It's NFL Combine week, boys and girls. When it comes to player scouting and evaluation, I lean on the experts to provide a rough list of players to watch - both in the early rounds and as sleepers - as a framework in which to analyse. With that in mind, I'm going to get a little further into Mike Mayock's positional rankings because it should give us a little outline on which players we can be keeping an eye on during the Combine and then in the early rounds of the Draft - likely one through four.
Later on - I'm also going to start listing off a few sleepers as well, as identified by Wes Bunting, Rob Rang, Tony Pauline, Russ Lande, Derek Stephens, Rob Staton, whoever. As we get deeper into the pre-Draft timeframe, I'll start identifying which players I personally like for the Seahawks and why, but for now I'm treating this as a whittle-down phase.
Further borrowing from the experts, because I'm not so delusional to believe I have all the answers, I want to bring up former NFL safety Matt Bowen's five criteria for evaluating the position as we go into the draft and watch film. Here are some things that I'm keeping in mind when sifting through the safety prospects. His criteria, my notes.
1) Playmaking ability - As it pertains to the Seahawks, this is probably the biggest key and could have been stolen from Pete Carroll's priority list. "Playmaking ability" is pretty abstract but something that can be quantifiable - players with a high number of pass breakups, deflections, interceptions, tackles, sacks, etc. Is the player constantly around the football and in the right place? The 'playmaking' ability Mark LeGree demonstrated at Appalachian State was probably a huge part of the reason the Seahawks chose him in the fifth round last season, and though it didn't yet translate to the NFL level, I'm certain that's what the Hawks were focused on. He had something like 22 interceptions in his college career and that's something that, I'm sure, caught their eye.
2) Range: This is an obvious skill necessary for a safety, but even more so when it comes to the Seahawks' defense. Pete Carroll asks his safeties to do a lot - both the strongside and free safety positions - and range often times means speed. It also means change-of-direction, fluidity, and anticipation. In the cover-1 the Seahawks run with Earl Thomas, he is asked to cover large swaths of real estate and make up space when he errs to the wrong side of the field.
3) Coverage skills: Duh. An ability to cover wide receivers from a number of different positions. Either 15-yards back as a deep safety or up in the slot on a shifty pass-catcher or running back.
4) Football IQ: I'd probably move this to #2 on the Seahawks' list for their safeties, purely because of the fact they require their safeties to be such 'playmakers'. The Football IQ goes hand-in-hand with range and playmaking ability, but anticipation and recognition can take a fast player - which, really, all players in the NFL are - and make him into an elite player. Combining anticipation and quick diagnosis with speed/range/playmaking ability, and you have a player like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, or Earl Thomas. Football IQ also means a player rarely makes the same mistake twice, and can adapt on the fly very quickly. Earl improved a lot in year two, over his rookie year, and it's apparent he is high in his Football IQ.
5) Toughness: This just goes without saying. In the Seahawks' case, I'd say this is lower on the totem because likely they're looking for a guy to play a backup role at this point.
Before you continue - go back and check out the piece that Ben Harbaugh put together here at Field Gulls on potential free safety targets for the Seahawks. In it, Ben identifies several players that fit specifically with this team -
Leonard Johnson (5-10 198) a senior from Iowa State
Janzen Jackson (5-11 189) a junior from McNeese State
Coryell Judie (5-11 190) RS Senior from Texas A&M
Omar Bolden (5-10 195) a redshirt senior from Arizona State
Justin Bethel (5-11 196) a senior from Presbyterian
Now, here are Mayock's top-five as we head into the Combine. Because it seems very unlikely the Hawks pick a safety in the first couple rounds, I'm going to ignore Mark Barron. There's a greater chance that Harrison Smith or George Iloka could fall into the 3rd round or even later, so I'll start there.
1. Mark Barron, Alabama
2. Harrison Smith, Notre Dame
3. George Iloka, Boise State
4. Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State
5. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse
Harrison Smith, Notre Dame - 6'2, 212.
Projected 40 time of 4.45-4.55. NFLDraftScout has him ranked third in their safety group, and I've seen his stock in the late first to the third round.
George Iloka, Boise State: 6'4, 222.
Ranked #1 at free safety according to NFLDraftScout and should be a Seahawks' target if only for his size/speed ratio. Is expected to run in the low 4.4's at the Combine and has played both the free safety position and cornerback (twice - his final two games at BSU). His size and speed is enticing and reminiscent of Kam Chancellor, so I could see the Hawks taking a look if he slips into round three.
He's got intriguing instincts, apparently, and he is also interesting because he could play that tweener LB/S role the Seahawks seem to be looking for (Malcolm Smith et al). Further, he's very experienced with 40 starts for the Broncos. Just seems like PCJS guy at first blush.
Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State. 6'1, 203.
Very fast - clocked in the high 4.3s, according to NFLDraftScout.com. As Jene Bramel, of FootballGuys.com and the RookieScoutingPorfolio blog writes:
Spread formations force teams to find five, six or even seven defenders that can cover effectively. A physical slot corner or a safety that can come down over a slot receiver or tight end and has the instincts and range to handle a two deep responsibility has become a de facto 12th starter for an NFL defense. Martin probably will never rise to the level of an Earl Thomas or Eric Weddle, but he was arguably the most consistent safety prospect in coverage drills this week. Players with Martin's talent in run support or coverage alone often last well into the third day of the draft. The combination of skills could push Martin into consideration late in the second or early in the third round.
If that doesn't sound like someone the Seahawks would have interest in, I don't know what does.
Phillip Thomas, Syracuse 6'0, 186
Speedy safety for Syracuse and one of the leaders of their defense. Had six interceptions in 2011 so the 'playmaker' status may be there. I really don't know what his stock is at this point.