- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites took a look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins today in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Click here to read the entire predraft series. Today: Defensive backs and special teams.
The Gators might have another first-round pick in today’s group and two other players who might not get drafted. S Matt Elam has been projected to go late in the first round -- most often to New England with the 29th pick -- after a junior season in which he was named an All-American. S Josh Evans and K Caleb Sturgis might very well not get drafted in April. Sturgis is one of the nation’s top kickers, but some teams are reluctant to draft kickers even in the later rounds if they have other needs. Then again, there are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted a punter in the third round.
S Matt Elam (Position ranking: No. 2)
Strengths: The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Elam has the rare mix of being physical enough to play close to the line of scrimmage yet athletic and fast enough to be able to cover slot receivers and tight ends. The Gators liked to keep Elam close to the line for run support (76 tackles in 2012), but he also played back as a single high safety, a free safety, and a nickel back. Elam also showed a knack for big plays. He intercepted six passes, broke up 13, had five sacks, and forced three fumbles in his career -- including a strip of LSU WR Odell Beckham that was one of UF’s most important plays of the season.
Weaknesses: He’s not quite as tall as teams would like. He also can get caught out of position or take a bad angle, but he has been able to make up for that with his speed. That won’t be easy to do in the NFL, where he’ll be dealing with faster players. He has sent out some questionable tweets, including one which said he felt that a lot of the speeches that seniors gave the night before the final home game in 2011 were fake, so that leaves a question about leadership. He also needs to wrap up when he tackles instead of throwing his shoulder.
Comparison: Elam plays with the physicality of Ahmad Black, a fifth-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2011, but has the sideline-to-sideline ability of Reggie Nelson, whom Jacksonville took in the first round in 2007. Elam is bigger than Black but not as fast as Nelson, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at UF’s pro day. Black played in 16 games for the Bucs in 2012 and had 36 tackles, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. Nelson has 411 tackles, seven forced fumbles, and 16 interceptions in his six-year career.
S Josh Evans (Position ranking: No. 24)
Strengths: Evans really benefitted from two seasons under Will Muschamp’s tutelage and posted the best year of his career in 2012. He’s not afraid to come up in run support (he led the team with 83 tackles). Evans also played his smartest football this past season. He cut way down on mistakes in terms of being out of position or blowing a coverage, with which he struggled earlier in his career.
Weaknesses: While Evans did make a lot of tackles, he needs a refresher course in tackling 101. He ducks his head and throws a shoulder instead of wrapping up. He runs well but sometimes takes bad angles to the ball carrier. He doesn’t do well in man coverage and doesn’t make a play on the ball well in those circumstances.
Comparison: Evans is similar to Marquand Manuel, who was drafted in the sixth round by Cincinnati in 2002. Manuel also was a physical safety whose coverage skills were average, but he was able to put together an eight-year career in the NFL. His best season came in 2006 with Green Bay, when he started 16 game, made 62 tackles, and intercepted two passes.
K Caleb Sturgis (Position ranking: No. 2)
Strengths: Sturgis is very accurate (79.5 percent on field goals for his career), especially from long distance. He kicked a school-record eight field goals of 50 or more yards in his career, and he went 3-for-3 from 50 and beyond as a senior. Sturgis made 24-of-28 this past season, and that included 8 of 9 from 40 yards and longer. He’s obviously got a strong leg, but he also has shown some toughness by getting involved in some tackles on kickoff returns.
Weaknesses: He had three field goals blocked this year, and two were because of low kicks. That’s not a regular issue, though. Sturgis also missed most of the 2010 season after suffering a back injury that was related to him overdoing it in weight room workouts, so he has to be careful with his fitness regimen.
Comparison: Jeff Chandler is the most accurate kicker in school history (minimum 50 attempts) at 83.8 percent, but he didn’t have the big leg that Sturgis does. Chandler was reliable, though, and held the school record with 67 until Sturgis surpassed him this season and finished with 70. San Francisco took Chandler in the fourth round in 2002, and he kicked for three seasons and made 19 of 27 field goals.
After a huge day with six players in attendance at Monday’s combine workouts, Georgia will send three more to the field for Tuesday’s defensive back workouts. The Bulldogs conceivably could have three players drafted as safeties in April, as Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo both played the position throughout their college careers and project there as pros, while Sanders Commings could shift from cornerback -- where he played the vast majority of his snaps as a Bulldog -- to safety at the next level.
S Sanders Commings (Scouts Inc. position rank: No. 8)
Strengths: Physicality was the name of Commings’ game in college, as at 6-foot and 220-plus pounds, he possesses imposing size for a cornerback that he was able to use against imposing receivers. The truth of the matter, however, is that Commings’ overall versatility and skillset might be better suited to playing safety in the NFL. In fact, that’s where ESPN’s draft analysts project him in their position rankings.
Weaknesses: Commings might be a half-step slow to cover elite NFL receivers at cornerback, precipitating a possible shift to safety. That might create a delay as he adjusts to a new position at the next level. He also will have to answer questions about a domestic violence incident with a girlfriend in downtown Athens last year -- for which he sat out the first two games of the 2012 season.
Comparison: Paul Oliver. Another rough and tough cornerback at Georgia, Oliver also shifted to safety in the NFL. He enjoyed a relatively productive five-year career with San Diego Chargers between 2007-11.
S Bacarri Rambo (Position rank: No. 11)
Strengths: A three-year starter, Rambo was one of Georgia’s top defensive playmakers, as his eight interceptions and first-team All-America status in 2011 can attest. He possesses good hands and instincts and is adept at reading quarterbacks and generating turnovers. Ideally he will find a home playing center field in deep zone coverage like he did for much of his college career, but he is also capable of moving down closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support.
Weaknesses: Discipline is perhaps the main question facing Rambo, both on and off the field. He occasionally lets a play get away from him while trying to make a big hit or interception. And he undoubtedly will face questions about off-the-field substance issues that left him suspended for the 2011 opener and the first four games of the 2012 season.
Comparison: Sean Jones. Truthfully, both Rambo and Williams have elements of Jones’ game within their repertoire, but Rambo’s ball skills most closely resemble Jones’ among recent UGA safeties who made it to the league. They’re both all-around solid players who are capable of delivering a big hit as well as making plays in coverage.
S Shawn Williams (Position rank: No. 5)
Strengths: Williams might have the best overall pro potential among the three UGA defensive backs in Indianapolis. The fiery two-year starter led the team with 72 tackles in 2011 and was second with 98 in 2012. But it was his hard-hitting style and passion that Georgia fans likely will remember most -- particularly his midseason comments about the defense playing too soft that many Bulldogs view as the rallying point for Georgia to win the 2012 SEC East title.
Weaknesses: As nasty as he could be on the field, Williams also missed plays on occasion by not wrapping up on tackles while trying to make a big hit. He also saw his interception total slide from four in 2011 to zero in 2012, so teams will be curious as to whether he has the coverage skills to warrant an early-round pick.
Comparison: Reshad Jones. Like Williams, Jones was a big hitter in Georgia’s secondary who occasionally fell victim to putting his shoulder into a ballcarrier instead of wrapping up on a tackle. But both players were solid college performers with projectable pro potential -- as Jones has proven with the Miami Dolphins. He was arguably one of the NFL’s top safeties in 2012, his third season in the league.
-- David Ching, DawgNation
The obvious acronym for Louisiana State University is "LSU." But to many, the Baton Rouge school gets the title "DBU" for its mass production of NFL defensive backs, from cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne to safeties like LaRon Landry. This draft will do nothing to harm that reputation. Three LSU defensive backs -- including the booted-from-the-team Tyrann Mathieu -- were invited to the NFL combine this week, a year after three (Claiborne, Ron Brooks and Brandon Taylor) were taken in the draft.
S Eric Reid (Position rank: No. 4)
Strengths: Reid has good height at 6-foot-2 and checks in at just lighter than 210 pounds, which allows him to play with physicality. He's a smart player with a 3.5 GPA who can grasp a defense quickly and be trusted with a free safety's "quarterback" responsibilities in the secondary. Always a solid player for LSU, he rarely had dominant games but rarely had poor ones either. He was aways good for six or seven tackles, a pass or two broken up, a couple of big hits and solid leadership.
Weaknesses: While Reid is fast, he doesn't have elite speed. He will sometimes gamble and give up big plays as a result, a habit he'll have to break at a level where speed to recover won't be his strength. Similarly, he was sometimes caught overrunning running plays, leaving cut-back angles for backs.
Comparison: Reid is from Ascension Parish in suburban Baton Rouge, one of the Mississippi River Parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that also produced NFL safeties Landry (Hahnville) and Ed Reed (Destrehan High, before playing college ball at Miami). Reid will try not only to uphold LSU's DB reputation, but also to keep up the tradition of the River Parishes.
CB Tyrann Mathieu (Position rank: No. 18)
Strengths: Mathieu's "Honey Badger" nickname, derived from his ability to create turnovers, is more than a cartoonish moniker. It represents his strength as a player, a rare feel for the game that allows him to hawk the ball in a way one cannot coach. He seems to sense where plays can be made and is there in a heartbeat, whether it's through stripping quarterbacks of the ball on sacks, batting passes into the air at the line of scrimmage or returning punts for touchdowns. He's as opportunistic a player as LSU has ever had and, arguably, as college football has seen in recent years.
Weaknesses: He's just 5-foot-9, which is a little on the short side (though hardly tiny) for a cornerback these days. Scouts do not like his technique on pass coverage, and the book on him was, if you kept him in pass coverage, as opposed to blitzing, you could turn him from spectacular to average. There are also the obvious off-field drug issues that led to him being dismissed from LSU's team for the the 2012 season after being a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011. Does Mathieu offer enough upside to justify taking the risk?
Comparison: There probably isn't a player in this draft, maybe any draft, that's harder to make a comparison with. There will be temptation to compare Mathieu to Adam "Pac Man" Jones, the talented Bengals cornerback who shares Mathieu's build, his knack for big plays on both defense and special teams, and his tendency to find trouble off the field.
CB Tharold Simon (Position rank: No. 25)
Strengths: Simon is a tall (6-foot-3 in shoes) cover corner who physically can match up with bigger NFL receivers. He's long and lean, which would create an illusion of receivers being open for quarterbacks. Often Simon would look beaten, but his combination of make-up speed and his long limbs would allow him to recover and make a play on the ball. He's almost safety-sized, which allowed him to be a better-than-average tackler, particularly in the run game.
Weaknesses: The size that allows him to match up to big receivers works against him in some ways. Simon can struggle to stay with quicker receivers who run sharp routes, and he needs his recovery speed to close the gaps. At the NFL level, will his recovery speed be enough if he consistently allows receivers to gain a step on him off their breaks, like he did in college?
Comparison: LSU hasn't had a corner quite as tall and long as Simon, though that's been the NFL trend. Simon might better compare to Ike Taylor, the Steelers' 6-foot-2 cornerback who is from New Orleans and played at Louisiana-Lafayette.
P Brad Wing (Position rank: No. 2)
Strengths: The Australian has both a strong leg and a knack for pinning opponents inside their 20-yard-line. In his two seasons as LSU's punter, he averaged 46.6 yards per punt and 48 of his 118 punts were inside the 20 compared to just 15 touchbacks. His Aussie rules football background allows him to punt on the move when necessary and -- though he's a natural left-footer -- kick with his right in a pinch. He's a good athlete who once ran a fake punt 49 yards for a touchdown (only to have it negated by his own taunting penalty).
Weaknesses: Wing was suspended by his coach from his last game at LSU, the Tigers' Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to the Clemson Tigers, a sign that there could be maturity issues. He's also had some durability issues, missing three games in two seasons because of various injuries.
Comparison: Wing naturally will be compared to other Aussie punters such as Darren Bennett or his own father, David Wing, who punted for the Detroit Lions in 1990. Wing also will draw comparisons to Texans punter Donnie Jones, another ex-LSU punter who, like Wing, attended high school in Baton Rouge (Wing attended Baton Rouge's Parkview Baptist as an exchange student).
-- Gary Laney, GeauxTigerNation
It's hard to imagine that the Alabama secondary in 2011 yielded five NFL prospects. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and De'Quan Menzie were all drafted a year ago. Dee Milliner and Robert Lester stuck around and won one more ring before hanging it up in 2013.
CB Dee Milliner (Position rank: No. 1)
Strengths: Milliner brings an all-around game to the table. He's good playing loose in zone and tight in man-to-man. He's a ball-hawker who also can put his helmet on the numbers and tackle as well as any linebacker. He's built well to play cornerback in the pros and shows excellent ability to read and react to the play in front of him.
Weaknesses: For as strong and disciplined as Milliner is, he lacks the athleticism of many first-round caliber cornerbacks. He doesn't have blinding speed, nor does he have elite quickness. His instincts set him apart, not his sheer talent. Teams could be scared off by the surgery he needs after the combine.
Comparison: Milliner plays an aggressive brand of cornerback like San Francisco's Carlos Rogers. Neither are elite in coverage, but they make up for it with intangibles.
S Robert Lester (Position rank: No. 17)
Strengths: In shorts and a T-shirt, Lester looks the part. He's big (6-1, 212 pounds) and fast (4.64 40-yard dash). In the film room, he looks the part too. After five years under coach Nick Saban, Lester knows defenses inside and out.
Weaknesses: Unfortunately for Lester, his strengths don't always translate to the football field. He gets himself out of position at times and has trouble recognizing offenses. When he's paired with a top-flight safety (a la Barron), he excels. When he's not, he can get in trouble when left on an island.
-- Alex Scarborough, TideNation