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Book on Malik Hooker: Ballhawk has ability to be Day 1 stud

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Editor's note: NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Bucky Brooks reveals "the book on" some of the 2017 NFL Draft's most highly coveted prospects. In the eighth installment of the series, we look at Ohio State safety Malik Hooker.

It's hard to find safeties with the athleticism, instincts and ball skills to change the game from the deep middle, which is why scouts have been salivating over Ohio State safety Malik Hooker after watching the redshirt sophomore snag seven interceptions as a first-time starter for the Buckeyes in 2016. With the former high school basketball star drawing comparisons to Ed Reed and Rod Woodson in private conversations, I decided to pop in a little tape to see if the hype matched the performance. After some film study and a few conversations with colleagues in the business, I'm here to provide the book on Hooker.

What I'm hearing

"He has to be one of the best safety prospects to come out in the last few years. He was a big-time basketball player coming out of high school, and you see the explosiveness in his play. He has natural instincts and playmaking ability. I know he hasn't played a lot of football, but the game is easy for him. ... He's real. I think he's the real deal." -- AFC college scouting director

"The kid has major ball skills and range. He is going to be a turnover machine in the league. I would put him in the post and let him roll. Most guys can't read the quarterback and make plays but he's a natural at it. He's an ideal center fielder." -- AFC secondary coach

"He's raw at the position. I was surprised at how he struggled with some of the basic football questions at the board during our meeting. It's not a huge concern, but you have to understand that he is still new to the game. As a player, I think he is a natural center fielder with good ball skills, instincts and a solid understanding of route concepts. He needs to improve as a tackler and become a bigger factor against the run. ... He'll go in the first round because of his talent, but he still has a lot to learn." -- NFC secondary coach

"He is a playmaker! He has great instincts and ball skills. ... He needs to learn how to take calculated risks in the league, but it is hard to find safeties who can make plays on the ball. He needs to become a more consistent tackler, but I like his game." -- Second AFC secondary coach

What I'm seeing

Hooker is the most instinctive center-field safety that I've scouted since Ed Reed stepped into the league in 2002. Now, I know that's lofty praise for a player who logged just 13 college starts -- and only has five years of football experience (Hooker didn't play football until his junior year of high school) -- but it's hard to find deep-middle players with Hooker's combination of athleticism, range and playmaking ability.

The 6-foot-1, 206-pounder exhibits exceptional range and ball skills in the back end. Hooker displays explosive speed, quickness and acceleration roaming between the numbers, but he also flashes outstanding instincts and awareness breaking on throws as an "over the top" defender. Hooker's superb anticipation skills remind me of a prolific base stealer in baseball swiping bags due to his ability to read or anticipate the pitcher's move to the plate. Hooker not only anticipates throws to his area -- he displays a fearless nature that could make him a 10-pick guy at the next level. With Hooker also showing strong hands and exceptional ball skills, he could quickly become a league leader in interceptions for a team that allows the free safety to aggressively hunt the football from the middle of the field.

As a run defender, Hooker is still a work in progress, but he shows the instincts, awareness and desire to be a factor within the box. He quickly reads and diagnoses plays in the backfield, then flies up to get into the mix. Hooker doesn't show any hesitation taking on running backs in the hole, but he needs to become a more consistent tackler at the point of attack. He is a "striker" prone to cut tackle at the knees instead of wrapping up and corralling runners in the open field. As the last line of defense, Hooker can't allow runners to sneak past him by taking a poor angle or ducking his head on a tackle. He has to be more conservative in his approach to make sure that he makes solid contact and a secure tackle. It might take him some time to master this skill, but he certainly can become a B+ tackler in the back end with proper instruction and plenty of reps.

Hooker flashes impressive instincts and athleticism as a pass rusher on blitzes. He has a terrific feel for slipping past blockers, and his crafty style makes him an effective extra rusher from the second level. Although blitzing prevents Hooker from doing what he does best (roaming the deep middle), his ability to get home off the edge speaks volumes about his versatility, athleticism and potential as an impact defender.

Overall, I believe Hooker has all of the tools to be a perennial all-star as a center-field safety for a defense that features a lot of single-high-safety coverage. He displays rare range, athleticism, instincts and playmaking ability at the position, which makes him a lock to be listed among the blue-chip prospects on most boards. Considering how ballhawks and turnover producers are valued at a premium, I expect Hooker to come off the board quickly as an impact player with the potential to start from Day 1.

NFL comp: Reggie Nelson

Hooker is one of the most natural playmakers to enter the league in some time. Hooker's unique takeaway talents could make him an Ed Reed-like playmaker as a pro, but I believe his game is eerily similar to two-time Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson at this stage of his career. Nelson has enjoyed a standout career with 35 interceptions in 10 seasons, including a league-leading eight picks in 2015, while blossoming into one of the best center-field safeties in the game. Hooker not only shares a similar body type (Nelson measures in at 5-11, 210 pounds, compared to Hooker's 6-foot-1, 206-pound frame) and comparable athleticism to the veteran safety, but he flashes a similar "striker" mentality, as well. If he can refine his game, particularly as a run defender, Hooker could quickly become the new standard at the position.

Where he should be picked

Despite concerns over his tackling and run defense, Hooker ranks as one of the top-10 talents in the 2017 draft class. He is a turnover machine between the hashes with an extraordinary combination of instincts, anticipation and ball skills as a center fielder. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, I believe Hooker's value as a ballhawk will make him a possible candidate to come off the board anywhere from pick No. 2 (San Francisco 49ers) to pick No. 18 (Tennessee Titans). If I could select a few perfect fits, I would point to the Titans at No. 5 overall (it'd be a gamble for Tennessee to wait until the 18th pick) and the Los Angeles Chargers (No. 7 overall). With the Titans, Hooker would have the opportunity to learn the game under Hall of Fame inductee Dick LeBeau. The legendary coach has groomed plenty of all-star defensive backs and placed them in ideal situations to make plays based on their skill sets. With the Bolts, Hooker would fill the void created by Eric Weddle's departure a couple of seasons ago. He would play as the center fielder (Earl Thomas' role) in the middle of Gus Bradley's single-high-safety defense and allow the Chargers' cover corners to be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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