The 2012 season for the Tennessee Titans revealed some glaring holes in the roster, most notably at the safety position. Jerry Gray tried changing personnel, switching Michael Griffin to strong safety, and deploying his 3-safety “ruby” package to slow down opposing offenses, but the Titans yielded 29.4 points per contest, worst in the NFL.
Adding Gregg Williams as a defensive assistant will undoubtedly bring some veteran leadership and knowledge to the staff, but the Titans desperately need an infusion of talent to help shore up a pass defense that struggled throughout the season. This year’s draft class offers several intriguing prospects, and as the combine swiftly approaches here are the top 5 safeties to watch.
1. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
Kenny Vaccaro has one of the most important traits for modern day safeties: versatility. At Texas he was asked to do a bit of everything, from covering slot receivers, to playing run support in the box, to covering the deep middle in zone. Vaccaro led the Longhorns in tackles last season and acted as the quarterback in the secondary. At 6’1” and 215 lbs, he has ideal size and can play both safety positions, although he projects as more of a strong safety due to his tackling ability.
The combine will reveal much about Vaccaro. One of the main questions that scouts have concerns his speed. In college he was more than capable of staying with receivers in man coverage, but scouts wonder if he has the top-end speed to cover in the NFL. If he runs well at the combine, he could vault himself into a top 15 pick, possibly going to the Titans at 10th overall.
2. Matt Elam, Florida
Elam can best be described as a playmaker in the secondary. He consistently disrupts plays in the backfield and lays massive hits, making him a popular highlight reel player during his college career at Florida. His 5’10” 206-lb frame doesn’t do justice to how big he plays on the field, energizing his teammates with his emotional style of play. He is sized like a free safety but plays his best closer to the line of scrimmage.
Elam’s athleticism and anticipation will attract many NFL teams, but there are also concerns about his lack of urgency. Various times at Florida he was seen standing around, waiting for his teammates to make the play. If NFL teams feel they can harness his immense potential, Elam will quickly move up draft boards into the late 1st round.
3. Eric Reid, LSU
Eric Reid is a tall, long safety with an ideal frame for adding strength. At LSU he was often overshadowed by the popular “Honey Badger”, Tyrann Mathieu, and the 2012 6th overall draft pick Morris Claiborne. His 2012 collegiate season was not as impressive as 2011, as he was exposed in pass coverage without his former teammates. Reid still played well, but he strictly projects as a strong safety until his coverage skills improve.
That being said, Reid has a rare combination of size, athleticism, and intelligence that make his comparable to former Alabama safety Mark Barron, the 7th overall pick in last year’s draft. Reid is not nearly as highly regarded by scouts as Barron, but he will certainly be drafted within the first three rounds.
4. John Cyprien, Florida International
Cyprien is not a consensus top safety in this year’s draft class, but some scouts really like the FIU product as a NFL safety. Cyprien played well enough in 2012 to warrant an invitation to the Senior Bowl, drawing attention from scouts for his tenacious attitude and confidence. He is one of the hardest-hitting safeties in this draft class, but there are questions about his coverage ability in the NFL. He projects as a 2nd to 4th round pick.
5. T.J. McDonald, USC
McDonald has NFL bloodlines, his father having had a very successful 13-year NFL career. McDonald, 6’3”, is a physical presence in the middle of the field, never hesitating to launch his shoulder into a blocker or ball carrier. His coverage skills, like many safeties in this class, are somewhat unpolished, but he has the intangibles and athleticism to make him a 2nd to 4th round pick this year.
With the 10th overall pick, the Titans can address one of several needs, most likely on the defense. It’s not absolutely necessary to use the first round pick on a safety, but at some point during the draft we must address this position of need. The Titans may find the most value in drafting a safety in the mid rounds, taking the best player available in the first round.
If the Titans do pass on a safety in the first round, it’s most likely because there are several pass rushers that warrant serious consideration. Therefore, we will analyze the top 5 defensive ends in the next installment.
You can follow me on Twitter @dfleming22