Hybrid safety could fill Packers' need
Ted Thompson pulled a rabbit out of his hat last year, surprising everyone outside the Green Bay Packers' war room when he drafted Damarious Randall in the first round.
Nobody projected the Packers picking Randall before the draft, and for good reason. Randall played safety in college. The Packers needed a cornerback. Thompson, with a stroke of creativity, saw the potential of moving the draft’s best coverage safety to cornerback.
It was a wise decision that could become brilliant down the road. As a rookie, Randall showed flashes of a future No. 1 cornerback. He had 14 defended passes and three interceptions, returning one 43 yards for a touchdown in Oakland. Randall exemplified how general managers can be rewarded for innovation in the draft.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
Once again, the Packers have a clear need as they approach this year’s draft. They must find a three-down linebacker, someone to cover running backs and tight ends in nickel and dime packages. Perhaps Thompson once again can use some creativity to fill his team’s biggest need with a safety.
It’s a little misleading to say the Packers’ biggest need in this draft is an inside linebacker. They have talent at the position with Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington. In reality, what the Packers need is a coverage linebacker, someone who can allow Clay Matthews to become more of an edge rusher. A “coverage linebacker” might play in the middle of the field in nickel and dime, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be a middle linebacker.
“The NFL has been evolving the last four or five years, more closely paralleling the development of college football,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Friday. “There's been a blurring between, say, the safety position and the outside linebacker. They're almost becoming often the same kind of guy, fitting the same type of role.”
Two years ago, the Arizona Cardinals used the 27th overall pick to blur those lines even more. They drafted Deone Bucannon in 2014, a strong safety from Washington State. At 6-foot-1, 211 pounds with a 4.49-second 40, Bucannon profiled as a NFL safety. Instead, the Cardinals have used him as a linebacker.
Bucannon is clearly undersized for a linebacker, but he brings one trait that’s becoming more coveted from the position: speed. That speed is especially valuable in coverage, where Bucannon not only matches up against running backs and tight ends, but also lines up across slot receivers. Bucannon had a plus-6.3 coverage grade last season, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the ninth-best coverage grade among all NFL linebackers.
Tweener used to be a bad word in the NFL draft. If a prospect’s size, athleticism and skill set failed to match one specific position, his value would diminish. Not anymore. Teams now are finding wise investments in the proverbial tweeners. As the Packers search for a coverage linebacker in the draft, perhaps they can draft a hybrid safety to fill their void.
There may not be an ideal hybrid safety candidate when the Packers are on the clock with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft. More than anything, Bucannon’s athleticism made him a first-round talent. But prospects like Florida’s Keanu Neal, USC’s Su’a Cravens, Southern Utah’s Miles Killebrew and Duke’s Jeremy Cash could be intriguing options in the second or third round.
Killebrew is the perfect example of a prospect who would be lost without an NFL home five years ago, but now has clear value as a hybrid player. He’s big for a safety, measuring 6-foot-1⅞ and 217 pounds at the NFL combine in February. He’s also slow for a defensive back, running a 4.65-second dash.
But Killebrew’s size, speed, physicality against the run and ability to play in coverage fit perfectly in the new model for three-down linebackers.
“I think that’s probably where he ends up fitting,” said Senior Bowl president Phil Savage, a former general manager with the Cleveland Browns and longtime Baltimore Ravens executive. “Like with Arizona, they made that draft pick for Deone Bucannon. I could see something similar happening to Miles. I thought he was actually really good here (at the Senior Bowl), in terms of when he would come down in coverage, react to things in front of him. I don’t know about middle-of-the-field range and all that, but as a box-type player that has the short-area quickness, the acceleration moving downhill, I think he showed that.
“To me, he’s a fourth-down special teamer and a third-down subpackage guy almost immediately, and then you’ve got to figure out on first and second down where you want to put him.”
The Packers don’t need help at inside linebacker on first and second down. Ryan and Barrington can plug the middle of their 3-4 base defense. Problem is, the Packers play the majority of their snaps in nickel. If Joe Thomas doesn’t return in 2016, Matthews might be the only player on the Packers' roster capable of playing dime linebacker.
Cravens may be the most talented of the hybrid safety candidates. He mostly played in the box as an outside linebacker over the past two seasons, but arrived at USC as a safety. At 6-foot-¾, 226 pounds, Cravens has enough size to play in the box. He ran a 4.66-second, 40-yard dash at USC’s pro day, showing why he’ll be a linebacker instead of a safety at the next level. But his coverage instincts led to nine interceptions over three college seasons.
“Trying to decide if he's a safety or outside linebacker,” Charles Davis of NFL Network said. “Personally, I think he's better at outside linebacker. It's a lot like (Carolina Panthers linebacker) Shaq Thompson coming out last year from the University of Washington. It's not the size that we grew up watching, but those guys can run, rangy, have experience in covering people. And they have played some linebacker in college, so they're used to tackling them as well. So I think those guys fit pretty well.”
They are players who would not have a home on an NFL field a couple years ago. Now, they’re getting more opportunities in an evolving game. Perhaps the next chance will be in Green Bay.
Rising stock: West Virginia safety Karl Joseph’s draft stock dipped after a season-ending torn ACL in October, but a complete skillset defending the run and pass could help him sneak into the first round.
Falling stock: Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller was poised for a junior season that could have led him to the first round, but a torn meniscus required season-ending surgery after three games.
Sleeper: Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander has the lockdown capabilities required to be a No. 1 cornerback and could become a steal if he slips to the second round.
PACKERS DRAFT PICKS
DAY 1 (THURSDAY, APRIL 28)
First round: Pick No. 27
DAY 2 (FRIDAY, APRIL 29)
Second round: Pick No. 57
Third round: Pick No. 88
DAY 3 (SATURDAY, APRIL 30)
Fourth round: Pick No. 125
Fourth round: Pick No. 131*
Fourth round: Pick No. 137*
Fifth round: Pick No. 163
Sixth round: Pick No. 200
Seventh round: Pick No. 248
*Compensatory pick; cannot be traded.