Combine displays great safety choices

By Jeff Linville -
Jeff Linville News Editor -

The NFL Combine was held over the weekend for the 336 college football players hoping to be drafted next month.

Watching the NFL Network’s coverage (as I usually do) revealed some strengths and weaknesses for this year’s draft.

Most surprising were the 70 defensive backs invited to the combine, a whopping 21 percent of all players attending.

The NFL is a pass-happy league now, and teams like the Panthers with glaring needs in the secondary should be very happy with the selections.

Sure, sure. Every year the combine convinces some general manager to fall in love with a guy who really can’t live up to the hype. This is especially true for the quarterback position.

Still, watching the combine year after year reveals trends. Some position is bound to stand out as much stronger or much weaker than in other years.

Just look at the running back class from a year ago. Everyone knew that Leonard Fournette was the real deal, but he wasn’t the only one to turns heads.

Some of the other notables were Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook (before his injury), Joe Mixon and Wayne Gallman. Several others could show production this fall after working into the lineup as rookies.

Tight end was another area that looked deep a year ago with O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku going in the first round. Way down in the fifth round, San Francisco grabbed George Kittle (one of Mike Mayock’s favorite blocking TEs), and the rookie showed he could also catch the ball with 515 yards receiving.

In 2014, NFL fans were familiar with WR Sammy Watkins, but scouts were raving about the depth at that position. Those receivers would turn out to be as good as advertised with Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Davante Adams.

The depth was so good Jarvis Landry wasn’t taken until 12th at his position, and Martavis Bryant was the 19th receiver. In fact, when the Panthers picked late in the sixth round, rather than taking RB Tyler Gaffney (who never played a down), the team could have taken Quincy Enunwa, who had 857 yards receiving for the Jets in 2016 before being injured in 2017.

This year, the Carolina Panthers are in the market for a safety after waiving Kurt Coleman; 28 safeties put on a show over the weekend.

Picking way down at 24th, the Panthers don’t stand a chance of getting one of the top two safeties: Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James. However, others made their case very well. The younger brother of the 49ers Eric Reid could still be available when the Panthers pick in the first round.

The 6-foot-1 Justin Reid ran the 40 in only 4.40 seconds, third fastest among safeties. Perhaps more importantly to DBs is side-to-side agility. He posted the third-best 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds.

When WR Antonio Brown came out in 2010, the future Steeler didn’t impress with a 4.5 time in the 40, but he ran 4.18 in the shuttle to show off his agility.

Conversely that same year, Jacoby Ford wowed people with a 4.28 sprint, but then disappointed in the shuttle drill at 4.44 seconds. After four poor seasons with the Raiders, Ford would go to the CFL.

As for Justin Reid, the safety showed off a good broad jump and vertical leap and has big hands to fight for the ball.

If Carolina chooses another position in the first round, there are still intriguing safeties and nickel cornerbacks to be had further down the list.

Troy Apke was rated as only the 30th-best safety by Scouts Inc. going into Monday, but then the Penn State player posted the fastest time in the 40 (4.35), the fastest 20-yard shuttle (4.03) and fastest three-cone drill at 6.56. And he was only half an inch shy of tying for first place in the vertical leap. Now he could be someone to consider with one of Carolina’s two third-round selections.

Another great athlete projected to go in the fourth round is SS Godwin Igwebuike. He ran a nice 4.44 sprint, but then tied Apke in the three-cone (6.56) and was second in the shuttle (4.12). He was sixth in bench press reps (19). However, he reportedly isn’t a ball hawk like the Panthers might want down the field.

Dane Cruikshank could be a sleeper in the seventh round after a solid showing in several categories.

Cruikshank wasn’t as quick in the shuttle (4.24), but ran a 4.41 sprint, jumped 38.5 inches, ran the three-cone drill in less than 7 seconds (6.89) and showed his power with an impressive 25 reps on the bench press (first place for safeties).

Of course, the Panthers have other needs than safety. With Charles Johnson gone and Julius Peppers not yet committed to 2018, the team needs an edge rusher. With Andrew Norwell about to price himself out of the reach of the team and Ryan Kalil talking retirement, the Panthers need help on the offensive line.

Still, safety has been a weakness of the team for years as former GM Dave Gettleman shopped the bargain bin for cheap (usually has-been) solutions like Mike Adams, Jairus Byrd, Michael Griffin, Roman Harper, Thomas Decoud, Robert Lester and Mike Mitchell.

It has been a full decade since the Panthers used a third-round pick on Charles Godfrey, who gave the team five good seasons before an Achilles tear in 2013.

It’s long since time to use another high pick on an important piece for the defense.

Game announcers and ESPN talking heads often speak of how great the Panthers front seven has been in recent years. Imagine how much better it could seem with a great, young safety on the back end.

Jeff Linville News Editor Linville News Editor

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.