The Los Angeles Chargers could use help at the safety position. While safeties Malik Hooker and Jamal Adams are intriguing prospects at No. 7 overall (if available), the Chargers could find a potential star on Day 2 or 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft.
If you watched the Chargers play last season (and weren’t too busy downing alcohol), you could argue that safety was their only weakness on defense. Sure, they lack quality depth at the cornerback position, but at least they have two Pro Bowlers in Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward as their starters.
Dwight Lowery, who signed a three-year, $7.2 million deal ($1.5 million guaranteed) in the 2016 offseason, was Eric Weddle’s replacement. He wasn’t a complete liability in coverage, but the 31-year-old let up some big plays and played timid at times. He also went from picking off a career-high four passes in 2015 to intercepting just one ball last year.
On the other hand, 2013 undrafted free agent Jahleel Addae did well in his fourth year as a Charger. According to Pro Football Focus, Addae was the 12th-best safety who did a solid job against the run (led the secondary with an 85.5 run-defense grade and ranked 13th overall in that category among qualifying NFL safeties). Also, he only allowed a 56.8 passer rating when targeted, per PFF. Despite being an aggressive, hard-hitting safety, Addae missed eight games in 2016 due to a broken collarbone and hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year (2013). The 27-year-old will be back with the Chargers after being rewarded with a four-year deal.
Behind those two are Darrell Stuckey, a special teams ace, and a few former undrafted free agents in Adrian Phillips, Adrian McDonald and Dexter McCoil. Both Phillips and McCoil had their ups and downs while McDonald never saw the field. Of those three players, McCoil is a player to watch out for in 2017.
Only two great plays come to mind when thinking of the former CFL standout (picking off Texans’ Brock Osweiler on a Hail Mary attempt to seal the game in Houston and batting the ball down for the home win against the Broncos), but having a full year of NFL experience under his belt should build confidence going forward. McCoil also has the size (6-4, 220 pounds) that new DC Gus Bradley covets, and I believe Bradley will utilize the versatile hybrid to his strengths this season.
The Chargers should still look for a true free safety. Ohio State’s Malik Hooker has been mocked to the Chargers at No. 7 overall plenty of times over the past few months. Despite his Ed Reed-like potential (via draft experts), the Chargers should pass on the first-year starter (who is recovering from recent surgeries/might not even make it to the seventh pick) and try and trade back for extra picks or snag one of the top edge rushers. Washington’s Budda Baker or Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu would be excellent choices in the second round, but they might not be on the clock when the Chargers make their second pick.
That’s fine, because the safety class is so deep that they can still get a Day 1 playmaker in Rounds 2-4. That said, here are two prospects that would fit perfectly in the Chargers’ defensive scheme.
MARCUS WILLIAMS, UTAH: No, Utah’s Marcus Williams has no relations to current Jets cornerback Marcus Williams or former NBA player Marcus Williams (perhaps a new T.V series entitled “Meet the Williams” is in the making).
The Chargers want a ball-hawking, single-high safety for Bradley’s 4-3 scheme? Then look no further than Williams. The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder totaled 10 interceptions over his last two seasons. In 2016, Williams graded out as PFF’s third-best safety in college football and led all FBS safeties in run-stop percentage. He finished with the second-highest tackle efficiency (three missed tackles) among FBS safeties, per PFF. In comparison, Hooker, who’s major flaw is tackling, led the Buckeyes’ defense with 14 missed tackles and ranked 136th in tackling efficiency.
But what Williams did in coverage was even more impressive, according to PFF’s Josh Liskiewitz.
“Possibly the most eye-popping stat on him this season was his 0.09 yards surrendered per coverage snap. This metric takes the total yardage a player allows into his coverage and divides it by the number of coverage snaps played, and is a way to gauge the efficiency of a player’s production in coverage.. Not surprisingly, Williams also led all qualifying FBS safeties (more than 100 coverage snaps played) in total yards allowed, with just 38.”
Williams shined at the NFL Scouting Combine, too. He ranked second behind Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu in the vertical jump with a spectacular 43.5-inch vertical. He was also one of the top performers in the broad jump (10-foot, 9-inch jump; third-best), 3-cone drill (6.85 time; fifth-best) and 60-yard shuttle (11.62 time; second-best). Despite his 4.56 40-yard dash (tied for ninth-best), Williams put up great numbers in important drills.
Williams is an athlete and football player. As a single-high safety (with double-high looks) at Utah, he showed off great range, solid instincts and was smooth in coverage. Not only does he have good awareness when the ball is in the air, he can also wrap up running backs and receivers.
Finishing is key, and that’s what Williams is good at.
The only negative I saw when watching the Utes take on Arizona State was that Williams froze up a few times while waiting to make the tackle, which either led to him getting blasted by an opposing blocker or getting taken for a ride during the attempted tackle. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who has his hands on much more film, noted the same weakness in his breakdown:
“Takes the worst of it in one-on-one tackles. Can be dragged along for additional yardage.” – NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein via Williams’ draft profile
Where will Williams land? Williams is tied for fifth with Florida’s Marcus Maye in Mike Mayock’s newest safety rankings. He previously wasn’t ranked and likely just qualified because Mayock moved Baker to the nickel position. Williams is as underrated as they come and could slip to as far as the third round because of how deep the 2017 draft is overall.
If fans want to draft Hooker strictly because of his range and ball skills, then I’d argue for you to wait for Williams, who has both those qualities along with the ability to tackle, which is something that has haunted the Chargers for years. Also, Williams was a three-year starter for the Utes while Hooker has only one year of starting experience under his belt. Williams is quite durable, too, after only missing four games (including two last season) over that span.
Williams may need to add a few more pounds if he wants to hold up against NFL tight ends, but he could be the perfect replacement for Weddle. Replacing one former Ute for another just seems right.
Round projection: 2-3
Sep 10, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Eddie Jackson (4) returns an interception for a touchdown against Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Hilltoppers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
EDDIE JACKSON, ALABAMA: Talk about a sleeper who shouldn’t even be a sleeper to begin with. PFF refers to Eddie Jackson as a player who “has a high ceiling among the secondary options for potential centerfielders.”
After playing corner his freshman and sophomore year, the 6-foot, 201-pound Jackson transitioned to free safety, a position he played in his final two years at Alabama. Jackson has good vision, footwork and the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline. He’s a good cover safety, as he gave up 49.6 percent of completions into his coverage between 2014-16, according to PFF.
More importantly, Jackson has elite playmaking ability. He had seven interceptions (six coming from 2015) over the last two years including three in which were returned for touchdowns. That right there should be enough for the Chargers to draft this guy.
Want another reason? He adds value to his game by returning punts, too. Last season, he had 11 punt returns for 253 yards (23.0 average) and two touchdowns.
— BamaHammer (@Bama_Hammer) March 13, 2017
There is a downside to Jackson’s game, though, as he had trouble tackling. He took bad angles which resulted in missed tackles (missed 16 of 122 attempts over the last three years, per PFF). Unlike Williams who had at least 59 total tackles in each of his three seasons (188 altogether), according to CollegeFootballReference.com, Jackson never reached 50 total tackles in any of his four seasons (126 altogether).
A part of that was due to missing time with injury. 2015 marked the only year where he played a full season. In 2014, Jackson suffered a torn ACL in a spring practice. He did work insanely hard to get back (which shows great dedication and work ethic) and ended up starting 10 games at corner that season. Last year, he missed the final seven games (including playoffs) after breaking his leg while returning a punt.
Where will Jackson land? Aside from poor tackling, there are two big questions surrounding Jackson. The first: Was he a beneficiary of a star-studded Alabama front seven? The second: Will he fully recover from his second major leg injury?
A dominant front seven will make life easier, but Jackson showed he has the talent while playing against tough competition in the SEC. If he is placed in the right scheme, he will thrive. Luckily, Bradley is operating a defense where Jackson can succeed. As for injury, wide receiver Keenan Allen, who was projected as a first or second-rounder, fell to the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft because of an injured past. Jackson reminds me of Allen’s situation.
I’ve seen Jackson fall to the fourth round in several mock drafts. He’s rarely been talked about, but that’s a good thing for the Chargers. Jackson’s versatility is eye-popping, as he can be your free safety or fill in at corner if there’s an emergency. Using him as a punt returner should greatly benefit the Chargers, too. Like every player that’s already on the roster, you just have to hope he’ll stay healthy.
Round projection: 3-4
Overall, I’m not opposed to the Chargers getting a talent like Hooker or even Jamal Adams if they’re available in the first round. I’m just here to point out that if the Chargers do decide to pass on those two and go in a different direction with their first pick, they can still find a star later in the draft.