2016 NFL Draft: Can Duke Safety Jeremy Cash Be the Next Deone Bucannon?

Ryan McCrystalFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2016

WINSTON SALEM, NC - NOVEMBER 23:  Jeremy Cash #16 of the Duke Blue Devils tells the fans to get loud during play against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at BB&T Field on November 23, 2013 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Duke won 28-21.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The NFL game is always evolving as offenses try to stay one step ahead of their defensive counterparts.

The league has been making a gradual shift to a more pass-oriented game for decades, but in recent years, offenses have been making dramatic changes to facilitate a faster-paced game.

As offenses make these changes to mimic some of the more high-powered offenses we see in college, defenses are left trying to play catch-up.

One of the defensive adjustments that has popped up in recent years is the rise in prominence of undersized, athletic linebackers with elite range.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the first teams to embrace this approach with Lavonte David, a second-round selection in the 2012 draft. Others, such as the Carolina Panthers with Shaq Thompson, have followed suit.

But in 2015, the Arizona Cardinals took the evolution of the linebacker position to another level by taking former safety Deone Bucannon and turning him into what they call a "moneybacker," which closely resembles the role of an inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme.

In his new role, Bucannon emerged as one of the most dominant linebackers in the league and was a key cog in the Cardinals defense.

Since the NFL is a copycat league, at least a handful of teams will likely look to mimic Arizona's scheme and will be in search of a moneybacker for their defense.

Any team looking to fill that role in the NFL draft should have Duke safety Jeremy Cash high on its draft board.

To analyze how NFL teams should view Cash, let's take a closer look at how Arizona is using Bucannon and then break down how Cash's strengths could allow him to fill a similar role in an NFL defense.


Bucannon's Moneybacker Role

Having a safety play in the box is not a new concept, but traditionally teams would only bring the strong safety up when they were anticipating the run. The downside to this approach is that one single-high safety is protecting the defense over the top, making the coverage especially susceptible to play action.

The moneybacker position, however, provides Arizona the advantage of a player with Bucannon's range without taking anything away from its deep coverage ability.

The play below, from the NFC Championship Game, provides a basic example of how Arizona benefits from the moneybacker position.

This is a 2nd-and-7 play in the first quarter—a situation that doesn't necessarily favor the run or the pass. As a result, Arizona still has two high safeties (Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger), but it also has Bucannon lined up at his moneybacker position.

Carolina attempts to throw a screen to Devin Funchess, who was lined up in the slot. The two wide receivers on the outside block the defensive backs, but Bucannon flies in unblocked from his position. Bucannon's elite athleticism allows him to get out to the numbers faster than the average linebacker and bring down Funchess after a short gain.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

It's extremely rare to see a linebacker make a play outside the numbers within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and few in today's game other than Bucannon have the speed to cover this much ground.


Cash's Role at Duke

Duke primarily used Cash in a more traditional strong safety role, bringing him up in the box in run situations but also frequently using him in coverage in the slot.

However, Duke also got creative with Cash at times, taking advantage of his linebacker-type skill set in addition to his athleticism in coverage.

In the play below, Cash is lined up as the weak-side linebacker. However, his assignment is not clear before the snap.

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

Cash is close enough to the slot receiver to potentially drop back in coverage, but he's also shaded toward the ball, forcing the quarterback to worry about a blitz.

After the snap, Cash immediate flies into the backfield and hits the North Carolina running back behind the line of scrimmage:

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

Cash's ability to make these types of plays near the line of scrimmage is exactly why NFL teams should consider him for a moneybacker role.

At the snap, Cash is four yards from the line of scrimmage and closer to the slot than the typical linebacker alignment, but he still managed to meet the running back behind the line of scrimmage. That's an explosive burst that only a handful of traditional NFL linebackers possess.

From a scouting perspective, Cash's versatility in Duke's scheme is critical to projecting him in a hybrid role in the NFL.

Unlike most of the other safeties in this class who could be a candidate for a position change, Cash already has plays on film in this role for teams to evaluate.

It's also worth noting that Cash's ability to make an impact in the run game showed up statistically as well. According to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, 33 of his 98 tackles (33.7 percent) came within two yards of the line of scrimmage—a remarkable rate considering where he lines up defensively.


Where Cash Fits in NFL Draft

It's difficult to guess which team might be the next franchise to follow Arizona's lead and adopt a hybrid safety/linebacker role.

Most of the teams that have toyed around with the role in the past two years already have their playmaker in place, and any teams interested in adding this role are, predictably, playing it close to the vest.

It's worth noting, however, that this role isn't limited to the 3-4 scheme which Arizona plays.

The St. Louis Rams have used sub-packages with Mark Barron in a similar role as a third safety despite primarily lining up in a 4-3 base defense. With both 3-4 and 4-3 teams potentially deploying moneybacker packages, nearly every team becomes a viable landing spot for Cash in the draft.

How high Cash goes on draft day depends heavily on how his future team plans to use him.

Many teams may view Cash as a luxury weapon on defense, much like Barron has become for the Rams. But those teams would be unlikely to spend a first-round pick on Cash, as the Cardinals did with Bucannon. 

For Cash to climb into the first round, he would need a coaching staff to fall in love with his skill set and have a significant hybrid role ready to be unveiled in 2016.

Regardless of where Cash lands, he will be a fascinating player to watch develop in the pros. And his success—or failure—could further influence how NFL teams evaluate these types of prospects in the future.