There have been some great NFL safeties who began their careers at cornerback and transitioned to safety mid-career. Charles Woodson, Devin McCourty, Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson all made the switch. Older Rams fans remember Nolan Cromwell, the college quarterback who racked up three All-Pro berth’s, four Pro Bowls and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy as an L.A. safety. These are big names, to be sure, but over the years, many lesser-knowns have shown the skillset and versatility to move around the secondary.
Versatility is the key to playing the position, whether it be free, strong, over hang, or in big nickel/dime groupings. Safeties are not limited to disrupting opposing passing attacks, they must have the football IQ to recognize formations and tendencies and make adjustments before the snap. Even something as seemingly simple as charging forward in run support must be done with precision to fill the proper gaps and angles.
Traits that make a good safety? Processing, cover skills, and physicality
I’m sure the internet has well thought out explanations, but this is my article, so I will create the narrative and try to be brief, staying with three basic traits.
As the end note of football IQ/film study, quick processing to read-and-react is a skill that all defensive studs share. Once the action gets past the line of scrimmage, the speed is magnified to get the right angles and/or play on the ball. A split second delay in recognition and reaction can make the difference, whether reading the quarterback, diagnosing the receivers route, or having to charge downhill to make a stop on a running back who has broken contain.
I have ranted in the past that I wish the Rams had safeties with better coverage skills and that’s why I am a proponent of transitioning later round cornerbacks into deeper coverage roles. Being solid in man coverage and possessing hand/eye coordination, even in a predominant zone scheme (like the Rams use) is a huge plus. Wide receivers are now the gamebreakers/playmakers and drive offenses. Even with NFL trending towards more umbrella zones, the best defenses mix up and disguise their coverages. Having the skillset to morph between all the variable man/zone possibilities is ultimate.
Physicality doesn’t necessarily mean being an aggressive thumper. Although It is a given that big crunching hits excite and energize both viewers and players, the rules are being set up to make them extinct. Don’t get me wrong, I think the depth chart should have an enforcer for sub packages, but when I say physical, it’s is more about their speed, length, and agility. By speed, I don’t mean forty times, I prefer fluid safeties who can cover ground and close on the ball while it’s in air. Long arms are important, how many pass plays are separated by inches, not to mention the ability to aid in wrap up tackles. Finally, having the agility skills to stay balanced and leap well combines with all the above traits to create ball skills.
In keeping with the thought that L.A. can grab an impact edge, offensive lineman, or cornerback in rounds two and three, the mid and later can still be mined for roster value. It takes some luck to grab solid contributors in these rounds, but there really no reason not to find some special teams support and possible sub package candidates.
I found six cornerbacks who have some, or all of the aforementioned safety traits and finally decided to capsule review three. The other three, Anthony Johnson-Virginia, Montrae Braswell-Missouri State and Jartavius Martin-Illinois should all fall into the undrafted ranks.
5th round- Riley Moss, Iowa
To me, a true center fielder. He’s not a thumper, more of a grab-and-hang-on tackler. He looks willing, but goes for the sure wrap up rather than the big blow, like a traditional free safety. He hand fights with blockers, herds runners inside and towards help, and understands proper positioning when helping fill run lanes.
Moss made the Feldman’s Freaks List, so he should test well for speed, agility, and explosion. He’s got good size at 6’ 1” 195 lbs and has that lanky look that makes him seem bigger than he is. You can see his fluidity on film and he looks to be a able to smoothly cover sideline to sideline. On deep passes he tracks the ball very well and is very good on contested balls.
Strictly a boundary cornerback in college, he did spend the majority of his time in a variety of zone coverages. When you see him on film, his spacing cushion off the line of scrimmage is eerily similar to that of the Rams. He reacts well to passes underneath and has the speed to cover short crossing/drag routes.
I’m not high on Moss up close to the line of scrimmage, there are just too many good cornerbacks in this draft who have better aggression and equal cover skills. As a developmental free safety, he checks all the boxes except for arm length and it’s not like he has alligator stubs, they look fine on film. While his Combine testing could very well put him in position to be over drafted, I have a fourth round grade on Moss and if the Rams can get in him the fifth, I think that’s enough value to pull the trigger.
6th round- Chamarri Conner, Virginia Tech
Conner is an experienced, versatile defensive back who projects best as a strong safety or part of a big nickel/dime package. He logged 51 college games, beginning his career as a boundary corner, before splitting his time between strong safety, slot corner, and over hang safety. Over that span, he had 314 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 19 passes broken up, and 7.5 sacks.
Wins with aggressive effort and play strength. Solidly built at 6’ 205 lbs., Conner has both the grit to set an edge as a over hang safety and the speed to mirror receivers on crossing/drag patterns from the slot. His game is is much better coming downhill than flipping his hips open to turn and run with wide receivers. He appears to have sufficient long speed to stay with receivers, but will need a lot of technique refinement to spend much time outside.
His college tape shows Conner has good burst as well as long speed. He has the strength to cover tight ends and the move skills to stay with quick slot receivers. He blitzed quite often and was aggressive in sealing off runs at the edge, He stays wary of where the ball goes, takes good angles, and uses proper timing to deliver solid hits. A very good tackler who strikes low and through runners, he wraps up well is a hammer rather than nail hitter.
With the Rams, he can immediately help on special teams, the Draft Network reports that Conner had 800 special team snaps at Va Tech. A stellar risk/reward prospect who adds both athleticism and toughness, he fits the Rams history of drafting hot motor and high football IQ players. He has played in a primarily zone pass defense system and is experienced with his eyes in the backfield. While his turn and run skills may be lacking in outside man coverage, his skills are solid underneath and when back in Cover2 or 3, he can react well both laterally and downhill.
7th round- Justin Ford, Montana
An emotional, chippy, and aggressive FCS prospect, Ford has taken the long road to the 2023 NFL Draft. He’s an older prospect, 25 years old next season. He began at Golden Valley Community College, signed with Louisville in 2019 and ended up redshirting, transferred to Montana and battled the COVID19 shutdown. When finally seeing the field, Ford responded with two stellar seasons for the Grizzlies, chalking up 74 tackles, 28 passes defended, 11 interceptions, and 5.5 tackles for loss. He was a unanimous FCS All-American selection.
At last week’s Hula Bowl, Ford measured in at a solid 6’ 190 lbs. with 31” arms and a 74” wingspan. He reportedly had meetings with Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, and Buffalo Bills. At the FCS level, opposing teams often stayed away from his side of the field or set receivers wide to the boundary, essentially marooning him away from the action.
Ford lined up mainly in press coverage, whether he was 1on1 in man, covering the flats or patrolling the flank in zone. His twitch and speed makes him able to turn and go down the sideline with fast wideouts, but his backpedal needs work. It looks as if he prefers the bail technique when going backwards. Ford’s best role is facing the action, where his awareness, read-and-react skills, and burst can be leveraged. He reads the backfield well and he is fearless in run support and taking on blockers.
I really like this player as a small school prospect. Even though his play is dominant, it’s against inferior competition and he will fly under the radar. He seems a stellar candidate for special teams work, at the very least, and his ball skills are pro grade. In researching him, there were reports that he’s a film junkie and has great understanding of route trees. It appears that he lives for football and his competitiveness will lead him do anything to play in the NFL. He has the swagger that the Rams need a dose of.
#P6SProspectWatch— إليزار✭ (@ohmyword88) December 28, 2022
Justin Ford CB, Montana a ball hawk, has that knack to be where the ball is. He has quick feet, football IQ, instincts/awareness, ball skills & physicality. Shows nice burst to get downhill to break on passes and make tkls.@Pick6Sports1 #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/yLVUImhexN
Why not just draft a “true” safety?
The pool of cornerbacks is very deep in 2023. Even though it is very early in the process, I have well over 30 prospects that have a draftable grade and many of those are Round 4 or better. On the flip side, under those same parameters, only about 20 safeties and maybe 10-12 are Round 4+. If the Rams want to use their 2nd or 3rd round picks on the safety position, they can certainly grab a top talent.
Why not take prospects with plus traits? All three profiled players (actually all six that I considered) have upsides as special teams players alone and that role is in keeping with the draft positions covered. If the Rams are going to stay with Raheem Morris and his take on the Tampa2 zone coverages, they need defenders with range and ball skills.
2023 starters Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott are not only both unrestricted free agents, but quite similar in play styles, i.e. better versus run than pass. Considering the concept of the umbrella zone is to keep everything in front, the Rams were too often gashed by receivers running free behind the defense and gave up 61 explosive pass plays. Filling the roster with plus coverage guys just makes sense.
All three prospects, Riley Moss, Chamarri Conner Conner, and Justin Ford bring coverage skills, excellent risk/reward value, and positional versatility. Ford played in the Hula Bowl and both Moss and Conner have a berth in the Senior Bowl, so Rams fans won’t be the only one’s noticing them.