Combine Notebook: Safeties Steal the Show as Workouts Wrap Up in Indy

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 6, 2018

Combine Notebook: Safeties Steal the Show as Workouts Wrap Up in Indy

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Defensive backs took the field Monday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. The largest group in the event's history provided a mixed bag of results, with outstanding 40-yard-dash times and inconsistent workouts. 

    The headlinersOhio State's Denzel Ward, Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State's Derwin James—lived up to expectations. Beyond them, a peculiar flip-flop occurred between the cornerbacks and safeties. 

    Heading into the combine, it appeared as though this year's draft class had better depth and quality at cornerback than safety. However, the 43 corners invited to Indianapolis underwhelmed, whereas the safeties blew scouts away with impressive 40-yard-dash times and better all-around workouts than the cornerbacks. 

    Today's Combine Notebook looks at the evolution of defensive backs and their impressive speed numbers, even though no one came close to breaking John Ross' record.

     

Minkah Fitzpatrick Doesn't Have a Position, Doesn't Matter

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    Minkah Fitzpatrick
    Minkah FitzpatrickAssociated Press

    Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick is a top-five talent, and nothing he did at the NFL combine changed that. In many ways, his performance confirmed what everyone wanted to see after his impressive junior season. 

    What it didn't do was define his position at the next level. That's OK, because it doesn't matter.

    Fitzpatrick is a hybrid playmaker built for the modern game. The 21-year-old defensive back captured the Chuck Bednarik Award as college football's best defensive player, and the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. His value to an NFL team originates from system flexibility and outstanding leadership. 

    "Preparation. Notetaker in every meeting. Wants to be great at everything he does. Can cover, tackle, ball skills, pass rush. The total package," an Alabama coach told Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman. Alabama head coach Nick Saban referred to Fitzpatrick as one of his "favorite guys," per SI.com's Stephanie Apstein.

    Fitzpatrick's attitude and work ethic make him a culture-changer. However, the conversation will continue about how NFL teams can best use him.

    His combine performance may further complicate things since he ran well, posting a 4.47-second 40-yard dash. Meanwhile, his length, fluidity and explosiveness can be questioned to varying degrees. 

    This is the give-and-take teams must weigh with Fitzpatrick. He isn't a safety or a cornerback; he's both. He can even be a nickel linebacker, too, if a team needs him to fill that role. 

    His combine performance showed he's a well-rounded athlete who isn't deficient in any particular area. He can step onto an NFL field and do almost everything. While slot corner may be his "optimal position," he's fast enough to play outside occasionally. He'll almost assuredly line up as both a free and strong safety at times, too.

    Today's game is about matchups. A 6'1", 201-pound defensive back with the ability to play both inside and outside corner, single-high and box safety, defend the run and blitz the quarterback is the complete package, even if no one knows how to define his position.

John Ross' 40-Yard-Dash Record Doesn't Fall

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    Donte Jackson
    Donte JacksonAssociated Press

    The fastest players in this year's class all took the field Monday. Sorry, Shaquem Griffin

    On Sunday, LSU cornerback Donte Jackson boasted he would break John Ross' 4.22-second 40-yard dash record set last year, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. He fell 0.1 seconds short of doing so, but his 4.32-second time still left him tied for first overall.

    Jackson cramped during the run and couldn't replicate his speed during a second attempt. Injuries played a factor for each of the top speed demons. 

    Ohio State's Denzel Ward and Tulane's Parry Nickerson also ran the 40 in 4.32 seconds. Only seven defensive backs ran faster times since the NFL began to track times in 2006. 

    Unlike Jackson, Ward and Nickerson weren't able to participate in position drills since they suffered ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively. But they turned heads with their speed and didn't need to complete the entire workout. 

    The raw speed displayed Monday helps place Ross' performance in perspective. Each of the fastest prospects in this year's class was a full tenth of a second slower. While seven defensive backs broke the 4.4-second barrier, they're held to an unfair standard due to the glitz and glamour surrounding the event. 

    Nine years passed before anyone could touch Chris Johnson's 4.24-second effort. Plenty of prospects think they can break the record, yet they don't understand how special someone is to challenge the mark. 

    While Jackson, Nickerson and Ward are blazing fast, they didn't come close to eclipsing Ross' effort. 

Evolution of Safety Position on Display

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    Derwin James
    Derwin JamesAssociated Press

    Fitzpatrick and Florida State's Derwin James have a chance to become the first pair of safeties selected among the top five overall draft picks. Their respective talent warrants such consideration as the position continues to evolve. 

    Like Fitzpatrick, James will be expected to play multiple roles. In fact, he played closer to the line of scrimmage this past season as a hybrid linebacker since the Seminoles coaching staff wanted him to make more impact plays. He's a defensive back big enough to cover tight ends, fast enough to line up at cornerback, play both safety positions and serve as a sub-package linebacker. 

    At 6'3" and 215 pounds, James posted a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, 11-foot broad jump and 40-inch vertical, per NFL Draft Scout's Dane Brugler.

    A safety can no longer serve in a singular role. The delineation between cornerback, free and strong safety has blurred. The athletes who took the field Monday exemplified this transformation. 

    Fitzpatrick and James are considered elite prospects, yet they're far from the only ones who impressed. Eight safeties broke the 4.50-second barrier in the 40-yard dash. To place that into perspective, no class in the last 10 years featured more than five safeties who did so. 

    An emphasis on a player's range is taking over, with former cornerbacks converting to cover more space and provide flexibility within systems. Defensive coordinators want the next Earl Thomas, someone who can cover every inch of the field and serve as the last line of defense. Thomas, the standard at free safety, ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at 208 pounds back in 2010.

    At 220 pounds, Virginia Tech's Terrell Edmunds provided a 4.47-second effort with an 11'2" broad jump and astounding 41.5-inch vertical, per Brugler.

    Bigger, stronger and faster safeties are entering the NFL with cornerback-like skills. The value of the position may not equal a true cover corner; however, reliable safety play is more valuable than ever.  

Monday Moneymaker: Jaire Alexander Back in Top Corner Conversation

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    Jaire Alexander
    Jaire AlexanderAssociated Press

    What He Did

    Jaire Alexander reminded everyone in attendance why he entered the 2017 campaign as a projected first-round talent and top cornerback prospect. 

    After battling through knee and hand injuries for the majority of his junior season, Alexander never looked like the same top-flight cover corner who played for the Louisville Cardinals during the 2016 campaign. 

    At 5'11" and 192 pounds, Alexander ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and looked more fluid and comfortable than any other cornerback during position workouts. His attitude is also what an organization wants in a first-round cornerback investment. 

    "I assure them that you're getting a versatile player, a guy who can lock everything down," Alexander said when asked about his interviews with teams, per the Louisville Courier Journal's Jake Lourim. "Very rare that you see a pass getting caught on me. A pass getting caught on me, it's almost history in the making."

             

    Brief Pre-Combine Scouting Report

    A standout 2016 campaign established Alexander as a premium prospect when he led the Cardinals with five interceptions and nine more broken up passes. Even at less than 100 percent this past season, the 21-year-old defensive back led all draft-eligible corners by allowing a 17.7 passing rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus, albeit in only six contests. 

    Alexander is capable of mirroring any receiver with good instincts and ball skills. He's also a potential contributor on special teams after returning 20 punts in 2016 for 210 yards and a touchdown. 

         

    Bottom Line

    Ohio State's Denzel Ward is the top pure cornerback prospect in this year's draft class. But there's room for another prospect to stake his claim as the second-best.

    Iowa's Josh Jackson displays exceptional ball skills, but he looked uncomfortable during combine drills since the Hawkeyes tend to employ off-coverage. As a pure zone corner, Jackson needs to be placed in the right situation.

    Alexander, on the other hand, is capable of matching up with receivers and carrying them in man or zone coverage. Now healthy, he's once again a strong first-round possibility. 

Spotlight on Small-School Standouts

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    Davontae Harris
    Davontae HarrisAssociated Press

    As the majority of the cornerback class struggled to perform well during position workouts, Illinois State's Davontae Harris and Dubuque's Michael Joseph looked right at home next to highly regarded prospects from bigger programs. 

    At 6'0" and 200 pounds, Harris has ideal size. He also led the all cornerbacks with 22 reps on bench press and posted the eighth-best 40-yard dash at 4.43 seconds. More importantly, Harris' movement skills translated to position-specific drills.

    While most of the defensive backs struggled to open their hips and display a fluid turn through their backpedal, Harris showed better overall technique. He still isn't as smooth as NFL teams would prefer, but many of the cornerbacks who worked out appeared stiff trying to complete basic fundamentals. 

    As a result, Joseph looked more comfortable than nearly anyone on the field. His backpedal, transition and drive on the football were effortless. 

    Too many major programs rely on bail techniquecornerbacks immediately open to one side as soon as the ball is snapped—instead of teaching their defensive backs how to properly backpedal. This becomes obvious when they're asked to do even the simplest drills.

    Joseph has been well-coached, even at the Division III level. However, he didn't run the 40-yard dash, which indicates he's worried about his long speeda remaining concern regarding his skill set. 

    Harris, Joseph, Jacksonville State's Siran Neal, Murray State's D'Montre Wade, Southern's Danny Johnson and Weber State's Taron Johnson all looked like they belonged Monday. Where they went to college won't prevent them from being drafted. 

    Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.