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Ranking the NFC East, 2020: Safeties

Hogs Haven looks at all four teams in the division in an effort to identify the best and the weakest of the NFC East

The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.

Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2019. This year, we’re going to do it again.

Click here to see all the Ranking the NFC East articles

NFC East Positional overview

The safety position in the NFC East is unusual in that it has a blend of stability and change. The four safeties that are featured in the film breakdown below were all featured in the 2019 version of this article, which indicates a lot of stability.

Yet, when we think of safeties, we generally think of tandems — a pair of safeties who work together — and none of the four NFCE duos is the same as it was last year.

In Dallas, while Xavier Woods returns, he has a new partner in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is on his second tour of duty in the NFC East, following an abbreviated 8-game stint with the Redskins in 2018. The Cowboys mark the fourth team for HHCD in three seasons.

The Eagles retain the services of Rodney McLeod, but said goodbye to longtime safety Malcom Jenkins, who spent six seasons with the Eagles. Jenkins returned to the team that drafted him in 2009, the New Orleans Saints. Jalen Mills, a 7th-round pick by the Eagles in the 2016 draft, is expected to move from cornerback to safety to replace Jenkins. The group is rounded out by veteran free agent Will Parks, signed from the Broncos, and rookie K’Von Wallace, a 4th round selection out of Clemson.

Jabrill Peppers came to the Giants a year ago in the then-blockbuster trade that sent Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. Peppers remains to anchor the Giants safety position, but the Giants appear to be looking to rookie second-round draft pick Xavier McKinney to play alongside Peppers after deciding not to exercise the option on Antoine Bethea’s contract. Bethea played 1,107 snaps for the Giants last season. Rookie McKinney will be competing with 2018 UDFA Sean Chandler and 2019 4th round draft pick, Julian Love.

The Redskins have no doubt about their starting strong safety, Landon Collins, who was signed to a 6-year veteran free agent contract last year, after having spent 4 years with the Giants, who drafted him in the second round in 2015. Gone is the troubled Montae Nicholson, who was unceremoniously cut by Ron Rivera. The heir apparent at starting free safety seems to be Sean Davis, signed as a veteran free agent from the Steelers. Pittsburgh traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick last season when Davis was injured early in the year, but the former 2016 second-round pick has plenty of talent and is looking to reestablish himself with the Redskins in 2020. He will likelly be backed up by the ‘Skins 2018 4th round pick, Troy Apke.

What do scouts look for in NFL safety prospects?

Last year, the Giants fan site, Big Blue View, published a very good series on the topic, “What do scouts look for?”

I’d like to quote heavily from that series here. What follows is the BBV discussion of what scouts look for in running back prospects.

This position has evolved at a very rapid rate over the last several years. The distinction between free safety and strong safety is blurrier than ever and many teams prefer their safeties to be truly interchangeable with less defined roles. “In the box” safeties used to fall down draft boards. Now, they are often turned into dime linebackers or even every down players on the second level.

Also, playing this position is more difficult now than ever. Not only is far more asked of today’s safeties from a coverage perspective, but offensive coordinators and quarterbacks manipulate safeties more now than ever. Furthermore, safeties in today’s NFL can’t get their revenge with an earth shattering hit over the middle of the field anymore. In fact, the tackling and hitting portion of playing safety now really puts these defenders at a huge disadvantage … and often costs them quite a bit in fines. Receivers aren’t scared or threatened of getting blasted after the catch or “Separated from the ball.” That being said, there remains a physicality to this position for sure and many safeties have to make their bones in this league on special teams. But today, playing safety is more about athletic traits and their mind rather than brutality.

3. Range

There are a lot of traits that you want in a safety prospect. Of course, it is great if they have size, girth and length. Small safeties will generally struggle high-pointing the ball or matching up with savvy (and much bigger tight ends). Great tackling is still very important, as is playing the run and taking on blockers (that are also usually much bigger). Ball skills is another trait that separates adequate safeties from impact players at this position. But covering a lot of ground is something that everyone craves in this league. Obviously having outstanding pure speed helps a ton in pursuit and in covering ground overall, but the reason “Range” was used as a header here rather than “Speed” is that there is a lot of truth to players, especially at this position, that “Play Fast”. Speed is great, but if you are a second slow to process or take steps in the wrong direction before getting it right, much of that speed advantage is nullified. Also, some safeties might run very fast in a straight line or have a great 40-yard dash time, but if they can’t abruptly change directions or fluidly flip their hips to turn and run, much of that pure speed can go for not. Range is being very efficient with your steps and movements, having the ability to get to where you need to be and having an explosive closing burst to finish the play.

2. Awareness

This is a big one. Safeties have to be aware of the coverage scheme they are running and all the responsibilities of their teammates around them. They must know the coverage concepts inside and out. They must be aware of the offensive scheme they are playing against, route combinations and how the opposing quarterback is looking to manipulate that coverage with such tactics as pump fakes, eye manipulation and play action passing. This starts before the snap of the ball in recognizing personnel groupings, alignments and presnap motion and shifts. Especially when a safety aligns in the deep middle of the field, he has a unique big picture view of the other 23 players on the field and it is imperative that he not only is aware of the entire situation, but that he also can communicate what he is processing to his teammates. Safeties on the second and third level and constantly being challenged by route concepts to play the receiver in front of them or the one behind and sometimes there isn’t a truly correct answer. Great safeties are well prepared, quick thinkers with an excellent awareness of their surroundings. This also goes for blitzing from the safety position and reading blocking schemes in the run game as well as all offensive tendencies.

1. Man Coverage

Awareness is great, but a safety that can play man coverage at a reasonably high level can get away without supreme awareness. Many safeties are asked to walk down to the line of scrimmage and play man coverage against slot receivers. Such slot receivers vary from the traditional Wes Welker types to big powerful slot receivers in the Marquis Colston mold as well as do-it-all slot types like Michael Thomas. They also get glorified slot receivers in the form of tight ends. Someone like Evan Engram or Jared Cook comes to mind. Safeties that can compete well in man coverage also could draw the responsibility of manning up against receiving running backs like James White or Alvin Kamara. As you can see, the variety of styles of receivers that a safety might find himself alone on varies a great deal. And if that cover man from this position is up to the task, it is a huge advantage to the defensive play calling with a major ripple effect to the rest of the defense in terms of being able to stack up against the multitude of receiving options on a dangerous opposing offense. If you can have just one attribute from your safety, you want man coverage skills for today’s NFL.

PFF Comparison on selected NFC East safeties

The film room - Andrew’s analysis

In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Andrew York, who has volunteered to co-author this series with me.

Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He will put that analytical brain to work this off-season helping to analyze some of the top players in the NFC East.

He will break down film from four of the top NFC East safeties:

  • Xavier Woods
  • Rodney McLeod
  • Landon Collins
  • Jabrill Peppers

Click here to see Andrew’s 2019 film breakdown on the same four safeties

Xavier Woods, Dallas Cowboys

Xavier Woods was a productive college safety at Louisiana Tech. A bit undersized at 5’11” and 197 lbs, he had an okay Combine, running a bit slow for his small size with a 4.54 second 40 yard dash, though a top performer in tests of short area quickness like the 3 cone and 20 yard shuttle. The Cowboys took Woods in the 6th round of the 2017 draft.

Woods has played primarily free safety for the Cowboys since being drafted. Watching him play, I can both see why the Cowboys liked him enough play him as a starter, but also why he fell to the 6th round and may not be starting for much longer. He has a maddening blend of positive traits that make you think he has potential and negative traits that limit his upside and make it impossible to find a usage that hides his flaws.

In terms of the positives, Woods is a smart, aggressive player who reads the field well and gets in position to make plays, never shying away from contact if he’s able to make a play. He also has good ball skills, both in tracking the ball and getting himself in position to catch it if it’s anywhere near him.

In terms of the negatives, Woods lacks the speed and range to play free safety effectively, but also lacks the size and physicality to play strong safety — and both limitations show up on tape.

He simply doesn’t have the range to cover sideline to sideline, and must often guess where the play is going in order to have a chance at assisting in coverage, leaving him out of position when he guesses wrong.

Although it was less obvious because he usually plays deep, his lack of size shows on a few plays where I saw him getting easily blocked by WRs downfield and I expect this would be a much bigger problem if he played close to the line.

Another major problem at whichever safety position he plays is his poor tackling — a problem that has persisted since college. He takes poor angles when making tackles and sometimes simply gets run over by more physical ball carriers. He shows a lot of willingness for contact and is, in many ways, a better hitter than tackler, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people think he’s better suited to play SS, but his lack of size and tackling ability would really be exposed in such a role.

Overall, I think Woods is fine for the round he was taken, but is probably athletically limited to being a low level starter. The Cowboys recently signed HaHa Clinton-Dix in FA, and, although they probably plan to play Clinton-Dix at FS and move Woods to SS, I wouldn’t expect such a move to work out well. They may end up with two starting safeties who don’t complement each other.

Xavier Woods

Cowboys @ Giants, Week 9 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Tuesday, May 5, 2020

[5:44] Let’s start with a good play by Woods.

Woods is lining up as a deep safety. Darius Slayton comes streaking down the sideline, Awuzie close in pursuit. Woods sees Daniel Jones locking in on Slayton and setting himself to throw. Woods does a good job breaking in the direction of the WR, tracking the ball in the air, and positioning himself to be in a better position to catch the ball than the WR.

In fairness, this was as much a bad play by Jones as it was a good play by Woods. Jones should never have thrown to a WR with a FS in position to bracket him and the pass was very off target to the point that Slayton probably couldn’t have caught it even if he were uncovered. Not only that, with Jones throwing into the coverage of the FS, it’s not like this was a comeback route where the WR could have broken back away from the defender.

Still, Jones threw the ball, and it gave Woods an opportunity to show his ability to read a play and his ball skills getting in position and making the interception.

Xavier Woods

Cowboys vs Vikings, Week 10 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[0:44] This play shows a major problem I saw with Woods which was poor tackling.

This is a screen pass to Dalvin Cook. Watch for Woods (number 25) to come streaking in from downfield, indeed he’s the first player downfield of the play to attempt a tackle.

On the one hand, it’s good that he had the awareness to break down and get in position to make a play so quickly. On the other hand, he took a very poor angle and stayed far too upright, ending up with a poor arm tackle attempt as Cook flew by him.

I saw numerous plays where Woods either took a poor angle or just wasn’t strong enough to bring someone down.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[5:19] This play starts out somewhat similar to the earlier play where Woods got an INT on Daniel Jones. However, Cousins spends less time staring down his WR and does a better job placing the ball behind the WR and out of reach of the safety.

Also, although Woods does a good job recognizing the play and anticipating the throw, he doesn’t recognize the back-shoulder throw, and just doesn’t have the speed to get to the sideline in time.

This play is representative of his limitations as a deep safety; he has good vision and ball skills, but just doesn’t have the speed to cover a lot of field by himself.

Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles

Rodney McLeod was a productive strong safety with good coverage skills for the University of Virginia before entering the NFL. Although undrafted, McLeod was signed by the St. Louis Rams in 2012 and played well enough to be named backup safety.

Playing primarily FS due to his size (5’10” and 195 lbs), McLeod earned the starting job in his 2nd year. When he eventually hit free agency in 2016, McLeod signed with the Eagles, where has remained ever since. McLeod has played primarily FS for the Eagles, with Malcolm Jenkins playing SS for the past few years. The two had formed one of the most stable safety tandems in the NFL until Jenkins left in FA this year to return to the Saints.

On tape, McLeod is a pretty solid and dependable FS, though only an average athlete at the NFL level. He is extremely quick to read and react to the play, which implies a high level of film study and veteran savvy.

He’s a fairly reliable tackler and does a good job coming up from downfield to limit yards gained. He is good in coverage, particularly in anticipating where the ball is going to go and getting there first. His coaches clearly trust him, because he is often left alone with deep zone responsibilities where a single mistake would allow the opposing team to score.

However, he has limitations that prevent him from being a top-tier player.

As mentioned before, he is only an average athlete at the NFL level. So long as he can use his excellent play anticipation to get where the ball is going, his limitations aren’t visible. But if he guesses wrong, he doesn’t have the speed to make up for it.

Fortunately for him, he is right most of the time, but those moments when he does guess wrong can make him look inconsistent.

Related to his reliance on anticipating plays is his aggression. McLeod always wants to make a play on the ball if he can, leaving him out of position and the back of the defense exposed if he misreads the play in his hurry to make a tackle or PBU.

Overall, McLeod is a solid and dependable, though not especially athletic FS. Teams can occasionally exploit his aggression, but he clearly makes few enough mistakes that his coaches trust him. In a lot of ways, I think McLeod represents the best-case scenario of what Xavier Woods could become if he greatly improved his tackling and got quicker at reading and reacting to the play.

Rodney McLeod

Eagles vs Patriots, Week 11 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[3:04] This play is a good introduction to McLeod because it’s generally how you will notice him in games.

McLeod lines up pretty far back as the deep safety. Patriots TE Benjamin Watson does a great job exploiting the soft spot in a zone for an easy reception and is behind the defense in just a few seconds, leaving only McLeod standing between Watson and a long TD. McLeod rushes up quickly from downfield to tackle Watson and limit his gain.

McLeod is generally a sure tackler and the kind of player you can trust to be your last line of defense.

[3:59] McLeod is again guarding the deep zone, this time in the endzone.

He seems to immediately recognize Watson as the player who will be going vertical and serving as the primary receiving threat. I get the feeling this speed to read and anticipate the play is due to film study and veteran savvy.

McLeod moves quickly to cover Watson once he enters the endzone, but leaves enough distance to bait Brady into the throw. Eyes on the QB, McLeod sees the throw and quickly bursts forward to almost get an interception, instead simply breaking up the TD pass.

This play shows McLeod’s ability to read and anticipate the play, general coverage smarts, and ability to make sudden plays on the ball to get an INT or PBU. It also shows a bit of risk-taking though, trying to bait out the throw instead of simply staying on top of Watson.

[5:52] McLeod is again covering the deep zone in the endzone. He immediately identifies what he thinks will be a screen pass to Edelman and breaks down hard to try to blow it up.

He’s right that the ball is going to Edelman, but doesn’t realize it’s a trick play designed to bait him out of his zone. WR Phillip Dorsett then passes into the empty zone uncovered to catch the TD pass.

It looks to me like the Patriots planned this play specifically to exploit McLeod’s aggressiveness and desire to make plays. There were other games where he gave up a big pass due to his aggressiveness as well.

Rodney McLeod

Eagles vs Seahawks, Week 12 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[1:08] McLeod again lines up in the deep zone.

Seahawks WR Malik Turner fakes a crossing route, but then breaks deep and catches McLeod flat-footed. Although McLeod immediately recognizes what’s happening and is a couple yards further downfield than the WR when the WR starts going vertical, McLeod simply doesn’t have the acceleration and deep speed to keep up and prevent the long TD.

I think McLeod’s relative lack of athleticism is what has kept him a mid-tier veteran player. He’s smart and good at recognizing/anticipating plays, but not fast enough to cover a lot of field or make up for mistakes if he misreads the play.

Landon Collins, Washington Redskins

Landon Collins was the first pick in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft. With a reputation for being a thickly-built thumper in college at Alabama, some questioned his speed, but were surprised at the Combine when he ran the 40 yard dash in only 4.53 seconds (that time doesn’t seem quite as fast now as it did in 2015).

His reputation in college was as a downhill, physical box safety whose hard hitting and sure tackling could energize a defense close to the line, but who was not quite as consistent when put in deep coverage. He showed a similar skillset his rookie year in the NFL (2015), staying in the box the majority of the time.

He committed to losing weight and getting faster in 2016, played deep more often, and had the best year of his career, earning 1st Team All Pro honors. He’s been unable to replicate that success since then, however, with worse statistical seasons in each subsequent year.

Watching film of Landon’s play in 2019, the first thing that struck me is that he was a good player in a bad secondary. The problem with being a good player in a bad secondary is that QBs can just avoid you (see: Patrick Peterson), which they did most of the time. When he played deep, they threw short, and when he played close to the line, they threw deep or to the opposite side of the field. That made it somewhat difficult to evaluate him, because he was kept out of a lot of plays (especially in the passing game). Still, after watching multiple games, I think I got a decent feel for his skillset.

Landon Collins is a very smart, very prepared player. He is exceptionally good at reading the play, immediately diagnosing pass vs run, and anticipating where the ball is going and how to get to it. That speaks not just to his intelligence and field vision, but also his preparation from watching film.

A lot of plays last year ended with a busted coverage and players looking around confused about whose fault it was, but Landon was never one of those players. This speed to recognize the play is further reinforced by an explosive first step when running to the ball. He can move from standstill to a full run surprisingly fast for a player his size, sometimes so fast that blockers don’t have time to react when he is blitzing or rushing downhill to make a tackle.

I think this is why he’s such a difference-maker in the box; not many players have his reaction time to rush to the ball so quickly after the snap.

Collins is also surprisingly fluid and good at mirroring in coverage, able to backpedal and stick with most pass catchers with ease. When he’s close to the line of scrimmage, there’s just more he can do to affect the play, whether it’s blitzing the QB, rushing to the sideline to tackle a RB (and he is a very good, physical tackler), or running with a TE to shut him down in the passing game. Collins does all of these things at an elite level.

Collins is still capable in deep coverage, but less impactful. His ability to read the play and react quickly matters less when he’s further from the ball and things necessarily have more time to develop.

Although he is very explosive, I think he lacks deep speed, which limits how much deep field he can cover by himself. He still isn’t slow and he’s got more deep speed than a player like DJ Swearinger, but not as much as Earl Thomas or Derwin James.

In addition, Collins’ size means that he has a bit of trouble redirecting himself once he’s built up some speed. There’s just no way a 230 lb player like Collins can stop his momentum and redirect himself as quickly as a 210 lb player like Earl Thomas. This isn’t an issue close to the line of scrimmage when he’s starting near the ball (although it does lead him to slip and fall on occasion when he’s covering a TE and gets juked), but can lead to problems when he’s playing further out and has to build up speed to get to the ball; any mistake will be more difficult to recover from.

And this last part is a bit of opinion, but I think ball-hawking free safeties have more deception to their game than Landon Collins. A player like Earl Thomas or even DJ Swearinger last year will often bait the QB by disguising his coverage and holding back until the ball is in the air before breaking on the ball. Landon is more of a quick reaction player who sees where the ball is going and gets there as soon as possible. As a result, he’s much better at shutting players down and getting tackles close to the line than getting interceptions.

All this results in a safety who is a physical enforcer and capable run stopper in the box, an excellent blitzer, capable of shutting down down larger pass catchers in single coverage, and good at limiting short passes to small gains by moving downhill to tackle quickly rather than allowing yards after catch. However, although he is capable in deep coverage, he isn’t quite as special, and he doesn’t have the ball hawking ability of an elite FS, nor does he have the deep speed to run in single coverage with some of the faster WRs in the league. I don’t know for sure why he has statistically regressed every year since 2016, but I would strongly suspect it has to do more with the players around him than his own ability.

If the new coaching staff want to run a multiple defense with disguised looks, I would consider alternating Collins between a SS and hybrid LB role. I think that would fit his skillset better than alternating between SS and FS. I would only play Collins at FS for a significant percent of snaps if he were able to lose 10 - 15 lbs and improve his change of direction and deep speed.

Landon Collins

Redskins vs Bears, Week 3 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[4:28] This play is pretty much Collins’ last season in a nutshell: he does a good job maintaining his duties and shutting a TE down, but it doesn’t matter due to a coverage bust elsewhere.

He lines at the top of the screen in front of Josh Norman. It looks like the Bears are trying to run a bit of a pick play built into play action, with the WR standing in place to block Collins and allow the TE to run free to the sideline. Collins immediately recognizes the run fake, immediately recognizes who the primary read for the pass is, and pushes through the WR to get in the QB’s throwing lane, covering the TE who seems to be the primary read for Trubisky.

Then I don’t know what the coverage mistake was. Either Josh Norman was enacting some sort of delayed blitz and Montae Nicholson didn’t move to replace him in time, or Norman YOLO’d a pass rush when he saw a clear path to Trubisky and abandoned his WR in the end zone. Either way, Collins did a great job here of reading the play and getting into position to cover the intended primary read, though it didn’t matter due to mistakes elsewhere in the secondary.

This play highlights Collins’ play recognition, physicality in pushing through the picking WR, and coverage ability in positioning himself to disrupt the pass and have the speed to close on the TE.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[6:51] Collins lines up bottom of screen, again in front of Josh Norman. This time it’s an actual run play and Collins almost immediately diagnoses it.

He’s so quick exploding from his stance that the WR assigned to block him whiffs on the block, and Collins does a great job finding a clear path to the RB to get a big tackle for loss and blow up the play.

This play again shows his speed in diagnosing a play as well as his explosive ability to get downfield and his aggressiveness in run support. Collins absolutely has the most value close to the line of scrimmage where he can make disruptive plays like this.

Landon Collins

Redskins @ Dolphins, Week 6 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[0:29] Collins lines up bottom of screen behind Ryan Anderson. This time Collins will be used to blitz, and he explodes so quickly off the snap (doing a great job identifying his rush lane) that he meets very little resistance.

The Dolphins RB picks up the blitz, but Collins does a great job sidestepping him to get to the QB.

This play again shows Collins’ explosiveness and ability to penetrate the OL when used near the line of scrimmage. He is an excellent blitzer.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[1:55] On this play, Collins falls back into deeper coverage. An initially blocking TE leaks into the secondary uncovered and Collins rushes up to defend him. Although Collins can’t get there in time to stop the reception, he’s able to limit the yards gained on the play with a sound tackle despite starting the play quite far downfield of the receiver.

This play shows his ability to explode to the ball from a distance, tackle well, and limit big plays in front of him even when playing a deeper coverage role.

Jabrill Peppers, New York Giants

Jabrill Peppers is a versatile and athletic playmaker who entered the 2017 NFL draft with many analysts unsure as to what position he would play at the next level. At 5’11” and 213 lbs, Peppers has the size and physical profile of a safety, but also played RB and LB in college, as well as serving as a star punt and kick returner.

Peppers tested extremely well at the Combine, running the 40 yard dash in 4.46 seconds and recording a 35.5 inch vertical jump and 128 inch broad jump.

Drafted by the Cleveland Browns at the end of the 1st round, Peppers has maintained that versatility in the NFL, lining up at LB, SS, and FS, as well as returning punts and kicks for the Browns. Traded to the Giants in 2019 as part of a package to get Odell Beckham, his new team tried to focus him more on the safety role and limited his snaps as a returner. However, after numerous injuries at the LB position during the 2019 season, Peppers was again forced to take snaps at LB.

Watching tape of Peppers from last year, he seems best suited to play SS, though he can still play FS and LB at an NFL level. Although he hits like a LB and generally plays much bigger than his size, I think playing significant snaps at LB might shorten his career, as he is undersized for such a role (though he can play it competently). He hits hard, is a sure tackler, takes good angles, is a plus in run defense, and blitzes effectively, though he can have trouble getting off blocks.

The biggest doubts evaluators had about Peppers coming out of college revolved around his instincts in coverage, as he was used almost exclusively near the line of scrimmage at Michigan. Based on his play last year, I think he has largely put those doubts to rest.

He is still learning and refining his coverage skillset, but he is already competent in that regard and will likely get better with continued practice at safety. He has very much a “find receiver, run with receiver” play style that doesn’t lead to a lot of interceptions, but does take pass catchers out of the play.

Peppers has the speed and mirroring ability to run with almost any WR man-to-man, as well as the strength and physicality to match up with TEs. He’s still slow to read the play and anticipate where the ball is going to go, but once the ball is in the air, he has the field awareness and speed to get to it quickly. He is good at tracking the ball and (perhaps due to his experience at RB and returner) has good hands, so he can catch anything thrown his way.

Peppers is a very high effort player with the speed and desire to run wherever the play is developing and assist. However, this leads to his biggest weakness: over-aggression and a susceptibility to fakes. This is especially obvious on play action. He will often bite hard on play action fakes, running to intercept the RB and abandoning his zone in coverage, allowing a TE or slot WR to run free in his zone and get an easy first down.

Overall, I think Peppers is a very good SS, capable of both stuffing the run and matching up in coverage with any pass catcher and taking them out of the play. Although he has good field awareness, his ability to diagnose the play and anticipate where the ball will go is not yet developed enough for him to be more than a competent FS, though he has the speed and agility to play that position well with development. I think he has enough intelligence that he will become a very capable true safety once he has more experience at the position.

Jabrill Peppers

Giants vs Redskins, Week 4 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[3:34] Peppers lines up top of screen opposite Jeremy Sprinkle on a play action pass near the goal line.

Peppers initially moves forward, fooled by the play action. Haskins does a poor job of faking the handoff just as Sprinkle doesn’t even bother to fake a block, causing Peppers to quickly recognize the fake and change direction to run with Sprinkle into the end zone. Peppers allows little separation and (without turning back to see the ball) anticipates the pass based on Sprinkle’s movements, leaping up into the air to break up the reception without ever turning around.

Note how high the 5’11” Peppers is able to jump to defend the 6’5” Sprinkle.

This play shows how sticky Peppers can be in coverage, showing good change of direction, pursuit speed, leaping ability, and instincts to anticipate the pass and break it up with his back turned.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[6:31] Peppers again lines up top of screen opposite Jeremy Sprinkle. He anticipates that Sprinkle will break his route inside and gets there first, shoving Sprinkle to disrupt his route.

Peppers again sticks with Sprinkle like glue, this time keeping his eyes on the QB to recognize when the ball comes out and jump in front of Sprinkle for the pick six. Peppers’ college experience as a returner is evident here, as he decisively bursts upfield and follows his blocks to get in the end zone (too often I see DBs dance around when they get an INT rather than running straight upfield).

This play again shows Peppers’ stickiness in coverage, physicality, and his ability to read the QB and make a play on the ball. It should be noted that this play is not typical of Peppers (it was his only interception last year), but I think it shows what he’s capable of with a bit more development.

Giants vs Cowboys, Week 9 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[0:40] Peppers lines up bottom of screen opposite Jason Witten on a play action pass. Dak does a much better job of selling the handoff than Haskins in the earlier play and Witten does a better job of selling a block than Sprinkle. As a result, Peppers bites on the play action and gets dragged out of his zone, pursuing the RB to the opposite side of the field. He quickly realizes his mistake, but only after Witten is left wide open for an easy pitch and catch and a first down.

This is an example of Peppers’ over-aggression biting on play action. His eagerness to make a play or assist elsewhere on the field sometimes causes him to get out of position.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

[3:39] Peppers lines up top of screen behind the rushing OLB. With no pass catchers to guard in his zone, he runs to help bracket Michael Gallup, getting in his passing lane and keeping him covered before passing him off to the deeper DB.

When he turns back to read the play, he sees the ball going to an uncovered Randall Cobb on a shallow crossing route. Peppers quickly redirects and launches himself at Cobb, hitting him hard and with excellent form, knocking the ball loose with his helmet for a big turnover.

This play shows Peppers doing a disciplined job guarding his zone while also showing good awareness to quickly recognize the play developing elsewhere and running downhill to disrupt it. It also shows his hitting ability, Peppers hits like a linebacker.

A look at the top of the depth chart for each team

Of course, no position group consists of just one star player. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.

Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the ones on the final 53 seem likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four positional groups.


  • Xavier Woods
  • Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
  • Donavan Wilson
  • Darian Thompson
  • Daryl Worley


  • Rodney McLeod
  • Jalen Mills
  • Will Parks
  • K’Von Wallace


  • Jabrill Peppers
  • Xavier McKinney
  • Sean Chandler
  • Julian Love


  • Landon Collins
  • Sean Davis
  • Troy Apke
  • Deshazor Everett
  • Jeremy Reaves
  • Kamren Curl
  • Maurice Smith


Who is the best safety in the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Xavier Woods, Cowboys
    (22 votes)
  • 2%
    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Cowboys
    (13 votes)
  • 5%
    Rodney McLeod, Eagles
    (27 votes)
  • 10%
    Jabrill Peppers, Giants
    (51 votes)
  • 74%
    Landon Collins, Redskins
    (360 votes)
  • 2%
    Sean Davis, Redskins
    (10 votes)
483 votes total Vote Now


Which NFC East team has the BEST safety group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    (63 votes)
  • 9%
    (42 votes)
  • 60%
    (268 votes)
  • 15%
    (70 votes)
443 votes total Vote Now


Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST safety group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    (132 votes)
  • 46%
    (202 votes)
  • 6%
    (29 votes)
  • 16%
    (70 votes)
433 votes total Vote Now


Who will be the starting free safety beside Landon Collins in Week 1?

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    Sean Davis
    (372 votes)
  • 7%
    Troy Apke
    (31 votes)
  • 4%
    Kendall Fuller
    (20 votes)
  • 0%
    Kamren Curl
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone else
    (10 votes)
436 votes total Vote Now