The days of thinking about traditional football positions have elapsed. Football has become much more fluid, especially on the defensive side, and deploying personnel is an imperative aspect of situational football. Defenders are much more apt to play several positions, all over the field, given the context of the opposing personnel, down and distance, and overall situation. Today’s NFL has EDGE players playing in space like linebackers and safeties routinely dropping into the box like linebackers. Throughout recent drafts, we’ve seen several players selected in the first round due to their versatility.
The 2018 draft had Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, and Derwin James; 2017 had Hassan Reddick, T.J. Watt, and Jabrill Peppers; and 2016 had Keanu Neal and Leonard Floyd. Some of these players seem to have failed, but others are absolute home runs. Big Nickel personnel packages generally have three safeties on the field, and in this draft players like Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Wisconsin’s Zack Baun offer so much versatility. Small school stud Jeremy Chinn out of Southern Illinois has climbed the ranks, after a stellar combine, and may even see his name announced in the first round on the 23rd. Let’s highlight some of the other prospects in this draft that could be movable chess pieces for Patrick Graham’s versatile defense with the New York Giants.
Kyle Dugger, DS, Lenoir Rhyne
Back in January, Dugger was essentially introduced to the mainstream football media. Not many people had heard of the Division II prospect, but that’s just one of the many excellent aspects to the Reese’s Senior Bowl — it gives small school players a chance to showcase their talents. Dugger did not disappoint and started to ascend draft boards. A month later at the Combine, Dugger significantly exceeded expectations by dominating the explosive drills. He started garnering first-round buzz, but I expect him to settle in somewhere on Day 2.
Dugger played free safety, slot, and lined up in the box at Lenoir-Rhyne. Dugger isn’t as polished as Jeremy Chinn, and I feel like Dugger’s learning curve is a bit steeper. In 10 games during the 2019 season, Dugger had 46 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. He’s a valuable player who can drop down in the box, play in space, or cover the slot. He is certainly a moveable back-end, second-level, player for a creative defensive coordinator. He still has a lot of developing to do as seemed a bit slow to recognize with the little exposure I had to his tape. Dugger relied heavily at Lenoir-Rhyne on his superior athletic traits, which won’t exactly translate in the NFL, but his burst is still rare. It’ll be a bit of a transition. With the right coaching staff and team, Dugger can develop and become something special as a versatile defender.
His excellent athletic ability translated at the Senior Bowl against Power-5 opponents. Dugger’s asking price may be a bit rich for a team like the Giants, who will be looking for a more certain player at pick 36. If the Giants trade down and acquire more assets on Day 2, then I would love the addition of Dugger. But as currently constructed, allocating the 36th pick to Dugger is not wise for a team like the Giants, who are desperate for other needs.
A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
Why is Epenesa on this list? Epenesa has a slight hybrid mold as well, just not in a similar fashion to Isaiah Simmons. His space playing ability is limited, but he does offer some upside as an EDGE rusher, which is his classification. However, Epenesa is more of a 5-technique in a 3-4 defense who can line up as a 3-technique in passing situations.
Epenesa’s draft stock took a hit at the Combine, where he showed a lack of overall athletic ability. The prospect of him being a top-15 selection is an extreme afterthought now. As we all know, the Giants have a lot of New England Patriot disciples in house, and the Patriots build their defense with strong, smart, EDGE players, rather than the twitched up, incredibly explosive, players. Epenesa fits that framework, but the Giants don’t seem to have the draft capital to be spending anything on a defensive lineman.
As mentioned with Dugger, a trade to acquire more Day 2 assets could make things interesting for the EDGE/DL position with New York, but I’d say selecting Epenesa is a long shot right now. Nevertheless, Epenesa was very productive at Iowa with 101 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, and 26.5 sacks in three seasons, with more than 10 sacks in each of his final two years. A good player, who is stout at the point of attack, but lacks the necessary bend/twitch to consistently win on the edge.
Epenesa isn’t the fastest and he won’t win any athletic awards, but he’s very powerful at the point of attack, good with his hands, and is a smart football player. I know he’s classified as an EDGE rusher, but Epenesa is more of a true defensive lineman, who can line up all over the line in different situations. As stated above, his ideal fit is 5-technique in a 3-4 base.
Tanner Muse, S, Clemson
Muse opened a lot of people’s eyes at the Combine. A 6-foot-2, 227-pound safety, he ran an impressive 4.41 40-yard dash. He reminds me a bit of Taylor Mays, an athletic safety who came out of USC in 2010. A freak athlete with imposing size, but was more of a straight-line type of athlete who lacked the hip fluidity to turn and effectively play in space. Muse isn’t quite the athlete Mays was, but those similarities are real. Muse had a productive 2019 season for Clemson; recorded 54 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 3 passes defensed. Muse was third-team All-ACC in 2018, the year Clemson won the championship and he was a third-team Associated Press All American this past year.
With a lot of starting experience, good size, solid production, and good straight-line speed, it’s easy to see why teams are going to love Muse. He’ll be a very good special teamer in the NFL who has some upside to step in and start. Some in the NFL will try to convert him to WILL linebacker, due to his stiff hips and how he wins, which is going downhill and making physical tackles.
I like this player, and there’s a place in the NFL for Tanner Muse, but at the right price.
Trevon Hill, EDGE, Miami
The Virginia Tech coaching staff dismissed Hill from their team in 2018. Hill landed on his feet in Miami, where he played in all 12 games recording 27 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks. In the previous three seasons as a Hokie, Hill recorded 11 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss. Hill is labeled as an OLB, but he can also play on the line in a four- or three-point stance. Hill has impressive burst and change of direction skills on tape, but it didn’t seem to translate at the Combine. Hill can dip and bend at the top of the arc and he has a solid understanding of how to employ pass rush moves. The character concerns will push him down the board. He was open about his disdain of the Virginia Tech coaching staff on social media, and I am sure that will turn a lot of professional teams off. As for his play, he could get a bit stronger at the point of attack, which would allow him to play with his hand in the dirt a bit more.
Hill is a good EDGE/OLB prospect who may be able to play consistently on the line of scrimmage if he adds a bit more weight.
Shyheim Carter, S, Alabama
Lack of length and his tempestuous career at Alabama may force Carter to be a late Day 3 selection, but there’s a reason Nick Saban played him so much. Carter made 22 starts at the “STAR” position, which is a hybrid defensive back who can drop into the box. The position was previously held by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was selected in the first round by the Miami Dolphins in 2018. According to Pro Football Focus, Carter played 716 total snaps in 2019, with 559 of them at slot corner. Carter’s instincts are a bit erratic, but he’s a solid player in man coverage due to his experience as a cornerback. Carter did not test at the Combine, but I don’t feel he would have done great. His athletic ability on tape is average at best. His ball production is respectable in the last three seasons: 17 passes defensed and 3 interceptions while recording 43 tackles in each of the last two seasons. Carter would be an interesting late Day 3 or priority free agent selection, who could play special teams and compete for a back-up role as a corner, safety, or big nickel.
Carter makes some nice open-field tackles as the force defender outside. A very good effort rep to limit the ball carrier’s ability to earn more yards.