"Who is that guy?"
It was the first day of workouts at the Senior Bowl in January, and a strong safety kept catching my attention. NFL body. Long. Aggressive. Playing fast. He was like a missile running to the ball.
Must be a top prospect, right? Someone I'd heard of? Someone you'd heard of?
Depends. Have you heard of Jaquiski Tartt?
I'll be honest: I had no idea who Tartt was before that day. I had never heard the name when I caught a plane at O'Hare to head down to Mobile, Alabama, for a week of football, beers at Veet's and some of the best BBQ around. But as soon as I saw him practice and stand up to top-tier FBS competition, I was captivated. I started filling my notebook.
It's easy to see why Tartt escaped notice. He's a small-school prospect who played only one year of high school ball. But he lit up the FCS level at Samford, and with a 6'1", 221-pound frame, Tartt looks the part of an NFL safety, or even a "Will" linebacker. He plays to his size when he comes downhill to meet the ball-carrier.
In one-on-one pass rush, Tartt would win on the edge against tight ends or beat running backs in protection. During seven-on-seven drills, he played with good eye discipline as an underneath safety and displayed a quick burst to close the space to the ball. See it, and go attack the ball. It looked natural. And when Tartt arrived at the point of contact, he wasn't shy about dropping his pad level. He's a hitter, and he flies around on the field.
I could see that Tartt wasn't a finished product. He is still raw in some areas of the game. That will be a part of the developmental process with Tartt in the pros.
Still, there is much to like about him heading into the NFL draft.
Scouts I've spoken to see that, too. They talk about his pro size at the position, his length (32.375" arms), his athletic ability and his ball skills. A safety with good range, Tartt plays fast on film, and he followed that up with a 4.53 40-yard-dash time at the combine. That's a very good time for a safety who goes 220-plus.
I've watched the tape on Tartt. He can find the ball, takes solid angles in run support and isn't afraid to mix it up. He has the ability to roll down over tight ends, and I like him playing in the front at the strong safety position. That's where he will earn his money in the pros.
But again, Tartt is going to need some time to develop his overall skill set and football awareness in man coverage and the deep middle of the field before he can compete for a starting job.
It starts with special teams.
That's where young players, especially defensive backs and linebacker, learn how to play in space, use their hands, tackle in the open field, shed blocks, etc. It is the ultimate learning tool in football, at any level, as it forces players to win one-on-one matchups, play with vision and use the proper technique to stay square, come to balance and wrap up at the point of attack to make tackles.
Plus, it buys players like Tartt that extra time to develop on the defensive side of the ball as they adapt to the pro game, the high-level film study and the prep work that goes into being at the top of the depth chart for an NFL team.
Tartt should be an absolute stud on special teams—a guy who starts on all four core units and produces every Sunday. By the middle of the season, opposing teams should have to game-plan for him on kickoff coverage, and I expect Tartt to be near the top of the production chart in the special teams meeting room.
With his size, vertical speed and athleticism, Tartt is the type of prospect special teams coaches want in the room. He gives you options based on scheme and personnel.
Where does Tartt rank in this safety class? As I've said before, the group coming out this season isn't very deep. There is really only one prospect, Alabama's Landon Collins, who should come off the board on Day 1. After Collins, there is a drop-off in talent.
Tartt is somewhere in that second tier of prospects at the position. I would say he is a midround guy who could benefit from an unexpected early run on safeties in the second round to bump him up the board.
Teams won't be getting a player who is going to compete for a starting job during the first week of training camp this summer, but they will get one who has the ability to eventually push for a No. 1 role in this league.
Draft and develop. This is the type of prospect who fits that theory. Tartt might not be a big name with so much attention paid to the FBS power conferences, but teams need to do some homework on him. He can find a role in the NFL.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.