Analysis  

 

Top underclassmen: Eric Reid headlines college defensive backs

Derick E. Hingle / US Presswire
LSU has been churning out quality defensive backs of late, and safety Eric Reid boasts an enticing skill set.

Top underclassmen:
» Offense: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers/tight ends | Linemen
» Defense: Linemen/linebackers | Defensive backs

Safeties

Eric Reid

College: LSU
Height: 6-2 Weight: 208

It was a no-brainer for Reid, a highly touted national recruit with an excellent academic record, to commit to LSU. His father is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame as an All-American hurdler, winning the NCAA championship in the 110-meter hurdles as a senior in 1987. Eric Reid Sr. still works on the LSU campus, so his son got to know the facilities and team's coaches quite well growing up.

That familiarity bred early success for Reid, as he played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2010, logged crucial playing time against Alabama (six tackles, one for loss) and started the final three regular season games. And though he didn't start the team's bowl win over Texas A&M, he still came through with seven stops and an interception. As a sophomore, Reid started all 12 games in which he played, leaving the Ole Miss game and missing the Arkansas contest with a thigh injury. His 76 tackles (a team high), two interceptions, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles earned him second-team All-SEC honors from league media. He was also named FWAA/Nagurski National and SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against Alabama (six tackles, forced fumble, fourth-quarter interception) in the Tigers' regular-season win in Tuscaloosa.

Strengths: Tall, long safety with a solid overall build that is still getting stronger. All-around defender who can play the run and pass. Flashes excellent closing speed, pummels receivers after the catch when coming downhill and can sniff out a play after the snap and get into the backfield. Has length and attitude to wrap up ball carriers in the open field. Brings power into cut tackles, lowering his shoulder to stop running backs cold. Also lays the wood over the middle, putting a shoulder into the midsection of receivers. Gets physical with receivers attempting to block him in the run game. Has athleticism to handle tight ends in the passing game. Possesses the height, vertical leap and competitive nature to win jump balls. Good enough hands to take advantage of poor throws, will undercut receivers and can catch the ball away from his frame.

Weaknesses: Gets overaggressive at times; will jump on short crossers, opening up the back half of the field, and overrun stretch plays to allow cutback lanes. Not a consistently powerful tackler, and will lunge and miss in the open field, as he often fails to break down quickly. Recovery speed will be questioned; might be tough for him to catch NFL receivers if he takes a false step or attempts to aid a teammate. Had shoulder surgery after his junior season in high school, though it hasn't hurt him in college.

NFL comparison: Mark Barron

Bottom line: The next SEC safety creating a buzz in the scouting community, Reid brings the size, athleticism, intelligence and toughness to become an impact player in coverage and against the run at the next level.

Tony Jefferson

College: Oklahoma
Height: 5-10 Weight: 199

Jefferson will not meet all NFL teams' size requirements for the safety position, but those who overlook him will do so at their own risk. The success of pro safeties with similar measurements -- like Jairus Byrd, Troy Polamalu, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner will undoubtedly help Oklahoma's strong and athletic defender get his chance at the next level, as will his 2012 play at free safety and the "Roybacker" position named after former Sooner and top-10 pick Roy Williams.

Jefferson's lack of height obviously didn't turn off major college programs from chasing him as a top-100 prospect out of California. It also didn't keep him off the field for the Sooners in his first year on campus, as he started nine contests as an extra defensive back and earned the Big 12's Defensive Freshman of the Year award in 2010 with 65 tackles (seven for loss), seven pass breakups and two interceptions -- one which he returned for a 22-yard touchdown against Connecticut in the team's Fiesta Bowl victory. Jefferson's role only got bigger as a sophomore. He started 12 games, making plays near the line against the run and as a blitzer (74 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks), while also leading the team with four interceptions (three coming against Ball State). He was an honorable mention All-Big 12 pick (coaches, media) in 2011.

Strengths: Athletic, tough-minded safety. Plays all over the field, in a stack, on slot receivers and single-high. Reliable tackler and big hitter, drops his hips and wraps whether filling a hole in the box or taking out a crossing receiver over the middle. Explosive blitzer who times his start well and brings pop as a tackler. Discards poor blocking attempts by fullbacks and receivers with hands and tenacity to make a play on the ball. Maintains outside leverage when tasked with containment responsibilities to force run plays inside. Good ball skills -- follows receivers' eyes in man and keeps his own in the backfield in zone to break on passes. Flashes the hands to make the one-handed grab and is competitive in 50/50 and jump-ball situations. Covers running backs on wheel routes adeptly and can take away safety-valve routes from slot receivers. Should be a special teams force early in his career due to his aggressive nature, speed and tackling ability. Infectious attitude that helps him be a team leader.

Weaknesses: Short for an NFL defensive back. Does not have elite speed and will fall behind better slot receivers on crosses if unable to get a hand on them off the line. Stays high in his backpedal and will stop his feet when lined up off the slot, so receivers can eat up cushion. Linemen and tight ends use their superior size and length to engulf him in the run game, though he gives good effort to hold his ground.

NFL comparison: T.J. Ward

Bottom line: Though shorter than most top safety prospects, Jefferson's leadership skills, physicality around the line of scrimmage (14.5 tackles for loss the past two years) and nickel corner-like coverage skills (four interceptions in 2011) will entice pro teams.

Cornerbacks

David Amerson

College: North Carolina State
Height: 6-3 Weight: 194

The Jack Tatum Award given to the nation's best defensive back has been awarded to several players who became first-round picks since its inception in 1991. But even star cornerbacks like Terrell Buckley, Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson, and talented safeties such as Roy Williams, the late Sean Taylor and Eric Berry didn't match Amerson's turnover production in 2011.

His 13 interceptions tied for second-most in NCAA history (Al Worley from Washington set the record with 14 picks in 1968), earning him first-team All-ACC and Walter Camp All-American honors, among many others. The team's 31-24 Belk Bowl win over Louisville was among the four contests in which he intercepted two passes; his 65-yard touchdown after one of those picks in the third quarter turned out to be the difference in the game. This explosion in turnovers came just one year after he started nine games as a true freshman, but had no interceptions and only one pass breakup.

Strengths: Possesses size, physicality and athleticism to be a starting NFL defensive back. Receiver-like ball skills allow him to high-point passes on jump balls and make quarterbacks pay for trying to fit balls between levels of zone coverage. Also adjusts well to low and wide throws, despite his size. Flashes agility and foot work to stay with double moves. Will pop receivers to dislodge the ball and crush running backs coming to his side of the field. Wrap-up tackler, closes quickly to the ball when attacking receivers in off-coverage and against east-west runs. Works through receiver blocks in the run game with strong hands and quickness.

Weaknesses: Some teams will project him to safety unless he showcases hip flexibility, agility and speed in workouts. Backpedal will be tested by quicker receivers eating up his cushion at the next level, though his footwork and bend aren't bad for his size. Takes time to transition forward from backpedal, giving up receptions. Comes into tackles high at times, allowing receivers to loop inside his advances. Cut tackles are not always effective; needs to wrap consistently. Plays a lot of off-coverage and zone; needs experience in the man and press coverages in which he should excel, given his physical ability.

NFL comparison: Nnamdi Asomugha

Bottom line: The 2011 Jim Thorpe Award finalist is tall, physical and has receiver-like ball skills. Some might project him to free safety because of his size, but Amerson's length will tempt scouts looking for a lockdown outside corner. Has enough hip fluidity and short-area agility to be a difference-maker at corner in the right system.

DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner

College: Alabama
Height: 6-1 Weight: 199

Milliner's accomplishments during the Tide's march to the 2011 BCS Championship were overlooked across the country because of the star power surrounding him on defense. With fellow cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron all selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, it's easy to see why the junior isn't a household name -- yet. Now that Kirkpatrick, Barron and DeQuan Menzie are off to the NFL, Milliner will join senior safety Robert Lester in a leadership role this fall.

Those following recruiting on a regular basis know Milliner well, as he was everyone's All-American coming out of high school and ranked among the best cornerbacks and top 20 overall prospects in the country because of his elite combination of size and athleticism. Milliner (nicknamed "Dee") got into every game as a true freshman, starting 11 on a loaded defense while also contributing on special teams. He was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad for his efforts (55 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups). Though he only started six games in 2011, he played consistently as the outside cornerback against pass-happy teams, as Menzie moved inside to the slot. When he got onto the field, Milliner made the most of his opportunities, intercepting three passes (one of which he took in for a touchdown against rival Auburn) and breaking up nine others.

Strengths: Owns sufficient height, length and upper-body strength to fight with pro receivers over the middle or down the sideline. Capable of getting a solid punch at the line of scrimmage in press, Milliner also possesses the quick feet to stay with his man down the field after contact. Lines up receivers in the open field for the big hit. Displays the hip fluidity to open up and stay with deep routes or drop into his zone, while also possessing the foot quickness to stop-start on cut-off routes and on attempted double moves. Doesn't need to backpedal often, but looks to have smooth and low backward movement. Straight-line speed is also impressive, and will use it to hustle across the field when he's uncovered. Also translates to closing speed when playing off his man or attacking plays in the backfield. Makes the easy interception, but also has the vertical leap and strong hands to win jump balls against larger receivers. Keeps outside leverage in the run game, forcing plays inside. Violent hands help him rip off receiver blocks. Knows defensive concepts, directs linebackers on combination coverage outside. Flashes the physicality to wrap up ball carriers and drive them to the ground.

Weaknesses: Must step up his game as one of the team's leaders in 2012. Stout running backs and physical receivers can run through his tackles; he should continue to get stronger, but needs to break down more consistently to get leverage. Dives at the feet of ball carriers regularly and can be eluded in space. Doesn't always land heavy hands on his man at the line of scrimmage when required, but his recovery speed usually makes up for it. Played on a loaded defense, so pro quarterbacks will challenge his coverage at the next level.

NFL comparison: Carlos Rogers

Bottom line: Overshadowed by high-profile teammates like Kirkpatrick over the past two seasons, Milliner has made plays when given the chance (four interceptions, 16 pass breakups in 2010-11). This year, he'll use his pro-ready size, athleticism and footwork to become a household name on an Alabama team looking to repeat as BCS champ.

Tyrann Mathieu

Height: 5-9 Weight: 175

Mathieu (pronounced like "Matthew") became one of college football's biggest stars in 2011, but he was dismissed from LSU in early August for multiple violations of team rules. He is still weighing his options going forward.

Mathieu earned the nickname "Honey Badger" during his time with the Tigers because his small stature and tenacious attitude are similar to the African animal carrying that name. That feisty attitude has made Tyrann (Ty-run) one of the biggest defensive playmakers in college football, as evidenced by his six forced fumbles (tied for fourth in the country), two interceptions and nine pass breakups. For his efforts, he garnered the 2011 Bednarik Award as the nation's best defender, first-team All-SEC notice from league coaches and media and consensus All-American honors. Most impressively, he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy -- an extremely rare honor for defensive players.

The New Orleans area native grew up living with his grandparents and then his aunt and uncle (who adopted him), as his mother was often absent and his father has been in jail throughout most of Mathieu's life for robbery and then murder. His family was also uprooted due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite that rough beginning, he excelled enough in high school to get a scholarship offer from LSU, which overlooked his lack of size -- unlike many regretful major programs.

Mathieu began showing his playmaking skills as a true freshman in 2010. He played in every game, but only started one due to the team's talent at that position (he played behind eventual top-10 picks Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson). Yet he still ranked fourth on the team with 57 tackles (7.5 for loss) and intercepted two passes while breaking up seven more. He also ranked fifth in the nation with five forced fumbles and garnered the Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Player award for his work (interception, sack, two forced fumbles) in the win over Texas A&M.

The first thing NFL scouts see when they look at Mathieu is his size, or lack thereof. Sometimes physical attributes must be overlooked for players who can make something happen on defense while also turning the tide on special teams (fourth in the nation with 16.2 yards per punt return in 2011). The fact that Mathieu makes big plays in big games excites NFL scouts, but he has to clean up off-field issues.

Strengths: Fiesty turnover machine who lines up outside, in the slot and at safety when needed. Instinctual player with very good read-and-react ability, always seems to work his way into position to make a play on the ball. Does whatever it takes to make a stop -- fights through blocks using hands and quickness, goes low or high and doesn't let up after initial contact. Brings enough force despite his size to get ball carriers off balance with a glancing blow. Constantly rips at the ball while making a tackle or when others have secured the stop. Fights for jump balls with taller receivers downfield. Regularly used as a blitzer due to his feel, quickness and tenacity. Very good vision and short-area quickness as a punt returner, can make the first man miss and cut back effectively against the grain. Will go outside if the space is there, but can also slalom through traffic up the field when necessary. Has balance and strength to get through arm tackles. Will be a strong tackler on coverage units if required.

Weaknesses: Obviously, he has some off-field problems that must be addressed. Possesses below-average size for the position. Usually brings down ball carriers of any size, but NFL veterans might prove a bigger challenge. Quicker than fast, though his effort often masks average straight-line speed for his size. Must prove his ability to stay with larger receivers and tight ends in man coverage, as they use their length advantage to separate and frame to shield him from the ball. Will take chances as a punt returner, grabbing the ball on a bounce or inside the 5-yard line.

NFL comparison: Cortland Finnegan

Bottom line: The 2011 Bednarik Award winner as the nation's top defender was booted from the LSU team for multiple rule violations. The undersized but ultracompetitive turnover machine will bring the physicality of a bigger player in his tackles, no matter where he plays. Mathieu is also a game-changer as a punt returner, ranking fourth in the country last year in yards per attempt and scoring two touchdowns.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter.

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