Ball-hawk fight night

Competition level, production, postseason workouts and character concerns all seem to play a major role every year when evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft. Today, the National Football Post takes a look at two of the nation’s top safeties — Georgia Tech’s Morgan Burnett and Texas’ Earl Thomas — and breaks them down to determine their potential at the next level.

The matchup

Georgia Tech FS Morgan Burnett vs. Texas FS Earl Thomas

Tale of the tape

Burnett: 6-2, 209, 77 tackles, 14 career interceptions, 4.42 40 time, 16 reps, 11-foot broad jump.

Thomas: 5-10, 202, 63 tackles, 10 career interceptions, 4.37 40 time, 21 reps, 9-foot-5 broad jump.

Preview

In a matchup between two of the nation’s top center field safeties, we take a look at Texas’ Earl Thomas and Georgia Tech’s Morgan Burnett. What makes this matchup so unique is that we have a pair of underclassmen who both excel vs. the pass game, yet for some reason we have yet to see the same type of production from them vs. the run. So the key to evaluating the two prospects is deciding who has the ability to eventually develop into a productive NFL-caliber tackler if given enough time. Here’s our take as we break down both prospects and shed some light on which guy we’d take on draft day.

Breakdown

The safety position has evolved tremendously the past 10 years, as the NFL has become a pass-first league. The good news for Thomas and Burnett is that they will be able to find a home in the NFL because of their abilities to make plays on the football from the center field-type role. However, when evaluating them, I can’t say that either player deserves to be selected among the top picks because of their inabilities vs. the run game.

When looking at Thomas, the first thing that jumps out at me on tape is his ability to find the football quickly in the pass game, redirect cleanly out of his breaks and range sideline to sideline in order to track throws. He does a great job breaking on passes and ball-hawking on all levels of the field and looks comfortable when asked to line up over the slot and make plays in space as a corner.

However, I have a pair of major concerns that would keep me from drafting him in the first round.

The first is that he played in the Big 12, a pass-only conference really, which I not only think inflated his stats and ability to make plays on the ball in the pass game but also made him look like a much more instinctive player than he is. What I mean is that he was rarely asked to read run/pass keys in the secondary since the majority of plays were already predetermined passes. So when thrown into a situation where he’s asked to read run/pass keys instead of ball-hawking against the pass, such as Alabama, Thomas was nowhere near as effective making plays on the football – finishing the game without any passes defended -- and at times looked slow to put himself in position vs. the run.

The second concern I have is his overall tackling ability. To his credit, he’s a willing tackler, which makes me think there’s some room for improvement. However, he doesn’t generate much power on contact when asked to break down, he isn’t a consistent wrap-up guy and will overrun ball carriers in pursuit. He does showcase good range when asked to close and has the instincts to fill a lane when attacking downhill. However, at this stage he looks like a below-average tackler when projecting him to the next level.

As for Burnett, he also does a nice job finding the football in the pass game, anticipates routes well and always seems to be moving toward the football before it’s thrown. He showcases impressive redirection and range in space for a safety his size and also looks comfortable staying on a receiver’s hip when asked to play in man-to-man coverage, which is impressive considering his size.

However, Burnett fails to play anywhere near as big as his frame would indicate as a downhill guy and also misses his share of tackles in the open field. Burnett is a more powerful striker who does a much better job wrapping on contact than Thomas, but unlike Thomas, he seems content to be a last-line defender and doesn’t possess the instincts to plant his foot in the ground and attack the line of scrimmage when he sees a slight crease.

The wild card

When determining which player is the better overall fit for your team, the question that needs to be asked is: Do I want a bigger, more physically imposing safety (Burnett) who has experience/production reading his run/pass keys but seems content to simply be a last-line defender at this stage vs. the run game? Or do I want the ultra-productive ball-hawk (Thomas) who struggles as a tackler in space and was never really asked to read run/pass keys in college?

The verdict

The only thing we really know about the two players when projecting their games to the next level is that Burnett is the more physically imposing safety and has extensive experience/production reading his run/pass keys.

And although Thomas does have a ton of production vs. the pass game and might be able to make a living as a cornerback, I still don’t think he’s quite as instinctive as he’s being given credit for because of playing in the pass-only Big 12, a conference that plays perfectly to his strengths. As a result, when playing a team like Alabama, where he was asked to actually play the run game with integrity, we didn’t see the same type of production vs. the pass that we saw from him in Big 12 competition.

If I’m asked to make a decision on draft day, I think Burnett is not only the safer prospect but also gives me more upside at this stage in his development than Thomas because of his proven track record of diagnosing run/pass keys and his overall size. Do I think either guy will ever become an above-average NFL tackler? No, probably not. However, the size/power of Burnett gives me a little more to work with in that department.

But that’s just my take.

NFL player comparison

Earl Thomas = Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans

Morgan Burnett = Deon Grant, New York Giants

Follow me on Twitter: WesBunting

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