Heading towards the 2013 NFL Draft, the 49ers could very well have a need for two safeties. They could be looking for both a free safety and a future strong safety to replace Donte Whitner. The latter isn't the greatest in coverage, doesn't have great hands and is better suited while playing the run and going forward. Add to this that Whitner's contract is up after the 2013 season, and it's easy to see why planning for a future without him could be a priority this offseason.
Of course, there are players on the roster like C.J. Spillman, Michael Thomas and Trenton Robinson, all of whom could possibly step up and position themselves to take over for Whitner. Still, this is an excellent draft for safeties. The 49ers could decide to get a young stud who could even step in this year should injury or ineffectiveness force Whitner out of the lineup.
We all know that there is an immediate opening at the free safety position as well with the departure of Dashon Goldson to Tampa Bay. The Bucs find themselves assembling a "Dream Team" in the secondary with the recent acquisition of Darrelle Revis via trade with the Jets. Again, you have to wonder if any of the players already on the roster are poised to take Goldson's place, but unless the front office knows with 100% certainty that someone can play the position at a high level, look for them to draft a player in whom they feel confident.
When looking at this year's crop of safeties, again, it's a good year to need one. There are versatile players willing to not only make big hits in the run game, but who have the athleticism and instincts to play in the deep half of the field as well. Let's take a closer look at some of these prospects with the help of SB Nation's Cincy Jungle, more specifically, Joe Goodberry.
Joe is a good friend of mine on the Twittersphere and does excellent, thorough draft analysis. I highly trust his opinion as a result, so when he released his big-board (take a look here), I paid close attention. Today I looked over the safeties on his board and what he had to say about them, particularly how he feels about their potential as either free or strong safeties.
It's interesting to me that Joe and I see eye-to-eye on most of the players at the safety position. I'm not sure if that's because I align myself with people who agree with me, or if Joe is just a really smart guy! At any rate, let's take a look at a few players and what Joe has to say about them.
Vaccaro is a good athlete for the position. He lined up everywhere for Texas (Deep FS, SS, Nickel CB, in Box). He's at his best when moving forward. He anticipates the run very well with aggression but this can backfire because he gets caught taking bad angles or falling for play-action. Vaccaro's aggressiveness is great when it works, but if he misses just a little, you'll see him whiff on tackles.
Because of this, I would much rather have Vaccaro closer to the line of scrimmage playing the run; I just wouldn't want to give him big gaps. He doesn't break down well in space and in Deep Zone, I DON'T trust him. Offenses attacked him with play-fakes and vertical routes where he had to make a choice. Because of Vaccaro's versatility, defensive coordinators will drool over his potential and where they can align him. He has the size, athleticism and coverage skills to match up with these new NFL tight ends. He's like a bizarro Polamalu. Line him up everywhere, keep him close to the line, BUT the difference is his man coverage abilities. I have to think he has very high upside, even as a deep FS.
This is exactly how I feel about Vaccaro. He can do most things really well, but playing as a deep zone rover isn't a strength of his right now, and it possibly never will be. Of course, coaches might feel that they can teach him the finer points of Cover-1 and if that's the case, I trust their judgment.
Jonathan Cyprien not only stood out as the best athlete on the FIU defense, he's also the most instinctive; an intimidating and high-energy player on either side of the field. He's a strong safety that's very comfortable playing in the box and the best safety against the run.
He has a great feel for running lanes and quickly measures up ball-carriers to make crushing hits. When he doesn't leave his feet, Cyprien is one of the better form-tacklers in this draft class. His aggressive angles can hurt him at times and he can get blocked-out by linemen, but after watching a bunch of safeties in this class, he's no worse than the rest. He can also play bump-and-run in coverage against tight ends and running backs.
From a coverage perspective, Cyprien's anticipation shined. Where I was most impressed with Cyprien was his range as a center fielder. He can get sideline-to-sideline in a hurry and appears to read the quarterback's eyes very well. He can get to those deep routes along the boundary for a big hit or make a play on the ball. Cyprien's ball skills and range sold me on him as a prospect. I felt like I was watching something special the first time I watched him.
I agree with most of this as well. Cyprien shows great anticipation, range and ball skills. Now, Joe sees him as more of a SS prospect with coverage ability, whereas I see him as a guy who can do both, and I'd trust him as a FS in Cover 1 as much as needed.
Among the other players at the safety position, Joe and I agree that Duke Williams could be a good free safety and that Josh Evans is a sleeper who may be ready to play earlier than some think. Check out Joe's board and also give him a follow on Twitter.