Every year, it seems, one or two prospects come out of virtual obscurity to rise near the top of just about everyone's NFL draft board. This year, Jonathan Cyprien has become a favorite of just about every draft aficionado in the business.
I had my own interest in Cyprien piqued at the Senior Bowl as he buzzed around the practice field like a man possessed and consistently drew my attention away from other players on the defense.
What is it about Cyprien? Why is everyone raving about him? I decided to find out. First, I watched a lot of tape on Cyprien—five games' worth. Then, I asked some of my scouting buddies to give me their thoughts over email and Twitter.
The entire process had me more excited about Cyprien than when I began.
The Positives of Cyprien's Play
When one puts on the tape, it's almost maddening to try to track Cyprien around the field. The Florida International coaches moved the 6'0", 217-lb prospect around the field about as much as they could. One play, he would start off the screen in a deep third. The next, he would be right up next to the line of scrimmage to jam a tight end or blitz.
The initial thing everyone notices about Cyprien is his physicality. If we're drawing comparisons to current or former NFL players, this significantly shortens the list of candidates. That means you start to hear the same players over and over when people are trying to explain his play—both a credit and a disservice to Cyprien, as he always gets high praise but is more of a mold-breaker than he is given credit for.
re: Cyprien, sometimes he reminds me of Bernard Pollard. Some of his blitzes are Dawkins-esque RT @davidhedeen: who would u compare him to?— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) February 27, 2013
@schottey Reminds me of Morgan Burnett.— Alen Dumonjic (@Dumonjic_Alen) February 28, 2013
@schottey He's got the hits like Delmas.— Aaron Aloysius (@AaronAloysius) February 28, 2013
Being comfortable and physical while being moved around so much is an interesting trait in and of itself. It is certainly a positive. We talk about prospects being "comfortable in their own skin" quite a bit, especially those who are asked to play in space. When a player just doesn't look confident, he's likely thinking too much. One sees this a lot in defensive backs, but more so in players asked to switch positions.
Part of being comfortable and confident is also being smart and savvy. Cyprien has good instincts close to the line of scrimmage. When a man goes in motion or comes flying out of the backfield, Cyprien doesn't get lost in the shuffle. He is the guy pointing everyone to his spot or aborting his blitz to pick up the coverage.
When asked to blitz, he has good timing and technique to get into the backfield. While, like most safeties, he's never going to pick up huge sack numbers, he does create a ton of problems for quarterbacks.
Physically, he's able to make those reactions because he has good flexibility and acceleration. While his linear speed is nothing to write home about, his ability to click-and-close to cover ground quickly is phenomenal.
This was a screen play. I say was, because its life was cut short by a certain young safety from Florida International. Note that the ball was tipped on the way to its intended target. By that time, however, Cyprien was already locked and loaded. With the ball tipped, he knew he could hit with his normal reckless abandon.
After covering that ground with incredible speed—note how he's just a blur in that above shot—he blew up the ball-carrier. It was possible to get these screenshots because of all of the replays Cyprien commands. That should continue at the next level as well.
Speaking of screen plays, one of my favorite things to watch with Cyprien is his ability to knife through blockers. Typically, linemen and linebackers are asked to take on blockers and shed, but safeties are taught to go around blocks with their speed. How fast and what angles safeties take is usually a great indication of their talent level.
Cyprien flies into almost every group of blockers like he's busting the wedge on a punt. From there, he usually finds his way through to the ball-carrier or creates enough havoc that the ball-carrier needs to cut back into one of the other defenders. It's not only impressive, it's rewind-worthy—again and again and again.
In the above play, blockers are set up to run a screen almost to perfection. There is even a lineman who is ready to block him specifically. In his head, the lineman is thinking, "I've got this, easiest block of my career." Nope. Didn't happen. Good young plays die so soon when Cyprien is around. He's a monster.
Fast enough to cover receivers, strong enough to jam tight ends at the line of scrimmage, Cyprien isn't just a football player—he is a weapon that defensive coordinators are drooling over as we speak.
The Negatives of Cyprien's Play
Where should Jonathan Cyprien be drafted?
As quickly as some of the positives of Cyprien jump out on tape, some of the negatives do as well—most of which are just the consequences of his aggressive play.
At FIU, Cyprien wasn't used as a free safety. He was used as a mercenary, a man on a mission: just create havoc and make plays. While that tends to show up on tape as a guy making a ton of plays, it also shows up when good offensive coordinators teach their quarterbacks to take advantage of it.
Numerous times, I watched as quarterbacks would bait Cyprien into going one way and throw right to the spot he vacated. This is called "getting caught with your eyes in the backfield" and can lead to lots of trouble when the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world start doing it.
I also had some issues with Cyprien's ability to transfer speed to power. Not every hit can be a scud missile-like launch into the ball-carrier. In the NFL, in fact, that's a penalty.
Thus, safeties are taught (correction: every football player is taught at one time; they just tend to forget when their big hit has a chance to be on SportsCenter) to transfer that movement into a legal, powerful hit. This is done by dropping one's pad level and rolling up with hips, back and shoulders into the target—always with your eyes up.
Cyprien, when he wasn't launching himself, didn't do that well at all, and some running backs and tight ends were able to bounce off him. For all those people drawing Louis Delmas comparisons, this negative is right on track with a problem Delmas had out of Western Michigan and still has today.
@schottey He sometimes tries to knock someone's head off to often, leading to missed tackles. But he's a heavy-hitting, in-the-box SS.— Shaun Church (@Church_NFL) February 28, 2013
Overall, Cyprien also tackles a little too high. I'm not necessarily talking about his "target level" (i.e., he's not just headhunting) but he tends to wrap up around the neck or shoulders of the ball-carrier. In the NFL, that's going to lead to a lot of broken tackles. He needs to refine that and get more toward the waist or the knees.
The Bottom Line
I put a first-round grade on Cyprien, because I believe he can be an immediate, high-impact starter in this league. Because of the depth at the safety position in this draft class (Kenny Vaccaro, Matt Elam, Eric Reid) and because the safety position, historically speaking, isn't as prized in the first round, he could easily last until the mid-second round.
Lance Zierlein of The Sideline View shared a lot of my positive thoughts (via email):
I like Cyprien even more than Elam. Cyprien has terrific size and athleticism and will give creative defensive coordinators a toy to play with since he's such a factor near the line of scrimmage and has the versatility to play deep in coverage.
Cyprien is not only aggressive against the run, but he's also pretty effective at getting off of the blocks of tight ends. I would like to see him in deep coverage a little more in order to get a good feel for him, but I think he has the tools and instincts to be a well-rounded safety who is gone by the middle of the 2nd round.
So did Russ Lande of the National Football Post (via email):
Cyprien is an explosive athlete that can play the run and pass from sideline to sideline. He takes excellent angles of pursuit and demonstrates the ability to break down in space. When in zone coverage he instinctually reads the QB and flashes the burst to cut off routes and the ball skills to high point the ball for INTs and PBUs.
He needs to keep his knees bent more consistently on his pedal, and must be quicker off PA fakes recovering to his area of responsibility, but he clearly has the athleticism, physicality and intelligence to start immediately and become a highly productive and versatile safety in the NFL. He is a player I would draft in the 1st round.
As did our very own Matt Miller (via email):
Cyprien started the pre-draft season off under the radar, but once he hit the field at the Senior Bowl there was no doubting his talent. Cyprien plays with range, showing the ability to track the ball from sideline to sideline. He could easily fit as a strong or free safety thanks to his speed and awareness in deep coverage. He's also a hitter. Cyprien can play underneath due to his ability to stop the run, but he can also be too aggressive at times and whiff on sure tackles. He has to clean up his consistency and learn to play a bit more controlled.
Without a doubt, Cyprien is one of the most exciting players to watch in the 2013 NFL draft class and will continue to be a leader and highlight-reel collector at the next level.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.