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Draft on tape: Weapon safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Darnell Savage

NCAA Football: Towson at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Maryland’s Darnell Savage are the new type of college football player. They represent an updated safety for the Seattle Seahawks to draft come April. These draft prospects are weapon safeties.

The “free” and “strong” monikers applied to the safety position need updating. The terms are inadequate, meaning different things to different teams. Plus: the lines between the two on a lot of franchises have become increasingly blurred.

A much better way of categorizing the safety position is by sorting them into categories. This is something that The Draft Network’s Jon Ledyard did. While Ledyard had four differentiators, I use three: high, box and weapon. The high safety is an Earl Thomas; a safety who plays the deep zones. The box is fast becoming closer and closer to the size of an inside linebacker. Given nickel is the base defense of NFL teams, teams will start to convert box safeties into ILBs more regularly. The Los Angeles Chargers conversion of Kyzir White will become the norm.

Then, finally, there is the weapon safety. Sure, you could brand this chap a slot. But, given the bigger size and different skill sets of a safety compared to a slot corner, they add so much more than that. Getting dynamism on the field is the way college football has gone to deal with spread attacks. The capable safeties put into the slot are often frenetic apex defenders who: rush the quarterback, turn runs inside, match up against targets and play various zones. That’s a weapon.

In the peak days of Kam Chancellor and Thomas, while BamBam was primarily a box, he still played some deep coverage with Thomas rotated down over the slot. The duo possessed low-key interchangeability and the playbook reflected this.

The importance of a free safety to Carroll’s scheme is one that feels somewhat overstated. The league has got far better at dissecting single-high coverage. Moreover, the NFL is finally starting to fully embrace the potential of spread concepts.

Even when in single-high against spread, Carroll rarely asks his deep player to roam from sideline-to-sideline. Instead, they are asked to cover shorter areas against spread in what, conceptually, is still a three-deep, four-under defense. It’s middle of the field closed with the middle of the field safety running with a deep over/crosser in a matching style.

Thomas’ departure in free agency adds to the sense that FS isn’t as important to Carroll as we initially thought and that elite range isn’t a requirement from the position—particularly in the NFL. If it was, despite the awkward circumstances, Seattle would have made a bigger push to try and re-sign Thomas.

Then there’s the fact that the Seahawks adapted their playcalling without Thomas to fit the available talent.

(Middle of field closed being cover 1/3, middle of field open being cover 2/4.)

Adding to the calling of middle of field open defense, Seattle’s defense last year took some evolutionary steps. Against teams who aligned with 11 personnel or lighter, we saw a lot more match quarters (cover-4) from Carroll. Akeem King, listed as a cornerback, was used more as a weapon safety as he matched up on tight ends.

In a post-Thomas defense, the Seahawks are going to have: A pure box/ILB-type safety that is currently missing on the roster despite Bradley McDougald fitting amicably; a weapon safety who will play some box, blitz, match receivers and play some deep; and a high safety who starts with a 10-yard cushion and must be able to read 2-3 man route combinations, run across the field with crossers or rob the number one receiver.

2018 was wrought with a lack of playmaking on the back end. Heck, Thomas finished with the most interceptions despite suffering a very early end to his season! Turnovers are a high variance statistic, but Seattle has been plagued by a scarcity of plays made by defensive backs for too long.

That’s where Gardner-Johnson and Savage come in. These weapon safeties fit the direction the Seahawks are going in. The weapons make big time plays and straight up BALL.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

Having grinded Gardner-Johnson’s tape, here were my positives and negatives:

John Schneider was seen looking through binoculars as CGJ prepared to run his forty. Seattle’s general manager may well have been observing a different player entirely. Regardless, Gardner-Johnson killed the combine. He measured in big. He tested superbly.

According to PFF’s Draft Guide, Gardner-Johnson missed 13 tackles last year, which sounds right. His issue is his tackling footwork is a mess. He’s reliant on diving at the legs of players which is very high variance and dangerous, but Carroll—an innovator with heads up tackling—will be confident in his ability to correct this through solid coaching.

The rest of Gardner-Johnson’s game is awesome. He’s an effortless mover, including executing the shuffle that the Seahawks use, but he’s also a disciplined football player who plays with sound leverage and shows patience on the backside of bootlegs.

CGJ allowed a passer rating of 52.5 in 2019 per PFF. Look at this interception. It comes from some funky cover-7 defense from Florida. Gardner-Johnson starts as the underneath defender yet matches deep. Then he performs an Ed Reed-esque speed turn, making it look simple and timing his ball location perfectly to brilliantly intercept. He also returned this for serious yardage.

Darnell Savage

Let’s get this out of the way with: along with Trevon Wesco, Darnell Savage is my draft crush. No player popped off the film more. He demands you notice him. Every snap is played like it’s his last on a football field. He has a hunger for the ball that is admirable and should be in every football player.

His measurements would go against what Seattle typically looks for as he weighed in at 198 pounds with 31” arms. The front office has taken safeties who are between 205 to 220 pounds, and they look for slot corners with arm length closer to 32”. PFF had Savage with 8 missed tackles in 2019. His tackling technique, as mentioned in my report, features a lot of positives. The issue is his size means he has to missile into guys to bring them down—resulting in whiffs if they hit the right stick.

Furthermore, Savage only put up 11 on the bench press which suggests he either can’t add to his frame or hasn’t really tried. He tested fantastically overall though, though his 7.03 3-cone demonstrated the straight-line athleticism present on film.

That forty-yard dash time featured a 10-yard split of 1.50 seconds which is stupid quick. You can see that instant twitch on this interception, which features the awesome matching coverage that resulted in a stingy 35.3 2019 passer rating allowed according to PFF.

Michael Kist beautifully described Savage’s ceiling as being “cathedral high.” His range in deep zone coverage is large reason for such lofty praise.

Savage’s traits are ones you must get on the field.

Anxiously wait and see

It’s easy and understandable to get lost in the weeds of the Seahawks plumping for a direct Earl Thomas replacement. (For instance, taking someone with single-high range like Nasir Adderley.) Yet a weapon safety like Gardner-Johnson or Savage would bring so much more to the defense while also having range potential.

Seattle looked like a slow team in 2018 and both would add blistering speed to the defensive front when tasked with apex duty. But their versatility means they could stay on the field for every snap and carry out their favorite activity: making plays. Right now, it feels like Gardner-Johnson will go in the late first round and Savage will be taken on day two. Let’s anxiously wait and see.