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How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Safety Prospects?

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How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Safety Prospects?
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The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers and prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"

It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.

Here, I'll go deeper.

Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all parts of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?

Want to see the other breakdowns? Check them out below.

 

1. Knowing Your Coverages

Scouting cornerbacks to play in the NFL comes with a unique set of challenges, as each player is asked to execute five different types of coverage on a routine basis. It's not quite as simple as putting down notes on man and zone coverage, respectively, although those would qualify as good blanket statements for the types of coverage we're seeing in the NFL today.

I'm a firm believer in education as a foundation for scouting. If you don't know the coverages you're projecting a player into, how can you scout him for it? Here's a quick rundown of the five coverages you'll see in the NFL.

 

Cover 0: Man coverage by the safeties and cornerbacks.

Cover 1: Man coverage by the strong safety and cornerbacks, with the free safety roaming.

Cover 2: The safeties divide the field with zone coverage while cornerbacks play the flats.

Cover 3: Cornerbacks and free safety divide the field into thirds and play zone coverage, strong safety checks curl-to-flat.

Cover 4: Cornerbacks and safeties divide the field into quarters and play zone coverage.

 

2. Traits and Characteristics

The differences between a free safety and strong safety have begun to blur over the last year, with both players needing the ability to cover and stop the run. In years past, a strong safety could survive without great coverage skills, but spread offenses have made it a requirement that both safeties be strong in all aspects of the game. 

What are we looking for on film from safety prospects?

Harry How/Getty Images

 

A. Instincts

A safety starts most plays in the NFL at least 15 yards off the ball, giving him a clear vantage point of everything that is happening on a given play. When playing free and strong safety, your first step is the most important. The safety must quickly and accurately read pass or run and make his first move to stop the play. A wrong read will leave the safety out of position to make a play, which usually results in big yards or points for the offense.

It's important for safety prospects to be fast and fluid, but all the speed in the world cannot cover up for a safety that cannot quickly and correctly diagnose a play. 

When scouting college safeties, I'm obsessed with how quickly they move toward the play—whether that's coverage or the run—and if they make the right move toward the ball. Being able to play the ball in the air and react on time will keep a player in the league. This is the first commandment of safety play in my book.

 

B. Speed and Burst

Speed is intoxicating for scouts, coaches and general managers, and for good reason.

On any given play, a safety will be tasked with running the alley to stop the run or turning and running in coverage. More than any position on defense, safeties are constantly moving toward the ball, and they have more ground to cover than anyone else on the team to get there.

A safety must be fast enough to pursue the run in front of him by shutting down alleys before the runner gets through the first and second levels of the defense. He must also have enough burst to accelerate out of his breaks and attack the ball going both forward (toward the run) and backward (in coverage).

There are safety prospects without great speed, but those players make up for it with exceptional instincts. It's good to have one or the other, but the best safeties in the game have been a combination of instincts and athletic ability. 

Remember: Speed is the foundation on which coverage ability and ball skills are built. 

 

C. Agility and Technique

Unlike their counterparts at cornerback, scouting a safety into the NFL requires very little imagination. Generally speaking, what you see is what you get.

Safeties do play in different schemes, but they're asked to do things—man and zone coverage. A free safety will take the same drop steps into his backpedal on zone coverage. Same for a strong safety locked up in man coverage. This is what helps make scouting safeties an easier proposition than quarterbacks or cornerbacks.

When evaluating game film, I want to see a safety who can flip his hips and run. What does that mean? A pro-level safety must be agile enough to turn his hips and run with receivers when they make cuts in their routes. This can be summed up as a player's ability to go from a backpedal to a run at an angle, and it's vital to the success of a safety prospect once in the NFL.

Watching top safety prospects Kenny Vaccaro and Jonathan Cyprien during the 2013 pre-draft film sessions, you saw the coverage, range and tackling ability of immediate NFL starters. 

 

D. Tackling

The ideal safety is as athletic as a cornerback and as tough as a linebacker. Those are hard to find, but that doesn't mean we can rule out tackling ability as an important trait of a top-tier safety.

The spread of zone-option-type offenses in the NFL will continue to put more pressure on safeties to be active and efficient tacklers. Couple that with the recent trend of super-athletes at the tight end position and you have even more reason to look for a strong, sure tackler in your next draft pick.

As the last line of defense, the safety must be willing to tackle and he must be good at it. Charting broken tackles and tackles made when viewing a safety prospect will be your bible to accurately painting a picture of a player's ability to bring down the ball-carrier.

 

E. Size

Size requirements for the safety position can vary depending on which team you ask, but the general rule of thumb is taller than 6'0" and heavier than 200 lbs. That can fluctuate, of course, but your dream safety who never leaves the field has to be big enough to stop the run and cover the field with range. 

Harry How/Getty Images

It's a goal of mine to not get too caught up in size for a safety prospect, especially those that might be too short or small for the prototypical safety. Earl Thomas (5'10", 202 lbs) is one of the best safeties in the game, but would come up short on most teams' wish lists for size. 

 

Conclusion

Scouting safeties often comes down to personal preference. Do you want the 4.3 burner with range and ball skills, or the 220-pound freight train knocking ball-carriers senseless? It's rare to find both in a prospect, and if you do, bet on him being a top-15 pick in the upcoming draft. 

Players like Troy Polamalu, Sean Taylor and Ed Reed have spoiled scouts in the last decade, but each remains a prototypical prospect because of his instincts, size, speed and tackling skills. When you go out looking for the next great safety, keep those three in mind.

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