Iloka has very quick feet and does an excellent job of shadowing receivers, so much so, the Boise State coaches shifted him to the demanding left cornerback position late in the 2011 season. His ability to cover ground in a hurry, coupled with his leaping skills make him a better fit as a pass defender than being used as a run stuffer in the box.

With Iloka's range, he does a nice job of getting downhill and is consistent when closing in a hurry vs. plays in front of him. He has the speed needed to hunt down the ball carriers on the edge, but lacks the bulk and strength needed to take on blocks during inside run force, having to rely more on his ability to slip off blocks in order to penetrate, rather than simply out-combat a bigger opponent.

Iloka started 45 of 53 games at Boise State – five at strong safety, 38 at free safety and two at left cornerback. He finished with 232 tackles (168 solos), adding a 9-yard sack and 15 stops for losses of 47 yards. He also caused two fumbles, deflected 17 passes and had seven interceptions for 33 yards in returns.

Compares to: Thomas Davis, Carolina – Iloka could move to the Cover-2 linebacker position in the NFL. He is a big hitter with the power to face up to his opponent, but can also angle when having to take a side. He comes to balance well and shows no flinch when he is delivering those punishing collision-type tackles. As a wrap-up tackler, he knows how to bring his arm length into the picture to secure and take down the ball carrier. If the Cowboys fail to take Mark Barron in the first round, they, along with the Eagles, could take the Boise State product in round three.

Most Underrated

Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State

Richard Rowe/US Presswire

If not for his post-season knee surgery, Martin might have secured a second round draft selection. While Deion Sanders made the nickname "Primetime" his trademark, perhaps Martin can lease the name from the Hall Of Famer, based on his postseason performances alone. Even though the coaches called the defensive back the Cowboys' starting strong safety, he is blessed with the combination of speed and impact hitting skills that begs to see this player be allowed to roam the field and wreak havoc, much like he has done for OSU the last two years.

During his sophomore campaign, Martin's most productive game of the season came in the Cotton Bowl with nine tackles and a pass break-up in the defense's impressive outing vs. Mississippi. As a junior, he was selected Alamo Bowl Player of the Game, as he had just four tackles, but also returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown and broke up two more passes in a 36-10 defeat of Arizona. The following year, he garnered player of the game honors, as he shined in the Cowboys' Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford when he matched a season-high with nine tackles, adding a fumble recovery and a stop for loss.

He was hampered early in his sophomore season with a hip injury and sat out most of the 2011 preseason camps while recovering from left shoulder surgery.

Martin was unable to perform at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine in February when he was suffering from what he first thought was a pinched nerve and fluid on his knee, stating the injury first appeared a few weeks prior to traveling to Indianapolis.

The safety had been training for the combine on the Oklahoma State campus, and while he was still able to attend the event for interviews with NFL teams, he spent the time on the sidelines watching others go through the NFL's version of a job interview.

Martin appeared in 48 games at Oklahoma State, starting the final 37 contests at strong safety, posting 178 tackles (143 solos), eight stops for losses of 18 yards and one quarterback pressure. He also deflected 36 passes and had three interceptions for 62 yards in returns, including a touchdown. His 36 pass break-ups tied the school career-record that was first set by Perrish Cox (2006-09).

Compares to: Louis Delmas, Detroit – Prior to his knee injury, Martin showed good range off the hash and demonstrated much better quickness working underneath than in the deep secondary. He does not take many wasted steps in transition out of his breaks. He has a very good feel for turning and locating the ball. He is quick to read, recognize and react, seeing the horizon and making plays on it. He anticipates the passer almost immediately to break on the thrown ball. The injury will drop him a few rounds, but thankfully he was able to work out for teams in early April, leaving his draft stock in the fourth round area.

Buyer Beware

Janzen Jackson, McNeese State

Janzen Jackson
Paul Abelll/US Presswire
As you read just a "brief litany" of his off-field issues, you can see why teams might be scared away from the one-year McNeese State product. But, if a team can overlook his personal issues, this former high school five-star prospect might just prove that his talent and athletic ability ranks with the elite at this position.

A two-year starter for the Tennessee Volunteers as a free safety, Jackson's quickness and explosive closing burst was highlighted with the Cowboys, as that staff utilized his impressive athletic ability at the field cornerback and nickel back positions. The junior recorded 31 tackles (22 solos) with seven pass deflections and two interceptions in 10 games during the 2011 campaign, but it was in the four games as a starter that he truly dominated.

A coach's son, Jackson was mentored by his father, former McNeese State defensive back, Lance Guidry, at Carencro High School. Guidry is presently the defensive backs coach at Western Kentucky, having served in that same role at Miami University (Ohio) and at his alma mater in 2008. A veteran coach in Louisiana football's high school ranks, Guidry served as secondary coach at Leesville High 1995 and '96, helping lead the Wampus Cats to the state championship game.

Jackson's talent is undeniable. While built more like a cornerback than a safety, he has the vision, range, hitting ability and ball skills teams want at free safety in today's pass-heavy NFL. He has a lean frame, looking more like a cornerback than a physical safety type, but also possesses excellent straight-line speed, fluid hips to turn and run and explosiveness out of his breaks.

As a free safety, Jackson does a nice job of reading the quarterback's eyes and won't be fooled by play-action or misdirection. He has the soft hands to make the interception and gets an excellent break on the ball. He hits with authority as an open-field tackler, as he is much stronger than his weight room numbers indicate. Going long distances with his interception return seems to be his trademark, as he's averaged 29.88 yards on his eight runbacks (239 yards) as a collegian.

Jackson showed off his athletic talent in Indianapolis, but had an even better performance at McNeese State's Pro Day on March 5. Back in Louisiana, he was timed at 4.53 in the 40-yard dash. He ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.19 seconds and recorded a vertical jump of 37 inches, along with a 10'7" broad jump.

Compares to: Ken Hamlin, ex-Dallas – Like Hamlin, Jackson's personal issues outweigh his football talent at the moment. It is anyone's guess who might draft him, but it is certain that anything more than a late-round pick is very risky.

Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.

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