By Redskins Blogger Mark Bullock
We all know that the Redskins simply have to improve their secondary in this draft. Cornerback, slot corner, free safety and strong safety could all be upgraded with various degrees of importance. Thankfully for the Redskins, this is one of the deeper secondary draft classes in a while. Guys in the fourth or even fifth round could make contributions in their rookie seasons.
One of my favorite players in this entire draft class is South Carolina safety DJ Swearinger. At 5’10”, 208 pounds, Swearinger isn’t going to blow anyone away with measurables, but he packs one hell of a punch and makes big plays that make up for his size. One of the things I like most about him is his versatility. During his time at South Carolina, he played just about every position you can play in the secondary; free safety, strong safety, cornerback and nickel back. He didn’t complain and did what was best for the team, never looking out of place at any position. But aside from his versatility, lets look at some other aspects of his game.
Obviously this is the biggest part of any defensive backs game. Swearingers’ versatility enabled him to get significant playing time all over the secondary which helped him improve both his zone and man coverage skills. In man coverage, he does a good job opening his hips and running with a receiver. Against Tennessee he went man to man against Justin Hunter, one of the better receivers in this draft, on a deep route down the sideline. Swearinger did a fantastic job staying on the inside hip of Hunter and gradually directing him to the sideline to close the throwing window. The ball ended up falling incomplete after an overthrown pass, but Swearingers coverage would have made it hard for quarterback Tyler Bray to fit the ball in a tight window.
Swearinger has experience playing underneath and deep zone coverage, which can be very different looks. When playing underneath, he does a good job recognizing route combinations and working the seam, down to the curl and then to the flat. He has good awareness for what’s going on around him that allows him to keep an eye on the quarterback and break on the ball as soon as its released. In deep zone looks, he gets to his landmark and reads the quarterback well. He laid out some massive hits on receivers up the sidelines from a two-deep look.
One of the biggest questions when it comes to Swearinger is his range. He ran a 4.67 40 yard dash at the combine, which immediately rang alarm bells for a lot of people. But range is more than just pure speed. Range is having the ability to know where you are meant to be, being able to drop back to your landmark and then react and break on the football as the quarterback throws it. There are doubts (myself included) that Swearinger can cover sideline to sideline as a single-high deep safety, but he has the instincts and ability to do all of those things. He did them during his time at South Carolina, but we wont really know if he can translate that to the NFL level until week one.
This is probably Swearingers’ biggest strength. He loves to come downhill and land big hits on running backs. He hits as hard as any safety in this draft and causes plenty of runners to think twice before cutting back in his direction. He reads plays well and isn’t fooled by misdirection. He has a nose for the football and when he comes hunting for it, he’ll find it more often than not. He’s not afraid to take on a lead blocker in his gap to allow another defender to come in and make the tackle. He does a good job gaining leverage on fullbacks and pulling guards by using his size to get underneath the blocker and holding him up, giving the runner nowhere to go. Swearinger is effective as a backside ‘clean up’ defender, constantly in pursuit of the ball and playing to the whistle on every play.
Swearinger is an effective blitzer. Despite his lack of size, he has thick legs and give him power to drive back protecting backs into the quarterback. He isn’t afraid to get caught up with bigger lineman, enabling him to blitz off the edge or stunt inside just as effectively.
Overall, I think Swearinger is probably at his best as a strong safety. His ability to rotate over and cover receivers in the slot is particularly useful in the Redskins defense that loves to send slot corners on blitzes. This isn’t to say he couldn’t play free safety, I think he can, but his most value is at strong. He also fits the ‘Shanahan model’ of being a senior and a team captain, which certainly wont hurt his value. Swearinger should come off the board in that second to third round range, making him a prime candidate for the Redskins pick at 51 overall.