The Hardest Hitters in the 2013 NFL Draft Class
The NFL is doing everything in its power to reduce the number and the severity of big hits, but do not discount the value of a big hitter on defense. While the ability to "lay the wood" won't make or break a prospect's draft stock, some teams will certainly be looking to inject a little attitude into their defense through the 2013 NFL draft.
Sometimes, players will give up the chance to make the sure play to instead attempt a devastating hit. While those hits can sometimes change the tone of a game, they can also lead to missed opportunities.
Some of these prospects are elite; others couldn't be further from that assessment. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, all these prospects are a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Jonathan Cyprien, SS, Florida International
Cyprien is described by NFL.com as "one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the 2013 draft class," and the highlights prove it to be true. His big hits led to six forced fumbles in his four-year career, including three as a sophomore.
He is active in run defense and an effective blitzer. He is at his best when he is lined up in the box, where he has opportunities to lay jarring blows. He also has solid ball skills. He was credited with 17 passes defensed and nabbed four interceptions over the past two years.
His aggressive style of play can lead to him biting on play action and being a step late in pass coverage or jumping routes. But most scouts project him as a first-round pick despite those holes in his game.
T.J. McDonald, FS, USC
At 6'3" and 205 pounds, McDonald is a physical specimen who put his strength on display at the combine when he finished in the top five on the 225-pound bench press with 19 reps. His 4.59-second 40-yard dash doesn't do justice to his burst, which helps him make big plays all over the field. He has the speed to play center field, with the ability to get to each sideline from the middle of the field.
Much like former USC prospect Taylor Mays, McDonald's tendency to go for the big hit is seen as a negative in his scouting report. Like most safeties who like to make the big hit, McDonald often takes bad angles and loses focus in coverage at times.
If he can clean up the mental and fundamental flaws in his game, McDonald's aggressive style of play can add attitude to a defense in need.
Matt Elam, SS, Florida
The Gators were the SEC's second-ranked defense in 2012, in part because of Elam's presence on the back end of the defense.
He is the quintessential "enforcer" at strong safety, which means he can lay jarring hits on receivers coming over the middle, come downhill and defend the run or rush the passer on the blitz. He doesn't have the ideal height at 5'10", but at 208 pounds, he is compact and has adequate bulk throughout his body.
Like most of the other big-hitting safeties on this list, Elam will be at his best when used in the box. But his versatility allows him to contribute multiple ways.
Also like most other big-hitting safeties, he is prone to fundamental breakdowns at times. His tendency to launch at the ball-carrier could leave him writing some big checks to the NFL. But that likely won't stop him from being a first-round pick.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Had enough safeties yet?
Star Lotulelei won't get a lot of opportunities to lay big hits as a defensive tackle or nose tackle, but at 6'2" and 311 pounds, he's not a guy anyone wants to be looking at coming downhill on them. Just ask opposing linemen how they feel about Lotulelei as a hard hitter.
His hits were vicious enough to force three fumbles on the season.
He has some Ndamukong Suh-like qualities to his game, in that he delivers vicious takedowns once he gets to the ball-carrier (see some of the tackles in the video above). But he knows how to control it and won't get caught making questionable hits after the whistle.
Datone Jones, DL, UCLA
Defensive linemen are not usually regarded as hard hitters because they don't get to build a head of steam on their way to the ball-carrier or targeted receiver.
Datone Jones is a physical defender with the combination of speed, agility and strength to quickly get penetration into the backfield. Again and again throughout his career at UCLA, he punished running backs and quarterbacks in the backfield.
He has quickness and power off the snap, and NFL.com regards his ability to "shock the offensive lineman with a quick jolt" as one of the traits that make him the great penetrating lineman he's become.
Kevin Minter, LB, LSU
Minter was under the radar for much of his career after playing behind Kelvin Sheppard until 2011. Even when he got the starting job, he was rather quiet. But he exploded onto the scene with 15 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2012.
Minter's aggressive style of play can lead him to overrun misdirection plays such as draws, counters and screens. But he takes good angles to the ball-carrier, which is good because he doesn't have great recovery speed.
With that in mind, he doesn't have the quickness or speed to run and cover tight ends or running backs. But his thumping style of play is similar to Brandon Spikes in that he can get into the backfield in a hurry and is at his best when playing downhill.
Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia
Alec Ogletree was the biggest hitter on Georgia's defense this past year, which may not come as a surprise when you learn he was actually recruited as a strong safety. His skills as a heavy hitter translated well to the linebacker position, though, and the fit was good for both sides.
His combination of size and speed allows him to build a good head of steam and then deliver a vicious hit. He needs to add some bulk to help him shed when blockers engage him with their hands. But very few deliver the type of punch Ogletree does when he can take a straight line to the ball-carrier.
Scouts rave about his abilities in coverage. Given the value being placed on defenders who can cover tight ends and passes over the middle, his cover skills should help him earn a high draft selection despite some character concerns.
Couple those cover skills with a mean streak that has him laying vicious hits on anyone with the ball, and Ogletree could bring a serious attitude adjustment to any defense.
D.J. Swearinger, SS, South Carolina
Swearinger's penchant for big hits earned him a reputation to the point where calls were made against him even when there was no infraction to be found. Swearinger's frame is almost exactly the same as Elam's at 5'10", 208 pounds. The height may be considered a hindrance in coverage, but his compact frame allows him to lay hits like the ones we see in the video above.
Swearinger isn't all highlight hits, though. He put his ball skills on display at South Carolina, registering 15 pass break-ups and five interceptions over the past two years. He has positional versatility between both safety positions and has even lined up at cornerback at times. His strength, however, is in zone coverage, primarily Cover 2.
That being said, he is a big hitter over the middle and does his damage in the box against the run and as a blitzer off the edge. He has drawn comparisons to another big-hitting safety, Cleveland Browns' T.J. Ward, and is projected to be drafted in the second or third round.
Eric Reid, FS, LSU
We started with a string of safeties, so let's end with a hard-hitting safety as well.
As we see in the video, Reid's career highlights were one big hit after another for LSU.
At 6'1" and 213 pounds, he's a bit taller than some of the other big-hitting safeties on this list, which gives him more upside in pass defense. He has all the speed and strength you look for in an enforcer on the back end of the defense, which allows him to close quickly on ball-carriers in the running game and targeted receivers in the passing game.
With 14 pass break-ups and four interceptions over the past two seasons, the ball skills are certainly there. With 91 tackles in 2012, his abilities in run defense are unquestioned. Like most of the other big-hitting safeties on this list, he's prone to the occasional false step that could lead to him getting exposed in coverage. He's also a bit too aggressive with his angles at times and lunges at ball-carriers without breaking down to make the sure tackle.
If he can clean up those fundamental holes in his game, he'll be worth the first-round pick he'll likely command in the draft.