As stated in the free safety analysis, 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 strong safety is the more aggressive of the two. He will generally come up to fill the rush lanes, but now is asked to show fluid backpedaling skills, in order to cover the tight ends in the short areas. He needs to be a player who can deliver crunching hits, while also showing hip flexibility to make the smooth switch-off in the zone.
If you look around the NFL, you will find quite a few safeties that did not play that position in college. They are either undersized linebackers forced to adjust their game to suit the pros' needs or big, physical cornerbacks that may lack that one-tenth of a second or so needed to stay with receivers on deep routes, thus the move inside where they can play the ball, rather than the man.
While most experts predict that Alabama's Mark Barron will end up as a Cowboy with the draft's 14th pick, there is a lot of rumbling that the Bills will forgo adding a linebacker and take the Crimson Tide player with the 10th choice. Philadelphia (15th) and the New York Jets (16th) are also said to have the versatile safety as a primary first-round target.
Barron is a versatile athlete with a developing frame. He demonstrates very good playing strength and has the foot quickness and body control to step inside the box and make plays in run support. He might struggle a bit to handle tight ends in jump-ball battles, as he is not the world's greatest leaper. He has good functional quickness and builds to top speed, showing the acceleration to stay with tight ends and backs working the short and intermediate areas.
However, Barron lacks a sudden burst coming out of his backpedal, but uses his hands effectively to mirror the receiver and takes good angles to shorten the field. He compensates for a lack of blazing timed speed with good range. He has the agility to slip past and avoid blocks in pursuit, showing the hip flexibility needed to generate a quick twitch working in the short area. He maintains balance in transition but needs to redirect quicker to close on the ball in deep passing situations.
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Barron sees things develop quickly, especially in the running game. He is not the type that will bite on play action or misdirection and is rarely caught out of position. He is a classic downhill player who hits with pop on contact when playing inside the box. He breaks down well in space and stays low in his pads when making the tackle. He knows how to slip past and avoid blocks on the move.
The thing I love about Barron is that he is quick to come up and fill the gaps and stays low in his pads to prevent the lead blocker from blowing him off the ball. He is best when working in the box, as his ball anticipation skills and instincts make it very hard to fool him on draw plays or misdirection. Simply, he plays smart. Once he is able to locate the ball working through trash, he is quick to close.
The Tide defender comes up to hit with urgency and is not the type you will see playing along the fringes much. He has very good force and, at times, overpowering strength, but there are times where he will get a bit reckless, needing to play with more consistent control. Still, he is an explosive hitter who can cause a receiver to hesitate before getting to the ball, knowing that the safety is about to deliver a vicious hit.
The senior has the ability to be an effective wrap-up tackler, as he has the strength to thump on contact and will throw his body at the ball carrier. He is best when allowed to make plays in front of him rather than taking a side. When he can keep the action in front, he is a reliable tackler who will explode into the opponent. He is consistent to staying low in his pads in order to wrap better, but will get caught up in the action at times and get over-aggressive, taking him out of the action.
South Carolina's Antonio Allen will battle Louisiana State's Brandon Taylor to see who might be the next strong safety drafted, but neither will be off the board before the start of third-day draft activities. Allen is a physical tackler with the frame to add at least another 10 pounds without any drop-off in quickness. He shows good extension and natural hands to compete for the ball at its high point. He has more natural strength than weight room power right now, but has impressive upper- and lower-body definition and body control.
Allen has just adequate speed and change-of-direction agility, though. He needs to do a better job of opening his hips and could get too high in his backpedal, which causes him to struggle a bit trying to generate a quick burst out of his breaks. He is more of a downhill type that makes lots of plays in front of him. He will round his cuts, but compensates for a lack of a second gear by taking proper angles to the ball when working in space. He displays the ability to accelerate quickly to the plays in front of him.
Allen is alert to the action on the field, playing with impressive strength to quickly gain leverage, as he is best when keeping plays in front of him. He is a very competitive player, who makes quick decisions and sets the tone of the game with his aggressive play, as he does not hesitate to close once he spots the ball. He has the field-awareness skills to adjust to the ball in flight and is efficient at handling the switch-off when working in the zone.
Allen has exceptional blocker awareness and because of that vision, he is able to slip through blocks to make plays in tight areas. Due to his experience at several positions, along with starting at a very early age, his maturity shines through in his read and diagnostic skills. He has a very good feel for the ball, showing awareness in zone assignments. He keeps his head on a swivel, tracking the ball in flight and times his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point, even though he lacks natural hands to make the interception.
The Gamecock shows no hesitation stepping into the box to make plays in run force (23 tackles behind the line of scrimmage). He is quick to locate the ball when working through trash. He gets a good jump on the ball and compensates for a lack of blazing speed by rarely being caught out of position. He is not the type that will get over aggressive, but does hit with authority. He breaks on the ball well and gets a good jump from the hash.
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Taylor is better making plays in front of him or playing in the zone. He can mirror the tight ends, backs and slot receivers on underneath routes, but lacks the second gear needed to recover when beaten deep. He does an adequate job of opening his hips and turning on the ball, showing too much wasted motion through transition. If playing in a system that will man him up on slots receivers and tight ends, he will do a good job. He is just not the type to cover the speedier receivers on deep patterns.
Taylor shows alertness and a good feel for the ball. He is quick to locate the pigskin when working in the box and gets a good jump on the play due to his ability to anticipate and diagnose the patterns. He just lacks natural hands for the interception. He is sluggish to turn out of his backpedal and lacks a sharp burst to recover when a receiver gets behind him, despite good timed speed. His vision and feel for the play will generally see him in position to make the tackle on plays in front of him, though.
San Jose State's Duke Ihenacho has loose hips and good change of direction agility. He is quicker than he is fast, as he doesn't show that sudden burst to explode into the backfield, but runs with a normal stride and builds to top speed nicely. He has the range and lateral movements to redirect and plays with a high motor. He shows very good balance closing on the ball and uses his upper-body strength effectively to impede the tight end's route progression.
Ihenacho has some experience in man coverage, but is not used much in this area. He shows good acceleration in and out of his breaks with good press technique, but is better covering the tight ends and slot receivers than covering the opponent in deep routes (bites on play action), as he tends to leave too much cushion.
Ihenacho can quickly react and cover ground to make the plays. His range lets him close with good urgency, playing with better consistency in the deep centerfield. He is much more active in the short zone because of his ability to read the action in front of him. His vision lets him spot the secondary targets and he has developed better break-off vs. the three-step throws. He just needs to remain consistent in getting over quicker to offer deep help.
One small college player who can play any position in the secondary is Wayne State's Jeremy Jones. A 5-9?, 197-pounder is hard to fathom as a strong safety, but think the Jets' Jim Leonhard here, as he patterns his style of play after the Kelly Green performer. He lacks the size you look for in a pro safety, but he has good upper-body strength and puts good force behind his hits.
I doubt if he will be a pro cornerback, as he has stiff hips and is a liability covering in the deep third of the field. He has adequate change-of-direction and movement skills, but is more of a downhill player than an open field performer. He uses the tools that he has, but outside of decent strength, it really isn't that much. He has good acceleration closing on plays in front of him and uses his reach effectively in attempts to dislodge the pigskin from the ball carrier.
On plays in front of him, Jones is sudden to close. He gets into position quickly and is an effective wrap-up tackler. When he sees the play develop, he does a good job of slipping through trash to get to the ball. He is best covering receivers in the box rather than operating in the deep zone. He has good vision and reaction to plays in front of him and fills the holes fast vs. the run, as he will usually be in position to make plays near the line of scrimmage.
Jones is an instinctive player who makes quick reads. He knows how to stay low in his pads and drive though the opponent when wrap tackling. He does a good job coming into the box to lend run support. He has good field instincts, and much like Leonhard, he is capable of handling the mental aspect of calling signals in the secondary.
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.