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NFL: Panthers Draft Preview – Safeties

By: Danny Guy (For the Mac Attack)
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colin Colin Hoggard
A lifelong Tar Heel fan and North Carolina resident, Colin first...
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[Ed note: With the rapid rise of former Mac Attack Intern turned NFL draft savant Josh "Casper" Norris, we're at it again. This time, former Mac Attack intern/draftnik Danny Guy will be covering the lead up to the NFL Draft for the show here on WFNZ.com, with a focus on the Panthers specific needs and breaking down the draft class by position. Have any questions, ask in the comments or interact with Danny on twitter: @danny_g13]

Grading the 2013 Draft: Safeties

Much like cornerback, another position that should be of particular importance in the Draft, is that of Strong Safety.  With Charles Godfrey moving to Free Safety in 2013, and Haruki Nakamura being a big disappointment in 2012, the Panthers may be going into the Draft feeling like they must get a starter at Safety.  While not 100 percent sold the Panthers will draft a safety with one of their first two picks, I am confident they will be able to find a potential starter in this draft (possibly as late as the fourth or fifth round).

Jonathan Cyprien – 6’0” – 217 lbs – Florida International – Early on in the season, I saw Cyprien play against Louisville and I was very impressed.  He was all over the field, both in the passing game and in run support.  Cyprien is a very instinctive player, known as a hard hitter but his skills extend beyond just laying the lumber.


Size: Good size for the position.  Thick frame that he uses to deliver bone jarring hits on opponents.  Above average arm length helps him go up and deflect passes.
Aggressiveness: Plays with a nasty attitude about him.  Loves physicality, and seems to take pride in punishing players coming into his zone.  Has a motor that never stops.
Ball Skills: Good ball skills for the position.  High points well, and extends his body to make plays on the football.
Rises to the Occasion: Raises his game against the better competition, enjoying some of his best outings against Louisville, Texas A&M and Rutgers.
Run Support: Reads and reacts well to the run, sniffing out draws and helping to close off cutback lanes.  Makes the plays you hope to see out of an upper level in the box safety.
Zone Defense: While his coverage is not as strong as his play against the run, he performs admirably in Zone defense.  He has just enough speed to cover the ground necessary on his half of the field.


Straight Line Speed: Lacks exceptional straight line speed to turn and run with Receivers.
Reaction to the Pass: Does not react to the Quarterback as quick as other top prospects.  Often arrives in time to crush the pass catcher, but not to make a play on the ball.
Aggressiveness: Can be frozen by a good play action, and takes overly aggressive angles to ball carriers leaving him susceptible to cut backs, and missed tackles.
Recovery: Struggles to recover when he’s beaten.  Lacks elite change of direction leaving him exposed against quicker Receivers in man situations.

Projection: On most Draft sites, Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro is the top safety in this class, however in my opinion it’s Cyprien.  His combination of vicious hitting, along with underrated coverage ability leads me to believe he could create turnovers in bunches at the next level.  My biggest concern is that he may attract penalties in the new NFL; however it’s not enough for me to grade him lower than a top 25 selection.

Kenny Vaccaro – 6’0” – 214 lbs – Texas – While I have Cyprien as my number one safety in the 2013 class, Vaccaro is not far behind.  The Longhorn has a combination of coverage ability, with the ability to crash down in the run game that makes him a very intriguing prospect.


Size: Very good size for the position.  Good frame to stand up against blocks in run defense, and length allows him to deflect passes well.
Ball Skills: Locates the ball very well, shows the ability to snatch the pass out of the air.  Has improved his ability to high point the football throughout his career.
Coverage: Often asked to drop down into man coverage against slot Receivers.  Has shown not only the willingness, but the ability to do so.
Finishing Plays: Reads the run well, reacting to the ball carriers, dragging them to the ground with his long arms.
Blitzer: Performed well as an edge blitzer, turning the corners well, and showing willingness to be physical with backs left in to block.


Inexperience in Zone Situation: Was used a lot in man coverage against slot Receivers.  Will need to gain more experience in deep zone coverage to make him a more effective as a safety at the next level.
Extra Gear: Does not possess the extra gear to chase down opponents from behind.
Quickness: Some of his movements are clunky and prolonged.  Could experience difficulty against quicker Receivers.
Play Action: Much like Cyprien, Vaccaro can get caught looking at the Quarterback, leaving him susceptible to the Play Action and double moves.
Tackling: At times he can be caught lunging at ball carriers, as well as taking bad angles resulting in missed tackles.

Projection: Vaccaro is a versatile athlete who could find himself a playmaker at either safety position.  He has experience matching up in one on one coverage, and has excellent instincts when it comes to run support.  However he needs to improve his consistency in tackling, as well as his downfield Zone coverage to be an elite Safety in the NFL.  Still, I expect him to be a top 25 selection.

Matt Elam – 5’10” – 208 lbs – Florida – One of the more well-known names in this class is that of Florida’s Matt Elam.  Elam is a physical defender, who uses a great combination of speed and strength to make plays.


Athleticism: Elam may be the most athletic Safety in this class.  He has excellent straight line speed, and good leaping ability.
Coverage: Much like Vaccaro, was assigned in man coverage to teams slot Receiver, where he stood out.  Jams his man well at the line, disrupting the route and putting himself in position to win the battle.

Ball Skills: Reacts well to the pass, attacks the football at its high point, using his good arm length to deflect the football.  Plays the Receiver well, making plays even when his head isn’t turned around.
Tackling: Makes sound physical tackles, wrapping up and dragging down the ball carrier.  Also has shown the willingness to pop Receivers with powerful hits.
Special Teams: Very good gunner in punt coverage, flying down the field and meeting the returner as he’s catching the ball on many occasions.


Size: Does not have the ideal size for the positions, leaving him exposed to jump ball situations. 
Takes aggressive angles to ball carriers, leaving cutback lanes open.
Highlight Hitter:
Too often leaves his feet to deliver the highlight reel hits, resulting in misses and penalty flags. 
Agility and Change of Direction:
Does not possess exceptional lateral movements and change of direction.  Can lose positioning against quicker slot Receivers.

Projection: Despite his size deficiencies, Elam is a prospect who I’ve had my eye on for a long time.  He has a great combination of physicality and coverage ability that could make him one of the better safeties in the league a few years from now.  He does need to work on his tendency to leave his feet, as well as tackling angles, however I still see him as a late first round to early second round selection.

D.J. Swearinger – 5’11” – 203 lbs – South Carolina – Swearinger is without a doubt the most physical Safety in this class in my opinion.  He punishes Receivers with no regard for his well-being, and is also a very solid pass defender.


Physicality: Jams Receivers well at the line, and uses his strong hands to fight through blocks in run support.  Plays angry, showing the desire to strike fear in opponents with huge hits, crushes Receivers coming across the middle as if he was being shot out of a cannon.
Acceleration: Despite subpar top end speed, he shows good acceleration to close on Receivers when the ball is in the air.
Motor: Is always going, plays fast and shows great intensity while on the field.
In the Box: Fights off and avoid blocks well, exceptional pursuit in run support, and crashes down well filling the lanes and popping ball carriers.
Versatility: Has played both Safety positions, as well as Corner during his time at South Carolina.  May be able to move him around to create favorable match ups.


Launching: Leaves his feet too often trying to make the big hit.  Can leave him exposed to missing tackles on shiftier players.
Physicality: Plays too physical at times throughout routes, may attract pass interference penalties downfield.
Size: Doesn’t possess ideal size to win jump ball situations.
Aggressiveness: Plays through, but sometimes after the whistle.  Delivers huge hits that will likely draw fines in the NFL.  Concerns about him being fined, as well as penalized regularly for his play are valid.

Projection: Swearinger is one of my favorite Defensive Backs in this class.  He combines extreme physical play with very solid ball skills and scheme versatility.  He performs well against the run, and his motor will rival some of the best in the league.  I do worry about his aggressiveness, and if he will attract penalties, but it’s not enough for me to drop him below a solid second round selection.

Other Early Round Safeties I Like

Bacarri Rambo – 6’1” – 211 lbs – Georgia – Rambo has great size, and is an instinctive Defensive Back who reads Quarterbacks well.  Has a good burst to drive on underneath routes, and shows very good ball skills in coverage.  Aggressive tackler who looks to punish pass catchers, takes good angles, and offers a degree of versatility with size to play the Strong Safety position, but skill and experience at Free Safety with the Bulldogs.  Needs to be a more consistent wrap up tackler instead of lunging.  At times his angles can be too aggressive, giving up cutback lanes to ball carriers.  A bit of a gambler in coverage, which could come back to bite him against NFL level competition.  He has been suspended twice in his career for failed drug tests, raising slight concerns about his character.

Projection: Late second to early third round selection.

Shamarko Thomas – 5’9” – 213 lbs – Syracuse: Thick frame that he throws around to intimidate Receivers, effective blitzer who is able to avoid blocks and flash excellent closing speed to ball carriers.  Exceptional straight line speed, and excels at closing on ball carriers.  Has less than ideal size, and has shown the tendency to bite on the Play Action.  When beaten, has trouble recovering due to lack of size and arm length.  Needs to wrap up more consistently to make sound tackles.

Projection: Middle third to early fourth round selection


Duke Williams – 5’11” – 203 lbs – Nevada – Williams is a strong defender, who is physical with Receivers, and has the ability to close on plays.  His skill to play both in the run game as well as defend deep Zones makes him an interesting prospect in the back half of the Draft.


Closing Speed: Has exceptional ability to close on ball carriers sideline to sideline, as well as tracking balls through the air.
Physicality: Despite his lean frame he seems to relish the opportunity to punish ball carriers.
Athleticism: Great athletic ability allows him to play well in space, and stay with quicker receivers.
Ball Skills: Locates and reacts to the football well, possesses good hands to snatch passes out of the air.
Tackling: Wraps up well, especially in the open field bringing defenders to the ground on a consistent basis.


Aggressiveness: Can be caught looking in the back field, exposing himself to the Play Action.
Size: Does not have exceptional size, and may find difficulty in match ups with bigger and more physical NFL Receivers.
Physicality: Much like Swearinger, is too physical with Receivers downfield.  Will likely draw flags with his hands at the next level.
Off the Field Concerns: Numerous run ins with the law, including underage possession of alcohol, and driving with a suspended license.

Projection: Williams possesses a great combination of coverage ability, athleticism, and sound technique that make him very intriguing to me.  He has great straight line speed, and is athletic enough to maintain position against the quicker Receivers in the NFL.  Like Swearinger, his play may attract flags, but I still feel he would be excellent value in the late fourth round and beyond.

Earl Wolff – 5’11” – 209 lbs – N.C. State – Wolff is a physical Defensive Back who is fundamentally sound against both the run and pass.  He’s an instinctive player with a great motor, and quickness in coverage.


Physicality: Comes downfield to attack ball carriers.  Isn’t afraid to lower the shoulder and drop ball carriers, however he’s also a sound wrap up tackler.
Instinctive: Reads plays and reacts to them well.  Recognizes screens and draws well, and has good pursuit from the backside.
Hips: Good hip flexibility, allowing him to stick with quicker Receivers in coverage.


Lateral Agility: Possesses a good first step when moving downfield, however looks clunky and sluggish moving sideline to sideline.
Aggressiveness: Has shown the tendency to overrun plays, leaving him exposed to the cutback.
Playing In Space: Struggles to react and make plays in space, often getting beat by elusive backs and receivers.
Closing Speed: Lacks the speed necessary to cover sideline to sideline, as well as recover when beat deep.

Projection: Earl Wolff may not be the fastest, strongest, biggest, or most athletic safety, but he’s sound in all of those categories.  That combined with his instinctive nature would make him a good addition to a team in the sixth or seventh round.

Overall, this safety class is a lot like the cornerback class.  There may not be a stand out Earl Thomas, or Eric Berry, but there are very solid players throughout the draft.  The above mentioned names along with several others help to comprise one of the stronger classes in the Draft.  In my opinion the Panthers will definitely look to take advantage of the strength and depth of this class, which I’m grading a B+

Previously from Danny Guy:
NFL Combine Standouts: Panthers Edition
Panthers Draft Preview: Defensive TacklesPanthers Draft Preview: Defensive Ends
Panthers Draft Preview: Linebackers
Panthers Draft Preview: Cornerbacks
Panthers Draft Preview: Cornerback Sleepers

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