For the rest of the season, I am going to have a weekly series named 2018 NFL Draft PvP, or prospect versus prospect in draft terms. I will take a look at two prospects at the same position and break them down side by side. At the end, I will reveal who I believe has the edge pertaining to traits and overall outlook.
In my debut piece, I take a look at two of the most talented safeties in all of college football.
Florida State’s Derwin James against Pittsburgh’s Jordan Whitehead. Both of these players are feared play-makers on the back end. In addition, both players are tasked with an inordinate amount of responsibilities that are directly linked to their team’s success.
To kick things off, I truly believe Derwin James and Jordan Whitehead are different players who may play completely different roles at the next level. This starts with their physical frame. James is a good three inches taller than Whitehead at somewhere between 6’2 and 6’3, but he also weighs 20 pounds more than the latter. Despite the size difference, James is still the better athlete according to the eye test.
Both are dynamic players, as shown by their ability to come downhill and run sideline to sideline effortlessly, but because of his combination of size and overall explosiveness, Derwin James gets the edge here.
Edge: Derwin James
One of the biggest responsibilities for a safety is to be able to bring down the ball carrier. It does not have to be flashy like Keanu Neal or Karl Joseph, but the skill needs to be mastered to the point to where a player can be consistently relied upon in the open field. With that being said, James and Whitehead are similar in terms of the broad overview of run support skills, but different in the microcosms of the trade.
For example, James can be both a highlight hitter and effective tackler with the wherewithal to switch speeds and control. At the same time, this is only when he guesses right on a lunge at the ball carrier. His angles are inconsistent, but his superior athleticism makes up for it on most plays. But too often, he relies on his athletic ability too much and does not break down, especially when playing back, as opposed to coming downhill.
Take this NC State play for example:
Derwin is great in run support, when coming forward. He relies on his athleticism too much though and struggles playing back/breaking down. pic.twitter.com/tuWePzS5rq
— Jonah Tuls (@JonahTulsNFL) October 11, 2017
Make no mistake about it, James is an incredible blitzer and disruptive force at the LOS, but this is when he is coming downhill. His pure explosiveness allows him to feast while playing forward, but when forced to break down without a head of steam, he gets in trouble. This is where Whitehead comes in. He may not be the highlight hitter that James is, but I can rely on him to be my last line of defense, which is something I cannot truly say about the former.
That is not to say, however, that Whitehead is not disruptive at the LOS. He has uncanny closing speed and anticipation, allowing him to consistently play underneath. I would not characterize his run support skills as safe, but more so as a calculated risk taker, and that is all I need from my safety. At the same time, I acknowledge that James is more effective at the LOS and can simply do things that no one else can when coming downhill.
The misses are just some of the play you have to live with when James is able to make the plays he does. With that being said, this part of the game is also where I believe stems the beginning of where Whitehead and James separate in terms of roles at the next level.
The gap between these two players in man coverage is smaller than one might think. James gets all of the national hype, but Whitehead is just as sound in this area of the game. Both have cornerback-like skill sets in man coverage, showing off their ability to mirror and stay on the hip pocket while breaking on the ball at the catch point.
Both players display dynamic ball skills while on the hip as well. Whether it is timing or just pure athleticism and leaping ability, Whitehead and James are just as much of a threat to score a touchdown than the player they are guarding.
Jordan Whitehead is as much of a threat to score when in man coverage than the wide receiver he is guarding. pic.twitter.com/JrZczYhHgy
— Jonah Tuls (@JonahTulsNFL) October 11, 2017
As far as the LOS goes in terms of man coverage and underneath routes, both players are equally excellent in this part of the game. They are aggressive playmakers with a deadly combination of explosion and technique at the catch point. Not to mention Whitehead is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker on both offense and defense. In fact, I would argue that the Panthers’ success is directly related to how many touches he receives.
Playing deep middle and single high are different stories however. The same even applies for Cover 2 looks. There is only one player I can consistently trust from the two featured in this article when playing deep over the top. That player is Jordan Whitehead, not Derwin James.
For James, some will point to his unreal range and athleticism that allows him to effortlessly roam from sideline to sideline, but when he is in the deep middle, he looks like an athlete playing football. For example, against Miami on Saturday, James was playing the deep middle on a double twins look where Miami had both Ahmmon Richards and Braxton Berrios on one side of the field, their two best receivers.
For some odd reason, James shaded to the left side, leaving no help at the top, allowing Berrios to easily get in the end zone on a fade. It is this kind of a lack of situational awareness that leaves me underwhelmed with James at times. He relies on his athleticism, as opposed to instincts and anticipation. There is a clear, unambiguous difference between anticipating and guessing, as I have explained in detail with someone like Oklahoma’s Jordan Thomas.
James is a guesser and when he guesses right, he looks amazing, but when he guesses wrong, he puts his team in unnecessary danger. As a coach, I would not put James in position to make decisions like that as a deep free safety though, as his best role is at the LOS where he can disrupt, blitz and guard receivers one on one in tight areas. This is where he can show off his explosiveness. His missed plays at the LOS do not put his team in his danger as much as they do when he is roaming as the free safety.
Again, this is where Whitehead separates himself from James, in my opinion. While both have shown the ability to be elite LOS defenders at the next level, guarding tight ends, moving over to the slot, blitzing off of the edge and disrupting in run support, Whitehead is just as effective playing deep.
The primary knock on Jabrill Peppers was that he wasn’t a true safety. Well, Whitehead is that and more, and I think he is everything people wanted Peppers to be coming out of Michigan as a prospect. James carries a lot of the bad from Peppers with his reliance on athleticism as opposed to instincts and anticipation, while Whitehead carries the traits that Peppers needed to have to be considered a complete prospect.
As effective as he can close the sideline in Cover 2 in a split-safety set, he is just as good as the single high safety. Whereas James relies solely on athletic tools, Whitehead is able to combine his explosiveness with an innate feel of where the plays going. He anticipates instead of just guessing, showing off his trust in his instincts. You don’t see hesitation in Whitehead’s decisions. When he sees it, he’s making a play on the ball.
Although James and Whitehead are equally as good in man coverage, the latter clearly outclasses the former in zone coverage, especially as the single high safety.
Edge: Jordan Whitehead
Again, both of these players share similar playmaking ability, explosiveness and man coverage skills, but this all comes down to the fact that I think one player can do more than the other at this stage. James is one of the best players in the nation because of what he does at the LOS for Florida State, but even though Whitehead may not be as much of a difference maker in run support, he is just as good in man coverage.
The difference then comes down to how each player can play free safety. One player can and one player cannot right now. It is that simple. Whitehead is more suited to play free safety because of his size, but he has shown that he can be a force at the LOS, the same spot that James is limited to, in my opinion.
In today’s NFL, teams are looking for a “big nickel” who can play in the slot, guard tight ends and play some sort of hybrid between an outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. James could be perfect for this role, but Whitehead could play this role as well, in addition to having the capabilities of a deep middle player. Whitehead’s questions are off of the field, as he was dealt a three-game suspension to start the 2017 season for undisclosed disciplinary action, but in terms of on the field traits, Whitehead is the complete safety prospect and everything scouts wanted Jabrill Peppers to be with his playmaking ability.
On the other hand, the only thing really separating Peppers and James as prospects is that James is bigger and more aggressive in run support. With that being said, I believe at this stage that Jordan Whitehead is a more valuable prospect than Derwin James.
Overall Edge: Jordan Whitehead