NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The safety position is currently undergoing a re-evaluation in the NFL. In-the-box defenders geared towards defending the run are diminishing in value, while athletic, coverage-oriented safeties are in high demand.
The supply of safeties who are big enough to match up against modern tight ends as well as athletic enough to cover quick slot receivers lags severely behind the demand, forcing teams to invest heavily in the position; Tampa Bay used the seventh-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft in order to ensure that they landed Alabama safety Mark Barron this past April.
Will LSU safety Eric Reid have a similar rise in the 2013 NFL Draft?
Aside from Patrick Chung, who missed eight games last year due to injury, the New England Patriots lacked reliable players at the position; New England jettisoned Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Brandon McGowan, and Jarrad Page before the season and were unable to locate suitable replacement players.
Consequently, the Patriots ranked 31st in the league in passing yards allowed; blown assignments and missed tackles were commonplace in New England’s secondary. James Ihedigbo, a castoff from the New York Jets, saw the field for 67.7% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps; Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Nathan Jones, Matthew Slater, and Ross Ventrone are among the other players who saw action but failed to inspire confidence as potential long-term solutions.
New England attempted to address the position this offseason by signing Steve Gregory in free agency and drafting Illinois safety Tavon Wilson (second round) and Ohio State safety Nate Ebner (sixth round) but could still be in the market for a top safety option next year; one player who could draw interest from the club is Louisiana State free safety Eric Reid, although New England would likely have to trade up in the first round in order to select him.
Eric Reid was regarded as one of the premier safety prospects in his recruiting class. Reid appeared in all 13 of Louisiana State’s games as a freshman in 2010 and started at safety for the team’s final three games, contributing on special teams as well and finishing the season with 32 tackles and two interceptions.
As a sophomore last season, Reid assumed the starting free safety role opposite 2012 third-round pick Brandon Taylor, playing in 12 of Louisiana State’s 13 games (missed the Arkansas game with injury). Reid’s 65 tackles ranked third on the team and he added two interceptions, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and two pass breakups en route to being named a member of the All-SEC second team by the Associated Press.
Reid is expected to strongly consider foregoing his senior season in order to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, where he is projected to compete with Southern California safety T.J. McDonald for the top safety spot. McDonald is the more athletic of the two prospects but Reid’s physical tools, his aggressive play, his well-rounded skillset, and his SEC pedigree will likely earn him a spot high in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft if he performs up to expectations as a junior this season.
Reid makes a strong first impression with his outstanding size (6’2” and 210 pounds) and length; by comparison, Barron measured in at 6’1” and 213 pounds at the scouting combine in February.
Strong safety Brandon Taylor traditionally played in the box in Louisiana State’s defense last season while Reid handled center-field responsibilities, but Reid was additionally asked to perform in the box or in coverage on tight ends and inside wide receivers as well. Reid’s size makes him a more logical fit for coverage responsibilities on a tight end – Reid was able to rip the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams in midair during the Tigers’ first meeting with Crimson Tide last season in order to prevent what would have been a completion taking Alabama to the one-yard line.
Reid’s long arms and physicality should allow him to press wide receivers effectively at the line of scrimmage in the pros, although at LSU he was often lined up deep in the secondary playing single-high coverage. Like Barron last year, Reid is not expected to post a blazing time in the 40-yard dash – a time between 4.55 and 4.6 seconds seems reasonable – but his instincts allow him to make plays on the ball.
Reid is also a quality run defender. Because of his size, he is a forceful hitter who explodes into ballcarriers and can separate runners from the ball (see the fumble he forced against Alabama RB Trent Richardson in the first quarter of their regular-season matchup.) Reid’s tackling technique is sound; he possesses fundamental tackling skills although he does go for the knockout blow at times.
Reid is aggressive in pursuit of the ball; his instincts allow him to locate the ballcarrier quickly and despite his lack of elite top-end speed, he closes on the ball in a hurry. The Tigers have utilized Reid as an in-the-box defender with some regularity, which is a role he will likely be asked to perform consistently in the NFL due to his size; some teams may evaluate Reid as a strong safety prospect rather than a free safety if they are concerned about his lack of timed speed.
Room for improvement remains in regards to Reid’s run defense; he must remember to practice proper tackling technique more consistently and occasionally gets overaggressive and takes a narrow angle to the ball, causing him to miss a tackle.
Last season cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu received most of the attention in Louisiana State’s defensive backfield, but Reid projects as a likely first-round pick should he declare for the 2013 NFL Draft and could very well be selected ahead of Mathieu. Reid may not dazzle NFL scouts with his straight-line speed but he is very much on the radar because of his size, his overall athleticism, his instincts, and his aggressiveness.
Reid’s diverse skill-set allows him to function as a single-high safety in deep zone coverage, as an in-the-box run defender, and in man coverage on tight ends or inside wide receivers; safety is now a premium position in the NFL as teams are looking for well-rounded players who can defend the influx of young, athletic tight ends, and Reid’s skillset will appeal to every team in the league.
New England could very well be interested in adding a top safety such as Eric Reid even after signing Steve Gregory to a three-year deal in free agency and drafting Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but the Patriots may be forced to trade ahead of a handful of other teams in order to secure Reid’s services.