On nearly every major draft board, Maryland safety, Nick Cross, is listed as a 3rd round prospect. The rumor is that NFL scouts also have him as a top 100 prospect. With such a firm consensus about his draft ranking, there is a strong possibility that Cross would be one of the BPA if he's still on the board when the Rams pick late in the 3rd round.
This draft is considered to be a good one for safeties. Since safety is not one of the premium positions in the NFL, it is a reasonable goal to try to find a very good starter in the 3rd to 4th round range and this appears to be an excellent draft to target the position group.
Many excellent safeties have emerged from the 3rd to 4th round area. The Rams got John Johnson in the compensatory portion of the 3rd round. Kevin Byard of the Titans, PFF's top ranked safety last season, is a former 3rd round pick. Byard had a 90.4 grade in 2021 and also was the best pass coverage safety in the league with a 90.9 grade. The Rams expressed interest in Byard the year he was drafted, but he was taken earlier than projected by the media. Lance Zierlein only had a round 6 to 7 grade on Byard. Mel Kiper had him as a 5th round prospect. Other boards had him in the 4th round range. While Byard ran well in testing, the scouting reports questioned his on the field play speed. All of the experts undersold Byard's potential. While I liked Byard as a prospect myself that year, I also failed to predict that he'd become arguably the best safety in the NFL.
Byard was not invited to the Combine. Last year, Mike Tomlin acknowledged the Steelers made a draft error when they passed on Byard. The Steelers drafted a safety from Maryland, Sean Davis, in the 2nd round. Davis was athletic with outstanding Combine numbers and was a physical tackler. He was from a bigger school, while Byard was a small school prospect from Middle Tennessee. Davis started about 3 seasons for the Steelers, but never developed into a good starter or the long term solution.
In that same draft, I really liked Karl Joseph (14th overall pick), who became a 1st round draft bust. Keanu Neal (17th overall pick) played well early in his career, but then suffered injuries. Dallas moved him to LB last season and he had a lousy 35.9 PFF grade. One of the safeties I liked from that class was Darian Thompson (3rd round). He's been a career backup, with only one mediocre season as a starter.
Byard as a 3rd round pick has far outperformed his peers from that draft and this isn't uncommon for the safety position. Who is currently the best safety taken in the first 4 rounds from Taylor Rapp's draft class?
I crunched the PFF season grades and tried to compile a list, taking into consideration trends and injuries to try to be fair. It isn't Rapp, I have him ranked 5th on the list. It isn't Johnathan Abram, the 27th overall pick. I didn't like Abram as a prospect and thought he was overrated. He ranked 75th out of 92 safeties last season, which actually was a big improvement compared to being the worst NFL safety in 2020. Abram is often used as a box defender, like an extra LB, instead of like a traditional safety.
It isn't Darnell Savage, the 21st overall pick that year, who at the time was my favorite safety in that draft. Savage was good in his first 2 NFL seasons and would have been on track to be the top player on my list, but slumped in his 3rd season. The Packers hired Joe Barry from the Rams to be their new DC. In a scheme shift, Savage was used more as a deep lying safety last season, not in a more natural playmaking position as a slot defender closer to the LOS (sound like any Rams safety you know?) Savage had multiple dropped INTs and missed a ton of tackles, posting a 59.7 PFF grade. After his down year, I have Savage slotted in as the 3rd best safety.
I gave the 2nd best safety, Juan Thornhill, the benefit of the doubt, with a slight edge over Savage. Thornhill was very good as a rookie for the Chiefs, but he tore his ACL that season. He struggled to regain form the following year, but came on as his 3rd season went on, though some people feel that he's lost range and isn't as fast as before he got hurt.
The 4th best safety, Khari Willis of the Colts, played in a Cover 2 scheme defense. The Colts hired a new DC, so they are expected to play a different system in 2022. If we went off of PFF grades, Thornhill, Savage, Taylor Rapp and Willis are all bunched together and are relatively close in overall performance. There is a gap between that group and the stragglers behind them. There is also a gap between the top safety and the "chase group". To illustrate the size of this gap, if we slotted in Jordan Fuller as if he had been in this draft, Fuller would be the 2nd best safety on my list, but Fuller would still be solidly behind the top S. So, if you think Fuller is clearly better than Rapp, he's still not good enough to challenge for the top spot. Still, it shows why in a redraft Fuller would have been taken much earlier.
The top safety on my list is Amani Hooker of the Titans, who was selected in the middle of the 4th round, about where he was projected to go by the media. Zierlein's draft report said Hooker was instinctive as a zone defender, but that he had man coverage limitations, lacked recovery speed and athleticism and wasn't suited to play as a single high safety. Similar to Byard, I liked Hooker as a prospect, but I would not have predicted that he would become an NFL star.
Hooker had a 66.5 PFF grade in 2020, which is about Taylor Rapp level performance, but when he became the full time starter in 2021, Hooker had a breakout year. He struck up a smooth partnership with Byard and is credited with freeing up Byard to jump routes, because Hooker can be trusted to back up the play and protect Byard. The Rams and Stafford experienced this as Byard got a pick 6 against the Rams by jumping on an outbreaking route. Hooker was graded as the 3rd best safety in the NFL last season by PFF with an 85.9 grade.
Can the Rams find the next John Johnson, Byard or Hooker in this year's draft? Could Nick Cross by that prospect?
Name: Nick Cross
Size: Listed at 6'1'' tall, 215 pounds
True Junior. Majored in finance. Very highly recruited in HS, 4 star recruit with 38 SH offers, including from most of the big name powerhouse programs. Top recruit in state, ranked as the 4th best safety recruit in the country. Initially committed to FSU, but scared off with Taggart on thin ice (he was later fired by FSU in the middle of the following season) and flipped to Maryland, who had just hired a coach who had been recruiting him for Alabama.
As a HS recruit, was already projected by a recruiting expert to be a future 2nd to 3rd round NFL pick and compared to Adrian Amos. Penn State tried hard to land him to replace, among other players, Nick Scott. Cross ran 4.43 sec in the 40 and had a 38.5'' vertical jump as a high school player. He was also a track star, had the 2nd best time in the country in the 60 meters in HS.
Ran track for the Maryland track team in college, including 60 meters and 200 meters. Personal best of 6.33 sec in the 55 meters indoor, 6.68 sec in the 60 meters and 22.09 sec in the 200 meters.
Dad is computer engineer from Jamaica. Mom is pharmacist from Trinidad and Tobago. Parents emphasized education over athletics. Cross wanted to be NFL player at very young age, but dad was concerned about concussion risks and refused to allow Cross to play football until high school. Mature, self confident, focused personality. Listens to Beethoven to relax. Picks up things quickly, good learner. Went from having no experience at football and track to excelling at both sports, also learned to play the saxophone. Dedicated to football film study.
Benched at one point during abbreviated 2020 season. Only 8 career starts prior to 2021 season. Made 13 starts in 2021 with 66 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 FF, 3 INTs and 4 PBUs. Has 5 career INTs.
PFF 96 overall prospect (3rd round)
PFN (Tony Pauline) 64th overall (late 2nd to 3rd rd). Pauline says that Cross has top 100 grades from NFL scouts.
Drafttek 112th overall (4th round)
DraftCountdown 107th overall consensus board (85th and 128th respectively on analyst boards) (3rd to 4th round)
PFN (Oliver Hodgkinson) says Cross has explosive speed, exciting click-and-close ability, impressive range as a single high safety. Erupts into the backfield with ferocity as a pass rusher and impressive physicality. Reads runs well and is a sure open field tackler. For negatives, says Cross is rarely used as a box safety and doesn't display versatility, has a high volume of ankle tackles, not always wrapping up.
I'm eager to see how fast he runs at the Combine and to see if track speed translates to measured Combine speed. He can run very fast on the field when he opens up full throttle. Explosive burst coming off of edge as blitzer to pressure and hurry the QB. Defense gets caught in wrong look and it looks like WR will have an easy TD down the sideline, but Cross running from the far hashmark races across the field and knocks the WR out of bounds just short of the pylon. Roadrunner as deep safety, has plenty of closing speed to get to intended receiver and get PBUs. Wide pursuit range. Sees pass to WR in flat developing and explodes forward, delivering big hit.
Looks back towards QB to find the ball in the air on deep pass, doesn't panic or crash into the WR for a penalty.
Fast closing burst on post route in middle of field.
Solid and reliable tackler when he hits the runner square, even in open field. Shows ability to wrap up and hit target area center mass with adequate tackle strength and enough grip strength to hold on and bring down runner. Excellent wrap up textbook tackle on RB on wide sweep.
Lays wood on RBs and WRs, with some devastating shots.
Steps up to physical challenges when covering passes to bigger TEs. Combative and aggressive mental attitude on field.
Displays solid hand eye coordination and confidence when catching the ball for picks.
Excellent blend of athletic ability and intangibles.
Ascending player who could be much better player in the pros compared to college. High ceiling, Pro Bowl type potential.
I wasn't able to find any info about major injuries to Cross.
Fast legs, but slow eyes. Elite athletic speed, but very average in anticipation, recognition and making mental adjustments on the field. Jordan Fuller is not an elite athlete, but he has outstanding awareness and football IQ. If Cross were the complete package, my comp for him would be Earl Thomas. Running fast isn't as much of an advantage if you are 1 or 2 steps behind by not anticipating things, step in the wrong direction or if you take poor angles on the field. Cross doesn't play like an experienced and polished player, he has raw aspects to how he plays the game.
Lacks instincts reading the play, causing him to be late arriving to the action. Late reading and reacting to a tunnel screen to the WR. Manipulated by PA fake, late to cover TE. Late reacting to post route, glued too long to middle of field. One play the WR gets behind the CB, with S as single high and the S doesn't appear to visually recognize that the WR is a deep threat, doesn't react to danger, eyes focused on different part of field.
CB blitz, the S has to replace in coverage on WR near sideline. QB dumps the pass short to the RB. The S inexplicably gets himself pinned between the WR and the sideline, on the wrong side to close down the RB, making him late to pursue and contain the RB to limit YAC.
Attacked too aggressively in his run fit multiple times, getting out of position when the RB goes into a different gap. This can be very risky when you are the last line of defense, because it can turn what otherwise would have been a short gain into a long TD run.
Communication problems when WRs go in motion. Defensive secondary not organized or late passing along audibles and defenders would step in the wrong direction or leave receivers not covered. I don't know how much was on Cross, but there were repeated mistakes on the back end. 3rd down play, the WR goes in motion, communication between CB and S not clean, creating momentary mistake right after snap as they both step in the same direction instead of the S immediately going to his mark, lucky that the offense doesn't take advantage. WR goes in motion and S signals adjustment, but off of play action fake the S should pick up the RB in coverage and instead the S steps initially in the wrong direction, causing the RB to be wide open in the flat.
Poor awareness on GL play, when TE releases to flat on basic cross, the S should jump all over the TE, but instead S is slow to react and TE is wide open. Jumped into the wrong gap on GL running play. Failed to close space on underneath routes when he's supposed to be in coverage on that receiver to replace a different defender. QB leaves the pocket, extending the play. The S doesn't appear to see that the WR is standing right behind him, so he leaves the WR to chase the QB, leaving the WR open.
Terrible angle against QB draw coming as blitzer off edge, misses tackle. Takes some poor angles in open field or in pursuit, typically too sharp or too far upfield when he should take a more conservative angle. In my opinion, the reason he has some ankle tackles on tape isn't because he's defaulting to diving at their legs, it is because he has problems with taking the best angle to the runner, so he ends up with a weaker approach position. Maybe fixable with coaching and experience. On run play up middle, his angle is too far to the inside and he's lucky to drag the RB down around the legs, nearly gave up a big run. Very similar play, again, steps too far to the inside, forced to make ankle tackle on the RB. I could see him missing tackles or having his tackle broken in the NFL if he doesn't clean up his fundamentals. When he tries for a big hit or gets into scramble mode as a defender, he'll sometimes duck his head and go for a shoulder hit, making no attempt to wrap up.
In 2 deep coverage, the TE runs up the seam then breaks towards the corner. Stacked behind the TE, the RB comes out of the backfield and runs an angle route, breaking to the inside. The S takes the cheese and turns his hips towards the TE to run out and try to help on the corner route as the QB is throwing the ball to the RB, making the S late to help close down the space and protect the middle of the field against YAC after the RB beats his defender.
On 3rd down pass as single high safety, the RB runs wheel route behind trips bunch set and the WRs rub off the LB, resulting in the RB being wide open. The S doesn't slide over quickly enough or anticipate based on formation what was developing, then whiffs on the tackle when the RB cuts inside, resulting in a 77 yard TD.
Repeatedly had issues with wheel route and rub type concepts. Should alert to potential rub based on formation, but instead of sliding feet to avoid contact he collides with his CB.
All 3 interceptions last season were cheap and easy ones. Bad throws by the QB and a hail mary type throw, he's not as much of a ball hawk as you'd think based off of stats.
On the small side, doesn't have ideal bulk or length. Okay for a pure FS, but for a team looking for a combo S or a player with more position flexibility (including for teams that want the DBs to be able to exchange assignments to disguise coverages) who can play slot CB and SS roles, might not fit desired size requirements.
Used quite a bit 15 to 20 yards off of the LOS, not in man coverage closer to the LOS. Ability to cover TEs and pass catching RBs in the NFL unclear. A bit handsy grabbing TEs on plays where he was in man coverage.
Pro Comparison and Grade
Tarvarius Moore (late 3rd round, 95th overall 2018, San Francisco, Southern Mississippi), 3rd round grade.
When you compare Cross to similar prospects in prior drafts, he's the type of player who gets drafted in the 3rd round, so in my opinion the draft boards appear to have him projected correctly as far as predicting where he'll actually get picked.
Tarvarius Moore wasn't invited to the Combine, but he ran 4.32 sec in the 40 with a 38.5'' vertical. Lance Zierlein gave him a round 2 to 3 grade. Only a part time player his first 2 seasons, Moore made 8 starts for the Niners in his 3rd NFL season and played about half of their defensive snaps, but had a lackluster 60.2 PFF grade. He tore his Achilles prior to the 2021 season and didn't play last year.
I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Cross, because he's more about upside potential than being a polished prospect. He's similar to Cam Jurgens in that both players have elite athletic traits, but it feels like "something is missing" when you watch them play in a game.
Still, I understand why NFL scouts might fall in love with this prospect, because maybe if you give him a good DB coach in the NFL and some time to learn, he could emerge as the best safety in the league. The tools are all there. He can run very fast, he has good tackling ability, he has ball skills to play the pass in the air, he's intelligent, all the basic pieces are there. Cross could someday be a very good pro, but maybe he won't turn out any better than Sean Davis, his fellow Maryland alum.
If they were in the same draft, I'd take John Johnson and Justin Reid (3rd round 2018) over Cross. On the other hand, after looking at some 4th round safeties from recent drafts, I feel that Cross is better than them. Without the benefit of hindsight, if they were in the same class I'd take Cross ahead of Amani Hooker. Cross has more upside and playmaking ability, while Hooker has athletic limitations.
I'm not saying that Ross should be the pick for the Rams with their first selection, but in my opinion his name belongs on the list of candidates, because it feels like that's exactly the area of the draft where he belongs and could see his name called.